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Why Poetry?

I mentioned the name ‘Mary Oliver’ during Sunday’s sermon. I asked if folks knew of her and to my surprise, I got more head shakes saying ‘no’ than the expected nods of ‘yes.’ Mary Oliver was a Pulitzer Prize winning poet that passed away a little over a week ago. She lived out East in Provincetown, Massachusetts with her partner Molly Malone Cook (a well-known photographer). Her work painted pictures of nature for so many people - simple yet complicated - beautiful and real.

Ms. Oliver is not a Christian poet per se, but her mysticism of nature is something that has drawn Christians to her work. Though not a theologian, her grasp on the invitation to dwell with the created world seems to me a deeper invitation to also dwell with that of which God has so beautifully created. Her poem, Five A.M. in the Pinewoods. is a good example:

I’d seen

their hoofprints in the deep

needles and knew

they ended the long night

under the pines, walking

like two mute

and beautiful women toward

the deeper woods, so I

got up in the dark and

went there.

The trace of two deer in the woods and the invitation to not just see, but to journey into the woods to dwell and search for the creation of God. Perhaps once that creation might just stare back at you:

They came

slowly down the hill

and looked at me sitting under

the blue trees, shyly

they stepped

closer and stared

from under their thick lashes ...

Could poetry perhaps help us to see God and to have our breath taken away when we become aware of God seeing us, just as I’m sure her breath was taken when these two deer looked and saw her?

How often are we invited by poetry to dwell with and see God?


Just look at our own Lutheran liturgy and the poetry that infiltrates it throughout any given worship service. Hymns capture poetry to words (look up Christina Rossetti), the Eucharistic prayers, and even our own scripture is filled with poetry (though much easier to see in the original language...though the translations do their best).

We are surrounded by the written word, the spoken word and the Word.

Poetry may not be something for all people. Yet, there is wisdom in it that even the most adverse to the genre can glean, and I believe that Mary Oliver was able to capture that point very well.

The Summer Day is perhaps my favorite poem by Mary Oliver, it is one that brings you to the midst of a field. It transports me back to my beloved Illinois where fields and grasshoppers were abundant, especially as a child chasing them through a prairie near my home. The field of prairie grass and flowers is now long gone - a housing development of tacky 1990’s townhomes - the flowers and insects and animals displaced. It makes me think about how life changes and how precious this gift is to us from God. After standing in the field in her poem, Ms. Oliver asks a question about that precious life of ours. Through poetry and deep theological insight can be gleaned and a question that we all should ask ourselves:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Yours in Christ,

Pastor Jason

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