There’s Nothing Random About Poetry or Faith

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When L. L. Barkat first pitched the concept for Random Acts of Poetry, I was hesitant. I did not want our network to become like or the other vanity poetry sites where people put sentences into lines and call them poetry. L. L. reassured me that we could encourage people to love poetry, we could highlight the good poets, we could love them for wanting to write poetry, and gradually they would learn how to write good poetry. Since I adore poetry, it didn’t take much to convince me. So Random Acts of Poetry debuted on October 17, 2008.

For me, poetry is the secular route to faith concepts. When I spend time with my atheist and agnostic friends, they can be intimidated by my faith. I try to downplay it sometimes, not out of shame, but out of courtesy to them. They know I’m Christian and know they are welcome to ask about my faith at any time. Mostly, though, we talk about good food and good drink and good movies and good games and good poetry. Mostly, our faith conversations are mediated through these other mundane things. For instance, on my first visit to New York, I had one agenda. I wanted to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, stop in the middle and read “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” out loud. Weird, I know.

Since I didn’t have a copy of the poem, we went to the Strand Bookstore to buy a copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Then we found a bench on the middle of the bridge. We sat down. It seemed like all of New York was rushing past on foot or underneath in their cars and cabs and even ferries. This will sound melodramatic, but it is true. That moment remains one of the most powerful moments of my life. Whitman’s confession in part six became my confession: “The dark threw its patches down upon me also, /… / I am he who knew what it was to be evil.” Then, part seven overwhelmed me. Whitman writes,

Closer yet I approach you, What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you--I laid in my stores in advance, I consider'd long and seriously of you before you were born.

I’m not really a mystic, though sometimes I pretend to aspire to mysticism. On that day, those lines felt mystical. They are not specifically Christian, but they are true. They remind us that the world is bigger than what we see and feel and know. Some people don’t believe in God, but they can believe in poetry. Left at that, poetry becomes just another idol, just another false promise that life can have meaning in verse or success or prestige or print. But poetry is a good thing to believe in. Like Scott Cairns often says, poets speak the language of prophecy. No wonder I was so intimidated at Laity Lodge this weekend, surrounded by some of the best Christian poets in the US: Luci Shaw, Jeanine Hathaway, Julia Kasdorf, Jeanne Murray Walker, Anne Overstreet, and Eugene Peterson. (I wish everyone in the network could have been there.) These people are poets, sure, but they are also sometimes prophets. They also sometimes tell us the things we know to be true, but we don’t want to hear. And there is nothing random about it.

Post written by Marcus Goodyear. Photo by Elizabeth O. Weller. Used with permission.