I define poetry as an effort to share a moving experience by using language that is chosen and structured differently from ordinary prose.
Sometimes it rhymes. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it has a regular cadence. Sometimes it doesn’t. But almost always the poet has experienced something — something horrible or wonderful or ordinary — and he feels that he must share it.
Using words differently from ordinary prose is the poet’s way of trying to awaken something of his experience (and perhaps even more) in the reader.
God Speaks in Poems
It has always boggled my mind that so much of the Bible is poetry. God inspired this, and he did not have to do it this way. How much of God’s inspired word is poetry? Leland Ryken answers,
One-third of the Bible is not too high an estimate. Whole books of the Bible are poetic: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon. A majority of Old Testament prophecy is poetic in form. Jesus is one of the most famous poets of the world. Beyond these predominantly poetic parts of the Bible, figurative language appears throughout the Bible, and whenever it does, it requires the same type of analysis given to poetry.
That is a lot of poetry — language that is chosen and structured differently from ordinary prose. God can raise the dead by any means he pleases. He can waken dull hearts to the reality of his beauty any way he desires. And one of the ways he pleases to do it is by inspiring his spokesmen to write poetry.
Resist the Inexpressible
Paradoxically, poetry is an expression of the fact that there are great things that are inexpressible. There is no one-to-one correspondence between the depths of human experience and the capacities of language to capture that experience. There are experiences that go beyond the ability of language to express them.
For the poet, this limitation of language does not produce silence; it produces poetry. Poetry is a kind of verbal resistance to the impenetrability of human experience. The poet will at least try.
Say It with a Poem
For example, can we even begin to imagine what it felt like for the fathers and mothers of the children in Bethlehem to lose their little ones when Herod’s murder squad arrived and slaughtered all of them under two years old? Perhaps not.
But there was one year (inspired by the loss of a son in our church) when I said: I will try. And I will try with a poem. It has come to be called The Innkeeper. I imagine a father who not only lost two sons that horrible night, but also his wife and his arm. He made room for Joseph and Mary. But he had no idea what it would cost him to embrace the Son of God. Jesus comes back to visit him just before going to the cross. The poem describes the meeting.
Slow Communication Is Not Popular
We do not live in a day when poetry is in vogue. Perhaps it has never been in vogue. Shaped by smartphones and soundbites, we are impatient with communication that forces us to slow down.
Poetry, by definition, is a kind of communication that cannot be fully appreciated on the first reading. Suppose a poem has a structure of cadence and rhyme and form. Two or three attempts are needed to make the path familiar enough to allow the eyes to be lifted. Then, when the reader is comfortably in the flow, he begins to see so much more than when he was too distracted by the form.
So poetry books will seldom be best-sellers. And God has mercifully put all kinds of writing in the Bible besides poetry. He knows better than I do that some people prefer stories (like our Gospels) and others prefer arguments (like the epistle to the Romans). So I will understand if you are not a poetry-lover. But don’t limit yourself too quickly. People change. Times change.
This may be the season for you to slow down and reconsider.