The Loss of Poetry

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The causes are not easy to identify, but poetry has fallen on hard times.

Poetry today huddles in its prescribed little ghettoes – the sentimentalism of greeting cards and cupboard poetry, the small clutch of arcane poetry journals with a circulation of thirteen, self-absorbed adolescents scribbling pages of navel-gazing free verse, nationally-ignored poet laureates, and that about covers the world of poetry.

For those interested is recovering a biblical worldview, this is not at all good. Much of the Bible is poetry, and a good deal more of it cannot be understood apart from important poetic categories like metaphor. Burton Raffel has pointed out that while there have been cultures that had no prose, there has never been a culture that had no poetry. And in the Hebraic world, the world which brought forth the Bible, the line between prose and poetry was frankly a blurry one. Given the impact the Bible has had on our culture, much of the inheritance of the West also falls within those same poetic categories, and has now drifted out of our reach.

As mentioned above, the reasons for all this are not easy to identify. But it should be noted that the modern church is not at all distinctive in this regard and has shared the same drift as everyone else. However doctrinally conservative we may think we are, in this respect we are thorough-going modernists. While nothing can be considered cut and dried about this, within the Reformed world several aspects of the problem are worth mentioning.

One of the first difficulties has been our tendency to give way to Enlightenment-style systematics as the sole defender of the truth. As we have contended for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints, we have forgotten that “the Word became flesh,” not “the Formula became important.” We can summarize this problem as that of thinking that a metaphor conveys less truth than some straightforward piece of theological engineering. At the end of the day, this leaves us defending skeletal truth as though it by itself were a living person. This is not a disparagement of systematic understanding; that is essential. The body needs a skeleton. But if all you have is a skeleton, then what you have is a dead man.

Allowing ourselves to consider this possibility makes us nervous because we are wary about the sophomoric dishonesty of postmodern thinkers, those who like to talk about everything as a metaphor. They do this in order to maintain that there is no fixed truth, and we wonder if a Christian return to a poetic appreciation of truth may not be giving up some strategic ground to this heresy. But we have missed something important here.

Modernists dismiss metaphorical communication with contempt, while postmodernists say that everything is a metaphor. These two positions couldn’t be more opposed, right? Not exactly – they both agree on something essential to both positions, which is that absolute truth is not conveyed through metaphor. But this flies in the face of the Bible’s teaching. God is a Rock and His work is perfect, even though rocks don’t work. We may not like this means of communicating absolute truth, but if we are Christians, we need to learn to deal with it. An inability to learn truth from beauty is not beauty’s problem. Until we learn this, our understanding of revelation will continue to be truncated, and will remain that way until we give ourselves to the recovery of poetry.

Another great problem has been the gradual feminization of poetry. This is not mentioned as a criticism of women with a poetic gift. Rather, rightly understood, poetry is a human phenomenon and should reflect that broad reality. An essential part of this is making a place for masculine poetry, and the fact that masculine poetry seems oxymoronic to us now illustrates the problem nicely.

The upshot is that men no longer lead through poetry; they merely put up with the various forms of poetry that may briefly touch their lives. When we think of poetry we think of cowslips and dewdrops, and various forms of moon Juning. We no longer think of Beowulf among “ancient kings and the glory they cut for themselves, swinging mighty swords!” We no longer think of David, a warrior king, singing psalms of piercing strength and loveliness. We think rather of a Romantic poet, wandering lonely as a cloud. Try to imagine, in our contemporary culture, any poet occupying the place of a Homer, or a Kipling, or a Virgil, or a Milton. Quick! Try to name the current poet laureate without confusing him with the Surgeon-General.

Even if we reduce the scope of our thought experiment, we cannot imagine a poet with this sort of visionary power holding an honored place within the Christian subculture. In fact, it is even less likely. The only way a poet could come to be honored among us at all would be through an assiduous rhyming of love and heavenly Dove on a poster of a sunset at the beach. We have accepted ninth-rate work for such a long time (but only if the sentiments are syrupy enough) that we have forgotten what good poetry really is. And the Christians — who opt for the superciliousness of perfectly opaque poetry for the six people as smart as they are — aren’t helping any.

As many Christians return to the important work of recovering a truly biblical approach to the education of their children, they need to keep in mind that instruction in poetry should be right at the heart of all their endeavors.

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