Is a deacon at Agros Church and holds a (BA) in English from Arizona State
Article 1: Some Housekeeping
To me, in a perfect world,nobody would have anything to say unless it is worth writing a sonnet. Since my views on such matters are at best anomalous to the majority of decent, hardworking people (and at worst ridiculous and totally unsustainable), I have decided to write a series of articles concerning the purpose and importance of poetry. By the end of this series, ideally we will have learned how to properly appreciate a sonnet - or an epic in blank verse, or a villanelle, or a Romantic lay, and so on. More importantly, we will learn how to better appreciate the poetry found within our Bibles. For that reason, we will be looking at this subject under the lens of a strictly Christian worldview.
I believe poetry and poesy (the act of writing poetry) is an important part of human life, and especially so to the Christian. Why especially to the Christian? Because we, unlike anyone else, may claim the rights to poetry and poesy down to its very nature. As aforementioned, this series will take a scholarly approach to understanding Biblical and Christian-type poetry, and will analyze it from a Biblical presupposition. Our presupposition is this:
God, in his eternal decree, has ordained that poetry should exist, and has Himself employed the act of poesy in the Scriptures through divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Poetry Is Important to God
So why is poetry important to us? Simply put: because poetry is very important to God. So much so, in fact, that He saw it fit to write five entire books, and much of His prophetic works in poetic form. Have we ever truly considered why God chose to do it this way? Obviously the God of the Universe must know what He is doing, so ought we to assume that there’s good reason for Him doing this? Indeed, dear scholar, we ought.
So with that, let us now consider poetry.
As we set out on our scholarly journey to understanding poetry, let us first gird ourselves with an accurate definition of it. Now, I’ve titled this article, “Some Housekeeping,” because it is necessary that we first clear some junk that may hinder us going forward. It is the unfortunate reality of teaching poetry that in order for one to be understood, one must first wade through a slough of misconceptions. The one that stands before us now is the common comparison between prose and poetry - and by that I mean it is useless to do it. Comparing prose and poetry is like comparing anchors and bullets; the dichotomy simply does not exist. Prose is a mode of writing, while poetry is a genre. One would make a better use of time comparing prosewith verse, or poetrywith fiction, rather than prosewith poetry. Moreover, one may happily dispose of this misconception with a quick recap on the history of poetry. The reality is that many of the earliest and most iconic poems in existence were written in prose; The Epic of Gilgamesh, Song of Solomon, Job, and even the Davidic Psalms were all written in prosodic mode. It’s important to note, therefore, that there is nothing mysterious or paradoxical about the term prose poetry. Prose (along with verse) is a mode in which one may write poetry, or any other genre of writing, for that matter.
Poetry: A Definition
How then (if we can’t compare poetry to prose) do we go about defining poetry? The question is so often unnecessarily mystified. However, let us suppose that all writing is an art-form (which it is), and we may easily arrive at a satisfactory answer. As Dr. Lewis Putnam Turco writes in The Book of Forms, “if fiction is ‘the art of written narrative,’ and drama is ‘the art of theatrical narrative’… and the various nonfiction genres are ‘the art of rhetorical exposition’… then poetry is ‘the art of language’” (4). Whereas other genres engage language for its efficiency to convey information, poetry seeks to engage language for itself, and at that, on a fundamental level. A poem is not merely concerned with whatis being said, but also howit is being said, and with a precision and sensitivity that surpasses even Modern fiction. Poetry considers the employed language metrically, syntactically, spatially, phonically, so on, and attempts to make an art of such considerations. Thus, in theory, poetry may be defined as the very art of saying.
The Art Of Saying
To better understand how poetry became the art of saying, let us look to its roots. Arguably the oldest written poem on record is The Epic of Gilgamesh. However, poetry did not start there. Poetry was born out of oral tradition. So while Gilgamesh may hold the title of the oldest written poem, many oral traditions were being passed around long before pen was put to paper. In fact, it was the very lack of pen and paper that birthed it. Consider a society of largely illiterate people, much as you might find in many early civilizations. Most likely these people have a culture, which contains traditions, morals, and customs they hold dear. How does this society go about passing these traditions down to the next generation if they don’t possess the ability to write them down? Well, they memorize them. They keep the tradition going by passing them down in oral recitation, teaching the next generation, who would then do the same, and so on, until a culture is defined. Not by pen, but by word of mouth. In short, poetry was born out of necessity to preserve vital information in an era when literacy was scarce. For this reason, many features and conventions that accompany poesy are designed with the intent of being mnemonic, or easy to commit to memory. Rhyme, meter, repetition, parallelism, alliteration, assonance, and so on, were meant to make a poem more memorable.
Christian View of Poetry
So what do we make of this as Christians? The above analysis takes a classical historic approach to poetry, which, as Christians, we would not deny. However, our final authority is the Bible, which confirms that all events and institutions that come to pass on earth are foreordained by God. Ultimately, God ordained the birth of poetry, and the oldest known poetry is that which the Holy Spirit knew before time before breathing it into scripture. Therefore, we must not apply the above historical method to Biblical poetry, but rather, conform the historical method to our Biblical worldview. Doing this, we may conclude that, in time, God saw it fit to use poetry as a mnemonic device to speak and preserve his Word to the generations of His people. In the next article, we will explore methods of applying this Christian understanding of poetry to our reading of poetry in the Bible.
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