For the January term, I had the privilege of teaching a poetry intensive course for the History of Ideas program at Bethlehem College & Seminary. As a class, we were prepared for the methodical and deliberate pace demanded by the poetry’s density. In our range of pieces from Caedmon to T.S. Eliot and a high concentration of poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, one thing seemed to surprise students again and again: poetry’s capacity to be concrete.
And yet the fact remains: by means of its concrete images, poetry is uniquely suited to make sense of abstractions like independence or its opposite, like grief and loss and fear and loneliness and suspicion and neglect and confusion, or like compassion, comfort, and hope. Such emotions and experiences are difficult to define precisely. Definitions by etymology can help, as can definitions by synonym (this concept is like that one) or negation (this concept is not like that). But they, like Aristotle’s four causes, are hard pressed to capture the essence of immaterial entities. Definitions can devolve, rather quickly, into the tone of a riddle: What is like “suspicion” but stronger in degree, beginning in memory and accelerating in the imagination? Furthermore, we often need a more densely descriptive vehicle to convey our experiences and emotions than merely definitions. Would we attempt to comfort an anxious friend by looking up “fear” according to Merriam Webster? Of course not.
Instead we find ourselves searching for concrete images that our friends’ memories might recognize or their imaginations might approximate. Narrative can help create such a context, since discursively recounting details from a particular point of view, even if fictional, helps us follow an interior logic and impression of a situation. But narrative’s smaller, stronger, fraternal twin, poetry may prove twice as powerful in such a moment because poetry’s particular strength lies in its ability to help its audience encounter the less familiar in terms of the more familiar.
And so, on the bridges of metaphor and personification, of hyperbole or periphrasis, the pilgrim makes progress in understanding the abstract, the complex, or, perhaps, the transcendent. Consider the prophet Ezekiel’s encounter with God: to describe the glory of God in terms someone else might understand, Ezekiel layers his similes:
The four creatures are like burning coals (1:13), like torches (1:13), like flashes of lightening (1:14), and Ezekiel describes the one on the throne like fire (1:27) and the brightness all around him like a rainbow (1:28).
In the same way, when George Herbert describes the complex nature of prayer, he stacks his metaphors without offering his reader the pause of a single conjunction, a device we call asyndeton, between his comparisons. Herbert invites us to understand prayer better by comparing it with “a banquet,” “exalted manna,” “a soul in paraphrase,” “the soul’s blood,” and “church-bells beyond the stars heard.” Each image, in turn, could easily grow to be an extended poetic meditation of its own.
For the course, students kept a quote book of particularly striking poetic images from the works we read. I wanted to close by sharing four brief gleanings with you from the Bethlehem College juniors and seniors:
William Langland’s description of love as “the plant of peace” intrigued various students, while others noted John Milton’s depicting the experience of death as “Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss, / With an individual kiss.” Some copied down Gerard Manley Hopkins’s describing the human “like fountain flow / From thy [God’s] hand out, swayed about / Mote-like in thy mighty glow” and still others enjoyed John Donne’s naming “reason” God’s “viceroy” in man.
Alongside the Bethlehem College undergraduates, I invite you in closing to consider how these lines convey meaning in their compact and concrete form. If love is plant-like, how might we expect it to act? What about the nature of death does Milton capture so profoundly by describing the kiss as individual? How might Donne’s and Hopkins’s descriptions help us better understand our relationship to God?
It is from the new insights born of laboring through these very sorts of questions that Bethlehem College & Seminary is in the process of preparing it first literary journal for in-house publication this spring as an opportunity for students to develop vibrant, winsome, articulate craftsmanship in the written and visual arts that convey truths about our Triune God and His world with fresh expressions to the edification of both the author and the reader.
May God be pleased to grow our capacity to know him and his world better through the powerful, poignant tool of poetry—both read and written.
Adjunct Professor of English
- Pray that our students and staff would dive back into academics after the break for the Pastor’s Conference.
- Pray that media from the Pastor’s Conference would continue to impact lives.
- Pray that God would continue to bring in funds for our Building Fund Match by March 31st.
- Pray for wisdom for our Admissions Committee as they review seminary applications.