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Soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage

04 May 2018

To mark the Church Times Festival of Poetry, Mark Oakley reflects on the natural empathy between poetry and faith

Keith Morris/Alamy

Billboard public art by Jeremy Deller in St Mary’s car park, Swansea city centre

Billboard public art by Jeremy Deller in St Mary’s car park, Swansea city centre

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 text-books 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.

IN SCRIPTURE, truth is expressed through poetry for the faithful. It is not just a better way of saying truth, but, rather, truth is found in this form. Truth for the person of faith is inseparable from the way it is spoken.

You might say that truth is far too important to be literalistic with. We know this when we fall in love and try to express how we feel. Literalism won’t do. We turn to every poetic device we can muster to try to ensure that our love is communicated and received. If poetry is the lan­guage of love, it must also be the language of faith, the language of the Church, and the language of God. The curse of literalism is that it often misses meaning and turns resonant truth to stone. It stops the flight of the moth of sacred poetry and pins it down so that it no longer dances near the divine flame but becomes just another bit of controlled and routine argument like so much else.

THE eucharist is the sacrament that feeds us by making us hungrier. 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, if you try to nail down the meaning of a poem, either it 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.

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 “being told some­thing”. The great poet Geoffrey Hill calls this poetry’s “democracy”. As readers of scripture we jump all too quickly 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. Even in a clash or dissonance of words, words 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 with our realities. The whole scriptural enterprise is that of trying to read the love between the lines.

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 sense of frustration that everything sounds a bit implausible — or very implausible. Religious faith is poetry plus, not science minus.

IF POETRY is the native language of faith, why are poetry and faith inseparable, though? What is it that makes them so understanding of each other, so encouraging of each other?

As a Christian, I believe that God has given us all a gift. It is our being. God asks for a gift in return — our becoming, who we become with our being. Because our gift back to God is lifelong and continually shifting and changing, it means that any language that is to be true to this spiritual adventure of being alive needs equally to resist closure, to protest at black-and-white conclusions and fixed meanings.

To be a language of human growth and formation, it needs to be a language of provocation, with tricks of the light, and complex, nuanced prompts that shift our terrain, that interrupt our snoring. Only this type of language will resemble the life of the soul in relationship and conversation with God, always pushing our boundaries further into fresh wisdom and new being.

The language that helps us to be­come, develop, and mature is rarely factually informative. It is, as Jesus showed in his own teaching, parabolic and pushy as it forbids our comprehension to close down. I doubt that if Jesus had written a clear manifesto, mission statement, or instructive textbook on the Kingdom of God we would still be engaging excitedly with his vision today.

His ceaselessly figurative preaching stops us and our hope becoming grounded. He never tells us what the Kingdom is, only what it is like. “A poem is never finished, only abandoned,” Paul Valéry noted.

Poetry is the language that most truly reflects the life of the soul.

This is an edited extract from The Splash of Words: Believing in poetry by Mark Oakley (Canterbury Press, £12.99).

Canon Oakley is appearing this weekend at the Church Times Festival of Poetry at Sarum College, Salisbury, together with Malcolm Guite, Rachel Mann, Michael Symmons Roberts, Pádraig Ó Tuama, and others. A few places are still available. See churchtimespoetry.hymnsam.co.uk.

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