Poetry is Useless — Thank God

Brad Fruhauff is an amazing writer and the editor-in-chief of one of my favorite faith-based literary magazines, Relief Journal. I love the ways that writers like Brad and journals like Relief make space for an expansive kind of art written by complicated kinds of people. And, like he talks about here, a place to fall in love with language again. I’m so pleased to introduce him here today!

retreat

Open up Tania Runyan’s How to Read a Poem and you’ll read her confession that she doesn’t always like to read poetry. How refreshing to hear that from a poet. After all, poetry can be difficult, esoteric, off-putting, or even opaque, and we’re so trained to look for “the point” that it can be hard to justify an activity that seems to flaunt its uselessness. We know poetry is some kind of queen among arts, but we’ve only ever known it to be a drag to read. I tell my own students that I don’t blame them if they don’t like poetry or don’t look forward to a whole semester of it. But I also challenge them to give it another go, just to see if maybe their early impressions were wrong.

I myself wrote poetry in high school and college, but only for fun or seduction. I never really took it seriously as a discipline or a form of mental, emotional, or spiritual experience. It was the works of Charles Dickens that got me into poetry. Reading Dickens felt like discovering a fun uncle, someone who filled my imagination with wild characters and charming stories. He taught me how much fun language could be, how words do not only communicate but delight, amuse, and surprise. More importantly, he taught me that the world was much richer in meaning than I’d credited it. One only had to know how to look.

Poetry, for me, is one such way of looking at the world and seeing in it infinite riches and the grandeur of God (as other poets have put it). Sometimes those riches exist in the individual mind or in language itself. I often tell my students that poetry is (loosely) phenomenological, meaning it doesn’t necessarily say this is so as much as it says this seems so, to me, at this time. And if the ultimate truth is an infinite, personal God whom our finite minds cannot comprehend, then there is truth in saying something even provisionally.

This means that poetry isn’t “useless” in an absolute sense, just an instrumental sense. You can’t use poetry to open a jar or to change a law. But if truth is something more than wishing, then you may be able to “use” poetry to open a mind or change someone’s mood long enough to help them—or you—become a different, perhaps better, person.

Sometimes poetry is just fun, and that’s okay. Some of my own poems are inspired by a word or a sound and just kind of riff on an association. Gerard Manley Hopkins used to revel in word- and sound-play, so I feel some justification in this. The poem below first appeared in catapult. It was inspired both by a real experience and by the name we gave that experience.

Retreat

Funny when you think about it

A re-treat, I repeat-
ed, when you told me. You, having grown,
if I may say so  truly  etymological
yourself, though sensitive to puns,
beat me to the punch, and forbade me
to ask just what it was we had
to retreat from.

The Victorians called it “the Battle of Life”—
perhaps with better reason. But then, now,
if anything, it’s more true that life lies
under the manufacture (which is a dead dead
metaphor), between the microchips, and everywhere
from your ankles to your ears. One day I walked uptown
without my headphones and heard the birds
again—this, too, was a retreat. And a treat.

A “silent” retreat, we sometimes speak
of, by which we mean the kind where you can hear. Those birds outside,
our hostess clink-tinkling through the silver, someone in flip-
flops flip-flopping on the vinyl floor—we are surrounded!
And still the hardest thing
is to surrender.

 

Brad FruhauffBrad Fruhauff is Editor-in-Chief of Relief: A Christian Literary Expression and Assistant Professor of English at Trinity international University. His poetry and reviews have appeared in Rock & SlingEnglewood Review of Bookscatapult, and Books & Culture. He’s into Dickens, Dostoevksy, Kurosawa, and Donne, and he lives with his wife and two young sons in Evanston, IL.

3 thoughts on “Poetry is Useless — Thank God

  1. Brad, I owe you thanks not only for your lovely reflections here, but also for being one of the first places to publish my work in Relief several years ago. At that time, I so appreciated that you took the time to closely read my poems and offer input – your love for the specific, apt word was evident to me then as it is now in this poem, teasing out the many possibilities of “retreat.” Thank you for the reminder of “the life that lies / under the manufacture.”

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