What Can Poetry Do?

We may think of poetry as a frivolous nicety. Something for unemployed graduate students and English teachers. We may have repeated to ourselves the old mantra from Auden’s poem about Yeats that “poetry makes nothing happen.” It’s only an assortment of words, with tired rhymes or childish puns. What can it do besides give me a feeling? How can poetry do anything?

In the poem, Auden notes that “Ireland has her madness and her weather still.” The external world may not be changed by poetry, but there is still the inner world. In his autobiography, Frederick Buechner proposes that words have the power to “transform the human heart”:

Through the sound, rhythm, passion of his words, [the poet] is bringing to life in us, as might never have been brought to life at all, a sense of the uniqueness and mystery and holiness…of the reality itself, including the reality of ourselves.

The transformative nature of words is on full display when the speaker, and by extension the reader, is slowly changed over the course of the poem. But how does this formative dimension work?

The answer may be in an unlikely place, a small house in the hill country, where an elderly woman waits. The house is filled with her husband’s silence. But then her young cousin arrives, and the woman feels her child stir and a new joy she has never known. She speaks words she never thought she would, and her young cousin says, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

From that moment flowed a new genre of poetry in honor of the Blessed Virgin. Thomas Merton saw the Visitation as “the feast of the beginning of all true poetry, when the Mother of God sang her Magnificat” (Seven Storey Mountain). Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote of it as a supreme moment of joy brought about by language:

your voice rejoiced
Elizabeth,
made mother joyous in a mother
and brother joyous in a brother.

What is special about this genre is that Marian poetry can influence the inner life of the reader through both being a prayer of the poet and in imitating intercessory prayer in its style. An important way that the poet facilitates this manifestation of prayer is by including a blessed reply, a silent response, of Mary to the soul of the speaker. The progression of a poem can point to this. As the poet is making a request from Mary, a change occurs in the poem although she may have no audible lines.

The priest-poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, fills his Marian poetry with suggestions of silent, yet intimate, dialogue. In Ad Matrem Virginem, the speaker requests knowledge of Christ within the first complete thought: “Teach me about Him / About the small sweet God.” This request, which implies the intimacy between Christ and Mary, is countered with the speaker’s unworthiness. While she brings Christ to the world in the Visitation, the speaker is the poor sinner that only shows Christ crucified back to the Father. All of these pleas for the grace to change, to “love,” to “rejoice,” to “embrace,” and to “contemplate” are all answered through the shifting attitude of the speaker, culminating in the joyous act of worship of the final line: “Praise to God always!” A silent response of the Blessed Virgin is further implied by the fact that this poem refers to a spiritual dialogue between Mary and her Son: “For even though He was mute / Yet (in the depths of your soul) / He (the eternal Word) is speaking.”

Another Hopkins poem, Rosa Mystica, uses the refrain to accomplish a similar effect, but the structure is different here. The stable rhyme scheme and uniform meter and structure implies that these are mainly rhetorical questions that the speaker already knows the answer to, and the refrain is a petition for grace not for knowledge. As the poem progresses, each refrain is more intimate and intense with the refrain of the sixth stanza being the most intimate. The first four refrains are concerned principally with the future, making the “gardens of God” heavenly glory. A change comes at the fifth stanza: “Show me thy son, mother, mother of mine.” Here, the poem shifts from requests and promises of things the speaker will do to an immediate action. The following refrain brings both agents together as both Mary and the speaker adore Christ as one: “I shall worship His wounds with thee, mother of mine.” Finally, the entire refrain changes as the speaker requests that Mary bring him to heaven, as defined by all the previous refrains, through the virtue of charity. Overall, there is a subtle progression in understanding of heaven and how to arrive there, suggesting that Mary is spiritually instructing the speaker all the while.

The theme of a blessed reply is dramatized by Hopkins’ The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe and its poetic response, The Blessed Virgin Compared to a Window by Thomas Merton. Together, these two poems can be read as a call and response. The first, by Hopkins, is a doctrinally-motivated expression of devotion by a nameless speaker. In contrast, the speaker of Merton’s poem is Mary herself.

