by Richard Haney, Executive Director
April showers soon will bring forth May flowers. But before we turn the calendar page, I remind you that April is celebrated as National Poetry Month. You might think, as I once did, that Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Black History Month and National Poetry Month all were invented by Hallmark for the occasion of buying and sending greeting cards. While that may be true, I believe we truly do need special days and seasons to honor loved ones and to learn new things. These “Hallmark holidays” are occasions for noticing and honoring what we might otherwise miss or ignore.
But why am I, a frontier mission enthusiast, extolling the merits of poetry instead of opining on literacy, orality, insider movements or stories of Gospel advance among people groups? Well, because it is National Poetry Month and I am a devout aficionado of lines and pages of verse. And the world of poem-making aligns naturally with the missional topics of Bible, translation and appreciating the world’s cultures.
Let’s start with the scriptures. The book of Psalms is an extraordinary collection of 150 poems that may have been sung as much as recited among the ancient tribes of Israel. Various psalms help the Church express lament, hope, praise, thanksgiving and other emotions through prayer. C. S. Lewis, an accomplished teacher of English among his other identities, declared that the Psalm 19 was the finest poem ever written in English. Even in translation, Lewis observed, the song soars in beauty and truth.
1 The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
4 yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world. Psalm 19:1-5
Poems are concentrated speech that live and breathe through metaphors. A metaphor is a figure of speech that speaks through comparisons. Metaphor expresses one thing in terms of another (another phrase, image, comparison). Emily Dickinson offers this example of a metaphor at work in her poetry.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
Translation is the noble work of expressing words, thoughts and ideas of one language in terms of another language and the cultural assumptions it carries. The translator constantly pays attention to metaphors and how they work in the receptor language. The translator necessarily thinks in two languages, two cultures. In 2021, the vast majority of Christian believers live in Africa, Asia and Latin America. More and more cross-cultural workers are being sent from these regions. For Western Christians, today we have a grand opportunity to appreciate a truly “global Christianity” that shares with us new ways of articulating the faith we share. Thinking with metaphors prepares us to learn from our sisters and brothers who understand following Jesus in new experiences and stories.
The poet shows the reader how to pay attention. Paying attention is a building block for forming friendships, expressing love and appreciating persons who are different than us. In my own life, the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins has been my primary teacher. During my study days in Oxford, I would walk daily by a church, St Aloysius; its sign by the front door proudly told passers-by that John Henry Newman and Hopkins both served there. My curiosity took me to Hopkins’s poems and I was hooked. Hopkins looked upon the created order with a sharp eye. The poet’s practice of saying “much” with simple lines of verse intensifies the weight of each word. Here are the opening lines of “Pied Beauty.”
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Poets serve their readers by offering creative bursts expressing ideas, insights, observations and emotions. The good poet can say what we feel in a compelling way yet articulates what we cannot utter ourselves. This is one of the reasons I turn to the Psalms to find words for praying deep-seated feelings. Poet Mary Oliver contends that poems speak about the mortal condition; “in poems we muse about the tragic and glorious issues of our brief and fragile lives: our passions, our dreams, our failures. Our wonderings about heaven and hell—these too are in poems. Life, death; mystery and meaning” (Rules for the Dance, 1998).
I just heard a report on the radio that poetry has experienced a resurgence during the pandemic. The website, poetry.org, reports that visits to their site is up 30% during this past year. I expect that may be true for another website I enjoy, poetryfoundation.org. That makes sense. This has been a year with restrictions, staying-at-home, doubt, loneliness, suffering, etc. More and more people are turning to poetry for relief from divisiveness, anxiety and the frantic pace of life. A new anthology published last month, How to Love the World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope offers readers uplifting poems by well-known poets from all walks of life and all parts of the US, including inaugural poet Amanda Gorman, Joy Harjo, Naomi Shihab Nye, Ross Gay, Tracy K. Smith and others.
How to love the world? That’s a compelling question for us mission enthusiasts. “For God so loved the world that he gave us his only Son…” Frontier mission is concerned with the world’s hidden peoples gaining access to the grace and truth of the John 3:16 declaration. Frontier mission celebrates that God loves diversity and that the world is beautiful in its cultural mosaic marked by almost 7,000 languages and maybe as many as 14,000 ethno-linguistic people groups.
How do we love this amazing world, the handiwork of our Creator?
Paying attention will get us started. And the poets will show us the way. Even when April is gone—the poems remain. And the poets will keep crafting their verses to say what needs to be said. Read them and be moved.