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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