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Prolegomena to Poetry

June 15th, 2021 | 7 min read

By J. Brandon Meeks

A poem is a thought that comes out sounding good,
and lingers awhile;
But it doesn’t have to rhyme,
Though it could

What is poetry? A poet will maintain that it is a noble enterprise; a numinous expression of the true, the good, and the beautiful. That may be an accurate assessment, but what one is still left wondering just what it is?

Poetry, we are told, is a noun. But like other nouns in similar categories — such as love, or hope, or justice — it tends to lose much of its luster when pressed too hard in the service of a simple definition. The process of defining often runs the risk of sterilizing the potency of concepts too high or too broad for the unfired poetic mind. For the tidy-minded among us, definitions have the effect of boiling away all of the flesh from fat imaginations, leaving nothing but a contemptuous pile of well-bleached bones.

Definition too often degenerates into ossification. Thus one begins to conceive of poetry as a cold, dry literary endeavor. Such an approach slays the very soul of poetry on the killing field of abstruse pontification where it succumbs to an unnatural death by a thousand qualifications. Poetry is better explored and experienced than explained.

But the modern mind, taught to “think” in the concrete institutions of late modernity (which tend to evoke images of bomb shelters rather than the awe-inspiring cathedral schools built by our fathers), seeks to strangle all of the mystery out of poetry, rendering it just one more lifeless, linguistic curiosity. Persons thus educated view the art of poetry as though it were the scribbling of infants, or as an ancient abstract artform practiced by a few strange mystics in some benighted era of human history. These mad mystics, they assert, were untethered from the world as we know it. Of course, these thinkers are woefully wrong. And, oddly enough, surprisingly correct in their observations.

Poetry is not infantile doodling or an esoteric hieroglyph littered on the stone walls of our distant past. But the modern mind misses the obvious fact that there is a sensible and aesthetically powerful force in the words of babes in arms. They have not been made privy to the open secret that might and nobility lie on the pink lips of infants. Divine revelation actually insists on this fact. Little children — primitive poets all — are imbued with supernatural strength and purpose. Likewise, those men and women of former times who honed their craft were untethered from the world “as we know it.” They had the poetic insight to perceive the world as it is.

Those poets placed poetry in the category of the “humanities.” This seems most fitting since poetry lies at the heart of what it means to be human. That is, being endowed by their Creator with five senses, those poets had the sense to see, to hear, to smell, to taste, and to touch the particular glories of creation, and to understand their place as part of it. Indeed, the poets’ most carefully cultivated sense was their sense of wonder. And that is as it should be.

Poetry is part of our shared inheritance as sons of Adam. It flows from the fullness of the very life of the Triune God. The God of Holy Scripture is not a silent deity. Rather, the biblical account portrays the Godhead as the center of all communion and communication. God the Father is the Eternally Speaking One; His Son — the Spoken Word from everlasting to everlasting; the Spirit — the very Breath which bears the Word in the act of that eternal speech. The primordial statement, “And God said…” is pregnant with manifold meaning. While it obviously testifies to the fact that God is a “speaking God,” it is also a testimony to the very triunity of which we speak. And from this Great Conversation all other speech follows. God created the world by means of the Spoken Word. Words are the grounds of creaturely being. Words are the animating force which undergirds all reality. “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God…” Creation arose from a conversation. It derives from poetic excess. There was no want or lack within the divine life which necessitated creation, rather, the conversation was so glorious that there was a desire to include others in it. So, “God said, ‘let there be light.’”

When God formed man, he bestowed upon his head a host of sublime gifts. But the greatest of those gifts was the gift of language. For it was through language that man was able to formally express the nature of the world — by words, he could “name” it. And it was through the gift of language that he was able to crown every good gift with the two jewels which tower above all other discourse — worship and gratitude.

But human language was not given only as a means of communion (either with God or with his fellow man); language was also bequeathed to Man as God’s vice regent for the task of priestly service and princely dominion. It would be through words that man would imitate his Maker and call all of creation to worship. It would be through the medium of speech that Adam would extend the borders of Eden from the rivers to the ends of the earth. God calls that which isn’t into existence; man calls that which is to faithful obedience and perpetual adoration.

It is no surprise, then, that the first recorded human words in Holy Scripture were poetry: “And Adam said, ‘this is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’’ His words were filled with awe and they stand still for that self-same purpose. The magnanimity of God is such that it always requires another syllable. The goodness of God manifest in the goodness of His creation is such that it constantly inspires another word on the subject. And as creation is a concentration of divine goodness and a display of godly extravagance, poetry is a concentration of language and a distillation of creaturely amazement. Poetry follows from a robust view of creatio ex nihilo. This is true not only because its focus is on a world divinely created and constituted “good,” but also because it recognizes the gift and potency of language as a means of stewardship of our sanctified reality. Poetry is the glorification of human language. As such, it glorifies everything it touches. Poetry is concentrated excess. But it is a response that is both natural and reasonable to our Prodigal God.

Poetry is a means whereby creatures raised from the lowly dust may wonder at all of those things which they wonder about. It is naming and knowing; it is the grateful surrender to mystery — and a reveling in it. Poetry is appreciation and adoration, as well as supplication and a plea for even more understanding. Poetry is the gracious gift given to aid the reception of every other gift and to see them as the treasures they truly are. Poetry allows us to step back and behold the complexities of life even as we enter into its unfathomable depths. Poetry is the business of gods and kings; the purview of princes, the realm of regents. Poetry is a way of seeing the invisible and the subsequent attempt to parade it out into the blinding light of day.

The poet isn’t special, he simply understands that everything is. He simply says what he sees and sees what he says. And that is following the divine order of things.

Poetry is the question, the pondering, the answer, the exclamation over all of it. Poetry is the invitation, the appetite, the banquet hall, the feast, the host. Poetry is the curiosity which beckons, the summons to follow on, and the hand that guides along the way. Poetry is the silver shadow tracing the lines of life and all the living of it.

Sure, poetry is a noun. But what is a noun? A person? A place? A thing? An idea? Yes, of course. But what are those? It seems that one needs a poet to answer that question.

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