The Barred Owl and the Bishop
Feature by T. M. Moore
Poetry and the Power of Association
Barred Owl, photo by Michael Hodge (CC license)
Our image-hungry age
Increasingly, our postmodern generation prefers its communications to be in as few words and as many images as possible. Hence, the curious success of both Facebook—a medium of images—and Twitter—a medium of words. Hence also the success of iPhones and texting, and the continued proliferation of cable television, in-home film delivery services (Netflix), comic books, and film in general.
Our generation relishes a communications diet of visual images seasoned with a few words. Some, such as Neil Postman, have worried that this trend away from verbal communication toward visual images will destroy our ability to communicate meaningfully.
Images and words have factored in human communications from the beginning of civilization. Spoken words reinforced by written words, arranged in a variety of forms (oral history, poetry, songs, plays), can be found in virtually every society, no matter how primitive. Art, sculpture, architecture, fashion, and more have supplemented the verbal images of each generation with visual representations. These can be so powerful as to freeze in time the zeitgeist of an entire generation (compare medieval iconography with nineteenth-century Romantic painting).
But Postman worried that, in our day, the increased hunger for visual images threatens to replace, or, at least, to minimize, the role of words in human communication, thus jeopardizing meaning. He saw this as a most undesirable trend, given that human beings are uniquely identified as the creature that speaks and uses sophisticated language. Thus, our retreat from words into the realm of visual images constitutes a retreat from humanity itself, into a more animalistic world ruled by passions and instincts, rather than by reason.
Words and images
Whether or not that’s so, the opposing of words and images, through the emphasis on visual images, is a troublesome notion in itself. Words can create images through their ability to associate various kinds of facts and experiences. Such images have power to make the kind of lasting impressions visual images can only hope to achieve. Visual images are powerful, to be sure. But they are fleeting. This is why, whether in film, on television, in a political campaign, in advertising, or at a rock concert, it is necessary to pile up image upon image in a dizzying array in order to hold the attention and capture the affections of our image-hungry age.
But words—particularly words combined into verse—have power to create images and associations that can go far beyond what visual images can achieve in the way of lasting, even life-changing, effects. Just as a personal example, I cannot remember a single compelling image—a life-transforming image—from any film, athletic event, television program, or concert which I attended during my years in college. But I can still see the room in which I was sitting, feel the sticky heat of an early September afternoon, and shudder under the chill running up my shoulders the first time I read the final couplet of Yeats’s The Second Coming: “And what rough beast, its hour come ’round at last,/Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”
Poetry may not be the savior of verbal communication, but it can, at the very least, provide a meeting-ground between those who prefer their communications in images and those who yet pursue them in words. Poetry, more, I think, than any other form of verbal communication, can create associations so personal, and with such expansive power, that they can enthrall the affections and expand the imagination of all who are willing to take the time to read and discuss.
We’ll look at two poems which, by employing various associations, convey powerful images, but which do so in different ways. Richard Wilbur’s A Barred Owl is a very homely, simple, and self-reflective meditation on the power of words—even just a few words—to alter dramatically the landscape of imagination. C. S. Lewis, in his On a Theme from Nicolas of Cusa, takes what is at once a more familiar and yet more intellectual approach to stimulating our imaginations, challenging the reader to explore new associations in order to gain the full meaning implied in his verse.
A Barred Owl
I particularly enjoy poems that reflect on the way words and poetry can affect us, such as this offering by Richard Wilbur:
The warping night air having brought the boom
Of an owl’s voice into her darkened room,
We tell the wakened child that all she heard
Was an odd question from a forest bird,
Asking of us, if rightly listened to,
“Who cooks for you?” and then “Who cooks for you?”
Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
Can also thus domesticate a fear,
And send a small child back to sleep at night
Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight
Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw
Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.
This poem not only paints an image, but fills it, first, with horror, then comic relief, then a renewed sense of horror which, were it to be envisioned by the sleeping child, would doubtless be as terrifying as what she had only imagined.
We not only see that child being comforted by her grandparents, in that dark room, but we feel what she and they must have felt on that dark and warping night: fear, then humor, then reassurance, and, finally, rest. We can only imagine what “terror” was becoming “bravely clear” in the mind of that child before her grandparents arrived to comfort her. Here Wilbur encourages the reader to paint in his or her own image from such childhood fears (mine always had one eye and lots of sharp teeth; I’d read the story of Odysseus and the Cyclops as a very young child).
Then, the mood of terror relieved, the poet muses on the power of words, their ability to define and quell our fears, before beginning a crescendo of horror—“stealthy flight,” “small thing in a claw,” “eaten raw”—that takes something of the child’s original terror and foists it on the reader, suddenly.
I have read this poem to students and delighted to hear their responses go from sighs of relief and giggles to audible gasps at the end. The images suggested by the words of this verse can be made highly personal and relived again and again with each successive reading. I doubt that the experience of A Barred Owl could be captured with lasting effect in any series of visual images.
