Poetry’s Deep Work

By Hallie Waugh

“Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.”
– Jane Hirshfield, “Tree”

 

I remember exactly where I was when I encountered poetry for the first time. I was reading for my British literature class and had hunkered down in my dorm’s hallway so I wouldn’t wake my roommate. The poem was one by William Wordsworth. In it, the narrator returns to a place he loves and has dreamt of for five years. As he looks around, he takes in the majesty of the streams and cliffs, and he recognizes in them “a motion and a spirit, that impels / all thinking things, all objects of all thought, / and rolls through all things.”

Wordsworth may not have intended to speak about God here, but his words made me think of my own experience with the divine. As I read these lines, the poem simultaneously accomplished two things: it altered my perspective, and it gave voice to what I already felt to be true. After all, I was accustomed to calling God “Father” or “Lord,” not the spirit that “rolls through all things.” And yet, somehow, this language made sense to me, like I had known God this way all along, I just hadn’t known how to say it.

I didn’t know then that poetry would become a place I’d return to again and again, searching for language and a fresh way to see the world. Since that encounter in my dorm hallway, poetry has consistently challenged me and comforted me, affirmed what I know and caused me to look again.

American poet Jane Hirshfield defines poetry as the willingness “to look closely and long.” This definition makes perfect sense to me. The best poetry cuts through to the heart of things and finds the essence of what’s true—a task that requires great attention and patience. It was precisely Wordsworth’s ability to pay attention long enough to find the essence, the truth beneath things, that made his poem accessible even to me, a college student in a dorm some 200 years later.

We have just come out of the season of Lent, a time when Christians refrain from indulgence and reflect on Jesus’ journey toward the cross. In my own life, Lent has come to represent a season of stillness and turning inward, examining the state of my soul and considering which things I may need to leave behind as I move forward. In the past, I’ve fasted from things as surface level as queso and as challenging as all entertainment and media, and each Lenten season has brought me some lesson that I carry with me through the year.

In my own life, Lent has come to represent a season of stillness and turning inward, examining the state of my soul and considering which things I may need to leave behind as I move forward.

This year, I felt a need for silence and stillness—in other words, I craved the ability to look closely and long. This came about as a result of something important I learned about myself: the more content I consume online or on social media, the shorter my attention span becomes, and the harder it is to attend to my life. I enjoy a good flash sale or social media post; podcasts are my favorite pastime for car rides. But when my soul encounters content, ads, and notifications all day, I begin to feel oversaturated, like I don’t have the capacity to experience the beauty of my own life.

So for Lent this year, I committed to sitting still on my front porch for ten minutes every day. It was nothing heroic, to be sure—it was as simple as walking outside, watching what happened around me, and listening for God’s voice, or just listening to the sounds of the birds. Sometimes it felt monotonous to walk onto the same porch at the same time each day. But on this side of Lent, I can see how the monotony and slow pace of those daily ten minutes woke me up to what was happening around me. Early on, I became acquainted with the exact way the light gained strength, how it hit the street sidelong for a few moments. I noticed each daffodil opening in my flowerbed, and every one felt like a celebration. I watched my neighbors climb into their cars like clockwork. I saw, as Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it, “the dearest freshness deep down things.” I understand, now, that this dear freshness does not always reveal itself at first glance. It’s underneath the surface, and so it takes time and attention to see it.

I think this is how stillness works—over time, as a result of consistency, and not without great patience. The first time I ever sat still for ten minutes or more, my mind filled with thoughts, to-do lists, things I regretted or wished I could change. I felt foolish and antsy almost the entire time. But after a little while, stillness began to create a little more space in my soul, and this space allowed me to notice the world.

I understand, now, that this dear freshness does not always reveal itself at first glance. It’s underneath the surface, and so it takes time and attention to see it.

In my mind, poetry is not much different. It does not offer much to the half-hearted or the rushed, because its language is so condensed and distilled. Perhaps this is why many say poetry is not for them. But after a little while, given time and patience, poetry begins to tunnel down into the heart of things, to a place where words almost cannot go. It has the ability, like the practice of sitting still, to awaken us to the miracle of what is always happening around us, and to give voice to the truth we haven’t known how to name.

Poetry does not offer much to the half-hearted or the rushed, because its language is so condensed and distilled.

Some of my very favorite poetry for this deep soul work comes from the Psalms. There is Psalm 33, which in one version reads, “The earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord” (Psalm 33:5, ESV). A statement like this causes me to look closely and long at the world; if I believe it really is brimming with God’s love, what implications does this have for how I view my neighbor with whom I disagree, or how I treat the environment? And then there is Psalm 23, a poem filled with unexpected language. If I believe that goodness and mercy will follow me, how does that belief inform the way I make decisions? What does it mean that I don’t have to seek out goodness and mercy, but they trail me wherever I go? These are words and images that both comfort and change me.

When I think about paying attention to the world and gaining a fresh perspective to see it more clearly, I’m reminded of the first lines from one of Wendell Berry’s Sabbath poems, most of which he wrote while he was alone, walking outdoors. He praises the act of simply seeing the world and staying awake to it, and he invites all of us into this same type of awareness:

“Finally will it not be enough,
after much living, after
much love, after much dying
of those you have loved,
to sit on the porch near sundown
with your eyes simply open,
watching the wind shape the clouds
into the shapes of clouds?”

May we become people who sit still long enough to notice the clouds, the daffodils, our neighbors in their cars—and finally recognize the immensity and beauty that rolls through everything we see.

 

 

Poems mentioned:

William Wordsworth, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”
Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”
Wendell Berry, “Finally will it not be enough”