Poetry is a Garden, Not a Microwave Dinner

And then we want to go to lunch, and forget everything we’ve heard.

Richard W. Rohlin

Every kindly thing that is

Hath a kindly stede ther he

May best in hit conserved by;

Unto which place every thing

Through his kindly enclyning

Moveth for to come to.

– Geoffrey Chaucer, The House of Fame

It’s hard to teach Psalms. It shouldn’t be, but it is. It’s hard to teach Psalms because the psalms are (or did we forget?) poetry, and nobody knows what to do with poetry anymore. Poetry hides truth. It buries it under meter and metaphor and verse and stress and sound and syllable and dares you to dig. But we’d rather someone else did the digging for us, wouldn’t we? Isn’t that why we have self-help books? Pastors? We want to be told what is true, then we want to be told how it applies to us and our specific personal, chronological, Geo-political, socio-economic situation, and then we want to be told what we should do about it. And then we want to go to lunch, and forget everything we’ve heard.

Preachers and pastors are just as much to blame. Every message needs to be big. Every sermon needs to be practical and “make an impact.” We’re a very results-oriented lot, we preachers. Altar calls are a kind of measurable data point for us. But the delicate growth of virtue as a soul “kindly enclynes” towards beauty Himself and in so doing, becomes like that which he beholds? That’s harder to quantify, especially on Monday morning. But that’s precisely how poetry works — because poetry is a vegetable garden, not a microwave dinner.

Do you see what I just did there? I used metaphor to convey a truth. If you’re a good reader, you’re probably thinking about ways poetry might be like a vegetable garden. Is it because no seed can be planted in a garden until the ground is first broken up and tilled? Is it because the garden needs constant and repeated watering before it will bear fruit? Is it because you must wait a long time — the equivalent of many, many trips to the grocery store and back — before you can enjoy the fruits of your labors or even know if you grew anything that is good to eat?

You might assume I meant all of those. You might have thought of a half-dozen more. You might have noticed that the last of the possible reasons I mentioned seems to contrast nicely with the second half of my metaphor: the microwave dinner. For if we say that poetry is like a vegetable garden but unlike a microwave dinner, we are saying that there is something metaphorical about the nature of the microwave dinner which is opposed to the nature of poetry.

So what do we know about microwave dinners? They’re not hard to get. They’re relatively cheap. How are they different from vegetables you’ve grown in your garden? Do they offer speedier gratification in exchange for less long-term nutrition? Can you survive on a diet of microwave dinners? Can you thrive? In what way is a microwave dinner like spoon-fed truth, packaged and processed by someone else for your satisfaction? How likely are you to remember that microwave dinner a week later? How likely are you to remember the summer you spent working in your vegetable garden?

Some of us will be either sitting in a pew or standing behind a pulpit this coming Sunday. Will we bend and allegorize the text to our will so that it has the application we’re looking for?

Some of us will have to choose in our leisure time between Milton and the latest self-help book that promises to fix what is wrong with Millennials this week. Will we choose contemporary wisdom over timeless beauty? Will we choose to read at all?

Poetry is one of the real things, less tangible but more enduring than the quick and easy fix. It puts its roots deep into your soul. It uses metaphor, parallelism, symmetry, and all of the rest of the colors in the poet’s palette to paint a picture of truth. But, unlike this article, it uses them subtly and over time. It may take years or even decades, but it works. It works because it always “kindly enclynes” toward truth, the way Chaucer said that each of the elements move towards their proper “stedes” — their homes. Good poetry inclines us towards beauty, wisdom, and virtue. Good psalmody inclines us towards Christ.

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