|The Poetics of Ministry|
"The Poetics of Ministry”
Berry Street Essay, 2010 Minneapolis, Minnesota
Delivered at the Ministerial Conference
June 23, 2010
A Peanuts cartoon shows Charlie Brown chatting with his little sister Sally. "We’ve been reading poems in school, but I never understand any of them,” sis complains. "How am I supposed to know which poems to like?” "Somebody tells you,” big brother replies.
For many years, I agreed with Peanuts. Poetry was a closed book for me. I wasn’t sure how to tell if a poem was good or bad. Most were merely indifferent. Today I’m inclined to agree with Emily Dickinson: "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Where other people turn to self-help books, I turn to verse, to clear the mental cobwebs.
Maybe more ballads should be taught in seminary, and more Shel Silverstein in Sunday School. Who knows, we might even be able to remember our own Seven Principles if we could only make them scan. For religion, I want to suggest, is the poetry of life. That’s my simplest definition. Maybe religion is also what one does with one’s solitude or something else, too. But if the sacred is the opposite of the mundane, then I think poetry is what rescues us from both prose and our prosaic preoccupations with governance and church budgets, bringing us into the presence of what, through words, can’t otherwise be expressed.
My own poetical education was entirely haphazard. As a ministerial intern, I did my placement at the First Parish in Cambridge, in Harvard Square. My supervisor there was Ed Lane, and one of the great gifts Ed bestowed on me was a volume of Modern Religious Poems, edited by the late Jacob Trapp. Actually, Ed loaned me the book, which was out-of-print, even then, and which I xeroxed into a red three-ring binder that sits on the shelf where I keep all my worship stuff. I’ve had that book close to thirty years and, whether preparing for Sunday morning or getting ready for a memorial, I’ve returned to those pages more often than anything else from my student days. I value more recent collections, too, like Marilyn Sewall’s anthologies. But the older volumes never seem to grow outdated.
Yet I didn’t completely appreciate Ed’s gift at the time. I was one of the youngest in my class. I entered seminary at the age of twenty-seven and was ordained at twenty-nine, not the ripened sage you currently see before you. I was still too green for poetry, perhaps, not sufficiently weathered and wizened. For what Rilke said about the writing of verse also applies to the reading of it:
"Verses are not, as people imagine, simply feelings (those one has early enough),--they are experiences. For the sake of a single verse, one must see many cities, men and women, one must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the little flowers open in the morning …One must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with open window and the fitful noises. And still it is not yet enough to have memories … Not till they have been turned to blood within us, to glance and gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves – not till then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a verse arises in their midst and goes forth ….”
Rilke was the exception to his own rule, publishing his first chapbook at nineteen. He was also what we’d call a "deadbeat dad,” abandoning his wife together with their one year old daughter, casting his family adrift financially and running off to Paris where his muse called. Paying attention to his "duty” as a husband and father, he protested, would "shut out the great and wonderful powers that take hold of me in almost rhythmic succession.” My spouse observed the irony when I used one of Rilke’s readings in a wedding ceremony, that very romantic bit about love consisting of "two solitudes protecting and touching and greeting each other.” He personally was a bit of a bastard, far from a model mate. But a poet is something different from a saint, and may even be a scoundrel—a drunk or otherwise disreputable character. For while Emerson suggests that the true poet is a chaste soul who grows tipsy even on water, even Ralph Waldo admits most rhymesters "love wine, mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandal-wood and tobacco, or whatever other species of animal exhilaration” is available. Like the lost traveler, unsure of direction, who throws his reins across the horse’s back to let the beast guide him home, the poet tosses off the reins of good conduct to follow his instinct for whatever’s vitalizing.
Poets aren’t much read these days. Our bestsellers advise us how to make a buck or unveil the latest celebrity scandal, but books of verse sell a few thousand copies if they are wildly successful and almost none are turned into action movies that can spin off lucrative merchandising rights. Yet there was a time, even a hundred years ago, when poetry was the vernacular. My grandfather could recite dozens of poems that he had learned in school, for every educated person had a bit a Wordsworth, or a few lines of Tennyson, to carry like touchstones.