On a Theme from Nicolas of Cusa
Lewis’s delightful meditation is subtitled, (De Docta Ignorantia, III.ix.). Neither the title nor the subtitle is likely to help most readers of this lively verse, at least, not at first:
When soul and body feed, one sees
Their differing physiologies.
Firmness of apple, fluted shape
Of celery, or tight-skinned grape
I grind and mangle when I eat,
Then in dark, salt, internal heat,
Annihilate their natures by
The very act that makes them I.
But when the soul partakes of good
Or truth, which are her savoury food,
By some far subtler chemistry
It is not they that change, but she,
Who feels them enter with the state
Of conquerors her opened gate,
Or, mirror-like, digests their ray
By turning luminous as they.
The meaning of this poem is not hard to gather: When we eat physical food—in the first stanza, the mention of various foods, reinforced by all those fricatives and labials, that grinding and mangling—our digestive system—“dark, salt, internal heat”—turns what we eat into fuel for the cells of our bodies. The food becomes us, a point comically emphasized by use of the personal pronoun at the very end of the first stanza.
The only “physical” words in the second stanza—“conquerors” and “mirror”—are used as metaphors of abstract subjects. Lewis deftly employs consonance to suggest the softer, subtler, abstract and spiritual concepts which we cannot see or hold in our hands, but which are powerful in transforming us into something other than what we are. “Good” and “truth” are the foods that make us “luminous” like God himself. We must be subdued by such ideas and “digest” them like rays of light in a mirror, so that, glory having been experienced, glory will radiate from us (2 Cor. 3:12–18).
But if this poem is merely about personal transformation, why the cryptic title and subtitle? Why not just call it “Transformation” or “Spiritual Growth: A Comparison” or some such? Because the poem is about much greater transformation, transformation which we experience in a microcosm, but which we can only fully understand and appreciate once we explore the associations suggested in the title and subtitle.
Nicolas of Cusa (1401–1464), Bishop of Brixen, was one of the truly great Renaissance men of his day. He was a pastor, theologian, reformer, scholar, conciliarist, and ecumenist, who fell into disfavor with and was persecuted by the Austrian monarch. He reflected and wrote broadly—on human knowledge, mathematics, philosophy, and history. Nicolas took his Christian faith into every area of life, seeking the transforming power of goodness and truth for individuals, the Church, and society. His Christian worldview seems to have been more self-conscious and expansive than the most of his contemporaries. He would perhaps have been much more at home in this century, amid all our worldview fussing and fretting, than in his own.
In De docta ignorantia, part three and section nine, he reflected on the transforming power of grace, beginning his meditation in that section with a reflection on the dual nature of Christ and concluding with a meditation on the church as the Body of Christ. It is this larger, more expansive notion of transformation that Lewis sees epitomized in the believer’s experience, and that he invites us, by association, to contemplate.
Lewis does not want us to think in a merely personal way about the transforming power of things true and good. Jesus, ground and mangled in the flesh because of the sins of the human ego, rose to everlasting goodness and truth in his glorified body (Is there an allusion to Psalm 24 in those “conquerors”?) and lifts us into his glory by the transforming power of his resurrection life. And not only us: Jesus is making all things new (2 Cor. 5:17; Rev. 21:5). His grace reaches to the whole church and all creation, inviting and calling his transformed people to bring the power of grace to bear on every aspect of life and culture—as Nicolas had sought to do in his day.
Lewis brings the highest aspirations of the medieval church into the individual Christian’s reach by this association with Nicolas, as if to inculcate in us a sense of longing for something much, much more than mere personal piety. The effect on the thoughtful reader is to generate new images of the transforming power of the Gospel as it radiates the glory of God through the church into every area of life.
Postman worried that the increasing barrage of visual images on the brains of contemporary humans would only dull our thinking and stifle imagination. The images created in poetry, through its powers of association, entail no such threat. Rather, poetry can enrich imagination, stimulate conversation, and, perhaps, motivate readers to the kind of deeper introspection—an ongoing dialog between an empty soul and a slouching rough beast, for example—which can set a stage for the drama of grace and truth.
 Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York: Penguin, 1985).
 In Richard Wilbur, Collected Poems, 1943–2004 (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2004), p. 29.
 In James H. Trott, ed., A Sacrifice of Praise: An Anthology of Christian Poetry in English from Caedmon to the Mid-Twentieth Century (Nashville: Cumberland House, 1999), p. 734.
T. M. Moore is Dean of the Centurions Program of BreakPoint Ministries and Principal of the Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition (www.myparuchia.com). He serves as Content Manager for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview (www.chuckcolsoncenter.org) and as General Editor for the Worldview Church (www.worldviewchurch.org). Sign up at his website (www.myparuchia.com) to receive his daily email devotional Crosfigell, reflections on Scripture and the Celtic Christian tradition. You can also sign up at www.colsoncenter.org to receive his daily ViewPoint studies in Christian worldview living, or at www.worldviewchurch.org to receive his daily pastoral devotional, Pastor to Pastor. T. M. and his wife and editor, Susie, make their home in Hamilton, VA.