THE DEVIL HATES GOOSE QUILLS
And Why it Matters to the Church, by Douglas Bond
Martin Luther, who said “The Devil hates goose quills,” insisted that in a reformation, “We need poets.” Most of us scratch our heads and wonder what on earth we need them for.
Our postmodern, post-Christian, post-Biblical culture has almost totally dismissed what used to be called poetry. Few deny it; ours is a post-poetry culture. But who cares?
“Poetry is a marginal art form,” wrote poet Campbell McGrath, “in a culture that values neither literacy nor artistic expression in any vital way. America does not persecute poets, it does not seek to smash them like bugs—it just doesn’t care a lot.”
Martin Luther cared deeply about poetry, in the most vital way. But do most Christians today? Most accept the decline of poetry without a whimper, with barely a wafture of good riddance. But does it matter?
Paul Johnson, decrying the decline in literacy, argues that students should “produce competent verse in a wide variety of strict meters, under examination conditions.”
To what purpose should they be subjected to such literary tortures? After all, what good is it? Won’t the machinations of society carry on just fine without poetry? Won’t the church do just fine without it? It’s not like poetry contributes anything vital. You can’t eat it.
So thought Hanoverian King George II. “I hate all boets!” he declared. If you’ve ever been flummoxed at lines you were told were poetry, ones about wheelbarrows and chickens, you may agree with George’s abhorrence of poets.
But are Christians to stand deferentially aside as culture pitches poetry—the highest form—into the lowest circle of hell?
WHAT HAPPENED TO POETRY?
I’ve been accused of the pedagogical unpardonable sin of depriving my writing students of what has become poetry’s sole consideration: individual self-expression. “Why don’t you let them write in free verse?” I’m asked. “I do,” I reply. “We just call it brainstorming.”
Arguably vers libre achieved its foothold with Walt Whitman, a man with new ideas simmering in his bosom, new ideas that demanded a new form. “Through me forbidden voices, voices of sexes and lust, voices veiled, and I removed the veil.” The Devil, no doubt, rubs his hands in glee at Whitman’s goose quill.
Whitman-like free verse dictates against any conventional structure of meter or rhyme. This throw-off-the-shackles impulse creates a blurring of literary genre wherein poetic form is abandoned in favor of irregular bursts of feeling. What often remains is fragmented prose. “Poetry” thus conceived provides a pseudo-form for saying private things about one’s self, things one would never utter in direct speech—until Whitman removed the veil.
Such redefining of what poetry is has led to a proliferation of what one classics professor termed, “therapeutic soul-baring by emotional exhibitionist[s].” Or as John Stott quipped, “The trouble with you Americans is you’re constantly engaged in a spiritual strip-tease.” . . .