Playing with Poems

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Playing with poetry is much what poetry is about, if it is about anything in general other than words and sounds and images.  Poetry plays with language to surprise the reader, out loud, into new experiences of the world to break and share, often breaking into laughter in the process.

Here are two modern poems by two modern poets (“modern” meaning 20th century and on), one American and the other English.  Each is playing with an idea, a possibility, to see what happens.

The first is by English poet Philip Larkin,


If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water. 

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes; 

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench, 

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

Read it aloud, and then listening again.  With this poem you can play with the very notion of the beginning, that is, if YOU were called in to construct a religion, what would you do?  Note that Larkin begins by making use of what is there – the very element, after all,  that was “In the beginning….” In the Genesis account of creation, water, and the very element which the Hebrew Bible identifies with chaos, Leviathan, the undoing of everything.  Or your thoughts may go elsewhere – and just follow them out and see where they lead you.

How does going to church in Larkin’s poem differ from your experience of going to church?  What, after all, is your experience of going to church?  How would you describe it?  And imagine our liturgy all drenched in “images of sousing”.  What does that mean to you?  Is that what we did with baptisms a couple of weeks ago?  Is that what we do on entering church when you dip into the water of the baptismal font?  How might Larkin’s imagine differ from the baptismal liturgy?

What do the last two lines, imagined out of “A glass of water” evoke for you?  What plays with language and sounds and images does Larkin exploit in these two last lines?  Imagine the two last lines being incorporated into our own creed and litany of prayer for a holy catholic church.   Note how in Larkin’s poem the chaos of waters in Genesis becomes contained in a glass of water raised to the light, a light from any angle and anywhere congregating endlessly.  Is that what the church means to embody as one glass of many, one glass of water – baptismal? – raised into the light and gathering endlessly?

The second poem is by May Swenson, an American poet, and a very different take on some of the images of what we usually look at as a religious question,


Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen 

Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt

Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead

How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye

With cloud for shift
how will I hide?

How does this poem sound differently from Larkin’s poem?  If poems begin with him being asked a question, what different feeling to you get from Swenson’s poem that follows out a litany of questions in the loss the body, house and horse and companionable hound?

Lots of play in Swenson’s poem and play off of a line from H.D. Thoreau’s Walden, “I lost long ago a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle-dove, and am still on their trail.”  What do Swenson’s lines make you think of, imagine, feel?  Why do Swenson’s stanzas vary in lines, whereas Larkin’s are more regular?  Does it matter?

Read the poems aloud again.  What do you wonder about in their singing?  And “how will I hide?”  Hide from whom?  Is that what the body is, a house and horse and hound to hide within?

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