Magazine article The Christian Century

Poetry for Creation's Sake

Magazine article The Christian Century

Poetry for Creation's Sake

Article excerpt

IT IS THE strangest of times. Alarming effects of climate change are being felt all over the world, while many, including those in power, consider climate science conspiratorial fiction. Even the believers, the data analysts warn, fail to appreciate the scale of the catastrophes that await us.

And then there's poetry. Which I suggest is a great gift for such a time as this.

How can this be? It's not intuitive that poetry, so mystifying to many, has any material value for the work necessary to confront the unprecedented assaults on planet Earth by its human inhabitants. And not ecological devastation only: What good is poetry in the face of poverty, racism, war, and every other social ill?

In the Gospel of John is the well-known story of a woman caught in the act of adultery. The Pharisees, you'll recall, are keen to trap Jesus, but he refuses to play a part in their contrived theatrics and instead, in silence, bends down and writes in the dirt.

This writing, says the poet Seamus Heaney, is like poetry: it doesn't proffer a solution or propose to be effective or useful. (Echoes here of Auden's famous dictum that poetry makes nothing happen.) Jesus' unknown words are a kind of generative disruption, the opening of a space into which something new and unexpected can emerge. Poetry, too, is like this, concentrating our attention so that we might see what is before us (words, the world) recomposed as something sound, whole, undiminished.

Such a focused act of attention is ultimately, I would argue, an act of love. By love I mean (at least) what philosopher Iris Murdoch means: the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. This is the love that perceives another's integrity and wills their well-being. In this way, the disruptive space and the generative act of attention that poetry make possible become gifts whereby we might imagine the wounded world, like a mistreated woman restored to dignity and safety, reconciled and returned to itself.

Or said another way: a poem is a kind of dwelling place, intimate and durable, and the disciplined reading of poetry--the willingness to abide with and in good poems--can shape and sharpen one's perception of the world. The reader indwells that opened-up space where the act of attention, of love, is also the art of seeing truthfully.

The regular reading of poetry also cultivates sensibilities that can help us indwell our other habitations with more integrity and intentionality. By sensibility I mean a kind of orientation and responsiveness to the world, a posture born of discernment and a desire for understanding. A sustained engagement with poetry can cultivate such sensibilities as an openness to wonder, the willingness to be surprised, and an attitude of humility. …

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