Caring for Words Book Club: The Practice of Poetry


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The Spectrum blog book club is discussing Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Eerdmans 2009), by Marilyn McEntyre, professor of medical humanities at UC Davis and the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program. Our book club discussion runs from March through the end of May, with a week devoted to each of the chapters. A different writer is scheduled to introduce each chapter, and we invite you to join in the discussion. - Scott Moncrieff

When my 18-month old daughter has a hard time going to sleep, I lie next to her in the dark. Like a Braille reader, her fingers brush over my face and she speaks the names of what she feels: Nose. Eyes. Ears. Lips. It’s a ritual, a way for her to know I’m still here, and also a way for her to express tenderness. Before she had the words, this ritual was impossible. Indeed it is as if the words themselves awoke the feelings in her. And, as she touches and names the parts of my decidedly middle-aged face, I am re-created and opened up in the dark.

Words have primal power. The Christian way of expressing this truth identifies the creative force of language as a sacred thing: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Poetry tries to get closer and closer to that primal power by naming the world over and over again. The purpose of this naming is not to organize things into taxonomical hierarchies, but to open up meaning.

We practice poetry not to apply labels to things, but to talk, write, and read ourselves alive. In this way, poetry is incantatory and is at its most powerful when spoken aloud. I want to suggest that poems are more like charms or spells than lectures or sermons. Think Gandalf speaking elvish words to open a hidden door in a stone wall, or, for that matter, Jesus speaking the word Ephphatha to “open up” the deaf mute man (after touching parts of his face). “Taste and see . . .” I would say to the skeptic.

In this week’s chapter, Marilyn McEntyre argues the case for practicing poetry. She tells of trying to convince an economics major that poetry is worthwhile. McEntyre finds herself in a position in which those of us who read and write poetry often find ourselves – apologizing for something that is extremely meaningful to a few, but viewed by many as irrelevant or annoying. (What hurts most is that the naysayers don’t hate poetry. For them, poetry has just gone the way of pay phones and watermelon seeds – not worthy of strong feeling at all.)

McEntyre does a yeoman’s job defending the craft. She pulls familiar arguments from her tool belt: Poetry helps us make discerning decisions; poetry wakes us up; poetry teaches us to love beauty; poetry teaches us to read other texts more deeply. All of these arguments are useful and ring true to me – they are the arguments that generations of English majors have been making to parents who would prefer they go to medical school.

But the one that hooked me was McEntyre’s comparison of the power of language to the power that splits the atom – “arguably one of the most potent forms of power that society has produced.” (152) That gets at something elemental, something about the way the universe works, something about the mystery that is at the heart of human exploration of all kinds. The only quibble I have with McEntyre is that I don’t think society has produced this power of language any more than society has produced gravity. In the beginning was the Word – before any of us understood it.

Poets, then, spend their lives practicing to become more skilled at wielding the power to speak words of opening. I don’t want to be accused of magical thinking. Great poems are not any more (or maybe any less) miraculous than the Hubble Telescope. There are rules for poetry. There are certain ways of putting words together that work and others that don’t. The rules, however, get a poet to a jumping off point where “strangeness,” as the critic Harold Bloom calls it, begins. Great poems are the product of disciplined minds seeking to understand and harness this elemental power – and repeatedly failing. Bigger and more sophisticated particle colliders become necessary.

Metaphor is perhaps the best example of the way words refuse to be tamed. Nobody knows where metaphors come from. They live in a strange place below the conscious mind. When a poet reaches for a metaphor it is (as the poet Tony Hoagland would say) like reaching under a blanket, never sure of what he will pull out. Invariably the metaphor that appears has implications and layers of meaning the poet was not consciously intending. The best writers seem to get luckiest most often. There is a feedback loop between the poet’s mind and where the language seems to want to go. Most poets will tell you that writing is more like disciplined exploration than a routine mapping of known territory.

It’s this excitement of experiencing surprising new territory that is the true reward of writing and reading poetry. Great poems keep readers coming back to them for the intellectual and emotional surprises that continue to unfold with close reading. They hold up to repeated engaged encounters with academics, mystics, and mechanics alike.

I’m trying to introduce my girls to this primal power. They will learn about the Big Bang, quantum mechanics, and string theory, so why not introduce them to something equally mind-blowing. As my 11-year-old enters her time of opening up and tries to find the strength to push back against the identities others have picked out for her, we have started memorizing portions of “Song of Myself.” (Okay. Okay. Only the PG parts.) Whitman is the quintessential American prophet and there will be little in my girl’s adolescence as important as finding and sounding her barbaric yawp. I am happy to report she is well on her way to barbarism.

Poetry also continues to shape and sustain me. This past summer, as I suffered through a particularly deep depression, I turned to the sonnets of Gerard Manley Hopkins to keep me sane during sleepless nights. Fortunately I had already committed some of these beautiful and difficult poems to memory. I lay in the dark next to my sleeping wife, with the smoke alarm’s one eye blinking incessantly at me, and waged war with my manic catastrophic thinking. The words were like communion wafers in my mouth – somehow connecting me with another mind – or maybe another Mind. (After all, isn’t the religious word for primal, “sacramental?”) Hopkins’ words became words of opening – even the ones I didn’t fully understand.

I don’t mean to suggest that poetry should replace Prozac. (Apparently, however, there are no dangerous side effects from using them together.) Maybe it’s not magic, but somehow a poet-priest from a previous century managed to reach across time and brush my face with his fingers in the dark.

Let the philosophers argue about cause and effect, about whether consciousness or language came first. If you forced me to vote, I’d probably throw in with the mystic John who believed the Word came first. All I know is that good poems are a way for one spark of consciousness housed in a human body to reach out and brush the face of another.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Emily Dickinson said “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” What poems have taken off the top of your head?
  2. Do you have a poem that you return to, like a sacrament, to provide strength for the journey?

Craig van Rooyen is a lawyer and a writer living in San Luis Obispo, California. His work has appeared in New Ohio Review, Southern Poetry Review, Willow Springs, Rattle, Crab Creek Review, The Christian Century, and elsewhere. He has gone back to basics, trying to practice the three R’s regularly – raising girls, riding bikes, and writing poetry.

Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies: Schedule Planner

February 24 Why Worry About Words?Scott Moncrieff, Andrews UniversityMarch 3 Strategy 1: Love WordsBrooke Holland, Collegedale AcademyMarch 10 Strategy 2: Tell the TruthBeverly Matiko, Andrews UniversityMarch 17 Strategy 3: Don’t Tolerate LiesBeverly Matiko, Andrews UniversityMarch 24 Strategy 4: Read WellKellie Bond, Walla Walla UniversityMarch 31 Strategy 5: Stay in ConversationMary Christian, Indiana UniversityApril 7 Strategy 6: Share StoriesJeanette Bryson, Andrews UniversityApril 14 Strategy 7: Love the Long SentenceEmily McArthur deCarvalho, University of California, RiversideApril 21 Strategy 8: Practice PoetryCraig van Rooyen, San Luis Obispo, CaliforniaApril 28 Strategy 9: Attend to TranslationSarah Fusté, Berrien Springs, MichiganMay 5 Strategy 10: PlayJustina Clayburn, Andrews UniversityMay 12 Strategy 11: PrayTBDMay 19 Strategy 12: Cherish SilenceKristin Denslow, University of Florida


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5950