Lowbrow Poetry

Yesterday I posted a poem.

Most of my people aren’t poets, so I feel the need to explain. What is a poem, and why would I write one, and why would I share one, imperfect as it is? Why do I bother to read poetry when I’m not a poet—and why would I say I’m not a poet when I do in fact write poems? What qualifies as good, what’s with all the weird stuff, and why do poets resist facts, resist persuasion, embrace doubt? Are poetry and art, theology and evangelism mutually exclusive? 

Poems are dandelions growing heedless around the fenceposts of Auschwitz. Their existence defies conditions.

Poetry swims quietly under a thin spot in the ice, a shock waiting for the oblivious.

I love to read the curious words of dangerously thoughtful people, the surprising observations of small things I’ve walked by a hundred times. I love to be pulled off of the treadmill and taken by the hand to notice something ordinary—extraordinary. 

Poets are Rumpelstiltskin, spinning straw into gold. 

Poets are the introverts whose rare piping-up silences the loudly wise. 

I suppose it’s snobbery even to say that I’m not a poet just because I’ve not been trained as a poet. Saying so denigrates lots of brilliant people, scribbling song on the backs of grocery bills. But when I say I’m not a poet, it’s because I know that those who take this discipline seriously invest ten thousand hours learning their craft. For me to say I’m a poet is to say I can play chopsticks, therefore I’m Bach. Still, I try to keep an eye out for dandelions, for cracks in the ice. I’m not a poet, but maybe one day I might be.

Occasionally I share a poem on my blog. There’s really no great justification for this, mostly a bursting to share. I’m an over-sharer, ask anyone. I’m like the children, bursting to tape crayon drawings on the refrigerator. I saw this thing, and it was neat, so I wrote it down, and I’m one of you!

I am one of you, bookclubbers and bloggers, singers and songwriters, dreamers and politicians, refugees and children. We all miss more than we see, but when we name what we see from our various vantage points, we all point to different things. Maybe if we all overcame our shyness a little more often, together the things we see might make a mosaic.

Might make room for softer things, like love.

We need theologians and evangelists, who pursue truth with endurance, who collect facts with careful precision. We need their vocabulary, their nuance, their understanding of the domino effect of words. We need light and heat, justice, passion. But we also need the philosophers, asking hard questions, poking at weak points, resisting cliché. We need the Psalmist, who teaches us praise, as much as we need the Proverbs, which teach us good and evil.

If you are not much for the avant-garde, the poems-as-puzzles left for us by T.S. Eliot or William Butler Yeats, if you don’t have a dictionary handy and can’t get the hang of Milton, there are lists and lists of great poetry by writers whose write for the likes of us, poems about horses or aviators or a bird that’s flown in through an open window. I love natural language, the narrative styles of Wendell Berry, Robert Frost, Mark Jarman, Mary Oliver. 

Here’s a thing: once I saw a gumball machine. Instead of chewing gum, for a quarter you got a poem.

In England I saw, in a gift shop, tiny books of poetry “instead of a card:” “Ten Poems about Bicycles,” “Ten Poems of Kindness.” The first I read upon flipping one open was one about buttered toast.

Poetry is like buttered toast with a mug of tea under a blanket on a wooden deck with a view of mountains.

I will leave you with a poem, this one by the still-living Christian patron saint of poetry, Luci Shaw.

Mary’s Song

Blue homespun and the bend of my breast
keep warm this small hot naked star
fallen to my arms. (Rest…
you who have had so far
to come.) Now nearness satisfies
the body of God sweetly. Quiet he lies
whose vigor hurled
a universe. He sleeps
whose eyelids have not closed before.

His breath (so slight it seems
no breath at all) once ruffled the dark deeps
to sprout a world.
Charmed by doves’ voices, the whisper of straw,
he dreams,
hearing no music from his other spheres.
Breath, mouth, ears, eyes
he is curtailed
who overflowed all skies,
all years.
Older than eternity, now he
is new. Now native to earth as I am, nailed
to my poor planet, caught that I might be free,
blind in my womb to know my darkness ended,
brought to this birth
for me to be new-born,
and for him to see me mended
I must seen him torn.

Luci Shaw (Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation)

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