The Fairest Hope

When I was nine, my father read a bit of poetry to me. I showed scant interest. Today I have a love for poetry. Here’s why.

I can recall two occasions when my father read poetry to me. The first was him reading The Barefoot Boy by John Greenleaf Whittier. I wasn’t that interested. The second occasion was him reading Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. Again, scant interest.

But here’s what’s interesting. I can still recall the opening lines of both: “Blessings on thee, little man / Barefoot boy with cheek of tan…” The Barefoot Boy. “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / a stately pleasure-dome decree…” Kubla Khan. Why can I recall them?

The answer is cadence, there’s an enchanting phrasing and rhythm. As a nine-year-old, I felt it. This allure was stirred years later listening to Garrison Keillor recite poetry on A Prairie Home Companion. He embodied the musicality of poetry. He pointed listeners to the Poetry Foundation. I went online and began quietly reading poetry.

I became more enchanted. Then I stumbled upon Louise Cowan. She came to faith reading Shakespeare’s poetry. Cowan is the one who defined faith as “a certain widening of the imagination,” likely drawn from Augustine who wrote of a “widening” of our hearts as we love what is only partially known, making it more fully known.

I became more enchanted, reading Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, John Donne, John Milton. William Blake, T. S. Eliot. Then I stumbled upon Iain McGilchrist, a prophet, not a poet. In The Master and His Emissary, he writes how Western societies have forgotten an important sequence in antiquity: poetry preceded prose.

Prose refers to written or spoken language. Poetry precedes it. Look at babies. They understand intonation and rhythm long before language. It worked the same way in ancient societies, where “poetry evolved before prose,” writes McGilchrist. Early poetry was sung and preceded prose, which was known as pezos logos (“pedestrian,” or walking logos). Poetry is dancing logos, musical language—alluring, enchanting.[1]

All of which helps me better understand why, in my 40s, I began to feel my soul was shriveling. My faith had become pedestrian, monotonous. I was part of a tradition that emphasizes prose over poetry: parse a “text,” analyze it, outline it, preach it. I’m all for preaching but the method I was taught had little musicality, magic, enchantment.

Which is eerily similar to what Richard Weaver felt in the fall of 1939. While driving over the “monotonous prairies of Texas” to begin a dismal third year at Texas A&M, he experienced “my conversion to the poetic and ethical vision of life.” Weaver embraced an ancient vision of an enchanted world.[2] Many years later, teaching English at the University of Chicago, he urged students to read poetry, for it “offers the fairest hope of restoring our lost unity of mind,” the vision of an enchanted world.[3]

I’m aiming to do something similar in a pilot project I’m facilitating. Its aim is to restore our lost unity of mind by recovering the ancient vision of an enchanted world. Our course includes reading aloud selected poems. We even have a poet, Haley Ward, as one of our participants (you can purchase her new book of poetry here).

Now you might not be a poet, but you can give treasured poems to loved ones. Every year at Christmas I give our adult children Madeline L’Engle’s poem, To a Long-Loved Love. Its musicality goes deep into my soul, as does my wife Kathy’s birthday gift a few years ago, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem, How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43).

And you can learn to love poetry. But like all loves, it must be nurtured. My father loved poetry as a lad. But as he grew older, he found computers more enchanting. Code replaced Coleridge as poetry seemed to add little to his world of zeroes and ones.

I know this for as he lay dying, I visited my father, offering to read a bit of Shakespeare to him. He declined. Ironic. When I was a lad, he tried reading poetry to me. I was disinterested. Now, as he lay dying, I tried reading poetry to him. He was disinterested.

I hope this stirs some interest in you to read poetry. Next week we’ll visit a place where the artwork depicts the enchanting power of poetry, the fairest hope of recovering the enchanted background the western world discarded long ago.

 

[1] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary (Yale University Press, 2009), 102-105.

[2] Joseph Scotchie, Barbarians in the Saddle: An Intellectual Biography of Richard M. Weaver (Transaction Publishers, 1997), x.

[3] Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (The University of Chicago Press, 1948), 166.

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5 Comments

  1. Modern poetry, IMO, breaks all the rules; no rhyme, no rhythm. Classical poetry recognized the challenge of fitting ideas into constrained spaces and are much more fun to read. Interestingly, Rap “music” seems to try to emulate classical forms. Unfortunately most rappers never did well in high school poetry classes.

    Getting children interested in poetry starts with reading nursery rhymes. I recommend doing that at a preschool age.

    Finally, Christian hymns, stripped of their melodies make great poems, worthy of reading and memorizing.

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