Let’s hear it for poetry!

20 Mar

Pablo Picasso, in his “blue” period, painted an old man with a guitar. In a poem, “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” Wallace Stevens interpreted the guitarist as a poet whose music had to accomplish two things at once: evoke a transcendent world of peace, love, and justice and at the same time portray that world as a real possibility in the lives of his listeners.

Poetry borders two worlds, as Stevens suggests—the world of concrete experience as we live it and a transcendent reality that peeks at us through our everyday life.for some, this transcendent dimension is God, but for many others the idea of God doesn’t work. Stevens himself wrote:

“If there must be a god in the house,. . .

Let him move as the sunlight moves on the floor,

Or moonlight, silently, . . .

He must dwell quietly.” 

Poetry is the poet’s act of responding to the world and the people of her experience. She is responding to a “mystery that enlarges our existence” (the words of Christian Wiman). If you believe that your everyday life floats in a sea of mystery and surprise, you will love poetry. If you don’t—if words like “mystery” and “surprise” seem pretentious and far-fetched—you’ll find poetry a hard slog.

A friend once said to me that her problem with poetry is symbols. “You’re always saying that a word or image symbolizes something else, and I don’t see things that way,” she said. Why should the old guitarist symbolize a poet, and why should his music symbolize poetry? She was right—to the poet, everything in life is a symbol that refers to the mystery in which we live, to the God who dwells quietly in our world.

Some people insist that scientific language sets the bar for all our language—we should aim always at precise description of our experience. Poets are also obsessed with precise language, but at the same time they are aware of the inadequacy of our words. The richness of our experience defies precise words—and the quietly dwelling Mystery evades all efforts to capture it.

Scientists struggle to describe the natural world precisely. The task facing the poet is even more daunting: to evoke a sense of the mystery that surrounds our lives in the natural world.

April is National Poetry Month. The mystery that surrounds us at this moment, in the COVID-19 epidemic, challenges both our science and our poetry. I’ll take that up in my next installment.

(c) Phil Hefner.  March 20, 2020

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