On the Value of Poetry
I can’t quite recall the first poem that I ever read, but I am almost certain that it was something by Dr. Seuss. I would even bet that it was probably Green Eggs and Ham, with such memorable lines as:
I do not like green eggs and ham.
I do not like them, Sam-I-am.
All kidding aside, for a child, a little book like Green Eggs and Ham is a decent introduction to poetry. By the time you’re finished reading it, you’ll be at least lightly acquainted with the ways that stanzas and rhythms and imagery all come together to form an experiential mosaic that we call a poem. Indeed, Green Eggs and Ham even reveals a timely truth: there are some things you shouldn’t knock until you’ve tried.
So while Dr. Seuss may be a good primer for poetry, I fear that many of us don’t really grow beyond a Seussian understanding of poems - which is not only a massive disservice to our intellect and hearts, but also a major stumbling block for our understanding of God.
Why Bother with Poetry?
I think it’s more than fair to say that most poets are trying to help us experience something. They want to impart an emotion or a feeling or an idea into the bowels of our heart, they want to invite you to step into the mysteries of life and creation; and language is the tool that they utilize to try and accomplish this, language formed in a mold that is unique from prose or other forms of writing. When a poem is well-constructed, it has a way of transporting us and enrapturing us in wonderful ways.
This is significant, because God has revealed a great deal of himself and his ways through poetry. I don’t think it would be far off to say that one-third of the Bible is framed within the boundary lines of poetry. The Psalms immediately come to mind: a 150 chapter book of the Bible that’s nothing but poems! But there are also the prophets and Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon and the songs sprinkled throughout the rest of the Old Testament, not to mention the poems and doxologies of the New Testament.
With so much of Scripture composed of poems, a failure to understand and grapple with poetry will effectively cut us off from an enormous portion of God’s word - and thus, we will be cut off from a deeper and more intimate relationship with him.
This is particularly problematic because we’re generally a practical and pragmatic people, and poetry at its purest doesn’t really fit into those categories. We generally want direct, step-by-step instructions that are readily applicable to any and all scenarios, we generally want lists of “Do This and Avoid That to Succeed,” and we generally don’t want poems with head-scratching phrases and cryptic images - so perhaps the question we’re left with now is: why did God choose poetry as a way of revealing himself in the first place?
Though this is certainly not all-inclusive, here are two major thoughts to consider.
Poetry Can Reveal the Concealed
There are certain realities that are almost impossible to truly and accurately express. For instance, God the Father is spirit and no one has seen him (John 4:24, 1 John 4:12), so how in the world can we communicate what he is like? How can we adequately express what it is like to know him and love him?
One answer is to simply keep silence and embrace the mystery, which can be a good and healthy thing when done in reverence and awe (Ecclesiastes 3:7, Habakkuk 2:20). But an alternative that we see employed throughout Scripture is poetry, because poetry is oftentimes an attempt to reveal something that is concealed, or to express something that is otherwise inexpressible.
Think of the Psalms. Through the beauty of metaphor and simile, God uses the psalmists to show us aspects of himself that can only be conveyed poetically. When David writes in Psalm 18:2 that God is his rock and his fortress, he is not saying that God is literally a rock or literally a stone fortress; he is saying that God is as solid and firm as a rock, that God is as protective and strong as a fortress. He is setting before our mind’s eye things that we can see, in order to help us understand things about the God that we have not seen.
Poetry Forces Us to Slow Down
Another immense virtue of poetry is found in its ability to slow us down. Paraphrasing author Zack Eswine, I think it’s safe to say that we’re addicted to searching for things that are larger, faster, and better. But poetry does not concern itself with any of that; good poetry will not allow us to simply read it, apply it, and then move on with our lives.
Good poetry demands that we dawl a bit. It insists that we take a leisurely stroll with it, it asks us to stop and take note of the color of the leaves, it points out the unexpected ways that people speak to one another and the surprising ways that God speaks to us. Poetry reminds us starkly that if we decide to continue our frenzied rushing, if we refuse to slow down, we are apt to miss the very substance of what we’re seeking.
So when we come to a psalm or to an extended metaphor in Isaiah or to a doxology in Romans, we are afforded the opportunity to cease our striving for a few moments; we are beckoned to withdraw to a desolate place in our hearts to think and pray and marvel at the God who calls us his own.
And that is, of course, the chief beauty here: the Holy Spirit using the poetry of God to bring us to God.