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InVerse Theology

InVerse 150 - IVT Explained, Part 7 (Poetry Defined)

It’s hard enough to get people to read these days, much less to read verse.

Oh, sing to the LORD a new song!
Sing to the LORD, all the earth.
Sing to the LORD, bless His name;
Proclaim the good news of His salvation from day to day.
Declare His glory among the nations,
His wonders among all peoples. Psalm 96.1-3

Poetry: Wbo needs it?
Undoubtedly, a sizeable majority of people today, including most Christians, would answer the question above, “Not I.” It’s hard enough to get people to read these days, much less to read verse. So estranged is the reading public from any diet of poetry that, not that long ago, one of our leading poets published an important book bearing the title, Can Poetry Matter?

Contrast the state of poetry reading in our day with the Lord’s approach to preparing His Word. More than one-third of the Bible is written in verse; and what is arguably the most beloved of all Biblical books, the Book of Psalms, is composed entirely in verse. Evidently, God considered that poetry is an effective, even needful, means of communicating the most important truths anyone can know.

Throughout the course of Christian history, poets have set the great and glorious themes of Scripture into a wide variety of poetic forms. From the earliest days of the faith, poets like Prudentius, Ephrem, and Columbanus employed familiar verse forms to compose new songs to the Lord, celebrating His greatness and saving grace for all kinds of readers. They have been followed, generation after generation, by poets in every language reached by the Gospel who have expounded and explained the mighty works of God in poetry. Nowhere is this proliferation of spiritual poetry more pronounced than in the English language tradition. And it is this tradition which we have tapped in The InVerse Theology Project to tell the old, old story of God’s love in the venerable forms of English language verse.

Sound theology matters. With that, few will argue. But how that theology is communicated matters as well. And it is our conten-tion that verse is a more powerful medium of theological formation than we in our generation tend to believe. And The InVerse Theology Project exists to demonstrate that.

Poetry Defined

Word art?
We should begin with a definition. A poem is a unique way to message using words in a variety of forms and devices. These forms and devices set poetry off from prose in one or more ways. In one sense, whatever one might choose to write could be called a poem. But calling something a poem does not neces-sarily make it one.

People recognize poetry as a distinct style of writing because it takes a different form from prose. Poems speak in images more than prose does. They are frequently married to a set rhythm, arrangement of lines, use of end rhyme, and other devices—assonance, consonance, synecdoche, parallelism, internal rhyme, and more—which make reading a poem a different experience from reading prose.

While all writing is a kind of art—artifice—poetic writing is more obviously so than prose. In a practical theology series of The InVerse Theology Project entitled, “Poetry Calling”, we defined poetry as follows (we retain here the source references):

Poetry is

that form of art that offers depth within   
a moment, using all the depth that’s in

a moment.[1] It is painting, using words,[2]
“the breath and finer spirit” of all we
can know, and the “spontaneous overflow”
of strong emotions. [3] Poets use images     
and forms, and other strong devices, to
engage the heart before the mind, so that
affections shape the way we think about
the subject of the verse, and thus how we
respond. A poet, Wallace Stevens wrote,  
is always writing about two things at once—
the subject of the poetry, and then
the poetry of the subject.[4] Thus the verse
becomes a work of art, and longs to take
its place among great works of music, art,
and dance.[5] The poet tries to fix in time                 
the “transitory spectacle that he
perceives”[6] and, as he does, to offer up
some contribution to the truth as he
regards it. This much being said, let’s try  
a definition: Poetry, I want
to say, is word art in the service of
the truth.[7]

These lines were composed in a verse form called blank verse, consisting of five iambic feet (duh-DUH) in a line but without end rhyme. Some of the greatest poetry in the English language tradition was written by Christian poets in blank verse. Blank verse, read aloud, can sound a lot like prose. Try reading the above selection aloud. Sounds like prose, doesn’t it? But read it again, this time paying more attention to—feeling, if you will—the rhythm of the language. It’s that repeated emphasis, like the beating of your heart, that qualifies these lines as art—word art, and in this case, art used in the service of truth.

In that same study we went on to say,

We know that we are looking at
a poem when a certain structure[8] of
ideas is in view. Within that, then,
the poet will use potent images,   
devices, and arrangements to involve
the heart, stir up the mind, and proffer an
experience of the world.[9] And when that truth
is Biblical, then poetry can play   
a most important role in helping us
to know the Lord and understand His will.
God knows the power that verse can wield, to pique
the heart, arrest the mind, and cause us to
evaluate our values and desires.

That definition may not be as dramatic as Emily Dickinson’s: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry” (Selected Letters). Not as dramatic, but it points in the same direction.

Not all poetry seeks to serve the truth, of course. Some of the biggest lies and most outrageous falsehoods have been set in verse forms. But for our purposes, we want to use this form of art to advance the cause of divine truth. And in The InVerse Theology Project, we have turned to the light of theology as it shines on us through the windows of glory we explored in Part 1 of this study.

