Making poetry is a bit like making gin.
A few weeks ago, my sister and I spent a lovely rainy afternoon at Granville Island, taking a tour of the Liberty Distillery. Our delightful tour guide Marco took us through the surprisingly labourious distillation process. All the raw ingredients, the grain, the water and the yeast are combined and then heat is applied. And then the botanicals are added; the juniper, the seeds, barks and herbs. After several more steps of filtration and distillation, what emerges is something far different than what you started with. Time, pressure and heat have transformed the everyday into a far more heady substance.
Gin is made with some strange plants; juniper and angelica – aromatic and bitter, citrus peel – sour and sharp. Eaten whole, their tastes overwhelm; we cannot discern their subtleties and beauty. Once they are distilled to their very essence, we can understand the purpose of their use.
As we gathered after the tour to sample the different varieties, I began to consider how much the processes of distillation and poetry have in common. Emotions, unfiltered and undistilled, are riotous and hard to swallow. Through time and thought, the poet transforms them into something we can digest; something that leaves a familiar taste on the tongue and burns on the way down, something we recognize as familiar but experience in a new way.
It will probably not come as a surprise, but I love poetry. More than any other art form, it molds the patterns of my language and gives shape to important thoughts when my own words fail. I love the metaphorical splendour of it; the complexities of poems that you have to painstakingly take apart like clockworks. I love words that carry in their sounds a music totally distinct from their meaning; poetry that has meter so perfect you could dance to it and poetry whose rhythms spill across the page in a tangle of percussion. I love the taste of the words on the tongue and the remaining trail emotion once they’ve been swallowed.
Poetry, like all art, can uncover the true nature of things. It can show us the cracks in our hearts, our loneliness, our longing for beauty and for communion. Like the distillation process, it can get down to the essence of things, allowing us to know ourselves; to first understand what it is that we feel and then to know that we are not alone in feeling it. Poetry assists us in that most difficult of tasks, putting our emotions into words.
The knowledge that we desire infinitely more beauty and more certainty than we can have is so often an ache in the heart.
As an English teacher, my students sometimes ask, “Aren’t there any happy poems?” There are many, brimming full of love, joy and the euphoria of life at the peak of perfection. But far more often, poetry is the language of longing. We can remember our seemingly perfect moments and yet, more often than not, those minutes or seconds are too brief, remaining only in our memory. Poetry books are full of this deep seated longing for something that is so much more powerful in its remembrance than in its initial experience. This understanding that even our best earthly moments can’t last is so piercingly painful, that over and over again, poets come back to it. Robert Frost laments that “leaf subsides to leaf. /So Eden sank to grief, /So dawn goes down to day. /Nothing gold can stay.” One of my favourite bands, The First Aid Kit says it like this, “What if our hard work ends in despair? What if the road won’t take me there?…What if to love and be loved’s not enough? What if I fall and can’t bear to get up? Oh, I wish, for once, we could stay gold.” The knowledge that we desire infinitely more beauty and more certainty than we can have is so often an ache in the heart.
It’s here, in the messy longings and emotions that God hangs out with us. Our emotional life is one of the ways in which we are created in his image. Scripture is full of language, often poetry, that describes the emotions of God; he loves, he is angered, he is grieved, he longs to know us. As a society, we have a tendency to look at our emotions with skepticism, and to be sure, they should not be the only basis for belief or action. Yet, they are so far from inconsequential. Within our longings, we can begin to see what we’ve been created for. St. Augustine famously wrote in his autobiography, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” In order to search for him or to hear God’s voice, we often have to move beyond the surface of things. We have to dig beneath the glossy version of our lives and encounter the reality of our own desires and fears. When we get to that reality however, we can find that our language fails us; it is so difficult to articulate what it is that we feel.
In many ways, poetry gives us tools to overcome the inadequacy of our language. I am angry. I am sad. I am joyful. I am in love. These words are entirely insufficient to hold the great weight of our hearts. They are merely signposts that don’t begin to approach the destination. And so we turn to metaphor. Metaphor allows us to carry over our meanings into pictures, images or stories. It is the way in which we learn anything new, comparing what we don’t know to things that we do. Jesus shows this over and over again in the parables. What is the Kingdom of Heaven? We can’t possibly understand. What is it like? It is like a mustard seed, a woman who loses a coin, a man who plants a field. Through image and story, we can catch glimpses of things that would otherwise be beyond our ability to understand or articulate.
The metaphors we use allow us understand emotions with more depth and empathy. This is what I really love about the Psalms; they are so very human. The Psalmist cries out his loneliness in the face of God’s apparent silence: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” One of my favourite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, talks about God’s absence a lot and there have been times when his writing felt like my own experience. Like the Psalmist, he looks back on his unanswered prayers and writes, “But where I say/Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament/Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent/To dearest him that lives alas! away.” I know what it’s like to see someone walk away, to have an empty mailbox when you wanted a message. These writers don’t merely complain that God’s ignoring them, a complaint that I could also make. They use pictures and situations that I feel. And in feeling it, my own struggles do not seem so lonely or so insurmountable.
So why are the writings of God’s people littered with poetry? Why do we sing it, write it and read it? For me, poetry allows me to live in and articulate what is it I really desire: a true home, true beauty, true security. It helps me uncover and give voice to what is at the root of my longing. And when I have lifted this longing up to God, it gives me metaphor that I might speak about who it is that I find; the God whose wonder and glory is beyond the capacity of our minds to fully comprehend and our language to fully describe