The Theology of Poetry

“The Theology of Poetry
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
June 26, 2022

Song of Songs 2:10-13
My beloved speaks and says to me:

‘Arise, my love, my fair one,
   and come away;
for now the winter is past,
   the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
   the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtle-dove
   is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
   and the vines are in blossom;
   they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
   and come away!

Philippians 4:8
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

– – –
Raise your hand if you have ever tried writing poetry. I know a few among us are poets – and the rest of us maybe tried our hand at it at some point, maybe as a school assignment, maybe as a tribute to a crush or an ode to an adolescent tidal wave of angst, but it didn’t really stick.

The first time I wrote poetry, apart from some rhymes and haikus in elementary school, was as an attempt to have something accepted into our high school’s student-published literary magazine. Looking back on those poems now, they were…laughably bad. Really, really, terrible. I thought I had to write about bold, important feelings and use cryptic symbolism to create something sophisticated – and the result was some wannabe high-minded garble that no one could understand but me.

The next time I picked up the pen (or rather, dusted off the keyboard – I like writing poems on my computer so I can easily rearrange things and try out different words) was over a decade later, when I was doing a chaplaincy residency working at a children’s hospital in Atlanta. Many of you know I served the oncology and cardiac departments, and as a result I saw far too many kids – kids whom I knew and loved – die. Writing poetry was the way I processed all of that trauma and grief – it seemed like the only way to get those big emotions out. From there I shifted to writing a bit about pregnancy and the newborn stage – more wondrous, big feelings – and then I kind of petered out. I started saying “I used to write poetry…” and caught myself thinking of poems as something I could only create in momentous, profound stages of my life, because ordinary days, ordinary moments, ordinary-sized feelings didn’t seem to have enough juice in them, enough life oozing out of them to overflow into poetry. 

Because I knew that momentous, profound occasions do make for great poetry. Just listen to the words of 24-year-old Black American poet, Amanda Gorman, our first youth poet laureate, from her inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb.” She writes of the January 6th insurrection, in prophetic language so urgently applicable to other crises of our age:

“We did not feel prepared to be the heirs

Of such a terrifying hour

but within it we found the power

to author a new chapter.

To offer hope and laughter to ourselves. …

We will not be turned around

or interrupted by intimidation,

because we know our inaction and inertia

will be the inheritance of the next generation.

Our blunders become their burdens.

But one thing is certain,

If we merge mercy with might,

and might with right,

then love becomes our legacy,

and change our children’s birthright.”

Grand is the best word I can think of for it, sweeping, lofty, inspiring. No one is writing such words about washing the dishes or answering emails, I thought.

But then I read a poem a mother wrote – I can’t remember who now! – about doing the laundry while trying to catch up on her caffeine, and it moved me without being about anything sophisticated or monumental at all. And I realized that any moment can be fodder for poetry – because any moment can be a sacrament, a place where God’s grace meets us and transforms what we mistakenly thought was nothing special, revealing the sacred invisible that is always at the heart of the ordinary visible.

You see, I had confused the issue: I thought that the fact that poetry so often creates big emotions in us, so often churns up the life inside of us, meant that it necessarily had to come from big, significant, passionate, momentous moments. That’s what the classic poets wrote about, after all, and what we learn from the poetry in the Bible, in either the awed, ecstatic praise or the pleading hope of the Psalms, the deep-down despair of Lamentations, or the sensuous passion of the Song of Songs, from which this morning’s Hebrew Bible reading came – did you know the Bible had a whole book of erotic poetry in it (I picked a pretty tame passage for our reading)? All those grand, larger-than-life feelings!

But the secret to poetry is actually that it reveals those emotions, that deep resonance, in the most ordinary moments as well as in the big ones.

As my favorite Instagram poet, Irish-American Catholic stay-at-home mom-of-many Laura Kelly Fanucci, writes about being assigned to unglamorous kitchen duty on a mission trip when she would rather have been about the noble, do-gooder work of building houses: 

“When the Woman In Charge showed up,

tall as a tree and sharp as a hawk,

she sucked the self-righteous air out of the room.

