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Meditating with Poetry

Try This Renewing Spiritual Practice – Meditating With Poetry

“Words, like nature, half reveal and half conceal the soul within”.  – Tennyson

I speak for a living. One day, while designing a workshop on spirituality and work, I was previewing a video by David Whyte called “Through the Eye of the Needle”. From a talk Whyte gave at the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, I heard him recite this:

“One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice —

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible….

from Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” in New and Selected Poems


That was when I set my foot on the path of reading poetry as part of prayer.

I felt at that moment, the perfect peace that rarely and sweetly comes when God has knocked on the door, and I have opened it a crack, then flung it wide. Since then I have tried to spend time each week praying and meditating with different poets, and have found it gives a freshness to my prayer that had been lacking. An additional benefit has been that often a word or phrase will rattle around in my mind days later, or pop up on the pages of my sporadic journaling.

It’s great to be alive in an era in which poetry is coming back into its own. In recent years, we’ve seen a resurgence of poetry slams in major cities, and interest has revived in Shakespeare, with festivals featuring the work of the Bard flourishing. When Billy Collins (our past Poet Laureate who can simultaneously skewer our pretensions and tickle them) came to speak in Cleveland, the response was so great that if you weren’t seated a half hour early, you were turned away to gnash your teeth.

Until a recent blip on the screen of history found poetry neglected in our own century, our ancestors were nourished by words, often read aloud around the family table for an evening’s entertainment or discussion. Our ancestors welcomed the visiting bard with eager anticipation, and hung on his words during his visit to their firesides and halls.

Until modern days relegated poetry to a classroom “do I hafta?,” poetry was a community activity, and people who recited well were respected and admired. In not so distant American history, it was common for a “scholar” to demonstrate that he or she had the chops to recite, at the grammar or high school graduation, a long dramatic poem for the edification and enjoyment of his neighbors.

Billy Collins invited me to reclaim the joy of poetry, in his bemused voice, contrasting his wishes for his readers to the way it was sometimes treated in school:

…I want them to water-ski

across the surface of a poem

waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do

Is tie the poem to a chair with rope

And torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose

To find out what it really means.

From the poem “Introduction to Poetry” in Sailing Alone Around the Room

I was smitten early, when my Aunt Vi gave me Louis Untermeyer’s The Golden Treasury of Poetry. A respected literary critic in his day, Untermeyer made a rich selection of poetic gold nuggets. He included poems with antiquated language, and challenging vocabulary, limericks, and humorous epitaphs. Some poems had expansive themes that I read over and over, until I had half memorized them, and the words would just rise up to claim my attention unexpectedly in the daily duties of childhood. That’s when I understood for the first time Lectio Divina, though I couldn’t yet articulate the experience until as an adult, it all came rushing back when I heard David Whyte’s recitation of The Journey on that changed-from-an–ordinary-day.

An ancient art, once practiced very widely by Christians, Lectio Divina is the practice of “listening with the ears of the heart”, according to the rule of St. Benedict. It requires one to slow down, and listen for the presence of God in the sacred Word given in scripture. It is a kind of immersion, in which we cultivate the intention to hear, as Elijah did “the tiny whispering sound” (I Kings 19:12) that was the only sign that God had passed by the cave in which he had been hiding. This still, small voice of God for which we all yearn, can be heard in poetry as well.

As William Carlos Williams has said, “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack of what is found there.” In the time honored practice of Lectio Divna, the reader may choose at first reading, a word from the passage that strikes or moves him or her, then reads the piece again and selects a phrase for reflection, and after a third reading, shares with a group, or a spiritual director what the passage might mean for one’s life. We are literally, as William Carlos Williams puts it “getting the news” from scripture, or from poems.

I have come to a profound belief in these words of William Carlos Williams, and the practice of the church fathers (and mothers) I’m not alone. The popularity of Roger Housden’s Ten Poems to Change Your Life and a growing assortment of “poem a day” books, would seem to indicate that people are overcoming their fear of poetry, and pulling up a chair to the feast.

The wordsmithing of poets draws me. The crafting of these intimacies of expression cracks me open like an egg and I can mingle wonder, pain and insight with a stranger as the poet pours out the human condition in a stream of words that bears me along deeper into the embrace of God.

Poet Muriel Rukeyser said it well: “If there were no poetry on any day in the world, poetry would be invented that day. For there would be an intolerable hunger.”

In April 2005, I was thrilled to be attending a weekend at the Jesuit Retreat House in Cleveland, OH given by facilitators who travel the country teaching people to meditate using poetry. Peggy Rosenthal, published author and professor, and David Impastato, published author and poet, describe their ministry as follows:

“The purpose of our retreats, seminars, and courses is to open up great poetry as a resource for personal spiritual growth. Whether poetry is a longtime friend or brand new to you, we hope to send participants forth with a fresh appreciation of how poetry’s special crafting of language and imaginative vision can enrich our quest for fuller life in greater intimacy with God. The poets whose works we come to know are spiritual pilgrims like ourselves, who explore our cares and hopes, our yearnings for relation to God and one another, and our call to heal a broken world.”

For more about Peggy and David go to www.poetryretreats.com

It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack of what is found there.” Meditating with poetry might just be a new place for you to get your news.

We encourage the sharing of these posts with the following attribution:

This material is created by Kim Langley, M.Ed. for WordSPA and is being used with permission if it includes the following contact information: Find Kim Langley and WordSPA at www.WordSPA.net. Call us at 216-226-3351. Email us at kimlangley@wordspa.net