Beliefs Culture Ethics Jonathan Merritt: On Faith and Culture Opinion

How to access the spiritual power of poetry–even if you “just don’t get it”

Author and professor Christian Wiman believes that poetry has significant spiritual power in addition to aesthetic value. He shares how people of faith can begin accessing the spiritual power of poetry even if at first they "just don't get it." - Image courtesy of Christian Wiman

New York Times columnist David Brooks called Christian Wiman’s “My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer” the “best modern book on belief.” It’s high praise, and from one who was enraptured by the book, it is also well-deserved esteem.

But Christian Wiman, a professor at Yale Divinity School, was a poet long before he tried his hand at prose. He believes that poetry has significant spiritual power in addition to aesthetic value. So I decided to sit down with him and discuss how people of faith can begin accessing the spiritual power of poetry even if, at first, they “just don’t get it.”

RNS: Many modern people struggle to find spiritual significance in poetry. To them, it is just another medium. What do you think the spiritual value of poetry is?

CW: We can only know God metaphorically. The Bible is quite clear about that, and the Bible is filled with metaphors. It makes sense then that you would turn to the place where metaphor is used most intensely and well: poems. Great poems, even when they are not about religious experience, are in a way, about religious experience. They give us some access to the other, to the spiritual life.

W.H. Auden famously said he didn’t think there was such a thing as an atheist poet. I have friends who disagree, but he thought the act of writing a poem was a religious act. Because you were allowing something so radically other into your imagination. And it could change you.

RNS: What do you say to people who say, “I just don’t get poetry”?

CW: Someone last night told me that they just didn’t get the poems in The New Yorker. I said, “Well, stop reading them.” A poem lures me in with some sound or a striking image. But if I’ve read four or five lines and I don’t find anything that draws me in, I’ll move on to something else. The advice I give is to allow yourself to read a lot of poems and see if it moves you. If it doesn’t, move on. I don’t think that poetry is this thing that every person has to read. But a lot of very intelligent people have been put off from poetry because of the way they’ve been taught it like a puzzle of meaning to be discovered. And you’ll do better if you just listen to the sounds.

RNS: What can poetry do that prose can’t do or can’t do as well?

CW: It mostly has to do with form and music and the way it can make this abstract shape in the air. But there are a few novelists who can also manage that intensity. I just read Marilynne Robinson’s “Housekeeping,” and there is prose in there that can do anything poetry can do.

RNS: If someone wanted to start reading poetry for spiritual value, where might they start?

CW: I would say, “Don’t start reading poetry for spiritual value. Read it instead for artistic value.” Look for what you like and the spiritual part will come later. If you respond aesthetically to something, you’ll figure out the spiritual part. I could give you names, but the answer is to go to poetry and see if it delights you. Don’t look for instruction.

Abyss1RNS: How important do you think poetry is to ministry?

CW: It should be much more important than people realize. I don’t hear too many sermons where people are using poems. I don’t really see how you can read the Bible without understanding poetry. A lot of it is in poetry. I just find that it can be such a great way of distilling a message and enacting an experience where people can actually feel what you’re feeling. It’s also incredibly important for ministers own spiritual lives. You meet a lot of burned out ministers, and poetry can be a way of sustaining faith, even when the subject matter is not at all about faith. Because it is a connection to volatile, anarchical experience, which is what drove all of us into faith in the first place.

RNS: How do you hope people of faith incorporate poetry into their own lives?     

CW: I’m teaching graduate students, all of whom are going to be ministers, how to do it and giving them a big volume of poetry to use in various circumstances. I’ve also been traveling around the last few years and telling people how to do this. There is real resistance some times when you start talking about how to get poetry into the life of the church.

RNS: What’s your favorite poem?

CW: I could never pick a favorite poem. But I just read “Directive,” a late poem by Robert Frost. He didn’t write many good poems late in life, but this one was. It begins,

Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.

It goes all the way into this lost place and discovers a broken drinking goblet like the grail and says,

Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

It is a great image of absolute loss being absolutely answered at the end.

RNS: Of all the poems you’ve written, which is one of the spiritually profound?

CW: I wrote one a few years ago, which is very much a response to a late poem by Philip Larkin. My poem in response was about being on a train, a poem in which everyone is angry, the way commutes can be into Chicago. There was a fantail of sparks, a peacock tail, and everyone looked at it at the same time:

but at least some brief
and no doubt illusionary belief
that in one surge of brain
we were all seeing
one thing:
a lone unearned loveliness
struck from an iron pain.

It became an image of absolute death and resurrection at the same time. Jurgen Moltmann says that all theology has to be conducted in earshot of the dying Christ. That poem is an attempt to do that.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

10 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • You can really get to know God, his personality and his purposes for mankind on earth, through a diligent study of and meditation on his Word, the Bible.

    You can then ascertain how he dealt with various humans and nations in the past and showed true justice, compassion, love, mercy (such as the Ninevites in the days of Jonah), and forgiveness of grave sins (such as David with Bathsheba and the resulting death of her husband).

    After all this, one can have and maintain a close relationship with the Creator of the universe and everything in it (including us), not metaphorically but realistically, without any doubts, along with much joy, happiness and peace of mind now.

    And because of that, one can also be so appreciative and grateful to God that he will soon make all things right for meek mankind because of his intense love for us, even in our imperfect and sinful state (John 3:16; Revelation 21:1-4), which imperfection he will do away with.

  • I do not believe in any particular religion, but I believe in God. And I Think that he is very right.

  • Reza Iranpor-It’s great that you believe in God but the Bible is clear there
    is only one God and that is Jesus/the God of the Bible. Psalm 22:16-18
    and also Isaiah 53:3-7 are both specific about Jesus. Jesus among other
    gods by Ravi Zacharias is a good book to read/check out also. God bless.

  • Poetry can be really great but it doesn’t matter how “spiritual” people
    are if they are not Biblical they are still lost/headed for hell. We must
    be Biblical/stick to what the Bible says which is Jesus is the Messiah
    and the only way to heaven/Jesus is God/part of the Trinity/Godhead!

    If you say you love Jesus then don’t follow the Bible/religion no Truth is in
    you! It is not enough to believe in Jesus. We all must Repent/follow Him!

    So many people today don’t stick to what the Bible says and we wonder
    why this world has gone astray. Bad mouthin religion backfired and now
    look what has happened to the world casue we didn’t listen to what God
    said and stick to the Bible. We now see the results all around the world
    because of not following Jesus/the Bible. 1 Corinthians 6:9-12 lists all of
    the people who won’t inherit the kingdom of heaven unless they Repent
    so all sin is wrong not just abortion or homosexuals. We all must Repent!

  • Jesus himself acknowledged there is only one true God, his Father, and that he is the son of God:

    “…Father, the hour has come. Glorify YOUR SON so that your son may glorify you. This means everlasting life, their coming to know YOU, the ONLY TRUE GOD, and the one you sent, Jesus Christ.” (John 17:1,3)

    So we need to take in knowledge of both God, and his son, Jesus, to get everlasting life.

  • alice B.- 1 Corinthians 5 says we are to rebuke someone that claims
    to be a Christian yet are living in sin so we are to judge between the
    right and wrong of a sin but not stand in the judgment seat of Christ
    or judge in a hypocritical way so that is why we all need to Repent
    but I do really appreciate all of your feedback and input. Preachin
    against sin is not judging and it really is doing the person a favor by
    telling them they are going to hell so warning a person is really just
    someone trying to help them so they don’t go to hell. Bible says to
    Repent and believe the Gospel to be saved! We all must Repent!

ADVERTISEMENTs