By David Lewellen
Poetry, properly demystified, can be a valuable tool for ministry, Kim Langley told the NACC.
Langley is not a poet herself, but she has spent decades collecting poems she finds meaningful and using them in presentations, grief groups, and spiritual direction. “Poetry and spiritual care is an emerging best practice,” she told the second plenary session of the NACC National Conference in Buffalo. “There’s an alchemy in sharing a carefully chosen poem.”
“For most of the history of the world, sharing poems was a communal activity,” said Langley, the author of Send My Roots Rain: A Companion on the Grief Journey. “Only very recently do we sit alone in a room with a lamp. In many cultures poetry is something everybody does. It is inclusive and safe, all seekers are welcome.”
Many patients “don’t have a holy book, necessarily, but poetry is one size fits all,” Langley said. People still want a poem at a wedding or a funeral or other major rites of passage, and “This is a way you can connect with the ‘nones’ who need our love in ministry and a place to meet them.”
She shared a poem on the screen and asked the audience to talk about it at their tables. “What comes up in you?” she asked. “Notice I am not saying ‘what does it mean?’ We’re not about meaning, but feeling – and I’m a big feeler.”
At one table, some of the comments were, “I like to be in control, and this is a reminder to chill out.” “How do you manage change through a chaotic time?” “Grace will carry you to higher ground.” “This poem would be a good reflection to start a meeting.”
In fact, Langley said, reading a poem can be like the worship practice of lectio divina, reading a passage of Scripture and seeing what jumps out or what creates resistance. Even hating a poem can be an entry point for conversation.
For use in meetings or hospital rooms, copyright is not a problem, Langley said; the fair use clause allows distribution and discussion in an educational setting, and healthcare counts. Nevertheless, she encouraged the audience to support poets by purchasing their books.
It is true, she said, that many people carry uncomfortable memories of school, when they were “supposed to figure out what the poem meant, and it made them feel stupid.” That is why she shares poems that are accessible, with multiple possible meanings that are still easy to grasp.
For the chaplain who would like to whip out a poem in a patient’s room – “First of all, don’t call it a poem,” Langley said. “You don’t know their school experience or their reading experience. I say, ‘Is it OK if I share some words with you now?’ Or ‘a thoughtful piece’ or ‘some writing that helped me.’” And a shared poem should emerge naturally, after talking about the person’s spiritual pain or their fears. In fact, she said, it’s often better saved for a second visit. She usually reads it twice (don’t ask anyone else to read it) and leaves a copy behind, and she knows a chaplain who carries multiple copies of 15 or 20 poems in a binder.
She also advises against using “singsong” poems written in a regular meter, or poems that sound like greeting cards, or advice. If, despite those precautions, it doesn’t resonate, the chaplain should move on, “but often it is the thing, and when it is, it’s really the thing.”