“I believe that poetry is an action, ephemeral or solemn, in which there enter as equal partners solitude and solidarity, emotion and action, the nearness to oneself, the nearness to mankind, and to the secret manifestation of nature,” said Pablo Neruda in his 1971 Nobel Prize speech. If we take this to heart, then poetry is a space in which we can find ourselves while simultaneously connecting with others and the world around us. However, not all those who encounter poetry share this perspective.
Written on the Human Heart
We can divide those who encounter poetry into two camps: those who love it and those who do not. Unsurprisingly, this division is not new. Even Plato and Aristotle had two opposing views of poetry. While Plato saw poetry as the mother of lies, Aristotle considered it an art form that imitates and focuses on man’s actions. If this has been a point of contention for thousands of years, then poetry cannot be dismissed as inconsequential to our human formation.
As my friend pointed out, “Our entire humanity is marked by poetry. It’s written on the human heart. Whether you know it or not, whether you like it or not, it’s present in everything we do. Poetry is art in written form.” From Gilgamesh to the Odyssey, from Shakespeare’s sonnets to Neruda’s works, poetry marks important times in history and the development of humanity. Even before the written word came into existence, poetry allowed us to pass down stories from one person to the next and from one generation to another.
We must ask ourselves, “Does learning to read and understand poetry matter?” Yes, it does. It matters in all aspects of life, especially our faith. When we learn to read and analyze poetry, we learn the skills we need to find its deeper meaning. These skills become a gateway to deepening our understanding of scripture. As with poetry, the Bible has more to say than a first reading could ever reveal. In a sense, we need to know how to read between the lines when reading certain parts of scripture, and reading poetry strengthens this skill.
A Resting Place
Reading poetry boosts memory, encourages self-reflection, and makes us overall more intelligent. This happens in part because unlike with prose, reading poetry requires our brains to make different connections between the sound of words, their meaning, and the emotions they convey. Poetry is a workout for the brain. The more we expose ourselves to it, the more “it forces us to think differently and to consider things outside of the corner of our minds” (Foster). To understand a poem, we often have to read the poem more than once to capture its various layers of meaning. We must go beyond our initial understanding. Poetry exposes us to the skill of looking at a situation from different perspectives.
Poetry also causes us to pause and reflect. Another friend shared that poetry allows him to “get out of the mode of doing and instead into just being… [to] pause and slow down and appreciate the wonder of being alive.” Poetry is a resting place. You cannot rush through the reading of poetry, or you will miss the hidden treasure between each layer. Each time we read a poem, we engage in a layered analysis.
The first read through allows us to focus on what we do not understand, maybe vocabulary, phrasing, or images created by the words. Then, in a second reading, we can take notice of what questions arise as we read. Finally, in a third or even fourth reading of the poem, we start to interpret what the lines mean all together until we discover the message of the poem. In the end, we find another purpose of poetry: “to help understand that which is beautiful,” to offer “the reader another way to grasp Beauty,” as another wise friend once said.
The Poetry of Scripture
We can apply all of these reading skills to scripture because, like poetry, scripture presents different layers of meaning. The Catholic Church recognizes that there are two senses in which we read scripture: the literal and the spiritual. When we practice Lectio Divina, we are reading scripture in the spiritual sense. We read it not for analysis, but to let the Holy Spirit guide and instruct us through the Word. However, when we read it in its literal sense, we are focused on studying scripture and looking at its various aspects such as grammar and context.
Scripture has several layers of meaning ready for us to unearth, for the purpose of facilitating a conversation with God. In Scripture, we find a moment of rest unlike what we will ever encounter with any other written work. In a sense, we build on the natural to enter into the supernatural. When we apply the skills of connection that arise in reading poetry to scripture, verses that we never thought could be related suddenly reveal the beauty of God’s infinite good plan for our lives.
God himself, the author of scripture, speaks in poetry. Adam’s words “At last! Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” are poetic, and The Song of Songs is a love poem. From the beginning of Genesis to the last word of Revelation, the story of our salvation unfolds, and no word is accidental. As we apply the same skills from learning to read and understand poetry, we experience a deeper intimacy with God. Like poetry, scripture is a place of connection, rest, and peace.