On the Reason for Poetry (And the Analog Resistance)

April is National Poetry month. (Did you know there was such a thing?) To celebrate, I’ve asked some friends to join me in answering the question, “Why Poetry?” (Next week’s piece, for instance, will be by the lovely and talented Hilary Sherratt). I hope you’ll join us in the conversation. And if you say you aren’t the “poetry type?” Give it a go this month. See how it feels.

*****

Aunt Mary died of eating twelve red peppers
after a hard days work. The doctor said
it was her high blood pressure finished her.

~John Ciardi

1.

I sat in the rustic pew on my front porch, a copy of Selected Poems:John Ciardi cracked to the poem “Aunt Mary.” The pew was a reclaimed piece, salvaged by my mother from some going-out-of-church sale in northern Louisiana. I’d salvaged the verses from a local used bookstore in the Ozarks, reclaimed the piece and gave it a home between the works of Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry.

It was a quiet evening, one in which the first warm winds of April were sweeping down the lane. The birds hopped from branch to branch, the joy of Spring in their songs. Squirrels chased each other through the muddy front yard, through the tender grass shooting from winter’s dead zones. I pinched the pages between thumb and forefinger; there is nothing quite like the yellowing leaves of a good book of poetry, the rough-fibered, tactile, analog pages.

It could have been any poem, really. But it wasn’t. It was this work, “Aunt Mary,” about the writer’s aunt who’d passed into the next world on the flames of twelve red peppers. Mary was a woman who “loved us till we screamed,” who was in the family of the broken,

“in which one dies of twelve red peppers,
one has too many children, one a boy friend,
two are out of work, and one is yowling
for one (offstage) to open the bathroom door.”

There is a truth about family in the verse. I sense it, but it hides beneath the surface.

2.

It is April the 1st, and the dust has barely settled on last week’s discussion regarding whether same-sex couples should or should not be employed by World Vision, a entity which, as best as I can tell, has a singular non-profit purposes–care for the impoverished. Just days ago, this was the issue du jour. World Vision’s hiring policies were in question, and the debate took to the hallowed halls of the internet. We all gathered there, there, the family, some of us watching as others debated with humility, and still others–the championed prize-fighters in the room–slung wholesale accusations across the aisle. One side accused the other of being Un-orthodox (a idea without definition), and their equal opposites accused the more Orthodox of being unloving (an ideal without definition).

Nuance be damned.

I watched as one sat yowling for another (offstage) to open the bathroom door. The one behind the door yowled back.

3.

Why poetry? (And for today, let’s relegate this question to “why read poetry?”) This is the grand question.

Many have an affinity for poetry, though they’d likely not recognize it as such. In high school, did you roll the windows down, let the wind blow through your hair as you screamed every word to “Smells Like Teen Spirit?” Did you make mix-tapes for your boyfriend? Did you scrawl self-angsty lines in a fifty cent notebook? Perhaps you didn’t, but I did (though you may substitute “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” for “The Love of God,” because I was a good Baptist boy).

In poetry, I’ve always found the artistic medium that gives the freedom to better understand the world. Good poetry conveys layers of meaning and nuance, unpacks truths in surprising and understated ways. Good poetry is like a diamond, its many facets drawing the reader into the mystery at its heart. It entices me, makes me dig into its language for meaning.

I am a word-miner, and poetry is the mineshaft. It’s why I read. I hope to find the grand golden nugget one day. I know it’s there somewhere.

4.

On April the 1st, I sat with the lines of John Ciardi, he mourning the loss of his utterly human aunt. I rubbed the pages between my fingers as I read the closing lines,

…At once I wept Aunt Mary
with a real tear, forgiving all her love,
and its stupidities, in the palm of God.
Or on a ledge of time. Or in the eye
of the blasting sun. Or tightroped on a theorem.
–Let every man choose his own persuasion,
I pray the tear she taught me of us all.

I wept Aunt Mary too, and all the very real lovers of this world and of God who are only doing the best they know how, who are only espousing their best understandings of mysteries.

There was no comment section at the bottom of the poem, no way to tweet the verse to the rest of God’s green earth, or to spout an opinion about it. There was only me, the poem, the internal weeping, the birds, the squirrels, and the pew. There was only a prayer for all of us, the yowling children. There was only the understanding that we’re all here together, reflections in this mirror dimly. There was the sense that unfolding the nuance of words can only be achieved by this sort of Analog Resistance.

This is why I read poetry. It is a sanctuary from the myriad cacophonous violences that occupy this mainframe world.

Want to receive my updates in your inbox? Click here. Also, follow along on Twitter and Facebook.

On Broken Pastors and Golden Calves

1.

I’ve always been a question pusher, an inquisitor of sorts.

