What’s in a Poem? I held a poem in my hands today. His name is Jonah and he is the living and breathing, exquisite and precious, firstborn son of my firstborn daughter.
He is a poem because he was formed in mystery and has appeared, living and breathing in time and space, at once a whole person to see and touch in the flesh, and yet only a whisper, a hint of who he shall become, what manner of man in the spirit. Simultaneously he is, here in my hands, all he will ever be, while what he shall become, remains shrouded from knowing today.
His meaning is both apparent and unrevealed at this first holding. That is the way of a poem.
Poems are not unknown to him, however. His parents have been reading aloud to one another since marriage, and consequently to him since his conception. Tones, cadences, inflections of speech are familiar, though the meaning of language is just beginning.
When Jonah was two days old, I asked his father if they had been reading any poetry to him yet and he said, “I’m giving him a taste of Seamus Heaney this afternoon.” Jonah will grow up with a story-rich and poem-laced life because that is the atmosphere of his home.
We have not all been so blessed. I do not consider myself a knowledgeable, let alone expert, person on poetry. I was raised with Mother Goose and a smattering of poems in my school readers and have come to a deep love of poetry only late in life.
Let’s face it, we do not live in a culture that appreciates poetry. Lack of exposure leaves us ignorant and indifferent. At most, many acknowledge poetry as an eccentric pursuit for some special intellectual elites. Most people manage to get through life quite pleasantly without it.
But what if we want to move beyond this thinking and encourage our children to enjoy what we do not understand? I think it is the “understanding” that is possibly our stumbling block. We live in such a materialistic, practical, and achievement-focused culture that the value of, let alone necessity for, truth, beauty, and goodness escapes us. We worship facts. We study to pass tests and acquire careers and think that is living. In the process, we forget to touch and taste and savor the very life we have been given, the glorious gifts that are lavished on us on every side. One of those gifts is poetry.
Poetry penetrates where other literature does not and ministers to our spirits. It brings understanding of our world, our fellow man, and ourselves uniquely because it speaks directly from heart to heart. Our children need to have poetry in their ears and thoughts to feed their souls. It is one of the special ways God Himself speaks to us, as is apparent from the liberal supply of poetry in the Bible. Consider that mighty king, that brave slingshot-swinging shepherd boy was the ”sweet singer of Israel,” and, “a man after God’s own heart.” All the other poets have left gifts for us as well.
The diversity of poets and poetry is boundless, expressing so many perceptions and experiences of life common to us all, that there is certainly some poem, if not thousands, that could touch our minds, our feelings, our thoughts if we would just open and read.
A poem usually comes most alive for us when we read it aloud. The initial awkwardness of doing so will evaporate in time. The poem will begin to say to you what its creator was seeking to express, and possibly things he never had in mind. There is no “right” way to read it. The poem itself will teach you, reach you, make its home in you.
These children we are trying to nurture need poetry to fertilize their imaginations. Not till recently have I grasped how little boys especially connect with poetry, and that was because of a popular picture book in our library, The Duchess Bakes a Cake. At first I puzzled – duchess, 13 daughters, baking? – is it the knights and castles? When I heard them chanting chunks of the poem-story it dawned on me that boys, with their love of noise and mouth sounds, gravitate to the rhyme, the rhythm, and the repetition. This theory has been confirmed as I have made other poetical offerings available to them. Once given a taste, the hunger grows.
Poetry will take hold of us and our children, if we would also taste and see.
Featured Image by Paul Boekell