Roughly a year ago I felt convicted to read more poetry. Poetry is not popular among the “masses” today. The association most people have with poetry is of something they were forced to read in high school, which they neither understood nor enjoyed. While literary laymen have moved away from poetry, poetry has become increasingly abstract, accessible only by the few. Such a gap is unfortunate, because poetry has a history of being an important form of writing.
Poetry was the form in which Homer chose to write his epics, probably around 850 B.C. The Iliad and Odyssey were the two most important writings for nearly a thousand years. Prose works on history and science existed, but they did not have the wide spread influence of Homer’s stories. Throughout the centuries other poetic works would come along including the Aeneid, Beowulf, Divine Comedy, Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare’s plays, and Paradise Lost. Poetry was the highest form in which culture could communicate. If we have no more famous long poetic works after Paradise Lost it is because the world was changing. The Enlightenment was raging and changing our understanding of truth. Poetry became the vehicle for expressing individual and personal truth. This is far from the Divine Comedy or Paradise Lost which dealt with large cosmological truth. Science became the main avenue to discover truth and, consequently, defined what could be considered true. To borrow from Marshall McLuhan, the medium became the message.
“Non-fiction” books today, whether they cover business, celebrities, theology, or self-help, communicate to the intellect. (The terms fiction and non-fiction really refer to a style of writing, rather than to actual truthfulness. Though I find the categories misleading, I use them because they are widely accepted). These books advance arguments and move the read from one point to another using logic and reason. What the author wants the reader to take know is stated as clearly as possible, without ambiguity. Meaning is explicit. Emotional appeals are made, but only to support the main argument. Stated simply, “Tell them what you are going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you told them.”
“Fiction” stories at their best, in addition to communicating to the intellect, communicate to the imagination. Some may argue that if a truth can only be communicated imaginatively then it is not a truth at all. I disagree and believe that this is a narrow definition of truth. The view binds truth by making it dependent on our preferred means of articulation, the medium controls the message. People saw the value of stories like the Odyssey not only because they enjoyed stories, but because they saw the truth embedded in it.
Poetry communicates on another level, without leaving the intellect or imagination behind. Poetry is similar to music. Music and words are sponges which absorb meaning and significance. Were you to listen to the first few measure of the Imperial March from Star Wars an impression would form in your mind of a great, sinister force, this without words. While using words, poetry communicates in a manner that transcends words. In “non-fiction” words are a means to an end, in poetry words are as important as the message that is the author is attempting to convey. A poet chooses words carefully because he or she considers them as a whole, definition, connotation, phonal quality, aesthetic, shape, and tone. The sound produced by an acoustic guitar is not strictly the vibration of the string. More accurately it is the vibrations resonating inside of the guitar. The words in poetry, I think, communicate by a kind of resonance.
Because poetry communicates differently from other forms of writing it will almost seem a foreign language to those who have little exposure to it. Christians especially should be familiar with poetry. If we have ignored it it is only because we have absorbed the mindset of secularism which says that truth can only be discovered through scientific reasoning and communicated through logical arguments and propositional truth, the language of 2+2=4. Large swaths of the Bible are in the form of poetry and poetic language is sprinkled throughout. Only small sections would fit into the modern non-fiction category. Misinterpretation is often the result of our attempts to squeeze narrative or poetic passages into our contemporary literary molds. To not understand poetry then is to be unable to understand the Bible. Of course, the poetry in the Bible is relatively easy compared to that of someone like Dylan Thomas or, if I may include him, Bob Dylan. However, a little more exposure to poetry couldn’t hurt anyone and may do a lot of good.
A person seeking to read poetry need not turn to Robert Frost. There are a multitude of poets whose works one can read. One of my favorite poems is actually a 10th century Anglo-Saxon poem called “The Wanderer.” I have also enjoyed W.B. Yeats and William Blake. C.S. Lewis even has a collection of poetry that is fairly easy to read. If you are looking for a narrative poem which tells a story then you may have to go to classic literary works. Reading poetry is a little like learning a new language, which means it can take time to learn to understand it. Furthermore, poetry is language at its most compacted state. That too may be a reason that modern culture has trouble with poetry. It takes work to understand when we would rather be fed pictures. Still, it is work well worth doing.