Faith is a Long Poem

tree rings

I spent my senior year of high school buying weird clothes from thrift shops, downloading secular music (for the first time ever) from Napster, and reading poetry.

It was the year after my Super Christian Boyfriend had called it quits for the third and final time, based, of course, on secret intel from God. I’d spent much of my junior year of high school trying to recover from the fallout of that first love, but by senior year, something had changed. I felt strong. I was wandering around Chicago in old-lady sweaters, blissed out on Jesus and on Coldplay.

That year, I took AP English with a brilliant, serious woman. It was her last year of teaching before retirement, and I think she felt the weight of it – the finality of it. She wasn’t just teaching us the classics – she was trying to teach us something about life.

We read Hamlet, and she spent a long stretch of time talking about one beautiful line of the play: Readiness is all. We read Crime and Punishment and talked about guilt, regret, and grace. She looked at us with keen eyes while she played a scratchy recording of T.S. Eliot reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and I was captivated by the lines, the images, the way she opened a door into the poem and let us wander around it.

Back before I’d met Super Christian Boyfriend, I’d loved poetry. I’d spent long afternoons rambling around an Emily Dickinson anthology, making stars in the margins. But then I’d gotten serious about my faith, and it had been all Bible verses and concordances, memorization and indoctrination.

In those years, stopped reading what I couldn’t easily understand in exchange for what I could. They were the years of the how-to’s, the directives, Paul’s firm and sturdy voice in one New Testament letter after another, reminding me how I should now live.

I was listening for Modern Prophets, waiting for a sign. I forgot that Prophet and Poet are most often all tangled up in the same beautiful, tortured soul.

But then, the next year, I turned seventeen and started my senior year of high school, and I began the tentative work of re-making myself. It was a year of song lyrics and early mornings at Lake Michigan and poem stanzas scribbled into handmade journals. I didn’t understand every line or image, but each poem cracked me open a little bit more. Faith began to feel mysterious and big again. The God I found in poetry seemed closer than the one who spoke to me through my Super Christian Ex-Boyfriend and that intense Teen Mania ministry he belonged to.

I went to church and youth group, but I found myself, strangely, closer to God in my English class than in the church sanctuary. On a scrap of paper, I wrote a few lines from T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday,” poem:

Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still

And I don’t have a life verse, really. The closest thing I have is a poem fragment, a couple of beautiful lines I found that year and that I continue breathe over and over – a prayer that I want God to make true in my life.

*

When I was a freshman in college, I took a poetry writing class, and I wasn’t the best at it. My brilliant professor was constantly returning my poems marked up with green pen. “Stop trying to cover so much ground,” she said to me once. “Poetry is about depth.”

I fell in love soon after that and I settled into the writing of creative nonfiction. I put the poetry away. I got married and busied myself with the work of life. Dishes and decorating. Figuring out the recipes in my Betty Crocker cookbook: Corn-Flake Crusted Chicken. Classic Italian Lasagna.

I forgot to pack poetry when we went to China that next year, and there was certainly none to be found in the sparse library in our overcrowded English Teaching Office. It hadn’t occurred to me that the absence of familiar words around me would hollow me out in like a reed. I tried to stabilize myself in the familiar words of the Bible, but I spent more and more afternoons zoned out at my desk, disappearing.

It didn’t occur to me that in China, I would need the poets. I would need their winged words. I would need them like air.

*

I’m thirty years old now. It’s another year of re-making myself.

It hasn’t really been that long since my own major faith crisis. Since I stopped hearing God and no how-to book could help me find his voice. That was the year that I pressed my ear against the wall of the wild world, and I moved to the drumbeat of my own desires and my lack of desire until the ground broke up under me and I found myself at rock bottom.

But now, something has changed, and I feel stronger. I’m too old to look cute in weird, thrift-shop-inspired outfits, but I’m wearing dresses again. The ambiguous ethics of my music-downloading teenage self have yielded to an adult sense responsibility. So I buy my new music now on iTunes. I put it into Playlists and listen while I clean the kitchen.

I’m part of the Blogosphere, where articles and criticism fly back and forth, chase each other in frantic circles. Open Letters and Responses. Criticism and critique and so much noise that my ears are constantly ringing. Everyone is so sure. Every question has a hundred editorial posts and eighty-five-million tweets.

It’s enough to make you crazy. I can feel it making me crazy.

I’ve been reading poetry again.

