In the strict sense, of course,
We invent nothing, merely bearing witness
To what each morning brings again to light
Gold crosses, cornices, astonishment
~ Richard Wilbur
The true theologian is a poet, and the true poet is a theologian. By this I do not mean that the theologian is a poetaster or versifier, a mere scribbler of verses, but a ‘poet’ in the sense that he reveals; nor that the poet writes exclusively about theological matters.
In order that human beings bring about the most radiant conditions for themselves to inhabit, it is essential that the vision of reality which poetry offers should be transformative, more than just a printout of the given circumstances of its time and place. The poet who would be most the poet has to attempt an act of writing that outstrips the conditions even as it observes them.
~ Seamus Heaney
The poet-theologian does not offer analysis, reportage or explicatory material; he is not the one who explains but the one who unveils.
The two most engaging powers of an author are to make
new things familiar, and familiar things new.
~ Samuel Johnson
The poet’s task is not “strictly” creative, or to be precise. It is creative (classical Greek has the noun poema “a created thing”, and the verb poiein “to make”), but only in so far as it is revelatory.
Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world.
~ Percy Byshe Shelley
The poet’s “making” is akin to the forensic- just as an archaeologist brings to light what was already there; the restorer brings out the patinal beauty of dulled down old wood, the historian discerns patterns behind apparent chaos , the palaeographer pieces together fragments of broken papyri. But these comparisons and analogies fail- because the poet evokes. Revelation is a Christ-centred operation (Col. 1:16), achieved not through the western education-career path-process, through the memorising of facts, the regurgitation of crass data, but by something far deeper (Psalm 41:7 LXX). What the poetic gives birth to is a sort of resurrection, a refutation, and a nexus for a transformative event which acts beyond space-time, it is able to re-shape past, present, and future (Isaias 43:19, 65:17; Eph. 4:24, 2:15; Heb. 8:13; Rev. 21:5). Through the Logos, the Word (spermatikos logos) moves outwards to embrace, permeate and to fertilise the world, and the world is pulled inwards into the womb of the Word (platytera ton ouranon).
Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet
~ Saint Porphyrios of Kavsokalyvia
A theology which is experiential and of God, easily transcends the boundaries of language. Rightly expressed, theology always attempts to speak the unspeakable. Prose (scientific, political, historical, critical, polemical), mostly leads to more prose, more thoughts, more contentions, the endlessly devouring ouroboros of intellectualism (Mark 9:48). Only a poetry which is theopoetic, suggestive, ambiguously hinting, generously intimating, can bring us to silence (hesychia). To that Word which is beyond the word, in the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud (Exodus 13:22), in the darkness (Exodus 20:21) and in the Light (Matthew 17:1–8, Mark 9:2–8, Luke 9:28–36; 2 Peter 1:16–18; John 1:14), beyond wordiness (Prov. 10:19, 21:23; Psalm 140:3 LXX; Matthew 15:11; James 1:19; Col. 4:6; Eph 4:29); beyond literal and flat approaches to the world as well as to Holy Scripture (2 Pet. 1:20). It is a striving for action and creative articulation regardless of the literal, the bluntly affirmative, and cognitive certainties, it is an overturning of world(ly) views.
Beauty of every beauty
Scent of all truth,
Friend of my heart,
Clarity of my mind.
Light of lights
Beauty of all things.
I gaze upon you.
~ Thalia Zeniou
This is not to suggest that theopoetics is a descent into magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, or belief in fanciful explanations, fake-news, fantasies, or things which merely console, thrill or terrify us (Matthew 24:6). On the contrary, Jesus Christ is both the poet and the poetic, He is log-ic, verbal (John 1:1, 14:6), and verbaliser (Luke 18:18)- He is the one who offers and that which (= Whom) is offered (cf. Heb. 10:12).
He gave us divinity, we gave Him humanity.
~ Saint Ephrem of Syria
He Himself is veiler of His own divinity (Isaias 53:7; Matthew 26:67) and revealer of divine Truth (the supreme reality) (Luke 9:29), revealer of beauty itself, which is actualised – personalised – as beauty Himself, is that very beauty which Dostoevsky said is the salvation of the world.
Le Poète se fait voyant ~ Rimbaud (“Lettre du Voyant”)
The poet is a seer. He may not be able even to articulate in intellectual-logical terms (Isaias 53:7) what he is expressing poetically (Psalm 46:6 LXX), as what is expressed may be beyond his rational compass (Luke 23:24), or he may be blinded by ambiguity (Mark 4:12) or the “dérèglement de tous les sens” (Rimbaud, ibid.). He sees all things in God, God in all things (cf. Gal. 3:28), he discerns God’s presence in each person (Matthew 25:40).
it illumines the soul interiorly.
