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Violet Nesdoly PhotoTwelve Ways…
to inject new life into your poems of faith
Copyright©2010 by Violet Nesdoly

This is our twenty-second column in the "Poet's Classroom" series.

“Every age has its bad poets, but the last quarter of the twentieth century seems to have spawned more of them than any other," says Jill P. Baumgaertner in a Christianity Today article. She goes on: "I know whereof I speak, having served as poetry editor for three religious publications and as an editorial board member for a secular literary journal. Most of the poetry that comes across my desk is pretty bad. Not only are the majority of these poems technically deficient, they are also usually boring. I am always looking for inspired poems, those that will break through my mundane world and shake me up a bit, but more often I find predictable arrangements of words and lines, stale descriptions, and a predilection for anything other than the concrete image, which is the foundation of good poetry."1

Dick Hayes suggests one reason for the blandness. Such poems often "slip into repetitive reuse of a phraseology founded in the enthusiasm and high sentiments of the popular hymn writer of the evangelical revival," he says in an Utmost article.2 In other words, we're still trying to write the type of poem that communicated to poetry lovers 40 or 50 years ago—poetry that resembles the songs of Charles Wesley or John Newton. These are usually written in the poetry styles of the past and are often replete with the meaningful but overworked vocabulary of religion.

Though such writings still have their appeal in some circles, society in general has moved on. Thus if we want our poems of faith to connect with people of our generation, we need to do two things:

• Get in touch with what we believe—the stories, doctrines, our own experiences—on such a personal level that we can write about them using our own modern vocabulary.

• Become familiar with the forms and styles of modern poets and have the courage to try them ourselves.

This article will not provide guidance on how to interact with God and faith so that we can write about them in our own words. But we will try to help break through old ideas about religious poems—how they look, sound, what they say. To help with that we will look at six creativity strategies and apply them to writing poems of faith. We will also look at six poems from the Utmost gallery for more ideas on how to write faith poems that are relevant to modern readers.

1. Idea Box3

This creative strategy can be used to solve all kinds of problems, including how to write an engaging poem about faith.

a. List all the major elements involved in the issue or problem.
For the purpose of our example, let's make our problem writing a poem about the resurrection of Jesus. And let's say the major elements of our problem are:

           – subject matter,
           – point of view and
           – the form in which we will write the poem.

List each variable under each element.

          Subject matter lists:

i] References of Gospel accounts of the resurrection.
ii] Your memories of Easter from childhood.
iii] Your memories of Easter from adulthood.
iv] Commonly used resurrection symbols—ike the butterfly, egg, lily, etc.

          Point of view could list:

i] Names of various characters from resurrection narratives.
ii] Yourself as a child.
iii] Yourself as an adult.
iv] Your child watching you as an adult, etc.

          Form of the poem might list:

i] Sonnet.
ii] Pantoum.
iii] Free verse.
iv] Dramatic monologue, etc. (Any form of poetry with which you are familiar and occurs to you as a possible form for your poem.)

c. Combine the variables in different ways.
For example, you could choose to write about the resurrection from the perspective of one of the guards at the tomb. You decide to have him tell his wife what he experienced and saw, so you choose to write in the natural conversational tone of free verse. You might come up with several combinations.

d. Analyze your ideas and decide which one(s) to pursue.

2. Brainstorm

Brainstorming is writing down every idea that occurs to you. You've probably already done this. A variation is to brainstorm with others. If you can't get together with other poets in person, brainstorm cooperative lists online in forums or chat rooms. Remember to uphold the usual brainstorming rule of quantity over quality. In other words, include all ideas—the good, bad and indifferent. When you're in possession of the list, combine and change the ideas to your heart's content. And don't worry if you and other poets use the same idea. Your poems will come out differently in any case.

3. Reverse brainstorm

Alter your brainstorm list by changing your perspective and expressing positives as negatives. Define what something is not. If, for example, your brainstormed list of ideas on poems about the resurrection included: "A resurrection poem is about light," you might reverse that to say, "A resurrection poem is not about darkness." Obviously every reversed idea will not lead to a poem, but some may.

