Writing Poetry of the Spirit
by Violet Nesdoly
This is our twenty-first column in the "Poet's Classroom" series.
“I am convinced the kind of experience—the kind of knowledge—one gets from poetry cannot be duplicated elsewhere. The spiritual life wants articulation—it wants embodiment in language." Edward Hirsch1
Though poetry may not be popular in our culture or the modern church, poetry and the textbook of our faith—the Bible—are no strangers. Whole books of the Bible are made up of poems (Psalms, Song of Solomon). Many Bible writers of prose inserted large chunks of poetry into their narratives, essays or speeches (the Pentateuch, the Major and Minor Prophets). Jesus' teachings and stories are full of poetic devices (metaphor, allegory, symbol, parallelism). Even Paul, the Bible's premiere logician, was skilled in using poetic language (he described the Christian life as a race, the church as a body, the prepared Christian as clothed in armor). If you enjoy reading poetry about faith, you are in good company.
Hirsch's statement can be applied to reading poetry, but how much more does it fit with writing it! In this article we're going to look at ways writing poetry helps us articulate our spiritual life and in this way benefits us as Christian writers. We will talk about how it does that in two areas: by challenging us to find and express truth and by helping us become modern-day disciples in the transformation of our imaginations.
1. Poetry challenges writers to find and express truth
Jill Baumgaertner paraphrasing Kenneth Koch's ideas from his book, Making Your Own Days, says: "What poets look for is the truth of experience and the means of expressing it…Poetry forces the writer to pay attention and find what is true."2
What kinds of truth does poetic expression about God and our life with Him express? It often differs from truths about God that we read in factual statements from theology books because it is non-literal. "Poetry evokes a language that moves beyond the literal and consequently, a mode of thinking that moves beyond the literal," says Edward Hirsch.3
Robert Frost explains it this way: "There are many other things I have found myself saying about poetry but the chiefest of these is that it is metaphor, saying one thing and meaning another, saying one thing in terms of another, the pleasure of ulteriority."4
Below are some poems that communicate truths about God and the Christian life in this non-literal, slant, ulterior way. As you read each one, ask yourself:
– What truth does this poem embody?
– Does the fact that the piece is a poem (as opposed to prose) help communicate that truth or blur it for you?
"Dead Word Walking" by James Beard
"By a Far Star's Account" by Cindy L. Beebe
Derailed" by Stephanie Roberts
"Crucified, Risen, Still Wounded" by Sandra Savage
One of the most powerful truths poetry communicates better than any theological treatise is that the Gospel is beyond our understanding. As Louis A. Markos says in a Christianity Today article: "Poetry with its desire to incarnate transcendent truths in material images while maintaining (via metaphors, symbols, allusions, etc.) a vital sense of play and interchange between the two, comes much closer than science, logic, or systematic theology to capturing the mystery inherent in the incarnation."5
Many of our favorite images of God possess that poetic mystery. He is called a refuge and fortress, given motherly attributes, pictured as a bird, called a shepherd, the Word, and letters of the Greek alphabet. Though these images of God are disparate and not meant to be taken literally, they begin to help us grasp the truth of who He is.
Read a poetic Bible passage, for example John 15:1-8. As you're reading ask yourself:
– What is the truth here?
– What poetic devices does the writer use? (metaphor, allegory, parallelism, hyperbole, rhyme, rhythm, the placement of the words on the page etc.)
– What aspects of truth (emotional, factual, relational) come across as a result of the writer using poetic devices.
Below is George Herbert's take on the theme we find in John 15.
I BLESSE thee, Lord, because I G R O W
Among thy trees, which in a R O W
To thee both fruit and order O W
What open force, or hidden C H A R M
Can blast my fruit, or bring me H A R M
While the inclosure is thine A R M?
Inclose me still for fear I S T A R T.
Be to me rather sharp and T A R T,
Than let me want thy hand and A R T.
When thou dost greater judgements S P A R E,
And with thy knife but prune and P A R E,
Ev'n fruitful trees more fruitfull A R E.
Such sharpness shows the sweetest F R E N D:
Such cuttings rather heal than R E N D:
And such beginnings touch their E N D.
