Print version ISSN 0259-9422
Herv. teol. stud. vol.65 no.1 Pretoria 2009
Cas J.A. Vos
Department of Practical Theology, University of Pretoria, South Africa
This article investigates the uniqueness of poetry. Special attention is given to the ars poetica of the poetry of Cas Vos. Other poems are also discussed. The binding force of metaphors in poetry is considered. The essence and expressiveness of poetry are explained through several different poems. The end of the journey of poetry is concluded with a sonnet by Robert Pinsky.
Keywords: poetry; ars poetica; religion and poetry; metaphor; inspiration
INTRODUCTION: PREPARE FOR THE JOURNEY
What makes poetry so different? So unique? Is it the breath? The landscape? The streaming images? Is it because through poetry, the reader or audience enters heaven through the ear of a raindrop (Heaney 1996:1)? These never-ending questions are like rolling waves.
Poiesis means making and, as the ancient Greeks recognised, the poet is first and foremost a maker. To make poems does not mean to imitate, but to construct different versions (Breytenbach 2006:74; cf. Paglia 2005:xv). The Greeks saw no contradiction in the truth that poetry is somehow or other inspired, and simultaneously an art (techné); a craft requiring a merging of talent, training and many years of practice. In the Renaissance the word makers, as in courtly makers, was an exact equivalent for poets. The word poem became English in the 16th century and it has been with us ever since to designate a form of fabrication, a type of composition, a made thing (Hirsch 1999:3132).
'Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul.' This maxim, beloved by Simone Weil and Paul Celan, can stand as a writer's credo (Hirsch 1999:1). Paul Celan (cited in Hirsch) wrote:
A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the not always greatly hopeful belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense, too, are under way: they are making toward something.
(Celan, in Hirsch 1999:13)
Poetry is a language to which a special emphasis has been given, whether by paring it down and arranging it pleasingly on the page, in lines whose length may be baffling to all but the poet, or by the traditional means that include
raising the voice in order to be heard above the crowd;
raising the voice in order to demonstrate its beauty and power;
chanting the words;
reciting the words rhythmically;
punctuating the units of speech (which will become the lines of the poem) with rhymes;
setting the words to tunes and singing them in unison, as in a drinking song (Fenton 2003:10).
On the surface, poetry is a consciousness of words. To create poetry is to broaden the consciousness. Consciousness is a dance to the melody of meaning, imagination, remembrance, oblivion and ingenuity (Breytenbach 2006:180181).
The process of making a poem is summed up in the following lines from Yeats' poem Adam's Curse (Allison et al. 1983:879):
A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Poetry as breath penetrates to where the body recognises the stirring of meaning. Poetry mediates, on a particular and immensely valuable level, between the inner consciousness of the individual reader and the outer world of people (Pinsky 2002:4546). When words touch paper, salt can be transformed into ash. Poetry on the page a visual construct lasts (Paglia 2005:xii).
THE DYNAMICS OF A METAPHOR
A characteristic of a poem is its texture. Texture is the language with which a poem is woven. It is the colour and sparkle of language. Like prose, poetry utilises language. But the poet colours the language differently to the writer of prose. What are the characteristics of poetical language? Like a river that is full of water, a poem is full of images and metaphors. But what is a metaphor? According to Aristotle, metaphor means to give something a name that belongs to something else. The word metaphor comes from the Greek words meta (over) and pherein (carry). From this, the Latin word metaphora was created, implying 'figurative' (Degenaar 1970:294). It is a transfer of energies, a mode of interpretation, a matter of identity and difference (Hirsch 1999:13).
A metaphor is about depiction and the imagination. When a metaphor creates a relationship between two domains, new associated connections are brought about. The metaphor opens our eyes to see. The result is mostly surprising and strange. A metaphor is like an eel; it is smooth, fast, slippery and fresh. The living metaphor makes language new. The wonder of a metaphor is that it allows people to put together things that they otherwise would not have. It makes completely new ways of seeing possible. In this article, no fully expanded theory of metaphors is given (cf. in this regard Degenaar 1970; Du Plessis 2006). The reader is rather invited to discover poems through the power of metaphors. Consider these lines from a poem by Rochelle Kraut (Paglia 2005:210):
on my cheeks I wear
the flush of two beers
on my eyes I use
the dark circles of sleepless nights
to great advantage
I wear my lips
Metaphors are like dynamite, forcing people to consider new
insights and blasting open new worlds.
DIRECTIONS FOR A POETICAL JOURNEY
Allow me to introduce you to a few poems. But before I do so, I would like to give you a few directions.
Take a gentle breath at dusk
The first poem I want to share with you has a religious undertone:
She falls on her little girl knees at night and asks:
The night stirs heavily; a curtain shielding a secret
Angelic melodies fill the universe,
I also present here a poem that deconstructs the well-known Psalm 23. The poem aims to draw on the experience of people.
The Lord is not my shepherd
The Lord is not my shepherd,
He leads me down twisted paths
I crawl through the abysmal darkness,
POEMS FOR ASTRALABE
Abelard was especially known in theology for his stance on the doctrine of reconciliation. A younger contemporary of Anselm, he was exceedingly critical of the doctrine of objective atonement for which Anselm had become known. Abelard's critique was aimed particularly against the idea that God had to be given atonement as a precondition for God's forgiveness of man's sin. Instead of seeing Christ's death as a substitutionary atonement for sin, Abelard believed God's love to be revealed in Christ. Abelard found the grounds for forgiveness of our sin in inner justice, which is then effected in us (Berkhof 1973:322333; Jonker 1977:128).
