What We Believe
i

Novelist and poet Larry Woiwode, and Leland Ryken, professor of English and author, are always lamenting the lack of interest in literature and poetry among pastors. They are doing their best to make a difference. But why bother? Well, I’m here to tell you.

Poet Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, raised worrisome concerns about the state of literary reading in America in the 1990s. Building on an alarming trend, Gioia sounded the alarm in dramatic fashion in 2004 and 2007 with reports “Reading at Risk” and “To Read or Not to Read.” He was often criticized as a doomsayer. But, because parents and educators, including the NEA, did not simply accept this as an irreversible trend, the 20 percent decline in literary reading in the youngest age group surveyed (ages 18–24) in 2002 was reversed to a dramatic 21 percent increase in 2008, as presented by Gioia in a subsequent NEA report “Reading on the Rise.”[2] Sadly the only area of literary reading that continues to decline is poetry.

One of my favorite editorial writers recently lumped poets in with the dilettante, second-generation, trust fund rich kids. Poetry is the literature par excellence of daydreamers.[3] Walter Mitty’s early twentieth-century daydreaming[4] was thought to be a disease we moderns should consider vaccinating out of existence. But, unlike polio, it is not, I would argue, a disease, but a cure for our modern dis-ease.

1. Poetry Is a Thoroughly Biblical Medium of Communication

I always begin my lectures on media ecology by asking if anyone in the audience likes poetry. Invariably only a few say “Yes.” Then I tell them that I’m certain that they do like poetry, because they like the Bible—God’s Word is over one third poetry.

Poetry’s place in the Bible should inspire us to give it prominence in the preparation and practice of preaching. Would a prophet write a poem to communicate God’s truth? Jacob, David, and countless others biblical writers did. One third of the Bible is poetry.

We must admit that our tendency—were we writing Scripture—would be to write a journal article or a lecture. Perhaps we even secretly wonder if the literary forms in which the Bible was written are the best modes of communicating. This is because we are mostly “silent” readers. But the original audience of both testaments would not even have had the luxury of owning manuscripts unless they were very wealthy—the average cost of a book would have been equivalent to a working man’s annual income. The Bereans in Acts 17 would have had to go to the synagogue in order to search the Scriptures. Ordinarily through all of the millennia of Bible history the primary access to God’s Word among God’s people was through hearing the Scriptures read and preached.[5] Thus the patterns of sound in the structure of the text would need to be memorable—and so they are. A large portion of the Bible is written in poetry and poetic structures like the chiasm. But how often do we take advantage of this in the preparation and delivery of sermons?

In Ephesians 2:10 Paul says that “we are his workmanship, ποίημα, (poetry, literally poiēma, emphasis mine), created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”

2. Poetry Fosters the Creative Pleasure and Discovery That Serendipity Allows

Poetry affords the preacher the cultivation of meditation and daydreaming. Since it takes time to understand, it slows us down.

I believe one of the reasons poetry is generally out of favor is that we have very little time for daydreaming in our electrified lives. Thus, we have little chance for the creative pleasure and discovery that serendipity allows. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines serendipity:

the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way: a fortunate stroke of serendipity | a series of small serendipities. … coined by Horace Walpole, suggested by The Three Princes of Serendip, the title of a fairy tale in which the heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” [6]

The difficulty of understanding poetry inhibits its ascendency in our culture because such understanding takes meditation time and concentration. Of course, poetry slams have appeared in venues throughout America. Although this gives a glimmer of hope, it does not usually represent the kind of appreciation that grows out of a deep reading of the best poetry in the English language. I have even encountered disdain among slammers for the forms and discipline of the greatest poets. But this is not to say they are not onto something important. They read or recite their poetry in small public settings. This is a good thing.

3. Poetry Helps Foster a Love of Words, the Basic Material of Preaching

In poetry every word counts. The density and intensity of poetic words make poetry especially helpful for the preacher.

Poetry teaches us to love words—their sounds and their meanings. The preacher must cultivate a love for the English language, especially the spoken word. Ransack the best dictionaries. Above all read aloud. Choose the best poetry and prose and read it aloud. Read the Psalms, George Herbert, Dylan Thomas, Shakespeare, the essays and stories of G. K. Chesterton, Hillaire Belloc, Stephen Leacock, Christopher Morley—aloud!

