“that shock of recognition” – more on poetry as liturgy

Saturday was the 5th anniversary of Fringes, the feminist havurah I co-lead. We use contemporary poetry as the words we pray, which works so beautifully. I’ve learned a lot about how to choose poems that work as liturgy, such as using poems with more direct syntax, or ones that more visual imagery and less literary references.

Last week, as I was creating the liturgy for our service, I read an amazing essay by Sarah Maguire, mainly about translating, called “‘Singing About the Dark Times’: Poetry and Conflict.” In addition to the astounding (and true) observation that “translating poetry is the opposite of war,” she had some clearly described insights into how poetry works in general, which helped me understand more about how and why poetry functions as liturgy for my group. Two sections on this, from the end of her essay:

A poem needs to be taken up and examined very carefully, many times, from a variety of perspectives. Its foregrounding of its music, its strange, self-conscious devices — like rhyme, rhythm and complex verse forms – draw attention to itself, separate it from quotidian language. As Plato said, reduce a poem to plain prose and it’s gone. Paraphrase its metaphors, sum up its ‘content’, and the magic vanishes as swiftly as a magician whose hat is missing its rabbit. Metaphor – which, as you know, in Greek means ‘to transfer, to carry, to bear’ – is the defining methodology of poetry. Using metaphor, the poet can bring together elements which, in ordinary life, are kept apart, juxtaposing incidents and details from radically different discourses and facets of life, ignoring the logic of metonymical progression, of one damned thing after another, which is the logic of separation.

The key to powerful lyric poetry, of course, is its intimacy: the way it allows us to apprehend and experience the most elusive, the most ephemeral of subjective experiences. That shock of recognition when something we know about, intimately, but have never been able to name, suddenly appears before us in charged and potent language. A good poem draws us back, again and again, in an attempt to tease out its power, to discover how something made only of words can exist, simultaneously, on so many planes at once. Can make connections between things hitherto we thought had lived in disparate realms.


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