Among the many gifts I got early in high school was an F I got on a paper from an English class, a paper that the teacher said was too poetic. What he didn’t mean by that is that I had written great poetry in the wrong place. What he meant really, in large part, is that it was really poorly written poetry. A lot was going on for me at the moment. One was I really wasn’t actually prepared to write the paper he suggested I write. I didn’t actually do the assignment the way it was assigned. So there was that I was a bad student. Secondly, a lot of my literary influences weren’t literary in the academic sense. They were. They were poems. They were Lyrics by Morrissey or Robert Smith of the cure any number of folks in the new wave kind of genre of music, and I was deeply influenced by their words because I felt their words. And the topic of the paper. I don’t remember specifically, but I wanted to feel it when I wrote about it. It had to do with what you wanted to be when you grew up. And for me, at the time, I was a freshman. That was a feeling question. It wasn’t an idea question. It wasn’t a mathematical question. It wasn’t a reasoning question. What I wanted to be when I grew up was a feeling question. It was something that was attached to my emotions. And the words that I would have normally used in an academic setting. It just really didn’t do it for me. So I reached for poetry. I know this now, as a 49-year-old guy, I wouldn’t have articulated quite like that as a freshman, but I’m pretty sure that was what was going on is, yeah, I’m supposed to write this paper about my feelings and dreams. It feels too boring to write it like an essay. I’m going to write it like a poem. That totally worked for me emotionally. It did not work for me at all. Academically, I got an F on the paper. I think I ended up with a D or a C. In the class. That anecdote, as silly and goofy and hopefully as funny as it might be to you, also reflects a tension I have often lived in, not just as a writer, but as a person when it comes to the particular uses of language for particular things. proper grammar, and getting the words right to speak correctly. I think it doesn’t just have a place; I think it’s vitally important. Learning the rules of grammar is important. Part of what makes learning the rules of grammar important is that I know intentionally when working outside of those rules, that that realm of poetry is at least as important as learning the rules of grammar and getting it right. One of the reasons I’m spending so much time talking with poets during the season. And referencing people’s poetic work because I think the world of poetry and the practice of poetry might help to unlock a little bit of what’s missing in our communication with one another. I’ve watched a conversation between two very like-minded persons about a topic that they, for the most part, really agree on devolve into vitriol and disgust and insults. Because a wrong word was chosen because of the wrong phrase or because of a word in the wrong place. And the emphasis on getting the right word, the correct word became more important than the person on the other side of the word that we stopped in those moments asking the question, what might this person mean by it? Which is a question about the person, and we instead get locked up on the fact that that would not be the word I would choose. They didn’t say it or do it the way I would. We miss one another. When a relationship, in general, much less than a broad cultural scale, becomes about getting it right. Part of what poetry does is it invites us to move through conversations to more patiently, slowly, and attentively look at, listen to, examine, and take in the language in front of us, whether that’s the language we’re using or the language someone else is using in conversation with us. And not to investigate that word, according to some scale of its rightness, but allow the possibilities, the word opens up to open up the possibilities in relationship. At one point in Jesus’s work life, he was asked by one of his disciples, Why he spoke to people in parables. If you know the work of Jesus, you know that a lot of the time, he would tell a story about a field or a farmer about sowing seeds. Instead of telling the story straight or telling the truth straight, he would use analogies to use imagery. And one of these folks who spent a lot of time lives and why do you speak to be Put in parables. This is from the NIV, it says, he replied, This is Matthew 13, he replied, Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them, whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance, whoever does not have even what they have, will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables. And then quoting from the book of Isaiah, he says, Though seeing they do not see through hearing, they do not hear or understand it is fulfilled in them from the prophet Isaiah, you will be ever hearing but never understanding you will be ever seen but never perceiving. Now, I’m going to assume that you’ve had conversations like this in which you are speaking, and the person who is listening to you isn’t actually listening. They might be looking at you, and they might like have an ear open to you, but they’re not really listening. They’ve maybe decided what you’re going to say. Or maybe they’ve decided how they’re going to feel about what you’re going to say in any number of options outside of actually attending to what it is you’re saying, which is why I really love what Jesus says. He says, Listen, I speak to people in parables because I’m challenging them to listen. You are actually doing the work of listening. And because you’re doing the work of listening, you’ll continue to receive more of this, which is how relationship works. And by that, I mean all relationships, interpersonal relationships, corporate relationships, societal relationships, administrative relationships, and cultural relationships. It’s all predicated on Listening, paying attention, and not just to the words used, but to the people using the words. Poetry asks us to slow down and attend to the words, not just themselves, but all the possibilities. Those words open up between us and those we are conversing with. Again, there I am at 15 years old, trying to find words that actually match what’s going on in my guts. And absolutely, Mr. Griswold was correct that using an academic paper to work that out was not the right place. But it was the right thing for me to be doing. And the more time I’ve spent in areas in my life where the right words, academically, even societally, just don’t actually match what’s going on in me or around me or between me and other people. The more stretching, invitational practice of poetry has allowed me to create space in my own psychology and, yes, in between myself and other people. Which leads me to this. I honestly can’t see the next season of life here where I live in the United States, becoming less nuanced, becoming less complicated, culturally, racially interpersonally. I think it’s going to get weirder. And the weirder it gets, the harder it will be to connect with one another if we’re expecting people to jump through all the right hoops in order to communicate with us. So how do we become better listeners at think reading some poetry on occasion, somewhat regularly, and maybe even getting into that practice of finding some space in our lives to maybe write some poetry to get outside of the language we’re used to using in our academic, relational, religious spaces, and create a pattern in our own minds in which words don’t kill relationship but open up the possibility of it.
Links For Justin:
NEW Single – Let Go
NEW Music – Sliver of Hope
NEW Music – The Dood and The Bird