“Three million years

The Spirit, ranging as it will,

In sun, in darkness, lives in change.

Changed and not changed.

The spirit hears

In drifting fern the morning air.”

—Janet Lewis, “Fossil, 1975”

What is it that poetry does and is? We can say that poetry is about why people do things, and about what we know, and don’t know, of human motive. We can also say that poetry is in language, sounded, and that poems should say what they mean and be the right and exact locution for what is said, that the sound should echo and be echoed by and be of the meaning. An ideal? Yes, in good poetry approached, sometimes nearly. Poetry is a way of speaking true, and the truth is of sound and vision, the rhetoric fitting the truth a poem conveys and is.

What do we know of human motive? There is a tale I retell in a poem of mine entitled Dog Days for Great Cranberry Island:

And on the south end of the island still mist, then fog.

There has been mist on the place of the Prussian lady,

Born Dorethea Albertina Called Hannah Caroline.

When she heard that her husband had died in the

Arctic she threw his stuffed seals in the bay.

The story really happened: at least my informants on Great Cranberry Island were quite sure that it really had, and some of them say that the stuffed seals were picked up by a ship and taken to Boston, where some of them are on display in a museum.

I tell the story to students and then ask about motives—fifth-grade students, college students, graduate students—and hear many of the same answers: because she loved him, or because she was tired of the seals, or because she resented his being a sea captain and traveling far and dangerously, or various other notions and variations. Then I ask a trick question: “Well, will someone give me the Correct Answer?” and the response normally is resistance, more or less polite: “How can we tell the Correct Answer?” or “Who are you to think there is a correct answer?” or whatever. But there is a correct answer: We don’t know. Or, as I finish the poem:

When she heard her husband had died in the

Arctic, she threw the stuffed seals in the bay.

Whether out of grief or hatred, it is too late to say.

We might, with a lucky investigation, be able to say much better whether her motive was grief or hatred or both or boredom or whatever; maybe some letters could be discovered, or something else. But we know that, at best, we still would not be wholly sure. Human motive is locked in human breasts, to whose chambers with their recesses we have some, but not all keys.

Poetry, then, is an exploration and understanding of human motive. In that I agree with Yvor Winters that the best technique is that which makes a poem more true, more appropriate, more richly attuned to the motives discovered and unfolded. I hold, with Winters, that we can know and understand much of human motive and that good poetry expresses such understanding with singularly exacting power; I would also emphasize, perhaps even more than Winters, how much in human motive remains intractable, mysterious, hard to assess. And that is true of religious poetry as of any other: motive and mystery are integral to it, and not every rendition has the same power and integrity and exactitude as the best.

Poetry is a good, and evil is a privation of good. That theory, from Aquinas and others, does not cover everything or solve all problems, but it is powerful, useful, and in some deep senses true. I am fond of telling students that it is good to invent something, to express how one feels, to tell something which will (more or less) interest other people. Some poetry is much better than other, but poetry can really be bad only when it is pretentious, when it claims to be more than it is. Often one needs to tell a student, preferably gently and firmly, “Your poem is longer than it is.”

Also, many poems claim to be more than they are. The truth that human motive is often unknowable or mysterious does not mean that anything goes, or that every obscure and bardic gesture about the mystery of things is necessarily valid.

A poem, then, can be true about human motive; and there are means of judging that—and how it handles language. Unfortunately, so much in current academic discussion and defense of Christian ideas and standards is tentative and defensive. Are there not some things we may proclaim?

We often say we are fallible; we make mistakes; we are not sure about much that we say; we learn and qualify and change our minds. But there’s a trick in the language of fallibility, which can make us sound more skeptical or confused or unbelieving than we are. For, if by saying “we are fallible” we mean that we sometimes make mistakes, then by logical parity we should equally be entitled to say, “We are infallible,” because we sometimes get things right, say that which is true. Of course we don’t claim we are infallible and would be roundly scolded if we did, but the logical point is still relevant, both to our capacity for judging (poetry among other things) and making relevant distinctions in language (in and of poetry).

