A well-crafted poem, if I may borrow from a most famous one, is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Yet a heart of stone can melt from one ill-composed, written in a child’s hand or a lover’s, with clichés and popular idioms. The eyes of love give flight to crippled syntax as it is read, and it is treasured beyond its worth.
But it’s risky business. An ill-timed laugh or a careless reception and it’s more than paper that’s shred apart. So what is it about writing poetry, particularly love poetry, that drives us to actually take the risk and make the effort to do it? Why commit such expressiveness of emotion to printed paper or screen and endow it with longevity far beyond its expiration date when beloved eyes can no longer see and it lies discarded, bequeathed to disinterested strangers?
Considering this peculiar impulse to engage in the craft of poetry, I think no one’s said it better than the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. But be warned, there’s a twist ending.
In My Craft or Sullen Art
In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.
Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.
Dylan Thomas (1946)
What a thing to say! Why, to write for those to whom poetry is neither here nor there seems a waste of energy and hardly worth the lonely labor! But the real scandal is that he does it anyway and does it so painstakingly well, knowing that only those who experience true love with its attending “griefs of the ages” can really hope to understand what he writes. And they’re too busy being in love to bother!
But when the lover himself writes for his own beloved, now that’s another story with a completely different point of view. For that we turn to the Bard of Avon but again, be alert for a psychic disturbance.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
William Shakespeare (1609)
But wait. I sense some irony here. What began as a poem which dwelt lovingly on the beloved’s fair lines ends with the lover’s egotistical sense of his poem’s fair lines, its apparent prowess in bestowing her with immortality though his verse! Only Shakespeare could make that work! See, this is how a love poem devolves into poesy. Still, the Bard, in managing to make us raise our eyebrows albeit admiringly, reveals an universal motive behind writing: our quest to enshrine in earthly immortality the deepest emotions we feel, especially for those we love.
There is one last consideration. It brings to mind a poem that surpasses all the love poetry ever written and Scripture contains it. What if the one writing the poem is not the lover but the one who is loved? King David reflects on the love of God in Psalm 139, and if it doesn’t move you, your feet cannot, as the Bard would say.
O Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me.
Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off.
Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways.
For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether.
Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it.
Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me.
Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.
For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.
I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.
My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them.
How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God! how great is the sum of them!
If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand: when I awake, I am still with thee.
Surely thou wilt slay the wicked, O God: depart from me therefore, ye bloody men.
For they speak against thee wickedly, and thine enemies take thy name in vain.
Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate thee? and am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee?
I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies.
Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts:
And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
These lines of poetry, unlike all others, really are immortal as they are eternal. As a part of Scripture they are God-breathed, so that what the psalmist relates of the love of God for His beloved is absolutely, unfathomably true. It’s as if God were saying, “How do I love thee, let me count the ways!” only from the viewpoint of one who experiences His love throughout her life. The constancy of the Divine Lover, His perfect faithfulness and deep understanding that is matchless because perfect and complete, takes away our breath as we realize we are the object of His love who knit us in our mother’s womb. A love that transforms us even as it draws us ever nearer, though darkness cloud our vision or evil threatens to overtake us, the God who sent His Son to die on the cross to rescue us from damnation never leaves us, never forsakes us: “If I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there.” There is no knowledge as wonderful as the knowledge of God’s love for each of us through Christ Jesus.
What overtakes our heart, mind, and soul, what make us bow in worship as well as shout with joy, is that no other love but Jesus’ love can pierce our existential isolation, our seemingly invincible solitariness, that sense of “aloneness” that besets us especially in a time of suffering or sorrow or loss. But He who knows what is on our lips before we can utter it and who sees us in time past, present, and future and into eternity, knows us, and knowing us, has chosen to love us. Only a God-breathed love poem written by the one loved about the Divine Lover could convince us that His love is true and everlasting.
Romans 8:35-39 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.