Precision Through Imprecision: How Poetry Helps Clarify Truth

Like most students, my initial exposure to poetry didn’t so much whet my appetite as it did tie a millstone around its neck and throw it down a well.

For starters, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to spend so much time trying to be misunderstood. I also found it unsettling to watch my teachers “tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it.” Whatever I was supposed to take from those lessons, what I actually left with was the idea that poetry was for half-decayed, inscrutable people who probably spent their free time languishing among tombs. 

And yet even as I was shut out, or rather fled from, the garden of verse, a part of me felt short-changed. As if I’d been told there’d be rides, and then abandoned somewhere among the psychedelic mirrors.

Fast forward to last year—nearly two decades from my last poetry lesson—when on a whim I picked up John Lennard’s Poetry Handbook. And you know that *click* of comprehension that sometimes happens to bewildered people? That, or something like it, happened to me. I can’t even contribute it to any conscious exertion my part. All I know is that the moment occurred as Lennard discussed Pablo Neruda’s poem, Nothing But Death:

I’m not sure, I understand only a little, I can hardly see,
but it seems to me that [death’s] singing has the color of damp violets,
of violets that are at home in the earth,
because the face of death is green,
and the look death gives is green,
with the penetrating dampness of a violet leaf
and the somber color of embittered winter.

Admittedly macabre, but there you have it. As I read these lines, it felt as though some massive creature had just passed swiftly by the tall grass next to me. I saw death in a way I hadn’t before. Its cold finality. Its aberration. Its green-ness. it’s indiscriminate clawing. 

I’m hesitant to talk about the usefulness of poetry. Not because poetry isn’t useful, but because the enjoyment of poetry, as in all beauty, lies largely in the act of beholding. As long as we approach beauty with the poise of a hunter, looking for another head to mount on our wall, we will come away empty. To borrow from Frost, we must “love the things we love for what they are.” Benjamin Keoseyan notes:

With poetry . . . pure aesthetic enjoyment is always a crucial facet of the reading experience. Poetry offers the prospect of an unadulterated engagement with beauty. Poetry offers even us jaded postmodern humans an opportunity for . . . simple delight. 

Experience

If we must speak of usefulness, we could say that to read (good) poetry, or any other literature for that matter, is an enlarging exercise.

We are parochial creatures, largely confined to our respective time and space allotments. But in reading poetry, in Lewis’ words, I can “become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”[1] 

To read a poem is to peer into a fellow soul. It is to observe the arrangement of its furniture and to note which picture hangs over the fireplace. Though we are not blind, in reading Milton’s Sonnet 19, a small window is opened into the soul of a blind man. Though we are not despairing, we read of Cowper “beneath a rougher sea . . . and whelm’d in deeper gulfs” and feel something of what it is to despair. As we take time to peer through these “soul windows”, we find our own lives enlarged and delivered from the trite sentimentality that often characterizes our counsel.

Language

We come now to language.

At first, lady poetry might seem like an eccentric Victorian woman who speaks in awkward riddles and likely has a vault of cats somewhere. Why all the mystery and enigma? Can’t she just come out and tell us what she means?

But then why do painters obsess over light and shadow, agonize over texture, and lose sleep over medium? Why do composers fiddle with crescendos and time signatures? Why bother with tenors, mezzo-sopranos, and baritones rather than bare naked melody? Why else but that there is an instinctive awareness in all of us that wrote representation is not the whole truth. One may paint a photorealistic likeness of a horse in all its minute detail and still fail to prioritize those qualities, however rustic, that will actually enable someone to better understand the “horseishness” of a horse.

And so the crazy lady becomes a gracious lady. Her words, angled as they are, take a single beam of monochrome truth and split it into an array colors we didn’t even know existed. Poetic expression, rightly wielded, shouldn’t obscure so much augment; shouldn’t extinguish as much as diffuse. 

The language of poetry also reminds us that the world is “charged with the grandeur of God.” To settle for utilitarian language, as to settle for utilitarian art and music, is to concede to the models, graphs, and pat definitions of Lewis’ “quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices.” [2] It is to, though unwittingly, join in on the suppression of what may be known of God in the world around us.

Through Mysteries Revealed

Naturalism strives under the illusion that the world lies under a series of gauzy layers and that true understanding only occurs as these layers are removed. Not until the bare form of a thing is laid out, they say, to be examined, dissected, and labeled, can it be understood.

Of course here must also acknowledge that the uncovering of mystery is a good and godly endeavor. We are not mystics who luxuriate in the unknown like a lavender bath—after all who is Christ but “the mystery revealed.” Nor should the poetic impulse be reduced to “that which defies clear definition.” Rather, through poetry we acknowledge that layers and nuance of expression are often actually means to greater understanding. 

Doug Wilson quips that “the poetic mind cultivates precise knowledge by means of imprecision. Words are not integers with precise mathematical equivalents.” [2] The Hebrew poets knew this. And because they knew this, they also knew that straight didacticisms—God is mighty—were often insufficient. And so we often find them frequently resorting to anthropomorphism, as in Isaiah 42:13:

The Lord will go forth like a warrior,
He will arouse His zeal like a man of war.
He will utter a shout, yes, He will raise a war cry.
He will prevail against His enemies.

Isaiah knew that comparing the Lord with the concrete image of a warrior—the raw, indefatigable metal of a man of war—would communicate more of what Isaiah wanted his readers to understand than a simple statement. This is poetry. It it to appeal to image to better understand truth. In this, it resembles a Mary Poppins’ bag; able to accommodate weight far beyond its initial appearance.  

How many paintings have attempted to communicate the variegations of light? Have striven to capture in stasis what we only experience in motion. Turner devoted his life to to the expression of light and never came to the end of it; nor, sadly, did he ever meet its source. And yet still the subject hasn’t been exhausted. Nor will it ever be.

If light can demand such attention, how much more the Father of lights (James 1:17)? How much more the bright and morning star (Rev. 2:28)? Is it conceivable that Christians—in hymn, story, sermon and verse—will ever exhaust substance for portrayal? No. And so we should always strive for the most fitting expressions capable of bearing His weight.

1. C. S. Lewis. An Experiment in Criticism.

2. C. S. Lewis. The Screwtape Letters.

3. Douglas J. Wilson. Angels in the Architecture: A Protestant Vision for Middle Earth.

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