In a time of down-to-earth economic and political concerns, hardly anything seems less worthwhile than poetry. Poetry is the business of introspective twenty-somethings living in their parents’ basements; or perhaps it is mostly the business of snobby academics and obscure journals. Poetry seems purposely vague and narcissistic. Why would any sane person squander as much time as poets do on a single image, verse, or line—sometimes even a single word? Perhaps poets, especially modern ones, are in fact not sane; or maybe they write poetry because they can’t do anything (else). And specifically “Christian” objections are not hard to come by. “Shouldn’t you spend more time on God’s word,” someone might say, “instead of Robert Frost’s and your own?” Fair question. What about spiritual pursuits of deeper value, like witnessing or going on a mission trip?
What follows is a defense of poetry and its place in Christian education and life.
First, what are we talking about? By “poetry” I mean “concentrated excess of speech,” as Peter Leithart puts it. I mean language that is intentionally rhythmic and imagistic. Language in which the poet takes meanings, melts them down in the crucible of his imagination, and recasts them in an image or sequence of images. A poem bulges; but it also forges. According to Shakespeare, a poem gives ideas, worldviews, or character types “a local habitation and a name.” William Blake once rhymed that poetry makes you “see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand /And Eternity in an hour.”
All this sounds nice, but what good is poetry?
Let us get something out of the way first: we will never agree about the worth or role of poetry in education and life if we don’t agree on the goals of education and life. What is education for? Education is different from job training. Education is for making you the kind of person who will pursue the true, the good, and the beautiful regardless of how you “make a living” and how much you make. Education is the shaping of the imagination and the filling of the heart. If you agree with that, you might also desire a broader role for poetry in shaping and filling our lives—even beyond “school.” We are always being educated.
Now to specifics.
Training in Description
Poetry trains us in the skill of vivid, concise description, as opposed to clichéd emoting. You probably have encountered one of those (usually young) people whose eulogistic vocabulary consists mostly of “awesome” and a few synonyms (“rad,” “sick,” “chill”). When you ask them to report on an overwhelming experience—the trip to Mexico, the hike, the rafting adventure, the ethnic cuisine—the experience proves too “awesome” for (any other) words. Such a speaker is, in the words of C. S. Lewis, “far more eager to praise and dispraise than to describe and define.” Such a person’s vocabulary is ill-equipped to handle the profundities he or she experienced. If everything’s “awesome,” then nothing’s awesome.
Two consequences follow from this. The first is that relationships lack the depth and energy of shared experience. Lewis wrote, “Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; [whereas] friends [are] side by side, absorbed in a common interest.” Of course it is speech that unites friends in a common interest when one is not present. “Oh my,” someone says, “let me tell you how it went down.” But the more such descriptions wither into clichés and sheer emoting, the more “awesome” they become, the less a mutual appreciation can bind friends together. This lack of words is especially damaging to long-distance relationships and ones in which the individuals inhabit very different worlds (e.g., a grandparent and a college student).
At this point you might want to suggest that photo-sharing on social media makes up for the poverty of language. Why labor to find the right words when friends can see for themselves? First of all, none but perhaps the most expensive cameras can capture the actual sensations of the experience the way that speech can. Second, cameras are generic, machine eyes. If I show you a photo of a mountain I met as I emerged from the forest on a backwoods adventure, that doesn’t tell you how I saw it. The photo doesn’t tell you how the color and shape and size of the mountain shocked my expectations at first sight. It doesn’t tell you what I thought that color was (“magenta . . . no, pumpkin orange in the sunset . . . no, it was like that rusty ’68 T-Bird of yours before your dad restored it . . .”) or what that shape reminded me of.
The second consequence of a paltry descriptive vocabulary is that it constricts worship. We need the right words, or at least ever better ones, to mirror the many facets and the dynamic personality of God’s creation. But also and most importantly, we need them in order to be better worshipers. We should read and write poetry to become better lyricists, so that we might better sing the Maker’s praises.
Much “worship” in today’s Evangelical churches consists largely of banal emoting—telling God how I feel—whereas the Psalmist pours his energy into description and celebration. It’s not that the Psalms are unemotional, but that they show feeling through description. It’s as if the telling of feelings, as they are whirled up toward the heavens, catch hold on other created things and carry them along. Even non-Christian poets have done this well: “Every day I see or hear something that more or less kills me with delight, that leaves me feeling like a needle in a haystack of light.” See how Mary Oliver has taken that needle-in-a-haystack image and flipped it all around, so that the seeker of beauty is lost in a world of revelation? And the God who numbers the sparrows knows where this needle is.
