I believe in poetry.
But I’d forgotten. The last few months of our pandemic dominated, politically divided lives made me forget. Then just as it seemed life couldn’t get worse, it did. Our President stood amidst a maelstrom of fear, insecurity, disunity, and violence and stirred the cauldron. Not only did riots erupt in D.C. but also in my heart.
Wherefore hope? How do we quell a riot?
No one expected the answer to flow from a twenty-two-year-old National Youth Poet Laureate named Amanda Gorman. As you probably know, she read her poem The Hill We Climb for President Joe Biden’s Inauguration.
That was the moment I was reminded why I love—even—believe in poetry.
Poetry Speaks Beauty to Power
In the aftermath of January 6, a “young skinny Black girl raised from slaves” brandished not a firebrand but a poem. Poetry is dangerous but not lethal.
After listening to her reading, I remembered the Bernie Boston 1967 photograph of a young hippie placing a flower in the barrel of an M14 rifle. That photo spoke for a generation and turned us toward hope. Might does not make right. Words flowing, unfolding, proding, infecting us are transformative. A rifle bullet can travel around 1.5 miles. Gorman’s poem will ripple change for generations.
I believe in poetry because it speaks beauty to power. And to pain and hopelessness.
Poetry Names Complex Emotions
2002 Poet Laureate Billy Collins claims poetry is the emotion we can’t name.
Amanda Gorman’s poem planted hope but was not about that alone. When Gorman read this line,
“Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken,
but simply unfinished.”
I nodded and clapped. That’s what I feel. Not shiny, ignorant pride in our nation nor dirty disgust, but a tarnished, realistic, progressive belief.
Poetry is often that mix of emotions stirred into one unnamable truth. Like those times as kids we mixed every fountain drink into one cup. The whole becomes more than its parts, something new and nameless (and possibly disgusting but no metaphor is perfect!). Poetry deftly handles complexity, combining truths and emotions that befuddle our minds and hearts alone. It expresses the otherwise inexpressible.
Poetry Is Bigger on the Inside than the Outside
Not many of us think of Jesus as a poet. Yet some of his most penetrating sayings are poems. Consider the Beatitudes.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.”
Jesus could have said: “The Father’s ways are confusing, contradictory to us here on earth. Take comfort in things that aren’t popular here such as meekness and purity and suffering, because they are popular with God.”
Poetry (art in general) bridges the gap where mere reason and logic cannot stretch.
“So clear is reason. But how dark imagining,
Warm, dark, obscure and infinite, daughter of Night:
Dark is her brow, the beauty of her eyes with sleep
Is loaded, and her pains are long, and her delight.”
Poetry invites us into those “infinite” places, those “obscure,” “warm, dark” areas of life. A metaphor contains many a door. Anyone can enter and explore. This is why Jesus carried the deepest truths to us in the stanzas of poetry.
Poetry then operates similar to J.K. Rowling’s charmed tents in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Poetry too is larger on the inside than it appears on the outside.
Poetry Shows us How the World Can Be
Gorman opens her poem on a depressing, realistic note:
“When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade.”
But it soars at the climax:
“For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
Romantic literature exists not merely to tell a story of how the world really is. Too many of us are mired in that mucky reality already. Like a strong wind lofting a kite, poetry of this kind grabs our imaginations and launches them into the stratosphere. It shows us a way!
God Speaks in Poetry
It is no surprise a poet stole the Inauguration. God created us with poetic souls.
This is why we call the colors of a trout rainbow,
why we lean over cliff edge straining for an echo,
why we leave a pot boiling, spaghetti roiling,
to witness one
in the setting sun.
I believe in poetry because God speaks it. Job, Psalms, Proverbs, and the Song of Solomon are all poetry. So are the first three chapters of Genesis. Poetry is salted into every book in the Bible. When God leads us through the valley of the shadow of death, he does not flex his muscles, load his guns, but rather he makes us lie down in green pastures, beside still waters and calmly recites us a poem.
Thank you, Amanda Gorman, I remember now. You have quelled my riotous heart!
What poems have given you comfort or even challenged you?
Most modern poetry comes to us in popular songs. Is there a song that has spoken to you?
Did or do you write poetry? Would you share some with us?