The Particularity of Poetry

I recently took part in a conversation around the role of aesthetics in faith, and the famous (or infamous) piece “Footprints” came up. While there are people who take genuine comfort from it, most of my friends find it sentimental and cheesy. It’s often the butt of jokes. But it’s also possible that few of us can actually explain why it fails to move us to anything but rolling our eyes. Until thinking about it this week, I found it rather hard myself. Surely Christians don’t want to mock the idea that God remains near even in our struggles? I at least don’t. So it’s worth examining the piece itself and being able to articulate just where it falls so short in literary quality.

One night I dreamed a dream.
As I was walking along the beach with my Lord,
Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand,
One belonging to me and one to my Lord.

After the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that at many times along the path of my life,
especially at the very lowest and saddest times,
there was only one set of footprints.

This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it.
"Lord, you said once I decided to follow you,
You'd walk with me all the way.
But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life,
there was only one set of footprints.
I don't understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me."

He whispered, "My precious child, I love you and will never leave you
Never, ever, during your trials and testings.
When you saw only one set of footprints,
It was then that I carried you."

The image of God carrying someone is not the most original thought. The Bible itself uses it. In Deuteronomy, Moses preaches to the Israelites and retells the story of their wilderness wanderings: “The LORD your God, who goes before you, is the one who will fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your very eyes, and in the wilderness, where you saw how the LORD your God carried you, just as one carries a child, all the way that you traveled until you reached this place.” (Deut. 1:30-31)

But the lack of originality is not the most grievous sin of this “poem”, though many of us might jump to that conclusion. Creative writing can move and inspire us without inventing a new metaphor or saying something we’ve never heard. Instead, I think the biggest literary problem we face here is what we might first think makes it so relatable: “Footprints” is generic.

What are the sad and troubling times? They’re never described; it could be the death of a loved one or it could be a boring party. How was it that the Lord carried you? What did that look like in each situation? And whose dream is this? The identity of this narrator is as impersonal as a stick figure. (Interestingly, even the identity of the author is a matter of litigation, with multiple people claiming to own the copyright. Yes…people actually want to take the credit for this work.) Even “the Lord” appears without being named.

In the end, what was probably meant to make “Footprints” universally relatable is precisely what makes it so banal. By trying to be about everyone, it makes itself about no one. By trying to comfort us whatever our difficult circumstances, it speaks to no circumstance at all.

Above, I put the word poem in quotes; this was not meant as snide sarcasm. “Footprints” is often labelled a poem, but it doesn’t deserve the label. Poetry, even bad poetry, struggles to not be this generic. It names things and people, it describes places and actions. A poem happens in space and time, and even when it enters a dreamlike state it still brings specific sights and smells and sounds into our reading. Poetry is particular.

To emphasize what I mean, I give you one of my favourite poems. It is grief-stricken, relentlessly particular, and contains only cold comfort—yet I would argue it brings us to a place of far greater empathy than the above example. It is Seamus Heaney’s “Mid-Term Break”.

I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At two o'clock our neighbours drove me home.

In the porch I met my father crying—
He had always taken funerals in his stride—
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand

And tell me they were 'sorry for my trouble'.
Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand

In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At ten o'clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four-foot box, a foot for every year.

(Seamus Heaney, "Mid-Term Break" in Death of a Naturalist (Faber and Faber: London, 1966), 15.

Not even a single metaphor. Without trying to engage our emotions, the poem breaks our hearts with factual descriptions. It isn’t until the very last line that one of those details is given some meaning beyond itself, but even then it’s only to another fact: the boy lying inside the four-foot-long coffin died at the age of four. The pictures are stark to match the starkness of death’s sudden reality.

Yet it is in that utter starkness that the power of the poem lies. We’re rarely moved by descriptions of emotions; instead we enter into other people’s emotions by entering into their experiences. “Mid-Term Break” contains only two emotion words: “embarrassed” and “angry”. The rest is simply a true account of what happened rather than what he felt. The poem has made us feel grief not by telling us to feel it, but in its precise and meticulous particularity. That is how it calls forth our empathy.

It’s true that there is nothing very comforting in “Mid-Term Break” (and one gets the impression that that’s not the aim). But then, there’s nothing very comforting in “Footprints” either; it misses the heart of our personal struggles or joys. Intimacy comforts more than platitudes. Sentimentality loses touch with life, whether difficult or blessed, and doesn’t contain enough reality to be able to speak to us of real things like delight and sorrow and friendship and loss. It is only when we can name an experience that we can let it go or embrace it fully for what it is.

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