© Rev Rex A E Hunt, MSc(Hons)
July 2021


“To feel religiously is to speak with the tongues of poets…
Like the language of art, poetry, and friendship, the language of religion
is suggestive, not descriptive or definitive”
(Bernard Meland)

Carl Sandburg (1878–1967), the widely regarded American poet, author, Chicago journalist,
and three-times Pulitzer Prize winner—twice for poetry,
        once defined poetry as ‘the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits’.

Intrigued, I began to search for its context.
Now I didn’t discover where he actually placed the comment—in a poem, that is—
        but I did find where hundreds of others have quoted it.
                      So I am prepared to accept it as a genuine Sandburg saying.

By-the-way, of poetry Sandburg also wrote nearly 40 other so-called ‘definitions’.
Some of those are:
        Poetry is a phantom script telling how rainbows are made and why they go away.
        Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.
        Poetry is the opening and closing of a door, leaving those who look through to guess about what is seen during the moment.

It wasn’t until I read the comments of another poet, who also wrestled with his
‘hyacinths/biscuits’ definition, that I reckoned I began to appreciate
        some of the meanings attributed to it that made it attractive to many.
                       ‘The putting together of unlike things to give us a new view of our world’.(Joan Monahan)

A ‘synthesis’ view of life.


As it happens one of my theological mentors, Bernard Meland (1899–1993),
said of Sandburg’s poetry comment that it also defines life,
                “for life, too, is a synthesis of biscuits and hyacinths.” (Meland 1934:279)
(Meland changed the order…)

Nearly 90 years ago (I only discovered it recently in his earlier writings) Meland wrote.
“The biscuits are the mills that grind the wheat into flour; they are the train wheels that carry the flour to the bakeries; and the wagons that deliver the loaves to the grocer, and to hungry humanity. Biscuits are the rugged, commonplace essentials of life. They are the whole wheat of life. Hyacinths, on the other hand, represent the loveliness of life. They grace the garden walls. They breathe fragrance into the world. They send the chills up and down one’s spine, and evoke the “Ohs!” and “Ahs!” Hyacinths create our precious memories: a baby’s smile, the lover’s caress, the parent’s fondness for his child. Hyacinths are the glorious, stirring ecstasies of a buoyant heart. They bloom on a clear, cold, moonlight night, and they blend their color with the calm, quiet sunset. Hyacinths are all those many things and experiences which enhance life with mystery, color, and fragrance.” Meland 1934:279)

Meland goes on to say,
“All that we do, and everything we handle, combines these two sides of life, for it is the nature of nature to synthesise biscuits and hyacinths… The one suggests relative value in the sense of being a means toward an end; the other suggests intrinsic value in the sense of being, itself, an end.” (Meland 1934:279-280)

The two sides of life are commonly called
the ‘practical’ or ‘utility/mechanical’ (instrumental) and the ‘aesthetic/ideal’ (intrinsic).
        And our Western society has always placed more value
        on the ‘practical’ rather than the ‘aesthetic’.

Perhaps this is why he ‘who is currently moonlighting as our prime minister’,
gave a financial handout to sales people and bar staff during the 2020 Covid lockdowns,
        but not to the arts—dancers, musicians, poets!

In traditional religion the ‘two sides’ are often represented as:
‘Doing the will of God’ verses ‘Be still, and know that I am God’.

This difference in religious sensibilities
has been an important factor throughout history the world over.

But in reality the aesthetic and the practical are two sides of the one world.
“Our environment,” writes empirical theologian Meland again, “is vaster and richer at any one moment than we ever consciously recognize during working hours when utility is in the saddle.” (Meland 1934:288)

So what does ‘being aesthetic’ mean?
Again I offer the wisdom of Bernard Meland.
“Being aesthetic means reaching out beyond the obvious and the useful to this vaster and richer content that environs us. This aspect is the opposite of standardization. It tends toward innovation. It cultivates spontaneity, originality, deep insight, and broad sympathy. It gives dimension and intensity to life. The only way to achieve this aesthetic measure of life is by frequently exposing one-self to the awesome, the mystifying, and the inspiring. Live in the presence of that which gives altitude to emotions. Enter frequently into deepening contact with the wide cosmic expanse of life. Turn from the critical mood occasionally to see life in synthesis. See the world synthesized in a flower, a sea, or in a human being. Catch glimpses of the whole of reality. Contemplate your own life blended with the total movement of life. Envisaging these wider reaches of reality not only enlarges the scope of living, but it sensitizes our feel for life and beautifies its quality.” (Meland 1934:288)

Or, listen to the wisdom of poet Mary Oliver—another Pulitzer Prize winner.
A strong sense of place, and of identity in relation to it, is central to her poetry.
        Her creativity was stirred by nature, and her poems
        are filled with imagery from daily walks:
                    shore birds, water snakes, the phases of the moon, and humpback whales.

