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The Compass of The Word: Exploring Truth and Wonder in Poetry

I.  The Truth is Like Poetry

    In The Big Short, Michael Lewis shares a quote he heard in a Washington D. C. bar: “the truth is like poetry and most people [expletive] hate poetry.”  The quote is circular in the nature of its meditation—Why do most people hate the truth?  Why do most people hate poetry?  The quote is also like a poem in the way that it makes the reader stop and think, “That’s true!” We recognize the truth even when we do not entirely know what “truth” we are acknowledging.   At this point, you are probably agreeing with the idea that you “hate poetry,” (and the expletive is optional depending on the level of your hate). 

    As a lover of poetry (and the truth), I love the quote.  It makes me think of another quote from Norman McClean’s A River Runs Through It: “My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”  For me poetry is among the “good things” in this world that “come by grace” “and art” and do “not come easy.”  The technological age seems to have made poetry even more difficult and inaccessible.  For example, in one of his Hillsdale Dialogues with Dr. Larry Arnn, Hugh Hewitt discusses Homer’s poem The Iliad.  Hewitt tells Arnn that in our society “we are used to quick things” and “reading The Iliad” quickly “denies ourselves pleasures.”  Dr. Arnn agrees with Hewitt and responds, “if you read Homer with attention, you will never forget it and it will be your friend till the day you die.”  Dr. Arnn also adds that reading poetry takes “practice . . .  it’s very absorbing, it should be quiet” and you have to “keep at it for awhile . . . it’s very good.”  

    One of the central inhibitors to poetry in the technological age is the so-called “smartphone.”  Far from the focused and studied absorption described by Dr. Arnn, the smartphone lends itself to the quick fix—we seem to be ceaselessly scrolling up and down, swiping left and right, and clicking onto our hyperlinks.  And unlike the novel, which continues to thrive, poetry often lacks the narrative thrust of a story to pull the reader along.  Still, sometimes I think that poetry should be experiencing a renaissance in the smartphone era—a sonnet, for example, is a quick read and it fits quite nicely onto one my iPhone screen.  The problem is that reading poetry often requires mental exercise that our sometimes couch-potatoed minds do not want to do.  Poetry also requires a sense of wonder.  As Tom Waits once stated in an interview with Paste magazine, “we have a deficit of wonder.  I think it’s because of computers. When I ask people questions now, they get on their computer—‘Gimme a few minutes and I’ll let ya know . . . ’ And I’m like, ‘Noooooo!’  I want ’em to wonder about it, man!  I don’t wanna know the answer—I just want ’em to wonder about it.”  Poetry can help us to renew our sense of wonder through its demand patience and a meditation upon the words.  A great poem is like a great cup of coffee in the morning that you sip, enjoy, and do not want to end.  As an illustration of the need to meditate upon the words in poetry, it is worth taking a look at Robert Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken.”

    Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
    And sorry I could not travel both
    And be one traveler, long I stood
    And looked down one as far as I could
    To where it bent in the undergrowth;

    Then took the other, as just as fair,
    And having perhaps the better claim,
    Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
    Though as for that the passing there
    Had worn them really about the same,

    And both that morning equally lay
    In leaves no step had trodden black.
    Oh, I kept the first for another day!
    Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
    I doubted if I should ever come back.

    I shall be telling this with a sigh
    Somewhere ages and ages hence:
    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.


The last lines of the poem are so powerful that the poem is commonly referred to as The Road Less Traveled.  Through the years most of my students have recognized the poem as a feel-good-poem that seems like it would serve well in a Nike ad: Take the Road Less Traveled—Just Do It!  However, if we read through the poem carefully, it is clear that Frost portrays that both roads are “really about the same” and that the two roads “equally lay.”  Thus, the ending of the poem seems to be misquoted because one road was “really about the same” as the other.  The final stanza seems prepackaged and wrapped up in a nice bow.  The package is so nice that we do not want to open it and see what is inside.  Rather then meditate on why the speaker in the poem tells us that he “took the one less traveled by,” when he knows that it is not true, most readers just take him at his word and repeat his words axiomatically.  