Western theology ultimately chose Anselm with his emphasis on juridical interpretation (Berkhof 1973:322). In my opinion the tension between these two points of view should rather be retained...Abelard follows the line of Johannine thought, while Anselm follows Paul. There is room for a creative tension between these two viewpoints.The poems given here concern Astralabe,1 the son born of Abelard and Heloise's love relationship. In the presented poems beats the heart of desolation, of reconciliation as love.
Astralabe: Conversations of abandonment
Intimate abandoned one
Monastery candles glow
with inscriptions of light
upon your strange name.
Your life long you bore
wounds on your back,
lost the track
in the thickest fog.
Canon of Nantes,
you sing God's praise,
your words creep
up the monastery walls.
The peal of a bell
echoes in the wind
for the silence
of your death.
Intimate abandoned one,
I am writing this verse
to remember you in the shadows
In darkness of night I see light
over my crib like stars strung together.
Too soon, I am estranged from the nipple
and embraced by my father's sister.
Timidly I prepare for my monkhood.
Prayer and song my daily bread
and loneliness my goblet of grief.
By candlelight I read on parchment
my father's letter to me his deep delight
about theology, ethics, logic and wisdom.
I had hoped an estranged beloved
would bring me bread, grapes and wine.
I see an expanse of shadows outside
and stars reflecting like mirrors.
Here, in my monastery, my relatives are absent:
The white and silent longing
intimately embraces their presence.
Those left behind
In night's orchard you tasted love
and I remind you of this.
In my monastery I call out your names
like moss on damp walls, they grow.
I am afraid of night,
and I think of your slumber
where you've been stripped to the bone
cold and bloodless
without urge and passion
lying still next to one another.
I save your names like sighs
on parchment, my testament
to your absence.
The sun creeps in behind mountains
and lies under a black blanket,
shadows blemish everything.
I long for eternal slumber
to solemnise in dark silence,
my intimate abandonment.
Centuries of time
threadbare seams hang
where with fine words
i weave another poem
centuries lie between us
full of sighs and blame
for too long covered by
i let you decay in the wind
your deep and dark slumber
reminds me of your name
old loneliness moves
over your silence and loss
between leaves' shadows
the moon reaches last light
where you wait in the dark
for the blinding sun
you don't know me
perhaps i know you
Before I leave you
does the wind's soft hand still write your name in the sand
are you still lost in the dust of your absentees
do you see light under the cloak of night quivering afar
do images still drift in your hidden memories somewhere
forgive your beloved's silence
before i leave you
smoke drawings - diane victor
candles flare up
like the first
see your shadow
when trembling i touch you
on my paper
Love poems are the heartbeat of poetry (cf. Neruda 2008; Breytenbach 2000), and therefore I present a love poem here.
Inspired by a poem from Breyten Breytenbach
Most beloved, I send to you an e-mail dove
Look, my dove swoops and dives
POEMS ABOUT LIFE
The third series of poems are about life and its troubles.
A year or five after the wedding
The husband's tongue
Desperate of heart,
There is hardly a place for
"Let us try again.
So they wait for the future and on the gods
They go dancing, then turn to
A POEM WITH SOCIAL AND CULTURAL ASPECTS
Poems can also have social and cultural sensitivity. To some extent, poetry includes the social realm because poetry's very voice evokes the attentive presence of the other (Pinsky 2002:300). Here is one of my poems as an example.
The song of the earth
The earth sings the song of our lives
The sickle moon hangs over thirsty lands.
Angels with red cheeks
The moon hangs like a sickle
Bach and Mozart's names echo in empty recital halls.
THE END OF THE JOURNEY OF POETRY
The reader's poetical journey is concluded with a sonnet by Robert Pinsky (1996:89).
Afternoon sun on her back,
calm irregular slap
of water against a dock.
Thin pines clamber
over the hill's top
nothing to remember,
only the same lake
that keeps making the same
sounds under her cheek
and flashing the same color.
No one to say her name,
no need, no one to praise her,
only the lake's voice-over
and over, to keep it before her.
Poetry is a journey through moonless chasms, sun-drenched mountains, dark descents and open plains. It is a journey of the spirit and the body through surprising and delightful landscapes.
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Cas J.A. Vos
Faculty of Theology, University of Pretoria
Lynnwood Road, Hatfield
0083, Pretoria, South Africa
Received: 03 Nov. 2008
Accepted: 15 Apr. 2009
Published: 06 Aug. 2009
This article is available at: http://www.hts.org.za
1. An extraordinary name, to say the least, bringing to mind some celebrity toy of the tabloids. An astrolabe is a scientific instrument used to measure the height of celestial bodies, though the word was also (falsely) etymologised as astris lapsus, 'fallen from the stars.' Few details of the life of Petrus Astralabius are available. That he grew to manhood, maintained at least some contact with his parents and took up a career in the Church is indicated by the request Heloise makes of Peter the Venerable for a prebend for 'your Astralabe' in her letter to him after Abelard's death. There is an 'Astralabe' recorded as a canon of the cathedral of Nantes c. 1150, and this is almost certainly he, although there is more doubt about someone of that name who appears as abbot of the monastery of Hauterive in Fribourg in 11621165 (Levitan 2007:13). The etymology of the name can be explained as follows: Astralabe is composed of 'astra' and 'labe' (the ablative of 'labis'). Labis can be rendered 'stain' or 'blemish', while astra means 'star'. Astralabe, then, means 'Starstain' or 'Starblemish'.