“Just pay attention to the natural world around you—the goldfinches, the swan, the wild geese. They will tell you what you need to know.” (Franklin 2017)

When reviewing Oliver’s work one literary critic wrote:
“Her poems are firmly located in the places where she has lived or traveled… her moments of transcendence arise organically from the realities of swamp, pond, woods and shore.”

While another commented:
“At its most intense, her poetry aims to peer beneath the constructions of culture and reason that burden us with an alienated consciousness to celebrate the primitive, mystical visions of the natural world.”

Pay attention!

Such attention and experience comes from being immersed in what is,
and seeing the overlooked.
        As another has said: we are cosmic and we are local. (Fleischman 2013:165)
The natural world is all around us, and we are an integral part of it.

Appreciation of the benefits of nature—of being at home in the universe
and the environment in which we must fulfil our lives—
        is an ancient wisdom we are only barely beginning to regain,
        as the Earth heats, glaciers melt, rainforests are logged, and species vanish.

At times we will seek to critically understand and to use those environing realities.
And a poetic response is often the most appropriate
        and shrewdest analyst of social concerns
        including frustrated hopes and political skulduggery.

At other times we will respond appreciatively to the deep significance of these environings.

As I have said on another occasion: we need both the voice of the rational
—to keep any community free from sloppy sentimentality—
          as well as the concern of the creative artist
          —the rich, deep, not entirely rational forms of expression shaped by metaphor,
                             the poetic, myth and parable—to strike a chord and resonate within.

But it is at the level of the imagination that any full engagement with life takes place.
Thus, what is now required is a different religious sensitivity.
        A natural spirituality or an ecological spirituality.

Because nature is the thread that completes the tapestry of life.
“Whether or not we believe that there is something more, nature is so significant that all our beliefs must be reformulated so as to take nature into account.” (Hefner 2008:x)

Religion is born out of the sense of wonder and awe of the majesty
and fearsomeness of the universe itself. (Berry 2014:74)

But religion is also poetry—at least according to ‘geologian’, Thomas Berry.

In an interview with Australian church historian and former priest, Paul Collins, Berry claimed:
"Religion is poetry or it is nothing! How can a person be religious without being poetic? Certainly God is a poet; it is God who made rainbows, butterflies and flowers. It is the most absurd thing in the world to think of dealing with religion in any other way than poetry or music… You cannot do it any other way.” (Collins 2010)

But then Collins went on to add:
“Deprived of nature with its beauty, multiplicity, mystery, complexity and otherness, our imaginations would shrivel up, and we would lose our ability to perceive and experience the deeper feelings and intuitions that give real meaning to our lives. For nature is the source of our origin and the context of our continuing evolution and spiritual development. Without imagination we would lose all sense of ourselves as human beings.”

Life glows on! Such is the poetics of life.
All those many things and experiences which enhance life
        with mystery, colour, and fragrance. Biscuits and hyacinths included!

“As we consider this Earth,
our home,
and we, our presence upon it,
may we be moved to see ourselves
as particles of the whole
and walk in reverence.” (Vosper 2012)

Berry, T. Selected Writings on the Earth Community. Introduction by Mary Evelyn Tucker & John Grim. Maryknoll. Orbis Books, 2014Collins, P. “Religion is Poetry or it is Nothing!”. ABC Religion & Ethics. 10 December 2010Eliot, T. S. “The Waste Land”. 1922. Poetry Foundation. <>Fleischman, P. R. Wonder. When and Why the World Appears Radiant. Amherst. Small Batch Books, 2013Franklin, R. “What Mary Oliver’s Critic Don’t Understand”. The New Yorker. Books. 20 November 2017. <>
Hefner, P. “Forward” in J. A. Stone. Religious Naturalism Today. The Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative. New York. State University of New York, 2008
Logan, J. “The Resurgence of Life”. Poetry Soup. 22 March 2021 <>
“Meaning and Symbolism of Hyacinth”. Teleflora. n.d. <>
Meland, B. E.
Modern Man’s Worship. A Search for Reality in Religion. New York. Harper & Brothers, 1934
Monahan, J.
“Bite into Poetry…” The Ledger. January 2005. <>
Vosper, G. We All Breathe. Poems and Prayers. Toronto. PostPurgical Resources, 2012