Winter 2004
Volume 4, Number 1

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David Wright

Poets worry. We do so mostly in a narcissistic and sinful sense. We feel anxious about language and about ourselves, insecure about whether what we’re doing matters to anyone other than us. Some of us come to believe the popular trope of the alienated artist, the misunderstood misanthrope parked at a coffee shop on the edge of society (and the margins of the church in particular). We give a poem to a friend or a relative, and they do not "get it." Their "hmmm" or "I’m sure this would be lovely, if I understood it" reaffirms for us that we labor alone, destined to be, always, freelance human beings.

Poet Scott Cairns calls such worry "a rite of passage through which every adolescent (and certainly every nascent artist) must pass. But the issue is just that: the artist really must pass through it" ("Artists, Alienation, and Getting on with It," re:generation quarterly 5.4, 1999, n.p.).

Part of my own attempt to tunnel through artistic adolescence has been the discovery of another sort of worry, a kind of attention-paying that begins for me to approach prayer. Now I do not believe, especially for a Christian poet, that writing directly equals prayer. I’ve had enough of art as transcendence and salvation. I do think, however, that many acts of faithful living can take on the shape of prayer.

The British poet W. H. Auden, in fact, claimed that the very essence of prayer was "to pay attention to something or someone other than oneself. Whenever a man so concentrates his attention—on a landscape, a poem, a geometrical problem, an idol, or the True God—that he completely forgets his own ego and desires, he is praying" (A Certain World, London, Faber, 306).

So we worry the arms of a well-worn chair or the seat of well-loved jeans, so busy living in them that we barely notice they have gone threadbare. We worry bread dough as we knead it. Some carry a pebble in their pockets, and when they feel anxious, their thumbs worry the stone thin until they must replace it with another.

What both kinds of worry have in common, and what attracts me to the term, is how they require imagination. To be anxious and to pray both require that we be able to project possibility beyond any given choice. Perhaps the most worried among us may be the most imaginative (though this is not to diminish the debilitating power of anxiety disorders).

What makes the difference is how our imaginations turn toward others in ways that provide them with grace. So here, like a handful of stones or beads, I offer a few of my own peculiar worries about being a poet.

(1) I worry about the ponderous seriousness of a word like poet. Does the world really need more pretense masquerading as wisdom? A poem shouldn’t have a point, a nugget of wisdom, another sermon, a fortune cookie’s worth of advice. Though lucky numbers might be useful.

(2) I worry that I will write lovely, accessible poems that qualify more as decoration than art. The two Mennonites in drag, the lovely Illinois sunset—does the world really need more entertainment, more stuff that matches the couch? Instead, the comfortable need, perhaps, to be reminded of our wounds, the wounds of others. Robert Frost says that "The poet rubs his fingers along old wounds, makes them burn" (quoted in Jay Parini, Robert Frost: A Life, New York: Holt, 1999, 69).

(3) I worry that I unnecessarily limit language, the very medium and means of the art of poetry, by pinning it down instead of opening it up. To be faithful to how words can mean and affect us, a poet must hear in her language the play of precision and imprecision. Each word denotes and connotes. No word does either task completely, and poetry draws special attention to the multiple ways that words work. We must recognize, to paraphrase the Russian critic Mikhail Bahktin, that words carry with them the places they have been.

A poem’s line breaks, allusions, puns, images, and figures of speech all draw attention to the ways words are laden with meanings and histories. Christians in particular might recognize this imprecision and suggestive power of language as a gift. Each time we use language to indicate something in particular, we also suggest something else. If not, then we could not continue to make poetry (or to pray).

The biblical writers did not confine God to one word because they could not. They offered instead so many ways of opening our imaginations to mystery—father, mother hen, wind, storm, whisper, shepherd, wrestler, and (yes) rock. One of poetry’s functions, then, for the poet and the church, could be to chastise us about how eager we are to denote God, to pin the Creator down, and extract a single, divine instruction. How wonderful to learn, as we struggle to say and hear anything, that language is not enough, and that God slips through our greedy hands (and language) to teach us we are not God.

Denise Levertov’s poem "Immersion" suggests that "God is surely patiently trying to immerse us in a different language, / events of grace, horrifying scrolls of history." In other words, one of the things God shows us through language is how much mystery it cannot contain.

Levertov concludes her poem this way: "God’s abstention is only from human dialects. The holy voice / utters its woe and glory in myriad musics, in signs and portents. / Our own words are for us to speak, a way to ask and to answer" (This Great Unknowing: Last Poems, New Directions, 1999, 53).

