Notes on Ministry and Poetry
The carpeting in the living room is indeed wall to wall, and smells as musty as I remembered. But since my interview visit, someone has spread a tablecloth over the wing table in the living room and planted a sofa by the window, so that when I arrive for my first morning of office hours as the interim pastor, the parsonage resembles a place people actually might visit. For I have assured my new congregation, both in the printed bulletin and during my first Sunday’s announcements, that “I am interested in where God is moving in their lives,” which is true, and that “as they go about their days, they are most welcome to stop in for a conversation”—which might be true as well.
As I sit and wait, I remember that I’ve brought my study Bible along. Flipping to next Sunday’s text, I plop it in front of me like an oversized prop, proof against a charge of idleness, in case anyone might be watching through the window. Despite my new surroundings, and the eerie quiet of Main Street in this small Iowa town that I’ll call Ramoth (next door to Gilead), something about the morning’s combination of anxiety and excitement feels familiar. I realize that when I’m at home during the middle of the week, working on my own poetry instead of ministry, I assume the same posture, staring out the window with the words of others nearby, my mind clouded with witnesses—or often just cloudy.
Poetry and ministry: the need to construct a boundary between these two callings was burned into my brain years ago. First and foremost, it’s a matter of time. I’ve known too many people in the helping professions who intended to “write on the weekends” and ended up sacrificing artistic energy to the demands of their paying jobs. But there is a psychological component to the need for a division, too. The work of ministry can afford an immediate gratification, a sense of social connection and real privilege in sharing what Father Zossima calls the “secrets, sorrows, and avowals” of others, which poetry rarely yields. Small-town pastors often receive calls asking them to fill in and officiate funerals for those without a church membership. A half-decent performance wins you a sanctuary full of friends, maybe even draws some new faces to your own congregation. The recompenses of writing poetry—the rare big publication, a fan letter out of the blue—are infrequent and thin by comparison. Ah, but then there is the physical thrill of working on something new, tracing the sounds and lines as they link, a thrill so rare it makes up for all the vacant hours spent flipping through books, maybe scribbling a note. In order to make room for the chance of a new poem, to say yes to its remote possibility, poets have to say no to all sorts of more acceptable activities. For me this has meant, on a few occasions, turning down a family of grieving strangers over the phone in order to sit at home on a Wednesday afternoon by myself, my dog staring up at me quizzically, as if even she wondered about my priorities.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there’s always been a theological tension between poetry and ministry in my mind. To put it plainly, I’m not certain that the two practices serve the same deity. The charge of writing poetry, when I’m in it, proves so powerful that I can only nod in assent to Matisse’s outrageous claim that he only believed in God when he was able to paint. Though I love church worship, there are few Sunday mornings when I feel so powerfully seized. “At the very bottom of devoutness,” Kierkegaard says, “there lurks the capricious arbitrariness that knows itself has produced the god.” So strong is the artistic impulse that, in its sway, faith and idolatry can feel indistinct, which is a scary thing for a minister to admit.
I entered my late twenties aware of my callings to poetry and ministry, determined to make them both work, and intent on building a sacred boundary between them. Here in Ramoth, my bulletin notes and announcements will help establish the division, letting people know what to expect from their three-quarter-time interim. When I am back home in Des Moines, barring emergencies of course, I am a writer. I’ll print my cell phone number in the bulletin, followed by “in case of pastoral emergencies”—with “emergencies” in bold, if our rickety church printer can handle it. Better to explain my odd schedule right off the bat than to let my delinquency slowly seep its way, like farm smell, into the talk of the townspeople.
That’s the plan, at least. But on this first morning in the parsonage, I can’t shake the similarities in affect and atmosphere that accompany my two kinds of work. Perhaps experience hammers us over the head with a truth that doctrine is reluctant to admit. Or perhaps we create certain distinctions, certain frictions, to foster creative energy. As I glance out the window, waiting for my ministry in Ramoth to begin, realizing that it has begun, I can’t help but wonder: What does it mean that my pastoral posture looks so suspiciously like my poet’s? What does it mean that poetry and ministry require such uncertainty, an openness that might easily be mistaken for indolence? What does it mean, for both practices, that the waiting feels the same?
