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Mennonite Brethren HeraldVolume 42, No. 16December 5, 2003
Memoirs illuminate Mennonite history
The art of reading poetry
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The art of reading poetry

Lori Matties

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Poetry requires you to read slowly enough to let the images enter your imagination. It’s like savouring an exquisite dessert, rolling each bite around on your tongue, trying to make it last so you can enjoy the flavour and texture as long as possible.

But, the speed at which we live doesn’t often allow for poetry. We are taught to read quickly, to absorb as much information as possible so we can transform it into production. That’s how an efficient economy runs. If we allow efficiency to rule all of our time and actions, however, we will be poor creatures indeed. God created us with eyes to see beauty and injustice, ears to hear laughter and tears, minds and bodies to play as well as to work.

Poetry is an impulse to play. Its playthings are words, used to create pictures in the mind. Sometimes the poet uses the ambiguity and multiple meanings of words to create several pictures that connect in surprising or even disturbing ways. Engaging with the poet in this kind of play, the reader is often privileged to see familiar ideas come alive with new meaning. But this kind of reading requires paying attention, slowing down and reading carefully, letting the words roll around in your mind like that bite of your favourite dessert.

Why make the effort to pay attention to poetry? Because in a world where efficiency isn’t always the best and only course, and where mystery often attends our most meaningful experiences, poetry may be the closest approximation to saying what we mean. Especially when we try to explain our relationship with a God who can’t be seen or heard in conventional ways, poetry helps us describe our deepest feelings.

Indeed, poetry is all about the mysteries of our relationships with the world, with ourselves and other human beings, with God. Who has better described the sense of peace that attends a friendship with God than the writer of Psalm 23? Poems such as this speak to and for us, give words to the longings of our hearts, and teach us to slow down and pay attention to the gifts of our Creator. Though not all poems are prayers or songs of praise, many are honest grapplings with the world the poet observes or experiences. In a world where few are taking time to look, poetry often becomes prophetic.

Four recent books by Christian poets illustrate what I mean.

  • Empty Room with Light (DreamSeeker Books, 2002) is Ann Hostetler’s first published volume of poetry. These poems explore her experiences as a child, student, mother, teacher. They are written with a vulnerability that reveals a sensitive and observant character who is listening for the significance and poignancy of the everyday events we often take for granted. Hostetler’s poems are about love for family, for friends, for the colours of life, for the One who created it, and, yes, also for the words that describe these things. I like these poems; I identify with many of her experiences and thus feel affirmation in my own.

  • In A Liturgy for Stones (DreamSeeker Books, 2003), David Wright explores his world with spare, strong words. He sees the undersides of things, like the hard-to-clean black marks made by the pastor’s shoes in the baptism tank, or the unlooked for stories, like the observations of the prodigal son’s mother. These poems have an edge to them, an underlying anger at injustice and irrelevance, or an ironic sense of humour about the limitations of our ability to apprehend the mysteries of life in the world God created. These poems elicit in me a slightly uncomfortable thrill, like those “aha” moments in good parables.

  • Luci Shaw is a well-known Christian poet who has published several volumes. The Green Earth and Water Lines (Eerdmans, 2002 and 2003) are attractive gift editions of mostly republished poems. Both have introductions that set the context. The Green Earth explores creation through the seasons, although anyone east of the west coast will note the startling lack of a winter season. Water Lines contains poems about water – oceans, rivers, streams, rain, even mist – which in its plenty or its lack affects all of our lives. Shaw’s poems are about how paying attention to the details of the created world can illuminate our understanding. For those who delight in word play and in the connections between created things and the Creator, these poems will be deeply satisfying.

  • In Musings on the Sermon (self-published, Abbotsford, 2002), Alvin Ens reflects on passages of Scripture, inviting the reader to hear his questions, his insights and his challenges. Many of these poems are sermons, some are more questioning reflections on stories or challenges Ens finds difficult. I appreciate his candidness, and I think these poems might serve as fresh commentary or devotional material. But I find many of them dissatisfying because they tell too much. I wish he had left me a little to discover on my own.

Lori Matties attends River East MB Church Winnipeg; she is editor of Sophia magazine.

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