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Fortitude in Poetry: A History of Sacrifice, Truth, Beauty & Praise

~ by Alison Johansen ~

One of my favorite poets, Robert Frost, is known for saying what has been proven to be true for me time and time again: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”


It is true, isn’t it? If you’ve cried over or been moved by a poem, I doubt you’ll ever forget it. One of the reasons we love poetry is because we connect with it in both mind and heart. We can relate to the familiar images that trigger similar feelings, no matter when or where the poem was written. Poems draw us in with their beautiful metaphors and timeless symbols. 


Poetry is truly an art, igniting the five senses and thereby our minds. In Teaching from Rest, author Sarah MacKenzie quotes the Greek historian Plutarch, who said, “The mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting.” 


I believe that poetry can light the greatest fire within us. With that flame sparks inspiration and creation, the reflection of which can help us give thanks to and praise God and His creations — the goodness and beauty that surround us.


Is pouring our hearts into writing while trying to express abstract feelings like joy and sorrow challenging? Absolutely. But when a poet paves the way for this connection, oh! I doubt we will forget the poem any time soon.


What Is Fortitude?


What does poetry have to do with fortitude? To start, I’ll turn to instructor Emily Brigham’s blog post about fortitude. She refers to this quote from Josef Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues


To be brave is not the same as to have no fear. Indeed, fortitude actually rules out a certain kind of fearlessness, namely the fearlessness that is based upon a false appraisal and evaluation of reality. Fortitude presupposes in a certain sense that man is afraid of evil; its essence lies not in knowing no fear, but in not allowing oneself to be forced into evil by fear, or to be kept by fear from the realization of the good.


Isn’t this a meaningful way to look at fortitude? It isn’t the absence of fear, but rather the perseverance and pursuit of goodness and truth in spite of it.


A History of Sacrifice


What comes to mind when you think about poetry? A look into the evolution of poetry shows that it began as the first form of expression — important societal records in the form of oral poetry. During the classical period, different forms like the ode and elegy emerged as needed to support evolving societal norms.


Poems also emerged as tools, or platforms, for shining a light on wrongs suffered. Poets throughout history have certainly made sacrifices and been models of fortitude, speaking out against Communism and being jailed, or even killed. Dictators do not like poetry. They view such “language art” as dangerous in its encouragement and inspiration for free thinking. What fortitude it must have taken to speak out through their poems.


Indeed, the poet’s sacrifice is not so far removed from us today when we think about the 2021 military coup in Myanmar, where generals imprisoned more than 30 poets for writing poems that spoke out against what was taking place. Some of these brave poets were killed. This goes to the heart of the power of “language art” like poetry.


A History of Truth


As we seek truth, it can take fortitude to acknowledge what’s going on around us and then express what we’re seeing and feeling so others can as well. Shedding light in the darkness can be challenging. Poems do this in a unique and meaningful way that helps bring awareness to truth by fostering a connection with those who might not otherwise see it.


Poems may be the perfect way to express what is true, good, and beautiful in God’s world. After all, poetry is the art of naming our inner and outer experiences by using figurative language in a way that hopefully connects with — and can uplift — others. The work that goes into this naming reminds us how truly amazing God’s creations and the naming of them are. Indeed, how difficult naming can be! Parents know this first-hand as they choose a name for their child. We can only imagine how Adam must have felt when naming the animals. 


Perhaps that’s why I’m so drawn to poetry. Its naming homes in on truth, goodness, and beauty immediately; although it can take fortitude to interpret poems well. However, I do love puzzles. You find that missing link, image, interpretation, and Ah! Understanding! Truth! It’s as if you’re sitting with the poet, seeing what they’re seeing, feeling what they’re feeling — and what you may have felt at one time. Poems help us know we aren’t alone; God is all around us.


Poetry is not necessarily easy to write or interpret. But the truth, goodness, and beauty that surround a poem and stay in your heart whenever you’re reminded of the poem’s images and message? They’re worth it, bringing us closer to understanding and connecting with Our God who created all of these things we are naming. 


A History of Beauty & Praise


It’s easy to call poems beautiful, seeing and feeling the beauty in their images and figurative language. They uniquely draw upon our senses. Whenever I smell lemons, I think of my dear grandmother’s lemon bars. She always had them baking and ready for us when we visited her. They’ve become a symbol of love and comfort for me through the years.


I think the comfort found in poems is a thing of beauty. During the pandemic, I discovered Emily Dickinson’s poem Hope is the thing with feathers. She comes right out and tells us: hope is the thing with feathers. Just like a wild bird, hope doesn’t ask us for anything. It’s always there, holding on and singing while weathering the darkest hours and worst storms. 


When those around us are in a dark hour, it’s hard to find the right words. I never want to say the wrong thing. I want to connect, but also not presume I know exactly what they’re going through. I’ve shared this poem many times during the pandemic. When one of my friend’s families was going through a very challenging time, I sent her this poem. She immediately wrote back and said it brought tears to her eyes, being the only thing that had comforted her in quite a while. When another friend’s mother suffered a stroke, I sent this poem. Hold on, I whispered through Dickinson’s words. I’m here. There’s hope. Hold on, just like that perching bird. Listen for its tune. Feel its strength. 


While poems may be challenging to write, the connection that they create can help make someone’s darkest hour better. Whenever I see a bird, for example, I think of Dickinson’s poem and hope. And then, how can I not give gratitude to God for his creations?


It’s no wonder hymns are so inspiring and comforting. Poems also are a wonderful way to praise. For me, they’re even better when set to music. This is just another reason I’m drawn to Dickinson’s poems, which she wrote in hymn meter. I also am thinking about the open verse poetry in the Book of Psalms. I particularly love Psalm 100, which tells us to experience joy and know our God. This is certainly one of my favorites due to the uplifting message that is supported by its poetic elements.


Fortitude in Poetry


In poetry we can give thanks to God for our beautiful world, share truth, and help others do so as well. “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Tears of sorrow. Tears of heartache. Tears of comfort. Tears of faith. Tears of hope. Tears of love. Tears of joy. Tears of praise.


I hope you turn to some of the poems mentioned herein and a light of hope shines for you as well. I also hope you’ll write your own poems, acknowledging the fear you might have but naming, sharing, and praising anyway.

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