A few months later, I’m sitting at the same table in the Ramoth parsonage, preparing for the season of Advent. My surroundings feel more familiar now, my days more structured. But ministry doesn’t let you get ahead of the curve for long. This morning, a man has come to ask me if he can keep attending church. A few months before, he’d pled guilty to a horrible crime and registered as a sex offender. The first few times he and I had talked, he never mentioned his conviction. Stumbling on the news online, a church member emailed it to me, and I’ve spent the weekend trying to piece the story together. As the man and I sit down, a million uncertainties, fears, and questions swarm in my head. Some of them we need to address. Why does he want to keep coming? He is taking care of his ninety-year-old father, who regularly attends. What are his legal restrictions? He has a court date in a few weeks, but so far he has been given no restrictions by the state. And of course (but don’t ask): What did he actually do?
As any pastoral conversation develops, the temptation for the minister is to seek the solution, stereotypically via some analogy with a Bible character. I think this is the majority of my friends’ impression of what I do: lean back in my office chair and dole out wisdom. Wisdom that, in its finality, is utterly at odds with life’s contingency. In his famous letter on Shakespeare, John Keats provided a different prescription for how to respond. Keats wrote of the poet’s ability “to be in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” For Keats, this state of “negative capability” has everything to do with poetry’s unique power. Poetry begins less in discovery than a faithful kind of resistance; it refuses to succumb to the sacrificed attention that comprises most of our lives. Once preconceptions and received notions (“fact & reason”) creep in, the potential for a new poem is lost.
It’s my contention that Keats’s practice of negative capability applies to pastors as well as poets. In fact, negative capability may be the bridge between my life’s two callings. In a society built on speed, quick to diagnose and move on, both poetry and ministry offer a chance to remain in a zone of attentive hesitancy, to listen and wait without “reaching after” what makes us feel useful. The visitor and I will return to legal and logistical questions later, but during this choppy, choked-up conversation, one thing is clear. One impression keeps returning, stuttered up between long pauses like Robert Creeley enjambments: this man has come here, despite his shame, because he needs the church. So, with all my uncertainty and doubt—and the council’s voices in my head whispering, “What the heck are you going to do?”—I try to listen.
Pastoral conversations, as they unfold, often resemble the courses of poems. A visit may start out with a casual question or comment, but, given time, a deeper urgency emerges. A parent stops in to ask if her daughters are eligible for confirmation, since they haven’t been baptized yet, but she also needs to talk about her frustration with their estranged father. Or a long-serving church treasurer drives over to dispute the way I have requested my housing allowance, but she also brings me cookies; it turns out her mind is on her husband, who loved the recipe, and died two years ago this week. Forty minutes of scattered, almost small talk, prompted by open-ended questions, can feel its way towards a profound emotional opening.
Cases like this remind me of “At the Fishhouses,” Elizabeth Bishop’s poem about the Nova Scotia coastline. For the first hundred lines, the speaker dallies along the shore, musing on townspeople, sailboats, and seals, until the language suddenly slides into a higher register:
I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free….
In the same way a particular conversation can turn out to be just what two people need, Bishop’s poem accretes details, the significance of which becomes clear only in this late, clairvoyant moment. Hesitancy and reticence give way to a surge of insight; it all adds up.
Most pastoral visits never achieve such high-style revelations, of course. Some exchanges operate more circularly: one inchoate question, gratitude, or longing keeps returning, unable to expand, but needing to be heard. Spending an hour with a teenager whose mysterious stomach ailment has forced him out of school, I keep hearing, “It’s all going too fast.” A successful businessman, rejuvenated late in life, surprises me by acknowledging, “I don’t have to pretend. I don’t have to pretend!” In exchanges like these, I’m reminded of the way refrains work in poetry, lifting one phrase up to the light, scrutinizing it until all the possible meanings are squeezed out.
“I see the change of wearied mind…. / Farewell my part. Proof is no liar. / I see the change,” wrote the sixteenth-century poet Thomas Wyatt, an expert at conjuring multiple meanings from a plain style. For a more contemporary example, listen to the repetitions in Lorine Niedecker’s haunting untitled domestic poem:
in the world’s black night
______if not repose….
______and lived unburied.
Like people, words in poems often repeat themselves, simply to find out all that they mean. Ministry—even the straight-out-of-seminary response, “I hear you saying…”—can zero in on these refrains, clarifying their resonance.
