Poetry in the Pulpit: 3 Elements of Good Poetry

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radical wesley sliderPoetry and pulpits need a reunion, or so says David Hatton. Why? Because the Bible is full of good poetry, and the Incarnation is, in a sense, the great Poem of God. But knowing some of the critical elements for writing “good poetry” may help in selecting poetry to share from the pulpit. Here are 3 elements of good poetry to help you make selections for sermons.

“What on earth is poetry good for anyway?”

This question may typify those forced to memorize complex rhymes in childhood or who had to decipher enigmatic verse in college. But it betrays a shallow understanding of history and psychology. Poetry, like music, is a universal language, common to every age and culture. It distills the essence of great movements and sometimes instigates them. It will never become extinct, thriving in the latest song lyrics or in such popular revivals of rhythmic rhyming as Rap. Each week, contemporary and traditional church services across denominations worship with poetry wed to melody. Poem-making will last as long as humans sing, which means that poets will be composing new songs in Heaven.

Excellent poetry abounds in Scripture. This fact should spark a serious theological examination of its nature and relevance in communicating truth. Our neglect in such a task is comparable to our delay in exploring and encouraging the visual arts. Lately we’ve begun the latter, but the momentum of reawakening from our long moratorium on “the arts” can barely keep pace with today’s growing enthrallment with verbal and visual aesthetics.

Christian professors draw from secular expertise to teach the appreciation of “good” painting and poetry. Christian students, gravitating toward these creative disciplines, may not always connect the dots pointing to the Author of creativity. In Poems that Touch the Heart, A. L. Alexander quotes from an unknown author: “The books of theologians gather dust upon my shelves, but the pages of the poets are stained with my fingers and blotted with my tears.”

Poetry and pulpits need a reunion. But knowing the critical ingredients for writing “good poetry” may help in selecting “good poems” to convey spiritual truth.

1. Imitation

In Poetics, Aristotle said that through “the instinct of imitation . . . implanted in man from childhood, . . .[he] learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated.” Imitative poetry facilitates communication. News media stories may illustrate life’s lessons, but there’s innate joy in absorbing the same lessons from a fairy tale or a play. Novices need instruction, but role-playing speeds up the assimilation of their required behaviors. Modeled practices eventually become real-life performances.

Imitation captures the imagination through description. Again, Aristotle called metaphorical skill a “mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.” One impact of effective poetry is to portray a situation or attitude, a vice or a virtue, so well that the listener says, “This resembles that!” Good poets, like good artists, depict situations that people can easily recognize or sentiments they can tangibly identify with.

2. Harmony

Successful poetry draws us in with order, symmetry and balance. In Studies in Words, C. S. Lewis tells beginning poets to achieve such rapport “by offering the right stimuli to our nerves (in the right degree and the right order), and by the very beat and vowel-melody and length and brevity or your sentences.” Rhythm and rhyme have a reason.

Harmonious decor is part of the “taste” at pleasant restaurants that calls us to return. This latent element in poetry, music, artwork, stories, or even in commercials—luring us watch or listen to them again— is called “repeat closure.” It’s a principle of creative design based on how humans enjoy following an involved process to its climax and resolution. It’s why parables and fables bear repeating, why we watch certain movies over and over, why we revisit the same waterfall via the same long hike.

Both imitation and harmony earmark well-crafted poetry, and their quality assures their value in communicating. But neither alone explains what poetry is good for.

3. Insight

Poems that outlive their authors contain insight, enlightenment, epiphany. These are the kind we should hear from our pulpits. Some are sermons in themselves, never failing to communicate, even when we do.

Such poetry is rather mysterious. It emerges from the soul’s depths, perhaps even from inner revelation. The mechanics of verse-formation may be learned in a classroom. But being caught up with a galvanizing insight that compels creative expression is akin to what biblical prophets experienced. If Amos cried, “The lion hath roared, who will not fear? the Lord GOD hath spoken, who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8, KJV), neither can true Christian poets sit idle with insights of that order burning in their hearts.

The best appeal for poetry’s return to the pulpit is Christ Himself. Humans write poetry only because they image the Supreme Poet, whose greatest Poem is the embodiment of the Word.

“The Perfect Poem”

When a poet is a prophet,
When the singing strikes and stings
At the shifting social conscience
Modern foolish thinking brings,
We’re reminded of the Poem
From God’s lips of love sublime:
Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate,
Perfect rhythm, perfect rhyme.

God spoke nature into being:
Beasts and rivers, rocks and hills,
Trees and sunsets, stars and seasons,
Human passions, human wills . . .
Then, because we failed to listen,
God in perfect harmony,
With Himself the Song and Music,
Sang to us His Melody.

Passions twisted and perverted
By our wills that went astray
Wander blindly through a wasteland
That we know so well today.
But God’s law still speaks within us
By true guilt when we are wrong,
And true grace will only greet us
At the singing of His Song.

There is hope for our confusion—
Dissonance from sins we sung.
Hear the rhapsody of passion
On the cross where Jesus hung:
Perfect words for perfect healing,
Peace throughout eternity
In the chorus choir of Heaven,
If we choose God’s Poetry.

— David L. Hatton, 5/19/1992
(from Poems Between Darkness and Light; 1994, 2014)

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David, an ordained Wesleyan minister, graduated from Maranatha Baptist Bible College before serving with Gospel Outreach of California and with YWAM in Quebec during the 70s. He got his RN in 1981 and later an M.A. in Cross-Cultural Studies from New College Berkeley. After 34 years of nursing, he recently retired from his job in L&D, but continues to pastor the small retirement community church he planted in 1996. He loves writing, art, and hiking with his wife Rosemary. They’ve raised 12 children and live in Sacramento.

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