    The question that looms over the final stanza of the poem is, if there is no difference between the two roads, why does the speaker claim that he “took the road less traveled by”?  If we look closely, the narrative framework laid out in the first three stanzas of the poem is shattered in the final stanza.  Notice that the speaker shifts to the future tense, “I shall be telling,” in the first line of the final stanza.  In other words, the speaker is indicating that he is going to be telling others “with a sigh” that he took the road “less traveled by.”  Frost’s use of “sigh” is a brilliant use of diction that recalls the tall tales of grandfathers or bar patrons about their lives: “When I was your age . . .,” or “Back in my day . . .”   Frost’s use of “sigh” is also a clever wordplay within the rhyme scheme to indicate the speaker is going to lie about taking the road “less traveled.”  What seems more sinister is the fact that the speaker acknowledges that he is going to lie someday, “with a sigh,” about the road he took.  We must remember that the speaker is projecting what he will do and not what he has done.  The speaker readily acknowledges that he will embellish the truth about the road he took later in his life, and his projection about the future seems to transform him: instead of being a champion of overcoming life’s trials, he becomes a pompous phony (depending, of course, on how the poem means).  The apparent vanity of the speaker is further highlighted by the doubling of the “I— / I” as he tells his story (this vanity can be heard when read aloud with bravado). 

    However, the speaker’s vanity is undercut by Frost’s title to the poem, “The Road Not Taken.”  The poem is so consumed with the road the speaker chooses that we might lose sight of the road not taken.  The title of the poem provides a clue when the speaker actually stops to consider the road he does not take at one point in third stanza.  However, Frost seems to invoke, a metaphorical road through the title of the poem.  Because the road in the poem can be read as a metaphor for the path one takes in life, we must consider that all roads lead to the same place.  In this way, Frost seems to allude to Thomas Grey’s poem “Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard”—“the paths of glory lead but to the grave.”  The speaker’s projected boast about the story he will later tell about life can be interpreted as a lie that is an attempt to claim glory in life before he dies.  Frost seems to snatch the speaker’s glory away through the title of the poem and should leave us with a question: What is the road not taken?  The obvious answer is that the speaker does not take the way of the truth, which is like poetry and most people . . .  


II. Poetry as a Coalescence of Conterieties

    The frustration with poetry—which also might account for why so many people love reading Frost—is often expressed through the readers’ conflict with understanding the meaning of the poem.  Frost seems to give an easy answer in “The Road Not Taken,” and the quick resolution to the complex tones, rhythms, shifts and rhyme scheme of the poem gives comfort to the reader, even if that comfort is an illusion of sorts, in the form of comprehension.   When teaching students about poetry, I encourage them to try to shift their perspective from the what to the how of meaning in a poem.  The how is borrowed from John Ciardi’s book How Does A Poem Mean?  Ciardi breaks down the various ways that a poem can mean throughout the book, and he shares an anecdote about W. H. Auden that sums up the riddling wordplay of the poet:

Auden was once asked what advice he would give to a young man who wished to      become a poet.  Auden replied that he would ask the young man why he wanted to write poetry.  If the answer was “because I have something important to say,” Auden would conclude that there was no hope for the young man as a poet.  If on the other hand the answer was something like “because I like to hang around words and overhear them talking to one another,” then that young man was at least interested in a fundamental part of the poetic process and there was hope for him.

“When one ‘message hunts’ a poem,” Ciardi continues, “the reader tends to ‘interpret’ the poem rather than to experience it, seeking only what he can make over from it into a prose statement (or Examination answer) and forgetting in the process that it wasoriginally a poem.”

    The best poems have a dynamic quality to them that seem to defy absolute meaning or truth in their lines.  For some Christians the dynamic quality of the poem might be alarming; however, defying the appearance of absolute truth and meaning does not mean they do not exist.  Poetry embraces the mystery of the word (or the Word, if you will); it embraces that sacred aspect of the world, of Christ, of God, that is unknowable.  In an interview for The Paris Review, Ernest Hemingway told George Plimpton,  “though there is one part of writing that is solid and you do it no harm by talking about it, the other is fragile, and if you talk about it, the structure cracks and you have nothing.”  I think of faith in the same terms.  There is a part of my faith that I can talk about, but there is another part, rooted in the mystery, that is sacred, filled with wonder, and I feel like it should not be discussed. 

