3 Points on Poetry and Spirituality

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“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works…” – Eph. 2: 10 NKJV

It is generally understood, although not entirely appreciated, that when St. Paul used the word “workmanship” he was in fact using the word from which we derive our word “poem.” As such, an alternative translation of Ephesians 2:10 might suggest that Christians are the poetry of God. This provides a poignant image regarding both God’s intention and our design. In the few words that follow, I will briefly outline several ways Christians are human poetry.

Thinking about how I would frame these words, I began paging through Malcolm Guite’s excellent text, Faith, Hope and Poetry. I hoped to find a functional definition of “poetry” around which to organize my thoughts. Upon reflection, however, I decided that defining the word would diminish the mystery of its transcendent nature. To compose good poetry means that in some way we must embrace a mystery. Human beings, like any great poem, are mysterious and yet revelatory. Although we may know many things about the human person, a great many things evade our understanding. We are an enigmatic mixture of “letters,” “words,” “sentences,” “paragraphs,” and “punctuations” that, when properly “articulated,” communicates the person, power, and purposes of God. Our human mystery in some way communicates the Divine Mystery. As Christians, we must embrace the Muse who is the creator and center of our mysterious creation and calling.

1) Poetry is a form of language that uses an economy of words.

When I again began to write poetry, after many years of neglect, I started by writing Haiku. To me, Haiku’s subtle brevity communicates a breadth, a depth, and a beauty that is often lost when many words are used. Haiku requires one to speak wisely, deeply, and succinctly. After some time, when I began to have my extended poetry published, one of my friends gave me a very high compliment without ever knowing my deepest intention. “Your poetry,” he said, “sounds like Haiku.” This was exactly what I wanted. If we are faithful followers of Jesus Christ, the Logos, our lives and our lips will communicate an economy of language that, in its economy, speaks most profoundly. Let us remember that Jesus Christ himself, the word become flesh, verbally said little. Our lips and our lives must communicate a Christian economy that reflects the Logos.

2) Poetry also embraces an order of language that communicates truth efficiently and effectively.

There are, of course, many forms of poetry. Some forms of poetry deeply resonate for us. Other poetic forms do not in any way touch us at our deepest level. Whatever the form, however, great poetry always has an order that most effectively communicates the subject matter. We may or may not like Shakespeare’s Sonnets, but there is absolutely no doubt about his ability to effectively communicate truth. He does not meander about. Every word and image used by Shakespeare had intention. Every word and image had place and purpose in order to communicate most powerfully. An ordered economy of language, through our lips and through our lives, has pneumatic potential to speak as God speaks and to reveal as God reveals. As followers of the Word, we too must find ways to be and communicate truth effectively and efficiently. We must, as such, live poetically ordered and orchestrated lives — pneumatic lives with pneumatic purpose and power.

3) Poetry has a unique personality that in some way hearkens to the person who wrote it.

Poets and poetry, even if they use the same poetic forms, are not the same. The poetry of Dana Gioia and Mark Jarman are in some ways radically different. W. H. Auden and T. S. Eliot communicate in vastly different ways. The Seasonal poetry of Malcolm Guite is substantially different than his Anglo-Catholic predecessor John Keble. Scott Cairns and Saint Ephraim are different poets, although they share certain ideas. Haiku differs from Haiku, New Formalism differs from New Formalism, and every Christian has a different personality. This is important. The “poetry” which God has written us to be, His human means of “writing straight with crooked lines,” is uniquely suited to who we are in Christ Jesus. While all of us must address our “grammatical” sins and shortcomings, the poetry that God has created each of us to be must be written and communicated distinctly. Each human “poem,” when entirely submitted to the Master Poet, will individually communicate what is most needed in the cultural context within which God has written our narrative. In short, the poetry who is the committed Christian has purpose.

Becoming a good poet takes time. Craft is developed. We may be graced with a gift, but every gift needs work. By God’s grace, through God’s saving and sanctifying work, we may indeed be a great “manuscript” with both divine and human potential. Nevertheless, we all need extensive “editing.” May the poetry which God has written us to be increasingly reflect the image of God as found in, through and by Jesus Christ.

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