Much of it still evades me. I don’t know what this image means or that metaphor. And yet part of the beauty is that I don’t have to. I don’t have to understand it totally to be moved. To be changed. To be cracked open a little bit more, reminded that faith is more mysterious than I ever thought it could be.

*

It’s April, which means it’s National Poetry Month. I am not a poet, but I believe in poetry. I believe that it is part of the cure to a Christian Culture that is obsessed with finding the Right Answer. To winning the argument. To being LOUD and being HEARD and being IMPORTANT.

In the midst of all of our debate and anger, poetry sits there, unassuming and wise like a great oak tree. It’s circling and questioning, going deep instead of wide. And we need more deep. I need more deep.

This month, I’m going to be introducing you to some beautiful and brilliant poets of faith. I know it’s new. It’s not what you’re used to seeing here, but listen: this will help break us open. This will help us learn to let each other in. So please read their careful words. Offer comments and kindness as these poets show up and bring their gifts to us. Take a moment to care and not to care. A moment to sit still.

It’s National Poetry Month, so let’s celebrate! Buy a book that you probably won’t entirely understand – and find yourself changed by it.

68 thoughts on “Faith is a Long Poem

  1. Definitely looking forward to this. I relate to feeling closer to God in English class than in church sometimes. God has used William Carlos William’s lines:

    “Keep
    the briars out,
    they say.
    You cannot live
    and keep free of
    briars”

    to shape my faith in the past few years as much as anything. Looking forward to the poets you will introduce here.

  2. I agree that poetry can make you more sensitive to the outside world, however I can’t tell you how much poetry I found in the Bible, in nature, in my prayers to the Lord, in my kids’ smiles and kisses. Poetry surrounds us if we are careful enough to stop and look for it. Faith is however the knowledge of things we don’t see but we know they exist. It’s the spring that pushes us towards new limits we never thought we could reach. Faith is a gift given to all men, but just like muscles, it needs to be tested and excercised to become a strong foundation of our character and actions.

    1. “Poetry surrounds us” — yes! Like William Carlos Williams’s red wheel barrow and white chickens:
      “so much depends/upon/a red wheel/barrow
      glazed with rain/water/beside the white/chickens.”

      Addie: Sharing poetry is a great idea. I’m looking forward to these April posts.

  3. Amen, a lovely challenge for April. It’s funny you post this now, because I was just writing about how a significant part of my faith formation was the poetry from years of singing choral music. We all need rich language, mystery, depth.

      1. I was never a poetry buff but when I was at a really low point I wrote the odd verse or two, they were quite dark but I used that as an outlet to try and stop dwelling on the bad things.

  4. If I want to delve into poetry, what is a good starting place? Emily Dickinson? What did you miss in China? Do tell.

    1. My friend Dave wrote a post today with a link to a new poem every day of the month (and then some.) I’d start there. In China, I don’t think it was one particular poet that I missed — but rather that way that poets have of speaking into the void. I felt so much in the void then. Start with Dave’s list of poems. When you find one that you like in particular, see if they have a book out. Go from there!

  5. Oh, Addie, I’ve been travelling and, well, winter. I was so excited to see a post from you this morning. This year, more than any I can remember in recent years, I can feel SPRING coming. It’s coming. We moved deep into the Rockies and had such a winter, so much snow and cold. But somehow the winter wasn’t bad, it was a frosty cocoon of sorts. Our house with it’s little woodstove that isn’t REALLY big enough to warm the house, the Christmas lights I still have wrapped around the railing – it’s all been cozy but also like waiting.

    But now I can feel that spring is coming. And I’m not quite ready to completely hope, but it feels like it is coming both to the woods outside and to something on the inside. The deer’s backs were frosty this morning, but they were eating GRASS. And it’s visible every where. They’re not picking through the snow to find tiny bits of green. They were standing in a huge world of grass.

    My 4-year-old has woken up and is chattering away next to me, like she will until bedtime, and I’ve lost whatever thought prompted me to write this comment. Regardless, I think your poetry idea is lovely. I’ve never had a love affair with poetry, but I’m open to the springtimeiness of it.

    And it really was lovely to hear from you this morning!

    1. Thanks for the sweet update Janice. So glad that the winter has been healing for you in a way. Still waiting on spring here. My husband just told me there’s a blizzard coming Thursday night…so there’s that.

