Yes, it will wreak havoc on your life; so, if poetry beckons, just turn around and go the other way or at least give it a wide passage for if you let it come to close it will insinuate its way into your heart and then, katy-bar-the-door, your life is over! Your are a dead man….or, at least, the man (or woman) you think you are is going to die.
Let me explain. I was in my early thirties and had quit teaching school and was beginning Dante’s venture into a “dark forest.” And then a young man who purported to be a friend had the audacity to give me a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets and the Collected Poetry of W.H. Auden and I was almost immediately on the road to perdition. To make it worse, about the same time I discovered T. S. Eliot and his “Four Quartets” where I learned that words were ephemeral, that words “break, slip, slide, decay with imprecision, will not stay in place….shrieking voices always assail them.” you deign to venture into words to the extent that suddenly you awaken and discover that you are knee-deep in…ahem…the Word!
And since that point in my life, poetry has continued to worm its way into the depths of my heart, relentlessly delving into the secret corridors of my inner most being where I have discovered that, just as the Apostle Paul said, it is “quick and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” Wow! Wow, wow, wow! That poor friend had no idea what he was doing to “literallew”…but, on the other hand, perhaps he did. He was a very astute soul.
But, how can “poetry” do this? Well, “poetry” as such does nothing. But poetry is a process, a dynamic process which is an expression of life, and if it happens to present itself to a heart that is ready to discover “penetrable stuff,” magic can unfold.
Why was I so ready? Well, the first clue was my fury at literature in high school and those dear schoolmarm teachers who would deign to force me to answer the question, “What does that mean to you?” I reacted with mute anger, dutifully trotting out whatever I thought they wanted, not daring to tell them what was really on my heart, “It means just what it says!!!!” Certainly, I did “protest too much”; and, yes, Shakespeare was my worst nightmare at that time as he just would not speak plain English, and certainly not Arkansas redneck, “po white trash” English.”
But now I swim in poetry…though I cannot write even an inch of it! As my wife told me not long after I met her and was obsessively quoting poetry (ncluding Auden’s note re Yeats, “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry), “Mad Arkansas hurt you into other people’s poetry.” That was a veritable “word fitly spoken.”
Poetry is the Spirit of God at work, tearing words apart and allowing their hidden meaning to flow. Poetry is the word, broken….crucified, if you please…which allows its innermost depths to burgeon forth. This reminds me of a note by Gabriel Marcel, that words have meaning, or value, when they “burgeon forth into a region beyond themselves.” The literalist will not permit this as the “words” they use are concrete and will not be permitted to “break” and that is because the “ego” that they are will not be allowed to “break”…or, as Jesus taught, “die.”