Poetic Love

A year ago today I picked up a copy of Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey in a Waterstones in Cambridge. I read it cover-to-cover without sitting and — admittedly — without purchasing it. I was intrigued, but, when I closed it and placed it back on its display, I realized that the fascination I’d felt with Kaur’s poetry was no different than the sensual interest I might have felt for a moody text post on Pinterest or Tumblr.

Now, I am thrilled to see poets gaining recognition at this level. Miss Kaur’s books are New York Times Bestsellers and clearly they speak to a lot of hurting people. I am pleased to see them promoting empathy in their expression of sensitive subjects such as emotional and sexual abuse. However, as a literary critic, I must raise some concerns.

Are these poems surviving on their merit as well-crafted works of art? Or, conversely, are they selling because of their sensualism and apparent relevance? Can we expect them to endure the test of time to rest beside the Dickensons, the Frosts, Eliots, and Wordsworths?

Perhaps it is unfair to ask that final question. I like to consider myself a fair poet, but I am also realistic; I am no literary giant and my poetry will not likely be studied in schools or mounted on plaques. Still, though, I think it is a duty of discernment to consider whether modern poetry such as Rupi Kaur’s is actually succeeding due to its artistic merit or whether it simply appeals to the emotionalism and liberalism of the current age.

G.K. Chesterton once wrote:

Free verse is like free love; it is a contradiction in terms.

I understand the thrust of this statement. Free love denies the fidelity of monogamy, the bonds of family, and the commitment of friendship. An idea that sounds like the multiplication of a good thing (love), in actuality leads to a devaluing of its virtue. Without a sense of consent, commitment, and collaboration within a loving relationship, there is no security and envy, competition, guilt, and distrust will inevitably rear their ugly heads. Free love in this sense is no longer love.

Applying this idea to poetry is, on the surface, a pleasing parallel. Without structure, a poet might think she has more freedom. However, these very boundaries are what force creative problem-solving, clever turns-of-phrase, and focused expression. Shakespeare’s sonnets might have been written without their characteristic structure, but they would have become a formless, romantic soup rather than the noble, innovative works of literary architecture we know today.

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate” could never have endured had Shakespeare taken a more Rupi Kaur-esque approach and penned something along the lines of:

You were the summer
hot and wet:
my sun
and yet
you burn.

Now, this is a poor translation between styles and it sorely abused the subject matter. But doesn’t it feel almost painfully forced? The lack of structure made the poem spineless, all emotion and self-expression and with no creative, rational thought or construction.

In this, I can understand Chesterton’s point. Without the commitment to structure and poetic rules, there is less of a chance of the poem making objective sense; it becomes too subjective to be understood and to endure beyond the self and those like that self. It becomes like free love: a delicious idea that is not built to withstand the hard truth that human beings crave consistency and order.

However, I do believe there is a unique beauty and purpose to free verse poetry. Free love in the sense of love without any sense of confines or commitment is certainly an idea doomed to fall into license, but love that operates solely by rules and requirements becomes legalism. The heart of it will either be poisoned by total freedom or hardened by lack of genuine affection.

This brings us to the idea of poetic license, which might more properly be defined as poetic love. For the love of the poem, a poet chooses to follow structure to support its subject, but also to deviate from that structure when necessary to support the poem’s affection. In this, both reason and emotion are given enough elbow room, and are brought into cooperation with each other. For the love of this literary art, we poets must carefully and intentionally choose where we will follow the rules to give our poem a sturdy skeleton and where we will bend them to make its flesh more alluring.

This can, believe it or not, be accomplished in both the strictest of sonnets as well as the most seemingly free of verse. However, sonnets must sometimes compromise an exact rhyme here or a little inflection there to avoid becoming mechanical, whereas free verse must invoke some sort of internal structure to prevent becoming a milksop.

I can think of no better example of this than T.S. Eliot, who is a master of metaphor and theme and uses both as unifying devices so that even the most abstract of verses retain a resounding echo of purpose, sense, and decision. There is not a half-hearted word or phrase to be found in Eliot.

For the sake of ease, however, I will use a collection of my own poems as an example. A few years ago, I wrote my first collection of free verse poetry based on the healings in the Gospel of Mark. (These can be found at https://inkarnationpress.com/2019/07/10/immediately-eight-poems-on-the-gospel-of-mark/)

As a dogmatic, conservative soul, I admit that free verse has always made me uncomfortable. (Sylvia Plath and I have just now started to get along, whereas good ‘ole Robert Frost and I have been childhood friends.) However, the sense of spontaneity — of utter brokenness being drawn back into wholeness and life — in these stories of healing demanded freer form.

