Whether or not you are a conscious fan of poetry, neurologists have shown that humans are hardwired to appreciate poetry. Poems are literally designed to give us chills on the back of our necks, to raise goosebumps on our arms. When we hear poetry, we subconsciously begin expecting to feel those chills and our emotions become heightened. Then, when the poem gives us those goosebumps, we experience a deep sense of pleasure. Poetry speaks to us on a primal level – a good poem somehow does a runaround around our conscious mind and zaps us in places we don’t normally pay attention to. As the poet Emily Dickinson might say, poetry “dazzles us gradually” with the truth’s “superb surprise” – it opens us up to unexpected truths, to pleasure, excitement, and change.
In an interview, Bangor psychology professor Guillaume Thierry explains it this way: “Poetry appears to be ‘built in [to us] . . . every human being is an unconscious poet.”
One thing I take away from this quote is that it’s possible to appreciate poetry by simply letting a poem wash over you. I actually love obsessing about hidden meanings and line breaks, symbols and metaphors, but if you don’t love those things, you don’t have to worry about them. You can simply close your eyes and listen to the music and see the pictures made by the words; let the poem bypass your intellect and go straight to your gut.
The second thing I take away from the insight that every human being is an unconscious poet is that God put poetry into our DNA. Poetry sets up us for a spiritual experience – to feel surprise, to be stirred to emotion or action, to understand intuitively things we maybe didn’t know until now. Poetry gets around any conscious barriers we have in place and invites us into a place of encounter and truth with God.
One way to meet God in poetry is to engage in a modified lectio divina, using the poem as the text instead of a Bible passage. First, read the poem aloud – don’t worry about puzzling through meanings, just let it wash over you. Second, read it again – or hear poet Mary Oliver read it aloud here – and this time pay attention to the part or parts of the poem that gives you chills or goosebumps, something that pulls at you or seems to glimmer at the edges. It could be an image, a line, even a single word. Sit with that chill-inducing place for a moment. Then, read it one more time, focusing on those key parts, and asking God what he is saying to you through the poem. Is there a question he is asking? An invitation he is extending?
Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day” is a great poem to begin your literary Lectio practice with. Read it below, and let it wash over you.
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Copyright @ 1990 by Mary Oliver. First published in House of Light, Beacon Press. Reprinted in The Truro Bear and Other Adventures: Poems and Essays, Beacon Press.