Poppa, as we called him, loved to tell the story of being accompanied by his father to an admission interview for college. This wasn’t Harvard or Yale, but the normal school in San Marcos, Texas, near the little town of Shannon, which first opened its doors right after the turn of the century, when my granddad was still a youth living in a half-dugout sod house on the prairie. "Have you read any Dickens?” the interviewer asked my grandfather. He squirmed for a minute and allowed that he’d read Ivanhoe. Daddy John, my great grandfather nudged his son in the ribs and loudly whispered "Sir Walter Scott, Sir Walter Scott.” Though Daddy John had little formal schooling, he knew his poets, and in that way was a typical man of his time.
It was a different era, more formal and maybe more literate. I recall hearing once about a minister from those days who every week gave himself the challenge of turning his Sunday homily into a sonnet. Imagine condensing those twenty minutes into just fourteen lines. That’s precision. I never followed that practice in my own sermonizing, but years ago I did try to educate myself about the various forms of versification: quatrains and the rest. Apparently I had some knack for this as a youngster. My mother swears that the very first complete sentences I ever spoke came in the form of an heroic couplet. She was driving my older brother to kindergarten, playing at nursery rhymes, Jack and Jill and the Inky Dinky Spider, the pair chattering away together in the sedan’s front seat. Two-year-old Gary was in his diapers in the back, slobber drooling down my chin, when I piped up with the lines: "I’m a poor little ghostie with nothing to eat. I like to eat children, they make the best meat!” My mother nearly wrecked the car. Unfortunately, that seems to have been the high point of my career as a bard.
Yet if I’m not much of a poet, I am a preacher, which is related. I’ve always liked words, which makes me a slow reader and also slow writer. I’m even a slow talker. And as "slow food” is to "fast food,” poetry is to the daily diet of tweets and talking heads. I can tune out the twittering, but when reading, I don’t want to miss a syllable, so I tend to sound out each word and savor the phrases. Skipping ahead in the text would be like gliding over the notes in a piece of music to get to the final chord. I’m as much interested in the melody of the language as in its meaning. And part of the art of preaching, I think, is making the sound match the sense. Because when they correlate, that’s when the hemispheres start harmonizing.
Our brains are hard-wired for this experience. Verse originally grew from the babbling of infants, who seem to prefer "Hop on Pop” to more elevated adult discourse. And in an article from the journal Human Nature titled "The Poetics of Babytalk,” two English professors muster evidence that "motherese,” the special lingo mom’s use to chat with their kids in the first few weeks of life, contains all the stylistic elements of alliteration and other verbal tricks that more advanced poets use to achieve their impact. Studies published in Psychological Science indicate that younger children tend to remember and categorize words primarily on the basis of what they sound like rather than what they mean. While Jane Stabler, who teaches at St. Andrews University, is part a team that found reading poetry elicits more of the rapid eye-movement associated with deep thinking than reading prose. All meaning that poetic diction gets tucked away deep inside the crinkles of the brain, the first glimmerings of language to enter the cerebrum and apparently the very last vestige to leave.
That’s why damaged brains can sometimes be cured through what’s now called Melodic Intonation Therapy. Stroke victims who’ve lost the ability to talk can sing out phrases they couldn’t otherwise verbalize when the left hand (that’s hooked to the right hemisphere) taps out a steady beat. But that technique hadn’t been discovered two decades ago, when Margaret Robison had her stroke. She was teaching poetry to incarcerated women at a Massachusetts prison at that point, having published two books of verse and received considerable recognition for her work. She woke one spring morning after a glorious trip to the Cape, opened her mouth and as she remembers, "All this noise came out, all this awful language.” Doctors called it apraxia, a complete loss of command of the muscles needed to form simple words. Her neurologist pronounced her case hopeless, and another physician recommended she go to a nursing home, a diagnosis that sent her into a tailspin. As she tells it:
To lose use of my left arm and hand felt like a cruel amputation. But I have always been in love with the human voice with its tonal variations, hesitations, cadences; with what it holds of the geography of one’s beginnings, and of the experiences that lead one to choose the particular words through which one lives. I needed my leg. I needed my arm. I needed my hand. But in a fundamental way I was my voice. The loss of that voice felt like a diminishment of soul.
