Make No Thing Happen: Making Liturgy through Poetry
Andrew Taylor-Troutman is the pastor of Chapel in the
Pines Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
I once heard Ross Gay, one of my favorite writers, claim, “A poem is a laboratory for our coming together.”
Since the fall of 2021, I have held a poetry discussion group at a local continuing care facility. Monthly participation ranges from one to two dozen people. A few of the attendees are members of the congregation I serve as pastor, but the majority would not consider themselves to be Christians. Everyone loves poetry. I call the group Poetry and You.
The blurb in the facility’s monthly newsletter invites participants “to discuss selected poems for what they say and for what they have to say to you.” This is my playful way of stating what I believe about studying any text—there are words on the page and there are interpretations of them. The magic is their interplay, most often in dialogue with others.
Liturgy often involves words and our experience of those words. It is a communal experience—often defined as “the work of the people.” Liturgy “works” by creating meaning and a sense of the sacred. My experience with Poetry and You has challenged me to think about liturgy beyond the bounds of what we churchgoers may consider sacred space. Words that make meaning and a sense of the sacred, I’ve learned, can be enacted among those who may not choose to participate in an explicitly religious context. As one Poetry and You group member recently said to me, reflecting on the discussion group, “What we do here is my church.”
This essay outlines my four-step approach to poetry discussion with examples from a recent discussion to put flesh on the concepts. I hope to show the paradox of “make no thing happen” as a liturgical enactment of inspiration leading to creative action—a laboratory for our coming together. Ultimately, the “no thing” happening in liturgy is how a community’s experience of words can invite us to poetically imagine ourselves in contexts outside of Sunday morning and beyond the church walls.
Step 1: I see . . .
The room is arranged with chairs in a circle. The discussion begins by distributing a copy of a poem to each participant, which I will then read out loud. In February 2023, the poem was written by Ross Gay:
Pulled Over in Short Hills, NJ, 8:00 AM1
It’s the shivering. When rage grows
hot as an army of red ants and forces
the mind to quiet the body, the quakes
emerge, sometimes just the knees,
but, at worst, through the hips, chest, neck
until, like a virus, slipping inside the lungs
and pulse, every ounce of strength tapped
to squeeze words from my taut lips,
his eyes scanning my car’s insides, my eyes,
my license, and as I answer the questions
3, 4, 5 times, my jaw tight as a vice,
his hand massaging the gun butt, I
imagine things I don’t want to
and inside beg this to end
before the shiver catches my
hands, and he sees,
and something happens.
I call this first step “I see,” yet I understand (and enjoy) poetry as an auditory experience. In Gay’s poem, the rhyme “his eyes / my car’s insides” is more easily heard than silently read. When I recite Gay’s lines “just the knees, / but, at worst, through the hips, chest, neck,” I can feel a “shivering” in my own body. Reading silently presents a temptation to skim the lines. Speaking the words is a way of embodying the text.
I call the first step “I see” in order to keep attention on the text in front of us. Following my reading of the poem, participants often have visible reactions. Smiles of satisfaction. Sighs of appreciation. In this case, I see a lot of brows knit in . . . what exactly? Puzzlement? Concentration?
“It looks to me like many of you are thinking hard about this poem,” I begin. “Can you point to a specific place in the poem that draws your attention?”
Participants then re-read specific stanzas, lines, or words that are evocative to them. Most members have participated for months, even years, so the task of staying on the text has grown easier over time. But it is still tempting to jump to interpretation, namely, what this poem means. If someone begins to offer their own words, I gently but decisively direct them back to the text: “What do you see in the poem? Where would you have us look?”
Many of these readers have a familiarity with poetic devices, which aids the goal of focusing on the text. One participant points to Gay’s opening comparison: “When rage grows / hot as an army of red ants . . .” Another reader spots the repetition of consonants: “strength tapped / to squeeze words from my taut lips . . .” Literary concepts like simile and alliteration are not merely formal jargon but point to a poet’s intention to communicate meaning. The simile in the second line draws a vivid comparison that stays with a reader throughout the poem. The hard consonant sounds give the poem a clipped pace rather than a smooth one when spoken, communicating a tone of stress or anger.
My insistence on a slow, careful reading is out of respect for the poem in front of us and because I think it is increasingly countercultural to give such attention. Many of us may have the experience of being asked through online surveys to rate our consumer experiences at the gas pump, the coffeeshop, or after a recent purchase. Notice the relationship between opinion and commerce; we are constantly asked if we “like” the things that we consume with yes or no questions.