I was blazing a trail through the frozen Ozarks on an average weekday—the Boston Mountains rising like guardians over landscape as frozen as a faithless heart—when my phone range. It was a friend from my ministry days, a mid-western pastor who’d once confessed he was wrestling with the most un-nuanced question of faith—is God real? He’d spilled it across the bench seat of the beat up Chevy lumbering down the dirt roads near Indian territory, said he’d have an easier time counting summer stars in the panhandle of Oklahoma than imagining a real and present God. This confession came in his earlier days of ministry, before he’d acceded to the office of “Associate Pastor” and dug deep into a mid-western suburban life, before he’d started a family on a churchman’s salary.

I considered his confession—that truth spoken nearly six years prior—and cut to the quick of the matter. “How’s your faith these days?” I asked.

“It’s good, bro; how’s yours?” he quipped, flipped the question on the inquisitor with an evangelical sleight of hand.

“Do you remember the night we were rolling in the old pickup on the back roads? You told me you were groping about for God, that you were considering jumping…” Continue reading at A Deeper Story.

*Photo by Sigfrid Lundberg, Creative Commons via Twitter.

Want to receive my updates in your inbox? Click here. Also, follow along on Twitter and Facebook.

Psalm #18 (On the Dawn)

From time to time I pen my own psalms. Follow the link for the entire corpus (such as it is).

I’ve heard enough about culture wars and the warring factions of religion to fill three lifetimes. Last week’s brouhaha regarding World Vision (which, to illuminate the situation, was mostly relegated to a particular internet sub-culture) was the tipping point. I suppose there are genuine points to be made regarding the importance of the discussion, but I also suppose there are genuine points to be made about remaining less resolute, more quiet.

In any event, even if you didn’t follow the goings-on last week, this poem is still for you. At least, it’s for me.

*****

Psalm #18 (On the Dawn)

Dawn is a half-rest, a symphonic pause
pregnant like Mary with possibility
of a meek Messiah who grows less like
“go and conquer,”
and more like
“suffer the child, the poor,
the broken-hearted self.”

Oh Dawn,
pray for us sinners, now
and at the hour of our dying.
Amen.

Always gentle, it comes like a child
waking God’s affection, greeting us
with purple robes and golden rods,
gifts fit for kings.
Who are the kings of the world?
The meek, the slowed, the quiet observant.
Who are the kings of the world?
They are us.

Want to receive my updates in your inbox? Click here. Also, follow along on Twitter and Facebook.

On Micha Boyett’s Found

Today I’m reviewing Micha Boyett’s book, Found. All block quotes in this piece are taken from Found. For more on Micha, visit her website, michaboyett.com.

1.

“It’s just that all the answers of my evangelical past—read more Scripture, pray longer, try harder, serve more people—have become heavy burdens in my life. I can’t do enough to prove myself spiritually fit.” ~ Micha Boyett

In the fall of 2012, I quit praying.

Our youngest son’s health was failing, and we were trapped inside a Children’s Hospital, watching him waste away. I prayed every prayer I could muster, prayed for healing, for life, for the doctors to discover the underlying condition. I prayed prayers of faith, and lack of faith. I gave God the grand out–if it be your will. I prayed early morning prayers, and prayers while doing late-night loads of laundry in the hospital commons.

And then one night, I stopped praying altogether.

There are times when doubt is not a creeping, sneaky thing. There are times when you cannot work your way out of doubt. There are times when doubt is a hound of Hell with iron teeth clamped around your throat.

2.

Identity issues are very real things.

In my mid-thirties, I uncovered a deep distrust for the evangelical platitudes of my youth. I’d done most of the right things—read scripture with continuity, prayed continually, joined the ministry machine for a stint. I was a bootstraps kind of believer, hoping that by enough tugging I might pull myself up to heaven. I wouldn’t have told you this, of course. I would have told you that I believed in grace.

“Can you try so hard to be perfect that you miss God? I wondered. Maybe they’re missing God.”

3.

When Micha was in eleventh grade, an itinerate preacher—a well-meaning one, I’m sure—visited her church in the Texas flat lands. A young fellow, he told the church-goers that if they “trusted Jesus enough,” they could “go an entire day without sin.” By implication, I suppose he might have opined that by trust and pure-D old boot-strapping effort, one could string a lifetime of sinless days together.

And there, among the flat-land throng was Micha, she with a budding intuition. Go without sin? Is such a thing possible?

“I knew I was a sinner. I knew I was supposed to be a better witness for Jesus. But these words, this sermon, did not free me. The words squeezed my insides. They felt wrong.”

4.

In one’s early days, life is filled with notions of grandeur, of world-changing, of exploration. By our late-twenties and early thirties, so many of us are filled with notions of survival, instead—make it through another day at the office; change one more poopy diaper; arrive at church at some point after the opening hymn but before the benediction.

