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Seeking a transformative soul-language

09 September 2016

In the first of three extracts from his new book, Mark Oakley considers the wisdom of poetry

Creative reader: Mark Oakley

Creative reader: Mark Oakley

THERE is a sense that when we start talking about poems, we are talking about a soul-language, a way of crafting words which distils our experience into what feels like a purer truth.

This sense of distillation, even cleansing, that poems have about them also pushes on our contours. They bring epiphany, or surprise moments of recognition, which then ask us to re-imagine the world in some fresh way, our comprehension deepened. Creativity is contagious.

The phrase “splash of words” is a good description of poetry. When you read a poem, there is an initial splash, like a pebble thrown into a lake. The words disturb your surface, and have their impact. Then, as the poem begins to do its work, the ripples of meaning head out towards your shore, often slowly but relentlessly, and you realise that these words are shifting your perceptions, and consequently even transforming who you are and how you understand.

”When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be,” noted the Chinese poet Lao Tze. A poem’s ultimate meaning is found not in the words, but in us; in our response to the words.

When you encounter this splash of words, you understand that ultimately poetry is not about factual information, but human formation. Like water, language goes stagnant if it doesn’t move. The poet’s task is to wage a war against cliché, so that words take their rightful place in the development and growth of human lives and the world itself.


POETRY is not an easy running river. It is not a quick read. It is a fountain, a source from which meaning can be slowly, patiently drawn.

We have all heard of “creative writing”, but poetry demands of us a creative reading. Poetry is a language that listens. There is no quick clarity; there are no seductive easy answers. There is no one meaning to be had, either; no conclusive evidence to give to the court.

Get a group of people together talking about a poem, and you’ll discover this very quickly. As you read a poem, you have to persevere for the meanings that begin to work their way out, resonating and demanding in equal measure.

So when you buy a poetry book, you aren’t getting many words for your money, but you are getting more meaning for your money. You can’t paraphrase poetry, though you can try to outline its themes and effects.

Poems communicate somewhere deep within us before they are intellectually or emotionally understood by us. That is why they are potentially transformative, and are used in such a variety of places and times: from work to help rehabilitate young offenders, to giving voice to unspoken grief at a funeral; from helping children see their world better, to, similarly, stirring up adults to protest for change.

Poetry is the more human voice. The meanings of a poem are always ahead of us, naughtily calling back “Catch us if you can” — and we follow because it feels we are being taken somewhere new and important.

The 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson wrote:


A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day.


I am writing for those who are committed to a religious faith, or who are intrigued by the possibility of such a commitment, in the hope that it will remind us of our poetic homeland.

Poetry is the person of faith’s native language. We live in a Google world of facts on tap, quick information at the click of a mouse. There are some who argue that religious faith should equally give immediate and ready answers to every possible question, and that religions have scriptures to be used as textbooks to find out what those answers are.

This approach fails to recognise, of course, that every text is filtered through the eyes of the reader. Also, as the novelist Marilynne Robinson has written in her novel Gilead: “Nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defence,” and we all know how biblical bullets can be fired in debates to score against the enemy.

Such weaponised reading will never nurture souls. This “simple-answer” approach to faith fails to recognise something else — that, from its very beginnings, the human intuition that the world is a gift, that it has a divine origin, and that life and love come from this same source was explored and shared poetically. No other language could possibly begin to do justice to these inspiriting, daunting mysteries of reality itself.

Ever since priests and people of the world’s religions have been aware of the numinous, they have opened their arms to invoke the divine name, and have done so with poetry pouring from their lips, and dramatised into movement.

It is also striking that the holy texts of the world’s religions, believed by many to be revealed by God as holy wisdom from beyond the human mind, are often found in poetic form. It is acknowledged by the world’s religions that God is very obviously a poet.


. . .

God is the poetry caught in any religion,
caught, not imprisoned.


Les Murray



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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