I’m not an avid reader or writer of poetry. I have a few books of poems from people like Robert Frost, W.B. Yeats, and Wendell Berry along with a couple anthologies of poems that I will open up a few times a year. I have also over the years gone through phases where I would write a poem here or there. All told, I have probably written 10 poems in my life, most of them forget lost in time. Nevertheless, I am interested in poetry and how it “works,” in part due to my reflections in linguistics and hermeneutics and in part due to latent creative aspirations I have. Questions strike me, for instance, what it is about poetry that makes it so different from prose? Why is it that the Hebrew prophets speak and write so much in a poetical form that defied the conventions of Hebrew prose? What is it that gives poetry its power and why is it only some get poetry?
To illustrate the answer I have come to, I could try to analyze another piece of poetry, but there is always the reality that such an analysis is underdetermined if we wish to include the original author of the poem into our understand. We have no direct access to the mind of the poet, and so any attempt to reconstruct their thinking that formed the poem would leave us always asking: is that the poet or the analyst? We could decide to simply focus on some combination of reader and text centered approaches to reflect on how poetry makes meaning to us. There is nothing to stop one from proceeding that way. However, in doing that, we lose the communicative potential that poetry has to bridge two minds, if not hearts, together and, in addition, fail to have an adequate way to comprehend the significance of the poetry of the Hebrew prophets.
So, instead, I will offer a poem that I wrote a couple days ago, giving some of my own thoughts on my own poem. It is relatively crude by many standards of poetry, but it will suffice to get the point across:
Leaving behind everything
All I have is yours
Under the beauty of the night
Real hope awakens
A dream long forgotten
Impassioned and whole-hearted
Life makes no promises
Only we can do such things
Valuing each other
Yet chosen in time
One from the two
Under the beauty of the night
As a caveat, I won’t give everything away as analysis of poetry is a tenuous thing. An analysis of a poem can function like a “cipher key” to unlock the potential of the poem, but over-analysis can kill a poem as the power of poetry is not just in gaining some meaning from the poem, but the way the meaning is had from the specific way the poem says it. That is to say, the function of the poetry is irreducible connected to the form of the poem, whereas the the descriptive purpose of most prose is readily accomplished by many forms. Over-analysis risks taking away the significance of the form by giving an alternative, substitute form to provide the meaning. So, my analysis won’t exhaust my poem, but it will provide enough of an understand to perceive what goes on with poetry when it is hoped to have a communicative purpose to convey specific thoughts, feelings, images, etc.
So, the first thing to note is this: this poem is polysemous in its construction. There are two distinct meanings that are simultaneously being communicated: a theological picture and a romantic picture. The blending of theology and romance is not an uncommon theme in art and religion. Turn on the radio to a Christian contemporary station and you are often left asking: is this a song about God or about a woman the man loves? While I haven’t researched where the origins of this phenomenon comes from, I would imagine it comes from the combination of the way God is framed as a jilted lover through the words and life of Hosea and also passages such as Ephesians 5.25-33 where Paul frames husband’s love for his wife in terms of Christ’s love for the Church.
One salient example from the decade of the 2000s written by John Mark MacMillan and popularized by David Crowder called “How He Loves,” which very consciously plays upon this blending of theology and romantic love. His song starts off:
He is jealous for me, Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree,
Bending beneath the weight of his wind and mercy.
When all of a sudden, I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory,
And I realize just how beautiful You are,
And how great Your affections are for me.
Here, we see the blend of nature, or more specifically creation, and love. Jealousy, beauty, and affection is brought together with images of storms and a solar eclipse. Then, later in the original version of the song, it describes the union of creation in heaven and earth like “a sloppy wet kiss,” although the moral scruples from Christians concerned about about “sexualizing” worship songs lead to it being changed by Crowder to “an unforeseen kiss.” In the end, this song is describing the redemption that comes from God’s grace, where as vision of God’s grace comes from the blending of the language of creation and the language of romantic love.
However, whereas a lot of Christian music is intentionally directed towards God, and so the romantic language is subservient to the theological purpose, the poem I wrote was not intended to make the theological nor romantic reading subservient to each other. They both exist, operating in conjunctions with each other at the same time, as if what is done on earth is reflection of what is done in heaven, to appropriate something Jesus told His disciples about forgiving but for a different purpose.