Training in the Powers of Language
Poetry trains the ear to the physical powers of language—rhythm, texture, harmony. The sound of speech is nearly ignored now, perhaps because so much of our communication (like this one) is textual and silent. But the sonic dimension is never ignored by the best communicators, as any great speech from history will show. Consonants have strength and structure, while vowels have fullness. Words and phrases can be smooth, rough, hollow, thick, and so on. The focused, powerful prose of Lewis and Tolkien was forged in their early attempts to write epic poems and in their lifelong love of all kinds of poetry. For example, take Tolkien’s “forged in the fires of Mount Doom.” The alliterating “f” sounds fall toward the mountain, whose name sounds like what it means—power, gravity, fate, and finality.
One of the greatest English masters of poetic sound was Gerard Manley Hopkins. “The World is charged with the grandeur of God / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to greatness like the ooze of oil / Crushed.” Here his rhythm and sound capture something of the energy of nature, as if he had taken the elements themselves and squeezed them into words: the poetry is “charged,” like its meaning.
Hopkins illustrates something else that poetry trains us to do: it trains us in the skill of wedding form to content. Don’t descriptions of natural beauty or power or surprise deserve gorgeous, potent prose? Here’s an example from Annie Dillard, who was reading by the light of a candle while camping. She describes how
a golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspan, [flapped] into the fire, dropped her abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled and fried in a second. Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and creating out of the darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of the jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of a pine. At once the light contracted again and the moth’s wings vanished in a fine, foul smoke. At the same time her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly. And her head jerked in spasms, making a spattering noise; her antennae crisped and burned away and her heaving mouth parts crackled like pistol fire. (Holy the Firm, 16)
Dillard’s verbs and phrases convey the energy, shock, and theological allusiveness (“creating out of darkness”) of this scene. Her words body forth beauty and truth as praise.
Training in Perception
Another role for poetry emerges here: it trains our perception, imagination, memory, and speech to pay attention to reality. It takes humility to get ourselves out of the way and see what is there. We busy, fast-living moderns need to stop and pay more attention to squirrels, clouds, and photosynthesis. (And I don’t mean we need to watch more squirrels on YouTube.) One way to do that is to stop, look hard, and force your words to fit reality.
For example, I was recently writing a poem about the waves breaking on the beach. How do you describe what the waves do when you walk through them into the deep? They don’t “bubble,” don’t “break” . . . I wrote something down but came back later and realized it fell short of my memory. Finally I settled on “overfoams”: “The ocean laughs, it overfoams you, makes you trust its arms.” I pushed and pulled and twisted my words until they fit as close to my experience as possible. Of course, I know only God has just the right words, because his Word made those waves.
Poetry disciplines us to pay attention and fit our words to whatever reality comes before us. Poetry thereby increases our charity and humility—at least if we poetize out of love.
Training in Metaphor
Poetry trains the mind in the discovery and use of metaphor (seeing something as something else), which is a central aspect to our role as verbal/mental sub-creators. Christians should be visionaries, and a visionary is someone who sees wholes instead of parts. When the Bible calls Christ the “Lion of Judah,” it is saying that several important characteristics of lions transfer to Christ. Lions are kingly, for instance. The similarity between a lion and a human king and Christ is built into creation, but it and other correspondences need to be discovered and spun out by the poet.
We should care about images and how they can be captured in speech. We should seek to communicate through likenesses between various creatures and realms. One of the strongest forces in C. S. Lewis’s apologetics is his use of analogies (extended metaphors). Perhaps you are familiar with the “invasion” and “naval” analogies from Mere Christianity, or the “pond” and “philosophical limpet” analogies from Miracles. Here’s one of my favorites from the latter: death is the chess move whereby Satan takes God’s piece but loses the match several moves later.
Becoming Better Worshipers
Earlier I suggested that reading and writing poetry makes us better worshipers. To this I would add that close study of poetry develops a consciousness and vocabulary that enables us to better appreciate the poetry of Scripture. For all these reasons, poetry should play a central role in education and life. Christians should care for words, should care about finding the right words. They should study, love, and use the sound of words and the rhythm of sentences. This is what it means to be the image of a poetic God and to sub-create as he has commissioned us to do.
In the end, hardly anything seems more worthwhile than poetry.
Bret Saunders, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Humanities at John Witherspoon College in Rapid City, South Dakota. His research interests lie at the intersection of theology, philosophy, and literature.
This essay first appeared in Touchstone Magazine, 30.1, Jan/Feb 2016. Reprinted with permission.