~ Saint Gregory of Palamas
The theopoetic is a transcendence and circumvention of the tyrannical Aristotelian straitjacket of propositional thinking (1 Tim. 6:20); theo-poetics is a theo-phany.
To articulate “truth,” we must thus turn away from any sense of “truth” as a determined object or a mere product of evidence. We must instead seek out new expressions of truth (as well as renewing others) above all, toward the disclosure of the sacred as something utterly mysterious and irreducible. In so doing, a sense of “truth” is recovered as something fragmented and fragile, for such is the language of poetry and prayer. ~ Jack Louis Pappas
The theopoetic is a mystery. In this way it is entirely possible for the non-Orthodox, non-Christian, to express the Truth (their work may not be explicit about the importance of the Incarnation).
Light is Love revealed.
Light is Life manifested.
Light is God fulfilled.
~ Sri Chinmoy
even as he exists in a “post-truth landscape”, and is not confessing to or believing in the Truth or in any one thing or in anything per se (the theopoetic is an unknowing), not as syncretism, but as long as that which is expressed is congruent with Truth (John 14:6, 16:13; Rom. 8:29).
Let the remembrance of Jesus be present with your every breath. Then indeed you will appreciate the value of stillness.
~ Saint John Klimakos
It is also possible for some “thing” which is entirely non-literal/non-literary to be poetic- even something entirely non-verbal, the writing of a holy eikon, acts of compassion and self-emptying, a life devoted to Christ, self-sacrificed for Love, the sweeping of the holy temple, the breaking of bread, are filled with and made possible by poetic Truth. For the Truth is beyond our personal experience; it entirely transcends the entire cosmic order. It is a wealth which the world cannot contain (Matthew 6:21). The poet is the one who sees with a pure and wondering heart (Matthew 18:2-4), un-seeing within the Dionysian divine darkness.
Only wonder understands anything. ~ Saint Gregory of Nyssa
The role of wonder is (among other things) to slow us down, make us quiet, help us pay attention. There may in the theopoetic be an inadvertence:
The poet Nicholas Bielby, in his poem ‘A Painter on Luing: Edna Whyte’, recognises what the artist (Edna Whyte) does not, that the light which she captures so brilliantly in paint, is God:
light that transforms, transfigures, that lights
a fire here, now, in earth’s hearth.
Whyte sees light, even ‘the hidden source’, but the light for her does not open up, lead to, or enable the perception of and assimilation to the deeper truth. It is for this reason that the epigraph of Bielby’s poem is so apposite: ‘There is only one fault: incapacity to feed upon light’ (Simone Weil). Even though Whyte denies God, she paints ‘religiously’, she paints God: ‘The God she does not /believe in is what she paints’ Bielby declares truthfully. She paints God in spite of her rationalist rejection, her lack of belief. Truly, the Sprit blows where He wills (John 3:8).
A theopoetics may be outwardly beautiful- and where it is a revelatory it cannot fail to be beautiful outwardly and inwardly, but the “aesthetical” as understood within the academy and by contemporary culture is not its concern (Isaias 53:3).
In imitation of the method of the bee, I shall make my composition
from those things which are conformable with the truth and from our enemies themselves gather the fruit of salvation. […]
I shall add nothing of my own.
~ Saint John of Damaskos
The theo-poet is like a bee collecting pollen- even from the garden of the enemy, to form the honey sweetness of salvation, the theopoetic is inherently communal, invitational- a feeding of the thirsty, a hospitality.
The one who sees theopoetically is like someone who has found beautiful shells on a pristine beach and is gathering them together to form configurations of astounding beauty. Or threading petals to form garlands, a reconfiguring and re-imaging of the cosmos.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels
~ Richard Wilbur
A pseudo poetic is as toxic as the overly rational, a cul-de-sac, a closing off not an opening up and into (1 Cor. 1:18-31). On the other hand, the truly poetic has precisely the quality of the shell and the petal, in that it is capable of being made into that which goes beyond itself, just as the saint is the one who has – through a synergy of grace (Eph 2:8-9) and co-working (1 Cor. 3:9) – gone beyond the leaden baseness of fallen humanity, to the golden glory of Christ God.
See also: https://orthodoxbasildon.wordpress.com/2017/03/30/perforation/