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Most people do not read poetry. According to a 2018 survey, only 12 percent of adults in the United States (nearly 28 million people) had read poetry in the past year. That’s not bad, to be sure (and it’s twice what it was in 2012), but it’s nothing like other genres. Non-fiction always has an audience. Memoirs make for bestsellers. Novels find their way to the beach. But only occasionally, as with Amanda Gorman’s inauguration poem, does poetry spill over its borders in a massively popular way. Looked at inversely, the 2018 survey suggests that in the prior year 88% of American adults had not found a moment—or a reason—to read a poem.

I read poetry. I teach poetry. And, in a new podcast I co-host called Poetry For All, I talk about poems all the time. I cover religious and non-religious poetry for religious and non-religious audiences, but I believe that poetry has a particular place in the church. I think it responds directly to the call and the invitation of God to “sing a new song.” And in the singing of poetry, the faithful can begin to understand and experience and engage God’s world afresh.

Let me illustrate with a poem. Whenever I teach poetry at church, I begin with “Praise in Summer” by Richard Wilbur. Here’s the gist of the poem: the poet, stunned by the beauty of a summer’s day, feels “called to praise” whoever created it. It’s a normal sort of feeling. A grand summer day can do that to anyone. But then, to the poet’s surprise, he does something strange. He flips the world upside down. We can almost see him lying on his back and imagining the sky beneath his feet and the ground above his head. In such a world, branches become roots, and roots become branches. Moles soar through the dirt above while sparrows tunnel through the air below. The world turned upside-down is mysterious and wonderful and strange. And that’s how the poem begins:

Obscurely yet most surely called to praise,

As sometimes summer calls us all, I said

The hills are heavens full of branching ways

Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead;

I said the trees are mines in air, I said

See how the sparrow burrows in the sky!

That exclamation mark at the end of line 6 ends this vision of an upside-down world. And in the next line, the poet starts to question himself. What is he doing? If he feels called to praise on a stunning day, why is he turning the world on its head? It is an act of madness—a “mad instead,” he admits. In his imagination, he commits an almost perverse “uncreation” of the created world and revels in wrenching things awry. Look at the questions Wilbur asks himself:

And then I wondered why this mad instead

Perverts our praise to uncreation, why

Such savors in this wrenching things awry.

The wondering leads to a question:

Does sense so stale that it must needs derange

The world to know it? To a praiseful eye

Should it not be enough of fresh and strange

That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay,

And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?

What the poet realizes is that our delight is infirm. There is something wrong with us. Our senses stale at the same sights, however glorious they may be. And so he changes what we see. What if the sky were soil and the soil were sky? What if we could see roots like branches? What if we could imagine moles chasing stars beneath the graves? What if the sparrow made burrows in the air?

Such strange sights cause us to wonder, and, in wondering, they renew and re-engage creation as it actually is. Imagining the world upside-down allows us to return to the world right-side-up. Isn’t it amazing that “trees grow green, and moles can course in clay, / And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?” What a world. What a wonder. What an extraordinary summer’s day.

Whenever I read Wilbur’s poem, I’m reminded of a great passage from G.K. Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy, where he talks about precisely the same problem of our stale senses. Nature repeats itself, but something there is that doesn’t like a repetition. “Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase,” Chesterton writes:

It might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. 

Chesterton and Wilbur were both Christians, and both were trying to figure out why our praise so often sours and sticks in our throat. How is it that we lose the capacity to wonder? And conversely, how is it that grief and guilt and sin and injustice in this world no longer touch or move us as they ought? These are questions poets ask often, whether Christian or not, and their answer frequently turns to what Wilbur calls “this mad instead.” Poets “pervert to uncreation” so that they and we and whoever encounters their poem can see with fresh eyes the world as it is made. They renovate the senses by wrenching things awry.    

– – –

Wilbur’s poem is a classic ars poetica—a poem about the writing of poetry itself. In offering his defense and explanation of poetry, Wilbur offers us two solid reasons for writing and reading poems. Most subtly, he suggests that we simply can’t help ourselves. We do it already, whether we recognize it or not. Look at how he winks at the reader in the last line of the poem: sparrows “sweep the ceiling of our day.” The ceiling of our day? He just said that we shouldn’t need to wrench things awry, and then he falls into metaphor. The sky becomes a ceiling. More than that, Wilbur flips the world again. What are the sparrows doing? They are sweeping the ceiling. But wait a second: we don’t sweep ceilings. We sweep floors. Not only has the sky become a ceiling; the ceiling is acting like a floor. What is happening here?

What’s happening is what we can’t stop from happening: the simplest speech acts fall again and again into metaphor. Poetry is a regular part of speech. As the classic book Metaphors We Live By demonstrated so forcefully, we rely on metaphors in myriad ways throughout the day. To give just one example, we speak as though time is money. We talk about saving time or how we spend it, and when we talk that way, we don’t think of ourselves as entering into metaphor. We think of ourselves as speaking plainly. Poetry reminds us that even in plain speech, metaphors abound. Living in language, poets help us pay attention to the language that we use.

But secondly, and more obviously, Wilbur makes his case for poetry through a particular device called defamiliarization. Defamiliarization is the technical term for wrenching things awry. It means taking what is familiar and making it unfamiliar so that we can see it with fresh eyes—so that we can do as scripture calls us to do and “sing a new song.” The word “defamiliarization” comes from a Russian formalist critic named Viktor Schklovsky, and this is what Schklovsky said:  “Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war … And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.”

