Lend me your eyes I will change what you see.
—Mumford and Sons, “Awake My Soul”
Valentine’s Day is usually no more than a day on the calendar for me, but this year may go down in history as one of the best ever. In one humble yet perfectly conceived gift, my husband paired Robert Fagles’ translation of The Iliad with a card from which Justin Bieber sang “Boyfriend.” It was — no pun intended — pretty epic. And while we debate just how much I love (or do not actually officially “love”) Justin Bieber, I must attest that he does appear on Pandora from time to time when I am folding mass loads of laundry or unloading the dishwasher — I simply won’t apologize for that. Any honest mother can attest that high brow simply doesn’t cut it when monotony is at hand, and if you can’t trust Rihanna with kiddos within earshot, Bieber is your next best bet.
The Iliad, however, was fuel for a newly discovered love of poetry that started last fall when I took up The Odyssey again and found great reprieve and delight in a genre so antithetical to my regularly left-brained life. In part because of the mystery and debate surrounding who Homer actually was — a man, tradition, or legend — and in part because of the magnificence of the epic itself, I have found myself thinking a lot about poets and the job of a poet. What is it that they do actually? Who counts as one? And what does it matter if they do it well?
Years ago I took a class with Steve Garber and I remember him showing a 1980s U2 music video of the song “Numb.” He used it to make the case that “artists get there first,” which is simply to say that artists can see beyond the present moment and intuit where a culture is going better than most. In the particular case of U2, he showed how the band saw the effects of an information-saturated culture before any of our modern technology even existed.
A few years later when I was managing an outreach to artists from Capitol Hill, seeking to engage them in nonpartisan conversations about “common good” issues like clean water and accessible education and AIDS prevention, I was again reminded of the importance of the artist in society. Our humble efforts to reach out were rooted in the hope that our little leadership platform in the US Senate could restore the pattern of longstanding Eastern and European traditions in which poets and politicians cast visions together about what a good society ought to be. On the occasions that we met with artists I always handed them a binder that featured a quote by Damon of Athens, “Give me the songs of a nation and I care not who writes its laws.”
At every turn, I find that I know and believe that artists matter significantly for the ways they capture a culture, how they generate artifacts that point to the values and priorities and perspective of a generation, and how they wave the flag on overlooked issues. But over the past few months, I have wanted to know better why the poet, specifically, matters. Not just those who write and publish poems literally, but those who serve as a voice in the wilderness — the seers, the prophets, those who get something that others can’t yet get. And over these months of coming to see the poet as one who sees, who gives expression, and who welcomes others into their vision and experience, I have also unearthed a latent longing to develop more of a poetic lens in my own life.
Seeing in the way that a poet sees is a bit of a queer business. Throughout The Iliad and The Odyssey there are poets who entertain, who amuse guests with songs and tales of great adventure and terrible sorrow, but there is another type of poet as well, and those are the voices to hear more carefully. In The Odyssey, one of the more memorable characters is Tiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes known for his clairvoyance. Homer wants us to be clear on this — the seeing that a seer does is not about physical vision. And while we may easily catch the paradox of a blind visionary, what is perhaps less noticeable is all of those other well-esteemed men with perfectly clear vision who do not see much of anything. When all is said and done, seeing is not nearly as straightforward as we take it to be. There is far too much we don’t dare look at, yet the poet — the prophet — can uniquely help us do that.
In this way, I find that there is a distinction among artists: some gift us with entertainment, with amusement, and with performance, but those special few rightfully bear the title of poet. Flannery O’Connor has always struck me as one of these types — I’m always marveling that critics found her writing to be grotesque when she ever insisted that she simply wrote what she saw. Or Cormac McCarthy, who doesn’t attest to believing much of anything, insisting that even the blackest and darkest of his many novels are really about hope — his vision of hope. It must be that they see something we don’t, or perhaps we can only see with the help of their borrowed lens.
The writer who has helped me most explicitly in this is Annie Dillard. Her nature journals, which she later compiled and published as the Pulitzer prize-winning nonfiction selection Pilgrim at Tinker Creek are all about seeing. Page after page, she lends you her eyes to examine the curious behavior of a waterbug, the wonder of a maple tree’s root structure, the pleasantries of the ripples in a creek near her house. Near the end of the disjointed yet wholly coherent reflections, you can’t help but think your vision has been permanently altered. But if the poet is one who sees, it is grace to me that we worship a God who encourages us all to be poets in this regard — to “have eyes to see.”
A few months ago I attended a conference where Christianity Today’s Executive Editor Andy Crouch gave the keynote address, and during the Q & A, he offhandedly remarked, “The job of the Church is to see.” On the one hand it wasn’t news — the Church seems reasonably comfortable in asserting its corner in the market of truth — but on the other hand, this altered how I thought about what counts as faithfulness. Seeing clearly — looking upon the world with clarity and truth — is a grace not just to us but to the entire body of Christ and to the world at large. Not just to know truth but to see it, to look for it. Yes indeed, I thought, the job of the church is to see.
Yet seeing alone is a rather solitary thing, and the poet knows this better than most. Like Tiresias, too much clarity of vision can itself be a bit blinding, a bit too stark and weighty. Searing vision left to itself is a heavy burden, yet that is the grace of expression. Whether it be canvas or chords or words on the page, expression is what allows vision to scatter seed, to take root, to bear fruit. Expression is also the means by which a visionary can unburden oneself of the clarity that presses in on all sides. It can refocus attention on defining, capturing, and forming exactly what it is that is at once so clear and pressing but also amorphous and hard to pin down in tidy categories.
