Poetry can be the consciousness of culture. We tend to look to poetry to give us a sense of what is good and what is beautiful, and we trust poets with this task because poets spend much of their time dealing with the transcendent. We believe in the truth they share because the truth they share isn’t their own — it is received. The givenness, then, of poetry gives the poet a moral voice in the world. And this isn’t just true of poets, it's true of all those made in the image of God.
A name and a place
John Milton began his epic poem, “Paradise Lost” with the appeal, "Sing Heav'nly Muse." Milton invoked the Holy Spirit in these opening lines, in hopes that the same spirit that inspired Moses would also inspire him. Milton follows a long line of Western Poets who appeal to the transcendent realm when undertaking the poetic task. These poets weren’t just speaking about poetry but about the mystery of the human condition, the desire to look beyond ourselves for meaning and value.
While the invocation of the Muses began with the Greek poets, who believed their poetic inspiration flowed from the Nine Muses, the invocation is also a byproduct of our deepest human longings, the longing to understand who we are. In looking to the poets, people hoped to find the meaning they were seeking. In some sense every vocation is a poetic vocation, especially when those vocations give humans meaning, value, a sense of purpose and direction, and a window into beauty and truth. In William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night's Dream, we see the poetic vocation in full effect:
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
In the West, the poetic task has been linked with emanation, the belief that all inspiration, beauty, and truth flows from a transcendent source beyond the material realm. In the poet’s imagination, poetry came with a givenness, a sense in which the poet was nothing more than an oracle. Givenness is the quality given to things which are graciously given and unexpectedly received. The poet saw himself as a summoner, a gateway through which transcendent truth flowed. Art was seen as a representative of an authentic beauty that lay beyond our grasp, and it was the poet's job to bring that transcendent truth to bear on his readers through the invocation of the muses.
One can see why the idea was plausible. We are familiar with the sudden stroke of inspiration that inspires things we did not previously know or comprehend. It's the lightbulb moment, the moment in which it seems that by some sort of divine revelation, we are gifted with a new way of perceiving the world. Poets and artists know this feeling; it's the moment a line comes to you in the middle of the night, unprompted and unexpected. It's the melody you swear you've heard before, only to discover it is all your own. Poetic and artistic inspiration comes with a sense of givenness.
Receiving the gift of work
The poet receives what he is given and goes about giving that inspiration a "local habitation."
To what extent the poets believed in this metaphysical backdrop is unsure. But the notion that true goodness and beauty are transcendent is not far from the truth. There is indeed a givenness to poetry. In the Gospel of John, John calls Jesus the Logos (word or reason). In the Greek thought of Heraclitus (535-475 BC), the Logos was the single unifying principle in which all creation participated. For Heraclitus, all reality flowed from the Logos. It was the single truth through which the world was made. John takes this concept and reframes it in light of what he knew about Jesus. For John, the Logos is God, the source of all created reality, and from the Logos creation receives its being, and it is the Logos that represents God's creative connection to the world.
This givenness is defined in the penultimate poetic act of the incarnation. In Jesus, God gives himself a local habitation. Jesus bears witness to the transcendent goodness of the Father through the immanent presence of human flesh. Because God is the preeminent source of all beauty and truth, and we are made in his image, every creative human act is a participation in God's own creative spark. Our capacity for creativity is a grace, an ability we receive because we are created to communicate the goodness of God to his creation. The Logos, the source of all truth and beauty, extends himself to us, and in turn, we embody his gracious gift through our creative potential for the common good.
The poetic vocation is a vocation of receiving. We receive from God our ability to perceive the beautiful, God himself, and in turn, we make representations of his beauty through language and imagery. All poetry, all art, represents the source from which it flows, God, and all art has its end in God, the final end of all good things. But we are not free to create whatever we desire. If our poetry comes from the graciousness of God's giving, then the poetic vocation comes with responsibilities. The givenness of poetry demands we honor the source from which it flows, or as Wendell Berry says, "make a poem that does not disturb the silence from which it came."
Honoring the givenness of poetry requires reframing our understanding of art and the artistic vocation. We must honor art as a means and not an end in and of itself. The pursuit of beauty and truth must take us beyond the page and into the presence of God.
Poetry serves as a signpost
This is true of any vocation, as all good and ethical work reflects the image of God, an image graciously shared with us. The poet, the doctor, the teacher, the plumber. Our capacity to create, to do, to make and to shape must remain linked to the Creator. When we disconnect, we delude ourselves into believing that we are makers in our own right. This leads not only to a distortion of the poetic vocation but the destruction of the human vocation. Our role as image-bearers is to remind our fellow men of our sub-creative role. How we live, move, and make either points to our givenness or exalts the pernicious lie of self-determination.
The givenness of poetry reminds us of our own givenness. We have been made to receive. Poetry reminds us that our being is given as a gracious gift and that our end is only found in the giver. So go and make, and in your making discover the gracious giver from whom flows all beauty, all poetry, and is himself the rhyme and meter of all created things.