For a long time now, I have been reading poetry, but most poems I read I cannot understand. Even when I do believe that I understand, they often fail to move me. My friend Michael has said that of one hundred poems he might come across, ninety-nine of them would be lost on him. But, he says, it is worth slogging through those ninety-nine for the power and immediacy he feels reading the hundredth one, the kind of poem that changes your life, that gives words to something that previously had only existed inside you as a feeling or sensation. Poetry comes closest to expressing the inexpressible. For that reason, I think of poetry as religious language.
Much has been written about the difference between poetry and prose. The best distinction that I’ve heard between the two is that prose is binary – it can only hold one truth, while poetry can hold many seemingly contradictory truths.
To me, the Bible is poetry. How else could you explain the many ways that we read it, the different faces it will turn up to us as we read and re-read it at different junctures in our lives? Of course a sacred text would be multi-vocal instead of uni-vocal. The tradition says one should read the Torah from the vantage point of all the characters – not only Moses or Abraham, but also Pharaoh. G-d is too vast to fit into one view or one idea. And so, to me the Bible must be the language of poetry.
Just like we enjoy the old Westerns because of the clear distinction between the good guys and bad guys, we often wish the Bible were prose, containing one truth, one way of seeing. The world of prose is a relief because there are clear lines and distinctions between things.
Only poetry can name the moment, or series of moments, when one season morphs into another season. There is no clear line demarcating between the two. Prose can’t really get at this. But poetry can express this feeling of the air being just a little different each morning and each evening, and for the longing that can overtake us this time of year. Witness the words of the poet Jack Gilbert: “Love lasts by not lasting.” Or Yves Bonnefoy, “And again: summer will last / No more than an hour. / But let our hour be / Vast as the river.” We hear these words that don’t describe the season exactly, but somehow describe our feeling in the presence of the season’s change. As our evening prayers say, “With wisdom you open gateways, with understanding you alter times, vary the seasons…”
In our day to day world, we often write in prose, because we live in prose. We are trained to see our experiences as good or bad. So, there are two blessings in Judaism – one to recite upon hearing bad news and one to recite upon hearing good news. We have two separate blessings because of the prose world we live in and our conditioned seeing that is a result of this. It is taught that in the time to come, we will realize there is only one blessing for good or bad news, since it all comes from one source. The words of our traditions tell us this also. If we listen closely, we can hear the hidden poetry inside the words of prose, like in this line from the morning prayers, “Who can resemble You, the source of life and death, who makes salvation grow?” Prayer, too, is in the language of poetry.
So we read through the poetry—and the prayers—that we often don’t understand for the one that comes along every so often, for the one that gives a name to this hinge season, for the one that gives a name to this ancient emotion buried in our chest. Like this poem-prayer from Leonard Cohen: “The road is too long / the sky is too vast / the wandering heart / is homeless at last.”