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Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens
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Vail Daily column: Plug in to poetry’s power

Jack Van Ens

If a seminary invited me to train preachers, what would I emphasize?

Effective communication occurs when a speaker is dedicated to reading and memorizing poetry. Spoken words can captivate or bore us. Without mastering poetry, preachers succumb to dull thinking that's blandly expressed. Then listeners fall asleep.

Nineteenth-century poet Emily Dickinson compared love for reading poetry and prose to traveling. "There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away," she surmised. Speakers travel far in listeners' psyches when they use the right word in the right way to burrow into the human heart. If we don't vary word choice, we may end up with flat speech that lacks bounce, breath of vision and command of metaphor.

Poet John Keats describes how language travels best when it runs on poetic rails. Keats wrote "On Looking into Chapman's Homer" in 1816. With Dickinson, he insisted that recited poetry travels from the top of our heads to the bottom of our hearts.

Keats pictures Spanish conquistadors who ventured west in the New World to discover a fabled El Dorado filled with gold. "Or like stout Cortez with eagle eyes/ He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men/ Looked at each other with wild surmise—/ Silent upon a peak in Darien."

Keats mistakenly believed Cortez was the first Spaniard to see the gleaming Pacific Ocean. It was probably Balboa. But his poetry is on target. Life's a journey with unexpected surprises and serendipitous events. Mere prose doesn't carry the punch that poetry packs in communicating convincingly.

Usually, we don't fully grasp poetry's inspiration on human imagination. Poetry doesn't merely delight readers who are fond of words. Such an attitude limits its power to persuade and inspire. "A poet is before anything else a person who is passionately in love with language," W.H. Auden reminds us.

President John F. Kennedy broke new ground by inviting poet Robert Frost to read a poem on a sunny, frigid Inaugural Day in 1961. The sun blinded the frail poet. Even offering a tophat to shield Frost from intense rays didn't make the poetic script easy to read. The 87-year-old poet stumbled over words to the inaugural poem "Dedication." Frost recovered by reciting from memory one of his favorite poems, "A Gift Outright."

Speaking at Amherst College, Kennedy spoke of poetry's value as a powerful stimulus to create a healthy world. "I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty," declared Kennedy, who sounded like Cortez surveying an ocean of dreams and hopes. "When power leads man (humankind) toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses."

Last month, I led worship as Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards for classes ranging from kindergarten through sixth grade. Riding a horse alongside a river in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, Edwards recited the 23rd Psalm, "The Lord is my shepherd." Unprompted, second-graders in the audience joined Edwards in reciting this biblical poem. They had memorized this poetry for a prior Christmas program.

A former parishioner recently died at 95 years. His obituary noted that as a young student, he excelled by reciting poetry in school contests. Today, most students regard such exercises dreary and a waste of time. We use Google on smartphones and let electronic memory do the work for us.

Our lives shrivel when preachers ignore poetry and students don't memorize it. Our language becomes coarse. My Princeton Seminary professor urged student to express "chaste" language. He urged us to cleanse sermons of routine words or casual asides like token-takers spoke on the New Jersey Turnpike. Poetry restores civility in speech.

That's why I found President Trump's inaugural address disappointing. Its content read like a report on how he trounced "political elites." Why was poetic, uplifting language that speaks to the heart missing? Where were inspiring words in his script that make the human spirit soar?

Without poetry to temper speech, we endure politicians who speak vainly and use gutter-talk as exclamation points.

When the Great Depression flattened the human spirit, Americans turned to movie star Ginger Rogers, who danced into their hearts. In the 1932 Broadway musical "42nd Street," Rogers sang a number "Shuffle Off to Buffalo." "He did right by little Nelly," Rogers sang, "with a shotgun at his belly" — and then she interjected "tummy," instead. "Belly" was considered too crude an anatomical term for the polite stage. "Tummy" was OK because that's how a child talks.

Can you imagine Broadway doing a comparable poetic cleansing today?

Where are voiced poetic words that cleanse our souls? Do poetry and writing send us soaring on travels of mind and heart as expansive as the Pacific and tender as a child tucked in bed to a nursery rhyme?

Ask presidential candidates and preachers, "Do you read, memorize and use poetic speech to encourage remarkable lives?"

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God's history come alive.