    Great poetry, like scripture, is alive with the mystery of the word and has an organic quality.  It can never be pinned down because it embraces truth.  But the truth in poetry is a “coalescence of conterieties,” which is a phrase the Scottish Theologian James Stewart uses to describe the life of Christ.  Perhaps there is no better evidence of Christ’s “coalescence of conterieties” than when a politician tries to quote him rhetorically to advance their own message.  It is easy to quote Jesus on love from the bully pulpit, but when Jesus begins his “get behind me, Satan” rebukes of Matthew 16, or the “false prophet” message of Matthew 24, most politicians (and far too many preachers) run and hide.  Indeed, it would be wise, when quoting Jesus, to ask not what does Jesus mean but how does Jesus mean.  In other words, the truth, to borrow a poetic term, is not end-stopped but is in a continuous state of revelation.  Or, to borrow a popular theological phrase, the truth is now revealed but is not yet revealed. 


III.  Another bite . . . presupposing separateness

In his essay “Knowledge and the Image of Man,” Robert Penn Warren writes, 

Man can return to his lost unity, and if that return is fitful and precarious, if the foliage and flower of the innocent garden are now somewhat browned by a late season, all is the more precious for the fact, for what is now achieved has been achieved by a growth of moral awareness.  The return to nature and man and law through rebellion.  Man eats of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and falls.  But if he takes another bite, he may get at least a sort of redemption.  And a precious redemption.  His unity with nature will not now be that of a drop of water in the ocean; it is rather, the unity of the lover with the beloved, a unity presupposing separateness.  His unity with mankind will not now be the unity of a member of the tribal horde with that populating mass; his unity will be that of a member of a sweet society.

Poetry is akin to what Warren calls “another bite.”  Donald Junkins defines poetry as “the creation with words of an effect which simultaneously makes a circular statement following itself outside its own circularity” (40).  In essence this is what the Bible does.  The first bite that was taken from the tree in the garden is represented by the first Adam; it leads to exile, separation from God.  The second bite, taken from the tree of knowledge at Calvary, brings a “sweet redemption” for the believer who becomes the “member of a sweet society.”  Moreover, the Bible is a book that accounts for “creation with words,” or through the Word, and circles around the statement made upon the tree of Calvary.  In poetic terms, I like to think of the tree of knowledge (which brought death) and the tree/cross of Calvary (which brought life) from the perspective the poet Ezra Pound gives to the image in the vorticist poetry movement: 

The image is not an idea.  It is a radiant node or cluster; it is what I can, and must perforce, call a VORTEX, from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing.  In decency one can only call it a VORTEX.  And from this necessity came the name “vorticism.”  Nomina sunt consequential rerum [names are the consequences of things], and never was that statement of Aquinas more true than in the case of the vorticist movement. 

In the Bible, the central image linking the first and second bites, the fall and the redemption of man, is the tree.  The image of the tree contains the ideas of death and life, and yet there is no end to the ideas flowing from the image, which creates a vortex within the Word.  The mystery of the Word corresponds with the fact that there is no end to the ideas. 

One of Warren’s poems that explores the mystery of ideas emanating from the Word is “Lord Jesus, I Wonder”:

Lord Jesus, I wonder if I would recognize you
On the corner of Broadway and Forty-Second-

Just one more glaze-eyed, yammering bum, nobody to listen
But the halt and maimed. My legs are good.

Yet sometimes I've thought of you, sandaled on sand,
Or stub-toed in gravel, dried blood black on a toe-nail,

And you seemed to look beyond traffic, then back with an innocent
Smile, to ask a revealing question

To which I could find no answer. But I suddenly smell
The sweat-putrid mob crowding closer, in pain and emptiness, ready

To believe anything—ignorant bastards. I envy them. Except
Their diseases, of course. For my head roars

With information, true or false, till I feel like weeping
At the garish idiocy of a Sunday School card. At fourteen,

I was arrogantly wrapped up in Darwin, but felt, sometimes,
Despair because I could not love God, nor even know his address.