I want to move away from the snap judgements of a consumer mindset. Yes, I like this latte: do I bother to notice the subtle hints of chocolate in the espresso or the heart-shaped froth of oat milk that adorns the surface? To notice poetic devices is to recognize the flavor of a poem. By slowing down and asking questions, I hope readers will cultivate a relationship with a poem that is more meaningful than an economic transaction.
Liturgy may be understood as rote recitation. Why would worshipers merely want to go through the motions? Perhaps Sunday morning is something to check off on the to-do list or a spiritual form of duty. Maybe people think that if they say words or go to church, then they will somehow be rewarded—the economic transactional mindset creeps into so much of our culture.
I think the arts push us in new directions in which we are less focused on “the results,” or what we get from something, and much more on the process—how we feel and think in the moment, including how our minds are changed and our hearts are moved.
“This is an angry poem,” someone comments, “but I wonder why.”
Step 2: I wonder . . .
The word “wonder” has multiple meanings. It can connotate a sense of curiosity. A poem may not reveal its secrets at first, even with a careful reading by a group. By studying it, questions naturally arise. Certain words may be unfamiliar or images seem obscure. We may lack information.
Several participants wonder about the title of Gay’s poem, “Pulled Over in Short Hills, NJ, 8:00 am.” What is the significance of the particular place and time? Fortunately, among us is a former resident of New Jersey. “Short Hills is the most affluent part of the whole state,” he says, “and probably the whitest, too.”
Knowledge of context is helpful. But a word of caution: the goal of wondering is not to “answer” a poem as if it has a static, fixed meaning. From time to time, I remind participants of Billy Collins’s poem “Introduction to Poetry.” Instead of trying to “tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it,” Collins invites readers to “hold it up to the light / like a color slide / or press an ear against its hive.”2 That is what I mean by wondering. In the words of another poet, Michael Jon Khandelwal, “Poems . . . come from the astonishing experience of living.”3
Whereas the first step of close reading is about compiling individual responses to the poem, the second step moves toward collaboration. As in the example of the former resident of New Jersey, one among us may have valuable information to share. Wondering is about more than stating facts; it involves curiosity about why those facts matter.
Thinking again about the comparison to liturgy, I find Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann’s work to be most helpful in terms of the idea of worship not simply to “posit the idea of God as rationally acceptable” but worship as “the source and the possibility of that knowledge. . . . Thus, the very notion of worship is based on an intuition and experience . . . an ‘epiphany’ of God, thus the world.”4 Epiphany, or revelation, may come in the form of a road of Damascus vision, yet in my experience, insight slowly dawns by getting curious, asking questions, and holding conversations.
“Eight o’clock in the morning seems like an innocent time to be driving around,” remarks one participant.
“Unless you are ‘driving while Black,’” responds another.
“Whoa,” someone replies. “I’d have skipped right over that part at the first reading!”
Our questions give way to wonder—those “whoa” or “aha” moments of our collective wonderings.
The first two steps in the process of reading are not completely linear and disconnected, like checking off a to-do list. Wondering about racial dynamics causes readers to dive back into the poem and explore further—notice the poet’s “jaw tight as a vice” juxtaposed with the police officer’s “hand massaging the gun butt.” Conversation recalls the opening simile: “When rage grows / hot as an army of red ants . . .” Now we move beyond the strong figurative language to wonder about the racial dynamic of power to which it points.
Together, the participants next examine the poem’s ending—“and something happens.” What something? Insight lies within the poem and in our own experiences in the world.
Step 3: We connect . . .
The third step is to link insights and wonderings about the poem to our life experiences, either in the past or present. Since Gay published this poem in 2006, instances of police violence against Black men continue to grow. Many of today’s readers may think of the murder of George Floyd in 2020—when “something happens.” For this class, which met in February 2023, the death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis police is fresh on our minds. A poem can span time and space.
What about a personal connection? How does a room of older, primarily white people relate to the experience of a young Black man?
On a basic level, many participants can relate to red and blue lights flashing in the rearview mirror. One woman confesses she remembers being angry at being pulled over, but only at herself! She knew she was speeding and now she was caught. She would have to pay a fine. This leads to a brief conversation about how a punishment should fit a crime. A ticket for going over the speed limit.
“What about Black people who are shot and killed?”
There is a heavy silence.