The “theological” reading of my poem consists in an image of a person answering a call to follow God in the midst of trial and struggle. “Under the beauty of the night” flips the construal of tribulation and difficulty, calling it beautiful even as it was originally a terrifying darkness, echoing James 1.2-4. This submission to God’s leading doesn’t happen because of some fate woven into the fabric of human life leads us to a promise to commit to god, nor because life as human life compels a person to do such, but that it is the person who responds to the invitation of God. Only the call from God and the affirmative response in the following brings the relationship to its realization, as both parties value each other are committed to each other by their own promise. Nevertheless, it isn’t a forced choice by God, but God simultaneously sees into the future and yet calls and chooses them in time, as opposed to the Calvinist emphasis on the eternity of God’s election and decrees that simply work themselves out in history and time. The end result is that the two parties, God and person act as one, where the one who answers the call can act on behalf of the One who calls, much like Paul considers himself an ambassador for Christ because he has embodied God’s righteousness through Christ who embodied human nature, including sin yet without sinning (2 Cor. 5.20-21). All that is happening can be understood as the bringing forth of the a dream long forgotten, God’s purposes in creation that awakens in the heart of the person and gives themselves wholly to this task.
On the other hand, the “romantic” reading of the poem portrays a somewhat similar yet all too human scene: that of an engagement of a couple as they sit under the stars of night. Much of what is said to define the relationship between God and the person following God also typifies the relationship between the woman and man who promise themselves to each other. There is nothing in life that made this choice happen, nor was there any magical law of life that compelled the two to be together, but it was the way they valued each other and so their promise is to make them one, echoing the description of the relationship between Adam and Eve in Genesis 2.23-24. This relationship is one that had been hoped and longed for, but as circumstances would have it, marriage had become forgotten as anything realistic for them, but now they have someone whom they can share all their life with as they leave behind the past that made love feel like a distant dream. While this scene is primary about the engagement of the man and woman, God is still implicitly portrayed in the scene, seeing all that was happening that lead to the moment.
Two readings, each of very different scenes that can not be “reduced” to each other and yet two scenes that can be simultaneously found in the form of the poem. What is it about poetry that allows this to happens?
It is the way that language functions to convey meaning. When people are talking to each other in a friendly chat or reading what another person says, we are left under an illusion that language is a clear vehicle of communicating meaning. We are almost entirely ignorant of the way that various realities outside of what is said that impacts the interpretation of what is said, such as common perceptions, shared attention, and mutual memories. There is also non-linguistic information we perceive in communication, whether it be the body language and facial expressions in face-to-face conversation and/or the perception of a person’s ethos and pathos in a speaker’s monologues, like a sermon, or in an author’s writing. The list of potential factors that impinge on our interpretation of language can not be wholly encompassed with a list, as our brains are developed so as to adapt to a wide array of situations and circumstances that we perceive through the vast array of our sensations. Then, there is different degrees of awareness about all this “information” that variously influences how the “information” influences interpretation, like a female’s switch to a low-toned sultry can lead a man to be seduce as they are only subliminally aware of it and instead interpret the words in light of the implicit connotations of that voice, whereas it can produce a very different response if it grabs the focused attention that short circuits the seduction, leading to different interpretations of the words.
All these factors influence how we can read and interpret what someone is saying, but we are be default unaware of these factors. The end result is that our experience with using language can give us the illusion that communicative meaning is wholly determined, if not overdetermined, by the words and grammar. This illusion is not without some merit behind it, as there is often a redundancy in language such that the meaning of a communication has multiple, overlapping semantics “streams” through specific word usage and grammar that allow us to unthinkingly narrow down what a sentence means. For instance, the sentence “I eat food” has two overlapping, partially redundant sources to narrow meaning. Through word choice, our understanding of ourselves as humans who need nourishment, the act of eating, and food as something we find nourishment provides on stream of meaning. This stream of meaning from word selection is often sufficient, because if we were to imagine someone saying “food eat I,” we would likely come to understand it has the equivalent meaning to “I eat food.” However, it would take us a second to decipher “food eat I” because the usual, second stream of meaning from grammar is not as it is usually expected. In the conventional use of speech, “I eat food” has two streams of meaning that come together like tributaries to a river to provide a strong flow of meaning that makes its way into human thought and consciousness. And, because these two steams of meaning, word selection and grammar, are the primary constituents of communicative meaning and regularly overlap and join together to provide a robust, coherent meaning as in “I eat food,” it actively inhibits other “streams’ from non-linguistic sources from have a salient, noticeable differences in the meaning we derived from “I eat food.”
