There are many to whom “Poetry” is that flowery quarter of the garden of life where the sensitive ones go to think sensitive thoughts, while they go about the real business of life, organizing, negotiating, doing battle, surviving. To be sure, poetry itself is hard work, most of us were forced to learn this in school. Its not as though one can easily find an hour to read and decode just 14 lines of a sonnet, for example. Why make all that work for yourself, on top of all the demands of making a living? It just sounds like masochism.
As a teenager, I discovered my way with words, and started to write with great earnestness, trying to emulate those I had been exposed to – Hopkins and ee cummings are two I recall. At the same time, I started my life long commitment to music and song. By my early 20’s I had decided that I would throw my weight into songwriting, and not pure poetry. Poetry is an art form in decline, I reasoned.
It has only been in the last few years that I have come to refer to myself as a poet again. Not however because I have started writing any, but because my view of the poetic has broadened to the extent that I recognize the presence of, or at least a relationship to poetry, in all I do. I call this the Aesthetic. (The word comes from the Greek word αισθητική meaning a perceiver or sensitive, and is traditionally a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty).
In considering this Aesthetic, this set of principles by which to live, what is important is not so much poetry – the creative use of image and idea in print – but rather, the Poetic. It is not a technique of language, but a set of guiding principles for a life worth living. It affects our words, for sure, but it plays a key role in our communication; written, spoken, and nonverbal, our quality of life and ultimately in our spirituality and our worship.
I have been involved to some degree in the practice of communal music making in churches, on and off, for more than 25 years. There have been some times where I felt a genuinely creative outpouring, but on the whole, when I encounter so-called “Worship Music” I am left with questions rather than solace or elevation. And I think I now know what that question is … Where is the Poetry?
I’ll say it straight out – I believe in a Poetic God, who is worshipped and served poetically. According to the gospel of John, “You will worship God in Spirit and in Truth.” This spirit, this truth, is a creative and a communicating spirit, greatly interested not only in what is said, but also in how it is said.
So do you have to be a poet, or have to like poetry, in order to worship? No, but what you do need is an Aesthetic. OK, so then do you need to be a philosopher to worship? No, you need to be a perceiver. One who sees, savors, learns and appreciates. Having an aesthetic is a key to being human. I have a feeling that not many people are going to agree whole heartedly with me on this. Let me offer some reasons why having an aesthetic may not be considered that important or relevant:
- Primarily, most of us in the world are “just trying to survive”. Survival is a full time job and more, for many it can be a desperate fight. This needs to be acknowledged, but I believe that everyone has the capacity or call to live at least some of their life beyond the “survival” mode.
- The fear of pain – the opposite of aesthetic is of course anesthetic, and having an aesthetic means opening up to all that is potential painful.
- A belief that it is better to view life in black and white rather than looking at shades of grey, this simplifying approach does help us avoid lifes inherent complexity.
- A lack of curiosity, fear of taking responsibility, plain laziness, and thus defaulting to the “group” way of thinking.
We need therefore to ask, what constitutes the Poetic? It is a worthy exercise to examine the rudiments of poetry. This means the basic building blocks of how language is used by the Poet. Once we have a theoretical framework, we can start to apply the principles to living. The principles of poetry include figurative language (metaphor, allegory, irony), musical devices (rhyme and rhythm), and pattern. Some of these we use daily without acknowledging; others we might find hard to fit into current notions of worship.
We may be surprised by how poetic the bible is. Or any Holy book for that matter…I am wanting to read the Koran to gage its sense of both history and the poetic. For where there is poetry, God dwells.
I believe that if we take the poetic to heart, we will find ourselves in a new world; that of the Ongoing Creation. Words, conversations, movements, dramas, brand new combinations, fresh situations, new aspects of ourselves revealed, sounds and music, images and artworks, new ways of seeing God, spectacular vistas, beauty in the oddest places, points of view infused with hope. Things that we never imagined existed.
Worship, infused with the poetic, is a rich conversation. Think of the life inherient in a moment of awe or discovery – “Eureka!”, a deep deep howl of pain -“Why have you forsaken me?”, a fine musical conversation between master improvisors, the perfect dinner with loved friends.
If we desire this, this place beyond our wildest imaginations, then there is a lot to learn, or perhaps to unlearn, to get back to a place of awe and wonder, of wildness and potential. Poetry ultimately is not a skill for sophiticates, but a way of seeing the world, a way of seeing G-d. It might just be the ONLY way to avoid to state of being described in Isiah 6:9 – “Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.”