Tania Runyan was my mentor via her book, How to Read a Poem, when Tweetspeak Poetry double-dog dared me to spend a month with T.S. Eliot. I’m excited to have her visit today as part of our month of Making Manifest.
In Making Manifest, Dave Harrity tells us to “Remember that what you create is something close to holy.”
Harrity’s words come from his introduction to a guide for spiritual exploration. However, I would argue (and suspect Dave would agree) that all poetry, no matter who the writer, her intentions, or beliefs, is holy.
Consider that we are all God’s poiemas, or “made things.” As creators crafted in his image, we, too, craft with the same mysterious energy that formed nebulae and giraffes. Poems, especially, wrought with so much gut and breath, seem to stand apart—the definition of holy—in the world.
How to Read a Poem, written for a general audience and published by a secular publisher, is, by God’s grace, one of the holiest books I’ve written.
The following poem by Billy Collins serves as the inspiration and organizing structure for my book:
Introduction to Poetry
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
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.
Collins’s metaphors for reading poetry invite us to turn, listen, wander, and feel. People often compare poetry to prayer, and for good reason. Both ask us not for intellect or expertise, but for our full attention. Likewise, just as prayer can be mistaken for a coin in a vending machine, dropping down an “answer” in a quick transaction, poetry can be mistaken for a meaning machine. Let me read you real quick, we tell the poem, and then you can tell me what you’re about.
But the joy comes in turning the poem like a slide to the light, holding it to our ear for that bone-tingling buzz. When we approach a poem with humility, treating it as a holy artifact full of mystery, our hands feeling for the switch, we will find it speaks to different people in different ways at different times, just as the Spirit wafts into our individual lives.
Consider this poem by Mary Oliver:
More amazed than anything
I took the perfectly black
with the one large eye
in the center of its small forehead
from the house cat’s bed
and buried it in a field
behind the house.
I suppose I could have given it
to a museum,
I could have called the local
But instead I took it out into the field
and opened the earth
and put it back
saying, it was real,
saying, life is infinitely inventive,
saying, what other amazements
lie in the dark seed of the earth, yes,
I think I did right to go out alone
and give it back peacefully, and cover the place
with the reckless blossoms of weeds.
I don’t need to know about Mary Oliver’s relationship with God (and how would I find out, anyway?) in order to appreciate this poem as a Christ-like expression of reverence for life. One of my favorite verses comes from Ephesians, where Paul tells us God “chose us before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless.” I don’t pretend to understand the time-bending nature of the Trinity, but this kitten I can get. It is real, infinite, reckless, and somehow predestined to exist, like us. The Word at the beginning—with God and God—is saying, saying, saying so.
The poem doesn’t have a typically Christian stamp of approval, like a verse or cross or Kincaid illustration. But it brings me to a holy place.
As you work through Making Manifest, remember that your work is holy because it stands apart. Only you can write it, and you have no one to blame but the Creator himself. Your job now isn’t to ensure that your work is good enough, even spiritual enough. Your job is to listen for “what other amazements / lie in the dark seed of the earth.”
Tania Runyan is the author of the poetry collections Second Sky, A Thousand Vessels, Simple Weight, and Delicious Air, which was awarded Book of the Year by the Conference on Christianity and Literature in 2007. Her book How to Read a Poem, an instructional guide based on Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” was released in 2014. Her poems have appeared in many publications, including Poetry, Image, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The Christian Century, Atlanta Review, Indiana Review, Willow Springs, Nimrod, and the anthology In a Fine Frenzy: Poets Respond to Shakespeare. Tania was awarded an NEA Literature Fellowship in 2011. She tutors high school students, writes for the Good Letters blog, and edits for Relief Journal.