Our word poet comes from poetes, a Greek word that generally means "the one who creates, who makes things, who makes." But I like the older Sanskrit meaning of this word, which means "a heaper into heaps and a piler into piles.’" The poet comes upon human mess, human beings who are despairing, feeling lost, anxious, and believing that the world around them is destroyed. They don’t know what they control and what controls them. The poet then begins to sing a song that gathers the details of the mess and names the name of him who died. But the poet names that name in such a way that the one who died begins to take up a place in the old stories, the old songs. As the people close their eyes and listen to the song, they find that the pieces of the story are literally the pieces of their lives, but the song in the story put the pieces together into a sensible order. The people become less confused and more put to peace. They feel that they are no longer aliens in the universe, but citizens of a universe they can somewhat understand.
Think about another word for poet, the Old English word scop (pronounced ‘shop’). It is related to our word shape. The Old English understanding of scop was this: The singer of songs, the artist, the writer of books is the one who will take your mess of a day when you’re lost and incapable, and this poet will sing shape to it- and sing you into that shape.
So the question becomes, Who are you going to allow to become your ‘heaper into heaps’ and your ‘piler into piles’? Who will shape the world that you enter into and dwell in? Are you going to allow football to do that, so all the world is seen in a contest? Are you going to allow simpleminded understandings- like the cartoons, newspapers, or the government- do that for you? Or are you going to enter into the sweet complexity of minds, this living treasure of singers and writers who embrace more details with greater richness of beauty, deeper understanding of what is truly evil, what is good, and what is the procession of human experience? You want the minds of those who have created whole cultures of insight. The more complexly we see the world, the more capable we are of admitting many people into that world- people who are not like us. Books open our eyes to the complex truths that simple, mindless stories simply have no names for. Why not pick the best?I don’t mind the people who read romances, but that’s formula fiction. It repeats the same world over and over again, and it’s a profoundly limited world. And every one of the people who loves romantic fiction has a mind better than the world that it shapes. We call that escapism. Gerard Manley Hopkins offers his poetry as inscapism- to escape into things, truly, not escape from them.
That’s the influence of great books; they teach us how to see the world that is.
Quoted from Hope Grows Best in the Garden of Despair, an Interview with Walter Wangerin, Jr. printed in the book Indelible Ink
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