Finally, and just as frequently as the two kinds of interaction I’ve just sketched, a visit with a congregant may seem to go nowhere, remaining entirely superficial. A couple stops by to show me blueprints for their remodeling. A deacon and I plan an upcoming church potluck. Someone brings a poem for me to “explain.” Though in each case, I hear a desire for deeper connection beneath our talk, the subject—I suppose I mean the predominant feeling—never surfaces. During these more inarticulate instances, I think of the poem “Buried at Springs,” by James Schuyler. An elegy for his friend Frank O’Hara, Schuyler’s poem begins like small talk, with a disarming triviality and a joke: “There is a hornet in the room / and one of us will have to go / out the window into the late / August mid-afternoon sun. I / won.” Fifty lines later, the poem has hardly strayed from its chatty, pretty description, as if the speaker keeps talking to stave off what the silence would make him confront. Only in the very last lines does the surface give way, and even then you have to listen hard:
Delicate day, setting the bright
of a young spruce against the cold
of an old one hung with unripe cones
each exuding at its tip
gum, pungent, clear as a tear,
a day tarnished and fractured
as the quartz in the rocks
of a dulled and distant point,
a day like a gull passing
with a slow flapping of wings
in a kind of lope, without
breeze enough to shake loose
the last of the fireweed flowers,
a faintly clammy day, like wet silk
stained by one dead branch
the harsh russet of dried blood.
Sometimes pastors just get one hint of what’s beneath: a twinkle in someone’s eye as she talks about an upcoming date, a sloping of the shoulders as he waits in the handshake line. The end of “Buried at Springs” reminds me that even a brief glimpse into a congregant’s life might reveal the difference between a “delicate day” and “a day tarnished and fractured.”
The next week in Ramoth, after meeting with the council, I call up the man who’s been convicted of a sex crime. I have difficult news. We’re still working out an official church policy to address the situation, I say, but for now you can’t attend worship. This particular afternoon I don’t have the time, or the inclination, to be a very Keatsian listener. I promise to visit him with Communion soon, and make a bad joke about “bringing church to you.” A few days before our next service, I get a call on my cell phone. It’s one of my days set aside for poetry, so I hesitate before picking up. It’s the same man’s cousin. That morning—it takes her a minute or two to get it out—he fell out of bed. His father came in and found him, dead of a heart attack at sixty-five. She and I talk for about ten minutes, make tentative plans for the service, grateful for the practical details covering the abyss in each other’s voices. We’ve given each other something to do, for a little while at least.
There is a precision to the shifts in feeling in the lines of Bishop or Schuyler that matches all the profound reticence an Iowa farm family can muster. And there are moments in rural conversation, quiet pivots of tone and pauses, as many-layered and multi-directional as our best art. Poetry and ministry both attend to doubt, understatement, nuances of speech and feeling. It’s ironic, then, that the poetry used in church settings so often shies away from harnessing the power of ambiguity. Rarely a vessel of discovery, the poems employed in contemporary liturgy or in a second-hour study group tend to affirm accessibility over any drama of unfolding feeling. I would wager that these poems, so much less complicated than the inner lives of their readers, don’t help the popularity of poets (or ministers) in the long run. Sure, our general culture’s profession of confusion in the face of poetry—“Why don’t you just say what you mean?”—may dominate a congregation’s first reaction. But think how often the same bull-headed question applies to pastoral or therapeutic conversations. “Why don’t you just say what you mean?” Because the way of saying it matters, and what I mean is inseparable from how I say it. This is what modernist poetry, poetry that plays with ambivalence, continues to affirm, whether or not pastors are listening.
Living out their negative capabilities, neither poetry nor ministry can claim to know where they’re headed. In fact, both poets and pastors seem to share, as a condition of their vocations, an ongoing uncertainty about the authenticity of their vocations. As I said to myself on many occasions in Ramoth, maybe I’m only “doing it right” if I find myself staring out the window regularly, asking myself “Am I doing it right?” In this regard, chapter 9 of Mark’s Gospel encourages: “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.” Along the way, the privilege of listening and waiting amounts to its own gift—like belief itself.
“No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” Robert Frost’s dictum suggests poetry’s unrivaled power of enactment, of making palpable, of—dare we say it?—incarnating. Unlike a scientific paper or a political manifesto, a poem discovers realities in the act of its own unfolding, realities it could not have offered the world otherwise. Likewise, a pastoral conversation that proceeds according to its own internal logic and form may discover truths it would not have otherwise known. Ministry, insofar as it empowers people to name their realities, and, from time to time, to awaken to the experience of grace that underlies them, helps the church become poets for a while. Perhaps this is one of the meanings of Jesus’s own polyvalent phrase, “the truth will set you free,” words that have confused their share of people, and have caused their share of people to sit up and listen.