Her breakthrough came a couple of months later. A good friend pushed her wheelchair around the hospital grounds that bright summer day and began light heartedly to warble an old lyric from the Tin Pan Alley troubadour Harry Woods: "We ain’t got a barrel of money, maybe we’re ragged and funny ….” As they traveled the lawn that way, side by side, Margaret joined in the singing, garbled and halting but the first words out of her mouth that didn’t feel they’d been tortured from her throat And the insight dawned that perhaps she could recover her voice through recitation, by repeating aloud the poems she loved best. She worked at Dickinson’s "After great pain, a formal feeling comes” and at Hopkin’s "Pied Beauty,” applied herself to Roethke’s "I learn by going where I have to go,” but above all she grappled with Edna St. Vincent Millay’s "Renascence,”
The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide
That last verse is in our hymnal, as you know. But it’s just part of a six page masterpiece that Millay opens with the limited, ego-bound perspective of the solitary individual, captive to time and space:
All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked the other way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
So with my eyes I traced the line
Of the horizon, thin and fine,
Straight around till I was come
Back to where I’d started from;
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood.
The poem then relates an extraordinary epiphany, a bursting of personal boundaries to identify with the great ocean in which Millay exists merely as a drop—ken to all the agony and joy of humankind. The ecstasy and pain is too much, and she dies, to be buried under the earth, but then reborn with the falling rain into a new and more spacious self, able to sing:
Above the world is stretched the sky,
No higher than the soul is high.
Margaret Robison had experienced the agony, but could she also be rejuvenated? Gradually mastering all those tricky words like "omniscience” and "immensity,” she made a remarkable come back. Robison lives now in the Berkshires, writing poems that she leaves in a little box outside her front porch as gift offerings to passers by. She never entirely recovered her physical mobility. But she did regain her soul. Because poetry does that. It heals. It restores us to ourselves.
What this suggests is that poetry is our mother tongue and universal. Metered verse is recited alike by indigenous shamans and college sophomores, from hip hop to Urdu, and is associated in all times and cultures with the possession of privy "insider information.” And what all these various forms of poetry have in common, from New York to New Guinea, is the fundamental unit of the line, a distinct measure of phrasing not necessarily defined by a pause of breath but by an aesthetic requirement that is also closely linked to the brain’s own methods of information processing.
Frederick Turner, who teaches literature at the University of Texas, has analyzed meter cross-culturally and discovered that these basic units of utterance are nearly all the same, each poetic line being roughly three seconds in length, regardless of whether the lines come from Hebrew psalms or Hungarian folk rhymes. And three seconds, tellingly, is about the duration of what’s called the psychological present, the fundamental parcel of human awareness. Consider this: When a clock strikes three or four, you can tell the time without actually counting; at seven or nine o’ clock, though, the last chime sounds too distant from the first to form a single sensory impression. Not coincidentally, mothers also communicate with their infants in lines or units of just about this length. And market research tells us that three seconds is the magic window for reaching an audience: how long shoppers will gaze at your ad or website before deciding whether to fast forward to the next attraction. If you’ve got a digital watch or one with a second hand, mark it out right now:
The heart stands out on either side,
No wider than the heart is wide.
Three seconds. So that these repeated lines, breaking like waves on the mind’s shoreline, have the function of holding us in the present moment, bringing us into rapport with the speaker and into relationship with our encircling environment. Which is why someone called poetry "the news that’s always new.” It’s immediate. It brings us to our senses, here-and-now. Poetry pulls us out of our distractions, our daydreams of winning the lottery and other forms of self-hypnosis, and into the unadulterated, unexpurgated experience of living …
… and into the experience of dying, as well, for the two are inextricable. I was fortunate that I happened to be visiting with my grandfather a few days before he passed away, and we had a chance to spend an evening talking poetry, arguing and misquoting passages from the "Rubiyyat of Omar Khayyam,” one of his favorites:
Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, that the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.
