Scholarly article on topic 'On poetry – entering heaven through the ear of a raindrop: An <i>ars poetical</i> reading'

On poetry – entering heaven through the ear of a raindrop: An <i>ars poetical</i> reading Academic research paper on "Philosophy, ethics and religion"

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Academic research paper on topic "On poetry – entering heaven through the ear of a raindrop: An <i>ars poetical</i> reading"




Cas J.A. Vos1


department of Practical Theology, University of Pretoria, South Africa

Correspondence to: Cas J.A. Vos


Postal address:

Faculty of Theology, University of Pretoria, Lynnwood Road, Hatfield 0083, Pretoria, South Africa


poetry; ars poetica; religion and poetry; metaphor; inspiration


Received: 03 Nov. 2008 Accepted: 15 Apr. 2009 Published: 06 Aug. 2009

How to cite this article:

Vos, C.J.A., 2009, 'On poetry - entering heaven

through the ear of a raindrop: An ars poetical reading', HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 65(1), Art. #165, 5 pages. DOI: 10.4102/hts.v65i1.165

This article is available at:

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© 2009. The Authors. Licensee: OpenJournals Publishing. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution License.


This article investigates the uniqueness of poetry. Special attention is given to the ars poetica of the poetry of Cas Vos. Other poems are also discussed. The binding force of metaphors in poetry is considered. The essence and expressiveness of poetry are explained through several different poems. The end of the journey of poetry is concluded with a sonnet by Robert Pinsky.


What makes poetry so different? So unique? Is it the breath? The landscape? The streaming images? Is it because through poetry, the reader or audience enters heaven through the ear of a raindrop (Heaney 1996:1)? These never-ending questions are like rolling waves.

Poiesis means making and, as the ancient Greeks recognised, the poet is first and foremost a maker. To make poems does not mean to imitate, but to construct different versions (Breytenbach 2006:74; cf. Paglia 2005:xv). The Greeks saw no contradiction in the truth that poetry is somehow or other inspired, and simultaneously an art (techne); a craft requiring a merging of talent, training and many years of practice. In the Renaissance the word makers, as in courtly makers, was an exact equivalent for poets. The word poem became English in the 16th century and it has been with us ever since to designate a form of fabrication, a type of composition, a made thing (Hirsch 1999:31-32).

'Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul.' This maxim, beloved by Simone Weil and Paul Celan, can stand as a writer's credo (Hirsch 1999:1). Paul Celan (cited in Hirsch) wrote:

A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the not always greatly hopeful belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense, too, are under way: they are making toward something.

(Celan, in Hirsch 1999:13)

Poetry is a language to which a special emphasis has been given, whether by paring it down and arranging it pleasingly on the page, in lines whose length may be baffling to all but the poet, or by the traditional means that include

raising the voice in order to be heard above the crowd; raising the voice in order to demonstrate its beauty and power; chanting the words; reciting the words rhythmically;

punctuating the units of speech (which will become the lines of the poem) with rhymes; setting the words to tunes and singing them in unison, as in a drinking song (Fenton 2003:10).

On the surface, poetry is a consciousness of words. To create poetry is to broaden the consciousness. Consciousness is a dance to the melody of meaning, imagination, remembrance, oblivion and ingenuity (Breytenbach 2006:180-181).

The process of making a poem is summed up in the following lines from Yeats' poem Adam's Curse (Allison et al. 1983:879):

A line will take us hours maybe;

Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,

Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

Poetry as breath penetrates to where the body recognises the stirring of meaning. Poetry mediates, on a particular and immensely valuable level, between the inner consciousness of the individual reader and the outer world of people (Pinsky 2002:45-46). When words touch paper, salt can be transformed into ash. Poetry on the page - a visual construct - lasts (Paglia 2005:xii).


