Poems that speak to life

July 13, 2011

About ten years ago, I returned to church after a long
hiatus. What drove me back to church was not a recovery of earlier beliefs or
even an articulation of new ones. In fact, if I am honest, I was more
ambivalent about Christianity than ever.

What compelled me to the pews was a hunger for poetry shared
in community. Church was the only place I knew of where people got together on
a regular basis and shared ancient poetry. I wanted--I needed--to be a part of

I found poetry in the canticles, in the prayers, in the
psalms, in the fiery readings from prophets. It was in the songs that Paul
wrote to people at Corinth and in the parables that Jesus used to puzzle his
listeners. Poetry was in the hymns and in the simple words people offered as
prayer requests. The whole service appeared to me like one big exercise in
surrender to poetry.

To be more precise, it wasn't simply poetry I needed. I
could have found that in books. It was a kind of poetry that wove people
together rather than drove them apart, that included each individual in
something greater than the sum of his or her parts.

I recently explored this passion further at the Glen Workshop. I challenged myself to the poetry
seminar with Gregory Orr. One of the assignments that Orr--founder of the
creative writing program at the University of Virginia--gave us was to create a
"personal anthology" of poems. Find ten poems--two can be songs--that speak to
your own heart and life.

He was careful to say that we should not choose the ten best poems we've ever encountered. The
exercise is not about aesthetic judgment. It is about what poems have
articulated the music of your own soul. Poetry, Orr said repeatedly, is a human
birthright. Humans of all cultures, times and places are making poems with
their words and lives.

Taking on this exercise is instructive and difficult. I am
currently sorting through poems, psalms and songs that have all spoken to me at
different times and in different places. So far, I have a list of four that I
am certain of and about 20 that are candidates. Here is one that has settled
into my anthology, from the Haiku poet Basho:

            A cool fall night—
getting dinner, we peeled
            eggplants, cucumbers.

What poems would go in your anthology?


poems in my anthology

In my anthology I would include

The Wisdom of Insecurity - Vassar Williams

It's heavy to drag, this big sack - William Stafford

The Necessity of Faith - Wendell Berry

The Avowal - Denise Levertov

Let Evening Come - Jane Kenyon

When Death Comes - Mary Oliver

Disgraceland - Mary Karr

Paul's poetry

I really resonate to this blog. The Good News Bible, Today's English Version, does a wonderful translation of Paul's poetry, doesn't it? I have pushed it a bit further, going on to the poems in the prison letters. I have a clinical hunch that his writing of poetry was a way of emotionally surviving in those horrible circumstances.
Good on you!
Bob Collie