Still, these are stories of disorder being reordered in Christ, so it would have been almost blasphemous to write them without any sense of structure. Stealing from the scriptures, I employed the recurring word “immediately,” as well as the inherent parallelism found in the gospel accounts to stitch my poems together and give them both arc and depth.

There is value in poems such as Rupi Kaur’s in that they provide their poets a way of healing, just as writing my Mark collection was an exercise in devotion and wholeness. However, what is lacking in these popular poems is a sense of internal unity and apparent structure. Themes of brokenness and resilience are found throughout, but is that enough? Within the individual poems, I only seem to find random line breaks and sentences that would have made more sense left in a single line and pasted across an angsty Pinterest photo. It seems that the raw thrust of Kaur’s emotion is the only thing keeping her books selling. And, just as in love, that first burst of emotion cannot endure. As in any relationship, mutual understanding and effort are what produce lasting love. It is the same with poetry, which is so often born of love. Without a skeleton, flesh will eventually fold away; it is easy to write superficial, fleshy verses, while constructing and beautifying a skeleton meant to last takes skill that I am yet practicing.

For instance, I scribbled this fleshy bit of poetry in the span of a second:

Knock knock
I never said come in
but still
you
did.

I’m not even sure what it’s about, but it feels sensual enough to sell if I were to slap a badly drawn broken heart on it. In contrast, to write a sonnet of brokenness is not only to express the hurt, but to rebuild it into something ordered and beautiful. A lament is a far cry from a complaint. (Consider the Psalms, which are authentic in brokenness, but continually return to order and trust.)

Poetry today is often used to express anger, sorrow, and ache and I do not want to devalue this vulnerability. It takes courage. It takes widening wounds to share them with others and this opens doors for empathy. In this, modern poetry such as Rupi Kaur’s is potentially helpful. However, art is — at least for the Christian —  fundamentally about order; it is about expressing, but also recreating and reorganizing. Writing broken lines and hastily-scribbled complaints may have value as self-expression, but without returning — both literally and literarily— to a balance of emotion and reason, heart and mind, there is little hope for redemption in both poem and poet.

Immediately: Eight Poems Based on the Gospel of Mark

In reading through Mark, I was struck by the recurring use of the word “immediately.” It is used to characterize many aspects of Christ’s ministry on Earth, but I was especially drawn to its use in relation to instances of healing. As I pondered this motif and these stories, I found myself understanding them with new clarity. In order to delve deeper into this idea of immediacy in Jesus’ miracles, I wrote a set of eight free verse poems exploring what the experiences of the individuals affected may have been like based on the details gleaned from the Gospel According to Mark.

Jesus Healing the Bleeding Woman, Roman Catacombs 300-350

Immediately

I. The Woman (Mark 5:21-34)

The crowd is throbbing

As my pain is

throbbing.

I have not come this far in years.

Twelve years.

Tears-

I cannot help them-

Begin to flow…

Flow as blood has

For twelve years.

I am so close.

But still feel so far and fears

Overcome me

As the people surround me.

They know.

They all know.

I see their glances:

Quick, horrified, averted.

I want to scream:

“Yes! See! See my shame!

Tell me, you proud, healthy,

Is it my fault?”

But instead I fall.

To my knees I am bent.

Beneath the weight of despair

I am kept.

But my eyes remain fixed

Before me, ahead.

I am fallen

And aching

But I am not yet dead.

My eyes catch

On a figure weaving

Through this throbbing, living sea.

As I rise to walk,

My vision fades.

I stretch my hand and fumble feebly forward…

A hem.

All I seek.

A hem to hem me behind and before

In healing safety.

My finger brushes

The rough cloth,

Not even for a breath,

But mine returns.

Immediately,

Blood dries and sight clears.

Love and hope and peace

Are all that flow

Not from, but over me.

Immediately,

I am again on my knees,

Not for lack of strength

But faith.

I tremble.

Yet this fear is new,

As I am made new

Immediately.

I cannot help

But want to sing,

“Oh, see! See! My shame undone!

See and know!

The saving One!”

Immediately.

.

II. The Man with the Withered Hand(3:1-6)

My bones lament

With hunger.

My eyes grow dim

From waiting.

Waiting for nothing,

Since who would help me today?

The sad irony of the Lord’s Day.

Synagogues and pockets full,

But hearts empty.

Even more empty than my hand.

At least I would to fill mine.

Another sad irony.

For I cannot.

I cannot even reach out

To work or to beg.

Why bother anyway?

You cannot pour from empty jars

And a broken pot like me-

A withered hand like mine-

Holds nothing.

Yet here I am,

Still waiting.

Waiting for someone

To heal and fill

And then,

“Come here.”

I lift my head.