A characteristic of a poem is its texture. Texture is the language with which a poem is woven. It is the colour and sparkle of language. Like prose, poetry utilises language. But the poet colours the language differently to the writer of prose. What are the characteristics of poetical language? Like a river that is full of water, a poem is full of images and metaphors. But what is a metaphor? According to Aristotle, metaphor means to give something a name that belongs to something else. The word metaphor comes from the Greek words meta (over) and pherein (carry). From this, the Latin word metaphora was created, implying 'figurative' (Degenaar 1970:294). It is a transfer of energies, a mode of interpretation, a matter of identity and difference (Hirsch 1999:13).

A metaphor is about depiction and the imagination. When a metaphor creates a relationship between two domains, new associated connections are brought about. The metaphor opens our eyes to see. The

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result is mostly surprising and strange. A metaphor is like an eel; it is smooth, fast, slippery and fresh. The living metaphor makes language new. The wonder of a metaphor is that it allows people to put together things that they otherwise would not have. It makes completely new ways of seeing possible. In this article, no fully expanded theory of metaphors is given (cf. in this regard Degenaar 1970; Du Plessis 2006). The reader is rather invited to discover poems through the power of metaphors. Consider these lines from a poem by Rochelle Kraut (Paglia 2005:210):

My Makeup

on my cheeks I wear the flush of two beers

on my eyes I use

the dark circles of sleepless nights to great advantage

for lipstick I wear my lips

Metaphors are like dynamite, forcing people to consider new insights and blasting open new worlds.


Allow me to introduce you to a few poems. But before I do so, I would like to give you a few directions.

Take a gentle breath at dusk

and anoint your feet with oil

before you leave on your travels.

On a journey without shelter or shade

won't the sun fuel a fever?

and the moon chase away cataracts?

And when, drenched in journey's sweat you come

knocking at the gateway; turn your eyes

to the ancient, wrinkled mountains.

(Vos 2008)


The first poem I want to share with you has a religious undertone:

She falls on her little girl knees at night and asks:

Keep my heart pure of false gods and desires.

God's breath blows over the earth

and finds in her, a holy hollow

to fill with godly seed

As He strokes her with his finger,

she takes fright; her cheeks suddenly flushed.

She hears her lover standing shuffling outside,

his carpenter's hands hesitant to knock.

The night stirs heavily; a curtain shielding a secret

Because God is all, He is alone.

Therefore He, the Holy, travels

after a short earthly sojourn

past night's silver sickle

drifting between the stars

to his far, far, land.

Angelic melodies fill the universe, their harmonies satiate one and all. Their wings light, but fleeting over the brown and rough earth as the Child, gasping for air spills out in a pool of blood. Flames flicker on his face.

(Vos 2008)

I also present here a poem that deconstructs the well-known Psalm 23. The poem aims to draw on the experience of people.

The Lord is not my shepherd

The Lord is not my shepherd, I remain deprived.

He leads me to the wasteland and lets my blood run dry. He takes me to a cross where disquiet breeds, where he abandons me.

He leads me down twisted paths to seek his honour, lost.

I crawl through the abysmal darkness, my heart frantic with fear, you withdrew your hand from me, turned your back as I came near. And you crucify me, before my jeering enemies. You receive me as though a thief, I am overcome with shame. Although you are painfully absent, I shall continue to long for you, I am, the sacrificial lamb.

(Vos 2008)


Abelard was especially known in theology for his stance on the doctrine of reconciliation. A younger contemporary of Anselm, he was exceedingly critical of the doctrine of objective atonement for which Anselm had become known. Abelard's critique was aimed particularly against the idea that God had to be given atonement as a precondition for God's forgiveness of man's sin. Instead of seeing Christ's death as a substitutionary atonement for sin, Abelard believed God's love to be revealed in Christ. Abelard found the grounds for forgiveness of our sin in inner justice, which is then effected in us (Berkhof 1973:322-333; Jonker 1977:128).

Western theology ultimately chose Anselm with his emphasis on juridical interpretation (Berkhof 1973:322). In my opinion the tension between these two points of view should rather be retained...Abelard follows the line of Johannine thought, while Anselm follows Paul. There is room for a creative tension between these two viewpoints.The poems given here concern Astralabe,1 the son born of Abelard and Heloise's love relationship. In the presented poems beats the heart of desolation, of reconciliation as love.

