- Driving the Monotype
On a Saturday in December my husband and I are headed south toward Highway 15. At a stoplight we both turn, instinctually, to glance in the backseat where a package lies strapped in bubble wrap and cardboard, labeled with our names. All is well. We've just purchased a monotype from a print gallery in Harrisburg. The show it was in had closed, so we were free to pick it up and bring it home. As far as art purchases go it isn't exactly off the charts. It is still a big deal to us. We've aesthetically agreed on something, and are giddy to now possess it. On the drive up, my husband actually checked his hair and asked me if he looked okay, as if the monotype would not be released to our guardianship should we look dubious in any way.
We live in a small town. We are not transporting a Golden Retriever puppy, or a baby. The impulse to look, to check up on something precious, reminds me of one of the things I most love about poetry and faith: There are many ways to be.
This is obvious, right? In this century, in this big, free, sprawling country of course there are many ways to be. But we are told at every turn what is normal and what is not, what is worthy and what is not, and what we should aspire to. Our differences are interesting, but that's not always how we treat each other, even in churches, where welcome is often talked about more fervently than it is practiced. If we could believe in and internalize 1 Corinthians 12 we'd all be much kinder and more relaxed. We would accept varied abilities and spiritual gifts of others and we would accept our own as well, as valuable parts of one body. When reading or listening to a genuinely great poem, and in the early stages of writing a poem, I come closest to the freedom of 1 Corinthians.
I'm always on the lookout for work I would like to introduce Seminary Ridge Review readers to in the journal's Poetry + Theology rubric. It's a magpie task, picking out shiny bits glinting from the everyday for theologians and preachers-in-the-making. I want to show them that poetry is their ally. By this I don't mean simply using poems in sermons. That can go badly. Have you ever listened to a sermon when the preacher says he or she is going to read a poem and it feels like a decorative space-filler, and the particular poem just does not deliver the goods? Not only does it not help the message, but it also does a [End Page 247] disservice to poetry by reinforcing, to those in the pews, the notion that poetry is not interesting. Naturally, poems can be used powerfully and brilliantly in sermons. There are unexpected, wonderfully written, transformative, entertaining, relevant poems out there for preaching. Real zingers. In my experience, these are not the poems that make it into the pulpit.
This is what I'm after: letting poetry into the tendons of a sermon, the inner-workings of it. I'm thirsty for sermons written with the attention and sensibility of poetry, with clarity, economy and risk, with the almost athletic attempt to carry meaning and to make a familiar text both understandable and new. I like sermons where you can feel poetry coming through in the way Jim Wayne Miller writes about political identity in his poem "The Country of Conscience," dedicated to Czeslaw Milosz:
One history keeps pushing up through the otherlike the grain in wood through paint.1
Parishioners can sense it when poetry is in the grain of a sermon. They may not be able to explain why, but there is a difference. Miller was a scholar, poet, teacher, fiction writer and tireless advocate for the work of Appalachian writers. He also taught and translated German. His observations were both international and keenly regional. In "The Country of Conscience," Miller comes back, again and again, to those living dual lives, "there...