A variety of forms
Blank verse is not the only, or even the most common form that theological poetry can take. Through the first twenty-four volumes of The InVerse Theology Project we have shown this by pursuing theological truth through venerated English poetry forms. Here is the proposition for our historical theology series on “Lives of Irish Saints.” It is written in a form known as terza rima:

In the accounts that follow, I pursue
three goals: The first, to trace a major theme
that holds each work together, running through

the whole and emphasizing what might seem
to be the writer’s burden. Second, I
will focus on developing a scheme

of history, and let the chaff fall by
the wayside. I will mention wonders where             
they illustrate the theme and further my

objectives. But my overarching care
is to derive a true account of each
saint’s life and work, however brief or spare.

And last, I’m looking for these saints to teach             
us something that can help us here and now,
to put faith’s lessons well within our reach.

So as you read, enjoy; imagine how
esteemed these worthies were by those who knew
and loved them. And don't let the here and now

of your experience of faith cause you
not to appreciate the gift of these
obscure accounts. But let these stories do

for you whatever in His grace might please
the Lord. Give thanks for those wrote them; bless
the men who copied them, and him who ease

and leisure sacrificed, in faithfulness
to translate and preserve this great largesse.

You will note lines of iambic pentameter, an interlocking end rhyme scheme between the strophes, and a concluding rhymed couplet.

In a creational theology series on the poem The Pearl, by fourth-century theologian Ephrem the Syrian, we used a ballad form to arrange his poems for singing, as in Hymn 1:

Upon a certain day I took
     a single pearl in hand.
And O! what Kingdom myst’ries I
     began to understand.

I saw therein the majesty
          of God the Lord on High,
     and likewise Jesus, Who to save
us came to earth to die.

The rhyme scheme is abcb with four lines to a stanza. You could sing this to “How Sweet and Awesome Is the Place.”

Where we found it helpful, we have innovated new poetic forms to aid in communicating the truth of God’s Word. Here is an excerpt from a forthcoming series in the spiritual theology category which explores the mysteries of the unseen realm and the coming new heaven and new earth:

Through what at first is but a mist or haze,
I think I see far off a prominence
of great, unequaled height. There hovers on
it such a strange, unearthly glow, strong rays
of thick, unbroken light, as of the dawn
of some new era, some new world. But whence
this brilliance springs to capture and amaze

my sight is not apparent. Up it goes,
without abating, till it fills the skies
and floods the wondrous world around me, so
that what appeared at first a haze now glows
a soft, ethereal light, a glorious show
the likes of which my timorous, time-bound eyes
have never seen before. My breathing slows,

and somewhere in the distance I can hear
the comforting, inviting sound of flowing
water. Its steady movement resonates
as if it were not far at all, but near.
It strikes my listening soul and generates
a sympathetic stirring, an ongoing
and swelling sensibility so clear...

Once again, the familiar iambic pentameter rhythm is obvious, here arranged into stanzas of seven lines. Each stanza contains three distinct rhyme sounds—abcacba. The seven lines total the numbers for heaven—3—and earth—4—and thus suggest the fusion of these into one overall creation. The rhyming sounds vary in each stanza, with the three similar rhymes surrounding and permeating the two other rhyme sets, which might suggest the infinite beauty and omnipresence of the divine Trinity. A careful reader might also have noted—or felt—subtle changes in the rhythm—the extra syllable at the end of one line, and inverted accent at the beginning of the next. Is the effect of this to create a sense of stumbling or of being a bit unsure on one’s feet? As one might be in a vision of the City to Come?

Infinite possibilities
There is no limit to the ways poetry could be used as word art to capture, express, and imprint deep theological truths. Because of this, at the close of our series on “Poetry Calling” we issued a general call for a new generation of poets to bring the old, old story of Jesus to the Church and the world in new and more artistic ways:

We need a plethora of poems, a great
monsoon of metaphors, a rainstorm of
new rhymes and rhythms, and a cohort of
creators who have heard God’s call to verse
and are responding faithfully to feed
a long-neglected need in every soul.

And may they, like Elijah, stretch themselves
across the body of believers, dead
to verse, and, by the breath of their new songs
unto the Lord, whisper a calling to
the Church, and breathe new life into our souls.

[1] Molly Peacock, How to Read a Poem…and Start a Poetry Circle (New York: Silverhead Books, 1999), p. 13.

[2] Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth (London: Picador, 2000), p. 42.

[3] William Wordsworth, “Observations Prefixed to Lyrical Ballads” in William Harmon, ed., Classic Writings on Poetry (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), p. 282.

[4] Wallace Stevens, “The Irrational Element in Poetry,” in Reginald Gibbons, ed. The Poet’s Work (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 52.

[5] cf. Daniel Albright, Lyricality in English Literature (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1985), p. 238.

[6] Luis Cernuda, “Words Before a Reading,” in Gibbons, The Poet’s Work, p. 44.

[7] Cf. Wendell Berry, “Poetry and Place,” in Standing by Words (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1983), p. 112: “I believe that the source of our poetry is the idea that poetry must be used for something, must serve something greater, greater and higher than itself. It is a way to learn, know, celebrate, and remember the truth—or, as Yeats said, to ‘Bring the soul of man to God.’”

[8] William D. Gairdner, “Wolfe in Sheep’s Clothing,” The New Criterion, March, 2009, p. 4.

[9] Bate, The Song of the Earth, p. 167

Support for The InVerse Theology Project comes from our faithful and generous God, who moves our readers to share financially in our work. If this article was helpful, please give Him thanks and praise.

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T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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