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The older I grow the more I love poetry, certainly not all of it but much more than when I was young. During my early decades, I was a serious student of literature, secular and sacred, but I did not quite get poetry back then. I gathered up what made sense for me from prose, polemics, and notions of Providence in theology. I was not seasoned enough for the subtle beauties and ambiguities of poetry. This was not a matter of not being smart enough to parse a poem in some literate manner. I could do that. Rather, it was a matter of being too smart as in “smarty-pants,” historian of ideas, pseudo-intellectual type. I must have been even more insufferable than I can be even now. I was too smart in that not smart way to enjoy a poem. Life had not yet whittled my soul down to a manageable size.
It didn’t start all at once. It was a slow but steady evolution. Long ago and far away, two professors at then Augusta College, Charles Willig and Wally Evans, advised me in editing a fledgling poetry journal, Sandhills. I was awful at it. I was the little bird. They gently helped me see that a wisp of irony in a turn of phrase was deeper pleasure than the Big Idea. Not long thereafter, I took a course in contemporary poetry taught by James Dickey at Carolina, the red rooster one. I saw a big grown and known man pause to weep in his readings and they weren’t even his work. That stuck deep. Later in seminary studies, I slowly began to ferret the poetry embedded in the Bible, which for me is more important than the rule book for life stuff. As Emily Dickinson wrote, often truth comes slant. God is best known in what we can’t know. That’s difficult to preach in a pulpit, but it can feed the soul in a really good poem.
Speaking of which, often good news for the sojourning soul can be found in the poetry of Wendall Berry, Charles Simic, Jane Kenyon, or Tony Hoagland, to name a few. Garrison Keillor, of Prairie Home Companion fame, has compiled several anthologies, of which Good Poems for Hard Times is the best. Brave hearts might try the poet Haviz, the great Sufi master, or John of the Cross, a Christian mystic. There’s a lot of good poetry out there, which goes unnoticed by the readers of popular prose. What a loss.
Then again, poetry is wherever we find it. For example, the lyrics of many song writers can stand alone as poems. Try reading them without the music. Words by themselves are mellifluous as well as meaningful. Love songs that have stood the test of time, classic hymnody, and even some of the music of Nashville or Rollingstone are poetry worth pondering. Well crafted speeches of state and genuinely transcendent sermons of faith are long remembered and celebrated when they are woven together with the elements of poetry. Some folks may say they don’t like poetry, without ever realizing that they have loved it and been deeply formed by it. Poetry slips up on us in popular disguises.
Now, as I come to the setting of the sun and my eyes behold the vesper light, I sing the praises of the poets who hold life gently with all of its subtleties and beauties. And I thank the teachers, editors, and critics who showed them to me.