As I drove to work this morning, I heard a story on NPR about advances in 3-D technology that would make it possible to watch without “those ridiculous glasses.” They interviewed an ophthalmologist, Dr. Samuel Marsh, who has pioneered a surgical procedure that alters the eye so glasses are no longer needed to watch TV. They interviewed a woman who said the surgery was life-changing and then mentioned some people had their complaints. Marsh responded, “Some patients have complained of blurred vision when they are not looking at 3D screens. So we’re actually working now on some special corrective lenses that will allow our patients to see real life normally.”
It was then I remembered it was April Fools’ Day and NPR had done it again.
As much fun as the pranks are, April 1 sticks in my mind for another reason: it marks the beginning of National Poetry Month. I think it’s worth noting that the month kicks off on April Fools’ Day as if some might wonder if a month-long emphasis on poetry is not some kind of joke. My response would be to quote lines from William Carlos Williams’ poem, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
A poem and a joke share something in common: neither benefits greatly from explanation. We laugh hardest at the jokes we get instinctively; as comics often say, if you have to explain them then they aren’t funny. We might finally understand the joke, but there’s little chance we will fall over laughing. A poem is doing its best work when it evokes a visceral response, whatever the emotion. An explanation may bring understanding but won’t bring anyone to tears or laughter. Trust me. I’ve done my share of explaining, and have had poems explained to me. None of the poems whom I have met by way of explanation have remained favorites. The ones I carry with me enticed me with metaphors, evoked spiritual connections, and challenged me to invest time and effort in unpacking their treasures. Working to understand is different than having it explained.
The more I read the Gospels, the more I see Jesus as a poet, yet we keep trying to explain him.
The lectionary passage for this Sunday tells the story of the blind man whom Jesus healed by making mud from dirt and spit, rubbing it on the man’s eyes, and telling him to go wash it off. The formula was not the key; Jesus had healed others with a word or a touch. Jesus also healed the man on the Sabbath. When the man went to the synagogue to have his healing verified, the folks there wanted explanations. All the man could see was poetry. They kept pushing for rationality, and he kept pointing out that he could see. They wanted an explanation and he wanted to tell them the story of how he came to see a world for the first time that he had only heard about.
In “Valentine for Ernest Mann,” Naomi Shihab Nye responds to a young student who asked her to write a poem for him.
You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.
Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,
write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.
So I’ll tell you a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.
Once I knew a man who gave his wife
two skunks for a valentine.
He couldn’t understand why she was crying.
“I thought they had such beautiful eyes.”
And he was serious. He was a serious man
who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly
just because the world said so. He really
liked those skunks. So, he re-invented them
as valentines and they became beautiful.
At least, to him. And the poems that had been hiding
in the eyes of skunks for centuries
crawled out and curled up at his feet.
Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us
we find poems. Check your garage, the odd sock
in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite.
And let me know.
“Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us we find poems.” I find myself carrying that line back to my reading of the Beatitudes for a study at church. And I think about the once blind man trying to get those around him to see. What poems are curled up in my eyes, in the eyes of my students, in the hearts and lives of those I meet and pass on a daily basis?
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, those that mourn, the meek” – and the list goes on, each statement a poem that both defies explanation and yearns for a story. Instead of breaking down the phrases and beating them into submission, we could start by sitting together and waiting to see what skunks come crawling out of scripture with stories to tell.
Blessed are the skunks for they shall be called poets.