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Poetry – the eternal language of lovers, the voice of the half-mad aesthete and the lips of the heart and the prophet. But is poetry also the native tongue of the Lord of all creation?
I believe it must be. The Paradise of Christ is where numbers, words and thoughts become beautiful, and on this earth, poems may do that best. Poetry is one our few weapons in dealing with complex and fearful realities far beyond us. War, plague, love, life, grief, hope and eternity – these are the subjects of the Bible.
The Jewish psalmist/prophet David acknowledged this when he admitted “Neither have I walked in great matters, nor in wonderful things above me.”
Missing theological and linguistic degrees, I offer only a personal opinion but one with the weight of my life’s experience. Added to thousands of like-minded poetry lovers, shouldn’t that weigh in the mix with Greek diacritics or Hebrew adjectives?
Poetry has many things in common with any religion, but especially the one revealed in the Jewish-Christian Bible. Both deal with shadowy, insubstantial realms of feeling and existence, the untouched eternities we instinctively sense but can’t explain. We don’t know the exact date Christ returns, but it’s easier to wait when the beautiful promise is “until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts.”
Poetry evokes our wonder, curiosity or amazement, not just satisfaction of factual data – although some parts of the Bible do that also. The Bible is the expression of God to men using our own language, where man must find ways to say the unspeakable and define the indescribable.
Since the human condition and heart are the realms of scripture, poetry and all arts, when God speaks of us, He is emotive and highly metaphorical. The great prophet/poet Isaiah was especially exotic with extraordinary verbiage and imagery.
In Isaiah men are seeds, beasts, dogs, fountains and vomit, but “all flesh is grass.”
Using personification he poetically prophesies, “For as soon as Zion travailed, she brought forth her children” and the “trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
All physical senses are expressed in poetry; it has form, movement and sound at least in an abstracted, felt way. Biblical poets moved by the spirit of God also used hyperbole and anthropomorphism where “men howl for vexation of heart” or are “satisfied with the breasts of her consolations.”
Rather than a scholarly diagnosis of mental health, God speaks through Isaiah promising “beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning and the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.”
This is more than just flowery, imaginative language, but opens up previously unknown concepts and possibilities that we have neither experienced nor understood.
Writing of an unseen spiritual world requires the existence of metaphor and poetic imagery – using things we know to “call those things which are not, as though they were” (Romans 4: 17). Because there are no invented words to sufficiently convey the utterance of God, poetry is absolutely necessary.
Christian poet Richard Wilbur brought up the irony in metaphor saying it’s “odd that a thing is most itself when likened” to something else. Wilbur used the mundane sight of laundry himself to conjure angels.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;
Another great poet and Nobel winner Czeslaw Milosz wrote this about angels:
I have heard that voice many a time when asleep
and, what is strange, I understood more or less
an order or an appeal in an unearthly tongue,
Milosz valued the Bible enough to translate portions into Polish and for his modern audience who didn’t “get it” (or didn’t like it if they did), he clarified that all his “intellectual impulses” and writing were religious.
Most poets are somewhat spiritual, at least in choice of subject matter; even if they curse and deny God, they rarely entirely ignore him.
Scriptural poetry is fused into the consciousness of the Western world through constant cultural use. For instance, people may assume Martin Luther King Jr. was the author of the following quotation:
But let judgment run down as waters,
and righteousness as a mighty stream.
Rev. King recognized that God’s plea and extended metaphors for social change in the poetry of Amos also applied to his own time and often quoted it.
With fully one-third of the books of the Bible in some type of poetic form or embedded with poetry, its use by the writers hardly seems accidental. Beginning with the Song of Moses and Miriam (1200 B.C.) to the terrifying apocalyptic imagery of St John in the final book, its poetry spans nations, styles, languages and centuries.
Entire books of poems, such as Psalms and Song of Solomon, comprise the Jewish Bible, while portions of most have poetic form or content. Some claim that only Ezra, Nehemiah, Leviticus, Ruth, Esther, Haggai and Malachi are without poetry, but I beg to differ. Even there, lines of lyric beauty lay in wait, such as Ruth’s declaration of loyalty and love to her mother- in-law, still used in wedding ceremonies: “For whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried.”
Perhaps the oldest book of the Bible is Job’s great poetic lament on suffering. Many consider this poem the finest of the Old Testament and one of the greatest in all literature.
God poses these unanswerable questions to Job in his catastrophes: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? … While the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?”
His language cloaks any possible answers, draped in metaphor and mystery with added revelations about the creation. Job marvels at “singing stars” and the earth “turned as clay” and our conception of physics is routed, at least in Bacon and Newton’s time.
Even in translation the poetic impact still kicks, which is odd considering Hebrew poems rarely used rhyme, strict meter and assonance as Greeks or Europeans did. Instead they use vivid imagery, metaphor, repetition, acrostics and sometimes alliteration.
Biblical poetry is almost always emotional and personal. It declares fear, anger, judgment, grief and love. It laments, wails and rejoices as we do and is always an appeal to beauty in one form or another.
King David describes God’s people and the Messiah thusly: “Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power, in the beauties of holiness from the womb of the morning: thou hast the dew of thy youth” (Psalm 110).
A perplexing and conflicting image of the Ancient of Days, or will we be the ones dwelling in this inconsonant place – “the womb of the morning?”
God doesn’t address us in the language of merchants or mathematicians, but poetically, which implies a romantic and emotionally vested interest on his part.
I’m not claiming poets are prophets, and Allen Ginsburg alone could dispel that, but God seems involved in poetry. A good case can be made for the effects of the Bible on literature, though.
From Caedmon to Milton and Shakespeare, poetic form followed the use of the Bible in English. Proving cause and effect is impossible, but a large percentage of famed poets wrote on biblical subjects and allusions. Even secular poets borrowed from the Book and addressed their audience as members of a Christian world, either directly or by use of biblical speech and theme.
A question: Is dwindling Christianity in the West related in any way to the current lack of interest in poetry?
In a purely material world we don’t need poetry, religion or any of the arts; in fact there’s no good rationale for them at all in a spiritless universe. This is a modern view, though, and probably inconceivable before Marxism and Skinner boxes showed up.
Gaining so much knowledge, we face losing that innocence and wonder Christ loved in children, where ordinary things are understood and potentiated through imagination in faith.
Poetry and all art can force us from the daily-ness of life like shock therapy for the soul. It wakes us to question the oddness of living transitionally in a materialized form on this earth, as true aliens.
When we do that, the spiritual world doesn’t seem nearly as foreign or distant, even the Apocalypse of St John: “And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God “
Thanks to “Chapters into Verse” by Robert Atwan and Laurance Wieder; “Hebrew Narrative” by Tim Bulkeley; “Hebrew Poetry” by T. Witton Davies; and Westminster College.