How about this? God, c/o Heaven-Special Delivery? Well,
The letter was returned: Addressee Unknown. So

I laughed till I vomited. Then laughed again, this time
At the wonder of the world, from dawn to dark, and all

Night long, while stars spoke wisdom in battalions of brilliance.
Sometimes, since then, I have, face up, walked a night road,

Still adolescent enough to seek words for what was in my heart,
Or gut. But words, I at last decided, are their own truth.

There is no use to continue this conversation. We all
Know that. But, for God's sake, look the next blind man you meet

Straight in the eye. Do not flinch at prune-shriveled socket, or
Blurred eyeball. Not that you have

The gift of healing. You will not heal him, but
You may do something to heal something within yourself.

Notice how Warren follows the opening line of the poem, “Lord Jesus, I wonder if I would recognize you,” around its own circularity.  By the last three stanzas of the poem, Warren turns back to one the central images of the poem, the “eye” (we should also note the existential wordplay between “I wonder” and “eye” wonder).   As the poem compasses around the I/eye, Warren shifts two essential elements in the poem in the final three stanzas: He shifts the poem from a direct address to “Lord Jesus” to the reader, and he shifts the wonder of the “eye” from a visible recognition of Jesus to a meditation on a “blind man.”  

    Warren’s shift from addressing Jesus to the reader in the final three stanzas comes with a type of commission: “for God’s sake . . . look the next blind man you meet / Straight in the eye.”  Central to Warren’s commission is the image he provides of the eye.  He writes, “Do not flinch at prune-shriveled socket, or blurred eyeball.”  The image is one that confronts us with the visible/material world, which circles back to the beginning of the poem where the speaker imagines Jesus as “Just one more glaze-eyed, yammering bum, nobody to listen / But the halt and maimed.”   The speaker, who considers himself outside of the “sweat putrid mob” at the outset of the poem, asks us to move in close to the “halt and maimed” by looking closely at a blind man’s eye.  The image of the blind eye creates what Pound would call a vortex of ideas.   For instance, by looking into the eye of a blind man, we might wonder what it is like to be blind.  By considering what is like to be blind, we might wonder what it is like to see the world through the mystery of faith and not by sight.  By wondering about seeing the world by faith and not by sight, we might “do something to heal something within ourselves.”  Warren inverts the material and immaterial worlds throughout the course of the poem and asks us to see the world as Jesus saw it—“blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20.29).  

    Moreover, Warren also inverts the physical affliction of the blind man with the spiritual affliction of the reader, who “may be healed” by looking into the eye of a blind man.  In “Lord Jesus, I Wonder,” Warren effectively considers what knowledge was given in the garden when “the eyes of them both were opened” (Gen. 3.7).  In the final lines of the poem, looking into the eye of a blind man is like taking another bite of the tree of knowledge that causes our eyes to “be opened” and we are “like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3.5).  The second bite, however, like the healing mystery of the second Adam, is one that “presupposes separateness” and may give us a “precious redemption” as members of a “sweet society,” the body of Christ.     


    One of my favorite meditations on poetry comes from J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey.  Early in the novel, Franny tells her boyfriend, Lane Coutell, what a “real poet” is: “If you’re a poet, you do something beautiful.  I mean you’re supposed to leave something beautiful after you get off the page and everything.”  I think that one of the reasons so many people hate poetry is because of what the writer William Boyle calls “it’s entanglements with pride.”  Unlike novelists, poets often have a hard time getting “off the page” and leaving the reader with something beautiful.  I would argue that most bad poetry is an extension of pride, which is due to the fact that poetry has a perception of accessibility that prose does not.  Writing a fourteen-line sonnet, for example, does not seem to require the focus or discipline of writing a short story or novel.  In other words, sometimes poetry suffers from the same disease as social media and reality TV; it is afflicted with the disease of narcissism and everyone thinks they can be a star.  

    In the end, my favorite poets are the ones who compass the word and leave me with something beautiful when they get off the page; they renew my sense of wonder; they are forever exploring the truth.  As Junkins once told Elinor Bemis of the York County Coast Star

True poetry comes directly out of our unconscious, and we have to winnow it, like the cranberries.  You have to hold it up in a certain wind and let the breeze blow through the poem, and that’s what revision is.  We purify it, and when you purify the poem, you purify yourself, and if you purify yourself well enough in the poem, you purify everybody else, too.