There is thus a good reason why we come to the illusion that language itself is a clear vehicle for communication, as the redundancy that comes through the streams of word selection and grammar, and sometimes other streams from the language surrounding the sentence we are interpreting, make its such that we have a clear, overwhelming sense of what something means. This experiential phenomenon experienced again and again can also lead us ot the conclusion that language as a “single” meaning, or if we are willing to be somewhat open to a wild. adventurous ride on the wild streams of semantic meaning, we allow for polysemy but with the sense that each sense is discretely separate from the other potential meanings.
However, poetry, and other forms of non-prosaic speech, function to convey a form of meaning, or meanings if you will, by abandoning or flouting the various linguistic conventions, including most notably word selection and grammar, that function to cognitively restrain meaning to being a singular, fixed sense. In my poem, I never explicitly encode who the persons are in what is happening. This encoding would happen in prose, narrowing down the possible meaning, but in poetry it is absent, allowing the flexibility for it to be God and a person, a boyfriend and girlfriend, or any other combination one might could imagine. The consequence of this is that poetic meaning becomes derived from non-linguistic streams, such as people’s own memories, perception of their current circumstances, etc. that provides different tributaries that come together in the flow of meaning. They fill in the semantic gaps created by the absence of specific linguistic conventions that usually constrain the production of the cognitive processes of meaning-making. For instance, this poem is filled in by my own experiences, as this is a poem that is partially autobiographical, expressing both my own sense in seeking to live out a calling from God while at the same time expressing a wish for myself in the midst of the trauma and broken heartedness of the past. If a person who knows me and my story, they might read the poem similarly, whereas a person who is ignorant of me and has not read the analysis would likely not pick up on these forms of meaning.
This leads to the second feature that gives poetry its power: the way successful communication of a specific meaning between author and reading relies upon a range of possibilities that are not entirely likely for any individual person to understand. The successful propagation of linguistic and semantic conventions among a language community, such as the meanings of words and the appropriate use of grammar, means that the successful communication of meaning through prose primarily relies upon a factor that many people are likely to have: proficiency with the language. By flouting these conventions to various degrees, poetry inherently reduces the range of people who can successfully pick up a meaning that was intended in the communication. Successfully picking out the authorial intention and comprehension will rely on factors that many people will not have, but it close to a secret “cipher” that only a few people would have.
If I had not given an interpretation of the poem I wrote, you would be hard-pressed to figure out what exactly I was referring it. It wouldn’t be impossible, mind you, but in the process of trying to triangulate what I meant, there would no feedback or model sufficiently independent and distinct from the processes of reconstructing meaning that would help the person to rightly determine whether their interpretation was the correct one or not. The odds are the person would either be unsuccessful and yet be confident that they were correct, or they would remain un-confident and leave the poem as a mystery to them, both of which would have the effect of obscuring the meaning from them.
Consider, for instance the impact of Jesus’ parables, which while not poetry is closer to poetry than prose. The Gospel of Matthew explains Jesus usage of parables were to obscure Jesus’ meaning from the audience, at least the vast majority, while providing an understanding to a very narrow group of people, his disciples and followers. Jesus’ parables were like a bottle that a message was put into, thrown into to sea, and only those who find it can get the message, except Jesus is in control of the proverbial motions of the sea and to whom the bottle gets to. Everyone else would miss the message of the parables because they didn’t have the right mindset to understand it.