  6. What a wonderful idea, Addie! Just shared this glorious post with all my friends at TweetSpeak Poetry – if you don’t know that site, you need to. You’re speaking their love language here. Thanks so much for this – and I look forward to your selections. I’ve got quite the collection of faith poetry myself. Maybe it’s time to pull it out and revel.

    1. Definitely time to pull it out! It’s the month for it! And thanks for sending your friends over here. I’m so excited about the small group of poets I’ve gathered to share their stories. Can’t wait for people to meet them!

  7. Poetry has always been where I deposit my deepest emotions (even though I don’t consider it my true genre). I’ve always believed we don’t have to dissect and understand poetry, scripture, faith or life… just feel it and respond.

    I’ve joined friends in reading a poem a day this month and am searching out the ones that were important to me in years gone by. I look forward to seeing what you share with us.

    1. “I’ve always believed we don’t have to dissect and understand poetry, scripture, faith or life… just feel it and respond.” — I absolutely love this Carol. Thank you.

  8. Oh. Oh. Oh. This is about the most beautiful thing I’ve read in a while. It makes me want to applaud and sigh deep. I accepted a Tweetspeak Dare to read T.S. Eliot every day for a month–starting with Alfred… and I’m still lingering in those words from Ash Wednesday and soaking in the Four Quartets. I had Tania Runyan’s book, How to Read a Poem, right by my side. Have you read that? You’d like it, I think. This month TSP has issued a group dare for a poem a day. I’m reading Li-Young Lee and Mary Oliver. Here’s the link to that post. And I’ve slipping this one into the sidebar of my blog.

    https://www.tweetspeakpoetry.com/2014/03/26/poetry-dare-national-poetry-month/

    1. Thank you Sandra! And yes, Tania will be sharing about that book here on Thursday, which I’m so excited about. Love the idea of the TSP group dare. Very cool idea.

  9. Poetry is vital. It puts all of this STUFF into perspective and lets the soul breathe.

    Sometimes I think poetry is for the brain what yoga is for the body.

  10. I will look forward to it. I wonder what it is about our teen years? I have notebooks of written poetry from those days. It was the best way I found to sort out all those raging hormones 🙂

  11. I am so freakin’ excited! Diana Trautwein sent me over here, and I’m so grateful she did. Signed, a fellow Poetry Chick

    1. Diana, the poetry proselytizer, sent me here too. And, since Megan is my poetry buddy–the one who taught this gray-haired, middle-aged woman that poetry isn’t so scary after all–I thought I’d just wave hello in the space right below her.

      What is it, by the way, with super-Christian boyfriends getting private messages from God, anyway?

        1. So glad to have you both here. And I’m with you Nancy on those lousy Super-Christian Boyfriends! (That line made me laugh). Thank you both so much for joining us for this series! So so happy you’re here!

  12. Addie, you might like my most recent poem…

    “Lift up your head and laugh!”
    He spoke as a prophet.
    But what did he know those thirty odd years ago?
    What did he know of my future?
    I was still so young then
    With only a taste of raw and broken
    And visions of a whole life open before me
    Certainly not knowing quite what to expect
    But with dreams and plans nonetheless:
    Happily ever after with maybe
    A few little bumps along the way…
    Why not? And why not laugh?
    Life could be, would be, one grand adventure.

    It’s been a rather curious life indeed
    This grand adventure of mine.
    Now I shake my head and laugh
    At myself, at how I clung to so much
    That prickled and burned and then gave way.
    Yet mysteries and marvels
    Came to me when least expected
    Laughter mixed with tears and sighs
    And more than a few bumps along the way
    So much good and so much grief mingled in
    So much for dreams and plans!
    A worthwhile journey still,
    Just not how I thought it would be.

    It’s not just me, I know
    I watch the world walking by
    And I try to understand, wonder
    Where it is going: out and about
    And home again, home again
    A million silent stories walking by
    A million mingling stories of mourning and mirth.

    I have lived long and learned much
    And I find myself speaking to the young ones
    With their whole lives open before them
    The words of the timeless sage
    Thirty hundred years ago:
    “There is a time for everything…
    A time to weep and a time to laugh.”
    They have seen me weep, and I will weep again.
    But for now, I will lift up my head and laugh.

