What Can Poetry Do?

I’m about to start a series on genre, looking at what it means for literature and even our general speech acts through the thought of Mikhail Bakhtin. Until then, here’s a look at the lesser known genre of Marian poetry for today.

It’s a fascinating genre with some fuzzy boundaries. What poems should we include in it? Does any mention of Mary fit? Do we include hymns? Do we include Milton’s poem on the nativity…? Nearly ten years ago this was the focus of my research, and I began to see that this somewhat obscure genre has something to show us about the interplay of poems within a shared tradition.

Looking at Marian poetry on August 15th, a Marian feast day, also gives us a chance to enter into the daily life of poets who write in the genre, especially the two poets featured in this post: Gerard Manley Hopkins and Thomas Merton.

The following post on Marian poetry was published just over a year ago here and can be found over at Epikeia.


We may think of poetry as a frivolous nicety. Something for unemployed graduate students and English teachers. We may have repeated to ourselves the old mantra from Auden’s poem about Yeats that “poetry makes nothing happen.” It’s only an assortment of words, with tired rhymes or childish puns. What can it do besides give me a feeling? How can poetry do anything?

In the poem, Auden notes that “Ireland has her madness and her weather still.” The external world may not be changed by poetry, but there is still the inner world. In his autobiography, Frederick Buechner proposes that words have the power to “transform the human heart”:

Through the sound, rhythm, passion of his words, [the poet] is bringing to life in us, as might never have been brought to life at all, a sense of the uniqueness and mystery and holiness…of the reality itself, including the reality of ourselves.

The transformative nature of words is on full display when the speaker, and by extension the reader, is slowly changed over the course of the poem. But how does this formative dimension work?

To find out, continue reading at Epikeia

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