Martin Smith: ‘The Parts Prose Can’t Reach’

Episcopal priest Martin L. Smith wrote a lovely piece on poetry and spirituality in the May-June issue of Washington Window (the Episcopal Diocese paper in D.C.) titled Refreshing the Parts Prose Cannot Reach.

Smith is a wonderful spirituality writer, having published such books as A Season for the Spirit, Love Set Free, and The Word is Very Near You. Martin is pastor at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in northwest D.C.

Below is an excerpt from his article:

Many of us have had the experience of responding to poems so viscerally that we are physically and emotionally shaken as they speak to us. We have a heightened sense that somehow the opposites of life – birth and death, connectedness and brokenness, love and fear – are being held together. We hold our breath on the brink of being suffused with meaning. Words glow on the page and like magnets seem to pull us out of our usual harried state into a place where we recognize our own right to be passionate, to be human beings on a divine quest.

Researchers have made some intriguing discoveries. The typical length of the line in poetry in cultures the world over is virtually identical, taking between 2.5 and 3.5 seconds to pronounce. There is a convincing theory that when words convey meaning to us in this short package, followed by a tiny pause before the next line, it allows the input to pass from one hemisphere of the brain to the other, and so our receptivity is fully opened and our consciousness unified. No wonder human culture and religion has placed such value on metred poetry and song in the sharing of meaning, and in ritual. No wonder that pages and pages of text or hours of speech seldom have a fraction of the effect that a short poem committed to memory can have as it lodges in our consciousness and continues to illuminate and challenge us from within.

I am sure I could write an entire spiritual biography by stringing together the poems that came to me unsought as visiting angels at the right time year after year. About 15 poems of Rilke that I learned 40 years ago shaped my whole way of feeling about God: “we feel round rage and desolation the finally enfolding tenderness.” I look through the pages, worn round the edges from use, where I have copied out the poems. Here’s the Tao Te Ching and Li Po. Here are the poems of David Whyte: “always this fire smolders inside. When it remains unlit, the body fills with dense smoke.” e.e. cummings: “all which isn’t singing is mere talking.” Rumi. Mirabai. Machado. W.H. Auden. Gerard Manley Hopkins. Peguy. None of them deliberately researched. We just come upon the poems when we are ready.

In a beautiful poem, Seamus Heaney remembers the counsel given in confession by a Spanish priest: simply, “Read poems as prayers.” Wise man.

Read Smith’s whole piece here.

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