Consider, for a second, Jesus usage of the image of a mustard seed, both used in the parable of the same name and Jesus’ instructions to his disciples about prayer. Lets assume for the sake of argument that the appropriate meaning of the parable is to be deriving by understanding the significance of the mustard seed, but for the vast majority of the population, they focus on the towering mustard tree or the mountains being moved. The salience of what is big, wonderful, great, etc. would lead them to think the point of Jesus’ parable and words was simply to talking about how greatness will become theirs; they will not linger in the woods of the semantic forest of the smallness of the mustard seed, but they rush to get a big tree, they rush to have power to move mountains. Such people engage in the power of magical thinking, often reinforced today by the implicit theological understanding that God’s “supernatural” agency is really close to magic. They don’t, rather, seek to understand the significance of what being a mustard seed is, in its smallness and its necessity to being planted and grown. However, as a result of their pedagogical training by and relationship with Jesus, they have a latent potential, thought not a pre-determined outcome, to see a different meaning in what Jesus said that emerges from the often overlooked smallness of the mustard see.
Something very similar happens in poetry. Maybe not necessarily with the intention of blinding others from the intended meaning, but as something that conveys meaning in an atypical fashion that only a narrow range of people can get who are willing to be engaged with and by the poetry, who are willing to bring themselves and their heart to the poem. However, because the poem does not immediately signal all its meaning, the poet is left in relative obscurity if it is not picked up. In the end, knowing the meaning of the poem is conditioned upon the relatively unlikely conditions that the other person will be or become someone who can understand what the poem says. As such, most poems except the most transparent, like some of Frost’s poetry, are not usually intended for mass consumption but for a smaller, more select, niche audience.
Here then we can maybe begin to reflect on the significance of the significance of the poetry of the Hebrew poets. In 1 Peter 1.10-12, Peter intimates that the prophets spoke by the Spirit of Christ, but yet they did not comprehend everything they were prophesying about. Rather, it was for a later generation to pick up and know. Jeremiah, for instance, was a prophet whose ministry was met with abject failure as his words more repelled than drew in, but later in Christian faith, his voice became a prophetic light shining the way forward to God’s new covenant in Jesus Christ. But now, in the present day, people can now understand them through the “cipher” of the gospel being preached by the Holy Spirit; it was so concealed that not even the angels, longing to understand the will of God, understood and knew what was happening.
According to this theological interpretation, in the poetry of the Hebrew prophets, there was a message “encoded” that was to be grasped by those who had been given the eyes to see and the ears to hear by the Spirit. But, far from these eyes to see and ears to hear being some secret, esoteric knowledge that would stoke the jealousy of Gnostics, who could regard Jesus as some grand teacher of big, huge spiritual ideas that was the expression of their own hearts that had not been formed by the pedagogy of Christ, it was a message of the love of a man who gave His life as a servant for others. The Servant of Isaiah as part of God’s call to Israel became the story of the Israelite Jesus, through whom others are beckoned into this very specific form and model servant-hood through the same Holy Spirit that conceived Jesus and came upon Him at baptism. Only with those who had the eyes to see and the ears to hear that the person of Jesus in all His fullness is the one sent from God could pick up what Isaiah’s words and speech were pointing to, even as the understanding that Isaiah has was more like a man who had switched from blinders to really blurry glasses. Isaiah, according to the words of Peter, had the Spirit of Christ and as such, had a glimpse in his own life, but it was for others removed from him in space and time to really see and pick up.
However, there is one final point I will leave here: the lines between prose and poetry are not always so clearly defined, as these two categories are more so prototypes in our head of how prose and poetry work. For instance, this blog post is itself a blending of the features of poetry and prose, both in the inclusion of a poem but also the way I formulated the prose. To be able to do this and recognize it is a gift that I think that I picked up, dare I say, by the leading of God through some difficult circumstances that required a verbal craft and skill to navigate that I didn’t naturally have but upon looking back, I had the beginnings of without a real conscious recognition of it. Even if not, it is my recognition that the lines between poetry and prose does not actually exist except as an idealized prototype of different types of writing, but all that really exists in the act of communication is the writing/speech that has various degrees of encoding and the people who make sense of them, both the author/speaker, the readers/hearers, and in cases of Divine inspiration, the God who brings molds the speech to convey a meaning that even the author doesn’t necessary understand but that may be perceived by others. Rich is the gift of language, latent with multifunctional potential and powerful in diverse ways!