A crow in flight

How to Quell a Riot? Read a Poem!

Reading Time: 5 minutes

 

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.

 

The opening of a pine cone represents hope

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.

Art is the power of love

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. 

Peace comes not through force

Poetry transforms not by force or fear but by beauty.

I believe in poetry because it speaks beauty to power. And to pain and hopelessness. 

[box] Poetry exerts a power that stirs the heart, which in turn eventually mobilizes the mind and muscles. This is why, when dictators lower the boom, they first kill or imprison the poets (so maybe poetry is lethal to those who write it and act on it!). [/box]

How writing quells fear

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. 

The Space needle reflected in Chihuly glass art

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.”

Irish man in a pub

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.

C. S. Lewis wrote in his poem Reason:

“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!

Kite in flight       

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, 

dinner undone 

and run 

to witness one 

more poem

in the setting sun.

Sunset at Nolan Lake

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.

The Lord is my shepherd

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?

7 thoughts on “How to Quell a Riot? Read a Poem!”

  1. Bruce Dawkins

    Gorman’s poem was a thing of beauty. Music to my soul.

  2. Georgie Ann KETTIG

    lol,… a few years back, I had had “enough” of Leonard Cohen’s depressing words to his song called “Hallelujah”, which has an absolutely compelling melody and accompaniment, that “the world loves”,… so, I rewrote verses 2,3 and 4,… for some “reason”, this year I brought these words out from being hidden away, and they’ve had a very grateful and enthusiastic reception,… must be something like “God’s timing” going on,… so far, they are just hand-written, but I plan to type them up,… perhaps, when I do, I’ll be able to put them here,…

    1. Georgie Ann KETTIG

      Dear Eugene,… after a telephone “consultation” with your blogger pal (of years ago), Mike Klassen, regarding “protection of lyric issues”, I’ve typed up “my” added verses to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”,… so, here they are,… hope you know how the song goes,… I guess it’s “my” answer to what he proposed,…

      “Hallelujah” ~ Leonard Cohen, music and vs 1,… verses 2,3,4 by Georgie Ann Kettig (circa ~ 2012)

      (verse 1)

      I’ve heard there was a secret chord
      That David played and it pleased the Lord
      But you don’t really care for music, do ya?
      Well it goes like this: the fourth, the fifth
      The minor fall, the major lift
      The baffled king composing Hallelujah

      Hallelujah, Hallelujah
      Hallelujah, Hallelu-u-u-u-jah

      (verse 2)

      When our gaze is fixed upon this life,
      The loss, the fears, the pain, the strife,
      Sometimes it’s hard to sing, “Hallelujah”,
      The bitterness infects our mind,
      It turns us hard, it makes us blind,
      Our song becomes an empty “Hallelujah”

      Hallelujah, “What’s it to ya?”
      Hallelujah, Hallelu-u-u-u-jah

      (verse 3)

      We forget that God, our Source of Life,
      Has come to heal our pain, our strife,
      And fill our hearts with joyful Hallelujahs,
      In a manger, in the hay, His Mother laid Him there that day,
      While all the angels sang, “Hallelujah!”

      Hallelujah, “He’s come to ya!”
      Hallelujah, Hallelu-u-u-u-jah

      (verse 4)

      Well, David danced before the Lord,
      So, let us sing in one accord,
      And fill the earth with blessed “Hallelujahs!”
      Our God inhabits all our Praise, and dwells with us through all our days,
      As we keep singing grateful “Hallelujahs!”

      Hallelujah, “He’ll renew ya!”
      Hallelujah, Hallelu-u-u-u-jah

      Hallelujah, “He’ll renew ya!”
      Hallelujah, Hallelu-u-u-u-jah

      Amen

        1. Georgie Ann KETTIG

          I’m a practically “lifelong” piano player, and have enjoyed being able to play (and sing) for God, in various Christian situations, that I’ve been part of,… the last one being for over 20 years, as a director and participant of our Spanish coro in our very beloved local Catholic Church, St. Joseph’s,… it’s a true blessing,… Leonard Cohen composed a very very wonderful piece of music, with (apparently ~ as I’ve just read online in an old “Rolling Stone” magazine article), some influential musical suggestions and tweaks from one of his producers,… I just wished that I could be “liking” his verses as much,… thanks,… (-:

  3. I loved this. Amanda Gorman’s poem was riveting, and so full of truth and hope. I believe in poetry, too.
    I enjoy some of Wendell Berry’s work, especially this line from his Sabbaths 1979, IV poem:

    “These passings resurrect
    a joy without defect
    The life that steps and sings in ways of death.”

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