What are poems for? Is there any real point in writing them? And what about us, the folks who are expected to buy all that bilge—is it quite necessary that we actually read all that bleeping poetry?
Exercising his customary acuity, C.S. Lewis tells us that poems exist to remind us that water is wet and grass is green. In other words, they exist for the sake of telling us the truth. Tricked out, to be sure, in imagery and idiom of the most breath-catching beauty. “To purify the dialect of the tribe,” is how T.S. Eliot, the high priest of modernist poetry, famously put it in Four Quartets, a pronouncement amply sustained by the austere and luminous beauty of his own poetry.
Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us
To purify the dialect of the tribe
And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight,
Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your liftetime’s effort.
However, in saying all that are we not also being told that it is good for water to be wet and grass to be green? Indeed, that it is not only good for these things to be, but that it is very good for anything to be? To be or not to be, is not finally a question mark. It is an affirmation, a datum. It means that despite every gravitational pull of human pessimism, there is never an advantage in choosing nothing. On what possible basis has blank extinction anything to offer? And so the maker of poems stands, resolutely, on the side of life, of being.
And were he ever to call green grass grey (“the only sin,” Chesterton tells us), what then? It would mean not only a lie—“a deliberate stupidity,” to quote Bernard Lonergan’s definition of sin—but a most unlovely lie as well. He would be sinning against the light, whose source is that Life which became the light of the world.
The true poet should find himself, therefore, in a state of constant amazement before the fact that things exist. “The impossible things that are,” to quote Chesterton at his most exultant. To which the only adequate response is sheer stunned gratitude for gifts one could never oneself give. How exactly does one go about making water wet, grass green? Or to take any page out of Hopkins—whose work is positively rhapsodic with “skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow,” alongside images of “rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim”—how does one create any of that? Hopkins may have richly festooned his poetry with such similes, but he surely did not fashion the world in which “Pied Beauty” is set. “Poems are made by fools like me,” Joyce Kilmer reminds us. “But only God can make a tree.” Only God, declares Hopkins, can account for such “dappled things” as “fresh-firecoal chestnut falls; finches’ wings;
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Of which of the higher primates can it be said that here is one clever enough to provide the raw material that prompted such lofty lyric flights? “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” begins Hopkins’ most prized poem. “It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; / It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil / Crushed.” In his exuberant inventory of the things of nature, in the delight he takes in seeing “the dearest freshness deep down things,” he does not begrudge God for the world he made.
Not even the hippopotamus may exist in the absence of a God who, from moment to moment, speaks his name. (And why, you may ask, does he do that for Mr. Hippo? Because, recalling Chesterton’s wonderful quip, he could not otherwise prove that he had a sense of humor.)
Emily Dickinson, that most exquisite poet of nineteenth century New England sensibility, once told a clergyman friend of hers that, “To live is so startling, it leaves but little room for other occupations.” It should be the chief occupation of the poet always to be startled.
In fact, less than a century later, the poet Cesare Pavese, made the same point in his own Italian way. “Poetry, that is, the cosmic dignity of the particular,” he began, “is born from the moments in which we lift up our heads and discover—with stupor—life!” It is the sheer thisness of the thing—the thing that in the very brightness of its being really does exist—that the poet is moved to celebrate. His lyric excitement may erupt into language so lovely that it succeeds even in enrapturing the readers of it. A thing so full of the energy of being is certain to survive triumphant all the nothingness that surrounds and threatens it.
Chesterton, in one of his poems, repeats the phrase “vile dust,” and so rising majestically to rebuke the grim-faced preacher who spoke the words, whose denigration of our dust G.K. will not abide, imagines the planet itself in protest, summoning the dead stone that lived beneath his feet to confront and confound the naysayer:
Come down out of your dusty shrine
The living dust to see,
The flowers that at your sermon’s end
Stand blazing silently.
Then seeing the sunshine that falls on every human head, Chesterton enjoins the preacher-man (“You, too, O cold of clay, / Eater of stones,” he calls him), to rejoice with all men who listen for the trumpet blast when, on the last day, the body of man remembers creation’s first day:
When God to all his paladins
By his own splendor swore
To make a fairer face than heaven,
Of dust and nothing more.
It is a wonderful sentiment, rendered heartbreakingly sad in these five unforgettable lines from George Herbert:
O that thou shoulds’t give dust a tongue
To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying!
All day long my heart was in my knee,
But no hearing from thee.
So, again, what is the point of a poem? And why, when poets take the trouble to write them, must we then try and read them? Because those truths that the poet is privileged to tell us—truths about which we have, many of us, already forgotten to ask—when arrayed in forms of the most radiant beauty and delight, positively enrich the reader by their sudden and piercing glimpse into the heart of things. It is a gift no less from God himself—a prevenient grace, if you will—the impact of which moves a man to prayer. “Poetry,” writes Jacques Maritain, “is spiritual nourishment. It does not satiate, it only makes a man more hungry, and that is its grandeur.” Of course, adds Maritain, we cannot expect of poetry that it will carry us off directly to God, providing “the super substantial nourishment of the soul.” Only God can give us God. And to think otherwise is to fall into that most deadly of errors, that of angelism, which is the sin, says Allen Tate, “of seeking to bypass the image in the illusory pursuit of pure essence.”
So long as we remain in the body, it cannot be done. In the meantime, however, we have recourse to poetry to help sharpen the appetite for God. Why else did he send Vergil to the side of Dante as he wandered about in the “Dark Wood of sin and error”? The poor man is so frightened and befuddled before setting out on his pilgrim journey that direct appeals simply will not work. Ah, but he is not deaf to the voice of poetry, which yet may bestir his sluggish soul to get on with the job.
The deepest hunger of all, we are told, is the hunger for heaven. No line of poetry, however sublime, can limn that horizon. But it can set the heart aflame with desire, awakening the primal sensation of a longing that nothing else in the world can assuage. “A poem,” writes Robert Frost,“begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness…. It finds the thought and the thought finds the words.” And it makes no sense, he adds elsewhere, “to think that the only way to tell if a poem is lasting is to wait and see if it lasts. The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal wound—that he will never get over it.”
If a Hallmark greeting card were to do that, one would have grounds for a lawsuit. But real poetry is not meant to be safe. It is meant to detonate in the mind like a stick of dynamite. We can never come to an end of our need for explosions of that sort.