Third Things: Using poetry as practice

‘Mediated by a good metaphor, the soul is more likely than usual to have something to say.’

The principle of ‘third things’ come from the work of Parker J Palmer and The Centre for Courage and Renewal. Using third things might best be described as ‘soul work’.

On this page i will post poems that can be used effectively as a ‘third thing’. The invitation is to take the time to read and allow each poem to enter into the silence of the heart and to see what emerges. Each poem will be followed by a series of reflective questions for further consideration.

Parker describes third things as follows in his book, A Hidden Wholeness

In Western culture, we often seek truth through confrontation. But our headstrong ways of charging at truth scare the shy soul away. If soul truth is to be spoken and heard, it must be approached ‘on the slant.’ I do not mean we should be coy, speaking evasively about subjects that make us uncomfortable, which weakens us and our relationships. But soul truth is so powerful that we must allow ourselves to approach it, and it to approach us, indirectly. We must invite, not command, the soul to speak. We must allow, not force, ourselves to listen.

“We achieve intentionality by focusing on an important topic. We achieve indirection by exploring that topic metaphorically, via a poem, a story, a piece of music, or a work of art that embodies it. I call these embodiments ‘third things’ because they represent neither the voice of the facilitator nor the voice of a participant. They have voices of their own, voices that tell the truth about a topic but, in the manner of metaphors, tell it on the slant. Mediated by a third thing, truth can emerge from, and return to, our awareness at whatever pace and depth we are able to handle — sometimes inwardly in silence, sometimes aloud in community — giving the shy soul the protective cover it needs.

“Rightly used, a third thing functions a bit like the old Rorschach inkblot test, evoking from us whatever the soul wants us to attend to. Mediated by a good metaphor, the soul is more likely than usual to have something to say. But the fact will count for nothing if we fail to recognize that the soul is speaking or fail to pay attention to what it says.

“What T. S. Eliot said about poetry is true of all third things: ‘[Poetry] may make us . . . a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.”

The following poem is by William Stafford. The invitation is simply to read the poem and notice which words, sentences or phrases touch you today and speak to your experience. There are questions at the end of the poem to encourage further reflection

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am

and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider —
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

William Stafford

Questions for reflection:

1st stanza: Where do the patterns you live by as though they were ‘real’ come from?

2nd stanza: We co-create the world through our gestures, our shrugs, our in sensitivities. We are vulnerable to our experience. How do Stafford’s words touch your experience of the sometimes clumsy nature of relationships in you life? What kind of things can provoke a reaction that touches the sensitive core of your life experiences? How might you affect others?

Stanza 3. Stafford seems to be pointing here towards an ecological understanding of leadership; the sense that we belong to a human community in which everyone leads and everyone follows at different times. What is your impact on the ecosystem in which you find yourself? What are the leadership roles you fulfill? What are the followership roles?Where is the parade taking you? Where are you taking it? Where do you refuse to know what you know?

Stanza 4. Stafford talks about ‘a remote, important region in all who talk’. It seems to be a place that is  inaccessible to rationality but perhaps it opens up to the speech of the soul. What is that space for you and how do you make space and time to attend to that region? In what ways do you fool yourself, thereby making it so much easier to fool one another?

Stanza 5. Does Stafford seem to be suggesting here that we avoid getting lost by being awake? What does being awake really mean to you? How clear are you in the signals that you give?

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