A former student recently asked me a very pointed question. From a Christian perspective, what should be the boundaries to a poem, specifically in regards to word choice and subject matter? In this post, I will seek to answer this question, or at least, as is common on this blog, draw as close to an answer as is possible.
Now, before I run the risk of coming across pretentious immediately off the bat, let me preface all that will follow with a particular quotation that has helped me keep this amateur writer’s feet on the ground and his head out from under the clouds. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who has penned such acclaimed stories as A Few Good Men, The Social Network and several excellent television series, never wrote a truer or more poetic statement than the episode of The West Wing in which Laura Dern’s character, the U.S. Poet Laureate, speaks to Toby Ziegler, the White House Communications Director and chief speechwriter. She tells him, “The goal of an artist is not to communicate truth. The goal of an artist is to captivate you for however long we’ve asked for your attention. If we stumble onto truth, we’ve gotten lucky.”
So, let it be stated at the outset that, for the purposes of this blog post, I am not declaring that prose or poetry or any form of expressive art is salvific. In other words, while a poem or story or song or painting can have an effect on us – while they can sometimes even incite change – no person will ever be saved by them.
So, then, what is the ultimate purpose of creative expression? What is the paramount reason to write a poem?
I believe it is to enliven the reader. To inspire. Of course, the writer cannot redeem the reader – he can only propel the reader on a path toward redemption. But expressing oneself in a manner that even lays the groundwork for this is a lofty task. It requires the poet to be a keen observer of the world and its inhabitants so that his re-creation on the page is compelling. Henry David Thoreau writes in his classic work Walden, “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.” He explains that anyone can create a work of art, be it a painting, a sculpture, a poem, etc. But, “It is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”
So, for a poet who is also a Christian (rather than “a Christian poet,” which uses the word “Christian” as an adjective that categorizes and thereby boxes in the writer), I believe poetry should be viewed as evangelistic. A poem should carry the aroma of the euangelion, the “good news” of salvation. Why? Because, if it doesn’t, it is a lesser poem. Like a private who shies away from the front, it is not being all it can be.
However, there are two caveats to this assertion.
First, it must be understood, in light of the quotation from The West Wing, that a writer who is solely concerned with an end goal – a protest or an argument or a specific persuasion toward truth – is no writer at all. He or she has ceased to be a poet and has instead become a preacher or a politician. This is because everything takes a backseat to expounding upon the determined point or message. The poem (and, as an extension, the story or song or even the painting) becomes didactic, or preachy. Remember, the only goal of an artist is to captivate the reader. Not to save, and not even to change. Only to encourage – to nudge the reader in the direction of both. And it works both ways. If I am not captivated by a particular work, I will not be inspired, which is the catalyst for change. If I feel that I’m being barked at by the work, then any chance there was in growing or coming to a deeper understanding of life or faith or God goes out the window.
So, while the poet may desire to effect change, he has a responsibility, first and foremost, to captivate. To entertain. To awake the imagination. To enrapture the mind’s eye and expand the mind. How does he do this? With every bit of skill he has, every technique he can execute. Language. Tone. Rhythm. Motif. Imagery. Metaphor. Symbolism. Whatever arrow is in the quiver that is suitably weighted for the flight. It is the quality of the writing – not the intention – that truly moves the reader. How that reader will respond is out of the poet’s hands.
The second thing to remember, and perhaps what cuts to the quick of the question my student asked me, concerns what, if anything, is off limits. In my opinion, depending upon the theme, subject, character or level of realism, no speck of language is taboo. Word choice means word choice, not choices. For example, I am currently reworking a story that I first wrote for a college creative writing class. The story’s two principle characters are poor, washed-up, lonely men who live in a pauperized small town. One is unknowingly battling severe depression, while the other is bipolar and prone to violent, vehement outbursts. Now, the question is, as a Christian, should I avoid putting words into the mouth of these two sad, downward-spiraling men that I would not say myself in a church sanctuary or (as is a popular “what if” to morally-righteous folks) if Jesus suddenly appeared and sat down next to me?
First of all, if Jesus suddenly sat down next to me, I don’t think I would have much to say at all. I’m pretty sure I’d be speechless. Secondly, if these two men from my story use salty, offensive language when they speak, I’m pretty sure Jesus wouldn’t be surprised. It comes down to what I value more: my moralism or my realism. It has taken me several years, but I have come to value the latter, mainly because I believe that my job is, first, to tell a compelling story, not construct a squeaky clean one that avoids offending even the most conservative of readers. This may mean I have to give up the possibility of some “Christian” publications accepting my work, but that is a concern that shouldn’t be hard to relinquish when I remind myself that the point of my work is meant to be evangelistic. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matthew 9:12).
But, as I’ve stated, this faithfulness to realism doesn’t simply concern language. The poet’s honesty must extend well beyond language. It must not shy away from portraying the darkness and the depravity in the world if the focus of the poem or the vision of the poet turns in this direction. T.S. Eliot wrote some of the most extraordinary poetry during the early years of the Modernist movement, and part of the reason he is remembered was that his images were strikingly truthful and relatable even in their metaphorical or symbolic depth. Eliot had a quiver crammed with techniques, but what makes him a great poet is not that he was good with words, but that he was not afraid to shoot them at any target, be it divine or disturbing.
To pull the reins on a poem in order that it avoids controversial, depressing or unpleasant subjects and images is dishonest, fearful writing. The poet robs himself of the challenge of identifying the threads of light that might be woven even through the darkest of fabric, and he robs the reader of the experience of taking that journey through the valley of the shadow that often comes before we reach the green pastures and still waters. Madeleine L’Engle writes, “There is nothing so secular that it cannot be made sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.”
So, what are the boundaries? They are the borders constructed by our conscience, but patrolled by our courage, and our courage is known to have a restless spirit. Where are the boundaries? They lie as far away from our freedom – a freedom that is as spiritual as it is literary – as our freedom can stretch us.
Poetry, not to mention all forms of true writing and true art, should be as challenging and inspirational for the poet to compose as it is for the reader to read.