“Take away the words to the song
and hope will take up humming;”
I’m not sure how the Rev. Paul Escamilla wrote those words on his manuscript before delivering them in a sermon some some weeks ago. There’s usually a little poetry in sermons, even if you’re not aiming for that old sermon structure of ‘three points and poem.’ I caught the poetry in Paul’s sermon to his church at Laurel Hills United Methodist Church in San Antonio and quoted it back to him in a phone call. He noted that he was riffing off something he had recently read.
In the sermon, Paul was talking about being church and maintaining hope in the midst of the pandemic. But part of both of those things was contained in the structure of his sermon itself. It was singing, even if we can’t be singing like we’d like. Here’s a little more of that part of his sermon:
“Take away the words to the song
and hope will take up humming;
Close the doors to the church house
and hope will build an altar in your back yard.”
Sermons are a good place to go looking for poetry since preachers tend to have an ear for the possibility of words, immersed as they are in biblical language and, hopefully, hours spent listening and learning from their forebears. But you can find poetry anywhere, since there are many poets who don’t know it. (Yes, I see what I did there.)
Annie Dillard’s 1995 collection, Mornings Like This: Found Poems, is the fruit of her sustained attention to texts. What she is about, she says, is offering “poems built from bits of broken texts.” She goes to a wide variety of manuscripts, from D.C. Beard’s The American Boys Handy Book (1882) to a 1991 how-to on watercolor painting, and culls sentences that speak in new ways when placed in a different light. The result is a collection of poems that often stray far from the original author’s intentions, but which illumine something much deeper.
Take a 1907 book on the constellations by Martha Evans Martin. In Dillard’s hands, it becomes a tale of wonder and existential reflection. She adds no words. By her self-imposed rules, she will only rearrange sentences and drop some words. But she still brings it all home with the conclusion: “The brevity of life/However, does not stay the inquiring mind.” (27)
In ‘Pastoral’ Dillard takes a 1948 Max Picard text titled, The World of Silence, and finds in it the kind of powerful, presence of silence she has often talked about in her own work:
“…Animals lead silence through the world of man.
The cattle: the broad surface of their backs…
It is as if they were carrying silence.
Two cows in a field moving with a man beside them.
It is as if the man were pouring down silence
From the backs of the animals on to the fields. (70)
A 1914 manual that includes instructions on ‘Building a Tree House’ concludes with the perspective a mature observer might offer:
“The small boys who started at the beginning of this book
Are older and more experience now. The reader
Must have, no doubt, noticed that problems become
More and more difficult as we approach the end. (65)
There’s beauty to be had in this world for those who are willing to search for it. Perhaps preachers have a particular duty to be on this mission. To look at the scattered, often tragic strands of the world as it is, and find within it the music of the divine. And thence to help us live as though every second of this life matters, because it does.
Or to put it as Dillard does, in a poem she retrieves from a 1925 book by Mikhail Prishvin, Nature’s Diary:
I remember our own springtime when my lady told me:
You have taken my best. And then I remember
How many evenings I have waited, how much
I have been through for this one evening on earth.—‘Dash It’ (1)