Reading Poetry, Reading Scripture

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For the last year and a half, I have been pursuing an MFA degree in fiction writing. For as long as I can remember, I have loved stories—immersive settings, evocative prose, interesting characters in strange situations. But for how much I adore good literature, I’ve always been a little intimidated by poetry. 

I don’t think I’m alone. In my experience, most people avoid reading poetry these days, either because they find it difficult to understand, too esoteric, and/or just plain boring.  

Lately, I’ve been wondering if many of us struggle to read Scripture for the same reasons we struggle to read poetry. After all, around one third of the Bible is poetry (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Revelation), and much of the rest of Scripture relies heavily on poetic language—metaphor, allusion, symbolism, imagery, etc. For those of us who have a hard time with poetry, it isn’t any wonder that Scripture can sometimes feel a bit inaccessible, too. 

This spring I decided to challenge myself as a writer and reader by enrolling in a poetry class. I’ve learned a ton from my classmates and professor about how to actually enjoy engaging with poetry, and I’ve started to use some of those same strategies when engaging with Scripture. Approaching Scripture with an eye for the poetic has made reading the Bible more pleasurable for me and has helped me feel closer to the Lord—after all, as the format of the Bible makes clear, God speaks to us through poetry!  

So, I’ve decided to share some of what I’ve learned with you in hopes that it will help you, too, refresh your approach to Scripture and hear God speak. 

1. Read slowly and more than once. Poetry is not meant to be guzzled like those best-selling paperback novels we see in airport bookshops. Poetry, like a fine wine, is meant to be savored. While I do think it’s admirable to read as much Scripture as possible in a single sitting, I have found it most beneficial to read small portions of Scripture at a time—perhaps just a handful of verses. This allows me space to meditate on the language, and to really consider what the text is saying. When it comes to good poetry, including Scripture, new meanings often emerge upon reading the text for a second, third, or fourth time that may not have been apparent on that first read.  

2. Read with a pen in your hand. We live in a culture that favors passive consumption, but poetry and Scripture resist passivity. In fact, poetry and Scripture demand active engagement. One of the best ways to engage with any text is to annotate, annotate, annotate. Underline words and phrases that stand out to you, jot down questions and gut reactions, make note of connections you see between the text and other texts, or between the text and your life. Annotating your Bible, or taking notes in a notebook, puts you in direct dialogue with God’s Word and helps you avoid the temptation to consume Scripture passively.

3. Look up words or allusions you don’t understand. Maybe this seems obvious, but I think it’s worth emphasizing: Often, the key to unlocking an entire poem is simply looking up a term or reference that I don’t fully understand. This has proved true for me when reading the Bible, as well. Scripture is particularly complicated when you take into account the historical contexts in which the text was written (much of which is foreign to our postmodern sensibilities) and the fact that the Bible is translated from ancient languages. Taking a few minutes to look at alternative translations, look up difficult words, or Google historical information has made scripture feel much more accessible.  

4. Find pleasure in the language. Even when a poem feels difficult to decipher, we can still enjoy it simply for the beauty of its language. The Bible is full of exquisite language, too. Take this portion of Psalm 104 for example:

Bless the Lord, O my soul!

    O Lord my God, you are very great!

You are clothed with splendor and majesty,

    covering yourself with light as with a garment,

    stretching out the heavens like a tent.

He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters;

he makes the clouds his chariot;

    he rides on the wings of the wind;

he makes his messengers winds,

    his ministers a flaming fire.

He set the earth on its foundations,

    so that it should never be moved.

You covered it with the deep as with a garment;

    the waters stood above the mountains.

At your rebuke they fled;

    at the sound of your thunder they took to flight.

The mountains rose, the valleys sank down

    to the place that you appointed for them.

You set a boundary that they may not pass,

    so that they might not again cover the earth.

Without trying to understand what the Psalm means, let the imagery sink in: garments made of light, chariots made of clouds, mountains fleeing at the thundering sound of God’s voice. The images alone, even apart from the context of the verse, are like paintings in the mind. To describe God is beyond our ability as humans, but the Psalmist uses poetic language—metaphor, simile, and symbolism—to get as close as possible. 

5. Find rest in ambiguity. I think one reason we often resist poetry is because we feel like poems are trying to trick us—like each poem has a single meaning, and it’s our job as readers to work through the language to decipher that meaning. But poems are not riddles. They are not locked containers designed for hiding ideas. Good poetry is often ambiguous because, well, life is ambiguous, and poetry is meant to reflect life. In an article for poets.org, Edward Hirsch puts it this way:

Too often we resist ambiguity. Perhaps our lives are changing so fast that we long for stability somewhere, and because most of the reading we do is for instruction or information, we prefer it without shades of gray. We want it to be predictable and easy to digest. And so difficult poetry is the ultimate torment … [To appreciate poetry], We have to cultivate a new mindset, a new practice of enjoying the inconclusive.

I tend to resist ambiguity when I read Scripture, too. I like easy answers, simple explanations. However, much of Scripture—like all great poetry—is paradoxical and mysterious, and it’s okay to rest in that. I like to think of it this way: If everything about God was always easy for us mere humans to understand, what would make him God and us human? Let us bask in the wonderment of God’s mysteries. Let us appreciate that God is God and we are human—some of him is simply beyond our comprehension. Let us find rest in that knowledge and praise him all the more for it!

2 thoughts on “Reading Poetry, Reading Scripture

  1. This is well organized and inspirational. Your Lange pop is stealing it with credit to you for devotional thought tomorrow. Psalm 104

    Like

  2. I always had an interest in poetry, but lately that interest has been waning. But then other interests have been waning as well. “As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.” On the other hand Grace and I do discuss and attempt to capture the meaning of the Psalm in our daily devotion. Thanks for emphasizing the charm of scripture’s poetry.

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