God's Plan for Poetry

Crossway Chapel | Wheaton

I want to talk about my experience with poetry and, if there’s time, read some with you. Hopefully you will see how it fits into God’s plan — why there is such a thing as poetry in the universe and in the Bible, and why it might be a significant part of your life if it’s not already. That’s where we’re going.

Defining Poetry

Here’s my definition of poetry, and I’ll unpack it for a few minutes. 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. That’s my definition of poetry. Let me pick it apart for a minute.

It’s the use of language. God has given us language, his language, and we should cherish language. That’s what you’re about here, and you should consider what you do sacred. Language is a sacred gift, and we use it in various ways. We shout with it, we make love with it, we discipline children with it, we preach with it, and we write poems with it. We do all kinds of things with it.

It’s also using language that is chosen. When you write a poem, you are extremely selective. You may labor for 30 minutes over one word because, as Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” And that’s right.

Third, it is structured differently than prose. I leave it that vague because a lot of poems don’t rhyme, and a lot of poems don’t have meter. There are all kinds of things like that. If you say, “Well, how is that a poem?” The answer is it’s structured differently on the page. Labor has been given to get the words and the structure to be what they are. This is why when we print some of my poems at DG, I’m stickler about margins. I put it where I put it for a reason, so get it right. Don’t change the margins. That’s part of what a poem is.

And it’s about a moving experience. Wordsworth says, “Poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility.” If you hadn’t been moved by something, you wouldn’t bother to write a poem. Something has moved you positively or negatively. It could be a wedding or something beautiful like a day outside, or it could be something horrific like the death of your grandchild or your dad or whatever. You’re moved, and poetry is an effort to awaken or intensify that experience, or to do both.

The experience may have happened 10 years ago. It may have happened a week ago or yesterday, and here you are and it’s starting to fade away. The joy is fading away, the pain is fading away, the sweetness is fading away, and it’s just too important; it’s too valuable to let it fade away. It has to be captured. It has to be seized. It has to be given some embodiment that will somehow help somebody else feel what you felt and help you feel again what you felt more intensely. So, that’s the gist of it. That’s what poetry is for me.

It is an effort to help me see with intensity and truth, and preserve the experience of what I saw of God or of nature or of people and then capture it for somebody else to share, possibly.

Moved by Words

The key to why this holds such a prominent place for me is captured in a journal entry I wrote and read to Noel a few months ago. I’m reading from my journal now:

I said to Noel last night as we were going to sleep, and I was holding in my head a collection of the final poems just published by Harold Bloom called Till I End My Song, “Is there anything in your life, Noel, like this?” I have loved poetry since I was in the 11th grade. I love to read it and I love to write it. I have drifted in and out of enthusiasm for seasons, but always returned again and again, often more passionate about it than before. This amazes me. I have changed in so many ways between 17 and 65, but this remains.

I love to write, not bare factual writing or bare argument, though I believe in facts and arguments — they are essential. But I want to be moved when I read. I want to move people when I write. I want deep parts of them to be awakened to the greatest realities. I don’t want to merely impart information or get information. I want to feel, not with the body, but with the soul, the wonder or horror or glory of the things of God, and that inclines me to poetry over and over again. It inclines me to read it and to write it. In writing, I awake as often as in reading, but the combination is important.

Of course, if you know me, you can see that bent has given rise to a theology of the affections called Christian hedonism. I have pushed the affections to the absolute limit in the Trinity. God has affections for the Son. The Son has affections for the Father. He created the world as a spillover of these affections to draw us into the joy of the Trinitarian fullness. I mean, this is huge for me.

You might think, “Well, poetry is just a little side thing and emotions are just a little side thing. It’s not. It’s core to the universe in my judgment. God is who he is in terms of affections and truth. So when I’m talking about poetry as a way of seeing, or poetry as a way of being moved, I am trying to be a Christian. I’m trying to be godlike in the appropriate image way.

So Desiring God is not an accident. We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples. All these mission statements and goals have to do with this. God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. That means I’m on a life quest for satisfaction in God, which means I have to write and I have to see. I need help. I can’t just pass my eyes over a page and not have something happen because God isn’t glorified when nothing happens, right? He’s glorified when there’s explosions in your soul at what you’ve seen about him, and explosions don’t just happen. They happen when you make some effort to see and you pray, “God, open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.”

