I’m propped in bed reading my current bedtime novel. Pausing to reflect on a particularly engaging passage, my eyes raise from the novel—and rest on the shelves of poetry volumes on the opposite wall. Some of these books I open often; others have sat there untouched for years. Yet I need them all there. When I walk into my room I need to be surrounded by poetry.
On Saturday evenings, my husband and I choose a film to watch. Sometimes we choose a light film, sometimes a profound one. Whichever we choose, the evening enriches us. We chat afterwards about certain scenes, certain characters. We go onto IMDB to see what other viewers have said about the film.
Over the past several weekends, I’ve attended some of my favorite performances: my favorite string quartet, my favorite modern dance troupe, my favorite chamber music ensemble. When I was a child studying music and dance, I could have followed the harmonic changes in the quartet, could have named (and even performed) some of the dance moves. I’ve forgotten all that; yet I still crave these artistic events, still sit through them transfixed, still leave feeling enlightened, ennobled.
I cannot imagine my life without art. I cannot imagine our human lives without art.
Why? What is art? Why is it essential for our full humanity? Why are we especially scandalized when a crazed group like ISIS destroys ancient artistic treasures?
I recall an answer that Greg Wolfe offered in a Good Letters post a couple years ago:
Art’s method is precisely to search out a new form to help us see the content we already know as if for the first time. Art thrives on shocks of recognition. Some are truly shocking, with an immediate effect. Most are subtle, time-delayed fuses that detonate deep in our subconscious and move something that needs dislodging. In a sense, every encounter with a great work of art is a conversion experience.
“Art makes things new”: this is Greg’s theme. Without art, then, we’d plod through our daily lives without ever recognizing (re-cognizing) the depths drawing us along.
Art gives shape to our experience. Without it, our days would sludge along like a long, slow mudslide. But with art, the sluggish flow stops; we see a human figure carved in the mud, the clay. It’s a figure of pride…or of pain…or of reaching, longing, stretching toward the meaning without which our lives are clogged with sludge.
“The joy of art is watching how something takes on meaning,” said film critic Nick Olson at the 2015 Glen Workshop. In film, he added, “you watch the meaning become embodied.” I’d say the same for sculpture, for painting, for dance—even for fiction. And I’d add: in music, you hear how something takes on meaning.
And in poetry? Well, here’s a poem that enacts what Greg Wolfe said: that art finds a new form to show us afresh something familiar, to shock us into a recognition that’s also a conversion. Take this stanza from David Craig’s “The Apprentice Prophecies”:
It’s your steel porch rail in sunlight
beneath the mailboxes; bright, flat black,
the brick behind. You’ll be struck dumb
by the ordinary, and everything will start to matter:
what shirt you put on,
how to pronounce your name.
Art shapes the ordinary so that we’re “struck dumb” by it, so that everything starts to matter. Can I leave that string quartet concert and say something nasty on the way out? Like “Hey, you’re blocking the aisle; move along, move along.” This is inconceivable. The music has ennobled me, ennobled us. Everyone leaving the concert hall is smiling with gratitude. Or, as Craig continues in the poem: After you’ve been “struck dumb by the ordinary,”
You’ll start helping dogs across the street,
be careful not to cycle over worms
And that novel I’m reading at bedtime? Right now it’s Austen’s Emma, which I’m reading for the fifth (tenth? twentieth?) time.
I know that Emma will prove herself worthy of Mr. Knightly by the end, but meanwhile she’s making every sort of blunder possible, showing herself meddlesome, self-righteous, overly self-assured. She misreads almost everyone of her acquaintance, with nearly devastating effects on them. In creating the character of Emma, in creating the novel Emma, Austen has shaped our ordinary human follies so that we see them anew.
Once Emma acknowledges to herself the mistakes she has made, once she’s repentant about them, she and Mr. Knightly can marry and—yes—live happily ever after. This is the shaping that art can give us. We know that, in reality, we won’t live happily ever after—not until eternal life. We know that we’ll blunder again. And again.
But the hope of living happily—if not “ever after” then afterwards for a while—is held out to us by Emma. Like the major chord we hear with relief at the end of one of Beethoven’s anguished late string quartets.
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.