Monday, July 28, 2008

Poetry, the Artist, and God


“The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”[1]

This is the impetus of the poet: “to get his head into the heavens.” What have all the poets through the ages sought to tell us? Have they wanted only to draw our attention to the mundane? Have they desired to show forth the startling brilliance of the obvious? No. What the poets through the ages have always tried to do is capture the genius and sublimity of the heavens as they are in ordinary things. Perhaps the lines of Joyce Kilmer will serve to illustrate this point:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

Here is an ordinary object, a tree; and from that tree the poet captures in vivid, and reverential curiosity a quick-eyed glance at God, at heaven, and the unsurpassed beauty of a common thing. If all of the things that we consider to be exceptional, phenomenal, and extraordinary were suddenly to be removed from our lives, at least two things would happen. First, we would note that what has just happened is rather extraordinary! And second, all the common things that we take for granted would suddenly seem like the most precious and phenomenal things; the ordinary would suddenly become extraordinary. That is the vision the poet sees with; that is the living heart of wonderment for the world within which the poet seeks to see the heavens.

To understand and appreciate the vision and function of the poet and his craft, however, we must first take a brief look at the nature of art, and then its expression in the particular media of poetry.

The Nature of Art and the Poet

Art is beauty expressed in metaphor. The expression rendered through art overcomes the mortality of the expressing artist. In short, expression transcends the individual. The essential drive of the artist then, is to capture a vision of beauty and offer it as conduit to the sublime. Sometimes, however, the beauty of a piece of art is not apparent because it is depicting scenes of terrible agony, or unmitigated destruction. One could rightfully ask at that point, “if art is beauty expressed in metaphor, why is it that what I see is not beautiful, but horrific and ugly?” Yet, even gruesome art can point to beauty.

Consider that art that asks us to observe the macabre, without itself being a glorification of the macabre, also asks us to seek a resolution so its contents are not repeated in reality. Hence, grotesque art puts out the cry of redemption, of which we, as creative human beings, are responsible to offer. We can offer this redemption by pointing to the Redeemer. Therefore, the art that strikes us as heavy and dark, can actually be a pointer to the Light. It’s the irony of grace still shining in the presence of heretical images. And here is where the poet can take a very active role in conveying these encounters with beatific, and agonizing realities; here is where the poet chances words on a page, and asks the reader to see with him what he, or she, has seen:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of my being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints ~ I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! ~ and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death. [2]

~ Elizabeth Barrett Browning
This poem asks the reader to see with the author all the fantastic, and purely delightful ways that she loves her lover; how she dotes after his affections, and invites every moment, and every part of who she is to be dedicated to him. The poetess, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, has faithfully captured the wonderment of common romantic love in an extraordinary metaphor of beauty, and passion. And is that not what romantic poetry is about? The risk of ultimate love coupled with the risk of ultimate suffering?
Still, the poetic artist is not bound to expressing only beauty, as was mentioned earlier. The poet has to consider the whole scope of reality if he really wishes to write poetry. Beauty is not the only ingredient in reality; love is not always considered until it is noticed missing; hence, the poet can alarm us to seeing the need for love in a dreadful situation:
I walked a weary path through streets
Forlorn, exasperated from the sickly
Apathy carved into the souls of people
About me, and reflected deep in the
Fallow sockets from which they gazed.
Hard pressed, crushed, and creased,
This burgeoning society of convenience
And ergonomic efficiency, they staggered;
Defeated, and oppressed by the weight
Of their constructs; their own
Sticky desire to be God, while
Becoming more the image of a zombie,
An encrusted, rotting tomb.
Still, they smile here and there
At each other ~ perhaps a reflex,
Or waning memory from a time more human;
A time less stuffed with emptiness:
When truth unified values,
And communities laboured to keep values true;
A time when common love was the end we strived for,
Not the petty satisfaction of individualism;
When peace meant opposing needless evil,
Not an agreement to disagree;
When criticism served to encourage other’s out of folly,
Not as means of self-elevation, or dominance.
I remember a time more human, more divine
But now I walk this weary path,
Scourged and blighted by these tarnished times.
~ Christopher J. Freeman

Two things in life are constant: love and pain. They are the measure of our passions, and the ends of our reachings. One positive outcome of pain is that if we are willing to look it in the eyes, we will see its depths; and if we see its depths, how much greater our capacity to forgive will be (if we are willing to forgive); grace is never truly appreciated unless one looks at the sin grace delivered them from.
That is the contrast the poet of the last poem was suggesting: if we are guaranteed to have love and expect pain, then the only way to continue to love is to forgive what causes us pain. It is easy to see then, that the poet painted a horrific picture to alarm the reader to the need for perseverance in love. The poem is a cry for redemption; an overwhelming urge to be freed from the extraordinary vices of his times so that he might find peace in the ordinary pursuits of love, humility, and faith.

The nature of art ~ and most immediate to this lecture, the poetic artist ~ is to express the two most extraordinarily common facets of the human condition: love and pain. Or, put it another way: if the history of art were boiled down, the sediment left over would be humanity’s pursuit of love, and the cry of redemption from pain. True art seeks beauty, which is based in truth and points to love.
God and the Poet
“Leonardo DaVinci once said that he ‘freed the sculpture from within the stone.’ The process of composing poetry is somewhat similar; the poet bangs and chips away at the thickness of her pride to reveal humility, and true understanding in a collection of words artfully sculpted and rendered.”
~ Sarah Mae Freeman (Oct 29th, 2002)

God is a poet. One only need look at the inspiration in the Psalms to see that God, too, has an extraordinary view of the ordinary person (c.f. Psalm 23). Still, what is more energizing, more resplendent, more noteworthy of the praise that God deserves is the personal poetry that God writes with all our lives.