And so, you’re always praying and you’re always laboring. For me, and you don’t have to go this way as a mandate, the labor to find the right word to say it is the labor to feel it. I don’t know why it works that way, but it just does. The labor to find the sentence or to find the phrase that says it freshly and compellingly is for me a way to feel it. God called me to feel it because he’s honored when I feel the glory of who he is and what he’s made.

Raising the Affections

Jonathan Edwards said two things that seem to be contradictory, and I’ve been laboring for two days to try to see coherence. He said, “The duty of singing praises to God seems to be appointed wholly to excite and express religious affections.” He’s asking, “Why do people sing? Why is there music and verse?” And then he says, “No other reason can be assigned as to why we should express ourselves to God in verse, rather than in prose, and do it with music, but only that such is our nature and frame that these things have a tendency to move our affections.”

So he’s saying music exists in God’s economy and intention and versification. One third perhaps of the Old Testament is poetry. “Why would that be?” he says. And his answer is that these things have a tendency to move our affections. Well, that’s true, but here’s the problem. Here’s another quote from Edwards:

I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as I possibly can, provided they are affected with nothing but the truth.

Whoa, wait a minute. You just said that God has ordained music and God has ordained a certain way of putting language together called verse, or parallelism, or metaphor, or image, because those things awaken affections. That phenomenon of music and that phenomenon of language awakens affection. And now you say it is your duty to raise the affections of your hearers as high as you possibly can, provided they are affected with nothing but the truth and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with?

So I want to know, did Edwards just have a lapse of judgment? If I asked him, “I don’t know how you put those together, Jonathan. Would you help me?” What would he say? Here’s my effort to put that together because I would like to think he didn’t have a lapse. He might have.

Natural Means to Spiritual Ends

I think there’s a clue as to how a natural reality like music can do this. I think music is natural. Music is not, in and of itself, spiritual; it’s natural. How does it become spiritual? Words are natural, verse is natural, and rhyme is natural. They have nothing spiritual about them, per se.

Carnal people can do them. Godless people can make beautiful music, and godless people can make beautiful verse, and therefore, they’re not spiritual. So, if they raise affections, are those affections spiritual affections, which are the only kind I care about because they honor God? First Timothy 4:4–5 may be a clue. It’s Paul responding to devilish teaching that you shouldn’t have sex and you shouldn’t eat certain foods. Do you remember that passage? Some were forbidding marriage and forbidding certain foods. These are teachings of demons. Why are they teachings of demons? Because everything created by God is good. So Paul is thinking food and sex, and I’m thinking music and verse, okay? I’m just trying to see if this works here:

For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.

Sex and food become holy. They become holy, reflecting the beauty of God’s holiness, a tribute and honor to him, when they’re brought into some kind of connection with the Word and prayer.

Word and prayer, weaving into sex and food, draw sex and food into the holiness of the truth and the Word and the holiness of this thing. So, they become holy. Now, here’s my attempt to relate that to music and verse, and maybe Edwards would say, “Yeah, that’s what I meant.” I have no idea if that’s what he would say. Music and verse are made holy movers of affections, not just natural, when they are so united to the truth of the Word that the affections raised by both are indistinguishable.

All right, now picture yourself on a Sunday morning, hand lifted in praise to God and and the music is perfect. It’s perfect. It’s being played in an undistracting way with instruments that are suited well, and the tune is perfectly suited with the message, and they are somehow married so that as this is welling up inside of you, you may for a moment lose the freedom of non-self-consciousness and look at yourself and say, “Are you just happy about this tune? Or are you happy that God is God?” And there are moments, I’m arguing, you can’t make that distinction.

At that moment, God has united a natural form and a holy truth in such a way that the music, as what it is, is serving the truth and the truth, as what it is, is informing the music and you are being moved. Your affections are being raised by nothing but the truth incarnated in music and in verse. I don’t know, maybe it’s just a flat out contradiction in what Edward said, but it really has helped me to go there, which I think is not a contradiction.

A Word Fitly Spoken

It’s not a mere personal preference to love poetry. The Bible is full of it, and it tells us to join the Bible in it.

