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Lines written with care

Poetry is the native language of the person of faith, argues Mark Oakley


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Credit: ISTOCK

IF PROSE is a river, poetry is a fountain." The words of Michael Longley go some of the way in explaining why several works of poetry are found on a list of books most treasured by people of faith.

Christianity is too important to be literalistic about. From its very beginnings, it has been poetry in motion: the stories of Jesus; the crafting of the Evangelists; the imagery of Paul; the vision of John.

These all allusively build on the poetic artistry of the creation myths, and the poetic honesty of the psalms, as well as the protest poetry of the prophets.

The whole scriptural enterprise is that of trying to listen to life as a divine gift, and to be imaginative enough to read the love between the lines. Christian liturgy naturally began to shape itself into sacred and poetic drama.

Prose fills endless pages of lines in a relentless language that stops with a small dot, takes a breath, and then starts again. It travels with you, demanding little more than the occasional pause to have another thought.

Poetry, on the other hand, slowly places words around spaces, and is wary of punctuation that staples words to a page in the hope of finalising meaning and congratulating the intellect. Poetry asks of you a more creative reading, a willingness to allow confusion to be part of the joy, and the seriousness of somehow letting language form you, more than inform, you.

Poetry is wary of first impressions, quick clarity, and the easy answer. It resists closure and paraphrase, defies summary. Poetry runs ahead of us shouting "You can't catch me!" It does not have a single view in mind, but has multiple epiphanies in its sight, having discerned that truth is much richer in connectivity, and more riotously colourful than the prosaic world of prose would have you believe.

POETRY is therefore the native language of the person of faith. God cannot be caught: "Always before us and leaving as we arrive" (R. S. Thomas). The one whom we are to love most is the one whom we can never fully possess; so the language of faith is a language of increasing desire, ache, and search.

We know that in a fallen world nothing is less self-evident than the self. We need the poet to help us read ourselves, glimpsed in a stronger light, and we need poetry to deepen the mysteries of God more than resolve them. This poetic vocation can be approached only with a language that is not relevant to the noise of now, but resonant to our greater depth.

Poetry will always be healthily sceptical of our cheerful pulpit fluency when it comes to the divine reality, and will work harder to see everything, from the human heart to the humility of heaven, from fresh and dislocating angles. It will warn us of the curse of religious literalism, its immodest certainties setting flames of hate across so many parts of the world.

Poetry encourages our mind to think in metaphors. It teases our soul to be ready for the surprise of wonder and the gift of tears, the moment when we say "Yes, that's how it is, and I never quite knew it like that."

Poetry has both immense intimacy and intimate immensity, and, in its pledge to a more attentive perception, faith celebrates the sacramentality of poetic words as a beautiful and frightening gift of the God who is in this world as poetry is in the poem. A list of the best Christian books which had no volumes of poetry in it would be a sad affair.

The Revd Mark Oakley is one of the judges of 100 Christian books, and is Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral.

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