What is it about poetry that “gets us right there?” It’s National Poetry Month, so I am asking.
Dr. Raphael Campo, a poet and physician at Harvard Medical school, puts it this way: “When we hear rhythmic language and recite poetry, our bodies translate crude sensory data into nuanced knowing — feeling becomes meaning.”
Imagine, a poet-physician arriving at nuanced knowing, the very place where feeling becomes meaning. It seems almost impossible doesn’t it? That our bodies are the translators. But who better than the ones who study the body to heal the body, to interpret the language it begets?
Not just the lub-dub, lub-dub in the rhythm of a heart beating. Surely, its beats per minute indicating healthy or not. Its volume signaling functional or not.
Not just the whoosh in, whoosh out of the respiring lungs. Their filling and emptying is surely essential to the operation of the organism.
Not just the electronic whir of signal transmission of the brain. And not just the regular pulse of blood through the arteries.
Not just and yet I can’t help but think that rhythm recognizes itself. Knows its kin. Tunes in and pays special attention to its own. That the body responds to poetry because the body is poetic. Lyrical. Creation set in motion. Without prompting or instruction, the toddler sways, the child twirls, the partners step toe to toe.
Just so, my soul recognizes and delights in rhythm. But there’s more to the poetic than rhythm. And that’s why it begs us to read it aloud, recite it, hear it spoken or performed. Verbalized, the poetic allows us to both gather the outline and sketch in the details. To give shape to the form and pour in the color. To chew and swallow, taste and smell. To bring it to life.
Just as the mind does for a well-told story. We know it. We feel it. It has meaning for us and uniquely to us. It draws out what is true from within us, and speaks urgently to our “right now.” Because that’s what we bring to it. And blessedly, so blessedly, we can all gather around poetry because there is not just one right answer.
Mind you, not just willy-nilly words will do this. It’s the culled, cultivated, carefully chosen words that settle deep. The true poet uses words and phrases expertly arranged with an ear for rhythm, a sense of style, how one word will relate to the next, and a feeling for how they will settle on their hearers. Though we each receive them in a slightly different way, if we dare to attend without withholding, poetry has the potential to wake up the poetic in us. To shed light in our darkness, to lift burden from our bearing, and to clarify our way into each new day.
We are all poets. Words animated. Sculpted from the raw materials gifted at first light. Honest words if we are brave enough. And so helpful in their moment to get us through our moment.
How does poetry work on us? as art... it feels I feel everything. I feel the loud. I feel the crush of bodies. I feel the eyes on me. I feel the distance between us. I feel the, no one is talking to me. I feel the, everyone has a friend but me. I feel the invisible. I am invisible. Let me go. I'll be going. I'll show myself out. Hey, what's your name? she called, as I turned to leave. I'm Deborah. I want to meet you. Wendy, I tell her. I was almost Wendy, she says, Until my mother's mother in law said I couldn't be. I love the name, Wendy. I've always wanted to be Wendy. Wendy suits you. So glad to meet you. I feel the quiet. I feel the smile. I feel the distance close. I feel the visible. I am visible.
Oh, Dear Poetry, you reach in and touch the deepest parts of us. May we be brave enough to endure it and bold enough to believe it so we can proudly proclaim it.
“They didn’t show up, so we’re pretty much making it up as we go along,” the young woman said.
She was sitting with a few others in a small circle centered on a glowing lantern dug into the sand. Its bright light was the focal point for the make-shift concentric swirls of a growing crowd who had gathered for the Easter Sunrise service at Siesta Key Beach. People were still making their way slowly, in twos and threes, along the walkway from the parking lot onto the soft, moonlit sand. They wore sweatshirts and caps, were wrapped in towels and blankets, carried beach chairs and spread out blankets and held the hands of children. All in the chilly pre-dawn darkness to the drumbeat of the waves, as we prepared for the sunrise of Easter Sunday.
There is just something about Easter that makes you feel like you need to come in person. Especially this year. Oh, how valiantly groups scurried to deliver remote Easter services, productions and greetings in 2020. But this year is different. This year, we know how to gather safely. Out of doors. In small family groups. Six feet apart. This year I could come in person. How I delighted in that thought after a year of absence from in-person worship.
Until I heard this young woman acknowledge there was no planned service. Now, what I had seen and heard was starting to make sense.
The cars leaving the lot when I pulled in at 6:20am. The small groups congregating with their associates in front of the pavilion and going no further. The three singers standing in the dark trying to begin a sing-along where no one else was singing. “Tell us what you’d like to sing,” they tried, cell phones illuminating their faces as they searched the lyrics and sang (honestly, not terribly on pitch) acapella. “Ok! Verse 4! Amaazziiing Graacee, how sweeeet the sounnnd.”
Normally, this Easter Sunrise service was organized as an outreach by a nearby Presbyterian church. Apparently this year, “out of an abundance of caution” (if I never hear those words again, it will be too soon!), it had been canceled. These brave souls were gonna make it Easter, anyway!
