Psalm 23 comforts so many people in times of hurt. And it’s poetry, not just a biblical text. The rhythm of the words has an effect like music, and the imagery of green pastures, still waters, the table before enemies — these things themselves actually “set a table,” a mood for the reader and listener.
The psalm is an example of both religion and art. The Bible is viewed in a variety of ways: God’s word, a guide for a good life, a historical document and a place to place your hand when making a solemn vow. But a number of its books are also art. Read Ecclesiastes. Truly beautiful and sorrowful. Read the book of John. It is a type of poetry.
Poetry can be powerful in our lives, and not just in biblical form. Poetry is not easily defined, but I basically think it involves a play with language for an emotional effect. It can be really simple or complex, depending on what you want to express and who you’re addressing. I read a lot of poems — in part because my short attention span usually defeats me when I sit down with a novel. I read poetry the way I listen to music. I want a quick hit of something well done. I want to read or hear what makes me think and feel something new. But I rarely want to sit and read 70 to 80 pages at once. My wife is different. She’ll finish a book in a day.
So, I have stacks of poetry books on my dresser and I often spend time reading 10 or 12 pieces by one author. Or, I’ll sit with my phone and thumb-type lines that interest me, then maybe I’ll alter a line and create something completely different based off of that one line. Sometimes I’ll just write nonsense as fast as I can just to see what comes out. When I do that, it’s pretty much all gibberish. But occasionally something pops out that’s odd but interesting. And then I start with that line and piece something together like a puzzle. It’s fun. And that’s one way I write my own poems.
Quite often, I’ll scan poetry books not even looking for a good poem, but a good line. For instance, Stephen Dunn opened his poem, “Under the Black Oaks,” like this: “Because the mind will defend anything it has found the body doing.” I read that yesterday and paused. It’s not a remarkable line. It’s simple, but I enjoyed thinking about the truth in it. Yeah, we often act before thinking and our minds are so eager to find justification for what we just did. I read poetry looking for sound or imagery or personal meaning for myself. Something good can carry just one of those things, but preferably it has all three. I don’t have much patience for completely impenetrable writing that seems solely bent on stiff-arming the reader and making the author look super smart in comparison. If I sense that, I typically just turn the page and move to the next thing. I know some people like that stuff, but not me.
At times, poetry in school can be made into complete drudgery. I remember feeling this way. I hated it. I had zero desire to read it. It didn’t feel alive in any way. I remember trying to interpret meaning behind a poem in class, as if it was a riddle we were expected solve — and that was lone point, code breaking. I don’t think of poetry that way any more. I kind of resent that way of thought. Some stuff might be deeply coded, but I don’t think that’s the point with the best writing at all. For instance, if you look at a painting, do you have to sit and interpret the meaning? Do you think the artist in a great painting is purely political or has some message to convey? Is that ever the thing that makes a piece of art good? No, not really. It has something else about it. It has an effect on you. Did it catch your eye, your ear or your gut in some way? If it doesn’t, that doesn’t make you an idiot, which is how many of us have felt at times. I have looked at poetry and art and thought, “Well, I guess I’m supposed to feel something for this, but I totally don’t. I guess I’m a dummy.” OK, I’m a dummy. So what? Sometimes, that’s probably true. The thing is, the more I read, the more writing I find that really does hit me. I can’t stand being told, “You should like this.” But I love discovering, “Hey, I like this.” There’s a huge distinction there for me between actively searching and finding something I like versus passively being told what to like. And in school, it’s typically all the passive, obligatory form.
Anyway, this column was prompted by an article I read today in The Washington Post about Sara Holbrook, a writer who found her poems on Texas standardized tests with multiple-choice questions about what she had written. And a funny thing, she said she had no idea how to answer the questions about her own poems. Holbrook wrote about having an eighth-grade teacher write to her, wanting to know about the stanza breaks in one of her poems. The standardized test presented the following question: “Dividing the poem into two stanzas allows the poet to: A) compare the speaker’s schedule with the train’s schedule; B) ask questions to keep the reader guessing about what will happen; C) contrast the speaker’s feelings about weekends and Monday; D) incorporate reminders for the reader about where the action takes place. The correct answer was supposedly “C,” but Holbrook was perplexed.
“The test prep materials neglected to insert the stanza break,” wrote Holbrook. “I texted him (the teacher) an image of how the poem appeared in the original publication. Problem one solved. But guess what else? I just put that stanza break in there because when I read it aloud (I’m a performance poet), I pause there. Note: that is not an option among the answers because no one ever asked me why I did it. These test questions were just made up, and tragically, incomprehensibly, kids’ futures and the evaluations of their teachers will be based on their ability to guess the so-called correct answer to made up questions.”
This seems indicative of the true insanity of standardized test culture, doesn’t it? What the heck? Why wouldn’t kids be turned off of poetry and writing in general, for that matter? I sure would. I would hate poetry with a passion, kind of like I once did when it seemed so irrelevant to me, when it seemed so dead and tied to testing, not expression.
Think of it this way. If you have been moved by the 23rd Psalm, or if you have stood at your mother’s or grandmother’s funeral and felt the power of the words and melody of Amazing Grace, or if you have heard someone say the exact thing you would want to say yourself, and put their heart into it so that you’re sort of envious but also awed — the way a great singer might make you feel, forcing a shudder in your spine with the beauty — then you understand something of poetry.
And if you have fretted over which bubble to fill on a poetry test that makes absolutely no sense and has no meaning other than one more number piled on the trash heap of testing bureaucracy, then you understand something of the death of poetry.
And I hope you feel love for the first and disgust for the second.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.