In the Catholic literary community, there are frequent discussions about the importance of poetry. But, for most Catholics, poetry is something they studied in high school and promptly forgot. Why then should the average Catholic take any notice of April being National Poetry Month?
We often think of poetry as an academic topic but there was a time when poetry was commonly found in mainstream magazines and newspapers. I remember as a kid reading poetry in Readers’ Digest magazine. Even our set of World Book Encyclopedias included a poetry volume. We bumped into poetry in our daily lives. Today that doesn’t happen very often.
That lack of exposure to poetry was why I shared the idea of a Catholic Poetry Room weekly feature to Deacon Michael Bickerstaff, Editor-in-Chief of IntegratedCatholicLife.org. Like me, Mike believes that art and beauty are entry points to faith. April 2019 marks our third month offering weekly Catholic poems to IntegratedCatholicLife.org’s readership.
We’ve included poets such as Sally Thomas, whose poetry has been in The New Yorker; A.M. Juster, poetry editor for First Things magazine; and Sally Read, author of Night's Bright Darkness. Future poets will include Paul Mariani, winner of the John Ciardi Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry; and James Matthew Wilson, founder of the Colosseum Summer Institute, a poetry workshop for aspiring writers at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. My own poetry will be occasionally featured, too.
Our goal is to share poetry that is easily understood and enjoyed by casual readers. I’d rather reach one person who hasn’t read a poem in years, then a thousand who are already avid poetry readers. Why? Because poetry is an excellent spiritual exercise that can increase your faith. Here’s are five ways:
(1) Poetry helps you read Scripture because much of Scripture is poetry and metaphor. While you may not think you read poetry very often, the truth is you probably do without realizing it. There is a significant amount of poetry in Scripture, including all the Psalms. Some scholars estimate up to 30 percent of the Bible is poetry. We read poetry when we pray the Divine Office each day,. We hear it preached at Mass each Sunday. Reading contemporary Catholic poetry helps you more effectively read poetry in Scripture by getting you comfortable with metaphor and symbolism.
(2) Poetry slows you down in a hectic world. The condensed format of poetry and short line length naturally slows the pace of your reading, in much the same way that praying the Rosary slows you down. Because of this, Catholic poetry is an excellent way to begin prayer time after a busy day.
(3) Poetry helps you be more thankful by focusing on the beauty in your life. The best poets bring small details to light—details you might otherwise overlook. The regular reading of poetry trains you to notice your surroundings and, in turn, be thankful for the little things in life.
(4) Poetry leads to silence and silence leads to deeper prayer. One of the astounding things about poetry is the number of Saints who wrote it. From Thomas Aquinas to St. Thérèse of Lisieux to Pope John Paul II, the tradition of poet saints is vast. One of the reasons cited by Catholic poets is that prayer often leads to poetry, and poetry back into prayer. There is a deep connection between the two.
(5) Poetry helps you better understand yourself and the experiences you share with others. Many people have difficulty expressing their emotions. Poetry helps bridge this gap by providing words that connect you with others. One of the best examples of this is St. John of the Cross’ poem, The Dark Night, which describes his intense experience of contemplative prayer in a way that makes it much easier to understand than if he only described it in a more literal manner.
As a Secular Carmelite, I love the poetry of Carmelite poets, including St. Teresa of Avila and Jessica Powers. But I also enjoy reading contemporary Catholic poetry. Now I have a place to easily do so at the Catholic Poetry Room. I hope to see you there!
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