Poetry, Leisure, and Paying Attention

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What if leisure is as necessary as the dishes and diapers?

When I was teaching college writing, I often assigned my students poems as part of writing exercises. I thought I was being innovative and creative, that I was adding a little beauty to my students’ busy days.

More often than not, though, my students met these poems with boredom. “This sounds pretty,” they would write for my exercises, “but when will I ever need a poem?”

This question continues to rattle those of us who, in agreement with Abraham Kuyper, see poetry as a distinct, vital participant in the order of creation. Words not only belong to God, but our ability to use them to create images, scenes, and stories echoes the mandate we received in Eden that was redeemed and renewed by Christ’s death and resurrection. Poetry, like carpentry, preaching, and economics, clearly and simply belongs to God. So why aren’t more of us reading it?

The reasons are endless: we are too busy, too connected to our digital devices, too addicted to the latest edition of Candy Crush to pick up a book of poetry. We walk past the poetry section at Barnes and Noble, and the titles are either scandalous or confusing. Or perhaps we’ve had one too many teachers—ahem—drill us about meter and meaning for us to associate poetry with anything but classrooms, assignments, and grades.

We are also, I think, deeply burdened by the daily needs that require so much of our attention. In the months preceding and following the birth of my son, I have spent my time doing things that feel entirely utilitarian: cook, clean, wipe, nurse, wipe again. It is an endless cycle of meeting immediate physical needs, and I barely have time to shower, let alone revisit the poems of Jane Kenyon, Shakespeare, or Naomi Shihab Nye. The demand that marks my days feels too heavy for the leisure of poetry, and I suspect that most of us, regardless of what our lives look like, feel the same way.

But what if leisure is as necessary as the dishes and diapers? What if, in order for me to be a good mother, I need to turn to poetry as a way of refreshing my weary self in the midst of this busy season?

For while it is true that the Scriptures are both restorative and instructive, it is also true that a good poem can refocus our vision, deepen our understanding, and even give us words to pray. I think of my friend Tania Runyan, a poet and mother whose newest book, Second Sky, strings together images and stories from her life and observations with the words of Paul throughout the epistles. I think of these lines from her poem “The Road to Damascus”:

Can he save me again,
a woman too laggard to lose any hope,
too blind to collapse in a flash of light?

These are words I need, both now and every day. And I hope that the next time I come across a book of poetry, I’ll take the time to open its pages—to, as Mary Oliver writes, “pay attention / This is our endless and proper work.”

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