I love Herbert's poem not only for the truth it expresses but for other things that are present just because it is a poem. The perfect rhyme at the end of each line gives it a sense of inevitability or completion. The trimming of the words is not only clever and playful, but illustrates the idea of pruning. (Notice the "OW" at the end of stanza one. I know it's meant to be pronounced "owe" but reading it as "ow"—an expression of pain—brings home another truth about all that cutting; it hurts!) The way the poet draws attention to the last word of each line by putting it in capitals also gives the reader a physical picture of something being trimmed.
2. Poetry helps writers become modern-day disciples by transforming the imagination
A handout given me by a professor in a poetry class I took years ago expresses our human dilemma well: "Poetry potentially has an important function in our discipleship…this function centers in the role that the imagination plays in our lives.… Our imaginations are fallen and they are nourished and shaped by the culture of a fallen world. The images of life and its meaning given us by all sorts of media harden and form a rigid shell about what a man is, a woman is, what is success, what is sex—at "habitual" set of images governs what we conceive real or possible.…The process of sanctification is, among other things, a process of dissolving, of smashing those layers of hardened and rigid imagination."6
The writer goes on to explain how we smash those layers of hardened and rigid imagination by replacing them with the images from God's Word. Writing poetry can help with that as we challenge ourselves to plumb the depths of Bible images with our imaginations and communicate our understanding in poetry.
The Bible is replete with interesting metaphors and word pictures. Set yourself the task of noticing them by marking them in your Bible. I did that for a while, underlining each image that seemed to have poem potential with an orange pencil crayon. Looking back through that Bible, here are some of the phrases I underlined: "double-minded man" (James 1:8), "Mercy triumphs over judgment" (James 2:13), "as long as I live in the tent of this body" (1 Peter 1:13), "speak from the viewpoint of the world" (1 John 4:5). Now I haven't, to this point, written a poem about each one of these. But can't you see interesting pictures in each of these fragments? Can you understand how giving them some thought would stretch the imagination along spiritual lines and on spiritual subjects?
One poem that did arise from that exercise is based on the phrase "build yourself up" from Jude 20. In it I attempted to show how building oneself up spiritually was similar to a physical workout.
Build Yourselves Up
But you, beloved, build yourselves up in your most holy faith–Jude 20
Warm up with worship
hands raised, spirit stretching
to the Almighty.
Increase the rhythm of the heart
with the jumping-jacks of praise.
Hop onto the treadmill of the Word
read it, study it,
meditate on it, memorize it.
Then it's down on the floor
for push-ups of confession
abdominal crunches of petition
and, firmly grasping others' weighty burdens,
bench presses of intercession—set after set.
Up on your feet again for step-ups of listening
then cool down walking in place, silent.
End with a song of thanksgiving
that pours from a well-toned heart.
Now go out to meet the day
your spirit radiating contentment and joy
flexible and strong from its workout
with faith, hope and love.
© 2004 by Violet Nesdoly
• Combine Bible study with factual research to explore Bible themes. Possible subjects:
• Use your imagination to write a poem or poems based on your findings.
Through the centuries writers have marked the trails of their spiritual journeys with poetry. The Gallery and Archive here at Utmost are filled with such poems written in a contemporary style. Some ancient poets you might also enjoy reading are George Herbert, John Donne, Annie Johnson Flint, Fanny Crosby, and Frances Ridley Havergal.
This April—National Poetry Month in both Canada and the U.S.—give some time to exploring and documenting your spiritual life by writing poems. Then come back next month when we'll focus on crafting poems that communicate our faith to modern readers in interesting ways.
Coming May 1:
We’ll continue our talk about "Writing Poetry of the Spirit."
Did you find this article helpful? Please let us know.
Copyright ©2010 by Violet Nesdoly
1 Edward Hirsch (How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love With Poetry, Harcourt, Brace & Co., Durham North Carolina, 1999) p. 6.
2 Jill Baumgaertner, “Poetry: Why Bother?”, Christianity Today, November/December 2000, last accessed March 10 , 2010 (preview only).
3 Edward Hirsch, p. 13.
4 Robert Frost, quoted in Edward Hirsch, p. 13.
5 Louis A. Markos, “Poetry-Phobic,” Christianity Today, October, 2001, last accessed March 10, 2010 (preview only).
6 Eugene Warren, “Imagining a New Heaven and Earth,” Sojourners, April, 1980, last accessed March 10, 2010 (title only linked in Sojourners archive—article not available online).