Astralabe: Conversations of abandonment Intimate abandoned one

Monastery candles glow with inscriptions of light upon your strange name.

Your life long you bore wounds on your back, lost the track in the thickest fog.

Canon of Nantes, you sing God's praise, your words creep up the monastery walls.

The peal of a bell

1.An extraordinary name, to say the least, bringing to mind some celebrity toy of the tabloids. An astrolabe is a scientific instrument used to measure the height of celestial bodies, though the word was also (falsely) etymologised as astris lapsus, 'fallen from the stars.' Few details of the life of Petrus Astralabius are available. That he grew to manhood, maintained at least some contact with his parents and took up a career in the Church is indicated by the request Heloise makes of Peter the Venerable for a prebend for 'your Astralabe' in her letter to him after Abelard's death. There is an 'Astralabe' recorded as a canon of the cathedral of Nantes c. 1150, and this is almost certainly he, although there is more doubt about someone of that name who appears as abbot of the monastery of Hauterive in Fribourg in 1162-1165 (Levitan 2007:13). The etymology of the name can be explained as follows: Astralabe is composed of 'astra' and 'labe' (the ablative of 'labis"). Labis can be rendered 'stain' or 'blemish', while astra means 'star'. Astralabe, then, means 'Starstain' or 'Starblemish'.

echoes in the wind

no sadness for the silence of your death.

Intimate abandoned one, I am writing this verse to remember you in the shadows of oblivion.

Intimate absentees

In darkness of night I see light over my crib like stars strung together. Too soon, I am estranged from the nipple and embraced by my father's sister. Timidly I prepare for my monkhood. Prayer and song my daily bread and loneliness my goblet of grief.

By candlelight I read on parchment my father's letter to me - his deep delight -about theology, ethics, logic and wisdom. I had hoped an estranged beloved would bring me bread, grapes and wine.

I see an expanse of shadows outside and stars reflecting like mirrors. Here, in my monastery, my relatives are absent: The white and silent longing intimately embraces their presence.

Those left behind

In night's orchard you tasted love and I remind you of this. In my monastery I call out your names like moss on damp walls, they grow.

I am afraid of night,

and I think of your slumber

where you've been stripped to the bone

cold and bloodless

without urge and passion

lying still next to one another.

I save your names like sighs on parchment, my testament to your absence.

The sun creeps in behind mountains and lies under a black blanket, shadows blemish everything.

I long for eternal slumber to solemnise in dark silence, my intimate abandonment.

Centuries of time

threadbare seams hang over foothills where with fine words i weave another poem

centuries lie between us full of sighs and blame for too long covered by dust's forgetfulness i let you decay in the wind

your deep and dark slumber reminds me of your name old loneliness moves over your silence and loss between leaves' shadows the moon reaches last light where you wait in the dark

for the blinding sun you don't know me perhaps i know you

Before I leave you

does the wind's soft hand still write your name in the sand are you still lost in the dust of your absentees do you see light under the cloak of night quivering afar do images still drift in your hidden memories somewhere

forgive your beloved's silence before i leave you

candle smoke

smoke drawings - diane victor

candles flare up and let visions dance lightly

like the first godly breath i lay you out in smoke on paper

see your shadow struggle defencelessly against decay

when trembling i touch you you disappear into a white void

on my paper your smoke spoor remains


(Vos 2009)

Love poems are the heartbeat of poetry (c/.Neruda 2008; Breytenbach 2000), and therefore I present a love poem here.

Most beloved

Inspired by a poem from Breyten Breytenbach

Most beloved, I send to you an e-mail dove for no-one plucks a show dove's quills. My fingers spread wings of wind across the keyboard, stain the computer's keys with words of love flying high and low over my white screen.

Look, my dove swoops and dives on electric currents

and where he flies my message shimmers to stain your eyes green: you must always know my beloved of my love as of wings which cannot carry flight. You will see my love touching down shimmering on your heart's screen

i e l e

(Vos 2008)


The third series of poems are about life and its troubles.


A year or five after the wedding late at night, a wife turns with words to the husband's ears.