To make the stone stony. To see that the tree is green—and to be reminded that a green tree is amazing. To notice the birds flying or the moles burrowing beneath our feet. The simplest things we no longer see are the marvelous deeds of the Lord as much as manna from heaven and miracles of healing. We need the poets to “sing a new song” because our senses so often stale. In Psalm 96, the Hebrew word for “new” can also be translated “fresh.” Poets make things fresh. By taking the all-too-familiar and making it unfamiliar, they help us to see the world anew.

– – –

The more we know about poetry, the more we can see how many devices and inventions a poet deploys to sing a fresh song. And here, the reader’s task can become a delight. What we know of Wilbur’s poem to this point is plenty enough. We’ve got the sense of the thing, and that’s fine. But if we want to enter more deeply, we can. And what we find when we do is that Wilbur is being winsome throughout.

“Praise In Summer” is a sonnet, a kind of poem that dates back seven centuries to Petrarch and the Italian Renaissance. A sonnet is always fourteen lines, and it generally requires a specific rhyme scheme that breaks the poem into different parts. Traditionally, a sonnet has two main parts: an eight-line opening (called the octet) and a six-line closing (called the sestet). Usually these parts pose a question and then an answer, or a sight and then an insight. Between those parts lies a turn, called a volta (from the Italian), which comes at the start of the ninth line.

That is the classic sonnet, inherited from Petrarch, transformed by Shakespeare, and passed on to each new generation through countless reinventions. These days, whenever readers of poetry find a poem of fourteen lines, they immediately think sonnet, and they start to look for the poem’s parts, trying to locate how the writer might be messing with tradition. For that is the real secret of sonnets: precisely because they come laden with history and loaded with rules, every new break in rhyme or structure is weighted with significance.

Wilbur does not disappoint. The first six lines sketch the world upside down (giving us the sight) and the last eight lines ask what that means (the insight). In other words, in a poem about flipping the world upside down, Wilbur flips the sonnet on its head, starting with a sestet and ending with an octet, intertwining his rhyme scheme so that the poem could stand on either end—before a final couplet sets it right. As poets often revel in doing, Wilbur performs in his poem the point of the poem itself. He makes the language do what he says. This is part of the fun of poetry.

The fun of poetry is not always necessary to the insight and awareness it offers. It’s true that the more we know of poetry, the more we will see in a poem. That is true of any human activity. But poems, like pools, can be entered and enjoyed at any depth. They sit open to all, waiting for any reader to take the plunge.

Wilbur’s poem reminds us why the plunge is worth it. Poetry makes language work fresh thoughts and new perspectives. It sings a new song as it seeks and finds “what will suffice.” It makes the stone stony. And if we want to know God and our world and our place in the world, we need poetry to make things fresh.

– – –

In taking up that task, poets often invite us to practice thinking and noticing at a different pace. It is only at a slower speed of processing that we can begin to observe what we have too often missed or ignored.

Think, for example, of all the sounds we hear but never hear. Trains on a nearby track and airplanes overhead. Birds and dogs. The wind in the trees or the breeze in our ears. Children a few houses over. Neighbors in the yard. The rumble of traffic or the pass of a single car. HVAC systems and dishwashers and the hum of the fridge. Our world is never silent.

At the same time, most sounds have no good use. And so, quite rightly, we ignore them. Our brains efficiently block out the pointless in order to pay attention to what matters. That is as it should be.

But consider the perspective of my two-year-old son. He has not yet learned to distinguish all the important sounds (me, telling him to eat his broccoli) from the unimportant sounds (the MetroLink passing behind our house). I never hear the train anymore, but he notices it every time. “Train!” he shouts. “Plane,” he’ll say and point at the sky. Right now, before being guided into what matters, he sees and hears everything. It is terribly inefficient, but it is also, in a way, inspiring. For a moment, he enables me to notice how much I fail to notice.

I don’t think people should go about their lives like two-year-olds, stopping at every sound. And I don’t want to say that poets are like children. Paying attention means focusing, and focusing means blocking our distractions. Poets, too, block out distractions. It’s just that, quite often, what a poet finds worthy of attention—like moles and sparrows and the branches of a green tree and the roots beneath our feet—is something I might have previously blocked out. In this sense, poetry keeps us light on our toes. It is a way of paying attention that means a constant shift of focus, noticing intensely—even if for a moment—what we had previously ignored. God alone can notice all things at once. Our attention is limited and needs to be pointed in different directions. Poets are people who point.

In the way that they point, in the devices they use—through defamiliarization and rhythm and rhyme schemes and meter and stanzas and free verse and metaphor and figures of speech—poets time and again sing new songs. We have a Creator who calls on the creation to create. We have a God who calls us to praise God’s marvelous deeds and summons us to sorrow over the sins of this world. Poets draw us into praise and sorrow through the songs they sing. They reconnect us with God’s world by wrenching this world awry. Their “mad instead” nourishes the faith of the faithful by making the familiar fresh.

And for this reason, among countless others, I’d say to those followers of Christ (and anyone else) in the 88 percent: it may be time to take a dip.

Abram Van Engen

Abram Van Engen

Abram Van Engen is Professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis and co-host of the podcast Poetry For All.

One Comment

  • Paula says:

    “Poets draw us into praise and sorrow through the songs they sing. They reconnect us with God’s world by wrenching this world awry. Their ‘mad instead’ nourishes the faith of the faithful by making the familiar fresh.”
    Love this essay Abram!
    So good to have your voice included on these pages.

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