Volume 9, Issue 4: Poetics
Men Hate Poetry
And sometimes a proud old soldier
Who had heard songs of the ancient heroes
And could sing them all through, story after story,
Would weave a net of words for Beowulf's
Victory, tying the knot of his verses
Smoothly, swiftly, into place with a poet's
Quick skill, singing his new song aloud While he shaped it, and the old songs as well -
In previous millennia, poetry was overwhelmingly a male passion. Your manhood would have been questioned if you did not share in the longing for a metrical weave of words. But what has happened? Why do most modern men hate poetry? Why is poetry now largely considered the domain of effeminacy?
Certainly part of the blame falls to that romantic sentimentalism still prevalent in much poetry. That might naturally and rightly turn some men away. After all, most modern men only come into contact with that "poetry" found in greeting cards, and I can't imagine Beowulf or King David chanting "love is a flower" during a drinking party. Sentimentalism, however, can't be the only culprit. Even if you show some men less-sentimental poetry, they don't have the stomach for it.
Perhaps it's the ghoulish intro-spectionism of so much modern poetry. Today you can't crack open a poetry anthology without being suffocated by self-absorbed poems prating on about dysfunctional families and self-inflicted loneliness. It would be nice if men were repelled by most sorts of introspectionism, but in fact our psychological century loves it. That sort of poetry should draw more moderns, not less. And the men who are all chest and no soul - aliens to any self-reflection - need to read more of that warrior David's poetry. There we often find an introspectionism that would willie those marble men who are repelled by any second-guessing.
I think the main culprit is modernity itself. Modernity and beauty simply don't mix. Pragmatism and an industrial-sized busyness denigrate everything that can't squeeze out of a calculator. And the first thing to die under such circumstances is a passion for beauty. For those trying desperately to jump over moving hurdles, pursuing beauty is just foolishness. Men are still those most involved with the machinery of modernity, but the point applies equally to those women who share that passion for urban busyness. And it's even more wasteful and inefficient if the poets seem to be intentionally mysterious at times, twisting tenses and mumbling meters. We just don't have the time for poetry; beauty isn't useful, we say, until we're in our eighties, when many finally reflect and realize that beauty was truly essential to a good life that has now slipped by.
Why did such a powerful warrior like David hear and write poetry? He had a passion for beauty - a passion for Yahweh, for life, for creation, for friends, for enemies. Simple prose couldn't contain such a life. There is too much to be said, and the engineer's syntax can't capture it. David and all his sin was a man after God's own heart, and we need to learn to find that heart. Poetry is a place to start.
One of the consequences of pursuing good poetry is humility. This occurs in a number of ways. When reading excellent poets, we often find ourselves standing before a master craftsman who can combine phrases like the most intricate jewelry or wood-inlayed chest. In the best, we find natural and disciplined talent which will never flow from our own hearts. God does not give His gifts to everyone, and we are to rejoice in that and marvel at those whom He has raised up.
But more importantly, the good poet is the keenest observer of detail. He notices patterns in people and nature which we easily overlook. He gives us metaphors which bring disparate items together in a way that delights and reminds us of the important things in life. But poetry isn't just for the expert elite. Everyone should take part in this expression of the cultural mandate. Everyone, especially leaders, should seek to be keen observers of creation and the image of God. We can't be good stewards if we don't know the patterns around us. Wisdom demands it. If so, then it takes discipline to pursue beauty. Don't let a day go wasting by without engaging beauty, especially poetry.
So if you hate poetry or don't have the time or are just indifferent, consider that this might be symptomatic of some deep failure in you instead of in the poetry. And then, don't just admit to the failure and go on hanging your head. Hunt for beauty. Track it down. A passion for beauty certainly is characteristic of those great men in the past whose lives were characterized as after God's own heart. Remember David's psalms and Beowulf's celebrations, full of life and faithfulness. What tragedy to be the unpoetic, dry modern at a feast where,
Hrothgar's hall resounded with the harp's
High call, with songs and laughter and the telling
Of tales, stories sung by the court
Poet as the joyful Danes drank
And listened. . . .