This is the third in a series of posts taken from Mark Sprinkle's scholarly essay "Faithful Poetics and Christian Knowledge of the World", which will be made available in our Scholarly Essays section at the conclusion of the series. The first post can be found here.
Poetry and Truth
In the previous post, I stated that poems partake of two of our most fundamental ways of interacting with the physical world—sound and sight—and that, by keeping those two realms of perception in tension, poetry presents us with a model for how we should approach many of the paradoxical aspects of our natural and spiritual lives. This week I give an example that speaks directly to this role of imagery in helping us establish (or rather negotiate) a right understanding of our knowledge and ourselves.
The work of poetry is to polish human language until it reflects the structural orderliness and the improvisational freedom and playfulness God gifted to the cosmos. It helps us pay attention to the essentially relational character of both the physical and social worlds—the way things really are connected in intricate and meaningful patterns that are both dependable and surprising, and that often become most clear when one thing is compared to another. As poet Richard Wilbur phrased it in a poem on this very aspect of verbal creativity, “odd that a thing is most itself when likened.”1 Indeed, it is especially through surprising and unexpected comparisons that metaphor becomes a kind of renewal—a rebirth of what we mistakenly see as “ordinary”; for the purpose of striking such imaginative chords in verse is often to help us see something new, previously-overlooked or forgotten about what was already right in front of us—to see it more truly by making it less familiar. This must be the central gift of creative work in general, whether poetry, or drama or painting or science. Going further still, in the practice of poetry as well as the artifacts of poem-making we have models for the way we are to receive moments of God’s revelation—the pictures He gives us in nature and scripture, in the past and in the present—and hold them in tension to get a better sense of what is true and real not just about the world but about its Maker. To turn the phrase slightly, it turns out that we are often only able to see what a thing is most truly like when it is made ‘odd.’
An exceptionally apropos example of the way poetry works by re-presenting the world (often in strange images), but also the process of representation itself, can be found in “Mind,” another piece by Wilbur, whom former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts Dana Gioia has called “America’s preeminent living Christian poet.”2 In the lines below, listen (since I know you will be reading aloud) not just for the rhythm and tones of the words as meter and rhyme, but as aural images of the “flitting” motions that the words describe. But more than that, notice the way that that the central, immediate comparison—between the human mind and a bat making its way in the darkness of the cave it inhabits—takes on both philosophical and theological overtones in the last line, with a suggestion that it is in unlooked-for and even unwanted moments of grace and revelation that our self-created mental worlds are re-made:
Mind in its purest play is like some bat
That beats about in caverns all alone,
Contriving by a kind of senseless wit
Not to conclude against a wall of stone.
It has no need to falter or explore;
Darkly it knows what obstacles are there,
And so may weave and flitter, dip and soar
In perfect courses through the blackest air.
And has this simile a like perfection?
The mind is like a bat. Precisely. Save
That in the very happiest of intellection
A graceful error may correct the cave.3
Without attempting to give a complete exegesis of the piece (that is, without trying to explain away its elegance as mere mechanics), I will call attention to the way the poet, from the opening simile, describes both the bat-in-its-cave and the human mind at the same time, with the same descriptions, but to subtly different effect on account of our own sense of what kind of thought and sensibility is appropriate for each. He also develops the tone of his speech from somewhat light, to a deadpan irony, to one of surprising hope in 12 lines: in the first stanza, the “some bat,” “contriving” and “senseless wit,” “play,” and the punning use of “conclude,” all contribute to the feeling that he makes his comparison almost as a poetic jest—a joke about making up ridiculous comparisons and puns as much as about the nature of mind. His second stanza, more inside the metaphor than about it, replaces the tone of silliness with one of mysterious surety, which also describes the almost magical echolocation abilities of bats to know their very real surroundings.
But taken as a picture of the way we know the contours of our own mental homes (both individual and collective, since neither bats nor people typically “beat about . . . all alone”), the connotations aren’t quite so positive. Being “darkly” familiar with intellectual or emotional obstacles so as to habitually avoid them is not at all the same as seeing them clearly, and the “perfect courses” Wilber speaks of may well be perfect in their obliviousness or overconfidence (without need “to falter or explore”) as well as in their dazzling acrobatic agility. Now the “senseless wit” from the third line returns as ironic, changed in retrospect from a highly natural and easy kind of cleverness (without recourse to other senses than hearing) on the part of the bat, to something more akin to “foolishness” when exhibited by men and women, whose “contrivance” also implies a measure of dishonesty, whether with themselves, others, or the Lord.
In the last stanza Wilbur again reminds us that he’s talking about image-making, itself, as a metaphor for the way we know the world while asking for/giving a judgment of the aptness of his attempt. If human contrivances are “perfect” in their willful blindness, he asks, “has this simile a like perfection?” Are this and all other forms of imaginative framing of the world only delusions, flippancies built upon the “real” foundations of the physical, as certain materialists would have it? Wilbur does not leave the reader smacking against that wall of stone, however, but in the last three lines offers a remarkably redemptive twist that is instructive not just in the context of the poem’s bat/mind comparison, but for the whole matter of how we know rightly about the world and the relationships that are at its heart—that is, according to God’s own values, rather than according to our grasp on scientific or religious information. For in the claims that the human mind really is just like a bat, Wilbur is giving us an image for the role of poetry, of creative imagination in general, to help critique the surety of the other sorts of self-made knowledge upon which we generally rely, and which for the most part are entirely serviceable. Indeed, the poem literally turns on a word set apart at the end of the second line to stand for this “exceptional” quality of image and imaginative insight, while directing us to the action accomplished for us when we recognize our inability to do ought but “falter or explore” ourselves: Save.
Images, similes, and parables, then, offer “errors” (or even “lies” as Wilbur would have it elsewhere) which can nevertheless lead us to a fuller understanding of ourselves, the world, and our place in the world, despite the fact that at the time such errors are suggested they may seem to lead inexorably to “conclusions” we expect to be fatal—spiritually, if not physically. Jesus’ own disciples experienced just this kind of radical disconnect between their very reasonable and concrete expectation for his messianic work and the unfolding drama that actually occurred once they entered Jerusalem. His entire ministry had been suffused with both spoken and enacted parables, and the final image—that of Jesus as the Passover Lamb—did lead precisely to death, but also to the “correction” and rebuke of the cave on Easter morning. For what the disciples knew to be darkness, God used as a means of redemption. Which point brings us back to why this whole issue of using art (or really, using such methods of art as image, metaphor, and harmony to embrace the contingency of our knowledge, whether achieved via the rational mind or the senses) is central to the practice of the Christian faith as it intersects with our investigation of the material world through science. In next week’s installment, I’ll discuss what claims this way of approaching truth—both revealed and discovered—makes on our lives as individuals and as the community of the Church.
1. Richard Wilbur, “Lying,” in New and Collected Poems. San Diego: HBJ, 1988: p. 9.
2. Dana Gioia. “Richard Wilbur: A Critical Survey of His Career.” (http://www.danagioia.net/essays/ewilbur.htm)
3. Wilbur, ibid., p. 240 (originally published 1958).