Monday, May 26, 2014

Can Poetry Help Us Understand Scripture? Part 2

This article was first published at The Master’s Artist.

Last week, I noted that I had attended a poetry workshop taught by poet (and University of Missouri professor) Scott Cairns. Twelve of us spent two days talking about poetry, and talking about poetry in relation to Scripture, and writing poetry, our overnight assignment: pick a difficult passage of Scripture and explicate it – using poetry. In other words, we had to write a poem that might help our understanding of the passage.

Much of that idea of explicating Scripture underlies Cairns’ Philokalia: New and Selected Poems. Published in 2002, the volume includes both new poems and poems from his previously published collections (he’s also published more since then). The term “philokalia,” or “love of the beautiful,” is taken from the collection of texts written between the fourth and fifteenth centuries by Easter Orthodox theologians.

Among the new poems in Cairns’ collection are five “Adventures in New Testament Greek,” in which uses the form of poetry the meanings of five words: metanoia (repentance), hairesis (heresy), nous (mind), mysterion (mystery), and apocatastasis (universal redemption – a heresy of Syriac origin). Here’s what he does with metanoia:

Repentance, to be sure,
but of a species far
less likely to oblige
sheepish repetition.

Repentance, you’ll observe,
glibly bears the bent
of thought revisited,
and mind’s familiar stamp

--a quaint, half-hearted
doubleness that couples
all compunction with a pledge
of recurrent screw-up.

The heart’s metanoia,
on the other hand, turns
without regret, turns not
so much away, as toward,

as if the slow pilgrim
has been surprised to find
that sin is not so bad
as it is a waste of time.

Philokalia contains far more than explorations of words; Cairns considers and examines all kinds of themes, divine and human. What the poems have in common is the use of a spiritual lens; these are themes and subjects best understood as subjects of faith, including issues we wrestle with and including the idea of poetry itself. (One poem, “Interval with Erato,” is a sexually charged poem about poetry and its inspiration.)

I have many favorites in this collection, but the one I found particularly appealing is “The Translation of Raimondo Luz.” It’s a long poem, and Cairns tells us it’s about “the greatest postmodern poet writing in Portuguese.” We learn he’s never left his hometown in Brazil; he’s self-taught, speaking seven modern languages and three ancient ones; he’s known as a radical theologian; he loves American rhythm and blues; and he’s an accomplished chef. And then Cairns tells us he is also a complete fiction.

That’s Scott Cairns – giving all of this extensive background and then offhandedly mentioned the person isn’t real, and then goes on to write a 10-page poem about him.

That same sleight of hand (or is it?) can apply to using poetry to explain difficult passages of Scripture. I know. I did it for the workshop.

Photograph by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.


Mary Sayler said...

Glynn, that's exactly what happened in my poetry-writing and eventually brought about my book Outside Eden! Poetry has tremendous power and God's Word ultimate power! Combining the two just might help to revitalize Christianity and the whole church. With that hope and prayer in mind, I'll highlight your post on the Christian Poets & Writers blog - .

Jody Lee Collins said...

Wow....another wonderful book about powerful poetry. Thanks for sharing this.