Good poetry is striking for its economy of language. It uses the fewest words needed to express the most possible meaning. It paints a picture, tells a story and expresses feelings, while delighting the ear with rhythm and sometimes rhyme.
We Need Not Just Stories, but Poetry
I could tell you that I have a cow and I really like the fact that I can have fresh cream with my desserts thanks to the cow, and that it’s rather nice to see her milling around out there in the pasture. But that description can’t possibly compare to Robert Louis Stevenson’s verses:
The friendly cow all red and white,
I love with all my heart:
She gives me cream with all her might,
To eat with apple-tart.
She wanders lowing here and there,
And yet she cannot stray,
All in the pleasant open air,
The pleasant light of day;
And blown by all the winds that pass
And wet with all the showers,
She walks among the meadow grass
And eats the meadow flowers.
Usually considered a children’s poem, these three stanzas nevertheless make some profound though subtle points. We learn that there is meaning in seeing the cow in the meadow. The speaker of the poem makes it clear that the cow is a link to the peaceful pleasures of life…even, perhaps, a sign of the progression of the world’s energy from sun to flower to cow to cream. We sense that this connectedness is good and beautiful.
This is why man needs not just stories, but poetry. This is why man needs the other poetries—art and music. We have an innate desire to mark the experiences of life, not just in a report, but in some form that raises our hearts and minds to beauty, truth, and goodness. When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow memorialized The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, he was not simply relating a story. He was letting us feel what was felt by those who lived it, as a way to come to understand the event’s meaning. When he describes the British warship as:
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon, like a prison-bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide.
we can feel both the overwhelming might of the crown and the captive feeling of the colonists. It wasn’t for nothing that he compared the masts and spars to prison bars and called the ship a huge, black, magnified hulk.
Poetry: Man’s Monument
Art critic John Berger puts it this way,
Poems, even when narrative, do not resemble stories. All stories are about battles, of one kind or another, which end in victory or defeat. Everything moves towards the end, when the outcome will be known. Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross the battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument…The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.
While the monuments man builds of stone memorialize events that a society in some sense agrees were formative, poetry is man’s monument to experiences that somehow “cried out” not to be forgotten, whether they seemed formative at the time (like Paul Revere’s ride) or not (like the cow). This element of memorializing requires individual reflection, and modern life seems to work against our ability to think deeply and reflect on our experiences.
Today’s frenzied pace may make us feel that disconnected events over which we do not have control compel us. With little time for reflection, we may fail to see the meaning in the events, little and big, that shape us. Without reflection, how do we know that the cow is good or that we as colonists feel imprisoned? Without reflection, how do we give place to all the moments that contribute meaning to our lives, whether they seem connected or not?
Our Deepest Interior Freedom
In the moving book Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl chronicled his experience in Nazi concentration camps from his perspective as a psychiatrist. He describes the common patterns in prisoners’ behaviors and reactions as well as the differences he saw among them, and how he believed those differences affected a prisoner’s long term outcome and mental status. Through his analysis, Frankl sought a way to understand not just how but whether man derives meaning from life, even amidst the most horrifying circumstances.
Frankl theorized that man’s deepest interior freedom resided in the mental choices of which no man can ever be deprived. Among these choices are one’s attitude and the meaning one derives from his life. Essential as they are, he found that these things, though they can not be taken away from the outside, can be put aside by each man if he so chooses. Man can reject or ignore this interior freedom, with dire consequences.
For Frankl, the question “What is the meaning of life?” is so deeply personal that those who ask it aren’t even asking the right question. “Ultimately,” he writes in Man’s Search for Meaning, “man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life.”
Today it would seem that fewer and fewer people are interested in answering for their lives. American society by most measures has suffered such deterioration over the last several generations that many people have surrendered much of their interior freedom, putting it aside in a mistaken attempt at emotional survival. They seem to be in the place of many of the prisoners described by Frankl, who chose to set aside their interior freedom, which was replaced with hopelessness and determinism. Frankl said those men were more likely to die, and in our time these men are more likely to die spiritually. We seem to be walking among the living (spiritually) dead.
For the prisoners of the Nazis, the landscape of horror they lived with sparked this inner disintegration. In our time, the deadness and loss of hope has been sparked by the devastation of the moral landscape. If sexual intimacy has no meaning, how can anything we do with our body have meaning? If a newly born baby means so little that it can be thrown in the garbage, it is no wonder that people are hardened to the meaning of their everyday lives. It is no wonder that we walk among those deadened to meaning, for the meaning would seem too painful to bear.
Sometimes the interior prisoner breaks free. We know that women who have suffered abortion can come to terms with the event, find forgiveness, forgive themselves, and in time allow the experience to shape who they are for the better. They heal not by ignoring the event, but by the painful process of accepting it as part of their past and one influence on their future.
Finding Meaning in Life
As poetry, art, and music mark realities in a way that raises our minds to beauty, goodness, and truth, so we must mark our lives. Even the tragic events, even the mistakes deserve their monuments. Our life experiences are like the lines of a good poem—for those who are willing to see, there is so much more meaning in them than meets the eye.
Let us not allow our world to lose its poetry—the ability to see and understand that the events of our lives have meaning, and that it is not just our right but our duty to find that meaning, to understand and in some way memorialize it. We probably won’t memorialize it in poem. That is a good thing for most of us. We memorialize it by internalizing it and making it part of who we become. We answer for our own life. And as Robert Frost wrote, “I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep.” We have work to do—promises to keep—before we sleep in Christ. Let these miles not be trod without our marking the beauty of the woods filling up with snow—and all the other experiences through which we glimpse heaven and our final rest.