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Why does poetry matter?

  • 25 August 2022
In most circles poetry doesn’t matter. It doesn’t put bread on the table, nor raise people to revolt nor even make news unless a grizzled footballer is outed for secretly writing poems. Even in churches poems and hymns are altered to improve their orthodoxy in matters of faith, gender, race or modernity, but rarely their poetic quality.

I was therefore pleased to read in the Catholic Magazine First Things a long article by the fine United States poet Dana Gioia. Entitled Christianity and Poetry it made the case that poetry is the flesh and blood of Christian faith and life and that it is vital in commending doctrine, ethical behaviour and worship. In his argument mainly referring to the Catholic Church, he explores the meaning of religious poetry, its indispensable place in the Scriptures, liturgy and commendation of faith, its place in English literature amid the changing relationships between faith and its cultural environment, and the need for the Church to place a higher value on poetry today. His article also raises wider questions about the place, if any, that poetry and the tradition of which it is part should have in our society.

Gioia begins by distinguishing poetry from prose, as

 ‘the most concise, expressive, and memorable way of using words. It is a special way of speaking that shapes the sound and rhythm of words… A poem is speech raised to the level of song; it casts a momentary spell over the listener. People hear it differently from ordinary talk. They become more alert to every level of meaning.’

Such speech and the quality of attention for which it calls is indispensable when speaking of ultimate questions and of a reality that lies behind the immediate and tangible universe. For that reason it has a central place within Scripture:

‘Mary, Luke, and the prophets spoke in poetry because they understood that some truths require the utmost power of language to carry the full weight of their meaning. It isn’t just intellectual meaning at stake but also emotional, imaginative, and experiential meaning—all of the ways in which humans understand this world and imagine the next. To stir faith in things unseen, poetry evokes a deeper response than do abstract ideas. Angels may be content to speak in prose, but incarnate beings like us require the physicality of poetry’.

In writing on the Catholic Church and poetry Gioia enters fields that are notoriously quarrelsome. In the debates