“It seems to me appropriate, almost inevitable, that when that great Imagination which in the beginning, for Its own delight and for the delight of men and angels and (in their proper mode) of beasts, had invented and formed the whole world of Nature, submitted to express Itself in human speech, that speech should be poetry. For poetry too is a little incarnation, giving body to what had been before invisible and inaudible.” ~C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms
Recently, I was sitting at home alone on a Tuesday evening. As sad as it may sound, that really describes most of my evenings. But on this particular night my solitude was interrupted by a telephone call from a friend in Georgia. After a few pleasantries, and in the typical southern fashion that recognizes no concept of privacy or personal space, he asked, “What are you doing?” (For some reason whenever you hand Southerners a telephone they become the “apple pie and sweet tea” version of the Grand Inquisitor.) “I am writing a poem,” I said. “You’re doing what,” he asked a bit surprised. “I’m writing a poem.” To which he responded, “I don’t believe I have ever called and interrupted anyone who was busy on a Tuesday night writing poetry.” Then he added, “You are a true Renaissance man.”
I appreciated that comment more than he knew. I probably took it more seriously than it was intended. I only wish that I were more medieval because moderns and postmoderns are really bad poets. It’s not because they can’t spell or thump out cadences, it’s because they can’t liken or see isness in the world. For them, everything just is what it is; whatever is is.
Moderns and postmoderns like to think of themselves as distinct philosophical clubs. The postmoderns think that they have transcended the folly of their fathers, and the moderns look down on their poor idiot son. But when it comes to metaphor they are the same salesman.
Metaphor is exactly where they feel they differ, and metaphor is the bed they share.
While the postmods think that all of communication and reality is metaphor, the mods refuse to acknowledge their own use of it. They dismiss it as imperfect and useless, pursuing perfection through math and other false attempts at abstraction. The postmods say that such escape into abstraction is impossible. The mods say “nu uh,” and so on. But when the issue shifts from where metaphor is used, to what it is, they are in agreement. Metaphor is nothing. Both parties agree that metaphor is meaningless.
We, like the moderns, must say that there is meaning in the world though we must not place it in puppet abstraction as they do. Like the postmoderns, we must say that all is metaphor, but must not say that metaphor is meaningless.
As Christians, we confess unequivocally that we believe in “God the Father, Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth.” In so doing, we are confessing that God is Consummate Poet—the One who creates by way of the Word. All creation flows from the poetic imagination of the Divine Life. The universe is but the living embodiment of the whisperings of the Holy One.
Everything that is, visible and invisible, has its source in the vital breath of the Almighty. Given this, it requires no mental gymnastics to say that all that is not God is a figure of speech; a sacred metaphor, the poetry of the Triune God. Thus, Hopkins could say that the “world is charged with the grandeur of God” on the basis of first principles. It is possible, then, to hear the echo of the vox dei beating in the breast of every living thing. “For by him all things consist.” The Primordial Language is indelibly etched on every crooked limb and waxen leaf. The bird on the wing is a holy sonnet; the rippling brook an antiphonal refrain. The stone face of the mountain is a vibrant simile for the immutable character of our changeless Lord.
Now all of this will strike some readers as altogether too much. Some will object that this completely collapses the great gulf fixed between Creator and cosmos. But I say, nay. To trace the lyric of Heaven as it winds its way through the labyrinthine paths of dappled things is a safe route to the Fountainhead. And when we arrive, out of breath and full of wonder, we can do little more than offer sighs of humble gratitude to the One who penned it all. If the “heavens declare the glory of God,” and the “firmament showeth his handiwork,” then what is left to us but to listen, agree, and add our own amen to the chorus sung by the whole of creation. And then endeavor to write a few verses of our own.
Only God knows the world immediately. For the rest of us, wound tightly in our finitude, all knowledge must be in some sense metaphorical. All knowing must be mediated to us through other made things, apportioned to us the same way that a child receives his mashed carrots. Since mortal men cannot be God, it is given to us to be poets of the realm. Our only choice is whether we will be good poets or bad ones. In a world made of words, poetry is inescapable. Fashioned in His image and after His likeness, it is our lot to know the world and name it; to see it and say it, to use our words to adorn the festal garments of this good earth. Those who have chosen not to retain God in their knowledge, to suppress the truth in unrighteousness, to raise creeping things to the level of idols—these have not ceased to be poets. They are merely writing profane limericks and perverse verse. Since they refuse Him that is speaking they are cursed with tin ears. Their ears are filled with dissonant chords. They are not attuned to the harmony that exists among all things that live and move and have their being in our spoken world. But they are still poets, albeit impoverished ones, whose muse is deaf and dumb.
For most of us, poetry seems to be a foreign language. Because we have for so long despised the liturgical rhythms of life we have no sense of meter and cadence. We have paid so little attention to the “rising of the sun and the going down of the same” that we have scarcely heard the triumphant voice of that strong man rejoicing as he finishes his daily race. Our ears have been shut up to the sound of timbers clapping their hands and the tired groaning of the rocks beneath our feet as they cry out in hope redemption. In this way, the entire world is a ringing indictment against our poetic failure. So it should not surprise us that when we do attempt to mount the writing desk we churn out drivel. We can’t write good sentences because we have paid insufficient attention to the symmetry of roses.
Worse still, we have become bored with ordinary things, thinking them insignificant, inconsequential, irrelevant to our own illustrious existence. We do not consider the lilies; how even those tiny blossoms would provoke Solomon to jealousy. In so doing, we have robbed ourselves of the concentrated glory bound up in the smallest of “deep down things.” When Christ saw a sparrow He marveled at the mystery of providence. If we happen to notice one we see only a pest. It is little wonder that our poetic imaginations have atrophied.
