4 Priest and Poet

Fr. Harry Hagan, OSB

This essay considers the metaphor: “A priest is like a poet.”  As metaphors do, this statement suggests that we can understand  a priest better by understanding his likeness to a poet. Generally, priests are not literally poets, and only three Catholic priests are commonly found in standard anthologies of English poetry: St. Robert Southwell, SJ (1561-1595), Blessed John Henry Newman (1801-1890) and Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ (1844-1889).

Of the three, Hopkins is arguably the best poet, though the other two were more important during their lifetimes with Newman continuing to play an important role today. Clearly, a priest need not be a poet. Still, I would argue that a priest should be like a poet in some ways.

Just as there is a large discussion about priest and identity, so also one can find a parallel wonderment about poets and what they might or should contribute to the world. Lest either of these discussions bog us down, I leave them aside and propose that the basic similarity between priest and poet lies in their relationship to words.

The poet is a wordsmith – someone who makes things out of words. A priest, among other things, is tied to the Word of God, not just as one who repeats it but also as one who gives it flesh again – in part by the living of it, in part by speaking this word anew. The priest, then, must be, to some degree, also a wordsmith.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), like Hopkins, died an unknown poet, but since her death she has taken a place in the front ranks of American poets. She has a small poem that sets out the task of words and, so, of poetry.

A word is dead, when it is said

Some say—

I say it just begins to live

That day.

Surely, Dickinson overstates her claim. Every spoken word does not “live.” Still, some words, once spoken, do not disappear. They may be harsh words, best forgotten, but once said they must be dealt with and reconciled, if possible, but even that does not make them go away.

Words of love are surely meant to live, and marriage vows create a new reality, which must be dealt with – even if the vows prove impossible to keep. Perhaps Dickinson’s poem best describes our hope that we can say something that will endure, and surely this is the hope and the task of the poet.

Dickinson’s poem is more than a good idea. The directness of the poem disguises its craft – that is, the poet’s ability to use language with power and precision. Here, Dickinson disguises a heroic couplet: two rhymed lines of iambic pentameter.

A word     is dead     when it     is said     some say.

I say it      just           begins       to live     that day.

Many would say that the heroic couplet stands as the strongest two lines in the English language, and Dickinson uses it to give strength and fixity to her statement. To the heroic couplet, she adds the repetition of words and sounds to create internal rhyme and alliteration with “d” and “s” to the fore. The poem turns on the word “say,” which contrasts what is “dead” with what “begins to live.” The craft of the well-said makes a difference, and a poet knows the craft, knows how to put words together so that they have weight and density or lightness and transparency, as the need may be. Still, Dickinson brings more than craft.

In the search for truth, some take refuge in truism – those statements that undermine the truth with banality. Dickinson, however, captures a more complex reality. She does not say that the words necessarily will be true, but that they will live. In this, she has proposed her own metaphor: “Speaking is like giving birth,” or “A word is like a living person who has a life that changes and unfolds.” Dickinson has captured a genuine similarity between a spoken word and a living person. She suggests unfolding possibilities rather than narrowing definitions, and it would be hard to explain its possibilities and, harder still, to define the many ways that people might relate to this poem.

Monroe Beardsley called metaphor “a poem in miniature,” and some regard the poet’s ability to discover metaphors to stand at the heart of the poetic vocation. Dickinson seems to say as much in her definition of a poet:

This was a Poet —

This was a Poet — It is That

Distills amazing sense

From ordinary Meanings —

And Attar so immense

From the familiar species

That perished by the Door —

We wonder it was not Ourselves

Arrested it — before

Of Pictures, the Discloser —

The Poet — it is He

Entitles Us — by Contrast

To ceaseless Poverty —

Of Portion — so unconscious

The Robbing — could not harm

Himself — to Him — a Fortune

Exterior — to Time —

The basic metaphor of the poem compares the poet to a perfume maker who distills a fragrant essential oil, i.e., an attar, from dead flowers, which is the normal way that perfume is made. However, Dickinson adds a twist. These dead flowers come from the familiar species that grew by the door, that we walked past, day in and out, that seemed to be noticeable only while alive and blooming and now useless being dead.

Dickinson is connecting several things: the poet to the perfume maker and the perfume to the ordinary flowers of daily life. Surely, there is every good reason to hope that a priest can be compared to such a poet, because life is mostly made of ordinary events that get lost unless they are connected and so magnified.

As Dickinson suggests, the connections are not abstruse or particularly inscrutable; rather the poet is able to see the obvious because:

We wonder it was not Ourselves

Arrested it — before.

Once pointed out, the insight is clear. According to this poem, the poet’s power lies not in some superhuman intuition, but in an aptitude for reality – for seeing the likeness between things in front of us. As Dickinson recognizes, we easily overlook the possible connections in front of us.