Time, transience, brevity—what our late colleague Forrest Church called the dual awareness of being alive and knowing we have to die—that (along with sex) is the subtext of nearly every good poem. For like its cousin music, poetry is an art that exists in only passage, in the temporal flux of beginnings and endings. Like the earth, like seasons, like everything organic, poetry processes. Which is one reason that poetic diction is the only really effective vocabulary that speaks to loss and separation.
I recall, for instance, a conversation that took place shortly after my mother-in-law passed on. She was diagnosed with cancer in the spring a few years back, and by the end of that summer, we knew the end was near. In September our whole family drove to Virginia for a final visit. Helen was practically skin and bones then, and although she recognized her grandchildren and was glad to see us all, she was disoriented and confused. Our next trip down, the following month, was for the funeral. My son Noah had just started high school that semester, and a week or two after the memorial told me he was thinking of setting up an appointment with the guidance counselor at school. He had a hard time keeping his mind on his academics, he said, and just wasn’t handling grandma’s death very well. It was one of those delicate parental moments for me, for I could clearly hear him asking for help but wasn’t sure exactly what a father could say to a teenage boy that wouldn’t feel off-key or overbearing.
So I mentioned to Noah that one of the things that’s helped me when grieving is poetry, and he responded to that. He was fortunate to be in class with an excellent English teacher, who had been introducing the students to the classics, from the Odyssey onward. We started talking about poems we liked and my son seemed a little surprised that his old man was familiar with many of the verses he especially admired. When he mentioned Constantine Cavafy, I had to run to my files downstairs to dig out his famous lines about "Ithaca,”
Pray that the road is long,
Full of adventure, full of knowedge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
The angry Poseidon – do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
If your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
Emotion touches your spirit and your body …..
And on it goes; you probably know the rest. That night was the first time ever that I an adult conversation with my son, a sweet and poignant moment for me as a parent. We talked for about an hour, heart-to-heart, man-to-man, about love and death, about good and evil, about women and men and art and God. But of course what we were really talking about was poetry, the only tongue that dives down under the surface, that (in the words of poet Rita Dove) "makes the interior of one individual available to others.”
Along with line and meter, symbol and metaphor are the vehicles poetry uses to take us there. Meta means "over or beyond,” while pherein is to "bring or carry.” So in modern Greek, a metaphor is not just a figure of speech, but is the mundane, pedestrian term that describes a moving van or delivery truck, four-wheels on a chassis, how you get your baklava from the bakery to the store. Metaphors are designed to move us from one place to another. Quoting Emerson again, "the quality of the imagination is to flow, and not to freeze,” and so he proclaims that "all language is vehicular and transitive, and is good, as ferries and horses are, for conveyance, not as farms and houses are, for homestead.” A symbol’s purpose is purpose is not to convey data, but to carry the mind itself into an altered cognitive state.
Which is why so many fundamentalists miss the boat, because they are unable to separate the runes and pictograms of figurative language from everyday, plain speech. The Bible is a grand book of poetry—still sung in the synagogue service, every word set to a tune--but most of it isn’t true in a factual or literal sense. "God wrote it and I believe it” simply doesn’t work with this volume. When the Psalms admonish the rivers to "clap their hands, and let the hills sing aloud together,” intelligent readers don’t suppose that rivers actually possess arms or elbows that can break into a round of applause; they don’t imagine that the mountains can turn into a chorus of tenors and contraltos. These are similes, emotive images, so that those who expect the scriptures to be accurate in details of history or geology miss the deeper meaning of the text.
Asking "Did it really happen that way?” is almost always the wrong question. When Robert Frost says that "two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry that I could not be one traveler and travel both, long I stood and looked down one to where it bent in the undergrowth,” you would miss the point entirely if you asked exactly where this yellow wood was located or precisely when this incident took place or whether this traveler shouldn’t have been carrying a global positioning system or at least a cell phone to help him figure out what road he was on. These are the wrong questions, because the poet is not writing about a specific time or place. He’s invoking a time out of time, because the yellow wood is everywhere and nowhere, like the Garden of Eden, or the Kingdom of God, or the Land of Milk and Honey, not real estate you’ll ever find with a map or compass, but that exists nonetheless.
