I am reading Paradise Lost by John Milton right now. It is a beautiful and difficult poem and I spend much energy trying to understand it. This week when we were discussing Satan in Book IV it struck me suddenly that I am guilty of behaving like Satan. His preoccupation with himself at this moment in the text has completely occluded even his ability to think outside of how a circumstance affects him. He is sealed off from the reality of God’s majesty and the ability to worship by his absorbing interest in how all things impact him.
This is a fact with which I have such long acquaintance that it is almost mundane: when we sin we are acting like the devil. But just now, as the presence of the voice of Satan seeped into my consciousness through rhythms, images, and tone, this oh so ordinary truth pierced me with fresh awareness and intensity and application to this moment in my life.
Tolkien and Lewis believed that poetry restores reality to its mythic proportions, that we are living an epic, a lyric truth, a narrative where every action has vast consequence. Reading a myth or a poem causes the enchantment of the daily to come forth, making us conscious of it anew.
Apart from that cosmic importance, there are other benefits that accrete like layers in a mountain stream. Poems reminds us that the rational alone will not take us to full knowledge.
Poetry also changes our relationship to language. It allows us to see words as more than merely serviceable vehicles. Poetry gives us an inherent sense of structure when we write. Formally or informally poetry enables us to write more beautifully and meaningfully. Poetry reminds us that metaphor is the basic way of knowing the unknown and that there are always new ways to use one thing to describe another.
Poetry gives us images that invigorate our daily experience. Never will I be able to see a fish without thinking of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish.” I talk myself out of my despair for the ugliness of the industrialized world with Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “God’s Grandeur.” I possess Rilke’s picture of “The Panther” when I feel caged or when I meet someone who is.
Poetry has taught me that language is unimaginably deep, even bottomless, and a record of what it is like to be human. And because I write poems in response to my love of other people, I have learned what Adam felt like in the garden of the world, naming and naming.