She is lingering somewhere on the threshold of grief and silently, he denies everything.

The husband's tongue swells with lies of meetings, investments,

M |_ T

cocktail parties, companions. He analyses lost symbols, bathes himself in the holy mud, tastes the dark moon. He starts to falsify truth, like poets sometimes do behind a mask of irony.

Desperate of heart, the husband looks for his wife where the lonely nights slide like eyelids over her eyes. On the plains

of his imagination, he finds the imprint of her hands.

There is hardly a place for God and his commandments in a cold war. And husband and wife drag each other into dark trenches.

"Let us try again.

Let us look for new dreams

in the rustling night.

Forget all the mistakes,

let's begin again

soft and green like leaves,

the same blame,

the same soft kisses,

the same covering of nakedness

the same rhythm

of charm and sex

so that the simple things

can touch us behind the silence.

But we must tread carefully,

because life is full of precipices

and love is a ravine."

So they wait for the future and on the gods in a land where wonders are rare.

They go dancing, then turn to

one another for the death-blow in the night

(Vos 2008)


Poems can also have social and cultural sensitivity. To some extent, poetry includes the social realm because poetry's very voice evokes the attentive presence of the other (Pinsky 2002:300). Here is one of my poems as an example.

The song of the earth

The earth sings the song of our lives in places where the days between us sneak silently like secret agents. We live in dark days.

The sickle moon hangs over thirsty lands. Judgement is mercilessly executed. through slaughter and mutilation fenced-in torture and death camps. Blood stains the earth's song. Flames scorch the meadows, people scatter like scared rats in wastelands searching for breath. Soldiers limping without conscience on bloodied tracks.

Angels with red cheeks and scorched wings hands in the ashes. One dark night the gods fled from the dead land.

Who can blame them? Their only inheritance -pages black with old blood, strewn with bleached skulls -reminders of wars that drag on.

The moon hangs like a sickle

over frightened hearts and anxious throats,

the wind blows icily on wounds.

Dust drifts over the ruins

of past monuments.

Vukajlo Kukalj and Radonja Vesoviy's

poems overflow with grief in dark days

Bach and Mozart's names echo in empty recital halls.

Paintings eagerly gather layers of dust.

Pictures fade.

Silence reigns.

The moon is razor sharp,

the earth's face scratched

from the onslaught of man.

We live in dark days

(Vos 2008)


The reader's poetical journey is concluded with a sonnet by Robert Pinsky (1996:89).


Afternoon sun on her back, calm irregular slap of water against a dock. Thin pines clamber over the hill's top -nothing to remember, only the same lake that keeps making the same sounds under her cheek and flashing the same color. No one to say her name, no need, no one to praise her, only the lake's voice-over and over, to keep it before her.

Poetry is a journey through moonless chasms, sun-drenched mountains, dark descents and open plains. It is a journey of the spirit and the body through surprising and delightful landscapes.

Bon voyage!


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Breytenbach, B., 2000, Lady One (99 liefdesgedigte), Human &

Rousseau, Cape Town. Breytenbach, B., 2006, Intieme vreemde. Een schrijfboek, Uitgeverij

Podium, Amsterdam. Degenaar, J., 1970, 'lets oor die metafoor', Tydskrif vir

Geesteswetenskappe 10(4), 293-322. Du Plessis, J.G., 2006, 'Die metafoor op die markplein', in D. Hertzog, E. Britz & A. Henderson (eds.), Gesprek sonder grense, pp. 73-86, H&B Uitgewers, Stellenbsoch. Fenton, J., 2003, An introduction to English poetry, Penguin Books, London.

Heaney, S., 1996, The spirit level, Faber and Faber, London. Hirsch, E., 1999, How to read a poem and fall in love with it, Harvest

Books, San Diego. Jonker, W.D., 1977, Christus, die Middelaar, NG Kerkboekhandel, Nijkerk.

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Hackett Publishing Company, Cambridge. New York.

Neruda, P., 2008, 100 Love Sonnets, University of Texas Press, Pinsky, R., 2002, Democracy, culture and the voice of poetry,

Austin. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

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