This kind of insight caused Viktor Shklovsky, a Russian formalist, to argue that the function of all art is to “defamiliarize” the ordinary. The artist takes what we know too well – what has become boring, trite and commonplace – and makes it strange so that we must look at it in a new and arresting way. To accomplish this, the poet uses unfamiliar words, unexpected rhythms, unexpected twists to force the reader to struggle with the text and so to experience the commonplace as if for the first time. For both Dickinson and Shklovsky, the poet focuses on what lies in front of us, and this ability becomes the source of a wealth that cannot be robbed, because this seeing is constantly generating new fortune which, as Dickinson says, is “exterior to time.”

A priest, too, must be able to forge the bonds of likeness not only between the things of this world, but also between this world and the larger reality of God. In this, Jesus shows us the way because much of his teaching is grounded in his ability to make metaphors: The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed or like yeast that a woman took or like a man who built a house. This larger reality requires metaphors to describe it, and while those of Jesus remain canonical, the preacher must have some ability to see the metaphorical possibilities of this world to give the Kingdom new metaphors, new flesh in our own day.

If, as Dickinson suggests, a poet’s power lies in the ability to discover the metaphorical links between unexpected realms, then the poet cannot be just a literalist interested only in the literal thing itself. Certainly, there is a place for concern with the literal. One must understand what a mustard seed literally is before it is possible to understand how the Kingdom of God could be like it. Moreover, both law and science depend upon the limits of the literal meaning to name things with precision. So the botanist moves from the tree, to the deciduous, to the oak and then to the red or white or pin oak and more.

The connections here are literal and contiguous, and this type of relationship is found everywhere. Pen and ink and paper have a literal, physical connection and belong to the domain of writing. There is no metaphorical leap here, no juxtaposition from different domains with an assertion of likeness. Examples of this type of connection could be multiplied endlessly in a game of free association: window and wall, table and chair, cup and saucer.

As said above, metaphor requires a leap. Speaking a word is only somewhat like giving birth to a child; the endurance of a word spoken is only somewhat like the life of a person. Because the similarity is only partial and often cannot be precisely defined, some refuse to allow the truth of the metaphor. These literalists claim to be realists because they demand facticity, but really they are continually reducing reality only to physical, literal relationships.

As a result, these “realists” isolate and fragment the pieces of our world because they cannot recognize the likeness of different things. Their reality, bereft of metaphor, lacks imagination. With the exclusion of metaphor, science can lose sight of the wonder of creation; the law court can forget the larger purpose of the law and make the laws an end unto themselves, and priesthood can cut itself off from mystery.

A priest, like a poet, depends upon his ability to find the metaphorical link between things, especially between the words of the Scriptures and the life of the Church. The Scriptures do not literally describe our experience today; they do not tell us exactly what we should do. Rather, the reader, in this case the preacher, must discover a relationship of likeness between the Book and ourselves. The literalist may insist upon a literal match between the text and today, but this leads to a violation of the text, which must be contorted and forced to make the text somehow fit literally even though there is no fit.

Admittedly, metaphor is no simple solution. It creates possibilities which, in turn, bring the problem of deciding which possibilities fit. For a priest, the possibilities are limited by the creed, the tradition as taught by the Magisterium. Still within that large context, possibilities abound, and possibility gives rise to possibility, to things unseen, unexpected. This makes some nervous; they want the world nailed down – clear and literal. This tendency toward a narrow literalism always exists, for it seems to offer the comfort of things known and sure, but this comfort requires a space small enough to be knowable. In such a small place, the ego becomes the measure of the world. When everything is measured against myself, that which is different and other becomes a threat and so must be defined as outside and false, and it must be kept outside.

Dickinson plays with this problem in a poem on preachers.

He preached upon ‘Breadth’

He preached upon “Breadth” till it argued him narrow—

The Broad are too broad to define,

And of “Truth” until it proclaimed him a Liar—

The Truth never flaunted a Sign—

Simplicity fled from his counterfeit presence

As Gold the Pyrites would shun.

What confusion would cover the innocent Jesus

To meet so enabled a Man!

For Dickinson, the pride of this preacher – his narcissism and therefore his small-minded myopia – lies at the root of the problem. Instead of gold, we get fool’s gold.

It is true that the preacher is faced with a difficult, if not impossible, dilemma. The preacher should preach and practice the same thing. In the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer concludes his description of the parson with just this ideal:

But Cristes loore, and Hise apostles twelve

He taughte, but first he folwed it hymselve

But Christ’s own teaching and his apostles Twelve

he taught, but first he followed it himself.

Prologue, 527-528

Surely, this is the goal. However, if the preaching does not exceed what the preacher can practice, then the preacher is forced to remake God and the Gospel in his own image and likeness. Though Chaucer’s ideal is much to be desired, it is more important that the preacher be faithful to the Gospel, and a good preacher really must preach a sermon that is a judgment on himself, first of all. The difficulty of doing this and sustaining it over a lifetime should not be underestimated. Sometimes the decision is conscious, but often it is unconscious. The preacher avoids this or that because it would be too difficult to face. In Dickinson’s poem, the preacher’s arrogance makes him unaware of his narrowness.

