What’s It Like to Write Advent Poems?

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

People ask me about the advent poems. How long does it take? Where to do you get the ideas? Is it hard?

The first thing I want to say is that the advent poems are not Scripture. They are not inspired in the sense that the Bible is inspired. They have no authority in themselves. Nor are they infallible. For example, one sharp person pointed out last year that I had Naomi’s sons Mahlon and Chilion married to the same person in two different poems.

Every line has eight syllables and four accents, one on every other syllable starting with the second. Each line rhymes with its partner in the couplet. Most of the internal rhyme is happily unintentional, and most of the alliteration is (I think) intentional (“he will unbind and bring the captives from their chains”).

1) Why, for fifteen years, have I used this particular form?

Part of the answer is that I like trying to make one form better and better and discover all it can do. Also a shorter line of six syllables would form a rhyme scheme almost impossible to manage, because rhyming words would come so fast and furious I wouldn’t be able to think of enough natural words. A longer line of ten syllables (a very famous form) results (for reasons too hard to explain now) in a complexity of sentence structure that is not as suitable for oral comprehension, and makes the rhymes more difficult to hear. The rhyming couplet is easier for me to manage than, say, the rhyming of every other line, and I think is simpler to hear and enjoy. In the end: I like it and I think it makes for good listening—and I write them mainly to be heard, not read.

2) Why do I put such rigorous formal limits on the poem?

A river without banks is a flood, not a river. A gymnastic floor routine without a mat with borders is just exercise, and not art. Throwing balls across a plate or kicking a ball through uprights or slapping a puck into a goal is more exhilarating than throwing and kicking and slapping every which-a-way then trying to dignify it by calling it "free". The most passionate book in the Bible is Lamentations, and it is the most rigorously limited in form: three of the five chapters of gut-wrenching agony are poured into the narrow container of four acrostics, each verse beginning with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. There is something glorious about the freedom and power of truth flowing deep, and somehow naturally, between the banks of rhyme and meter.

3) How do I keep it from sounding monotonous, when the same meter and rhyme are sustained for almost 300 lines?

Mainly by not ending sentences at the end of lines.

4) How long do they take?

On average 18 hours.

5) Is it hard?


6) Where do I get the ideas?

First from meditating on the Bible. Then I read background material, for example, about Cyrene. Then I try to put myself in the situation and let the imagination create possible scenarios. Then, when I start writing, the demands of the form often take the story in an unexpected turn. For example, the demand of a rhyme may create a scene.

7) Why do I do them?

They are a way of seeing God and life in new and powerful ways. They are a way of building faith. They are a way of celebrating the glory of a Christian worldview. They are a way of helping us flourish in suffering. They are a way of saying, “I am a happy pastor and love being here.” They are my Merry Christmas to your souls when life is hard.

Pastor John