Nearly eighty years ago, naturalist Henry Beston wrote these far-from-optimistic words to the Rev. Dr. J. Luther Neff: “I see no future for this form of civilization with its brutal egotism, its absence of poetic relation to the earth, and its failure to give the meagerest life religious significance” (60). When so much of this world’s life is looked at in terms of “resources” and “assets” to be utilized, Beston’s talk of “poetic relation” sounds not only utterly foreign but ludicrous at that.
What Beston was getting at is closely akin to what Evelyn Underhill wrote (around the same time) regarding God the Creator and those who live transfixed by wonder: “To stand alongside the generous Creative Love, maker of all things visible and invisible (including those we do not like) and see them with the eyes of the Artist-Lover is the secret of sanctity.” It comes as little surprise that she sets forth St. Francis as a prime example, but it comes as a big and likely disconcerting shock to many that she holds up next “that rapt and patient lover of all life, Charles Darwin, with his great, self-forgetful interest in the humblest and tiniest forms of life—not because they were useful to him, but for their own sakes—[who] fulfilled one part of our Christian duty far better than many Christians do” (14–15). What is needed, she contends, are “eyes cleansed by prayer and brought into focus by humility” so that we look at this natural world, including ourselves, not through the “blasphemous and absurd” lenses of economic self-interest but with the sense of awed admiration for the intricate beauty of creatureliness. We are called to view life poetically; to stand entranced by the profound mystery of existence instead of being misled by the skewed vision of utilitarianism.
Most Christians are familiar with Ephesians 2:10 (“For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works…”), but few are aware that the word most often translated as workmanship or craftsmanship is the source of our word poem—poiema. To grasp the significance of this demands that we get past the narrowly prescribed understanding of what is “poetic” and arrive at a broader, more expansive, perception. After all, everything truly deserving of the title “poetry” emerges as a response to the created—the “what is.” Helpful here are the words of Yeats’s father, “What can be explained is not poetry,” and the observation of J. M. Synge: “When men have lost their poetic feeling for ordinary life, and cannot write poetry of ordinary things, their exalted poetry is likely to lose its strength of exaltation…” (Sandburg, xxii and xxiv). It is in this vein that Dylan Thomas could assert that his poems, “with all their crudities, doubts and confusions, are written for the love of Man and in praise of God, and I’d be a damn’ fool if they weren’t” (1957).
To his statement about being crafted in Christ Jesus to do good works, St. Paul added that we are to do them in a way as repetitive and continuous as walking. That, it seems, is exactly where we find it the hardest to make a poetic connection to our lives and those teeming around us: in the tedium and ordinary of the everyday. Elsewhere, Paul wrote in defense of his and Timothy’s conduct, “we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God” (2 Corinthians 1:12). The word translated simplicity in the Greek infers mental honesty, singleness, freedom from pretense, and the lack of self-seeking—the very definition of sincerity as well. Increasingly insightful is the way both words’ Latin origins point to a seamless fluidity of integrity: simplicity meaning literally “without a fold”—well-woven—and sincerity, “without wax”—applied to pure honey and pottery free from cracks that were filled with wax and rubbed to hide the impairments (Shipley 91 and 324). Both refer to an evident “wholeness” which I equate with the “poetic” way a created existence is to be lived.
Rather than straight-jacketing us into rigid dogmatism, Christianity is about freeing us for lives of orthodoxy—literally “right praise”—which flow from the awareness that this is not solely a fallen but a redeemed Creation. Ultimately, the Christian life is not to be predictably rhymed verse or crude doggerel, it is to be a life continually transfixed and transformed by the Muse who is the Spirit of the Living God. How many Christians though can, with all honesty, find their lives in Christ resonant with the poetic? For most, I dare say, life consists of following the prescribed dictates of a moral code instead of reveling in the mystery of the Eternal One who is always present in our time and place, whether good or bad.
Superb examples of life so visibly entwined with the poetic act of creation come from two individuals about whose religious faith I am uncertain: Andy Goldsworthy and Philippe Petit. Goldsworthy, the artist who makes arrestingly stunning works directly from and in Nature, aims not for the “immortality” of the museum but for thoughtful reflections on fragility and impermanence that are themselves fragile and impermanent. Watching his craftsmanship poetically emerge and destruct in the film Rivers and Tides: Working with Time (2001) is a mindful encounter with the beauty, endurance, and transience of created existence. Petit, the subject of the film Man on Wire (2008), demonstrates how the seemingly trivial act of high-wire walking can be none other than breathtaking physical poetry. His forty-five minutes on a wire less than an inch thick, more than a quarter of a mile up in the air—between the newly completed World Trade Center’s twin-towers—in 1974, take on even more meaning after those buildings have crumbled. On the heels of Petit’s own phenomenally disciplined accomplishment, however, came the undisciplined self-indulgence which led to the destruction of relationships with the very people who helped him achieve that day’s crowning moment.
Goldsworthy and Petit are worthy of consideration, for along with reaching T. S. Eliot’s famed “still point of the turning world,” they remind us that the poetic in life arrives at the heart of creativity even as it also, inevitably, succumbs to the limitations inherent within it. Living poetically is not about naïve ignorance but mindful awareness. It is about ecstasy that truly entails standing outside of ourselves to see ourselves more clearly. It is about seeing that worship is not to be an escape from life in the world but the embrace of it. It is about seeing that resurrection comes only after death and burial. And it is about knowing in the face of it all, as James Stephens reminded, that even then “the poet makes grief beautiful.”
Joel Kurz is pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Warrensburg, Missouri.
Beston, Henry. The Best of Beston, Elizabeth Coatsworth, ed. Boston: Nonpareil Books, 2000.
Sandburg, Carl. Complete Poems. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1950.
Shipley, Joseph. Dictionary of Word Origins. New York: Philosophical Library, 1955.
Thomas, Dylan. Collected Poems. New York: New Directions, 1957.
Underhill, Evelyn. The School of Charity. Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 1991.