Over years of leading discussion groups, whether in the church or classroom, I have tried to temper, if not overcome, my desire to fill the silence by talking. Particularly when silence descends after my question, I often experience an anxiety to ask differently, perhaps in a better way so that someone (please God!) might say something!
But I’m learning to resist speaking too quickly. Participating in silence itself can be an act of collaboration with others. I do not need to control the direction of the discussion. I certainly don’t have all the answers. This is one of the important reasons for arranging the room in a circle of chairs as opposed to speaking from a lectern. It likewise signifies the importance of this liturgy as a communal act.
I often think of Quaker practice while leading discussion. Though meetings lack sacraments, Quakers have a beautiful understanding of a liturgy of sacred silence, of holding quiet as a group until someone is moved to speak. Since liturgy is a work of the people, silence can be a part of what we do together. Saint John of the Cross claimed that silence is the first language of God; perhaps the role of silence is too often neglected in our formal Christian liturgies. Maybe “a moment of silence” should be more like several minutes.
I call this third step “We connect” to emphasize the connections made by shifting from first-person singular to plural. Group discussions can lead to discoveries about our lives that we might not have reached in our own wonderings. One participant breaks the silence by pointing to another simile in Gay’s poem—“like a virus”—that he feels was “unsettling.” Though this poem was written in 2006, he reads the line in light of the recent pandemic, particularly the fear of COVID that many residents felt before the vaccines.
“I remember what it was like to feel helpless. To feel like you might get killed because of something that was out of your control.” Every head nods in agreement.
Another woman tells a story about an experience of sexism in the workplace. She had walked into a conference room and the boss had made a joke about her appearance. All the men at the table laughed, and she felt like she had to smile.
“But I was shivering with rage,” she says, “just like the first line of the poem.” Several women then tell stories of their own experience with sexism.
I hasten to add that making connections like these does not mean that we can conflate our individual experiences. We cannot discredit or discount the unique role that race, gender, or different social constructions play in the life of an oppressed minority. The idea is to create empathy through an act of poetic imagination.
After an act of police brutality or another form of gun violence, I often hear well-intentioned people claim, “I just can’t imagine their loss.” I think I understand the sentiment. But I would claim the opposite—we should try to imagine. For many years I’ve held onto Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “No Explosions.” She is the daughter of a Palestinian refugee and claims that, in order to enjoy fireworks, say, on a national holiday, “you would have to have lived a different kind of life.”
I live “a different kind of life” than a Palestinian refugee or a Black person in America. I think Gay’s “Pulled Over in Short Hills, NJ, 8:00 am” can invite a poetic imagination of a Black man’s experience—the threat of “something happens”—and being here or there at a certain time can be the difference between life and death. For the group reading the poem, empathizing with the poet’s fear and rage becomes the next question: what are we going to do about it?
Step 4: I will carry with me . . .
Throughout the first three steps, participants are free to chime in as they are moved to speak. My role as host of the discussion is to make sure that no one dominates the conversation. I can tell when a quieter member is sitting on the edge of a seat, but I only invite comment. No one is required to share.
The same is true for the last step, though this one provides space for direct and concise response. Making our way around the circle, each person is invited to state an idea that they will carry with them from our discussion. Some people pass, which is absolutely fine. For those that choose to speak, this sharing can take the form of a line or observation from the poem, an insight from our discussion, or a thought that had been quietly percolating and wasn’t voiced until now.
This sharing creates a spoken liturgy.
When their turn comes, some participants offer what sounds close to a prayer (even if they wouldn’t necessarily use that language). After our discussion of Gay’s poem, we hear hopes for the Black community to stay safe and for police officers not to abuse their power.
We also hear certain participants state their desire for “something to happen” that is not violent but transformative. This, too, is liturgy. It reminds me of the eschatological hope we often name in prayer.
Like the word “wonder,” liturgy carries different meanings. I most often think of liturgy as an act of a prayer or rite in the context of Christian worship. To the ancient Greeks, “liturgy” was a public work performed by an individual or group on behalf of the larger community. It was often a creative act.
In the weeks that have passed since our discussion of Gay’s poem, I have encountered various members of the Poetry and You discussion group in the larger community. Several participated in an ecumenical vigil against gun violence that a colleague and I hosted at the church I serve. Others attended the public reading to mark the sixtieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Their participation was welcomed.
I also believe the impact of liturgy can generate individual creativity. One might even be inspired to write a poem!
