the power and gift of words

Poetry (and poets) can often be like marmite – love ‘em or hate ‘em. But poetry (and indeed words) can have a profound effect. And it can lead from one place to another like stepping stones in a stream. Words can be powerful and transformative and, when well crafted, are life-giving.

This Saturday is the commemoration of George Herbert, a scholar, priest, and poet who died in 1633. His influence on the Church has been profound, in part because of his poetry and also in part because of the model of priesthood he set out in The Country Parson. It’s a model to which many clergy have aspired over the centuries that followed, though sadly one which is wholly unrealistic nowadays because the demands of modern life and ministry have changed so radically!

But Herbert had a gift of words. ‘Seven days, not one in seven, I shall praise thee(Praise II) encapsulates the idea that faith is not merely an activity choice on a Sunday, but something which impacts our choices and actions every day. In a similar way, the line ‘Teach me, my God and King, in all things thee to see (The Elixir)invites us to look at the world and one another with the loving eyes of God.

Great poets have an ability to paint a picture with an economy of words that evoke the situation and our empathy and response in a way that prose cannot. Thinking about Herbert led me to William Blake. Specifically to Auguries of Innocence.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, 

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 

And Eternity in an hour.

And I was reminded of St. Julian of Norwich, who gazed at a hazelnut and saw the world, and all that God had made, within it.

The pen of a poet creates a picture as surely and as deftly as the brush of an artist. Poets – and prophets – see the world slightly differently, and (perhaps most importantly) have the power to express their vision. They help us to lift, even if only for a moment, out of the mundane and experience the divine. Language becomes more than merely an expression of fact and ‘reality’, and points to something so much more.

Another example of this would be Amanda Gorman who, some said, stole the show at the inauguration of President Joe Biden. Her words took us on a journey, far beyond any mere prose or political speech.

For me, the closing lines of John Gillespie Magee Jr’s famous poem High Flight epitomise this ability of poetry to lift us heavenwards. To lift us from being merely human and reconnect us with our Souls, with that part of us made in the image of God.  

…while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Which poet inspires you? Whoever it is, take a moment to find that book and dust it off, and make friends with it again. Let it give your soul wings, and help you soar, even if only for a brief time. Escapism is sometimes no bad thing.

(image by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash)