Snowy April: Reflections on Mind, Heart and Poetry
I started writing this post a week ago, to go up on the 12th — then I spent the weekend at the Festival of Faith and Writing and didn’t actually post anything. I assumed I’d have to rework the beginning because it’s April and it should be spring … but I woke up to snow on the ground yesterday so Henryson’s April is still much closer to my reality than Chaucer’s!
I’ve been thinking a lot about the opening to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with the sweet showers of April bringing life and energy to places and people parched by the drought of winter. Actually, I’ve been thinking about how my April has made me want to huddle indoors, by a fire, rather than venturing out on any sort of pilgrimage (even just to the grocery store). I feel much more like the narrator of Robert Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid, who ventures outside on an April night in Scotland to watch Venus rise, but is defeated by the whistling north wind and returns indoors to thaw by his fire.
I try to bolster myself during this long, cold spring with thoughts of superiority; after all, as Byron asserts, “Happy the nations of the moral north!” But then I’m uncomfortable with the assertion that northern people (that is, Europeans) are morally superior to other people groups, even if Byron with his notorious lack of morality certainly meant this line as a sly joke. So I turn to Langston Hughes for an antidote, with his soul grown deep like a wide, warm river.
I was reminded of the power of poetry last week, when I spent twenty minutes reading poems to a group of first grade students (including one of my daughters). “Hope is the thing with feathers” lost them, sadly, although Dickinson is never my favorite so I secretly sympathize. But they loved “on paper” by Jacqueline Woodson and they giggled through William Carlos Williams' “This is Just to Say.” Perhaps best of all, they were amazed that Billy Collins would write a poem about Cheerios, which is humorous enough to capture a first-grader but hooks us adults with its meditation on age and aging and time.
When I taught English classes, I read poetry regularly. I read poems from Homer and Sappho; Dante, Chaucer, and Marie de France; Donne, Herbert, Mary Sidney, and Milton. I even, occasionally, ventured into more modern poetry. But since leaving my teaching job nearly a year ago, I’ve read much less poetry. I have at least one prose novel going all the time (often more), but as I was searching for poems to bring to my daughter’s class I realized how much I miss reading poetry.
Poetry has an evocative and emotional power that often evades prose, even the most lyrical and powerful prose. All writers must wrestle with words, striving to convey ideas and emotions to their readers. But the poet must be sensitive to the meaning of the words and their sounds, the ideas and the rhythms conveyed by each word. But the very best poems do this in a way that bypasses our head and goes straight to our heart.
Even the most intellectual of poets, like John Donne or T.S. Eliot, offer a depth beyond intellectual puzzles and learned allusions. Donne’s Holy Sonnet 10 contains a brief argument against the power of death, but the poem’s punch comes not in its logic but its resounding final lines: “One short sleep past, we wake eternally / And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.” The weight and finality of the heavy syllables in the last line underscore emotionally the truth that death will indeed die.
Perhaps this is why the Bible contains so much poetry. The Psalms, of course, but also various songs and hymns are preserved throughout scripture. Rhythm and music help people remember, especially crucial in largely illiterate cultures; but this memory goes beyond intellect to embed itself in the soul as poetry links mind and emotion.
I have, at times, wished that the bible were more like a guidebook, or perhaps a systematic theology. But we are more than our minds; we are our bodies and our emotions and our communities. God wants to reach us in every aspect of our being, and so in addition to Paul we have the parable of Jesus; in addition to the chronicles of the kings we have psalms; and the whole of scripture is framed by poems about creation and new creation.
So this month, in celebration of poetry, curl up by the fire (or if you’re lucky, find a pleasant park bench) and read a poem. Read a psalm, or Mary’s magnificat, or Miriam’s song; read John Donne or George Herbert or Mary Sidney or, for a giggle, Aphra Behn’s “The Disappointment.” Find a new poet or revisit an old friend, and engage your mind and your heart.