Opinion | Why Poetry Is So Crucial Right Now

This summer, on a lark, I took a course on poetry geared toward Christian leaders. Twelve of us met over Zoom to read poems and discuss the intersection of our faith, vocations and poetry.

We compared George Herbert’s “Prayer” to Christian Wiman’s “Prayer.” We discussed Langston Hughes’s “Island,” Countee Cullen’s “Yet Do I Marvel” and Scott Cairns’s “Musée” to examine suffering and the problem of evil. We read about Philip Larkin’s fear of death and what he sees as the failures of religious belief in his poem “Aubade.” It was my favorite part of the summer.

In our first class, we took turns sharing what drew us to spend time with poetry. I clumsily tried to explain my longing for verse: I hunger for a transcendent reality — the good, the true, the beautiful, those things which somehow lie beyond mere argument. Yet often, as a writer, a pastor and simply a person online, I find that my life is dominated by debate, controversy and near strangers in shouting matches about politics or church doctrine. This past year in particular was marked by vitriol and divisiveness. I am exhausted by the rancor.

In this weary and vulnerable place, poetry whispers of truths that cannot be confined to mere rationality or experience. In a seemingly wrecked world, I’m drawn to Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Autumn” and recall that “there is One who holds this falling/Infinitely softly in His hands.” When the scriptures feel stale, James Weldon Johnson preaches through “The Prodigal Son” and I hear the old parable anew. On tired Sundays, I collapse into Wendell Berry’s Sabbath poems and find rest.

I’m not alone in my interest in this ancient art form. Poetry seems to be making a comeback. According to a 2018 survey by the National Endowment for the Arts, the number of adults who read poetry nearly doubled in five years, marking the highest number on record for the last 15 years. The poet Amanda Gorman stole the show at this year’s presidential inauguration, and her collection “The Hill We Climb” topped Amazon’s best-seller list.

There is not a simple or singular reason for this resurgence. But I think a particular gift of poetry for our moment is that good poems reclaim the power and grace of words.

Words seem ubiquitous now. We carry a world of words with us every moment in our smartphones. We interact with our family and friends through the written word in emails, texts and Facebook posts. But with our newfound ability to broadcast any words we want, at any moment, we can cheapen them.

“Like any other life-sustaining resource,” Marilyn Chandler McEntyre writes in her book “Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies,” “language can be depleted, polluted, contaminated, eroded and filled with artificial stimulants.” She argues that language needs to be rescued and restored, and points us to the practice of reading and writing poetry as one way of doing so. Poems, she says, “train and exercise the imagination” to “wage peace” because “the love of beauty is deeply related to the love of peace.”

Indeed, in our age of social media, words are often used as weapons. Poetry instead treats words with care. They are slowly fashioned into lanterns — things that can illuminate and guide. Debate certainly matters. Arguments matter. But when the urgent controversies of the day seem like all there is to say about life and death or love or God, poetry reminds me of those mysterious truths that can’t be reduced solely to linear thought.

Poetry itself can engage in smart debate, of course. Yet even didactic poetry — poetry that makes an argument — does so in a more creative, meticulous and compelling way than we usually see in our heated public discourse.

Another reason that I think we are drawn to poetry: Poems slow us down. My summer poetry class teacher, Abram Van Engen, an English professor at Washington University in St. Louis, reminded me that poetry is the “art of paying attention.” In an age when our attention is commodified, when corporations make money from capturing our gaze and holding it for as long as possible, many of us feel overwhelmed by the notifications, busyness and loudness of our lives. Poetry calls us back to notice and attend to the embodied world around us and to our internal lives.

In this way, poetry is like prayer, a comparison many have made. Both poetry and prayer remind us that there is more to say about reality than can be said in words though, in both, we use words to try to glimpse what is beyond words. And they both make space to name our deepest longings, lamentations, and loves. Perhaps this is why the poetry of the Psalms became the first prayer book of the church.

I am trying to take up more poetry reading in my daily life. Reading new poems can be intimidating, but I figure that the only way to get poetry really wrong is to avoid it altogether. It helps that poetry is often short and quick to read so I fit it into the corners of my day — a few minutes in bed at night or in the lull of a Saturday afternoon.

During the past school year, with my kids home because of Covid precautions, we would pile books of poetry on our table once a week (Shel Silverstein, Shakespeare, Nikki Grimes, Emily Dickinson), eat cookies, and read poetry aloud. I now try to always keep some books of verse around.

In one of my very favorite poems, “Pied Beauty,” Gerard Manley Hopkins writes of a beauty that is “past change.” In this world where our political, technological and societal landscape shifts at breakneck speed, many of us still quietly yearn for a beauty beyond change. Poetry stands then as a kind of collective cry beckoning us beyond that which even our best words can say.

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Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”

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