October 13, 2019
“Where’s the beef—I mean, the poetry?”
[Towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks to the people about John the Baptist. As a way of defending both himself and John before the skeptics, Jesus tells the little parable that follows. It presupposes two groups of children playing a game of marriages and funerals. One group makes the appropriate music, the other usually goes through the appropriate actions. In this case, however, “this present generation” behaves like sulky children and won’t participate.]
Jesus said, “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
My message this morning is in three parts: first, God’s Word; second, the poet’s word; and third, your word.
- God’s Word
Through poetry, we express what cannot be said—what cannot be said because ordinary words just do not suffice. Cannot be said because society prohibits it to be said. Cannot be said because we hardly understand what is going on inside us.
We reach for poetry to make known that we love, that we feel. We reach for poetry so as to be known for who we are—what words will possibly do?
People also resort to painting, to music, or to dance. But we reach for words because they are both more solid than painting, music or dance, and less substantial. Words carry power, words transmit power.
In Hebrew, the same word is used to denote word and action. In Greek, a word is an action--to speak, to articulate, is to act.
It seems we are inescapable verbal creatures, and it won’t do until we speak it.
In Genesis, God assigned us the task of naming—well, that’s easy enough to do when we start with the animals and plants, but going beyond that into the world of sensation and emotion, we grope as in an unlighted walk-in closet.
There MUST BE WORDS—and we must find them and speak them.
God’s first language is silence—but then, even God must break the silence, and so God speaks to us in poetry. You know the Bible mainly as story—the stories Jesus read, and the stories about Jesus. But those stories are all interconnected, even across the centuries of their composition, and the stories speak to each other forward and backward. Each story in the Bible is a kind of word, and as they unfold, and are re-told, and are elaborated, the stories resonate with each other, and their meanings multiply.
When you step back from the Bible and see it whole, the Bible is poetry. To speak of love, God requires poetry.
The Bible contains poetry of course—the Psalms, most of the Prophets, Lamentations, Proverbs, portions of the New Testament. Some English translations get this better than others.
But my point is that the Bible, because all of God’s meanings are not able to be expressed in any other way, is poetry.
Now, that poetry reaches into liturgy where Song, Word and Prayer resonates in the sung hymns, the preaching, and the spoken prayers.
And there’s more: surrounding what is spoken and sung is the silence of the sanctuary which has been designed and lovingly built to contain God’s silence, yet also arranged so the Word can be pronounced in it and heard in it.
There’s still more: the church building itself is an extension of the sanctuary beyond the pews where the congregation sits into the wider community. The church building, our meeting houses as we call them in New England, nourishes the public as far as the region that can see it and hear it.
Such is the power of God’s word of which we are the custodians.
II. The Poet’s Word
Listen now to the “Anecdote of the Jar” by Wallace Stevens [printed on the cover of your bulletin]: it reveals the power of our words to change and reshape us.
Poetry works on us powerfully, as the Bible does. The poet, too, has a sacred word to speak. In Steven’s little parable, he is claiming the written word, the word fashioned into a poem, has supremacy over us.
Such writing is not prettified prose, ideas decorated with doilies and topped with whipped cream. Nor is poetry created to be a puzzle, as so often people claim it is for them.
Poets are not being intentionally difficult. First, they are contending with the difficulty of their subject—often conflicting emotions or opposed facts—where negative capability (as the scholars put it) is required. After all, poetry is articulating what can’t be said.
For instance, in the Hopkins poem, he gives as an illustration “the ooze of oil crushed.” What can this metaphor mean—can we leap with him? After a stanza describing the mundaneness of earthly life, Hopkins lifts us on an upward swing which ends warmth and brilliance—how does this happen? It’s poetry.
Another challenge for readers is the mind-bending concision which poets practice, the concentrated language, the elimination of unnecessary verbiage—absolutely no wasted words. To the reader it can feel like the poet is zigging and zagging, leaping from one lily pad to another randomly.
Then too, the “logic” of poetry is not linear, and the words don’t work in just one direction—bouncing off each other, they have retroactive force at the same time as a foreshadowing capacity. Word order may be unconventional, as when cummings writes: “thank you God for most this amazing day,” getting our attention by defeating our expectations. And he eliminates punctuation!
In exchange, the poet makes music out of observations and feelings and ideas, with extremely careful word choices that give poetry its signature sonority and rhythm.
Most arresting of all, when you notice it, is how the poet approaches us almost ceremonially, as if to say, “Hark, listen to me for a moment, come closer, I have something important to say to you.” For all that the poet is writing in the privacy of his/her study, the poem when published is public for all the world to see and hear—the personal made public.
Placed as a jar might be on any hill, a poem reorganizes the environment around it, changes the world, and makes the world take on new meaning. Such is the power of the poet’s word of which we are the devotees.
III. Your Word.
Where’s the beef—i.e., the poetry—of the churches? Emily Dickinson famously wrote, referring to her own poetry, “this is my letter to the world who never wrote to me.” Such is all poetry. Where is Eliot Church’s letter to the world?
Does Eliot Church have a poem to place on any hill? Does Eliot Church write, or do we sponsor writers, or do we convene writers, or blast their powerful writing aloft?
I attended a poetry reading at the W. Newton YMCA a couple Fridays ago—what a transcendent occasion it was, which could just as well have occurred right here. Where is our recitation contest, our Poetry Slam, our Festival of Metaphors, our marathon Whitman reading?
In Jesus’ parable, the children play at adult rituals of marriage and funerals in the marketplace, piping dance tunes, on the one hand, and inviting the mourners, on the other. But the other kids are not interested—will we be like the sulking, unresponsive children who won’t play or weep when invited? Will we refuse to take part in the public conversation going on over our heads? Or will we choose to embrace the negative capability that speaks both of joy and of sadness, that interweaves both the comedy and tragedy explicit in the Christian experience?
I want us to catch the Spirit and find words with which powerfully to express who Jesus can be to the world in this day’s carnage in Syria, this day’s daily abuse at the U.S. border, and another day’s commutation to work filled with “sound and fury signifying nothing.”
You see, the word has two lives—when it is spoken, and when it is heard—when we hear it, and when we respond to it. Will God’s word, the poet’s word, and your word enjoy both lives in these sacred premises?
Honestly, I am not trying to make English majors of you, tempting as that would be for me—rather, I wish for your sake to become disciples and evangelists of the freedom God’s love promises the world.
In Jesus’ parable of the Sower, seed falls on stony ground where it dies, and seed falls on fertile ground where it grows. Might we by any chance be the fertile ground?
If so, we shall see that the growth in numbers our mainline churches seems most preoccupied with is secondary to the articulation of our word through the poetry of all believers.
Such could be the power of our word.