Meditating with the Poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins

by Kent Travis

Poetry isn’t most people’s first choice of reading. In fact, most of us probably only read poetry when required to, and then it still feels like being conscripted to visit the dentist, knowing full well he’s going to be doing a root canal. Or six.

The inner conversation of many people on this particular reading assignment might go something like this: “Poetry is hard to understand. I try and I get nothing close to what my teachers thought they ‘saw’ in a poem. Why bother?”

Good question. As I begin this series on the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetry, let me offer a very brief reason for laboring through poems, particularly insightful ones. Poets are normal people… but their sensibility, their perception, their grasp of the nature of man and reality is heightened beyond the average individual. I know this is a big claim, but if you think back to the poems you’ve read (perhaps in high school) by great poets like Shakespeare, John Donne, John Keats, Emily Dickinson, and even some more recent poets like Robert Frost or Billy Collins, you probably know this claim to be true. These men and women called poets often DO see, feel, and say in ways beyond the average person’s ability. They often make observations and connections that ring true to life, true to the heart and soul of humanity. They’re somehow able to incarnate ideas and meanings into poems, or to give a “distillation of life” (as poet Gwendolyn Brooks says) in their poems.

In a word, these people we call poets are often able to speak to us in their poems; upon reading and grasping what they are saying, we come to see that these poets can speak for us as well, uttering what we’ve touched on or felt but haven’t had the words to express.


Gerard Manley Hopkins, the nineteenth century Jesuit priest and teacher, is just such a poet. His acuteness of apprehension and appreciation of God and his creation (that is, his sensibility) far exceeds my appreciation for and understanding of God and his world. Over the past month I have found more and more of his poems that revel in and celebrate the glory and grandeur of God. I want to partake of this revelry too. What’s more, I suspect that many others are in the same boat I’m in and would like to have their imaginations enlivened and their appreciation and understanding of the world sharpened.

So over the next few weeks, come along with me on Living Outside the Lines as we explore a few of Hopkins’ poems and try to glimpse what he glimpsed and feel what he felt. We’ll spend some time meditating on his observations and insights. Hopefully, we’ll come away each week with developing observations and insights of our own.

What about you? Do you like poetry? Do you shy away from it? I used to until I read Kent’s book, So, You Want Me To Read What? In it he explains how easy it can be to read poetry so that it becomes enjoyable. This book changed my thinking about reading poetry. Check it out.


Want Help Starting Your Book Club? Read This Post.

Want Help Starting Your Book Club? Read This Post.
About Kent Travis

If you are enjoying Kent Travis' teaching on reading poetry, then check out this short book, You Want Me To Read What?  It's packed with helpful tips for enjoying poetry. I didn't believe I could understand poetry until I read his book. It's awesome!

Kent Travis is the Humanities Department Chair at the Brook Hill School.

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