And yet religious liberals can be as literal-minded as any true believer, famously reading ahead to see if the words in the hymnbook make sense. Our orientation is predominantly analytic rather than metaphorical. In fact, I’m not sure our faith has produced many good symbols. We borrow and criticize the images of other traditions, but we haven’t generated any grail or burning bush, only a chalice that we have to keep explaining week to week as though a real symbol isn’t powerful enough to speak on its own behalf.
Which is unfortunate. Because what gives poetry its power isn’t so much the ability of symbols to discursively define life’s meaning as to deliver the adrenalin rush of being alive. So, rather than describing humor, a limerick makes us smile. An elegy makes us feel, well, elegiac. Without any lengthy discourse on the divine or statements that smack of doctrine, the best poetry can take us into the realm of the holy. This is what Archibald MacLeish meant when he said that "a poem should be equal to: Not true.”
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf,
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—
A poem should not mean
Or as our Unitarian Universalist colleague Clark Wells put it, "A poem should not be, but wham!” Poetry can whack us over the head or punch us in the gut, because it’s is as close as we get to grasping the essence of being—which is not static but muscular and dynamic. Muriel Rukeyser once said that the universe is made of stories, not atoms, but I tend to think it may be composed of something like little haikus, short strings of syllables that whisper and exclaim, or maybe the universe is like a line of scat that grooves and bebops along. For as scientists plumb the fine structures of the cosmos, they are coming to the conclusion that the fundamental units that compose our world are not protons or neutrons or anything inert or fixed or solid. Rather the world seems to be made of transient creative episodes, fleeting eruptions from a primordial emptiness based on underlying symmetries of matter and energy that defy any strict logic but proceed according to internal requirements that are like nothing so much as the artistic necessities of an unfolding poem …
… or a tone poem, or a melody. Frank Wilczek, who received a Nobel prize for pioneering the theory of quantum chromodynamics, explained in a lecture where he teaches at M.I.T. that in his field, "atoms appear as musical instruments, not in a metaphorical way [he emphasizes], but in a very precise” manner, because each fundamental particle, from electron to photon to neutrino, is the expression of some particular tempo, beat, or rhythm. When Neils Bohrs introduced his model of the atom based on planetary orbits, back in the 20’s, the formulas that described the steps between those orbits were so reminiscent of orchestral scales or tunings that Einstein called it "the highest form of musicality in the sphere of thought.” And the more we learn about physics, the more the counterpoint grows. So Wilczek says, "the different particles we observe correspond to the vibration patterns that occur in the dynamical void,” an insight that strikes him as supremely poetic, in that the "masses of particles are the tones (frequencies) of these basic vibration patterns.” Not that the masses of particles "are like” the tones, he stresses, but they are the tones produced. The ancient dream that there was a music of the spheres, Wilczek proclaims, has achieved quite rigorous confirmation: "There is a music of the void.”
Or as the poet has it, "In the mud and scum of things, always, always something sings.” And there is an intoxication in that music, so powerful as to make itself incarnate. The world rhymes itself into being. The chanting becomes enchanted, so that all becomes manifest, from quark to cosmos. As Emerson says, "God has not made some beautiful things, but beauty is the creator of the universe,” a statement might have been uttered by any modern physicist for whom elegance is the precondition of Creation.
Poets come closer than theologians to unraveling the ultimate, partly for this reason. Back in 1805, Hosea Ballou’s A Treatise on Atonement seemed revelatory, denying the existence of hell and affirming the simple humanity of Jesus. But the controversies it ignited have grown cold and the language become dated. When William Ellery Channing’s sermon Unitarian Christianity was published in pamphlet form a few years later, it was said to have been a runaway best seller. The idea that the Bible should be read and criticized like any other text, and by the same criteria, created a sensation. But what seemed radical in Channing’s time has become commonplace in ours. It’s hard to dig into these old works of exegesis without a yawn.
It’s the poetry of our forbears that still hums and reverberates. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Cullen Bryant, and James Russell Lowell were all Unitarians so popular in their time that, together with the Quaker Whittier, they became known as the "household poets,” the pop idols and rock stars of their time. Alice and Phoebe Cary, along with Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, were others whose verses were beloved not only by their countrymen and women, but all the world around.
