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    HTS Theological Studies

    Print version ISSN 0259-9422

    Herv. teol. stud. vol.65 no.1 Pretoria  2009




    On poetry – entering heaven through the ear of a raindrop: an ars poetical reading



    Cas J.A. Vos

    Department of Practical Theology, University of Pretoria, South Africa

    Correspondence to




    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




    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 1999:31–32).

    '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 2006:180–181).

    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 2002:45–46). When words touch paper, salt can be transformed into ash. Poetry on the page – a visual construct – lasts (Paglia 2005:xii).



    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):

    My Makeup

    on my cheeks I wear
    the flush of two beers

    on my eyes I use
    the dark circles of sleepless nights
    to great advantage

    for lipstick
    I wear my lips

    Metaphors are like dynamite, forcing people to consider new
    insights and blasting open new worlds.



    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
    and anoint your feet with oil
    before you leave on your travels.
    On a journey without shelter or shade
    won't the sun fuel a fever?
    and the moon chase away cataracts?
    And when, drenched in journey's sweat you come
    knocking at the gateway; turn your eyes
    to the ancient, wrinkled mountains.

    (Vos 2008)



    The first poem I want to share with you has a religious undertone:

    She falls on her little girl knees at night and asks:
    Keep my heart pure of false gods and desires.
    God's breath blows over the earth
    and finds in her, a holy hollow
    to fill with godly seed
    As He strokes her with his finger,
    she takes fright; her cheeks suddenly flushed.
    She hears her lover standing shuffling outside,
    his carpenter's hands hesitant to knock.

    The night stirs heavily; a curtain shielding a secret
    Because God is all, He is alone.
    Therefore He, the Holy, travels
    after a short earthly sojourn
    past night's silver sickle
    drifting between the stars
    to his far, far, land.

    Angelic melodies fill the universe,
    their harmonies satiate one and all.
    Their wings light, but fleeting
    over the brown and rough earth
    as the Child, gasping for air
    spills out in a pool of blood.
    Flames flicker on his face.

    (Vos 2008)

    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,
    I remain deprived.
    He leads me to the wasteland
    and lets my blood run dry.
    He takes me to a cross
    where disquiet breeds,
    where he abandons me.

    He leads me down twisted paths
    to seek his honour, lost.

    I crawl through the abysmal darkness,
    my heart frantic with fear,
    you withdrew your hand from me,
    turned your back as I came near.
    And you crucify me,
    before my jeering enemies.
    You receive me as though a thief,
    I am overcome with shame.
    Although you are painfully absent,
    I shall continue to long for you,
    I am, the sacrificial lamb.

    (Vos 2008)



    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 1973:322–333; 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

    no sadness
    for the silence
    of your death.

    Intimate abandoned one,
    I am writing this verse
    to remember you in the shadows
    of oblivion.

    Intimate absentees

    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
    over foothills
    where with fine words
    i weave another poem

    centuries lie between us
    full of sighs and blame
    for too long covered by
    dust's forgetfulness
    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

    candle smoke

    smoke drawings - diane victor

    candles flare up
    and let visions
    dance lightly

    like the first
    godly breath
    i lay you out
    in smoke
    on paper

    see your shadow
    struggle defencelessly
    against decay

    when trembling i touch you
    you disappear
    into a white void

    on my paper
    your smoke spoor

    (Vos 2009)



    Love poems are the heartbeat of poetry (cf. Neruda 2008; Breytenbach 2000), and therefore I present a love poem here.

    Most beloved

    Inspired by a poem from Breyten Breytenbach

    Most beloved, I send to you an e-mail dove
    for no-one plucks a show dove's quills.
    My fingers spread wings of wind across the keyboard,
    stain the computer's keys with words of love
    flying high and low over my white screen.

    Look, my dove swoops and dives
    on electric currents
    and where he flies my message shimmers
    to stain your eyes green:
    you must always know my beloved of my love
    as of wings which cannot carry flight.
    You will see my love touching down
    shimmering on your heart's screen

    (Vos 2008)



    The third series of poems are about life and its troubles.


    A year or five after the wedding
    late at night, a wife turns with words
    to the husband's ears.
    She is lingering somewhere on the threshold of grief
    and silently, he denies everything.

    The husband's tongue
    swells with lies of
    meetings, investments,
    cocktail parties, companions.
    He analyses lost symbols,
    bathes himself in the holy mud,
    tastes the dark moon.
    He starts to falsify truth,
    like poets sometimes do
    behind a mask of irony.

