From the early days of my teaching, I have enacted a ritual to introduce poetry into a course. I ask the class, “How do you know that God intends for you to understand and enjoy poetry?” Inevitably, the class stares at me as though I had just arrived from Mars. Then I ask in a slightly more menacing tone, “How do you know that God intends for you to understand and enjoy poetry?”
It is gratifying to see how quickly someone comes up with the correct answer. That answer is that approximately one-third of the Bible comes to us in poetic form.
My purpose is to convince you that your life will be enriched if you set aside just a little time for poetry. For some, this will be an encouragement to keep a current practice going; for others, it will be a resolve to give poetry a try.
World of Poetry
Poetry already has a place in our lives, though we may be unaware of this fact. In addition to the poetry of the Bible, let me introduce hymns into the discussion. Hymns and songs are a form of poetry, possessing all the qualities of the poems I teach in my literature courses. Whereas much of the poetry in the Bible is relatively complex and difficult, the poetry of hymns and songs is poetry for the average person.
“There are occasions when poetic speech conveys truth more effectively than literal prose.”
Additionally, we all speak an incipient poetry during the course of a typical day. We speak of the sun rising and of game-changers, of killing time and juggling our schedules. Each of these is a metaphor. Why do we resort to poetic language like this? Because we intuitively realize that poetic speech often conveys truth more effectively than literal prose.
People who do not find a place for poetry in their lives incorrectly believe that poetry is beyond the reach of the common person. Some claim that although people living before the modern era knew how to handle poetry, people living today are different. I regret to say that I even hear stories of Sunday school teachers and preachers being pressured by congregants to leave the poetry of the Bible untouched because of its alleged inaccessibility.
There is no chronological factor in regard to the accessibility of poetry. People are not less educated today than they were in previous centuries, but the reverse. Furthermore, poetry is compressed and makes use of images (words naming concrete objects and actions) as its basic language. What is more characteristic of our day than its preference for brief units of communication and its reliance on visual images?
Another misconception is that poetry is unrelated to everyday life. This is false in two ways. First, the actual language of poetry stays close to the everyday experiences of life. For example, biblical poets keep us rooted in a world of water and sheep and light and pathways. Second, the subject of poetry is universal human experience. Stories are a window to the world of human life, and so is poetry. One title of a book about poetry captures the essence of both poetic language and poetic content: Poetry and the Common Life.
Helps for Reading Poetry
In the remainder of this article, I have organized my pep talk for giving poetry a try (or continuing to keep a good thing going) under the rubric of what you need to know about poetry in order to succeed with it.
First, while poetry is accessible to anyone who gives it a genuine try, this does not mean that poetry is anything less than a unique form of discourse. Poetry is different from the informal language that we use in everyday life. Whether we see this as an advantage or disadvantage depends on the attitude that we bring, and my goal is to encourage the Christian public to embrace poetry not in spite of its difference from everyday uses of language but because of that difference.
We will not make room for poetry if we blame it for not being like everyday discourse. Instead, we can welcome poetry as a break from the routine. The Bible speaks of poetry as a new song (Psalm 33:3; 40:3; 96:1). The novelty of poetry can become a welcome adventure if we embrace it as such.
Poets speak a language all their own, and we need to know what that language is. The basic unit of poetry (but not its only ingredient) is the image, broadly defined to mean any word that names a concrete object or action. The words house and mountain are images, and so are walking and hiding.
Sometimes these images are straightforward and literal. A nature poet, for example, typically aims to paint a physical picture in our imagination: “The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted” (Psalm 104:16). These are “straight images”: the trees are literal trees, and the water is literal water.
But more often, poetic images are part of a comparison or analogy, as when the psalmist declares God to be “a sun and shield” (Psalm 84:11). God is not literally a sun and shield; these metaphors assert that God is like a sun and shield.
Verbal Energy Drink
What is the advantage of this poetic language of images and figures of speech? Poetic language overcomes the flatness and cliché effect of the ordinary and overly familiar. By contrast, the unfamiliar leads us to take note and makes us participants in the conversation.
“Poetic language overcomes the flatness and cliché effect of the ordinary and overly familiar.”
A comparison in the form of metaphor or simile activates us to determine how one thing is like something else to which it is compared. Poetry is akin to a riddle. When the poet asserts that the person who trusts in God “will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day” (Psalm 91:5), we need to figure out what the terror of the night and the arrow that flies by day are — and further, how they exist in our own lives.
Of course, this kind of interpretation requires what I call a “slow read” as opposed to a speed read. This is one of the most important tips I can offer for reading poetry with pleasure: we need to take the time to unpack the meanings of poetic images and comparisons. This can be a pleasurable activity if we simply give ourselves to it.
The kind of poetry I am discussing in this article is lyric poetry, meaning short poems. Lyric poems tend to be either meditative or reflective on the one hand, or affective or emotional on the other. In a reflective poem, the poet shares a thought process on an announced subject. In an affective poem, we learn about the poet’s feelings on the topic that is the focus of the poem. Psalm 1 is a meditation on the blessings that come to a godly person, as contrasted to the misery of the wicked. A praise psalm is an effusion of godly feelings.
The short length of lyric poems makes the contemplative and analytic way of reading that I have been describing entirely possible and feasible. Poetry gives more “bang for the buck” — more meaning per line — than expository prose does. Perhaps we can think of poetry as a verbal energy drink. Even if we take ten or fifteen minutes to give a poem a complete analysis, that is less time than it often takes to read an essay or chapter in a book.
Awakening the Heart
Thus far, I have talked about the form or technique of poetry. What do we need to know about the content of a poem? The purpose of poetry is not to convey new information. Its purpose is to express the shared experience of the human race and the believing community. A lyric poem holds before us thoughts, feelings, and experiences, with the intention that we will stare at them. Poetry gives us knowledge in the form of right seeing.
Additionally, the purpose of poetry, said John Milton, is “to set the affections in right tune.” Affections is an old word that overlaps with our word emotions. Poetry tends to be an affective form of writing that awakens proper feelings. The kind of poetry I am commending enables us not only to see an aspect of experience clearly but also to feel the right way about that experience. Reading good poetry can help us to feel rightly about reality.
Of all the activities that have made up my half-century of teaching literature, the one that gives me most pleasure is explicating short poems. Explication is simply the literary term for close reading, or staring at a text. And I commend staring at poetry, allowing it to awaken your affections, give you new eyes to see the world, and hopefully, offer new glimpses into the beauty of our triune God.