In her phenomenal essay, “Towards a Christian Aesthetic,” Dorothy Sayers handles this issue of poetic expression better than most by brilliantly linking it to the doctrine of the Trinity. Relating the creative work of the artist — or poet, as she says — to the creative work of God, she observes:
God, who is a Trinity, creates by, or through, his Second Person, his Word or Son, who is continually begotten from the First Person, the Father, in an eternal creative activity. And certain theologians have added this very significant comment: the Father, they say, is only known to himself by beholding his image in his Son.
Here Sayers launches a most compelling articulation of how the poet, or the seer, is likewise only known to himself through the act of expressing — of imaging forth — what he experiences or sees. It is the act of expression that becomes a vital component of understanding both ourselves and our experience. But also, expression is the only way by which others can come to recognize the poet’s experience as their own. As she goes on to say, “a ‘poet’ so-called is simply a man like ourselves with an exceptional power of revealing his experience by expressing it, so that not only he but we ourselves recognize that experience as our own.”
Relating it back to the Trinity, Sayers argues that we all have various experiences that simply are, much as the Godhead is. We can choose to engage them or we can choose not to, but the fact remains that such experiences occur in and around us all the time. She argues that only through the effort of expressing those experiences can we come to actually see them for what they are. This, of course, is what Jesus does for the Father. Christ is the expression of God, making Him more real to us, more accessible. And finally, it is not only expression, but the power our expression holds that allows others to recognize themselves in and through our own experience and expression. Here, Sayers identifies the work of the Holy Spirit:
When we read the poem, or see the play or picture, or hear the music, it is as though a light were turned on inside us. We say, “Ah! I recognize that! That is something that I obscurely felt to be going on in and about me, but I didn’t know what it was and couldn’t express it. But now the artist has made its image — imaged it forth — for me, I can possess and take hold of it and make it my own and turn it into a source of knowledge and strength.” This is the communication of the image in power, by which the third person of the poet’s trinity brings us, through the incarnate image, into direct knowledge of the, in itself, unknowable and unimaginable reality.
In each of these aspects of creativity and in poetic expression, we begin to see how significant it is not only to see with clear eyes but to express with a strong voice that which we see. Contrary to our casual assumption that such expression is simply for edification, amusement, or manipulation, Sayers helps us see the essential power it has to transform our experience — to not only change our point of view but to give us new eyes altogether.
A generation before Sayers did her writing among friends like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, there lived another great poet, clergyman, and storyteller — George MacDonald — who wrote fairy stories to convey some of the deeper truths that weighed on his own heart and eyes. Like most fairy tales, they are oriented toward children, featuring elves and goblins and princesses and fairies, but unlike our children’s stories of today, they tell the whole truth about life. Not only the pleasant bits, as these great Brits might say, but bits about death and fear and uncertainty as well. MacDonald knew more than most how keenly attuned children are to truth. They always know when something is missing. Their eyes are still sharp.
In one of the more tender and sobering stories by MacDonald, At the Back of the North Wind, he winsomely observes, “a poet is someone who is glad of something and wants to make others glad of it too.” It is a smile-worthy line, and one I keep coming back to again and again for perspective and reassurance in my own angsty headspace littered with thoughts and language and visions. Not simply because it reminds me of those happy, familiar sparks of gladness in my own heart, but more because it reminds me that the job of the poet — of the artist — while weighty and significant on a grand scale, is really first and foremost a work of invitation. The poet is one who toils and works and feels and sorts through all manner of things seen and unseen and then welcomes others in, beckons them, calls to them, “Come and see what I can see!”
This invitation echoes a greater invitation by the first of all creators who begs us to see as He sees, to love as He loves. The poet, the artist-prophet, mirrors Him as closely as anyone — seeking to see rightly and truthfully, to give proper expression to that vision, and finally to invite others in to those experiences such that they might be changed. It is a worthy endeavor.
We live in an age when poets, so-called, seem in short supply. Unlike the days of Homer, or even Sayers who was herself a poet and spent a great deal of time with other poet contemporaries like T.S. Eliot, it seems that our cultural emphasis on experience has all but eliminated the need for expression. We are pleased to have ever greater and better experiences, proudly posting and Twittering and snap-shotting our life to bits, but all the while minimizing the effort it takes to give expression to those experiences or to invite others into them in a meaningful way. In many ways we are the most aesthetically attuned culture that has existed in some time, ever aware of how an image comes across, how the layout looks, how the crop and color adjust to give the right effect, yet we have lost the soul of the poet in this brand of aesthetics and, as a result, have lost some of what it means to understand ourselves and our time.
The poet is one who gives us new eyes to see, who helps us make sense of what we experience, and who invites others to see more deeply into what it is that their experiences mean. We may not have a Homer or a Shakespeare or a Sayers to be our singular booming voice of clarity, but to the extent that we all have eyes to see and ears to hear we can take up the role of the poet ourselves. And we will all be the better for it.
Kate Harris is wife to a good man and mother to their three small children. She serves as part-time Executive Director of The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture and resides just outside of Washington, DC, in Falls Church, VA.