Bon Appetit!

Bon Appetit! When Poetry is the Feast

The following post was contributed by faculty members, Kathryn Martin and Starlet Baker, after attending a lecture hosted by the Trinity Forum in Washington D.C. Poet Dana Gioia, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, was the key-note speaker. This lecture was one in a three part series entitled Art, Faith, and Formation. The of aim the series was to remind us that the best of the literary, visual and musical arts speaks to the spiritual hunger of our times.

I like to cook. I am not an advanced cook, but I enjoy learning. When approaching a recipe I find especially intimidating—anything from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking—I move slowly. I find that in the very act of cooking, I acquire the knowledge, skills, and understanding of the nuances that could not be gained by merely reading the recipe. I might not rise to Julia Child’s level, but I progress as I actually undertake the task. What is true about development in the art of cooking is true of poetry as well.

The power of a poem, as mentioned in last week’s article, lies in its power to bring forth untaught things. Poet Dana Gioia affirms that poetry is not an intellectual abstraction, but an embodied experience. He emphasizes that poetry is meant to be spoken because it is in the wrestling with the correct delivery of a line that the virtue of a particular poem is embodied.

At New Covenant Schools, we agree with this understanding of poetry and, thus, students are presented with poetry containing the full gamut of human experience and wisdom. As students read and reread their poems, they don’t merely hear about the good, the true, and the beautiful, but they imbibe these foundational virtues. Their slow movement through their poems leads them to a more intimate understanding of the language and the ideas they communicate. In all three schools, students participate in poetry recitals, which affords them an opportunity to become more intimately acquainted with the ideas, themselves, and even the God who spoke all things into existence.

A recent meeting I had with a student regarding her poem provides one particular example. As we talked through The Lord My Banner by William Cowper, we were both struck by the likeness of this poem to the Psalms. It begins, “By whom was David taught to aim the deadly blow, when he Goliath fought and laid the Gittite low?” Cowper answers, “Twas Israel’s God and King who sent him to the fight; who gave him strength to sling and skill to aim aright. Ye feeble saints, your strength endures, because young David’s God is yours.” We were both delighted to experience the promise of hope that comes in the wisdom of Cowper’s response.

Discussions about good poetry often create those “Aha!” moments of which we teachers are so fond. Armed with this newfound understanding, my student walked away excited to figure out how to embody this hope to her audience. And in doing that, Cowper’s hope becomes hers. As she continues to read such things, the path of virtue will become more visible, allowing her to have it in reserve, as it were, as a convincing alternative to paths that lead elsewhere.

So, as students prepare for upcoming recitals, they are getting into the poems, but the poetry is also getting into them. Understanding the nuances of a particular way of thinking can lead to a particular way of being. The ancients believed that virtuous living was directly related to true happiness and this connection between virtue and happiness is certainly reflected in Scripture. Thus, we see an added benefit: the development of virtue can lead to a more robust kind of happiness. Happy and virtuous children. That’s the business of life at New Covenant, and the equivalent, I suppose, to successfully following Julia Child’s roasted duck recipe. If so, then, to the students who are currently feasting on poetry, I say Bon Appetit!

—Written by Kathryn Martin and Starlet Baker who recently attended a lecture hosted by the Trinity forum in Washington D.C. Poet Dana Gioia was the key-note speaker. They are grateful to be part of a school community that understands and upholds the role of the arts as irreplaceable to the formation of virtue.

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