Swimming in Winter

Swimming in Winter

Now and then we print a poem. You might wonder what we think poetry is. Here’s my definition.

Poetry is an effort to awaken or intensify, and usually to share, a moving experience by using language that is chosen and structured differently from ordinary prose.

Break that down in pieces.

  1. Poetry is a way of stewarding God’s stunning gift of language — a way of using language.

  2. The poet chooses his language with more care and effort than one does in ordinary prose. Mark Twain: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is . . . the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Poets hope to connect with the lightning.

  3. The poet structures his language. Rhyme or no rhyme, meter or no meter, line-breaks and indentions are part of the poem.

  4. The poet has been moved by some experience. Wordsworth says that poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquility.” If we are not moved by something, we would not bother with the work of writing the poem.

  5. The poet uses language to awaken the experience when it has vanished, and to intensify the experience when it has faded. And usually he wants others to read and be moved like he was.

So poetry is

An effort to awaken or intensify, and usually to share, a moving experience by using language that is chosen and structured differently from ordinary prose.

Poems, like all speech, grow — or explode — out of a worldview. But they are not usually philosophically highfalutin. They don’t paint the sky. In general, poems are not about things in general. They are concrete and specific, but in a way that catapults the reader into the universal. They usually focus on the lightning bug in the hopes that lightning might strike.

My worldview is profoundly governed by the tiny phrase in 2 Corinthians 6:10, “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” I see everything and feel everything through this lens.

Sometimes the tension becomes so present and powerful it spills over. That’s what happened this summer in the poem, Swimming in Winter.

It is vacation time, and we
   must play.
No, this is not a must. We will,
   we may!

It is the season for this play,
   this fun,
And season follows season, when 
   it’s done.

A time to fast. Then time to feast
   with spice.
Spring flowers follow winter snow
   and ice.

Or is this sequence really so 
   precise?
Does life come like the roll of waves,
   Or dice?

Does winter never flinch? Refuse
   to go?
I’ve seen the tulips buried in 
   the snow.

Yet, it is time to play. The sun
   appears.
So I will swim, and none will see
   my tears.


More poetry from John Piper:

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.