Many of us find no use for poetry these days. It’s dense and alienating, the stuff of angst-ridden grad students lolling under trees. We may remember a frumpy English teacher waxing eloquent about Robert Frost’s roads diverging in the wood, but once we got our test back (correct multiple-choice answer: The road less traveled is better), poetry lost its relevance. We sense poems are supposed to be beautiful and meaningful, like paintings or sonatas, but we rarely feel like reading them. What happened? If poetry is intended to give us important answers to life, why is it so hard to approach?
I’ve struggled in similar ways with prayer. I know I need to do it, should do it, but I get so overwhelmed with the thought of approaching God that I find myself avoiding talking with Him at all. Sometimes I turn prayer into a safe transaction as a way to bypass the deeper experience of communion. Believers often view God as a vending machine: Put words in, get answers out. Prayer journals, apps, and other products encourage us to literally chart our prayers and record in corresponding columns how and when we receive our answers. While I agree that we should approach God boldly with our needs and celebrate His faithfulness, I also believe we may be missing the point of prayer.
If a relationship is about getting to know a person over time, why do we treat prayer like it’s a transaction?
Many believers today like to say Christianity is “not a religion but a relationship.” We seek to commune with Christ beyond rituals and church doors, allowing for a living, organic relationship that infuses all areas of our lives. But if a relationship is about getting to know a person over time, why do we treat prayer as a transaction of sorts? Why the constant attention on “answers”? Can you imagine how friends or spouses would feel if all we did was ask them to provide for our needs, or answer our questions, every time we sat down for a meal?
Our prayers should include requests for daily bread, yes. But they should also meditate on God’s name, power, and glory. Seek forgiveness for trespasses. Listen for the coming of His kingdom.
People often compare poetry to prayer, and for good reason. Both ask us not for intellect or expertise, but for our full attention. Yet just as prayer can be mistaken for a coin in a vending machine, poetry can be mistaken for a “meaning machine.” We want to read it and discern “what the poet is trying to say,” as if the writer is stumbling over herself in a tangled mess of lines, crying, “If only they would understand me. I just want to tell them I like cheese!” We ask students to formulate thesis statements that “answer” the poem. They take notes, sometimes with columns and charts.
I find the following poem by Billy Collins helpful in this conversation. It serves as the inspiration and organizing theme for my book How to Read a Poem:
Introduction to Poetry
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
When we approach a poem with humility, treating it as an artifact promising new insights or memories, we will find it speaks to our spirits.
I am aware of the irony implicit in attempting to parse out the final word of “what Collins is trying to say.” But I do know he offers some helpful advice. Reading, ruminating, and note taking are worthy practices. The problem lies in our attempt to control a poem, distilling it down to one “answer,” when the joy derives from turning it like a slide to the light, holding it to our ear for that bone-tingling buzz. When we approach a poem with humility, treating it as an artifact promising new insights or memories—our hands feeling for the switch—we will find it speaks to our spirits. We personalize it, not unlike our most earnest prayers.
Take Collins’s first stanza. Remember colored slides from the old days, before digital photography and PowerPoint? In order to get a good look at the 2x2-inch picture, you had to hold it to the light, turn it, and squint. Depending on the lighting, the angle, and perhaps even your state of mind, you would see images slightly differently. But the point was that you took your time. You looked.
I invite you to read this short poem by Sholeh Wolpé:
In the pause between spring rain
a woman pirouettes in a field.
Her skin is a thousand mirrors.
How might you hold this poem to the light? Where do you begin? The following tips can guide you as you enter the room of this mysterious little gem.
What do you see, hear, smell, taste, or touch when you read the poem through the first time? Write down all the senses as they appear in the poem.
Choose a key image or two. It could be the spring rain, field, pirouetting woman, or mirrors on the skin.
For each of the images, ask yourself these questions:
> What does the image remind me of? Think of your personal background, knowledge, and memories.
> How do I feel?
> How does this feeling fit in with my experience of the poem as a whole?
Take several minutes—or an hour or two—and see where your mind and emotions take you. Live in that rain-soaked field and get to know the woman spinning there. You may be surprised by what you find.
Recently, I was leading a discussion at our local library on how to read poetry. A handful of us, while focusing on a short stanza, filled up a board with images, associations, personal connections, and feelings. An hour went by, and we still had much to say. Did we corner the poem and force it to confess? Did it plunk out an answer like a bag of Doritos? No. We approached it as an almost sacred object, and as we got to know it better, it taught us something about ourselves. We wanted to spend more time in its presence.
Imagine spending an hour with God, telling (or writing) Him about your memories and feelings, the beauty of His world, and the pictures that swirl around in your head. Imagine asking Him questions without needing answers. Imagine His asking questions back. That sounds like prayer, doesn’t it? But it’s a lot like poetry, too. And if that’s not a personal relationship, I don’t know what is.
Billy Collins, “Introduction to Poetry” from The Apple That Astonished Paris. Copyright © 1988, 1996 by Billy Collins. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of the University of Arkansas Press, uapress.com.
Sholeh Wolpé, “Prelude” from Keeping Time With Blue Hyacinths. Copyright © 2013. Reprinted with permission of the poet.