4. Attribute listing

a. Select a Bible story that is meaningful to you. E.g. Jesus' story of the Prodigal Son.
b. Read it in the Bible and break it into its parts or scenes.
c. Think of a way to portray each scene. Take into account the point of view you want to speak from, the form, and how this story speaks to your personally. (If you want to get really thorough, you could go through the "Idea Box" procedure above.)
d. Combine the various elements in a new way, thus creating a poetry retelling of the story. You may come up with a poem sequence, or a ballad, or a free verse rant by the older brother.

5. Random Element

a. Define the problem.
b. Then introduce a random element, such as a picture, or a word picked out of a dictionary, or a false rule (e.g. "You cannot repeat any word") which you must then relate to your problem.

6. Role play

Take on the identity of a Bible or historical character. Write a poem in his or her voice. This is great way to help you understand and experience what the heroes of faith went through. The Gallery has many such poems. In "Israel's Girl" by Emma Akuffo explores the Bible character Rachel. In "Cursed" Shelly Bryant explores Satan's thoughts on being told he would from that time forward crawl on his belly.

7. Do something modern and surprising with a Christian story or symbol

Jennifer Galey transposes the New Testament Bible stories of miracles into the setting of a museum in "Museum of Miracles."

Elizabeth Cole does something similar in "Carve Your Name Into the Cross." There she describes herself performing an action on the cross (carving her name into it) that in our culture indicates a way of declaring our ownership of it.

8. Write in a form

Take a common subject of poetry and challenge yourself to write about it within the confines of a form. Christopher Alexion's poem about the resurrection—"Christus Victor"—is a sonnet. Other poems that do this with success are Barbara Colebrook Peace's pantoum "Innkeeper's Song" from her book Duet for Wings and Earth, and D. S. Martin's ghazal "Easter Ghazal" from Poiema.

9. Focus a poem on a mystical moment from your life

Claudia Burney's "Hush Song" would seem to be such a poem. So would Charles Baker's "The Conversion."

10. Write about an aspect of your spiritual life using simile or metaphor

Think about your spiritual life—your faith, your prayer life, your devotional life. Complete this sentence: "My faith is like…" or "My prayers are like…" or "My devotional life is like…"

Write a poem using the imagery that occurs to you. Try to expand the simile or metaphor through the entire poem as Mary Lou Cornish does in "Spider-web Faith."

11. Write a questioning poem

Are there some of the teachings of the Bible or the church that don't line up with your life? Work your questions and conflicts into a poem, as Mary Lou Cornish has in "I Chased My Healing." Can you come to a resolution, as this poem does?

12. Write an ekphrastic poem

Ekphrastic poetry "imitates, describes, critiques, dramatizes, reflects upon, or otherwise responds to a work of nonliterary art, especially the visual."4 Write a poem about your favorite religious work of art. (If you need inspiration, browse through the hundreds of the paintings linked at Biblical Art on the WWW.) John Dreyer's "The Madonna's Blue Sky Morning" is an ekphrastic poem.

Hopefully these twelve ways of thinking about your faith in terms of poetry will lead to poems that are fresh and communicate to poetry-lovers of our generation. Explore more poems in the Gallery and Archive here at Utmost to find additional ideas and examples. Then come back in June when we'll take a look at the ode in my final "Poet's Classroom" column.

Coming June 1:
In her final column Violet will discuss "Odes."

Did you find this article helpful? Please let us know.

Copyright ©2010 by Violet Nesdoly


Endnotes:

1 Jill Baumgaertner, "Poetry: Why Bother?", Christianity Today, November/December 2000,last accessed March 10 , 2010 (preview only).

2 Dick Hayes, "Does Christian Poetry Need a Revival?" Utmost Christian Writers, © 2003, last accessed April 20, 2010.

3 This idea and several others are adapted from techniques described in "20 Creative Thinking Techniques" by Marelisa Fábrega, Abundance Blog at Marelisa Online, last accessed April 20, 2010.

4 John Drury, The Poetry Dictionary, Writer's Digest Books (Cincinnati OH, 2006), 84.