One of the students in my Glen Online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” emailed me to ask what exactly I meant by “strolling along with a poem.”
In the lecture for the lesson she was working on, I’d said that “I sometimes read a poem as if I were taking a stroll through it or along with it. The stroll is leisurely, because poetry never rushes us. Poetry paces itself so that its rhythms, its sound-echoes, its line-breaks and stanza-breaks, all conspire to give us pause.”
“How do you listen to a poem’s sounds?” she asked.
By way of an answer, I tried writing out for her my experience of strolling along, ears wide open, with the poem I was then using as my daily mediation: Robert Bly’s “The Roof Nail.” The poem is only four lines:
A hundred boats are still looking for the shore.
There is more in my hopes than I imagined.
The tiny roof nail lies on the ground, aching for the roof.
Some little bone in our foot is longing for heaven.
With her permission, here’s the gist of what I emailed back to this student. (I say “student,” but actually I think of the Glen Online program as peer teaching; we are all adults, sharing with one another the gifts that God has given us each to develop.) I wrote:
At first I was drawn to the poem’s images: especially that “tiny roof nail” and the “little bone.” The first two lines seemed less striking, less sharply envisioned. But one day I decided to try to really picture those boats: and I found myself picturing them dotting all the oceans of the world (after all, there are 100—that’s a lot!). So line 1’s image came more sharply into focus: as a hundred boats each out alone on the oceans, each looking (longingly) for a shore not yet in sight. Line 2 of the poem still seemed a bit too abstract, though, for me to connect to.
But after several days of twenty-minute sittings, saying the whole poem slowly over and over, I started to hear sound-connections in the first two lines. The rhyme of “shore” and “more”: this suddenly connected “my hopes” with the “shore”: the safe home for which we long. Then I heard the repeated “o”-sound in “boats” and “hopes,” and this brought the image of those hundred boats more concretely into “my hopes.”
Then I also noticed that these first two lines have the same rhythm of five beats (the basic iambic pentameter of English poetry), which also linked them to each other.…
…which made me notice that the next line has two extra beats, stretching out that dear nail’s aching for the roof.
Staying then with the nail, how it “lies” on the ground, made me start to hear all the other “l”-sounds in the poem: “still looking… nail lies… little… longing.” “L” is a soft, tender sound (think of “lullaby,” for instance). These “l”s help create the gentle quiet of this poem.
So the poet has created four distinct statements in the poem: each line is its own sentence, ending with a period. Yet the interweaving of sounds and rhythm draws the lines’ images together—into a richly evoked sense of the “longing for heaven” which is inherent in our human condition.
That’s pretty much what I wrote to her. What I’d add now is simply my gratitude for how this poem spoke to my needs at the time. And still does—though I’ve moved on to other poems for daily meditation.
A sense of longing for my true (heavenly) home so strong that it’s an ache: I live with this. Don’t we all?
I go through my days attending to whatever task or interaction is before me. But if I step back and attend to the quality of this attention, I feel within it the pull toward another dimension of reality. So I treasure that precious image of the tiny roof nail aching for its true home on the roof. I identify with the helpless little nail, so far from where it knows it ultimately belongs.
By the way, I didn’t invent the metaphor of “strolling with a poem.” I took it from poet A.R. Ammons’ 1968 essay “A Poem is a Walk.” Fortunately, a blogger has posted the whole essay online. I value every word of it, but I think my favorite passage is this:
“Poetry leads us to the unstructured sources of our beings, to the unknown, and returns us to our rational, structured selves refreshed. Having once experienced the mystery, plenitude, contradiction, and composure of a work of art, we afterward have a built-in resistance to the slogans and propaganda of oversimplification that have often contributed to the destruction of human life. Poetry is a verbal means to a nonverbal source. It is a motion to no-motion, to the still point of contemplation and deep realization.”
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Written by: Peggy Rosenthal
Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.