Tuesday, August 2, 2022

"A poem is speech raised to the level of song"

A fairly long post quoting from a substantially longer, and worthwhile,  article: Dana Gioia on "Christianity and Poetry":
It is impossible to understand the full glory of Christianity without understanding its poetry.

Why should anyone believe such a claim? Let’s start with Scripture, the universal foundation of Christianity. No believer can ignore the curious fact that one-third of the Bible is written in verse. Sacred poetry is not confined to the Psalms, the Song of Songs, and Lamentations. The prophetic books are written mostly in verse. The wisdom books—­Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes—are all poems, each in a different genre. There are also poetic passages in the five books of Moses and the later histories. ....

There are no books of verse in the New Testament, but poetry is woven into the fabric of both the Gospels and the Epistles. What are the Beatitudes but a poem carefully shaped in the tradition of prophetic verse? The Book of Apocalypse (or Revelation in the Protestant Bible) is a prose poem, full of sound and symbol. Some scholars believe that the original Aramaic version of the Lord’s Prayer was in verse. ....

Poetry is the most concise, expressive, and memorable way of using words. It is a special way of speaking that shapes the sound and rhythm of words. In the ancient world, most poems were sung or chanted. That musical identity remains central to the art. A poem is speech raised to the level of song; it casts a momentary spell over the listener. People hear it differently from ordinary talk. ....

For Christian poetry, however, it is possible to assign its emergence to a specific moment: Mary’s announcement of the Incarnation. Christian poetry begins—quite literally—at the first moment in which Christ is announced to humanity. That origin demonstrates the supreme and inextricable importance of poetry to Christian experience. In Scripture, verse is the idiom for the revelation of mystery. ....

...Christian authors tend to see the world in characteristic ways. This is especially true of the Anglo-­Catholic traditions that have been the mainstream of English religious poetry. Christian poets see humanity struggling in a fallen world. They recognize humanity’s imperfection and the temptations of both the flesh and the spirit. Mankind is in need of grace and redemption. Evil exists, but the physical world is not evil. All creation is charged with divine glory, though God himself remains invisible. Jesus has redeemed humanity through his incarnation, death, and resurrection. Salvation is available to all who follow Christ’s way. The individual life finds meaning in its journey toward death and eternity. Finally, these poets have a double sense of reality; behind the material world, they feel another realm of existence—invisible, eternal, and divine—to which they also belong. One purpose of religious poetry is to make that hidden world tangible. ....

The seventeenth century is the greatest period of religious poetry in English. Indeed, it equals any period of Christian verse in any language. The explosive intellectual energy of the Protestant Reformation found expression in the English poetic imagination. The measure of its spiritual stature is demonstrated not only by the quality and diversity of its major poets—John Donne, George ­Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Thomas Traherne, Andrew ­Marvell, John Milton, and John Dryden (as well as English-born Anne Bradstreet); it is also evident in their passionate interest in spiritual matters. ....

Vaughan required no elaborate rhetoric to report the vision afforded by his prayers.
I saw Eternity the other night
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driven by the spheres
Like a vast shadow moved...
.... The three greatest hymnists of English literature appeared in quick succession: Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and William Cowper. Although their ­theology was consistent with that of Herbert and Vaughan, their style was radically different. They were not concerned with articulating their private sensibilities; they sought to voice the common aspirations of Christians gathered in worship.

A hymn is no less poetic than a sonnet, but it avoids complex soliloquy. If poetry is language raised to the level of song, a hymn is a poem to be sung in chorus. Great hymns are rarer than great poems because their transparent simplicity reveals any flaw. They must be direct in both meaning and emotion and yet deliver musical and memorable language. Hymns are not meant to survive as texts alone; they live in their musical settings. Nonetheless a few make a joyful noise even on the silent page:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.
Mystical poets seek to extinguish their individual consciousness by merging with the divine. Few manage this difficult ascent. Hymnists allow the members of a congregation to merge their separate souls into a united body of the gathered church. ....

Christianity has survived into the twenty-first century, but it has not come through unscathed. It has kept its head and its heart—the clarity of its beliefs and its compassionate mission. The problem is that it has lost its senses, all five of them. ....

These things matter because we are incarnate beings. We see the shape and feel the texture of things. We instinctively know that the form of a thing is part of its meaning. We are drawn to beauty, not logic. Our experience of the divine is not primarily intellectual. We feel it with our bodies. We picture it in our imaginations. We hear it as a voice inside us. We are grateful for an explanation, but we crave inspiration, communion, rapture, epiphany. .... (more)
Dana Gioia, "Christianity and Poetry," First Things, August, 2022.

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