Poetry should have fit language, a “just and lovely image” of what the poem conveys and is, and that fitness, that appropriateness, takes long and is hard and good to achieve. It is done partially by adjusting language when it does not fit. The process continues, is philosophical, religious, human, and gets somewhere.

Here is one example. Sometimes we read in a newspaper that someone died unexpectedly. An unusual comment on that I once heard is, “No one ever dies unexpectedly.” We know what the newspaper meant to say; but our sense of language and our lives and deaths are clearer for the adjustment. We do expect to die, and should learn to die well. Religious discourse, including poetry, has told us so for a long time.

Language does and does not fit reality, and the process of accommodation is perpetual, possible, fruitful, and our task. John Dryden tells us that poetry should be a just and lively image of reality, and Alexander Pope tells us that sound should be an echo to the sense. The only way that can be is for the sense to be in some way a sound. Echoes are sounds reflecting sounds. Language and meaning and reality stand apart and mutually enter.

Richard M. Gale, a philosopher responding to Henri Bergson’s charge that our symbols distort reality, writes that Bergson’s claim is true only in the trivial sense that “symbols are qualitatively different from their referents: the word ‘amorous,’ for example, is not itself warm and passionate. One does not say a physicist’s vector diagram is a vicious distortion of reality because it does not get up and run around the room.” But if a poet writes an amorous poem, we want it to be warm and passionate (or otherwise appropriate); and if a poet were to do a vector diagram, it should gallop about the room. We do what we can, as best we may.

Religious discourse or poetry is apt to provoke special claims and disclaimers, virtual frenzies of timidity. The Bible is not mealymouthed; theories of religious language often are. We are often told that our language for talking about God is inadequate and that we need metaphors, no metaphor wholly sufficing. We can overrate or underrate the place that “metaphor” has in our discourse. For instance, the term “literal” is a metaphor. But we still can speak. When a Christian says, “Jesus of Nazareth is God,” the statement is in no sense metaphorically intended. We mean that it is true. And, certainly, it does not follow from our nervousness about metaphor and language that anything equally goes in speaking about God.

Language is language. The word rabbit does not exhaust rabbitness or include each rabbit, born or yet to be born, but still we are not free to substitute words at random for rabbit. I suggest that we treat God at least as well linguistically as we treat rabbits.

Karl Barth says in The Faith of the Church that God’s hands are literal, ours metaphorical—an astonishingly wise thing to say. We are the “metaphor,” God the reality. We are the vapor, God the Rock.

Aristotle writes in the Poetics, “to scatter seed is to sow, but the scattering of the sun’s rays has no name. But the act of sowing in regard to grain bears an analogous relation to the sun’s dispersing of its rays, and so we have the phrase ‘sowing the god-created fire.'” Aristotle perceives a hole in language, and promptly closes it. That sun sows light on the problem of understanding our language, knowledge, and faith, even now.

As an enthusiast in philosophy, I respect the work of Wittgenstein and Peter Geach and Max Black and Paul Holmer and G.E.M. Anscombe and Aristotle and Aquinas and John Wisdom and others who have helped us see how language can be used to clarify, to strengthen, to understand, not just to speculate and entangle and doubt. The linguistic movement in philosophy early on was deeply positivistic and anti-Christian; it has changed and grown since.

I am an optimist philosophically, a Christian in Faith, and the two meet, and I rejoice. One of our tasks is to make our language more adequate by thought, distinction, reflection, caring, love.

Here is a poem: “Each Day,” by Sister Maura.

Her face thins almost

as we watch. Bones

seem larger—grating

on pillow and sheet

like shells on a ledge

of shore. We speak

more simply in her presence:

a primer of nouns

and verbs. She lets go

of life gently. We

receive from her hands the victory of belief,
learning the meaning of our lives from our grief

In granting permission to republish some poems of hers. Sister Maura wrote me, “I’m glad that you chose ‘Each Day.’ When I give a reader, or when readers comment on the book that it is in, it is that poem which they say is the one they remember. It is, I suspect, close to the human heartache that, at some time, we all share.”

Which is a lovely reply that virtually constitutes a definition of religious poetry: poetry which speaks to our hearts, gives light to our sorrow, and speaks true.