Poetry Still Has Teeth

During my first day in the Drew MFA program in 2009, students gathered to hear the faculty talk about a current favorite poem of theirs.  I’ll never forget when Alicia Ostriker, my first mentor, read Jane Mead’s poem “Concerning that Prayer I Cannot Make.”  At the time, I was fresh out of college, living with my mother whose mental illness was, unfortunately, getting the best of her, and wondering how and why my relationship with God was changing…and frightened by it all.

That first stanza unexpectedly hit me, as Florence + the Machine would say, like a train on a track:

Jesus, I am cruelly lonely
and I do not know what I have done
nor do I suspect that you will answer me.

Those three lines felt like I had written them. I was disillusioned with silence from God, yet I desperately wanted to love Him, but didn’t quite know what that looked like anymore.  I was rapidly being asked to grow up in many ways by taking care of my mother and shouldering a full-time job while going back to school. I was also the youngest in the MFA program at the time and felt completely inadequate as a writer. And yet I felt I had to swallow all of my insecurities and carry on like a good little soldier.  I certainly did not think of acknowledging my loneliness, anger, and questions.

This poem changed that.  It showed me that it was ok to question and be bold about it.  To this day, I still think of the last line of that Jane Mead poem where, after addressing Jesus, the poet addresses nature and all that is around her, saying, “Listen, I am holy.”

That last line broke me open.  Though permission is not required to write or to feel or to question, I needed it.  I needed that gateway to open so that I could remember my worth as a person.  I later wrote to my mentor that it was in that poem that I saw pieces of the writer I wanted to become.  I realize now that my connection to the piece was deeper than that.  I saw pieces of the woman I wanted to become–thoughtful, observant, full of questions, and, when need be, brazen. Four years later, these are all qualities I now possess.

Last week, a writer at the Washington Post posted an article asserting that poetry is dead. The main question posed in this article is “Can a poem still change anything?”  Here, in part, is the writer’s answer:

I think the medium might not be loud enough any longer. There are about six people who buy new poetry, but they are not feeling very well. I bumped very lightly into one of them while walking down the sidewalk, and for a while I was terrified that I would have to write to eleven MFA programs explaining why everyone was going to have to apply for grants that year. The last time I stumbled upon a poetry reading, the attendees were almost without exception students of the poet who were there in the hopes of extra credit. One of the poems, if memory serves, consisted of a list of names of Supreme Court justices. I am not saying that it was a bad poem. It was a good poem, within the constraints of what poetry means now. But I think what we mean by poetry is a limp and fangless thing.

This response to poetry both saddened and angered me.  I was angered that someone would flippantly say that a medium I love so much is “a limp and fangless thing.”  And I was saddened that someone could misunderstand such a powerful literary genre so completely. To only look at the numbers is to miss the point.  The author’s perspective is one I would expect from someone who has not been affected by poetry.

And I know that not everyone will be.  Poetry is not for everyone. But to make such a sweeping statement about a genre one is not familiar with is ill-informed.  I hoped that the writer would at least include some tidbits about speaking with lovers of poetry, but she did not.

Poet Daniel Nathan Terry wrote a response to the Washington Post article as well (and after reading it, I wondered if I should enter the conversation because his response is so articulate).  I do not have a story that brings together politics, love, and words so eloquently as he does. But, as seen earlier in this piece, I do have a story of how poetry changed me.  And I’m not the only one.

The fact that poets may not have the most followers on Twitter or that they don’t sell out stadiums does not mean the genre is dead.  Poetry may not make headlines, but I have been in small New York bars and witnessed the audience sigh as one when a poem knocked the breath out of their lungs.  I have seen a poet cry when reading her own poem because the words brought back the memory so vividly.  I have sat at countless tables in cafeterias, cafes, and living rooms talking about the power of the exact right word.  And every one of those people has a story about a line of poetry that sticks with them to this day because it’s power knocked something loose in their souls.  It was that knocking that spurred them to action.

Poetry still has teeth.

And in that sense, yes, I think poetry can change a hell of a lot.  Indeed, that may be the only way anything has ever been changed in a lasting manner–one person, one adversity at a time.

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Of Mitres and John Coltrane: My Thoughts on Blue Like Jazz

Blue Like Jazz: The Movie

I think Don Miller is pretty cool.  If you’ve spent any time around me, you already know this.  I’ve been reading his books for a couple of years now.  He seems like the kind of guy you could sit down with at a coffee shop and talk for hours, which might be why I keep reading.

The reason could also be that his work is real.  Don doesn’t sugar coat life or faith or the hard work it takes to get where you want to go.  So I was thrilled to learn his memoir, “Blue Like Jazz,” was going to be made into a movie.  And after this surge of anticipation came a wave of dread.  Books turned movies don’t always translate well (“The Lightning Thief” anyone?).

As a book, Blue Like Jazz is a beautiful fusion of faith and wrestling and life and interactions with people that seem really off-beat (in the best way.)  To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the film.  Many movies under the “Christian” label can be quite biased and unrealistic.  This movie could also swing in the opposite direction, creating a piece devoid of any deeper meaning.

After I saw the movie this past Friday, I was happy to find that Blue Like Jazz is delightfully balanced, showing both the reality of life (specifically college life) and all of its complexities when you throw in wrestling with faith.

Sure, there will be the people who may expect a sermon and will not be happy with the fact that the movie doesn’t end with Don’s character parading around the campus of Reed College handing out Bibles and yelling, “Repent!”  There will also be people who won’t like it because of all the God talk.  But, ultimately, this movie serves as a great discussion piece.  Not to say that the cinematography wasn’t good or that the dialogue felt forced.  But the movie is more than close-ups and funny one-liners.  Blue Like Jazz is a movie that isn’t afraid to wrestle with the larger life questions and refuses to present clear-cut answers simply because we all have our own experiences, which almost never produce a neat answer when we add them all together.  Life is art, not math.

There are certainly big differences between the book’s accounts and the movie’s portrayal.  But the film tells a good story (and, really, isn’t that what a movie should accomplish?).  There is one scene I keep coming back to where Don’s character is speaking with his father.  His dad is sitting on a lawn chair outside of his trailer, drinking a beer, and listening to Coltrane when he says two lines that have stuck with me: “Life is like Jazz music.  It doesn’t resolve.”  This is the main theme I took away from the movie.  It’s a theme that is nuanced, and certainly opens the floor to discussion.

A Love Supreme

All of the people Don interacts with along the way (Penny, Lauryn, “the Pope”) are three-dimensional.  They are not dismissed as heathens or God girls or merely intellectuals.  There’s depth to them, qualities that made them all human.  This is perhaps my favorite aspect of the movie, mostly because I can relate.  I have a friend who reminds me of Lauryn and a friend who is pretty much “the Pope” (minus the mitre).  And these friends have struggles and beauty and flaws.  And yet, I feel that some would box them in, then write in big, bold, Sharpie letters “THE LESBIAN” and “THE PAGAN.”  Blue Like Jazz shows that people are more than the sum of their labels without being preachy.  That in and of itself is quite a feat.  I hope movies (both Hollywood and “Christian”) will take a hint from this movie and create more films with complex characters.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the film not because it was made by a Christian author or marketed to a specific audience.  I enjoyed the movie because it is refreshing, because it is honest, because it celebrates the very human freedom to question and draw conclusions from our own messy and beautiful experiences.

It has been five days since I’ve seen this movie. For whatever reason, I can’t stop listening to John Coltrane.

Listen to a song by Coltrane here: Acknowledgement by John Coltrane from the album A Love Supreme

Poetry: A Spiritual Practice

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine posed the question, “Is poetry a spiritual practice?”  I thought about this for a while, not because I wasn’t sure if writing was a spiritual practice, but because I couldn’t quite articulate why I believed it was.   Even though the question was posed via facebook status, I spent quite some time crafting an e-mail response…because I can’t say anything concisely.  And this is what I came up with:

Quill and ink

Image via Wikipedia

Poetry is a way for me to connect with people and nature, everything around me, which are all ways to connect with God.  I’m reminded of somethingone of my favorite authors, Don Miller, said: “We connect with God when we ask Him to defeat in us all the ways in which He cannot connect, all the untruth and games and manipulation and we come to Him finally saying, ‘Okay, I get it, you really are good, defeat in me the lack of faith, let your goodness rid me of the stuff that doesn’t connect with you or the world around me.'”

