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Poetry in Motion

By Dan Baumgartner on
Dan Baumgartner
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Feb 09 in Musings
The Beat poet Allen Ginsberg once said “The only thing that can save the world is the reclaiming of the awareness of the world. That's what poetry does.”  I like that. “Reclaiming an awareness of the world.” 

Poems notice things, or cause us to notice. Poetry forces a reader to slow down to consider every word on the page.  There are few things as unsatisfying as rushing through the reading of a poem, because you miss everything. Poetry puts words to feelings, stirs the imagination and creates wonder. Check out the poetry of the Bible sometime- Job, Psalms, Proverbs, prophets, passages from the Apostle Paul...poetry is everywhere in scripture.

So try this one, from the early 20th century. Wallace Stevens was a man who lived a
quiet and uneventful life, working as an attorney in the insurance industry. He was not prone to taking great risks or practicing wild living. He wrote poetry on the side, and somewhat under the radar until his great talent was recognized later in life. In 1915, on a trip to Tennessee, he wrote this one:
 
Anecdote of the Jar
 
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
 
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
 
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
 
As far as I know, Stevens never gave a definitive explanation on what the poem was about, and most poets abhor such concrete exegesis anyway. Some people think he was writing about life, others about poetry or art in general. When I first read it, I noticed all sorts of things.

The centerpiece of the poem is...a jar. A plain, ordinary, bare jar, something we see on a daily basis and never notice. A jar is unassuming, unspectacular, mundane. And yet...when the jar is placed in the wilderness amidst wild vegetation or untamed animals- everything is changed. Without blinking or flashing or shouting, the wilderness is no longer so wild because of the mere presence of the jar. Someone has been here, something is different, the round lines are “other” than the shape of nature. Everything else now exists in relationship to that jar.

Wallace Stevens was not a person of faith, but this poem could speak to the Church. I found myself wondering about the impact of the mundane jar- subtle, but profound. I wondered if that could be a better picture of the influence of God’s people on the world than what we’re used to. I am inundated each week by sales pitches touting celebrity Christian speakers and authors, or high-powered programs guaranteed to make a church successful. It’s as though Christians look at secular glitz and power in the culture and say “we have to do that to have an impact.” It’s weak theology, and I’ve watched the Church stumble on such practices repeatedly.
 
 I wonder. I wonder if we could take a lesson from...the jar. Maybe it’s more about the faithful presence of Jesus’ people in the wilds of culture than jumping up and down for attention. Maybe it’s more about consistent gospel living than shouting through a bullhorn. Maybe living normal Jesus lives of integrity and grace would tame the wilderness. Like a jar on a hill. I wonder.
 
See you soon,
            Pastor Dan

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