In a time when possibilities, once seemingly limitless in our nation, have suddenly become far more limited, poetry offers perspective and possibility while refreshing place.
I have long believed that poetry would make an eventual come-back in our culture, but now I see a window of actual opportunity for such a thing to happen. In a culture awash with words, often empty words from the unrealistic promises of advertisements, the economy of words in poetry forces meditation and musing. Each word packed with levels of meaning, each phrase stretchy enough to become a space and place all its own.
Take it from American poet Emily Dickinson who spent the majority of her life in a chosen quarantine without COVID-19. While she was particularly quirky, she knew a thing or two about limits and possibilities. In her poem I Dwell in Possibility, she expresses the freedom that the poetic form offers as compared to prose.
I Dwell in Possibility (466) by Emily Dickinson
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –
While we are cramped in similar places and limited in our movement, poetry offers movement and imaginative space. It frees us from a merely pragmatic existence and imbues meaning into the seemingly monotonous.
Scottish writer and poet George MacDonald had the gift of expressing himself through a world of words. In the following excerpt from his book of poetry entitled The Diary of An Old Soul, he puts into words what so many of us have experienced in the recent weeks.
“Therefore, O Lord, when all things common seem,
When all is dust, and self the centre clod,
When grandeur is a hopeless, foolish dream,
And anxious care more reasonable than God,-
Out of the ashes I will call to thee-
In spite of dead distrust call earnestly; –
Oh thou who livest, call, then answer dying me.
We are a shadow and a shining, we!
One moment nothing seems but we see,
Nor aught to rule but common circumstance-
Nought is to seek but praise, to shun but chance;
A moment more, and God is all in all,
And a sparrow from its nest can fall
But from the ground its chirp goes up into his hall.”
As I have processed with family, college friends, and women from our church, the shared sentiment is a sudden swinging between the poles of levity and gravity, fear and distrust, belief and unbelief, peace and anxiety. One minute we are trusting the Lord and enjoying his purchased peace in the midst of the storm, but then the next, for no apparent reason, we are cowering in fear, hoarding toilet paper, and doubting God’s wisdom and goodness.
I love the phrase, “We are a shadow and a shining, we!” as it poetically captures the distinctly Christian paradox of humanity which holds both brokenness and beauty, sin and sonship.
Two weeks ago, all seemed normal as circumstances and schedules ruled our lives. We had baseball and soccer practices that called us, coffee dates that consoled us, and work and home to divide our time. Then, as if out of nowhere, COVID-19 changed the filter. Suddenly, the things we took for granted became great gifts: hugs, toilet paper, work and paychecks. Suddenly, the God who had all but fallen into the background came again to the forefront, and the sovereignty of God that our self-assured and self-reliant culture tried to shrug off became a prized reality. The Heidelberg catechism went from a dusty old creed to an anchor line of hope nearly overnight.
MacDonald’s twin phrases, “When grandeur is a hopeless, foolish dream/
And anxious care more reasonable than God,” perfectly captures the feelings many of us have right now. Anxiety seems more reasonable than faith right now, but, as believers, we cry out to the living God to save us.
More poetry which creates space and perspective to come in the coming days of quarantine. Until then, rest in the reality that while we are both shadow and shining, our God is sovereign and good.