Translations were numerous. The Unitarian clergyman Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who mentored Emily Dickinson, relates how Longfellow was on tour from Constantinople to Marseilles when the dinner talk turned to verse. Table mates of six different nationalities recited the Harvard professor’s poems from memory, in as many languages.
Together they were a publishing industry, bigger than Billy Collins. Lowell’s "Vision of Sir Launfal,” from 1848, sold 175,000 copies in the decade it came to print. All had their work serialized in magazines, and grade school primers, and anthologies. In his book The Flowering of New England, the historian Van Wyck Brooks notes that "in Russia, in India, even in China, all these names [Holmes, Bryant and the rest] were favorably known,” sharing the story of one man who, coming to Shakespeare late in life and finding the author of King Lear and Macbeth far beyond his expectations, was moved to exclaim that ‘there are not twenty men in Boston who could have written those plays!’”
These Bostonians still have their following. In 1997, Robert Pinsky, the country’s poet laureate, invited Americans to send him stories about their favorite verse. During the twelve month window for submissions, over 18,000 people from the age of five to ninety-seven—including nurses, teachers, carpenters, and farmers---all wrote in to tell what poems had made a difference in their lives, among them individuals like the Reverend Michael Haynes of Roxbury’s Twelfth Street Baptist Church, who told his story of resurrection-by-poetry.
"My parents came as immigrants, African-Caribbean, to Roxbury,” he records. "They purchased a little cottage on a little street that was dominated by Irish and Jewish families. And then the crash came—the Great Depression. I needed inspiration. I needed challenge. I needed a philosophy to live by. And in junior high school an Irish teacher kept quoting the seventh stanza of a poem by a person she called "the New England poet.” Later on, at Boston English High School, another teacher had us learn all the stanzas of the same poem—Longfellow’s ‘A Psalm of Life.’”
Maybe you recall it, lines which the poet penned as "a voice from my inmost heart,” he said, "at a time when I was rallying from depression.”
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream ! —
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way ;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.
Those words bouyed the young Michael Haynes. And many years later, in middle-age, the older Haynes became critically ill. Again, he needed a source of strength and courage, and he returned to the stanzas he learned in high school for motivation. As his illness progressed, he began making tentative plans for his own funeral, scribbling notations for inscriptions on a gravestone. Eventually, and thankfully, he recovered from his ailment. Yet a rumor spread that the good clergyman had died. Somehow the tombstone that he’d designed, and that was intended to be stored in a warehouse until the actual time of his demise, had been installed in the local cemetery in Roxbury. And etched into the granite was an epitaph:
Life is real—life is earnest—
And the grave is not its goal:
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
How did the words of a 19th century Unitarian who liked to start each day by translating a line from Dante manage to inspire a black Baptist preacher a century later?
Ours was a great faith at one time, because it produced grand poetry, cadences that rolled across the lines of race and creed, becoming the common property of a nation, Protestant, Catholic and Jew. And if our movement is to make a contribution once again, it will be because we learn to speak again the universal idiom of verse, to find and recover our original voice (like Margaret Robison did), beyond the spiritual aphasia that restricts our message to the chattering classes and bars it from reaching the religious masses.
As the Unitarian minister John Haynes Holmes wrote years ago, in the Beacon Song and Service Book from 1935, ""When I say 'God,' it is poetry and not theology. Nothing that any theologian ever wrote about God has helped me much, but everything that the poets have written about flowers, and birds, and skies, and seas, and the saviors of the race, and God—whoever he or she may be—has at one time or another reached my soul! More and more, as I grow older, I live in the lovely thought of these prophets and seers. The theologians gather dust upon the shelves of my library, but the poets are stained with my fingers and blotted with my tears.”
Can poetry speak to us again? Can it rejuvenate our spirits and elevate our thoughts? Can it fire us with passion, startle us in amazement, bend our minds toward the sacred? Can poetry do all of this? Judging from our history, I would say, it’s one of the only things that ever has.