Micha dreamed of taking on Africa, of becoming a missionary to unreached peoples. This, she thought, was the pinnacle of Christian sainthood. Perhaps she thought that this sort of devotion would prove her fidelity toward God. Perhaps she believed that by good, holy work, she could reach heavenly status. No matter, by her thirtieth birthday, she’d walked far from those youthful dreams, was raising a child in the congested heart of San Francisco, groping for connection with God.

“I’ve realized that just about everyone is like me, second-guessing, longing for courage to find awe in the world.”

5.

Prayer does not have to be a complicated act, an exercise in the effluence of words. Prayer can be simple, an act of understanding that the everyday, mundane tasks can be done as unto God. This, is Boyett’s grand claim, and she derives it from the Rule of St. Benedict.

It is a grand and freeing claim, indeed.

By contemplation, by study, by visiting the monks who have devoted their lives to prayer and service, Micha learned the solace in the simplest prayers, prayers like, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

She breathed this prayer in rhythm over the waters of the South Platte, fly-line unfurling on the waters. She found that even fly-fishing can be done as unto God. She has learned the way of simple prayer—perhaps the way back to prayer.

“Our prayer should be free of preoccupations and it should normally be short.”

6.

“Prayer is not as hard as I make it out to be. Again and again, lift and unfold. Lay that line out, let it meander a little. Do it again. I am not profound. I am not brave in spirit. My faith is threadbare and self-consumed, but I am loved, I am loved, I am loved.”

Is prayer about moving mountains in faith? Is prayer about finding healing in an Arkansas hospital room? Is prayer a form of magic, a spell to be cast over the problem du jour?

No. This sort of prayer, I think, is born from the same bootstrap mentality that says you don’t have to sin. This sort of prayer is more about the pray-er, more about the need and the faith, or the standing required to conquer a thing.

Jesus taught us to pray more simple prayers, prayers that connect us to the very fabric of God and his universe. Boyett the Benedictine, the Mama Monk, teaches us the way of this sort of prayer, too. There is freedom here.

7.

“I feel like the water must have felt when Jesus changed it to blood red wine.”

Sometimes epiphanies are sudden things, they come up like a west Texas thunderstorm, change the landscape of everything all of the sudden. Sometimes, though, they are slower working. Sometimes they start at the surface and work their way down to the fabric.

Was I praying all wrong back in those Arkansas Children’s Hospital days? Was there a reason my prayers ricocheted from the ceilings? I don’t know. I know some simpler prayers might have done me well, though.

As for you: do you believe that God likes you despite your own broken prayers, your inability to measure up, to go a day without sinning? Do you believe that you identity is found in your endless doing, your striving. Do you wonder whether you’ll ever pile up enough works to reach the heavens?

There are gems in this book of Boyett’s. She sneaks its Benedictine shots in with the grace of a God-bearer and the chops of one with a Master of Fine Arts in poetry. She writes beautiful sentences, allows the reader his own slow epiphany.

God’s love is not only for the deserving doers, the perfect prayers, Micha might say. Instead, it is for the everyday common man, for those too tired to try measuring up to some silly standard. And yes, most of our standards of measuring are silly.

Grab Found. Benedictines, Baptists, and low-church Evangelicals welcomed.

bookLG-found2

Want to receive my updates in your inbox? Click here. Also, follow along on Twitter and Facebook.

Psalm #17 (For the Strivers in Their Striving)

Today’s psalm is for the strivers who love their striving. (Click here for more of the psalm series.)

*****

Psalm #17 (For the Strivers in Their Striving)

In this tabernacle of great green floor unfurling,
the bright blue above, sometimes black and star-flecked,
we kneel, fingernails busy like tiny shovels
searching for the ancient, eternal
word of Life that was breathed first
below the roots, and then into saplings,
into the nests in sycamore boughs,
into all.

Cease scratching and know; be known!

It is in the jutting limestone,
in sandstone, dolomite,
in the bill of Hawksbill Crag,
in the point Whitakers Point.

Cease scratching and know; be known!

It was spoken into seeds,
into ovum and ovum’s lover,
implanted so that it might be
a perpetual echo of the All
of all being.

Cease scratching and know; be known!

In the full faith of virgins,
in the cavernous, hollow caves–
yes, Word is there.
In the triumph, in the joy of death,
it springs from the river
whose streams make glad!

Cease scratching and know; be known!

There is Word under your nails,
in the creases of all knuckles.
In our hair down hill on borrowed bike,
in foundry callouses and sulfur burns.

Cease with tiny shovels, with claws of scratching! 

In the cousins, most–
we, in the midwinter of our todays–
before the coming of the spring flocks,
it finds Home most intimate,
most present,
most actual.

Thanks be to God!

Want to receive my updates in your inbox? Click here. Also, follow along on Twitter and Facebook.

© Copyright - Seth Haines