As the summer slips away and I’m preparing for the classes I’ll teach this fall, I’m also readying myself for a course I plan to take: ENGL 351 – Creative Writing: Poetry.
Steadying myself is more like it.
Why did this seem like a good idea six months ago?
Actually, I’m still very committed to the class, still very much looking forward to it. But I also find myself feeling daunted and not a little stressed.
Neither am I (too much) concerned about the fact that I’ll be classmates with some of my own young students. There might be some awkwardness at first; Doug and I have talked a little about how to offset some of this. I’m hopeful that soon enough we’ll work out all the weirdness.
Poetry, of course, is not the problem. I love poetry. Love reading poems. Love learning about poets. I love sharing poetry with friends who also love it, and nothing is more satisfying to me than learning of a new poem from a trusted friend. I can be obsessed for days with a good poem. There are poems that have changed my life.
No, the parts of this creative writing class that have me feeling a little nauseous are the “creative” and “writing” parts.
Writing poems does not feel like something I can do, nor perhaps even ought to do. This is not false modesty on my part. I’m pretty sure that this kind of creativity is not part of my skill set as a writer.
I’m a theologian. Central to the task of theology is the routine avoidance of creativity or, at least, the forswearing of originality. The idea, communicated to me from my days in divinity school, is that theologians transmit a tradition; we don’t generate one. We make accessible the wise words of others, not our own. We are custodians, not creators; stewards, not inventors.
But it is also true that such transmission does not occur in a vacuum, that the context within which one does theology always requires something of a creative impulse, an imaginative bent, perhaps, even, an artistic eye. This is true, I think, because the ability to write theology well — to steward past tradition faithfully into the present for the purpose of encouraging lived discipleship now and into the future — this ability is linked to one’s facility with language. (Now there’s a connection to poetry I can latch onto).
And language is a slippery thing. And maybe theological language is especially hard to hold onto. It always wants to wriggle out of our grasp; it can be maddeningly elusive, fleeting, shifty, oblique. It is speech that is meant to furnish us with “a set of protocals against idolatry” but it does this always and only through a grammar of mystery and metaphor: God is one and three? Jesus is fully human and fully divine? The Kingdom of God has come, but not yet?
So it takes some creativity to wield theological language, to transmit theological truth responsibly, persuasively and — just as importantly — beautifully. And it is attention to beauty, I think, that most links good theology and good poetry. (Two of my favorite contemporary theologians, Rowan Williams and James Alison, write beautiful theology and one of them — Williams — is a fine poet to boot).
Theology that seeks to be beautiful pays a deep and abiding attention to words — to their power and their limitations, to their rootedness in the Word, the eternal Logos, the logic of the universe that orders all our speech (and all our living). Through language that attends with exquisite care to such things, good theology, like good poetry, issues an invitation, arranges an encounter, invites a response.
* * * * *
What I’ve noticed after a couple years’ deep immersion into poetry is that not only does the thought of writing poems intimidate me, but my own writing (and thinking) as a theologian (and a blogger) has begun to shift. As a poetry-loving friend helped me to name it recently: I’ve been reschooled in the power of what words are for, what words are meant to do.
If theology is — or ought to be — more poetic than polemical then I find myself less interested than I used to be in argument and debate, in entering the fray of yet another controversial issue for the sake of scoring points — or simply causing a stir. (One could argue that blogging itself, and especially blogging about the connections between religion, culture, and politics, by definition reveals a desire to stir things up, to court controversy. I hear that; I wrestle with that).
But the truth is that both/all “sides” of most public controversies are troubling and troubled. I can’t read a Franz Wright poem without knowing — deeply, viscerally — that brokenness and ruin are everywhere and in everyone, and that gratitude for glimpses of grace in the midst of such misery is the first (and sometimes only) response we can offer. Mary Oliver’s poems break open my heart to a world of beauty that is both ordinary and transcendent, immutable and transitory. I want to pay attention to that world, learn from those insights, teach that truth.
Which isn’t to say that poetry doesn’t make room for the theologian’s (or anyone’s) righteous anger. Many a Wendell Berry poem will do that for you. And that can put me back into blogger-rant mode where I would beat up on Paul Ryan and lament a Romney/Ryan presidency as bad news for the poor and thus for all of America (which I believe it would be). Or I would say that Chick-Fil-A’s stance on gay marriage is unconscionable but so is their reliance on and perpetuation of an unjust, industrial food system.
There. Polemics done.
Now can we get back to poetry?
Soon enough. ENGL 351 starts next week.