When a clergyman writes a book which the poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy describes as “This beautiful and wise meditation centred around Mark Oakley’s anthology of the ‘soul language’ of poetry opens new windows in the shared house of both poetry and belief” – then we are looking at a very interesting bridge-book.
“The splash of words:believing in Poetry” – is the book – and its author speaks about it in this fascinating and easy to follow video talk – the talk itself is a compact 42 minutes, but there is a very extensive series of interesting questions afterwards, which pushes the running length to an hour and a half. (Don’t be put off, just listen to the talk and you will find yourself wanting to hear more. Viewing it is time well spent).
What is he saying?
Mark has a beautiful way of describing and making clear, so you would be robbing yourself of the pleasure of his company if you didn’t watch the video. However, if you are truly dashing out the door in 5 minutes or need to be further convinced to watch the video, here are some main topics covered:
- poetry as language for the soul
- people are bewildered by a church service because it’s not coldly factual
- poetry as language of love
- life and language which requires thought is rewarding
- Jesus spoke poetically
- spiritual formation
- the Church should seek to be resonant more than relevant
“For a person of faith, language matters” – Mark Oakley
Out of the many important things in the video, two particularly jaw-dropping points made by Mark were:
- that a better concern for Church than “relevance” would be resonance –
- that many people don’t ‘get’ a church service because it’s expressed in poetry but they came into it looking for factual language. (It would be interesting to ponder how much of mystery and that poetic approach was lost through the Reformation – and possibly even before that with the split from Eastern Orthodoxy into Western thinking?)
“Whereas we can get very obsessed about being relevant, it seems to me that what we should be striving for is not relevance so much as resonance – and thinking through the difference between the two is an important task.” – Mark Oakley
Summary of talk
Poetry is a language of the soul – it distils knowledge and experience.
When the poet Michael Longley was asked where his inspiration and poems came from, he said: “If I knew where poems came from, I’d go and live there.”
Mark Oakley called his book “the splash of words” because he feels that the poem is like a pebble thrown into a pool – it makes a splash (which can be the silence directly after it’s finished), then the poem does its work and begins to cause ripples, shifting water, sand and upsetting stones. The work of a poem brings things onto your shore which you might want to cherish and take home.
He thinks that instead of “relevance” the church should be concerned with “resonance”. To draw on the deeper place, nearer the ‘hummus’ or earth (same root word from which we get ‘humility), so that we can be so still, so centered, that we might be found worthy of some trust. The example he gave was of speaking to an old shepherd and asking if the crook was for putting around the neck of errant sheep and pulling them into line. The shepherd laughed and said that no, it’s so he can drive the staff deep into the soil and lean on it and so be able to stay so still that the sheep venture over to him.
Difficulty can be important in a life. Thinking on our lives, the most important times are the difficult ones – so perhaps also in a language for life – poetry – it’s Ok that it isn’t always easy to immediately understand but has parts you have to work out.
Do you have ears to hear? People tend to come to church expecting for it to be a factual transition, like listening to the news on TV. But actually church is largely story and meaning is communicated without summarizing it. Some people assume that they are entering into a Google temple of information – but have you walked into the space expecting that God is never the subject of our understanding but the cause of our wonder?
Christian worship is poetry – sung poems (hymns), a psalm (poetry), and prayers (again, very imaginative, metaphorical language) and so it bewilders those who come expecting fact and it seems hard to understand. (I wonder if this is again a throwback to the old Enlightenment phase of wanting to understand scientific facts with your mind because everything else was regarded as superstition and ‘unprovable’ religion).
Poetry is the language of Love. When we fall in love, we look for a language to express our feelings. Poetry is the language of the lover. And that is why it must be the language of the Church, the language of faith. We should be wrestling with language to better describe the Beloved and who we are in relation to him.
When we boil down the mystery and depth of the Bible, making them black and white words, it’s then too easy to weaponise them and make bullets to make our points.
Jesus spoke poetically He made up stories – the prodigal son, the Good Samaritan. Some experts believe he spoke in 4 beat poetry. He would ask those listening if they had ears to hear – were they tuned in, not expecting the factual news?
“Read the love between the lines” – John Chrysostom (on Bible study)
Scripture Interpretation “Read the love between the lines” – John Chrysostom said not to just hammer away at understanding a word or phrase, but to always be aware of the love between the lines.
Formation God’s gift to us is our being. Our gift back to him is our becoming. So we need a language for our faith which is not so much about information but formation. We need a language that enlarges the heart and the mind. Poetry doesn’t have a single view in mind, it has multiple meanings on the go. (When a group of people study and discuss a poem, there will be many different readings/interpretations). Melody and meaning are often intertwined together eg. “hurry up” or “slow down.” (their sound matches the expected response, one is fast, one slower, to say). We have rhythm in our heartbeat and breath. Both poetry and faith will challenge your first impressions.
Book: “The splash of Words: Believing in Poetry” is written by Mark Oakley
Publisher: Canterbury Press, 2016 256 pages
- ISBN-10: 1848254687
- ISBN-13: 978-1848254688
Available in Paperback and Kindle