    Desperate of heart,
    the husband looks for his wife
    where the lonely nights
    slide like eyelids over her eyes.
    On the plains
    of his imagination, he finds
    the imprint of her hands.

    There is hardly a place for
    God and his commandments in a cold war.
    And husband and wife drag each other
    into dark trenches.

    "Let us try again.
    Let us look for new dreams
    in the rustling night.
    Forget all the mistakes,
    let's begin again
    soft and green like leaves,
    the same blame,
    the same soft kisses,
    the same covering of nakedness
    the same rhythm
    of charm and sex
    so that the simple things
    can touch us behind the silence.
    But we must tread carefully,
    because life is full of precipices
    and love is a ravine."

    So they wait for the future and on the gods
    in a land where wonders are rare.

    They go dancing, then turn to
    one another for the death-blow in the night

    (Vos 2008)



    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
    in places where the days between us
    sneak silently like secret agents.
    We live in dark days.

    The sickle moon hangs over thirsty lands.
    Judgement is mercilessly executed.
    through slaughter and mutilation
    fenced-in torture and death camps.
    Blood stains the earth's song.
    Flames scorch the meadows,
    people scatter like scared rats
    in wastelands searching for breath.
    Soldiers limping without conscience
    on bloodied tracks.

    Angels with red cheeks
    and scorched wings
    hands in the ashes.
    One dark night the gods
    fled from the dead land. Who can blame them?
    Their only inheritance –
    pages black with old blood,
    strewn with bleached skulls –
    reminders of wars that drag on.

    The moon hangs like a sickle
    over frightened hearts and anxious throats,
    the wind blows icily on wounds.
    Dust drifts over the ruins
    of past monuments.
    Vukajlo Kukalj and Radonja Vešoviy's
    poems overflow with grief in dark days

    Bach and Mozart's names echo in empty recital halls.
    Paintings eagerly gather layers of dust.
    Pictures fade.
    Silence reigns.
    The moon is razor sharp,
    the earth's face scratched
    from the onslaught of man.
    We live in dark days

    (Vos 2008)



    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.

    Bon voyage!



    Allison, W, Barrows, H., Blake, C.R., Carr, A.J., Eastman, A.M. & Englisch, H.M., 1983, The Norton Anthology of Poetry, WW Norton & Company, New York.         [ Links ]

    Berkhof, H., 1973, Christelijk geloof, Uitgeverij G.F. Callenbach, Nijkerk.         [ Links ]

    Breytenbach, B., 2000, Lady One (99 liefdesgedigte), Human & Rousseau, Cape Town.         [ Links ]

    Breytenbach, B., 2006, Intieme vreemde. Een schrijfboek, Uitgeverij Podium, Amsterdam.         [ Links ]

    Degenaar, J., 1970, 'Iets oor die metafoor', Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe 10(4), 293–322.         [ Links ]

    Du Plessis, J.G., 2006, 'Die metafoor op die markplein', in D. Hertzog, E. Britz & A. Henderson (eds.), Gesprek sonder grense, pp. 73–86, H&B Uitgewers, Stellenbsoch.         [ Links ]

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    Heaney, S., 1996, The spirit level, Faber and Faber, London.         [ Links ]

    Hirsch, E., 1999, How to read a poem and fall in love with it, Harvest Books, San Diego.         [ Links ]

    Jonker, W.D., 1977, Christus, die Middelaar, NG Kerkboekhandel, Nijkerk.         [ Links ]

    Levitan, W., 2007, Abelard & Heloise. The letters and other writings, Hackett Publishing Company, Cambridge.         [ Links ]

    Neruda, P., 2008, 100 Love Sonnets, University of Texas Press, Austin.         [ Links ]

    Paglia, C., 2005, Break, Blow, Burn, Pantheon Books, New York.         [ Links ]

    Pinsky, R., 1996, The figured wheel, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York.         [ Links ]

    Pinsky, R., 2002, Democracy, culture and the voice of poetry, Princeton University Press, Princeton.         [ Links ]

    Vos, C.J.A., 2008/09, Unpublished poems, transl. L. Piegl.         [ Links ]



    Correspondence to:
    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



    DOI: 10.4102/hts.v65i1.165
    This article is available at:
    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 1162–1165 (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'.