How to access the spiritual power of poetry–even if you “just don’t get it”

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Author and professor Christian Wiman believes that poetry has significant spiritual power in addition to aesthetic value. He shares how people of faith can begin accessing the spiritual power of poetry even if at first they "just don't get it." - Image courtesy of Christian Wiman

New York Times columnist David Brooks called Christian Wiman’s “My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer” the “best modern book on belief.” It’s high praise, and from one who was enraptured by the book, it is also well-deserved esteem.

But Christian Wiman, a professor at Yale Divinity School, was a poet long before he tried his hand at prose. He believes that poetry has significant spiritual power in addition to aesthetic value. So I decided to sit down with him and discuss how people of faith can begin accessing the spiritual power of poetry even if, at first, they “just don’t get it.”

RNS: Many modern people struggle to find spiritual significance in poetry. To them, it is just another medium. What do you think the spiritual value of poetry is?

CW: We can only know God metaphorically. The Bible is quite clear about that, and the Bible is filled with metaphors. It makes sense then that you would turn to the place where metaphor is used most intensely and well: poems. Great poems, even when they are not about religious experience, are in a way, about religious experience. They give us some access to the other, to the spiritual life.

W.H. Auden famously said he didn’t think there was such a thing as an atheist poet. I have friends who disagree, but he thought the act of writing a poem was a religious act. Because you were allowing something so radically other into your imagination. And it could change you.

RNS: What do you say to people who say, “I just don’t get poetry”?

CW: Someone last night told me that they just didn’t get the poems in The New Yorker. I said, “Well, stop reading them.” A poem lures me in with some sound or a striking image. But if I’ve read four or five lines and I don’t find anything that draws me in, I’ll move on to something else. The advice I give is to allow yourself to read a lot of poems and see if it moves you. If it doesn’t, move on. I don’t think that poetry is this thing that every person has to read. But a lot of very intelligent people have been put off from poetry because of the way they’ve been taught it like a puzzle of meaning to be discovered. And you’ll do better if you just listen to the sounds.

RNS: What can poetry do that prose can’t do or can’t do as well?

CW: It mostly has to do with form and music and the way it can make this abstract shape in the air. But there are a few novelists who can also manage that intensity. I just read Marilynne Robinson’s “Housekeeping,” and there is prose in there that can do anything poetry can do.

RNS: If someone wanted to start reading poetry for spiritual value, where might they start?

CW: I would say, “Don’t start reading poetry for spiritual value. Read it instead for artistic value.” Look for what you like and the spiritual part will come later. If you respond aesthetically to something, you’ll figure out the spiritual part. I could give you names, but the answer is to go to poetry and see if it delights you. Don’t look for instruction.

Abyss1RNS: How important do you think poetry is to ministry?

CW: It should be much more important than people realize. I don’t hear too many sermons where people are using poems. I don’t really see how you can read the Bible without understanding poetry. A lot of it is in poetry. I just find that it can be such a great way of distilling a message and enacting an experience where people can actually feel what you’re feeling. It’s also incredibly important for ministers own spiritual lives. You meet a lot of burned out ministers, and poetry can be a way of sustaining faith, even when the subject matter is not at all about faith. Because it is a connection to volatile, anarchical experience, which is what drove all of us into faith in the first place.

RNS: How do you hope people of faith incorporate poetry into their own lives?     

CW: I’m teaching graduate students, all of whom are going to be ministers, how to do it and giving them a big volume of poetry to use in various circumstances. I’ve also been traveling around the last few years and telling people how to do this. There is real resistance some times when you start talking about how to get poetry into the life of the church.

RNS: What’s your favorite poem?

CW: I could never pick a favorite poem. But I just read “Directive,” a late poem by Robert Frost. He didn’t write many good poems late in life, but this one was. It begins,

Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.

It goes all the way into this lost place and discovers a broken drinking goblet like the grail and says,

Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

It is a great image of absolute loss being absolutely answered at the end.

RNS: Of all the poems you’ve written, which is one of the spiritually profound?

CW: I wrote one a few years ago, which is very much a response to a late poem by Philip Larkin. My poem in response was about being on a train, a poem in which everyone is angry, the way commutes can be into Chicago. There was a fantail of sparks, a peacock tail, and everyone looked at it at the same time:

but at least some brief
and no doubt illusionary belief
that in one surge of brain
we were all seeing
one thing:
a lone unearned loveliness
struck from an iron pain.

It became an image of absolute death and resurrection at the same time. Jurgen Moltmann says that all theology has to be conducted in earshot of the dying Christ. That poem is an attempt to do that.