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Easing the Journey Through Shadow & Light

  • Dawn

Small Seeds of Hope: Hold It Up to Your Light

At the risk of alienating some of you, I am going to talk about a method of Bible study I learned when I was in college, lo these many years ago.

But wait! Don't close this window yet!

You can also use this basic technique to draw personal meaning--even deep personal meaning--from poems, fiction, other sacred texts, probably even the Sunday newspaper.

So here's the method--answer these deceptively simple questions :

  1. What does it say?

  2. What does it mean?

  3. What does it mean to me?

Hint #1: It helps a lot to write out your answers.

Hint #2: The third question is the most important, but the process is most rewarding if you answer them in order.

Credit goes to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship for teaching me this elementary but rather remarkable little triumvirate of questions. They called it "the inductive method of Bible study." You can call it "the inductive method of whatever you want ."

What it should not be is a tedious procedure that steals the life out of a poem or passage. Or that helps you find out what the "experts" say. This is a deeply personal, non-standardized, intimate conversation--just you and a piece of writing, on a special getting-to-know-you date.

And if you're really focusing on the passage and your answers, instead of worrying about some aspect of the pandemic, it could even become another anti-covidanxiety tool.

I expect the best way to explain more fully how it works is to actually run through the process, right here. So I'm going to answer the three questions for a brand-new-to-me poem by Billy Collins, U.S. poet laureate, 2001-2003.

While I hadn't seen this particular poem before, I have really enjoyed Collins' poems in the past. They tend to tip me upside down and roll me around a little, then set me back on my feet, kind of dazed but grinning. This one peeked out at me as I was searching online, using phrases like "a poem a day," trying find a poem short enough but also pithy enough to use for this post.

Introduction to Poetry

by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem

and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room

and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski

across the surface of a poem

waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.

Before I go on, I want to acknowledge the irony, even the absurdity, of using a poem that encourages the reader not to try too hard to figure out the "meaning" of a poem, as I write about a process that asks, "what does it mean?" That's what I get for authentically trying to show you that you can use this method with almost any piece of writing. Life is weird, isn't it? And full of paradox. Like poetry.

In any case, here's my inductive process with this poem.

1. What does it say? He wants people to experience poems as color and light, a nest of humming bees, a room of promise in the dark, a place to play without becoming overburdened by the celebrity of the poet--or lack thereof. Others are into serious poem-control, which turns the corner into abuse almost immediately.

2. What does it mean? Surrender to the magic of a poem. Be open to delight. To the small animals of meaning that wander through. Do not seek to be right. Let the poems that arrive in your life run loose and slide. Too many people harass a poem, trying to pin it down, and break it in the process. As if that will help them live out true meaning. As if there is one right answer.

3. What does it mean to me? I need to let my own words wander, full of color and tiny smiles. I shouldn't take myself too seriously--my readers are out there on their own sea of enjoyment; I am but a distant figure on the shore. I need to shake loose from my fears of what others think, and what I think they expect of me, of my writing.

Although there was a period in my life when I used this process nearly every day, I confess I do it infrequently now. But when I do, it is worth the work because I carry some meaning more deeply, yet more lightly, into my life.

There's one more question you can add at the end.

4. What can I take with me? What touches me the most from this exploration? What fits into some small pocket in my heart, be it one of nurture or challenge?

For me today with this poem it is, "Playfully allow."

And you?

Until next time,


Photo credits:

Ben White, unSplash, first and last photos

Garry Neesum, unSplash

Nick Fewings, unSplash


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