Both poems are based on an old conceit, found in the Marian antiphon, Ave Regina Caelorum, and the writings of Sophronius, in which Mary is the medium by which we see Christ, like the air is for the sun. Here’s how Hopkins explained it in one of his sermons:

St. Bernard’s saying, All grace given through Mary: this a mystery.  Like blue sky, which for all its richness of colour does not stain the sunlight, though smoke and red clouds do, so God’s graces come to us unchanged but all through her.

Taking up the same metaphor, Merton updates it by changing the sky to a window. However, not content to merely write a poem about Mary in the same conceit as Hopkins, he chose to write her reply to him.  The first clue to this is the combination of the perspective and tone in contrast to The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe.  While both poets write in the first person perspective, Hopkins gives voice to an unnamed supplicant as speaker, and Merton puts words in the mouth of Mary.  Through distinct meters and syntax, the tones are also quite different.  Hopkins uses the rhythm of iambic trimeter and convoluted syntax to create an experience as quick and disorientating as “wild air,” while Merton writes in a slower meter and an easier syntax to emulate the words of a simple maiden.  This continuation of Hopkins conceit contrasted to the differences suggests that Merton is gently correcting his predecessor.  In the final stanza of The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe, the speaker requests that Mary

Be thou then, O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere;
My happier world, wherein
To wend and meet no sin;
Above me, round me lie
Fronting my froward eye
With sweet and scarless sky;
Stir in my ears, speak there
Of God’s love, O live air,
Of Patience, penance, prayer:
World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with thee, in thee isled,
Fold home, fast fold thy child

Hopkins’ speaker asks for a “happier world” beneath a “sweet and scarless sky.” Merton’s Mary responds patiently to the prayer of her child, granting what is good.  She does speak of God’s love and prayer but not a clear sky or a life devoid of sin:

Therefore, do not be troubled at the judgments of the thunder.
Stay still and pray, still stay, my other son,
And do not fear the armies and black ramparts
Of the advancing and retreating rains:
I’ll let no lightning kill your room’s white order.

In each case, Mary offers the supplicant special maternal protection, but the second allows the son to see the chaos outside. Merton’s poetic response suggests an aspect of his devotional understanding of Mary, that she works to better our spiritual life, the inner room of Window, instead of the external world. In Merton’s own words, “Mary does not rule us from without, but from within.  She does not change us by changing the world around us, but she changes the world around us by first changing our own inner lives.”

What does poetry do? Well, let’s look back at what Auden has to say, but this time in its full context:

poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

And as “a way of happening, a mouth,” poetry begets poetry. We have Merton’s poem because of Hopkins’ poem, and we have Hopkins’ poem because of Ave Regina Caelorum. And we have all of these because of that first Christian poem, the Magnificat.

Christopher Adamson is a doctoral student at Emory, specializing in Victorian literature. He blogs on literature and education at The Golden Echo.

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4 thoughts on “What Can Poetry Do?

  1. I know almost nothing about poetry (I do love George Herbert’s A Dialogue–Anthem, which I encountered in a church bulletin), but I was intrigued by Richard M. Weaver’s high praise for poetry in Ideas Have Consequences:

        Evidently it is the poet’s unique command of language which gives him his ability to see the potencies in circumstances. He is the greatest teacher of cause and effect in human affairs; when Shelley declared that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, he merely signified that poets are the quickest to apprehend necessary truth. One cannot help thinking here of the peculiar fulness with which Yeats and Eliot—and, before them, Charles Péguy—foretold the present generation’s leap into the abysm, and this while the falsehoods of optimism were being dinned into all ears. A poem of Eliot, “difficult” or “meaningless” in 1927, becomes today almost pat in its applications. The discourse of poetry is winged; the nominal legislators plod along empirically on foot. What can this mean except that the poet communes with the mind of the superperson? At the other extreme, those who confine their attention to the analysis of matter prove singularly inept when called upon to deal with social and political situations. If we should compile a list of those who have taught us most of what we ultimately need to know, I imagine that the scientists, for all the fanfare given them today, would occupy a rather humble place and that the dramatic poets would stand near the top. (162)

    Perhaps the decline in care for poetry is due to a general shrinking of human consciousness, both to shorter time periods (approaching the present instant) and across less social and cultural difference?

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