After leaving the group, I reflected on an experience that I’d had earlier that morning. The result was a poem dedicated to the very special poetry discussion group that I am graced to host.
Like an Angel5
After dropping off my kids at school,
I drove back through the neighborhood
and just ahead a student, a girl, coasted
down the steep hill on a skateboard.
She was late, the bell had already rung;
yet, she wore a look of calm
concentration, neither hurried
nor harried in her red Chuck Taylors.
I’m not recommending tardiness,
and don’t know if she had a legitimate
excuse. Only that the sky was blue,
and temperature just perfect,
for skating with the wind in your hair,
high tops winging through the air.
Make No Thing Happen
I’ve titled this essay “Make No Thing Happen” out of a reference to a famous poem. Memorializing W. B. Yeats, W. H. Auden wrote, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” In his new book, Inciting Joy, Ross Gay, who is also an accomplished academic, notes that he has endured countless conferences and forums in which speakers have debated what Auden meant—“hand-wringing conversations about the political utility
Was Auden mistaken? Thinking of Martin Luther King, it is hard to imagine the boycotts and marches of the Civil Rights Era without the poetry of the Black spirituals sung by faithful participants. Or the folk songs of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
While recognizing the role of poetry in political activity of the past, Gay wonders if Auden was actually not wrong but misunderstood. He wasn’t suggesting that poetry had no impact on people or movements, but rather was describing a specific kind of impact. Poetry does make something happen, but the something is “nothing” as in “no thing.” Gay believes that poetry stops time—by which we mean productivity, output, or other aspects of materialism we find in capitalism. It is this striving for more that is “the religion of Capitalism, whose gospel is that there is not enough.”7 Recall my hope for a countercultural appreciation of poetry as more than an economic transaction.
Another poet and thinker who questions the American ideals of capitalism is Wendell Berry. In contrast to the “gospel” of there is not enough, Berry’s poem “Wild Geese” concludes, “What we need is here.”8 Clearly, there are people and whole communities lacking resources in our world, very possibly found right outside our doors. Just as surely, there are experiences of timelessness, “no time” meaning time out of time, in which we find what we need and, most often, these needs are met in community—pickup basketball games, dance parties, potlucks, and liturgy.
To me, liturgy makes no thing happen. Getting caught up in worship can transcend my experience of time. There is no product or quantifiable result. I understand frustration with public figures who offer “thoughts and prayers” as an excuse for inaction for police reform. But I also believe that Gay’s claim about poetry may be true for an experience in prayer, worship, or liturgy—“Poetry might make nothing happen. Inside of which anything can happen.”9 Like a laboratory for our coming together.
Each meeting of Poetry and You lasts for about an hour. I’ve given details about the steps of our time together, but at the most basic level, people read a poem and talk about it. If not nothing, then one might say not very much happens.
Yet, I go back to that participant who said, “What we do here is my church.” While I observed members participating in the larger community as a result of our reading of Gay’s poem, I wonder about the ways in which “no thing” happened for the participants. Though neither quantified nor measured in economic or utilitarian terms, the group’s laboratory experience may continue to transform the way we perceived the world around us in terms of an appreciation for what is rather than a gospel of not enough. Thinking about worship as the epiphany or revelation of God in Word and Sacrament, we are transformed by our encounters with the holy. Emmanuel, God with us, here and now, always being revealed. Applying Isaiah 43:19, do we perceive it? “Let the ones with ears, hear!” (Matt. 11:15). And may the eyes of our hearts be “flooded with light” (Eph 1:18, Amplified Bible). That kind of revelation is “no thing” and is something sacred that happens.
1. Ross Gay, “Pulled Over in Short Hills, NJ, 8:00 am,” Against Which (Fort Lee, NJ: CavanKerry Press, 2006), 26.
2. Billy Collins, “Introduction to Poetry,” The Apple That Astonished Paris (Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 1988), 58.
3. Michael Jon Khandelwal, “Hay Elote,” Rattle 29 (summer 2008).
4. Alexander Schememann, “Worship in a Secular Age,” For the Life of the World, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press Classics, vol. 1 (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2018).
5. Andrew Taylor-Troutman, “Like an Angel,” Tigers, Mice & Strawberries, copyright © 2023 by Andrew Taylor-Troutman.
6. Ross Gay, Inciting Joy: Essays (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2022).
7. Gay, Inciting Joy.
8. Wendell Berry, “Wild Geese,” Collected Poems 1957–1982 (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985), 155–156.
9. Gay, Inciting Joy.