That’s a use for poetry, then, to go ahead and speak, to ask, to uncover inadequate answers, not to merely reaffirm what we already know.

(4) I worry when a poem becomes an end. In truth, the world and the poem inhabit one another. Without a world teeming with objects, experiences, people and communities who sustain or damage us, we have nothing to write with or about. Of course the poem is not the world. The reading and writing of a poem are themselves sensuous, intellectual, and (if the poem works) unexpected experiences, all created in language.

However, for most readers, poems do not serve only literary ends. Poems offer themselves to us as parts of our other encounters. A poem about prayer may approach praying, but it does not replace giving our own attentions to the Divine. A few stanzas that sing about making love cannot stand in for the foolish wonder of a few stolen moments with a spouse. The poem may dwell in the space of the bed (or in our minds) along with our lover, but it does not kiss or speak or fail in the same ways as we please or worry or fail our beloved.

The challenge is to insinuate the connections between the poem and the places of everyday living, giving readers a way to travel between the two kinds of experience. Carolyn Forché describes poetry as a place "where the language discovers itself and where language enables us to experience experience. Poetry is what maintains our capacity for contemplation and difficulty. Poetry is where that contemplation and difficulty converses with itself" ("Assembling Community: A Conversation with Carolyn Forché," The Nimble Spirit Review,

So, however poignant or difficult an experience may be, it is not a poem. I make this mistake often, merely narrating some "true" happening, forgetting that the language of a piece must invite the reader into a place that exists outside of my own feeling or insight into an event. Sure, something may have occurred, but the poem must make something else happen and must invite, not coerce, another man or woman into a new instance created by what the poem’s language suggests.

What this implies, for me, is that I must learn to respect the integrity of an experience as well as the integrity of a poem, not mistaking one for the other, but recognizing their invocations of one another. Nothing happens to be "mined" for its usefulness to a bit of writing, just as no poem can be reduced to its mimetic function. Poetry can order experience as much as it is shaped by it. Yet poems are about the play of language against itself, not about pure fidelity to experience. It’s in this play and work of language and experience where, sometimes, joy and insight emerge.

(5) I write poems best when I understand how little they matter. Paraphrasing Martin Luther, my friend Kirby Olson said to me that an "artist is about as important to salvation as a farmer or a mechanic." And the best way to remember this is to know some farmers and mechanics (and doctors, teachers, bus drivers, musicians, bricklayers, waitresses, web designers, accountants, social workers, preachers, secretaries, and so forth).

If I focus only (or mostly) on writing and neglect my work as a teacher or parent, or forget to be a spouse, or absent myself from the other folks who are part of my church community, I run the risk of thinking that what I do matters more than it does.

However, when I actually belong to my various communities, rather than merely passing through them, I come to see that poems constitute but one of the many ways of fully engaging God’s creation. I come to understand that any task—making dinner, making poems, making love—can matter. What we do matters best when it reminds us of our status as one of God’s mere and beloved creatures, and when it connects us to other of those creatures.

(6) While they matter no more than other acts of work and worship, I can’t help but hope that a poem I write might succeed in ways I have not predicted. We make works of art, in part, to converse with a whole history of other writers and readers who have come before us and who, we hope, will listen to us when we’ve stopped writing and speaking.

In my case, I want poetry to matter more to the faith community, and I can’t figure out for the life of me how to make that happen. Though it’s made from the very stuff of daily speech, and though poetry works in part through a mingling of music and felt truth, its value still eludes many thoughtful people of faith. I suspect there’s little I can do about this.

Yet I continue to read and write poems, hovering under the recognition that centuries worth of poets, including the prophets and psalmists and hymn writers, worried their particular combinations of words into forms that afflict and surprise me in necessary ways. Among Christian poets, works by Levertov, Cairns, Mark Jarman, Kelly Cherry, Jeff Gundy, Ann Hostelter, Jean Janzen, Julia Kasdorf, and so many others provide me with hope and with models of how I might, indeed, worry my way into something like grace.

—David Wright teaches writing and literature at Wheaton (Ill.) College, During spring 2003, Dreamseeker Books (Telford, Pa., an imprint of Cascadia Publishing House) released his second collection of poems, A Liturgy for Stones. This article comes from a work in progress, Fidelities: Essays on Faith and Writing.


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