Understanding Poetry
Brian Smith

“I don’t understand poetry.”  Poets, teachers of poetry, and organizers of parish-based poetry nights hear this line all the time.  My response is always the same: neither do I. In fact, every time I encounter a poem, I’m struck dumb.  How can I know what this poem is about, who the author is, what they are going through? Why should I care or be reading it at all?

As Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner styled it, we are “hearers of the Word.” Poetry speaks, and God speaks to us. From time immemorial, poetry was meant to be spoken, to be proclaimed, to be heard.  The prophets knew this. That is why they didn’t offer a PowerPoint presentation on returning to the law that God spoke in the smoke and fire of Sinai. They rocked the house with intensity and fervor, in the traditional Hebraic fashion of parallel verse! “For scoundrels are found among my people; they take over the goods of others/Like fowlers they set a trap; they catch human beings.” (Jer 5.26). Their words reverberate today.  

We are also given eyes to see the Image of God within us.  Poetry, like the Holy Spirit, connects us to the nature and meaning of our own lives, and to the sacred imagination of the greater human community.  This past program year, All Souls hosted monthly Poetry Nights, where parishioners gathered to read, absorb, and discuss poems on various themes. In our community of poetry lovers, personal connections to great poets have been revealed—Langston Hughes and Edna St. Vincent Millay in particular. We’ve been graced with original poems and enduring classics. Most importantly, we’ve shared glimpses of God’s Image and Word in a circle of souls with the courage to show up and listen, to speak and be heard.    

Next Saturday evening, All Souls will host a Prophetic Poetry Slam.  We’re adopting the exciting, fast-paced “poetry slam” format to encourage creative presentation and enthusiastic performance of poetry charged with lament, protest, and the abiding desire for justice to be served. You are invited.  Come as you are, no pressure to perform. All souls are welcome. Just remember, it’s OK if you don’t understand what it all means. Neither will I. See you there!

Last Published: July 5, 2019 4:59 PM
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