by Claudia Ann Highbaugh
When I was growing up on the south side of Chicago in a densely populated urban community, my imagination was wallpapered with poetry—the words of possibility, beauty, and whimsy. Surrounded by the grit of the cinders in my parochial school playground, my child mind was invited to dance and play with those who offered children a window into worlds beyond the immediate. My favorite poem as a little girl was “The Swing” by Robert Louis Stevenson:
How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!
The visual movement of the poem was a delight for me as I practiced my childhood freedom and felt the sheer joy and ease of movement on the playground swing. I remember that the view in my elementary school playground was not so magnificent, but the goodness in life was captured in the poem and I lived it in my body each time I got a turn on the playground swing. The poem taught me to feel in my mind, body, and spirit that this movement above the earth, with the view and the air and the excitement of reaching new heights, was a gift for a child. I love the poem still. When reading it, I remember the feeling, long past, of taking a turn on the playground swing.
Poetry shows us how to live, and how to remember. It gives the body and spirit time to reach back to the known and out to the possible. It sustains ritual, informs faith, and collaborates with the spirit, guiding experience into a future where we can be sustained by wondrous, beautiful, comforting, and blessed memories.
Poetry adds language to the work of life: crises, danger, love, grief, joy, sadness, questions, faith, anger, changes, hope. It moves the mind from stasis to action. Giving images and impressions in places of emptiness, the poet sets out vowels and consonants, words and phrases, rhymes and meter; shaping and creating new songs or prayers, designing the particularity of a moment and guarding the sanctity of a cherished memory.
In the embrace of a poem we rehearse and practice and live into our questions. Poetry makes connections: images to reality, possibility to probability. The poem and the poet entice us to go back and move forward, tangle with the questions, experiment with the senses, remember, plan, explain, rejoice, and celebrate.
“Oh taste and see,” proclaims the psalmist, “that the Lord is good!” (Psalm 34:8).
In spaces of silence the poet’s words shape and form reflection and movement. People who think about the words and work of the poet say that the poem invites us to the ritual of renewal, the opportunity for creation and re-creation. For example, in the old standard hymn, “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all,” the child or adult is invited to the sanctity of creation through singing the poetry of remembering. With joy, we gather to remember the sacredness of our life in community with the creatures of the earth, all ages, shapes, and sizes.
The poet also seizes our frustration to make a noise against evil in the world. In a march for justice, the voice of the people is raised by the hand of the poet; think of the place “If I Had a Hammer” has had in struggles for civil rights and for peace.
Poetry marks our place in the world. In the work of teaching and learning, the poem is a tool that invites openness, participation, and insight. It ushers in the ideas of a larger world or another worldview.
When I was the chaplain at Harvard Divinity School, we held a special noon worship during Black History Month, a liturgy composed of James Weldon Johnson’s verse sermons from God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. The worship service called upon the tradition of the “old time Negro preacher” to celebrate the spirit, history, and tradition of power and inspiration of the black preacher. The poems, interpreted for the service in music, preaching, and voice choir, offered a collage of prayers and Gospel text. This collection of verse expressing the oratory tradition and faith of the black preacher enabled a congregation from a variety of backgrounds to hear and experience words of faith in a new way.
Poetry is a way to investigate cultures and stories, art and history. A poem takes the mystery of difference to a place of experience.
For my people standing staring trying to fashion a better way
from confusion, from hypocrisy and misunderstanding,
trying to fashion a world that will hold all the people,
all the faces, all the adams and eves and their countless generations;
Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. . . .
—Margaret Walker, “For My People”
Poems give us direction and momentum as we endeavor to do our work in the world. The word of the poet can be a tool for engaging possibility. It is our work that gives us value in the world, but words of inspiration are what shape and prepare us for the vocational tasks we are called to do.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
. . .
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
—Marge Piercy, “To Be of Use”
The poet brings comfort. In the life of care and ministry, beginnings and endings beg for a ritual blessing. The words of the poet push back to memory for comfort and press forward for healing and renewal.
Very often the words of the poet make the perfect reflection at a time of life crisis or celebration. Poetry connects the generations at a baptism, reminds a loving couple of vows long since recited at a wedding, entices the spirit to comfort and the soul to repose in the mourning of a life. The poet guides us with the Psalms or the familiar hymn. Our spirits reach out past wounds and aching heads and hearts to bind up the painful moment with the comfort of familiar text.
O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home!
At every memorial service where these words are sung, I am reminded of the generations that have heard this song. I have heard this hymn across the times and places, across generations at funerals and memorial services and at vigils. It is an elixir whose familiarity shakes me into a spirit of thankfulness and respect for the gift of life and the gift of years to come.
The sung words of the muse shape the sacred spaces of ritual blessing and renewal, in worship, in praise, in the hours of our ordinary day. The words sustain and remind us of our humanness, our commonness, our relatedness, and the sacred time for reentering the world blessed from Sabbath rest.
For the beauty of the earth,
For the glory of the skies,
For the love which from our birth
Over and around us lies:
Lord of all, to Thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.
—Folliot S. Pierpont
The words of the poet and the work of the poem have kept me alive and given my spirit resilience and identity.
I am a black woman
tall as a cypress
beyond all definition still
on me and be
—Mari Evans, “I Am a Black Woman”
Claudia Ann Highbaugh is dean of religious and spiritual life at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. She is on the Board of Ministry and an affiliated minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard University. This piece originally appeared in the Winter/Spring 2012 issue of the Bulletin.