A hand, not mine, reaches

As I cannot.

An order next:

“Stretch out your hand.”

Will the cruelty ever end?

Why does he mock me?

But then,

Immediately.

I watch fingers uncurl, lengthen.

Nails harden.

Palm fattens.

Muscles strengthen.

And it is my hand,

Yet not my hand

That is,

Immediately,

Opened and held out

For me.

The skin is softened,

Like my heart.

Immediately,

As limb is healed,

I am no longer empty.

Hardened hearts are whole jars,

Yet easily shattered.

Mine bends as my knuckles,

To take in life.

Immediately,

Hand restored, hope fulfilled.

I am sustained

And can sustain.

Oh, happy day!

Oh, sad irony cured

Immediately.

.

III. Jairus’s Daughter(5:35-43)

“Daughter, your faith has made you well,”

I hear the man say

To a woman kneeling.

Dealing with these commoners

Must be tiresome.

Some are calling him Teacher, after all.

He could be as me,

Lofty, a ruler.

I turn away,

But hear it again,

The word I hold dear.

“Daughter.”

Someone clutches my arm;

I am clutched by fear.

Dead.

In her bed.

Not sleeping?

No, nor breathing.

I stagger.

A gasp as one struck

Escapes my throat.

A wordless cry,

Yet I know he will hear.

Common or not,

I have to try.

My girl cannot just…die.

A man holds me back.

“Why trouble the Teacher?”

But I cannot just leave her.

And He heard,

And He knew

What had happened

And what I felt.

And He came.

“Do not fear.

Only believe.”

But can words alone dry

A father’s tears?

I know it is not sleep.

But then,

He spoke again.

His voice a lullaby.

“Talitha cumi,”

Commanding gently to rise.

Immediately,

Quicker even than on holiday mornings,

She did.

Eyes bright, arms outstretched

To wrap in embrace around

My once-stiff neck.

Immediately,

My daughter

Is born to me a second time

Of the water I wept.

Immediately,

She stands and,

Laughing and crying of joy,

We dance.

Immediately,

The Teacher, True Ruler,

Awakes daughter and father both

from death

And mourning dawns as morning

Immediately.

.

IV. The Leper(1:40-45)

Unclean,

I hide myself.

Lest I am seen

And sent away,

Purged from the city

While dogs and rats are allowed

To stay.

But they say

I am unclean.

I do not argue;

I am one of the unlucky ones

Who cannot hide his sins

Beneath a cloak of

Smooth, clear skin.

I am as unclean

Outside as others are within.

So I conceal my body,

But my spirit I’ll bear

An offering.

The sacrifice of Psalmist’s praise

Is not made up of lovely face

But a contrite heart,

Such a heart as mine.

Perhaps the only organ spared

But even it is broken.

Its pieces cry out

With my failing limbs.

Unclean,

But yearning.

I step out-

Painfully, timidly,

From where I’ve been

Hiding, waiting, dying…

Decaying though still living.

To my knees

I sink before You

To present my pitiful lot

Before You.

Its package fails, unclean.

But if you will…

You will?

Can it be?

At your word,

At your touch-

Ah, how long since I’ve been touched!

Oh fearful joy!

Immediately,

I am clean.

From that gentle press of the fingertips,

Life springs.

Immediately,

I feel it.

I feel it in nerves revived.

Shivering, pulsing,

Skin reforms before my eyes.

But even more,

Immediately,

My mangled heart

Laid at Your feet

Is touched too,

Molded and cradled

By hands invisible.

Immediately,

I stand humbled without shame,

Purified shell, Sanctified soul.

I am wonderfully remade

And run to present my whole self

Immediately.

.

V. The Paralytic (2:1-12)

People just keep going

Around, across, any way they can.

Stepping over me even.

But what can I do?

Nothing but what I am doing.

Lying here.

Still, in one piece

Yet shattered,

Feeling the full weight of despair

And at the same time

Feeling nothing.

Lying here, I can recall
When lying was pleasant

If it was with words to fool

Or women to love

In secrecy.

I fight the urge to laugh,

Bitterly.

Is it not funny how desires

So frequently

Turn to damnation

In a single, fateful

Instant?

The crowd is thick.
I watch as someone trips

Over the legs I no longer

Think of as my own.

As I am carried to the roof,

Still in my bed,

The thought crosses my mind

That maybe falling would not be so bad.

Yet even that end

Is not in my power.

They lower

Me down.

A face comes into view

Looking down but not in pride.

His eyes are sad

As if he sees

The past I wish to hide.

“Son,” he says,

Claiming me.

“Your sins are forgiven.”

Immediately,

Though my body remains still,

My heart leaps

And my soul is moved.

