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Poems won’t be nailed down

16 September 2016

In the second of three extracts from his new book, Mark Oakley considers the range of meanings in poetry

I HAVE come to understand language as sacramental. This means that for people of Christian faith, the placing of our spaces, the metaphors, rhythms, cadences, and chosen vocabulary, is as vital to the transforming of the flat world of first impressions into the rich interconnectivity of the Kingdom of God as the placing of bread and wine on the table, and the pouring of water into the font.

We may be working very hard to ensure that our Christian communication explains and clarifies biblical and religious metaphors, giving one meaning to a biblical text, and, in doing so, maybe depriving them of their sacramental effect. Identify the point, it is assumed, and no more need be said.

But part of the point may well be that there is no single point, but a range of possibilities, to be brought into play as free and flowing as the font waters and as extravagant in meaning as the wedding vows — being allowed to filter into all the levels and invisible histories of those who listen.

The eucharist is the sacrament that feeds us by making us more hungry. It deepens our desire for God. Faith intensifies rather than satisfies our longing for God. Are our words to do the same, feeding by their refusal to be captured? In poetry, the poem never has the last word. To use an image of D. H. Lawrence (from “Morality and the Novel”), if you try to nail down the meaning of a poem, it either kills the poem, or the poem gets up and walks away with the nail.

Poetry reminds us that words are not just a medium for conveying something else, but are themselves an essential constituent in the experience. Thomas Howard describes this well:


'A poem is a thing. It is not a set of fancy trimmings to an otherwise obvious truth. Many readers suppose that that is exactly what poetry is: fancy trimmings. On the contrary, poetry is language brought to its most scorching, most succinct, most pellucid purity, like a Bunsen burner, where we want, not a bonfire, but a small prick of blue flame.'
(from Dove Descending: A journey into T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, Ignatius Press, 2006)


It is because of the open-ended images of poetic forms that their power is exercised. All imagery forces us beyond containment. Words carefully crafted induce us to move beyond their literal meaning towards thinking in quite a different way, and so, potentially, of a quite different order of reality.

Poetry allows a creative freedom in terms of “constructing meaning”, as opposed to be “being told something”. The great poet Geoffrey Hill calls this poetry’s “democracy”.

As readers of scripture, we all too quickly jump to a single meaning, whereas scripture derives much of its power from the fact that the images are multivalent; that is, they allow our imaginations the possibility of moving in more than one direction. Language must be richer than our prejudices, and even in a clash or dissonance of words, they can function sacramentally.

Our faith is nothing without metaphor, without analogy, without sacramental shape and sound. Scriptural poetry liberates words from a hardened possession of definition, in praise of a God beyond our imagining, and yet intimate to our realities. Let’s celebrate the fact!

The whole scriptural enterprise is that of trying to read the love between the lines. Nothing saddens me more than the thought of the poetic and radical richness, and the imaginative playfulness, of the Christian tradition being daily simmered down into a self-exonerating interpretation of selected parts, often narrowly centred on who’s supposedly in and who’s out in God’s eyes.

The Orkney poet Edwin Muir wrote about a form of Presbyterianism he had been brought up on:


The Word made flesh here is made word again
A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook.
See there King Calvin with his iron pen,
And God three angry letters in a book,
And there the logical hook
On which the Mystery is impaled and bent
Into an ideological argument.


(From “The Incarnate One” in The Penguin Book of Religious Verse, edited by R. S. Thomas, 1963)


We all need to watch ourselves, though. It is too easy, in a world of constant chat and comment, to develop low expectations of language; to see it purely as some helpful utensil to point to things, or clarify reason with.

If I suddenly appeared next to you now, and said in a prim BBC voice: “Here is the news,” you would probably sit up and be expectant to hear truth coming your way as facts — things that have happened over the past 24 hours with some added commentary that you will try to assess for accuracy.

If, though, I said to you instead, in more hushed tones: “Once upon a time,” you would probably be equally expectant, maybe more so, and ready to hear truth coming now in a different form, in narrative or poem; and your heart and mind would work at different levels together to draw meaning from this encounter. We are used to tuning in to truth in lots of ways but often forget it.

The questions here for those of us with Christian faith are: When I go into church, how are my ears tuned? When I sit down to study the scriptures, how then am I tuned in? When I take part in a liturgy, a Bible study, a retreat, how have I adjusted my hearing? Can I see the poetry that is called a psalm, a collect, a hymn, a eucharistic prayer? Can I hear the poetry of the worship song, the Bible reading, the sermon?

These are important questions because if we come ready to “hear the news”, but are actually being asked to come and live in a poem, there is a problematic category error (mythos being encountered as logos, to be a bit classical about it). And this will lead to a lot of frustration at everything sounding a bit implausible — or very implausible. Religious faith is poetry plus, not science minus.


This is an edited extract from The Splash of Words: Believing in poetry by Mark Oakley (Canterbury Press, £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70); 978-1-84825-468-8).

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