By some estimates, between one-quarter to one-third of the Bible takes the form of poetry. Books like the Psalms, Song of Solomon, and Job devote themselves entirely to the genre and many of Jesus’s teachings appear in poetic form. Nonetheless, many people today struggle to embrace the medium, finding it either simplistic and clichéd or obscured beyond meaning.
Not only has poetry played an important role in the presentation of Scripture, it has also taken on prominence throughout the history of Christianity. Believers have used poetry to produce everything from hymns to epic narratives in order to communicate truths about God and faith through the beauty of literature. It’s a style that requires patience and attention, which may explain why so many struggle with it today. But it stirs readers emotionally in ways that little else can.
The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems, compiled by Leland Ryken, is a helpful companion to those well-versed in poetry as well as those with little experience who hope to better understand the genre. Drawing on decades of expertise, Ryken has gathered the best devotional poems in the English language into one convenient book, accompanied by his keen insights and commentary. He answered a few questions from me about this new publication.
What is the practical significance of devotional poetry in the life of a believer?
Many answers are possible, but I will limit myself to three.
First, devotional poets are our representatives, giving expression to our own spiritual experiences and feelings. The unexpressed life is an incomplete life, and poets are our allies in making sure this doesn’t happen.
Second, John Milton correctly claimed that devotional poetry has the ability to set the affections—our feelings and mental attitudes—”in right tune.” Another English poet, William Wordsworth, expressed the same general idea when he said that a good poet rectifies people’s feelings. The effect of a devotional poem is to calibrate some aspect of our spiritual life.
The unexpressed life is an incomplete life, and poets are our allies in making sure this doesn’t happen.
Third, if we read enough devotional poetry, that reading will take us to corners of the spiritual life that might otherwise remain unvisited. For example, in compiling my anthology I was surprised by how many poems contemplate what our impending death will be like or what the actual moment of dying will be like.
You have enjoyed a long career as a professor of literature and a literary critic. What role has poetry played in your life? In particular, how has it shaped you spiritually?
My inner literary compass led me from the beginning of my travels in the realms of gold (John Keats’s magical metaphor for reading literature) to prefer poetry to narrative. That being the case, poetry has been the baseline of my literary career.
Since I naturally relished devotional poetry most of all (though certainly not to the neglect of other poetry), I can see what a major influence devotional poetry has been in my spiritual life. That input has often come unsought in the sense that I was just doing my job as a teacher of literature.
The formula that comes to my mind is the statement from Isaiah 28:10 about “line upon line, here a little, there a little,” with the accumulated effect of devotional poetry being a major part of the spiritual atmosphere in which I have lived and moved and had my being.
In your introduction to The Soul in Paraphrase, you lament what you term “versified prose,” which you have found common in existing anthologies of Christian poetry. What is “versified prose”? And how does it fail to enrich a reader the way great devotional poetry does?
To analyze this in detail would take more space than I have at my disposal. The quick answer is to taste and see, that is, read a devotional passage of expository prose and then a devotional poem by George Herbert or John Milton. The prose passage appeals to our minds only, and it’s likely to tell us what we already know.
Devotional poetry by the masters speaks to us at multiple levels—emotional, intellectual, and imaginative. It activates us to ponder and interpret the images and figures of speech. It awakens our emotions. It adds a layer of verbal beauty that often makes it unforgettable and therefore a permanent possession. A devotional piece that lacks these qualities strikes us as thin and quickly forgotten.
What about versified prose? I use this to designate a piece of writing that is expressed in verse form with lines and rhyme, but that lacks the imagery and figurative language and verbal beauty and meditative richness that poetry possesses.
Many people today, including Christians, find poetry difficult to understand and often inaccessible. What do you consider the obstacles that discourage modern readers from embracing poetry? What can people do to overcome these obstacles?
The first thing I want to do with these questions is excise the word modern from the equation. There is absolutely nothing that makes poetry more difficult for moderns than for people of past eras. In fact, our modern preference for brief modes of discourse has equipped us well to handle poetry.
On the day on which I introduce poetry in my literature courses, I ask my students how they know that God intends them to understand and enjoy poetry. The answer is that approximately a third of the Bible comes to us in poetic form (including the discourses of Jesus, which rely heavily on imagery, metaphor, and symbol).
There is absolutely nothing that makes poetry more difficult for moderns than for people of past eras.
The chief obstacles that keep people from poetry are (1) laziness in learning how to read and understand poetry and (2) determining that poetry is inaccessible without giving it a try.
Here are three ways to overcome the obstacles:
(1) take seriously the implications of God’s giving us a Bible that is heavily poetic;
(2) get a “primer” on the nature of poetry so you know what to look for in a poem; and
(3) realize that poetry requires a “slow read”—living with the text instead of seeing how quickly you can move on to something else.
Mastering a devotional poem by a famous English or American poet requires nothing beyond what mastering a psalm requires. Stated the other way, if you can possess Psalm 23, you can possess Milton’s sonnet on his blindness.
What are the particular qualities of poetry that make it stand out from other genres?
It is my practice when introducing any genre of literature to stress that all the genres belong to a master genre, namely, literature itself. A poem shares certain literary qualities with stories and plays and reflective essays. Within that parameter, poetry has the following distinctive qualities.
(1) It is more compressed than other genres, packing in more content and artistry per line. I am fond of the formula of C. S. Lewis that poetry possesses line-by-line deliciousness.
I am fond of the formula of C. S. Lewis that poetry possesses line-by-line deliciousness.
(2) All literature presents human experience concretely rather than abstractly, but poetry does this even more than other genres. Poets think in images and figures of speech, so readers need to do the same when reading poetry.
(3) Poets aim even more than storytellers to pack elements of artistry and beauty into their compositions. Devotional poet Gerard Manley Hopkins claimed that this element of beauty in a poem is even more important than the content of a poem (surely an overstatement). American poet Robert Frost called a poem “a performance in words,” analogous to a musical or athletic performance.
(4) In a day when (according to surveys) most Americans feel rushed most or all of the time, a poem offers the possibility of slowing down and letting the quality of experience exceed the quantity of experience. A poem keeps unfolding meanings and nuances and beauties the longer we contemplate it. Compared to this richness and multiplicity, other genres tend to carry their meaning on the surface and offer less total substance.