Although the literalist may claim to be a realist, the opposite is true. The literalist is unable to see the possibility of the world, but as Dickinson argues, the poet is able to see the possibility of the dead flowers at the back door becoming an immense perfume.

In his Spoon River Anthology, Edgar Lee Masters captures something of this metaphorical realism in his poem, “Father Malloy.” All of the poems in this book tell something of the people buried in the graveyard of an imaginary Midwestern town named Spoon River. Though hailed as a great American poetic work when it appeared in 1915, its luster has faded in academic circles, though it robustly remains in print.

As the poem makes clear, the speakers describe the deceased Catholic priest from a non-Catholic point of view, from that of the people buried on the hill and not in the Catholic cemetery, where “the cross marks every grave.” The poem lacks our typical theological concerns about priesthood. Still, or perhaps because of that, it describes in 23 lines, this parish priest as a real realist.

Father Malloy

You are over there, Father Malloy,

Where holy ground is, and the cross marks every grave,

Not here with us on the hill —

Us of wavering faith, and clouded vision

And drifting hope, and unforgiven sins.

You were so human, Father Malloy,

Taking a friendly glass sometimes with us,

Siding with us who would rescue Spoon River

From the coldness and the dreariness of village morality.

You were like a traveler who brings a little box of sand

From the wastes about the pyramids

And makes them real and Egypt real.

You were a part of and related to a great past,

And yet you were so close to many of us.

You believed in the joy of life.

You did not seem to be ashamed of the flesh.

You faced life as it is,

And as it changes.

Some of us almost came to you, Father Malloy,

Seeing how your Church had divined the heart,

And provided for it,

Through Peter the Flame,

Peter the Rock.

The poem claims humanity for Fr. Malloy, who was not opposed to taking a friendly drink with whomever – not just with his parishioners, but also with those now buried over there on the hill, and this detail illustrates the priest’s larger moral horizon and his pastoral relationship with the world beyond his parish. The poem connects the priest to both the past and the present as if he had been a sightseer in a strange mysterious land and so had the ability to make that world present and to bring it and himself “so close to many of us.” Though the priest belongs to these two worlds, he is able to move between them and to hold them together. The poem, then, makes this theme of incarnation explicit:

You believed in the joy of life.

You did not seem to be ashamed of the flesh.

An affirmation of the priest’s realism follows:

You faced life as it is,

And as it changes.

This priest did not live in some spiritual world far away from this here and now. The poem ends with two metaphors for Peter, who stands both for the Church and for its priests:

Peter is (like) a Flame.

Peter is (like) a Rock.

The second, of course, is taken from the Gospels (Matt 16:18) and captures something of the Church’s stability against the forces of chaos and evil. The flame, connected with the divining of the heart just above, suggests emotion, passion, zeal, mystery. The juxtaposition of the two – the Flame and the Rock – captures two essential pieces of the Church and of priesthood: the transcendent made incarnate, the divine made human.

Those who would limit the Church just to the rock of stability deny the Church its vitality, its mystery. They deny the change that living must necessarily bring. Likewise, those who focus only on the spiritual miss the essential element of incarnation. For us human beings, incarnation includes the breakage that comes with sin. Fr. Malloy, the poem tells us, “faced life as is.” He was a realist in touch with the human and the divine.

Edgar Lee Masters’ poem stands as a wonderful tribute to the many nameless priests who have, through the years, played such a role in the small towns and big cities of the Midwest and farther abroad. For their sake, the poem deserves to be known more widely.

Just as the poet can see the metaphorical connections – the ways in which persons and things are alike, so, too, the priest must be able to discover the connections between the human and the divine and to hold them together. This charism is Christological, for Christ is himself “the image of the unseen God” (Col 1:15), and in his very person he holds together divinity and humanity. This charism is given to us in baptism, and the priest has the special responsibility of making this reality present by means of word and sacrament in the name of and for the sake of the Church. In his poem “God’s Grandeur,” Gerard Manley Hopkins celebrates this sacramental manifestation in the opening metaphor:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.

Hopkins not only grasps the likeness between God’s grandeur and the light scattering from crumpled metal foil, he is also able to set it down in two lines of iambic pentameter. Very few of us priests have the skill of a wordsmith like Hopkins. Yet I have heard some preachers who caused the ground to move under my feet. All of us, as best we can, must hammer out or at least point out what the Kingdom of God is like so that its mystery may continue to unfold in our midst.

The poems from Emily Dickinson, in Chapter 4, are reprinted by permission of the publishers and the Trustees of Amherst College from The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Ralph W. Franklin, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1998, 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.



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Catholic Imagination by Fr. Harry Hagan, OSB is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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