This is not the controversial claim that it may seem to be. We know that God expects us to understand and enjoy poetry because approximately a third of the Bible is poetic in form. For starters, we have poetic books like the Psalms and Song of Solomon. Then we have the prophetic books, where vast portions are expressed in poetic form. Beyond that is the book of Revelation, which is enshrined chiefly in images and symbols. And beyond that, the epistles are saturated with images and metaphors.
Because Jesus was not a proclaimed poet, we do not think of him as one, but this is an oversight. Jesus’ discourses rely heavily on a poetic idiom. Additionally, Jesus’ sayings are highly aphoristic, and verbal beauty is a leading element of poetry. So if we begin with the fact that Jesus’ discourses and sayings are among the most famous in the world, and then add our awareness that these utterances are heavily poetic in form, it is appropriate to think of Jesus as a famous poet.
The preceding two declarations have been designed to gain an initial sympathetic hearing for the importance of poetry in a Christian’s life, and more will follow, but all of this commendation will be fruitless for those who have never acquired the ability to read poetry. The most important rule for reading poetry is simple: poetry requires us to read slowly and meditatively. This is not to deny that other techniques of reading need to be added to a reader’s toolbox of reading skills for poetry, but anyone can make sense of poetry by pondering a poem and living with it for ten or fifteen minutes instead of subjecting it to the speed reading that makes up our daily lives.
This, too, is not a revolutionary claim but rather one that is easily proven. We all speak unconscious poetry during the course of a day. We speak metaphorically of the sun rising even though we know that it does not literally rise. When someone makes a conciliatory offer, we refer to it as holding out an olive branch, knowing that no olive branch is within sight. Why do we persist in speaking metaphorically? Because at an unconscious level we sense that poetic speech conveys truth effectively, and often more effectively than literal prose.
Poetry is not our normal way of speaking and writing, but it is important to maintain that it is not an unnatural manner of discourse. In the history of literature, poetry preceded prose as an accomplished form of writing in most cultures. Literary scholar Northrop Frye correctly asked, “How could this happen if prose were really the language of ordinary speech?” Furthermore, as Owen Barfield particularly championed, most of the words in our dictionaries started out as concrete images and metaphors. Again, this would not be the case if poetry were inherently unnatural as a way of speaking.
The import of the foregoing five assertions is to make poetry seem accessible and familiar. That is an entirely accurate picture of poetry. It is accessible when we approach it in the right way. However, nothing is gained by denying the obvious fact that poetry differs from everyday prose. Poets speak in a poetic idiom. That idiom consists primarily of images and figures of speech. Poets prefer the figurative to the literal as a way of expressing the truth about life. As a result, poetry possesses the quality of arresting strangeness.
One thing that poetry shares with the language of everyday discourse is that it is a form of logic. Logic depends on making accurate connections between two things. Modern poet Stephen Spender wrote a landmark essay entitled “The Making of a Poem,” and in it he claimed that “the terrifying challenge” facing a poet is, “Can I think out the logic of images?” In the logic of poetry, the images in a poem need to be the right ones for embodying the experiences portrayed. The comparisons that make up so much of the poetic idiom need to be accurate comparisons. If grief over the death of a loved one is “the hour of lead,” we need to be able to see the accuracy of the connection. If we place poetry into the category of logic, it seems more like familiar forms of discourse than it otherwise does.
Poetry is a way of thinking and feeling before it is a form of speech or writing. Poets write in a poetic idiom because that is how they experience life and record it. We need to credit poets with possessing a skill and a way of seeing the world that most people lack.
One of the things that a poem has going for it is that it is compressed. As noted above, that does not mean that we should read a poem as quickly as possible and move on to our next activity. Instead, the compression of poetry is what requires us to read it slowly. When we do, we will be amazed at how much a poem expresses in a compact space. C. S. Lewis spoke of the line by line deliciousness that poetry possesses. It offers so much more per line than prose does. This is part of its appeal, but only if we accept the premise of slow and contemplative reading.
Poets themselves claim beauty as their province. Robert Frost called a poem “a performance in words”—a performance comparable to that of an athlete or musician, to be admired as a display of skill. Victorian devotional poet Gerard Manley Hopkins said that the artistic form of a poem exists “for its own sake and interest even over and above its interest of meaning.” The corollary is that as readers we need to value the artistic beauty of poetry. As an obvious example, all biblical poetry is written in the form of parallelism in which two or more lines express similar content and grammatical form but difference words and images. This is a display of artistry, and its goal is to create beauty for our enjoyment.