Not me. Not proud of this, but not me. Not like this. After the weak effort at hymn singing and then hearing the woman admit there was no plan for this service, I packed up my beach chair and headed nearer the oceanside. I could surely offer my thanks to God for Easter by the thrum of the waves, and get an even better view of the sunrise from there. Looking back at the congregated, I did marvel at the many — perhaps 100 or more — who stayed, determined to worship together anyway.
What a missed opportunity to proclaim the risen Christ, I thought, safely from a distance. How many of those who had come or who had come and then left in disappointment really needed to hear this message or might even have heard it for the first time? I mean, who gets up at 5:15am if they’re not serious about this whole Jesus thing?
Alas, if I was… Stevie or Patty or Steve or Don or Sarah or Tom or Rob or Marey … perhaps it would have been different. All of these people have, over the course of this last year, provided excellent Christian nourishment for my soul, by media in its various forms. And they have spoiled me. Here, when faced with the amateur version, I’m out. God bless those who stayed.
For my part, I did commune with the waves. I watched the gulls gather and sing from their choir lofts in the shallows. I marveled at the pinks reflected in the sky and the birds delighting in the sun’s first new rays. I greeted walkers-by, calling Happy Easter on occasion, when it seemed safe to say so. I silently thanked the many individuals with large trash bags who swept through picking up human discards from the beachfront, caring for the earth over which we have been given dominion.
But was this worship? Was this even Easter?
Silently, I departed, after marking the official sunrise at 7:17 am. The clouds overhead promised it would be a good one – lots of rays reflected early over the new day. As I drove into our neighborhood, I nearly screeched to a stop. I couldn’t help my intake of breath when I saw the poor lifeless bunny sprawled across the roadway. Oh, I thought, not on Easter. And then, What if some poor child returned from Easter services only to find the Easter Bunny lying dead on the ground?
As I pulled into my driveway I realized what I surely needed to do.
I gathered some supplies and walked back to the sad scene where the rabbit’s body still lay, its side pierced, its eyes sunken and lifeless. With some difficulty I managed to lift him, remarkably heavy and still warm. I carried his body to an out-of-the-way place and laid him gently under the hedge. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, Easter Bunny. After shoveling a bit of mulch and a few leaves over him, I pronounced a brief word of thanks, in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Saddened, I turned to return home along the paved walkway when a small, chocolate brown bunny caught my eye. He nibbled at the green grass in the shade of a nearby bush, apparently, unconcerned about my presence. Once satisfied, he hopped away out of sight.
And it was Easter.
Did I go back to the burial site to check under the hedge? Not yet.
Here in Florida — the land of palm branches a-plenty — one can actually find them scattered about to wave for Palm Sunday. Even if it’s only one palm frond you find in your backyard and you wave it as a personal worship celebration, and incidentally, for the amusement of your two young pups.
It is so much fun to watch their delight as you wave it to and fro. “Hosanna,” you say. “Hosanna.” You say this quietly, hoping the neighbors are not bothered by your odd behavior. But wave it you do and wave it some more as you see how delighted your pups are to play with it. Like kittens with a ball of string, Brittany Buddy and Retriever Lily, jump and frolic and lunge for the fronds. Finally, you give in and toss it in the air for them to catch. They each grab an end and tug and tussle, happily pulling it from each other. What fun! A new toy!
Ah, but then Lily gets a strong grip; she grabs and runs. Buddy gives chase. Lily spins, Buddy misses. Buddy grabs, Lily latches on and tugs it away again. Buddy gets frustrated and growls at Lily. She romps away to sit with her acquisition and rip, rip, rip the fronds. Buddy snarls and bites at her back. Not so playful anymore. Lily protects and defends what’s left. The palm branch is now in shreds.
On any other day, these two are inseparable. Where one goes the other follows. If one leaves, the other whines in protest. They share a common water bowl. They will eat from the same food bowl without complaint. They take turns when snacks are offered, never denying the other his due. And yet… when there is one treasured prize, the mild manner is left behind.
This is mine. Not yours. Because this is mine, it cannot be yours.
Somehow, this seems an apt and unfortunate metaphor for what can be divisive and ugly interactions between Christians in our day. As if there weren’t enough palm fronds to go around. As if Jesus were a limited or scarce commodity. As if my claim on Him meant you couldn’t have Him.
Nope. Today’s palm branches signify the welcome of a humble king and invite a willingness to follow. Wherever He leads us. No one said that Christ-following would be easy, not the least of all Jesus who rode into Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey, knowing for certain what lay ahead. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Matthew 21:9)
So soon they would ring out, “Crucify him!” (John 19:15)
As we enter into this Holiest of weeks and follow Christ through the most harrowing of circumstances, let us give grateful thanks for His life, His ministry, and the way He made for us to follow. A way that promises abundant life with plenty to share.
Let’s not fight over who gets to wave the palm branch.