Anyone who reads this space regularly knows that I am fascinated by what makes us, us. And what makes me, me. Stories, history, perspective and faith are just four of the factors that mix to make us who we are from the individual to the whole of humanity. Some things bring nearly everyone together — celebrations, drinks, food and expressions of friendship and love.
When it comes to our identity as a nation or a culture, poetry may be the greatest reservoir. With just one line or verse, a poem can call to mind whole stories. Sometimes, usually in the form of a song, a poem can take us to the best and worst moment of our lives.
Some lines have become bywords or set cultural norms. Poetry is everywhere in our history: The Iliad, Beowulf, Inferno, Imitation of Christ, The Psalms, Canterbury Tales, protest songs from the 1960s, hip hop, and hymns — the list is extensive.
Poetry is the best language tool we have to carry the weight of truth beyond facts and emotion beyond expression. It can act as an emotional wormhole that carries us to places we would otherwise have no access to. It teaches us beyond what happened and takes us to how it felt for those experiencing the events or milieu described.
Here are a few that have worked their way into my life and help explain me and how I interpret and interact with the world.
I think of the words penned by John Newton that have crossed from religious into secular use. They, I believe, are some of the words that have made our society so forgiving. They are words we still need.
“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.”
I cannot prove it, but I do think that the courage of the British soldier expressed by Alfred Lord Tennyson describing a battle in the Crimean War in “The Charge of the Light Brigade” cemented the discipline that was needed a little less than a century later in World War II. These words may be familiar to some.
“Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.”
While I do not believe that Robert Frost was attempting to describe American individualism, his poem “The Road Not Taken” certainly can be interpreted that way. It is also a reflection of a person who is looking back with curiosity at decisions made.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
There are many around the time of the American Revolution. “The Defense of Fort McHenry” by Francis Scott Key, which became our national anthem in 1931, when we needed a unifying song. And who can forget Longfellow’s “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” from elementary school.
“He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry-arch
Of the North-Church-tower, as a signal-light,—
One if by land, and two if by sea.”
For me, there is this jarring poem from the black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, written in 1895. I was introduced to it when I was preaching at a small African American church in West Texas.
“We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!”
There are many popular songs that come to mind. Nearly everyone gravitates to those that we heard on the radio as children and young adults. They both reflect and shape our culture. One of my favorites by Bill Withers:
“Lean on me
When you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on...
For it won’t be long
Till I’m gonna need somebody to lean on.”
And I will close with these opening lines from a most beloved Psalm,
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want;
he makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.”
April is National Poetry Month.
Sean Niestrath lives and ministers in Madisonville. You may contact him via email at email@example.com.