  13. Wonderful idea, Addie. There is a lot of truth in not having to know, isn’t there?

  14. This is wonderful! I still remember sitting in the college library during breaks from my senior thesis and reading Denise Levertov. Her poems filled me with emotion and goodness even when I didn’t understand them immediately. It’s a richness I won’t forget. I always made my students read Billy Collins’ “introduction to Poetry” before delving into poems; you reminded me of it when you talked about wandering around inside of poems. Thanks for this challenge to read more poetry! I can’t wait to read more of your posts on this!

    1. I’ve never read Denise but just added her to my ever-growing list. And my friend Tania Runyan has written an amazing book based on that Billy Collins poem and will be sharing a bit of it on Thursday!

  15. ‘I believe in poetry. I believe that it is part of the cure to a Christian Culture that is obsessed with finding the Right Answer. To winning the argument. To being LOUD and being HEARD and being IMPORTANT.’ Yes, yes, yes – I love this post. Thank you.

  16. “I’m not a poet, but I believe in poetry.” Me too. Throughout my teenage years I wrote secret poems, angry poems, love poems, all non-rhyming, non-metred, because I needed something in my life where I wasn’t keeping all the rules. I’m not sure they were very good. (And they were quite dark). But hey – I was a teenager.

    I’ve tried writing poetry again a couple of times since then and I find it hard. I’m more f a creative non-fiction gal, it seems (and I’ve been a Bible Teacher for so long before that that I feel like I’m scrambling a little to catch up with how a good writer should write).

    Anyway. Yes. Yes to the needing poetry and the whispers of uncertainty and prophecy and beauty. This was such a lovely post and looks like a fab series. (Have you come across Malcolm Guite? He writes Anglican-y sonnets, and I really like them, the discipline of the form and the sense of comfort as I read).

  17. I love this. I’m so not a poetry person. {I don’t understand it and I was never much for trying to dig deeply into literature, either…but I love reading and I love learning.} But everything you shared about it…kind of brings it to life. I love this:
    “I don’t have to understand it totally to be moved. To be changed. To be cracked open a little bit more, reminded that faith is more mysterious than I ever thought it could be.”

    I love this post. The funny thing is, before I read it I had started writing down some gratitudes (thanks to some inspired words of Ann Voskamp) and my description of the first spring flowers just kind of came out a little poetic. I wasn’t trying to write that way, but I just felt the words and later, the photographs.

    So I’m open to giving something new a try. 🙂

  18. This is so exciting!!!

    I love that you mentioned Napster in here.

    I wrote a poem about co-sleeping when my first daughter was an infant…typed it in to my iPhone in a desperate attempt to not lose myself and my brain (I don’t think that worked). Maybe I will include it on my never-ending posts about co-sleeping on my blog that I’m not writing much on!

    Do you speak French? I’d recommend Jacques Prevert. When I’m depressed, I read his stuff in the bathtub. So healing! He’s way more depressed than I ever could be.

  19. Wow. Yes. This is just what we need. Just finished ‘When we were on Fire’ last night (a book I ENTIRELY understood) and this post seems like a perfect postscript… and it seems like I am never going to stop saying “Me Too!” when you write Addie. But, yes, ready for the mystery and the depth of some poetry that evades and cures… x

  20. I LOVE this. I am a slow convert to poetry. I took English Lit at Uni but always preferred the prose classes. Now though, I crave poetry. I bought two knew volumes in the last month. I have journals full of poems I’ve found. Maybe because now I’m more familiar with doubt and grief and loss. Poetry seems to embrace the depth and the mystery and beautiful chaos of it all. So looking forward to what you bring us here.

  21. Addie, I’m so heartened to find you spurring this kind of conversation about REAL poetry (that is, poetry as a type of prayer and artistic endeavor, rather than as a trite container for devotional platitudes) amongst Christian people. I have always felt that Christians as “people of the book” SHOULD have the keenest ear for poetry, but in my church tradition growing up, I was often quite alone in my enjoyment of L’Engle, Tennyson, Sara Teasdale, T.S. Eliot and others. I’m so glad to find community here, now.

  22. I think, in Western Civilization, we jump off the premise that nothing is real unless science determines that it is real. This permeates our society tremendously in my opinion. I work as psychiatric nurse practitioner and despair is the wandering and unforgiving strand I encounter. Science cannot give us hope, or create that sense of wonder or awe, or caress us.
    Poetry conveys that which we cannot articulate, and we connect with the poet when we can see that the poet has articulated that which we could not.
    I wrote poetry as a teenager, depressing stuff it was. The drive to write appears to have disappeared when the depression left. I always thought that was interesting………..

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