How poorly we ministers often are at reading Scripture in public. Many seek to overcome the monotone by over-reading. The proper expression should be a heightened form of our ordinary speech—each word weighted according to its position and meaning. The King James Version is best suited to the practice of reading Scripture aloud, not because it is a perfect or even the best translation—I am not recommending it for public worship, only for practice—but because it was produced in a golden age of orality. One thing is certain: the Authorized Version was translated to be read aloud in churches. The Authorized title says: “appointed to be read in churches.” This certainly did not mean silent, private reading. Reading aloud—even to yourself—impresses the beauty and power of the richest language in history into your oral memory. Words are your tools. Labor to be a wordsmith. As McLuhan said, “language itself is the principal channel and view-maker of experience for men everywhere.”[7] “The spoken word involves all the senses dramatically.”[8] The preached Word is the most powerful “view-maker” of all, as it corrects the idolatrous “view-making” propagated by our fallen world, especially by the electronic media. The preached Word inculcates the redemptive “view-making” of the heavenly reality of the incarnate Logos.

Poet Paul Engle:

Poetry is ordinary language
raised to the Nth power.
Poetry is boned with ideas,
nerved and blooded with emotions,
all held together by the delicate,
tough skin of words.

A poem is words patterned to impress. This is the genius of hymnody. Poetry and song—the music of the human voice—are very closely related. Not every poem would make a hymn, since hymns must be accessible as well as good poetry. Hymns also need a metrical structure such that each verse is the same length. One could hardly make hymns of most of T. S. Eliot’s religious poems, whereas many of Christina Rossetti’s poems were specifically written to be sung in worship.

Love Came Down at Christmas
Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830–1894)

Love came down at Christmas,
love all lovely, Love divine;
Love was born at Christmas;
star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, Love divine;
worship we our Jesus,
but wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token;
love be yours and love be mine;
love to God and others,
love for plea and gift and sign.

Frost’s definition of poetry “the sound of sense” gets at the essence of poetry. But the reverse does, too. W. H. Auden had this to say about what makes good poetry and poets,

A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with the language. … [I]t is certainly the sign by which one recognizes whether a young man is potentially a poet or not. “Why do you want to write poetry?” If the young man answers: “I have important things to say,” then he is not a poet. If he answers: “I like hanging around words listening to what they say,” then maybe he is going to be a poet.[9]

Preachers should love “hanging around words,” they are the raw material of his preaching, and preaching is primarily an oral, not a written, discipline, although the two are clearly closely related.

Nothing Gold Can Stay (a secular poem)
Robert Frost (1874–1963)

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Qoheleth, the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, informs us about the powerful beauty of words,

Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth. The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. (Eccles. 12:9–12)

In the age of bits and bytes we are told that science alone gives us truth. Thus, we are suspicious of poetry. Many Christians believe that all talk of literary structures undermines our confidence in God’s Word. The creation debates in our own circles often yield such ideas. Poetry enshrined the Exodus event in many Psalms. They are no less historical or true for being poetry. Poetry in the Bible presents truth in memorable form.

The words of the sage in this text are carefully crafted divine wisdom, “arranging many proverbs with great care.” This is wisdom for living in a fallen world, especially to leave the mystery of the injustice of the vain, i.e. “wacky” world, in the hands of God. We are called to recognize our limits. To communicate this, we are reminded that God’s Word is crafted with care “weighing and studying and arranging.” It is divinely designed with a purpose. So, artfully wrought truth is communicated. Good design in architecture involves three dimensions: firmness, commodity, and delight. A good building must be well-made, useful, and beautiful. So Scripture is all of these.

In verse 10 we see that Quoheleth sought to use “words of delight” (khapets חֵפֶץ). The basic meaning is to feel great favor towards something. The Author of beauty gave literary skill to the human authors of Scripture in order to memorably communicate “words of truth” (emet אֱמֶת)”—correct or orthodox words. Truth and beauty go hand in hand. The medium is entirely suited to the message. The medium and the message are perfectly complimentary as they teach us the beauty of God’s grace. This should give us confidence in our task of communicating God’s Word.

One of the best aids in this discipline is poetry read aloud, one of our God’s favorite literary forms, as we learn from Scripture. Read the best English poetry from Chaucer to Frost aloud, with special attention to the Psalms. The King James Version is, as I have said, best suited to this. Prayer, according to the Psalmist is oral: “I cry out to the LORD with my voice …” (Ps. 142:1). Note the rhythmic cadences of Psalm 100:

Psalm 100 A Psalm of praise

Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands.
Serve the LORD with gladness:
        come before his presence with singing.
Know ye that the LORD he is God:
        it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves;
        we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter into his gates with thanksgiving,
        and into his courts with praise:
        be thankful unto him, and bless his name.
For the LORD is good;
        his mercy is everlasting;
        and his truth endureth to all generations.

So you must have a love affair with words. The preacher must cultivate a love for the English language, especially the spoken word. Winston Churchill, one of the greatest orators of all time, wrote his speeches in verse form.

4. Reading and Memorizing Poetry Trains Us to Meditate Deeply on Texts

I also think the decline of poetry is due to a lack of reading aloud, especially hearing poetry well read or recited. What I have discovered in my “memory walks” is that by memorizing poetry, through regular oral repetition, the meaning becomes clearer with time. Memory muscles are exercised along with the physical. The sound of the words begins to sink in. But few of us have patience to repeat poems aloud until it is etched in our memories. That is why I have learned to combine it with my daily two-mile walk.

