If I had a dollar for every person who doesn’t like poetry, I’d be richer than most poets. I know the pictures in many people’s minds: white-bearded men with quill pens; thirty-year-olds in French berets reading nonsense at an open-mic night; teenagers wearing thick eyeliner and scribbling in notebooks. All of these images are accurate. But there are many kinds of poets, and there is (and should continue to be) another type of person particularly in love with poetry: the Catholic.
The first question is obvious—what is a poem, and why should anyone (let alone a Catholic) read one? Today, as readership declines and confusion spreads about what poetry even looks like, the question seems bottomless. Still, most of us propose definitions anyway: if it rhymes, it’s a poem. If it’s in lines, it’s a poem. If it’s impossible to understand, it’s a poem. And in the context of faith? For many Catholics, that is not the place we expect to encounter poetry. If we do, Heaven help us.
Verse and Catholicism, however, share a close bond. Many people find poetry too complicated to understand, or else they think there’s no sense to it in the first place. (I’m sure you’ve heard both views applied to religion.) But the Scriptures are full of poetry from top to bottom: the Psalms, Isaiah, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, the first chapter of John’s Gospel…we hear poetry as often as we go to Mass. These books and chapters are in a kind of language different from Genesis or Kings—not only history recorded, but prayer felt and expressed. Sentences in the Bible are often “verses” in more than one sense, and to begin to understand them, we need to recognize that they make different demands on us as readers.
A Catholic can be fairly confident that the poetry in the Scriptures isn’t lofty nonsense—so that’s one kind of verse we should accept. But what about the rest of it? Keats, Shakespeare? Is their kind of poetry hopelessly overstuffed with meaning, or hollow with snobbiness? Is it hard to grasp because it’s too high up for any modest reader, or because it’s an empty trick of the light? Or is it neither?
Much confusion here comes from a simple lack of familiarity with the mindset—poetic thought is different from scientific thought. In a STEM-focused world, we often neglect other ways of thinking, much to our detriment. Many problems with reading poetry emerge because we’ve forgotten the other, more associative, more visual, less necessarily logical kinds of processing.
Or have we? When we think about Christ, is it through formulas? I think the Catholic, more than he or she believes, is already trained in the essence of poetry—the attention to a reality deeper than the surface level, a reality we understand largely by images and symbols. Of course, at the heart of our faith, we have the Eucharist, which is not a symbol at all—and there is more than symbol at the heart of poetry, too. Good poems strike a very real place in our heart.
There’s something about the poetic way of thinking, free from the need to be entirely clear and calculating at every point, that reveals layers of meaning we can’t get by other means. We become frustrated with poetry because it is, itself, a kind of mystery (notice any more parallels to religion?). But if we read poems slowly, thoughtfully, we realize it without a doubt: poetry has a job in the human heart that can’t be outsourced. We shouldn’t make an idol out of verse, but it’s a part of our soul that we often forget to feed. For mystic poets—St. John of the Cross, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Teresa of Avila—the use of verse was intertwined with their expression of closeness to God, even if their poems, too, were “only straw” compared to Him. The choice of straw is still important, if it's most of what we can perceive for our time on earth.
As Catholics in a culture starved for God, we need to lean more on poetry, because that deeper world of meaning and significance is so terrifyingly easy to ignore. People of faith know how little effort it takes to forget what’s truly significant—you know this, catching yourself daydreaming in Mass, hearing yourself make comments in daily conversations, living as if eternity were only an idea. You already know how it feels to lose the poetry in life. Reading verse is one more way to keep us grounded in truth.
This is my best advice: read a few poems, to yourself and then out loud. Listen to every word. Find poets whose voices you like, or who say things you recognize as true, even if you don’t know why—Frost, maybe, or Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” Poets don’t have to be Catholic to speak a language we understand, one which we desperately need to relearn. There’s a world of wonders for us beyond “roses are red…”