Everything in me fights against wonder. And why wouldn’t it? Each day comes with some sort of tragic news. Evil has become the expectation, and I’ve seen too much of the ordinary.
My newborn daughter knows little besides wonder. Everything is new to her: the Texas sun’s heat on her skin, the orange and purple hues at sunset, the sound of rain, or the sight of green grass. She’s enamored by her hands and the rotating blades of ceiling fans. These things don’t impress me. I never think about my hands or ceiling fans. I just crave something new until it becomes familiar, and I grow tired of it again.
I find that lack of wonder growing the older I get. At some point it became hard to believe in wonderful things. I resonate with the sheriff from No Country for Old Men who feels the weight of evil’s prevalence despite his best efforts to fight against it with hope and goodness. It’s not a character I wish to identify with, but I do. And I don’t think I’m the only one.
Hopelessness haunts my friends and the students I teach. The ghost makes its way through my church’s pews and in every corner of the internet. It shows itself in sex scandals, rampant racism, mass shootings, global pandemics, miscarriages, stillbirths, broken families—the list goes on. Suffering seems ordinary. Transcendence feels childish.
But maybe children know something we don’t.
Poetry helps me see the world with childlike wonder. It reminds those willing to see that there’s something more than meets the eye, some subversive beauty or hidden hope beyond the things we call ordinary.
I need that reminder more often than I care to admit.
An Access Point to Transcendence
“Grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony,” writes G.K. Chesterton, but God has an “eternal appetite of infancy.” He sees the world as my daughter does—with possibility, beauty, and wonder.
I wonder if this is what Christ meant when he spoke of childlike faith. Maybe it’s holding on to hope, choosing to see the light amidst total darkness, and believing that there is something more going on than what we immediately see. It feels childish, and maybe that’s the point. Transcendent things like hope and faith demand we put down the jaded cynicism that comes with age.
Poetry provides us a means to access that sense of transcendence again. Robert Hudson explains that good poets “create in us a desire, a yearning for the ineffable, a longing to experience the illumination we once felt when we were new in the world.” In other words, poetry can make us young.
A renewed youthfulness doesn’t come from poets rejecting bad feelings or refusing to recognize the darkness. They simply look a little deeper. They have retained the naïve belief that we can find meaning within the struggle.
Take for instance the poetry of Langston Hughes, who used his writing to empower Black Americans in the twentieth century. Poems like “I, too” provide a sense of hope for people of color. At the start of the poem, the “darker brother” narrator is forced into the kitchen to eat “when company comes,” but by the end, he reimagines his dining experience:
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
‘Eat in the kitchen,’
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—”
There’s a refusal in Hughes to simply accept the ordinary. He imagines a world where wonderful things can happen, where the darker brother can sit at the table. He believes in the hope of tomorrow despite the darkness of today.
That reimagination of suffering shows up in the words of contemporary American poet Christian Wiman, whose cancer diagnosis drove him back to faith in his late thirties: “The sense of mortality,” writes Wiman, “doesn’t only cast us backward. It also propels imagination forward. It makes us imagine heavens in which wounds are healed and losses restored.” Suffering is the catalyst for hope.
In another essay, Wiman considers the role of poetry in the book of Job. He was once reading a book that praised “Job as a work of profound theology adorned with poetry,” but for Wiman that was not enough. Poetry is not a nice addition to Job, “poetry is the point,” writes Wiman. “When Job needs to scream his being to God, it’s poetry he turns to. When God finally answers, his voice is verse so overwhelming that Job is said to ‘see’ it.”
For people like Hughes, Wiman, or Job, suffering became a part of their ordinary lives. Poetry doesn’t bring them out of that familiar suffering, but it does empower them to see their own with a dim halo of hope. The same renewed imagination allows poet Mary Oliver to write these lines about dying towards the later years of her life:
“maybe death isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light wrapping itself around us—
as soft as feathers—”
Oliver doesn’t succumb to the normal understanding of death. Wiman doesn’t accept simple views of suffering. Hughes rejects the unjust status quo for his people. Poetry helps them look at these things with wonder as they believe, even just for a second, that light can be found in the darkness, that there is such a thing as hope.
Poetry pushes us past the temptation to recognize only the simplicity among the mundane. Poetry reminds its readers that ordinary things like ceiling fans, dining room tables, and suffering hold bits of holiness. It helps us see the world like my daughter and all children do: with the possibility for beauty and wonder. Does such an imagination feels childish in the face of all the evil we’ve come to know in our age? Yes, but that may be the point. Poetry makes us young again.
Cover image by Trust "Tru" Katsande.