Poetry Is Useless

By Jim Tune

The wonderful thing about poetry is that it is at once both useless and utile. I love poetry. I am pulled to words in a powerful way. They draw me in with an almost physical intensity.

Many of the greatest masters of the English language throughout history have been Christian poets. Think of John Milton, who composed the magnificent epic poem Paradise Lost in order to “justify the ways of God to man.” Think of John Donne, who wrote such memorable lines as “Death be not proud,” “No man is an island,” and “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

The rich language of Gerard Manley Hopkins is always a call to worship. Consider the opening lines of “God’s Grandeur”: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” Evocative words of good prose are far more powerful than a simple factual description. I’m increasingly convinced it’s a power that Christians need to understand.

Poetry, being what it is, isn’t always easy to understand. But isn’t that part of its intrigue? Isn’t that part of its beauty and mystery?

JT_Oct22_JNA friend once suggested that any critical or intellectual analysis of poetry is like drawing wires around a cloud. We can use analysis to get a general measure, and a clearer view of the object—a diagrammatic representation of pentameter or the construct of the piece in relation to its physical surroundings. But when we do that, we risk ruining it . . . making it useless.

Poetry can express what is difficult or inexpressible in any other form. Great writing can inform the reader, even if it communicates a hazy opinion, or an emotion, or a story, or an enchanting cadence or rhythm, a beautiful sound.

In ancient times, people valued beauty as much as they treasured truth. In some ways, beauty is truth. Have we forgotten that Christianity itself, properly understood, is beautiful?

In The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewissaid, “We do not want merely to see beauty,” but “to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”

Poetry, good poetry, is beautiful. And that is enough. And great poetry goes further. It can describe a matter in depth that is hard to reach in other mediums and impossible to reach with others. It bypasses simple mechanics and heads straight for the soul.

For thousands of years, artists, philosophers, and theologians have connected the beautiful with our longing for God. Now we live in a day when convenience and practicality have largely displaced beauty as a value. The church is no exception—even salvation is commonly viewed in a mechanistic manner and presented only as a plan, system or formula.

I’m inclined to agree with Miguel de Cervantes who said in Don Quixote, “It is the prerogative and charm of beauty to win hearts.” In my daily life, I often see no practical function for poetry at all. It is simply another way for my soul to sing.

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