I had a major revelation yesterday morning: I think I might finally get poetry!
Poetry, like all forms of art, is something with which I’ve always had a love/hate relationship. I love few things more than a moving piece of music or painting or writing; yet the whole concept of “art” has often left me frustrated. I was never sure how to define what makes good art, or even what constitutes “art” at all. I knew what I liked when I saw it, and even felt like there was some universal line in the sand between “true art” and “crap that is called ‘art, ‘” but could never quite articulate why I liked what I liked or where to draw that line.
At some point after my conversion, I heard about the concept that true art is beautiful, in some form or another, and that in order to be beautiful it must convey truth. I didn’t get it. How can art be true? Though something sounded vaguely right about it, I had more important concerns to address, so I promptly resumed being ambivalent about art. Until yesterday, when I discovered a poet.
The always-interesting ProBlogger had a great guest post by a man who happened to be a poet. On a whim I clicked through to his website and, long story short, I ended up spending most of my free time yesterday just reading poems — something I have almost never done before (his free e-book is here). It was one of those “ah-hah” moments when it all came together. I think I finally “got” poetry, and art in general. I think I now understand what it is, why we create it, and why it matters, and what it means for it to convey truth.
Let me see if I’ve got this right:
All good art, by definition, conveys truth. That is its purpose. But we’re not talking about truths like “the grass is green” or “the sky is blue.” We’re talking about the truths that lie outside the material world, the truths that you’d have to have a soul to know about. For example:
- All beauty and goodness has a living Source. In modern parlance, we call this source “God.”
- The closer we get to God, the closer we get to perfect joy.
- We have a strong tendency to drift away from God. Yet further away we get, the more unsettled and miserable we are.
- When other people drift away from God it makes our lives more difficult.
- The pleasures and comforts of the material world seem like they will make us happy, but don’t.
- We love other people, but not as much as we should.
- Acts of evil are shocking offenses to the way things should be.
- There is evidence of God in the material world, and our hearts soar when we see it.
And so on. All of these conditions are true objectively (they’re not “your truths” or “my truths”), all have been known in some way or another to every person who ever lived, and none can be discerned from the material world alone. It delights us to share our experiences of these truths with our fellow human beings, because it creates a bond that surpasses our animal instincts and connects us at the level of the soul.
And that’s where art comes in.
Art is the secret handshake of the children of God, the inside joke among those with souls. The spark that is ignited within us when we are touched by a work of art is a spark of recognition: the artist has brought us a souvenir from our homeland beyond the material world, the place that none of us should know about, but all of us do. To connect with a piece of art is to connect with the artist as a fellow traveler, to realize that you are both walking the same rocky road, and that he is homesick too. And it matters because true art, art that seeks a connection of souls, makes it harder to devalue and dehumanize one another. It reminds us what it means to be human.
I think I’m finally starting to get Pope Benedict’s Contemplation of Beauty, the Catechism’s statement on Truth, Beauty and Sacred Art. I think I now understand why the Church understands one of its jobs to be to keep art and beauty in the world.
It only took 31 years, but I think I’m starting to get the whole art thing. Am I on the right track?