‘We are making sandwiches today,’ 

she declared. Eying each one of us. 

‘Peanut butter. And jelly.’

‘You are not going to slap them together like you don’t care. 

You are going to make each sandwich like YOU would want to eat it.’

…sandwich-making changed me.

A first glimmer of God in the mundane

making life a little smoother

(or crunchier, choice matters)

for others

beloved of the divine.”

So I started writing poems again: poems about getting up too early with a toddler, about going for a swim, about watching trees in our backyard, about sitting with my neighbor on her porch while our children play. Nothing extraordinary – except, yes – everything extraordinary! Because everything becomes extraordinary when looked at through the lens of poetry.

Amazingly, the reverse is also true: the extraordinary, the unimaginable, the wildly-different-from-our-own-experience becomes, in the hands of the poet, knowable, understandable, imaginable, whether it’s war or the burden of an -ism other than yours, or what it’s like to grow up doing active shooter drills or to flee the only home you’ve ever known. Poetry expands our horizons and deepens our empathy, our capacity to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and get a glimpse of what their life is like, of what our shared human emotions feel like when applied to someone else’s circumstances and perspective. 

Somali-British poet Warsan Shire wrote at age 26 about the refugee experience,

“no one leaves home unless 

home is the mouth of a shark.” 

And suddenly – you get it. In two short lines you understand the fear, the reluctance, the sheer threat of violence, and you never again think of refugees as poor, rootless, burdensome people – you think of them as yourself

Poetry does one more thing, performs one other alchemy: it puts into words intangibles we have experienced but didn’t know how to speak about, and in so doing it validates, crystallizes, captures what we’ve been through in a way that is somehow grounding, connective – healing.

Queer Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong writes about his mother’s death:

When they zipped my mother in a body bag I whispered: Rose, get out of there.

Your plants are dying.

He’s writing about his mother, a unique person,  describing in images, showing not telling, a feeling so many of us have felt – the disbelief and unreality when a loved one dies. Maybe maybe your mother didn’t have a green thumb and killed all her plants long before long before she died; maybe you lost someone who wasn’t your mother; maybe you never saw the person you love zipped into a body bag – but still, you know what Ocean is writing about. And somehow seeing it written on a page, hearing it read aloud helps you feel more seen, less alone, more at home in your griefs and in your joys.

This weekend in particular, I’ve taken some comfort in the rage and in the hope that poetry can embody, as in Muscogee (Creek) poet and current poet laureate Joy Harjo’s 2019 poem “The Fight”:

“I grow tired of the heartache

Of every small and large war

Passed from generation

To generation.

But it is not in me to give up.

I was taught to give honor to the house of the warriors

Which cannot exist without the house of the peacemakers.”

– – –

I know I haven’t mentioned God, or even theology yet, and this is supposed to be a sermon about the theology of poetry! But honestly, each of these things – finding the sacred in the mundane, cultivating the ability to imagine ourselves in someone else’s story, tending the knowledge that we are not alone in our experiences, drawing strength and hope from others’ words – they are, to me, the Gospel. That is what God’s very essence is: the everyday permeated with the spiritual; and that is why God became incarnate, came and lived life with us as Jesus: so that we would know deep in our bones that God’s love is as powerful and true for each person on earth as it is for us, that we might love our neighbors as ourselves, and live, and love, and legislate accordingly; and it’s why God sent us the Holy Spirit: to feel connection instead of isolation, and because of that connection, to feel hope instead of only despair. That, to me, is the good news right there. 

That’s why I read poetry, and why I write it. To amplify my sense of God in the world, to be able to recognize each moment as full to the brim with wonder, to practice the muscles of empathy and compassion for people whose lives don’t seem much like mine, whose hopes and dreams may be different from mine but who now live in my head as beloved friends; to keep hope alive, even – especially – in the Good Fridays of our lives.

May we all, whether it’s through poetry or, as the letter to the Philippians says, through some other, true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, and excellent form of art or experience, find, live, and share that good news. Amen.

The benediction was Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem Gate A-4.