An Invitation to Think about God and Poetry

Exploring God through Poetry – Glebe St. James United Church. Wednesday, May 30, 7-9.

What, exactly, does a poet do? Does she do anything, or is it rather that something happens to her? In what sense is she in control?

One of the very few arguments that I had with my roommate in first year university revolved around this question. He was a poet. I was not. He insisted that the best poetry could not be controlled or thought out – it was something that happened to you. That made me uncomfortable. I like to analyze things. I liked the definition of poetry as “the right word in the right place”. The perfect poem is a triumph of order – an extraordinary piece of thinking on the part of a master word-smith.

The wonderful thing about poetry is that both of us are right. For every great poem that has been edited 800 times, there is an equally great poem that was written in a drug-induced blur of feeling. For every sonnet that conforms perfectly to a complex and rational pattern, there is a post-modern poem that conforms to no pattern at all. Sometimes, the poet really is a word-smith, tinkering and toiling until the poem is exactly right. Other times, she is a medium, barely even touching the ideas as they flow off of her pen.

Neither of these experiences is limited to poetry. For me, the most obvious metaphor is sports. Sometimes I’m barely even involved. Instead, I’m “in the zone,” reacting to the game before I have time to even think about it. Other times, I’m practicing – trying to train my un-thinking body how to shoot a basket-ball in the smartest way possible. Sometimes I control my body. Sometimes my body controls me.

There is a lot to be said about this dichotomy – about the way that words sometimes enclose meaning, and you like a writer because it makes you feel like you understand exactly what he is saying. And sometimes meaning explodes out of words, and you like it because it makes you feel like you’ll never know what he means. About how sometimes music makes you think about your life, and sometimes it makes you forget about it. Living life is an exercise in being pulled into and out of things. There is the feeling of control, of knowing and succeeding and resting; and there is the feeling of a lack of control, of failing and trying and learning.

God, it seems to me, is in both of these feelings. God made a world that we could understand, a world that we could succeed in. But he also made a world in which we fail, in which we never get to stop trying. The first poem that I want to look at on Wednesday, “Christus Paradox,” makes this point beautifully. It’s not that God is a warrior, nor that he is a peacemaker, but that he is both. Activity and rest. Everlasting instant.

I’m not sure where we will go from there. Rilke’s “Autumn” focuses on an image of God as a stabilizer in the midst of a tumultuous and disordered modern world. The poem “God’s joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box” by the Sufi mystic Rumi shows how God is in all the little things – and beyond them. Wordsworth’s Prelude focuses on the paradox I have tried to bring out here, and (I would, somewhat controversially, argue) presents a vision of God as precisely that miraculous thing which holds both sides together.

Below I’ve linked to those four poems. I invite all of you to attend the event “Exploring God through Poetry” which I am leading at this Wednesday, May 30 at Glebe St. James United Church from 7 pm until 9 pm. My hope is that the event will be casual – I will briefly present my thoughts on each of the poems, and then moderate a free-flowing discussion. We might cover all four of the poems I list here, or only two or three, or maybe one or two that I haven’t mentioned. We might develop the themes I’ve outlined in this post, or we might go in entirely different directions.

I encourage you all to use this blog as a forum for discussing both the poems and the issues they raise. Please feel free to post your thoughts both before the event, to get the juices flowing, and especially after the event. It is almost impossible for everyone to share every insight they have in the course of a two-hour workshop. Rather than letting those insights go unexpressed, I encourage you to continue the conversation by posting them here.

Daniel Sherwin (Son of David)

Christus Paradox

You, Lord, are both Lamb and Shepherd.
You, Lord, are both prince and slave.
You, peacemaker and swordbringer
Of the way you took and gave.
You the everlasting instant;
You, whom we both scorn and crave.

Clothed in light upon the mountain,
Stripped of might upon the cross,
Shining in eternal glory,
Beggar’d by a soldier’s toss,
You, the everlasting instant;
You, who are both gift and cost.

You, who walk each day beside us,
Sit in power at God’s side.
You, who preach a way that’s narrow,
Have a love that reaches wide.
You, the everlasting instant;
You, who are our pilgrim guide.

Worthy is our earthly Jesus!
Worthy is our cosmic Christ!
Worthy your defeat and vict’ry.
Worthy still your peace and strife.
You, the everlasting instant;
You, who are our death and life.
Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.
You, who are our death and our life.

Sylvia Dunstan (1955-1993) graduated from Emmanuel College, University of Toronto, in 1980. She served as a United Church minister and women’s prison chaplain. She was working an a metrical Psalter when she died at age 38 of cancer.

Autumn by Rilke:

Unmarked Boxes by Rumi

God’s joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box,
from cell to cell. As rainwater, down into flower bed.
As roses, up from ground.
Now it looks like a plate of rice and fish,
now a cliff covered with vines,
now a horse being saddled.
It hides within these,
till one day it cracks them open

6 thoughts on “An Invitation to Think about God and Poetry

  1. Daniel, I love how you name the paradox of God, and the way it’s often expressed through poetry. It’s often the artist’s way — to simultaneously deal with two seemingly opposing forces at once. One of my favourite poems, Fern Hill, by Dylan Thomas, is a good example of this. He reflects on the wonder of childhood while at the same time hinting at the darkness that is in all life.

  2. Hi Daniel,
    Here’s a snippet of another poem by Rumi that speaks to the same paradox/dichotomy you describe:

    We are the mirror as well as the face in it.
    We are tasting the taste this minute
    of eternity. We are pain
    and what cures pain, both. We are
    the sweet cold water and the jar that pours.

    I’m looking forward to the event on Wednesday night!

    Jane Dawson

  3. In the first poem i thought it represents the love that God gave us, that we’re celebrating God’s love and rapture of life. When i read this poem i felt moved and touched. Poetry is really powerful, poetry can change the world, poetry is life. See you at the workshop.

  4. Here is a link to Woodsworth’s Prelude (which you mention) . . . to be honest, I have not read it, but probably read snippets in university . . . maybe! Look forward to tonight!
    Nancy Huggett (mom to Jessie)

  5. Thanks everyone for a wonderful discussion. I heard a lot of interpretations that I would never have thought of myself. And thanks Daniel, for leading us.

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