To make an apt answer is a joy to a man,
     and a word in season, how good it is! (Proverbs 15:23)

A word fitly spoken
     is like apples of gold in a setting of silver (Proverbs 25:11).

That’s poetry.

Like a lame man’s legs, which hang useless,
     is a proverb in the mouth of fools (Proverbs 26:7).

He doesn’t know what to do with it. He can’t make any proper use of it.

I love George Herbert’s description of the role of humans in putting words to God’s beauty. Here’s the four lines:

Of all the creatures both in sea and land
     Only to man thou hast made known thy ways,
And put the pen alone into his hand,
    And made him secretary of thy praise.

I love that line: “And made him secretary of thy praise.” I just say, “Yes, that’s what I want to be. I want to be the secretary of God’s praise.” It’s just a beautiful, beautiful thing.

The Place of Poetry

I was on a plane coming back from the Grand Canyon in June and I decided while I was eating, since I can’t read while I’m eating, to watch Act of Valor. As I watched it, I was praying, “Lord, I don’t want to just have all the good thoughts I was just having” — I had been reading George Herbert — “just dumbed down by some action film. Please make this significant for me and teach me good things.” And I wrote in my journal, “Riveting risk, war, family, friendship, sacrifice, obedience, love, courage, horror, dread, wickedness, endurance, death, grief, grief, aching grief.”

Now, as I was watching and these guys were laying down their lives, with the horror and tension of the SEALs trying to rescue a woman, I was asking, “Does poetry have anything to do with this? People are moved by this and the living of it, when you could be dead in a moment, must be this absolute terror of the moment.” I kept saying, “Is poetry just utterly irrelevant to this, or utterly irrelevant to the cripples who are dragging themselves around on their bottoms in Kolkata?” I just saw that in a mission video the other day. I think, “Does poetry have anything to do with that? Am I just off in my little comfortable, Western middle class, comfy world, while people are risking their lives to rescue people and people are sick and lame and dying?”

Do you remember how that movie ends? The husband throws himself on a grenade and his wife is pregnant with their first baby. He’s dead and the movie ends with the funeral, and a poem by Tecumseh is being read over an American flag. And I thought to myself, “These movie makers just made a movie full of terror, full of death, full of griefs, full of the maximum human emotions, and where did they reach at the end of the movie to try to capture it and help us feel it?” They reached to a poem. And there she was with a copy of it lying on the American flag as it was being read as the movie ended. And I thought, yes.

So, that’s my exposition, everything else I have is poems. Maybe I’ll just read one because my time is up. I was going to suggest that you don’t go the way of Darwin and you do go the way of Clyde Kilby, which I’ll show you later sometime. But I have a wife, I have four sons, and I have a daughter, and they’re the ones I write poems for most. I write for Jesus. One was just published at the DG site yesterday called Slow Dying. That was for my dad and me. It might be good to end with that because that’s the most front burner for me right now.

I’ve written poems about the loss of my granddaughter, Felicity, and the fact that two babies were born a couple years later, and how God worked that out in an amazing way. I’m always writing for Noël. I’ve written more poems for my wife than anybody, 10 times more than anybody. And I love to write for Jesus to help me see him more clearly. But here’s a thought and I’ll just read this little short poem and be done.

R. C. Sproul said one time, “I’m not afraid of death, I’m afraid of dying.” And if you’re old enough, you know exactly what he means. Death, we have that problem licked, but what will it be like? Will I choke to death? Will I lose my mind and not have any ability to hold onto a promise? Will I outlive everybody, so they’ll be you nobody in the room when I’m gasping? What will it be like to die? It’s not fear of death, but dying. I watched my dad fade and fade and fade, and I’ve visited so many older people who say to me, “Pastor, why won’t he take me? Why won’t he take me?” It becomes a faith crisis for a lot of people. So, I wrote this little thing called Slow Dying.

The hill of dying, not of death,
     Is steeper,
And all the climbers gashed.

On hands and knees, I take a breath,
     A creeper,
Barely moving, slashed.

And though the door of death is shut,
     The keeper
Beckons with a skull.

“But if my death is why you cut,
     Grim Reaper,
Why is your scythe so dull?”