As a holder of an English degree, I have read a few poems, now and again (less for my degree than one might expect; outside of the four Survey of American and British Literature courses we read pure poetry (i.e. not a play or part of a novel) in maybe two classes. My personal reading, on the other hand . . .). I have seen words on pages combined in new and old ways, archaic terms and neologism, gathered about to say ten thousand things. From this experience, I have determined there are too many poets writing today. But there aren’t enough poems.
Poetry is an old art form, perhaps the oldest form of oral literature (if we can use such a term without contradiction), particularly if we consider song. The poet, however, is young. Or, more specifically, the dedicated poet, the poet who is ‘different’ than other men, the poet who has a degree in poetry, that poet is young. And that poet is killing poetry.
If we look back through history the poet is a lord, a cleric, a shepherd, a shoemaker, an entertainer. Men and women did dedicate themselves to poetry, but as a rule it was on top of something else. Today we have created the poet who is separate, a different breed than the rest of us. Poetry belongs to some esoteric, gnostic field beyond the grasp of Everyman.
We can see the negative impact of this by simply looking at some modern presentations of the Psalms.
The Psalms are poems par excellence (though they may not be the best poetry in Scripture), but what we get today is often little more than crud. Bottom-of-the-boot-sucking crud. Not worth the paper its printed on.
Perhaps (or not perhaps) the most egregious offender is the Bible paraphrase The Message. While it is not meant to be a translation per se it still aims at bringing scripture to people. And what comes out of the Psalms bears no resemblance to the great Biblical poems. Whatever they are is not poetry. It is just ugly.
Why does poetry matter? Why does it matter that there are many people writing poetry, the engineer, the farmer, the governor? Poetry matters because it is theology. And theology is poetry.
Both poetry and theology have, in essence, the same goal: to communicate the incommunicable in words. The poet captures the sunset, a broken heart, an empty bed, a child’s first breath, in ways a photograph never could. And poetry goes, almost instinctively, toward the big things in life because they are the hard things, the things that have challenged man since he first looked at the stars.
There is a long, illustrious tradition of the theologian poet (Bl. John Paul II being among the more recent ones; his poetry is little known but fantastic) because the theologian is most intimately aware that he can never hope to use ordinary language in his pursuit.
The same is true of the average man. He is in a constant pursuit of God (known or unknown, visible or invisible) and his life is made of moments that can never be communicated in any ‘normal’ way. The poet, to be a good poet, needs to be in the heart of life, to feel its pulse, to undertake the draw of an imagine no one else had the chance to see.
True poetry, honest poetry, can only point, however obscurely, to the God and Father of all.
Justin Burgard has a degree in English but that has only caused him to write at the last minute. He is not a poet, but he writes poetry. “Hardwood Dancing” was an attempt to capture the phrase of one moment and all the invisible weight behind it.