Immediately,

Outrage erupts around,

But I hear only one voice:

The Authority

Who speaks again.

Immediately,

I obey.

Could I ignore

The One who says,

“Rise and walk”?

Immediately,

I stand and take my bed.

No more lying for me.

Walking even

Is not enough

If it is not with Thee.

In your movements

I will follow

Immediately.

.

VI. The Deaf Man(7:31-37)

I cannot tell

What these gestures mean.

Why do you all wave

Your hands at me?

I can only guess at

The words on your lips.

And can only make

Vain attempts

To do as you do,

To speak as you speak.

By your wrinkled brows

And worried looks,

I know I am failing.

Where are you taking me?

Who is this man?

Oh, do not leave me!

I cannot understand

Your mute tongues,

But do not forsake me!

Where is he taking me?

I try to shout

But fall into silence,

Not that I am ever not

In that painful, ringing

Silence.

We stop.

The crowd is out of sight.

The man reaches out.

I flinch,

Expecting a blow

As from the cruel youths

Who saw me as a game,

An object of fun for them,

Confused torment for me.

But no blow comes,

Just a soft warmth

As He covers the sides of my head

And the tip of my tongue

With His hands.

Eyes wide, bewildered,

I watch.

He sighs.

I feel His breath on my face

And see Him mouth a word.

No- more!

More than see!

Immediately,

before the word

Has flown from His lips,

I hear.

I heart it!

Immediately,

As He speaks,

“Ephphatha”

“Be opened,”

I hear!

And realize the crowd

Is out of earshot

As well as sight.

Immediately,

My newborn ears

Are tuned to one voice,

The voice of my Healer

And Master.

Immediately,

I do what is now natural,

Though moments ago,

Impossible.

I shout and proclaim

Of hearing and healing

Immediately.

.

VII. The Blind Man (8:22-26)

“Touch me, someone!

So I might know you are there!”

Greet me, anyone!

So I am not alone,

Isolated in my own darkness.

I’m begging,

Begging for more than food

Or loose coins you can spare.

It is light that I am starving for-

A light to show me out,

Out of this eternal, internal,

Personal night.

My heart yearns

Morning and evening,

Though both are to me

The same.

Oh, I shudder.

The chill of winter

And aches of hunger

Are nothing

To this ceaseless imprisonment

Within myself.

I cry out again…

Perhaps someone will reply.

“Oh, stranger friend,

Whoever among you, passersby,

Has any pity,

I entreat you

To touch me,

Hear me,

See me.

But what’s this?

I start suddenly

As a hand descends

And makes to guide me.

My pleading fades.

I follow in silence,

Trusting,

Though I know not

Who leads me.

Then a pressure

Against my eyes,

Those shutter windows

To my lonely soul.

Next a voice asks,

“Do you see?”

Immediately,

I am blinded

No longer by darkness,

But by light,

Dazzling and radiant.

Immediately,

I answer,

“I see, people?

Or are those trees?”

I blink and try again.

Immediately,

The man’s hands

Descend once more,

Unfogging the glass,

This time completely.

Immediately,

I see and am seen.

I am freed,

Released from my prison

Where I grieved

In midnight black.

The Son is shining and I see,

Immediately.

.

VIII. The Demon-Possessed Boy (9:14-29)

Horrors.

There is no other name

For the things I have seen,

And sat helplessly by…

Useless.

My son, ripped from my arms

By a force I could not fight.

I am his father!
Guilt stabs like a knife.
But how can I defend when

The enemy, invader

Makes war from within?
My own flesh and blood,

My beloved,

My son,

Cast into the flames

I was too slow to quench,

Then plunged into the water

Kept for the fire.

I am but man

And as such but dust.

How could I conquer a spirit

When my own is worn and weary

And losing hope?

Alas! Why do you come,
you crowd
, seeking spectacle?
You do not want to see

What daily seeks-

Through my son-

To destroy me:

Demon Doubt

Grapples for my soul

As the other strangles my son’s life

With his own fingers.

His demon casts him down,

Frothing, convulsing.

Mine pulls on me too,

But before it succeeds,

I cast myself down

In desperation

At Your feet.

Before the growing crowd,

Before You, my Lord.

“I believe, but oh!
Help my unbelief!”

Immediately,

Stillness falls.

Has death come?
Merciful relief?
Dare I hope for better?
It seems beyond belief and yet…

Immediately,

Quiet reigns

Where screams once were

And peace floods my soul,

Burning away fear

As two evils are expelled,

Far, far from here.

Immediately,

Your hand raises him.

The Son returns my son

Back to the arms

From which he was torn.

And in that moment,

Two faiths are born

Immediately.