At BioLogos recently, Mark Sprinkle said something about poetry (and God, if God exists) that I found especially interesting:
The work of poetry is to polish human language until it reflects the structural orderliness and the improvisational freedom and playfulness God gifted to the cosmos. It helps us pay attention to the essentially relational character of both the physical and social worlds—the way things really are connected in intricate and meaningful patterns that are both dependable and surprising, and that often become most clear when one thing is compared to another. As poet Richard Wilbur phrased it in a poem on this very aspect of verbal creativity, “odd that a thing is most itself when likened.”1 Indeed, it is especially through surprising and unexpected comparisons that metaphor becomes a kind of renewal—a rebirth of what we mistakenly see as “ordinary”; for the purpose of striking such imaginative chords in verse is often to help us see something new, previously-overlooked or forgotten about what was already right in front of us—to see it more truly by making it less familiar. This must be the central gift of creative work in general, whether poetry, or drama or painting or science.
There are two things here that I’d highlight:
- Poetry is a play of orderliness and surprise—and if God exists, poetry may be a representative reflection of what God is up to.
- Metaphor is akin to scientific discovery: it is a defamiliarizing revelation of something true about a thing—and that has always been available to the inquiring and associative mind—but that the poet discovers and presents as a finding. Also, the finding—like scientific findings—is publicly available. In other words, what the poet sees you too can see and verify (as in reading a poem about sex and concluding with the poet that, yes, sex is indeed like that). I derive this reading of what Mark Sprinkle is saying from his very deliberate inclusion of science in his list of defamiliarizing creative activities: “This must be the central gift of creative work in general, whether poetry, or drama or painting or science.” (The italicizing of science is mine.)
I don’t want to overplay the notions that God is a poet and metaphor is akin to empiricism, but I do think these ideas are interesting. Perhaps one of the better ways to do theology is via thinking about literature. Richard Rorty seems to have thought this was true of philosophy as well (to think about philosophy via literature). And maybe literature has something to say to the working scientist as well.
Here’s Walt Whitman saying some true things that you are free to verify:
O to attract by more than attraction!
How it is I know not—yet behold! the something which
obeys none of the rest,
It is offensive, never defensive—yet how magnetic it draws.
O to struggle against great odds, to meet enemies
To be entirely alone with them, to find how much one can
To look strife, torture, prison, popular odium, face to face!
To mount the scaffold, to advance to the muzzles of guns
with perfect nonchalance!
To be indeed a God!
O to sail to sea in a ship!
To leave this steady unendurable land,
To leave the tiresome sameness of the streets, the sidewalks
and the houses,
To leave you O solid motionless land, and entering a
To sail and sail and sail!
Excerpted from “A Song of Joys”, by Walt Whitman, lines 147-159.
Just a short comment: To me Whitman’s poem is about poetry or rather the mental process of individuation that it catalyzes. Which isn’t empirical in nature, even though the poem as such is data. It is more like the unfolding of a flower.
I can’t deny what you are saying as well. But the neuroscientists maps the brain, the poet and novelist (writing in the first person) maps the inner life, the inner experience, and tries to communicate it abroad. That’s my take, anyway.
In the Whitman poem, I would suggest that life is like that—to a conscious being what he is saying makes sense of the world—opens it out as an “unfolding flower.” Noticing that opening can be empirical. Ask any Buddhist or read Ian M’s novel “Saturday.”