ALBERT HERTER

Peter Fellowes writes about the joys of reading poetry. First published in ‘Trinite’ by the American Cathedral in Paris.

In Uncategorized on November 2, 2009 at 11:28

Getting the News from Poetry

 

Peter Fellowes

 

Originally published in Trinité (Spring 2007)

 

Once a primary vehicle of Western cultural expression, poetry today occupies a small and precarious niche in our image-driven, mass market culture.  Yet it remains true that there are some things that cannot be said otherwise than by poetry.  The American poet William Carlos Williams put it succinctly: “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/for lack/ of what is found there.”

 

What makes poetry special? The figurative powers of poetry give it special status as a verbal form, and paradoxically, it draws these powers from its very weakness as a vehicle of communication. Compared to prose, poetry is thinly and elusively referential. Because of this quality, some have said that poetry amounts to a special way of listening rather than an intrinsically distinctive style of discourse.  In coming to a poem, we know its aim is to evoke rather than to stipulate, to associate rather than to delimit its subject.  The symbolic resonance of a poem creates concentric circles of meaning that extend its meaning in multiple directions. Ambiguity, not clarity, is the prize.

 

But poetry is also exceptional in that it is almost always lyrical in rhythm, even when it is not formally organized in metrical or stanzaic form.  As a song, a poem gains access to the mind through a different portal than prose, as established by more than a few stroke patients.  Encountering meaning as song, we find our emotions more easily touched.  The standards for plausibility are relaxed as felicitous turns of phrase or rhythm or rime promote our sympathetic participation in the meaning of the poem, thus magnifying its credibility.

 

These two qualities –the figurative force and the lyrical appeals of poetry – make it an hospitable vehicle for the expression of religious belief.  Whatever else it may be, the presence of the God in the world is not a self-evident, empirically verifiable proposition.  As a Christian, one can only say that the claims of truth made by the scriptures appear to be validated by one’s own experience.  The suggestive powers of poetry, aided by the consonances of song, make it well-suited to portraying the fragile linkage between personal experience and faith.

 

Unless one is working within an explicitly Christian context such as Donne’s in Holy Sonnets or Herbert’s in The Temple, the challenge for the lyric poet is always one of tact: how to avoid the temptation of forcing experience into facile or unearned proclamations of faith.  In being true to experience, in giving preference to sensory over abstract language, a poem must take on the risk of not being understood.  “Morning Hunt” was drawn from a morning I spent on the terrace of a home in Tuscany a few years ago.  Like many of my poems, it tries to evoke a particular moment with appreciation for its sensory value and then to turn that moment in a way that yields an inference.  For me, the subject of the poem is the companionable presence of God in the world, that sense of the mysterious wholesomeness of life that can break into certain moments and make one thankful.  But I would quickly add that it is not necessarily about that at all.  It depends on how one listens.

 

 

 

Morning Hunt

 

Blue overhead, the valley still

 

in clouds yields rumors only,

 

the muffled percussive echoes

 

of game sighted, faint shouting

 

of hunters, dogs barking, and then

 

nothing but stillness, unless

 

a shovel’s blade catching a stone

 

in the garden be thought of.

With only a daub of ochre

 

recalling a neighbor’s walls,

 

the hillsides of olives beyond,

 

awaiting an old ladder

 

of joined olive wood polished by

 

three generations of toil,

 

shouldered at the hour appointed

 

for the first pressing of oil.

And the blue hilltops brimming with

 

daylight now, scalloped like waves,

 

dispensing such allowances –

 

a curtain parts, voices call –

one incurs and settles a debt

 

of gratitude opening

 

a folding chair in lifting mist,

 

a blinding white paper, pen.

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