Poetry is a unique form of prayer.  It is a practice that allows me to cut through all of my cluttered thoughts and feelings so that I can get to what matters, what I need to hear and what I need to share with others. It is my way of getting on my knees and crying out, it is my way of talking with God, it is my way of asking forgiveness, it is my way of asking for fire.

I’m also reminded of something the poet Matthew Dickman said in an interview.  He was asked about what sparked him to write a poem.  He told about how he’s usually moved to write while musing about something he enjoys.  Matthew went on to say: “I suppose it’s the “like” that moves me to begin writing a poem—some sort of celebration in my chest wanting some words to understand itself, some sort of grief needing a body.”  There are these urges, these pushes to write that must be followed and, in the process, feel sacred.  There is so much that goes on in one life, sometimes these occurrences beg to be written down.

Thoughts?  Is writing a spiritual practice?  Can it even be considered a spiritual discipline?

Jesus and the Doctor

I often have seemingly disparate thoughts floating around in my head. The latest is a comparison between Jesus and Doctor Who. Let me explain….it is too much. Let me sum up:

About two weeks ago, I saw the clip from “The Passion of the Christ” that portrays Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. This has always been my favorite scene from the Gospels. It is here, I think, that Jesus is at His most human. He is broken, asking for “the cup” of the cross to be taken from Him. In that moment, He didn’t want to go through with it. And yet, He is strong enough to say “not my will, but Yours be done.” Stunning.

What I love about “The Passion” portrayal is that the movie shows Satan tempting Jesus. It really made this moment come alive for me and brought it to a place that I think everyone can relate to on some level:

A few days after watching this clip, I saw the Doctor Who episode titled “Journey’s End.” I’ve often thought that if Jesus were to come back in human form today, he’d be a lot like Dr. Who — dynamic, fun, engaging. This scene from “Journey’s End” really cemented that feeling for me:

One particular line that stuck out from this clip was, “How many have died in your name?”  The flashback shows friends of the Doctor, humans and aliens whom he knew anywhere from a few hours to many, many years before they died.  The look in David Tennant’s eyes when he remembers those deaths, the destruction he never meant to leave in his wake, is palpable and heart-wrenching.

The question posed to the Doctor could also be asked of Jesus. There have been countless martyrs for the cause of Christ. But the question can be posed another way– how many have been killed by Christians in the name of Jesus? Or, to re-phrase again, how many atrocities have been committed in His name? I wonder if this was one of the ways Jesus was tempted in the Gethsemane– not “You can’t do this,” but rather “If you do this, atrocious acts You want nothing to do with will be committed in Your name.”

And perhaps if Jesus came back today, His enemy would not confront Him with “I have shown You Yourself,” but instead “I have shown You the people You died for… and how they continue to get it wrong.”  And He keeps loving anyway.

Wild Love

“Ooh,” said Susan, “I thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and make no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about opposite concepts lately.  The most recent is the title of this post: “Wild Love.”  Stereotypically, love is thought to be as mushy as melted Valentine’s Day chocolate.  It is sappy.  It is safe.

But then I think of the excerpt at the top of this page.  The four children find out that the one they are looking for in Narnia, the one they call “Aslan”, is a lion.  The prospect of meeting a lion is scary and the two girls vocalize their concern.  Then there is that final line: “‘Course he isn’t safe.  But he’s good.”  This moment always gives me pause.  Isn’t that which is good also safe?  No, not always.  Goodness should have a certain ferocity to it.

And this makes me think of God.  He is not the God of two hour Sunday mornings with neat lines and inspirational sound bytes.  He is not tame.  He is fierce, frightening, challenging and ultimately good…but not safe.

Which brings me back to love.  Why settle for its watered-down, marketable version?  Perhaps because we think that is all there is.  Maybe because safe love is simply easier.  Perhaps the prospect of an uncontrollable force is far too scary.  But wouldn’t that love, the one that is alive and uncontained, be worth the risk?

Let’s search for the love that gets our knees knocking, sets our bellies fluttering, this rambunctious love, wild and untamable.