Poetry: A Surprising Tool to Help You Love Others
I felt most like an outsider in college when I disliked an artform that "most people" loved.
I was studying literature, and it quickly became clear that all the best literary minds had a deep love for poetry. I, on the other hand, didn't get it.
I would hear students and professors sing its praises, talking about the beauty and simplicity of the form, but I really couldn't get into it. I tried to read both the greats and the obscure names listed on syllabi, but none of them stuck.
However, outside of the academy, few people care about poetry at all.
It's strange to realize I felt so out of place because of an opinion the majority of the world shares. Now, I find myself on the other end, having become an advocate for poetry in circles where it's largely ignored.
I'm not sure exactly when the shift happened. But, at some point, I started to see the unique ways the artform beckons readers into a deeper connection with others, how it forces you into a different perspective, trains you in an important but oft-forgotten skill: the ability to see and listen.
The Need to See and Listen
I wasn't ready to see and listen as a young undergraduate student. I still felt like I knew something special. There was a subtle arrogance in my perspective that I tried to keep hidden beneath a facade of pseudo-curiosity.
I'd feign interest in other people's ideas, but mostly I just wanted to communicate my own.
That seems to have become more common in the modern age of outrage and division.
Go read YouTube comments or bring up government-issued mandates in a room full of five random people. Both will likely remind you that seeing and listening are foreign skills at the moment. Like speaking Latin or knowing how to farm, they have become irrelevant in a world that makes it easy to exist without them.
Algorithms and carefully curated content consumption make it so that you never have to encounter a dissenting opinion. Why would you look for one if you don't have to?
I think about the characteristics of people I'm drawn to. "We have so much in common," I say with enthusiasm. Those relationships are the easy ones. The problem is they never stay that way.
It's frustrating that the world does not consist of people exactly like me. As I get to know another person better – any person really, it doesn't matter who – I begin to see the nuanced ways I disagree with them.
The people I know - at work and in my church even - have different perspectives and histories shaping their lives. Their views confuse me or leave me with more questions than answers.
I can come up with a ton of good reasons to separate myself from them, but that's not the way we were designed. We were created for fellowship with one another, despite our differences.
Unity has always been part of the heart of God. In an article for The Gospel Coalition, Quina Aragon summarizes how it plays out throughout the scripture:
"Adam and Eve enjoyed peaceful fellowship with God, but their sin brought a great division between them and God, and consequently, between us and God (1 Cor. 15:22). Through the cross, Christ brought us into a loving union with God (1 Pet. 3:18). The unifying of everything under Christ has always been God's plan, and it will be cosmically realized when Christ returns (Eph. 1:7–10; Phil. 2:9–11)."
Even if you think on a more macro level, just read Ephesians and mark the times that he mentions "we" or "us" instead of "me" or "you."
Unity is central to the message of the whole book.
Paul talks about all Christians "being built together into a dwelling place for God" (Ephesians 2:22).
He says that we're united as one body (Ephesians 4:4) that will one day "attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God" (Ephesians 4:13). He compares the Church to an adopted family with diverse members.
The different metaphors function in the same way. Each represents a single entity made up of a collective group of individuals. The Christian faith is a communal enterprise and participating in the community requires us to develop the skills of seeing and listening, even when we don't want to.
If you're like I was in my early years as a literary student, the idea that poetry offers some sort of solution to our disunity is going to feel far too lofty and perhaps even a bit silly.
I empathize with the pushback, but I've seen how the artform can push readers beyond their comfort zones and into a space where they have to listen to another voice.
Take what Matthew Mullins says in his book Enjoying the Bible, "To understand a poem, you must be willing to give yourself to the world of the text."
You put aside any preconceived idea and start to see things from a new perspective. Reading poetry gives you an opportunity to practice this skill as you step into the world the poet creates and learn from within it rather than demanding it to change.
Of course, this would be easier if poetry was easier to understand. "Why can't it just come out and say what it means?" my students often ask me with anger when we go through the poetry unit. The medium is notoriously difficult and peppered with mysterious lines that resist simple interpretations, but working through that mystery develops in us the same skills needed to live in unity.
The people who make up the body of Christ, our brothers and our sisters, are full of mystery.
It's hard enough to truly understand the motivations of oneself, let alone the people in our congregations we've never spoken to. It's often easier to reduce them to their posts on social media or the comment you heard them make in passing. But those qualities don't make them who they are.
Each of us are works in process, still becoming the people we'll ultimately become.
Every person, like great poetry, can not be summed up with simple answers. Their complexities make them who they are, and the more we put ourselves in that frustrating limbo of interpretation, the more we can see the beauty of that process and learn to love the person (or the poem!) on the other side.
The need for unity is clear, but getting there can feel incredibly unnatural in the present age.
It's not hard to spend one's life away from any bit of disagreement, and it's even easier to separate people into "us" and "them" categories. But this isn't the way scripture outlines the Christian life. The more we train ourselves in our abilities to see and listen, the more we will resist the temptation to avoid anyone with any difference.
Reading poetry pushes us into a space where we embrace mystery and see from another's perspective, making it a great way to train ourselves to see and listen. Seeing and listening lets us love others well.
Poetry isn't the only way we can engage with God and others through art. Check out seven books on art, culture, and the Christian life that will help you grow in your faith.