The Landscape

I wandered out to the beach yesterday after getting groceries. I sat on the sea wall. The day was warm and calm. I could see a massive cargo ship in the distance and schools of dolphins popping up from the smooth surface. A few surfers were out in their wetsuits, along with a few desperate sunbathers. The moment was slow, like the clouds and the air, a bit stagnant, a bit warm, a bit cold.

As I drove home to get my kids off the bus, I felt a bit annoyed, looking at the lawns in our neighborhood. The splotchy grass, the weeds taking over, some trees bloomed, some still looking dead. It’s the dullness of winter mixed with the rapid multiplication of summer. We are in the in-between. Welcome to March.

This is why I have long struggled with spring. It can feel like purgatory. But perhaps my own cracks of annoyance are some sort of invitation?

I recently finished up teaching a poetry workshop. We talked a lot about tone, which is what a poem is saying between the lines. It reveals the attitude of the writer towards the subject and towards the self. Tone is most pronounced when something is at stake, when something is at odds. It’s most noticeable when it’s at an angle. My tone towards spring is one of annoyance. I feel the rest vs. activity, the death vs. birth, the cold vs. warmth, the safety vs. danger. I want to be outside but outside makes me sick (allergies)! Can we please be either/or?

But this isn’t life. Life is the tension, the in-between, whether it’s the weather or marriage or work or something else. Maybe spring is a lesson in making peace with that tension. I’ve been ruminating on Stephen Dunn’s collected poems. His poem “The Landscape” is exactly what I’m talking about. And the ocean: a shark for every pearl.

Coming to peace with the tension in our lives makes us feel more whole. When I find myself wishing something was more of this or more of that, I loose touch with what IS, and what IS–that’s where the power is–that’s where the poetry is. The sharks and the pearls. Give me all of it. Give me the cracks. I will break them open and fill them back in.

We should have known nothing’s safe.
That love is an ocean too.
That locks break if touched

just right. And so we live now
with doors open, the heart
learning about the fullness and ache

that comes from letting in.

–Stephen Dunn

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Poetry Just Keeps Opening

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When I started to study poetry about eight years ago, I wasn’t thinking about the implications it would have on my Christian faith. I was clumsily writing along, trying new things with words that felt stupid and frivolous and unproductive, trusting some vague impulse that I was learning a language that was somehow already inside of me.

Over the past year, I’ve started to realize that the socially-disadvantaged genre of poetry is actually everywhere around us. It isn’t wearing knee-high socks, sitting the bench. It’s in our popular song lyrics, our slang, political speeches, and Netflix TV shows. It isn’t usually recognized as poetry, so we often miss it.

In the same vein, it’s easy to miss the breadth and depth of poetry in the Bible. The Old Testament prophets spoke almost exclusively in poetry, because it was perhaps the only way of writing that allowed them to describe the world according to the way they saw it–a world ridden by judgement and hope–a world that was ending and beginning. In essence, they saw a world full of complexity and tension, a world whose mysteries could not be easily pinned down.

Further, in looking more at the gospels, it recently struck me that Jesus spoke in parables, which are like little poems. He used the power of images to do the work that words alone cannot: a mustard seed planted in a field, yeast permeating the dough, the narrow gate, a merchant on the lookout for choice pearls.

I find it fascinating that God, the creator of language and the entire universe, chose for His official book to be highly permeated with poetry. One could potentially conclude that poetry is God’s language, that poetry is the language of the Kingdom. Jesus said, I will speak to you in parables. I will explain things hidden since the creation of the world. It’s like He knew that poetic language was the only way to communicate the hidden things, which happen to be the big things in God’s economy.

In light of this, I find it so weird that the churchy-world and the artsy-world seem almost diabolically opposed. Sure, poetry is a wild animal with an affinity for ripping open new realities and new ways of looking at things. The church, the political world, or any other structured institution is perhaps scared of that wildness. But, isn’t that what Jesus was all about? Challenging the current structures, speaking in new ways, seeing the world through new eyes?

What would happen if we were to bring poetry back into the modern evangelical church? It might get real gritty and interesting! It might get as scandalous and inappropriate as Jesus!

I was recently listening to a wonderful podcast with Walter Brueggemann–theologian, professor, and prolific author–about his book The Poetic Imagination and the connection between prophets and poets. He says,

What the church does with its creeds and its doctrinal tradition, is it flattens out all the images and metaphors to make it fit into a nice little formulation, and then it’s deathly. So, we have to communicate to people, if you want a God that’s healthier than that, you’re gonna have to take time to sit with these images and relish them, and let them become a part of your prayer life and your vocabulary and your conceptual frame, otherwise you’re just gonna be left with these dead formulations, which again, is why the poetry is so important, because the poetry just keeps opening and opening and opening, whereas the doctrinal practice of the church is always to close and close and close, until you’re left with nothing that has any transformative power. So, more metaphors give more access to God…and it’s amazing how in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, there are just endless metaphors. What a metaphor or an image does, is to invite you to keep walking around it, and looking at it another way, and noticing something else. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.

So, what does this mean? Well, maybe the way we experience the transformative power of God on a personal and global level is as basic as reading poems and trying to write them. Geez. It’s so simple and so small, kind of like that mustard seed Jesus was talking about.

See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not
perceive it?
I am making a way in the 
wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.
-Isaiah 43:19