Take a moment to consider what poetry teaches us:
For me, poetry is a practice that is helping me begin to slow down and become more attentive. Learning to read a poem carefully trains us to pay extraordinary attention to the sounds and images of language that we might easily overlook in our haste. It is not surprising, given the value that our culture places on speed and efficiency, that poetry is not a particularly popular art-form these days; poetry books for instance are very rarely bestsellers. Poems offer us an invitation to abide with their words. (In Defense of Poetry, C. Christian Smith)Rather than be frustrated by how I don't "get" poetry in the first reading, I'm slowly learning that it's opaqueness is drawing me in, trying to get me to crack the code. This happened as I read this one by George Herbert.
Prayer, the Church's banquet, Angel's age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth;
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six days world-transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices, something understood.
At first glance, I quickly skip over "angel's age," but land on "the soul in paraphrase." Those four words are so lovely, I just stop and roll them over my tongue, at the same time realizing I don't even know what is the subject of the poem. Ah - prayer! Now I'm hooked. What a perfect description of prayer. Tell me more!
"Heart in pilgrimage." Yes. "Engine against th' Almighty." Hmm. This makes me scratch my head. Which I am now discovering is a good thing. S-l-o-w-l-y I work it out... prayer is where I also get angry and impatient with God, questioning and doubting and venting, an "engine" fighting against Him, but also engaging Him, much like the "reversed thunder" in the next line. On and on it goes...
George Herbert lived from 1593-1633, not even seeing his 40th birthday as he died of tuberculosis. He was an Anglican priest who was the rector at a little parish called Fugglestone St Peter (how priceless is that?). Richard Baxter, a well-known Puritan pastor, said of him, "Herbert speaks to God like one that really believeth a God, and whose business in the world is most with God. Heart-work and heaven-work make up his books." I would want such things said of me.
More importantly, I can say that this poem was not just a nice diversion. It changed me. I learned something as I was challenged to think about prayer in new ways. As Mr. Smith says later in his essay quoted above,
Like a rich and carefully crafted dessert, one must savor a poem in order to enjoy it fully—its images, its context, its sounds. A good poem is hospitable, inviting us to sit for awhile and enter into a conversation. Poetry, however, does not come naturally for us in our times; it is a discipline to which we must commit ourselves.Thus I plunge forward, continuing to savor the new flavors and old ones forgotten. Try it yourself. It's worth the effort.