Reading and memorizing poetry trains us to meditate deeply on texts. The compression of language in good poetry forces the reader to pay attention to the details of grammar and punctuation. It thus tends to make us better oral communicators, speaking in memorable sentences, and—a near miracle for Reformed preachers—making our preaching more concise. I have often finished leading worship before noon since engaging in this exercise. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was a little over two minutes long (280 words), while the forgotten Oration by famed orator Edward Everett was over two hours long (13,508 words). The next day Everett wrote to Lincoln, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”[10]

It is also important to read more accessible poets. Herbert is surely one of them, although not every poem he wrote is as accessible as “Submission.”

Submission (a sacred poem)
George Herbert (1593–1633)

But that thou art my wisdome, Lord,
        And both mine eyes are thine,
My minde would be extreamly stirr’d
        For missing my designe.

Were it not better to bestow
        Some place and power on me?
Then should thy praises with me grow,
        And share in my degree.

But when I thus dispute and grieve,
        I do resume my sight,
And pilfring what I once did give,
        Disseize thee of thy right.

How know I, if thou shouldst me raise,
        That I should then raise thee?
Perhaps great places and thy praise
        Do not so well agree.

Wherefore unto my gift I stand;
        I will no more advise:
Onely do thou lend me a hand,
        Since thou hast both mine eyes.

Poetry, also, as all good literature, gives us insight into the human condition, and in the case of sacred poets like George Herbert, insight into God and his Word.

5. Poetry Helps Cultivate the Color and Cadence of Pulpit Speech

As we learn the rhythms and cadences of the spoken word in reading, so the entire sermon should be varied in intensity, rich in linguistic diversity and acoustic texture. Poetry can teach us this. The verbal economy of poetry makes every word tell. Poetry can help us cultivate more concise speech patterns in our preaching.

“The Pulley” by George Herbert (1593-1633)

When God at first made man,
Having a glasse of blessings standing by,
‘Let us,’ said he, ‘poure on him all we can;
Let the world’s riches, which dispersèd lie,
Contract into a span.’

So strength first made a way;
The beautie flow’d, then wisdome, honour, pleasure;
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure,
Rest in the bottome lay.

‘For if I should,’ said he,
‘Bestow this jewell also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.

‘Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessnesse;
Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,
If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse
May tosse him to my breast.’

Poetry is invaluable in teaching us the rhythms and cadences of the spoken word. One of the best ways to develop oral skill is to pay attention to how others read—to the best oral presentation. John Gielgud’s recitation of Shakespeare’s sonnets is incomparable.

Poetry is one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity, because language powerfully reflects the very essence of who God is and how he has made us in his image. So, it is no surprise that poetic structure should be found throughout the Bible. As we take time to recite and meditate upon good poetry, it shapes us and enriches our own communication, especially for preachers of God’s Word.

Endnotes

[1] This essay is adapted from a presentation entitled “Pastors and Poets: The Value of Poetry for Pastors,” given at Westminster Seminary in California, on January 29, 2015.

[2] Dana Gioia, “Reading on the Rise,” https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/ReadingonRise.pdf.

[3] Gregory E. Reynolds, “The Value of Daydreaming” Ordained Servant 21 (2012): 18–20.

[4] James Thurber, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” The New Yorker, March 18, 1939, 19–20. This was made into a movie in 1947.

[5] This point is made over and over again by Hughes Oliphant Old in his monumental multi-volume series The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church in 6 volumes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998-2007). This is a rich historical resource with excellent commentary and extensive bibliography and indexes. And it is more than a history of preaching, loaded with biblical and historical wisdom for the preacher.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Marshall McLuhan, “Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters,” in The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion, edited by Eric McLuhan and Jacek Szlarek (Toronto: Stoddart, 1999), 2–3.

[8] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 77–78.

[9] W. H. Auden, “Squares and Oblongs,” in Poets at Work (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1948), 171.

[10] Bob Green, “The Forgotten Gettysburg Addresser,” The Wall Street Journal (June 22–23, 2013): A15.

Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, June 2021.

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Ordained Servant: June 2021

Poetry for Preaching and Enjoyment

Also in this issue

Your Personal Odyssey in Stereo

The Writings of Meredith G. Kline on the Book of Revelation: Chapter 2, “The First Resurrection” (1975)

Commentary on the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapters 18–20

Medical Technology: A Blessing Not to Be Idolized: A Review Article

Pastors and Their Critics: A Guide to Coping with Criticism in the Ministry by Joel R. Beeke and Nick Thompson

Ars Poetica—A Medley

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