Poetry is the emblem of human emotion. It expresses what mouths cannot; it touches what actions cannot penetrate. As a unique form of art, poetry gestures to a deeper meaning that transcends what we see or read at first glance.
In other words, poetry is the heart’s mouthpiece. The deep longings, the dreams, the fears that people bury inside spill onto the pages of a poet.
One of humanity’s core desires is to feel understood. We long to find people that understand our yearnings, fantasies, thoughts, and fears. Many approach the buzzing world of social media for this connectivity; others find it in communicating with friends and strangers. Yet, though these outlets may open doors to meaningful discussion, the satisfaction they provide is transient. Friends move away, people unfollow, “likes” vanish, social media leaves people feeling disconnected from the world and alone.
In this turmoil, there remains a device of understanding regrettably overlooked by society today: poetry. Poetry is composed of human emotion; it conveys what people feel but do not, or cannot, say. By providing relatable narrators and subjects, it explores the heart of humanity — the depth of its joy and the depth of its suffering. In all forms of literature, by critiquing the words and characters on the page, we end up critiquing ourselves and our world.
Well-known theologian John Piper remarked, “We do not live in a day when poetry is in vogue. Perhaps it has never been in vogue. Shaped by smartphones and soundbites, we are impatient with communication that forces us to slow down. Poetry, by definition, is a kind of communication that cannot be fully appreciated on the first reading.”
“Slowing down” in it and of itself is an obsolete act in our frenetic culture. Impatience is one of our greatest vices. As a result, sitting down to read, relate to, and understand poetry is something unheard of today. People want to comprehend the meaning right away. As quickly as possible. Anything that breaks their rhythm and routine is a hazard to their productivity and the satisfaction they draw from fast accomplishments.
In contrast, poetry causes us to steady our heartbeats. To focus without the constant distraction of our phones. It causes us to sit with our emotions and dig beneath the surface level of poetry in search of meaning.
I first read “Everything is Going to Be All Right” by Derek Mahon in Sarah Clarkson’s lovely newsletter, and it’s been an anchor of hope this past month.
How should I not be glad to contemplate the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window and a high tide reflected on the ceiling? There will be dying, there will be dying, but there is no need to go into that. The poems flow from the hand unbidden and the hidden source is the watchful heart. The sun rises in spite of everything and the far cities are beautiful and bright. I lie here in a riot of sunlight watching the day break and the clouds flying. Everything is going to be all right.
There is something so reassuring, so tangible in the line “everything is going to be all right.” Rather than using the word “perfect” or “dark” or even “beautiful,” Mahon says “all right.” Behind every word choice exists an intention. For this particular poem, Mahon used the word “all right” as something anyone, regardless of where they are in life, can grasp. When “dying” and darkness envelop the world, reassurance won’t come from visions of utopia or rosy words of perfection. No, reassurance for helpless, hopeless, poetry-hungry souls will come from words that are attainable.
Words that can be absorbed and understand. “All right” doesn’t gesture to a Utopia. “All right” implies the darkness of our current circumstances, but, it also garners us the hope that it will not last forever. There will be a time when the simple words “all right” surround us. Falling asleep to the heartbeat of beauty, this poet reminds us that we can find hope in the sheer knowledge that light exists. That “the sun rises in spite of everything.” That beautiful, unchanging things do exist. This poem is a source of hope for tired and discouraged readers who, as they watch the world crumble around them, long to hear someone say “everything will be all right.”
Alternatively, “Dover Beach,” a poem by Matthew Arnold, expresses feelings of hopelessness and the reality of living in a chaotic world. As the poem is fairly long, I will only be including the ending. However, you can read the full poem here.
With vivid imagery, Arnold begins by discussing the beauty of Dover Beach. But, as he continues, he drifts into melancholic and despondent laments of a world that’s lost its faith. Its faith in God, its faith in humanity, and its faith in life.
He ends with these poignant lines:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Evidently, the weariness of the world has pierced the narrator with misery and doubt. No longer can he cast his eyes over humanity without finding the absence of “joy,” “love,” and “light.” With its political rifts and pandemic chaos, this saddening thought is relevant to our world today. Readers can relate to the feeling of being “swept” away by confusion and the subtle dread of battles occurring beyond their view. In contrast to Mahon’s poem, the narrator cannot find the beauty and certainty that “everything will be all right.” The world has deceived and disappointed him.
Although these two poems are divergent in their tone and intention, they both convey that comfort and hope can only be found in unchanging things. For Arnold’s narrator, it’s his love, the emblem of stability and truth left in an illusive world. For Mahon’s narrator, it’s the solace of nature.
Poetry will not always radiate our lives with light, nor provide the answers to our questions. Yet, in contrast with the thousands of distractions are our society readily provides, it causes us to confront our emotions, struggle with the darkness in our lives and in the world, and heal. With the help of a relatable narrator and a friend to discuss it with, we can begin to venture from our shell of comfortable avoidance, touch our emotions, and, gradually, restore our souls through words of poetry.
What about you? Do you connect to poetry? What did you think of these poems? Would you like to more optional audio recording in future posts?
Let me know in the comments. I love to hear from you.