When God wrote the world, He poured the miraculous into the mundane. He hid treasures in the snow. He buried diamonds in coal. Thus, poetic knowledge sees the beauty of the finite. It stands in awe of pedestrian occurrences. The things that are too wonderful for us are not logarithms and chemical compounds, but rather, the way of the eagle in the sky, the way of a snake upon the rock, the way of a ship upon the sea, and the way of a man with a maid.
But it is not enough to simply stop and smell the roses. We have to see the rose as a rose in the first place. That is, we have to learn to properly (poetically) name things. When we do that we will be delivered from the tyranny of modernity and its attendant materialism. We will be able to behold a love that is “like a red, red, rose” and know the meaning beneath the meaning. For there is certainly no good poetry to be found in comparing a lover to a collection of quarks and subatomic particles.
Faithful poets are like priests, who with thanksgiving offer up handfuls of the world back to God. They are also like prophets, calling all things by their covenantal names and exhorting them to be and do that for which they were created. Poets are kings, taking dominion and planting the banner of Christ as far as the curse is found. Truly, it is the “glory of God to conceal a thing, but the honor of kings is to search out a matter” (Proverbs 25:2).
Each of us has been called to be active members of the Royal Poet’s Society. This doesn’t mean that we must all write songs and ballads, but it does mean that we have a spiritual obligation to give an honest report of the world and the One who made it. And this means, at a minimum, that our testimony should be good, true, and beautiful.
Since we are called to be good poets that means that we have permission to first be poor poets. We must learn to listen to our Heavenly Muse, see the world truthfully, and say what we have seen beautifully. That we are nearly tone deaf and colorblind obviously means that this will take some time.
God took six days to compose His epic poem, saving the creation of lesser poets until the last. That first poet’s first full day was the Sabbath. And his first day was a reminder of his first duty—to rest and revel in the wonderful words of God, drawing all of his creative strength from that hallowed speech. And what were his very first recorded words? “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Genesis 2:23). Ah! Now that’s good poetry!
In a Christian world (this one), you can drink metaphors. You can eat them. You can crack your skull with one, or skin your pudgy knee. In this world, to exist is to be spoken, spoken by the One Who speaks all. We are held in our being by His Word. All of creation is metaphor, but it is metaphor that you can measure, metaphor with weight, mass, and dustiness.
Human metaphor is a means of knowledge and communication. We point with ours, but God’s take on flesh—the flesh of fruit and trees, the flesh of wind and weeds. All of reality is nothing but words, but they are His words, and they are incarnate.
On an ultimate level, reality is made from nothing. We know that there was no matter before creation and that God did not make creation out of anything. He spoke, and it was, and it is. That is what the world is made of. Nothing. No things. There was no matter, then there was matter, and that matter, the matter that we and the world around us are made of, is made from and out of nothing.
But not really, right?
What’s an apple made of? It’s made of glucose, that is made of carbon that is pulled from CO2 that we, among other things, breath out. Apples are made out of the air through a fun game played by the Sun. What is carbon made of? Well, molecules, and atoms, and then electrons, and elementary particles or something, and then something else.
Eventually, even though it is unlikely that we would ever reach the very bottom, and find the smallest brick, we as Christians must say that the apple, and everything else, is made out of nothing. There is nothing that God used to make this apple. We do not say that nothing was grabbed and shaped and molded into an apple, but that there is quite literally no thing that it is made out of. This apple is held in existence, extended spatially and temporally, by the omnipotent Word. This apple is spoken from nothing. This apple is made by nothing other than a word, an all-powerful, all-creative, all-beautiful word, spoken by the One Word.
This is true for everything around us in time and space. It is true for time and space itself. All things, at all times, are composed of nothing. They are the miraculously enfleshed words of God. The miracle of creation is constant, and should a thing no longer be held, should the apple no longer be spoken, it would be gone and no parts of it would clatter to the ground beneath, because there are no parts. There are only words. Only, but only is the wrong word.
But what does all this mean? How does it affect metaphor? It affects metaphor because we are God’s metaphors. We are His story.
This doesn’t mean that we are not real. But it does change how we think of the real. We are not just dirty bags composed mainly of water. We are wonderfully miraculous skin-sacks made mostly of water. We are created from nothing. We are not illusions, we are not the wisps of sound spoken by human voices. We and the stones have shape. We walk through time and space with weight trouble and stubbed toes. We eat and drink, we laugh, and our noses run. We are words, but we are words with mass. We are words that can stink, need baths, snore at night, and kiss. We aren’t just prose written with a straight-edge; we are the poetry of Divinity. We are real, far more real than we imagine, because we are words. We and the world have meaning because we were spoken.
This is appalling to all modernities. There is meaning, and it is found in the Word. Our own words, patterns, natures, are metaphors for it. They are the only way that we can communicate; they are the only things that we can be. We are the felt-board shepherds and sheep. We are the story, the painting, the song. We are all metaphors, and we find meaning because of this fact. We are all spoken by God in a relationship of reflection to Him.
Those claiming postmodern status see one-half of the metaphor, things floating, and then deny reality because of it. God is erased, and metaphor becomes meaningless. Moderns deny God as well, and achieve meaninglessness but are not content to remain there. They strive to climb up their own backs into the sky, hunting for categorical imperatives, pi, a straight line, perfect circles, and ones, and zeros.
But we are words, and so we should dance. We should stomp and play, get all muddy, and take baths. We are words, and so we know we have weight. We are thick poetry. And poetry is reality.
So we write words.