In Defense of Poetry Night: “A Preparation for Silence”

Photo by Michael Fuller.

Photo by Michael Fuller.

“But what if the fine art of reading poetry isn’t so fine after all? What if the predicament about poems is precisely our well-intentioned but ill-fitting dispositions toward reading them?”

This problem of disposition posed by Mark Yakich in The Atlantic article “Reading a Poem: 20 Strategies,” is one I’m familiar with. I’ve found that to be an advocate of poetry is to be a thorn in my own side. I am attached to the perplexing and puzzling nature of artistic language, but the process of reading and writing is neither comfortable nor kind. The problem, as Yakich alludes, is that poetry is often mistaken as something that does to us, rather than is made by us. These assumptions about poetry stem from presupposition and the idea that we ought to greet poetry first with our feelings and never with our whole intelligence—in any instance, a grievous offense. Since I made the commitment to host Thorn’s poetry night, I have decided to address the predicament yet again.

Mark Yakich goes on to present the art of reading and writing poetry like a relentless dance, or more broadly, like life itself: “At one time or another, when face-to-face with a poem, most everyone has been perplexed. The experience of reading a poem itself is as likely to turn us off, intellectually or emotionally, as it is to move us…Reading a good poem doesn’t give you something to talk about. It silences you. Reading a great poem pushes further. It prepares you for the silence that perplexes us all: death.”

As editor-in-chief of Thorn, Covenant’s literary and arts publication, I’m leaning into the idea of “preparing for silence.” To phrase it more accessibly, I hope for Thorn’s weekly poetry night and the production of Thorn to mirror a humbled audience before the One who first breathed words into our lungs. Poetry night, ideally, will be a space to live in awareness of language as both blessed and burdensome, fallen and redeemable.

The assumed expectation for poetry night is as follows: You’ll arrive looking a fair amount of dapper or nonchalant (depending on whether you’re toting Wordsworth or Kerouac). You will work your hardest to squeeze the sponge of your brain dry as you prepare to dip into a pool of virtue and culture. When you sit with your peers, you’ll be tempted to grab a book from the table and exclaim how much you “love, love, LOVE Wendell Berry!” When it’s time to share, you’ll rustle through your private poetry and decide not to read any, despite the promise you made to yourself. You’ll snap your fingers after every reading, munch on eight dozen cookies, and then leave. Perhaps you’ll feel esteemed, well-rounded, and noble for contemplating with such maturity! Perhaps the weight of these expectations will crush you, and you decide to never return.

I surely hope not.

My expectation is that you come to poetry night with no such desire for “soul massages” and epiphany. Those things rarely happen and if they occurred more, we would be tired. Come and listen. Sometimes the poem will sound stupid. Sometimes the poem will resonate so deeply with you that you feel affirmed and connected to people. Sometimes the poem will drip heavily with sugary nectar at a time when you’re only able to taste all things bitter. A poem may tell you about a place you’ve never been at a time you could never be. A poem may say something so simply that we move on immediately, silenced.

Poetry night is once a week, every Thursday. There will not be any bullying into a sense of enlightenment, but there will be good company and snacks. Email Shannon Hunt if you are interested in joining. As far as the vision for Thorn: we on the Thorn panel are aiming to curate a wide-range of submissions varying in skill and style this year. Thorn is dedicated to showcasing the process of writing. While we are highly committed to a polished publication, we are also committed to working with you on your poetry. Workshops and editing sessions will be available and are encouraged. Submissions will be open from the end of October through February 2016.