Sanctification, as the theologians call it, is the personal work of God in our lives continually conforming us to the likeness of Christ. But what is the likeness of Christ? An interested person might rightfully want to know what they are being conformed to; a thorough person might look up passages that say (c.f. Gal. 5:16-26; Rom. 8, 12:9-21). The point is not to keep a checklist of all the things we need to do to let God write our lives into a beautiful poem; that is the effort of the logician. And we already know that the logician’s head splits!
The point is that we abandon ourselves to the rhythmic, and sovereign impulses of God, the Author of life, and let Him “bang and chip away at the thickness of [our] pride” to reveal humility and truth. In the end, we are left with the glorious and romantic peace of knowing that our lives are the greatest poetry written by the greatest Poet.

So it is also when the poet considers a subject. Yes, there’s the interplay of words, the puzzling task of rhyming or not, the confusion of punctuation and syntax; but those are simply the tools necessary to completing a project. The real challenge of the poet, the hard and fast reality of the masters, was to set a truth on fire; to write something that burned away all the dirt and dross of falsity, to sanctify a ready mind with a revelation, and to return a sense of wonder to the reader. Consider the words of George Herbert:

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here;’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
‘Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste My meat.’
So I did sit and eat.

One can see in Herbert’s poem, his wrestling with pride, his drawing back from the impulses of God’s true love; until finally, after Love answers true to the poet’s questions, he submits to the truth, sits and eats. Not only has God wrought His poetry in the poet in this example, but the poet has set out a poem by which we can all “sit and eat” of the same revelation. That is, we are invited to take of the same love that enlightened the mind of the poet; we are asked to sit with the poet in the company of Divinity, and learn the same truths the poet has learned. Thus, as God writes the truth of Christ into our lives, and shapes us into His poetic story, the poet has the unique gift of telling forth God’s truths in a fashion that renders Him glory.

The Disposition of the Poet, and Conclusion
It is a popular notion to suggest that artists are depressive people. So many of the world’s most renowned virtuosos are noted equally as much for their contributions to art as for their violent depressions, erratic lifestyles, and psychological difficulties. While it is true that many of these artists did suffer from what we might term abnormal behaviour, it is not true that abnormality is required to be a great artist. The popular notion that one better expresses themself when depressed is at best an honest admittance that something is wrong with their creative life; and at worst, an oppressive deception that stops the artist from seeing the wonderment of reality.
Depression is not a breeding ground for honesty; it is a ground for honestly breeding deception. That is to say, when one is depressed their creations carry with them a certain sense of distortion, loss, and bereavement. While these are all valid experiences in people’s lives, they are not the entire composition of life. So to say that one creates best when one is depressed is a dismissal of all other aspects of life where one can find truth, love, beauty, peace, joy, and rest. Come to think of it, why would one think that they are more creative when they align themself with a problem that takes away from them more than it adds to them? Isn’t creation adding to reality?

Should all art then, and more specifically, poetry, be happy? No. For this is equally a deception. Glossing over the faces of reality does not remove their appearances in our lives. We don’t create true art through dishonesty and denial. We don’t suffer less by ignoring more. As said earlier, the poet is at his best when he takes in the whole scope of reality in which he participates.

Poets align themselves with imagination. Any person ~ and much more the poet ~ would be foolish to malign themself with the notion that the best creations are forged from depressed imaginations. This is not to say that no ingenious art was ever created by a depressed artist; but a majority of the greatest pieces of art were created by lively individuals whose spirits soared high and free, who saw that “stars lie hidden in their souls” (Pamella Vaul Starr), and that the pursuit of virtue is the rightful heir to a godly imagination.

"Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists, very seldom. I am not …in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination… Poe, for instance, really was morbid, not because he was poetical, but because he was especially analytical. Even chess was too poetical for him; he disliked chess because it was full of knights and castles, like a poem… Perhaps the strongest case of all is this: that only one great English poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination."[3]

The proper providence of the poet, of the creative artist, is not to scrutinise and criticise until they are so miserable and depressed that all they can contribute is a bleak vision of horror and spiritual suicide. A poet should at all times observe reality with a sense of wonder and gratitude; for these ingredients are the foundations of humility, and humility is the parent of profundity. If the poet lives by these means, then the end will be that he has got his head a little further into the heavens, and can “Teach the free man how to praise” (W.H. Auden).

Cogita, Labora, Ora.

Christopher J. Freeman, © 2002.
[1] Chesterton, G.K. “Orthodoxy” Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, p. 178
[2] All poems, except by Joyce Kilmer and Christopher J. Freeman, are taken from “Immortal Poems of the English Language” New York: Washington Square Press, 1952, edited by, Oscar Williams.
[3] Chesterton, G.K. “Orthodoxy” Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, p. 178

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

No comments on something so beautiful? on such a beautiful treatise of poetry and life and our spiritual life intertwined?
Beautifully honest and honestly beautiful, Chris.
Now I don't know if you shall ever see this reply here, so I may send it in a return e-mail, as well.
I see that you are a poet as well as a cynic -- a true artist at heart and that you see the value in seeking truth and expressing it artistically.
I wanted to comment on the following, as well: "Come to think of it, why would one think that they are more creative when they align themself with a problem that takes away from them more than it adds to them?"
It is sometimes tempting to align ourselves with a problem without realizing that it is taking away more than it adds to our life.
I believe that it is helpful to "visit" a problem in our lives and that that visitation can be helpful and even healthful, but taking up residence is another thing altogether.
You hit on a truth here that is one we can all grab hold of.
Philippians 4:8 offers that truth as a caution and a call to something more healthful.
I do believe there is beauty in pain and that that can be expressed artistically.
I look forward to more poetry. I appreciate the honesty in your words; they are not just fluff, but have substance.