The Purpose of Poetry

The Purpose of Poetry August 10, 2023

A recent article in the NY Times. ( by Tish Warren, an Anglican priest, has an interesting dialogue with her former poetry teacher….  Here’s a helpful excerpt…

Your next book is about the connection between faith and poetry, and you have quoted the poet and former head of the National Endowment for the Arts Dana Gioia, saying, “It is impossible to understand the full glory of Christianity without understanding its poetry.” What does that mean to you?

There’s poetry all over Scripture, in Psalms, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes and the Prophets. And there’s poetry in the liturgy and in the hymns and songs of the church. The Bible beckons us to think about the poetry that exists beyond Scripture itself, which can help us enter into Scripture in a different way. The songwriter Andrew Peterson said: “There have always been poets underfoot. God just keeps making them.” Why does God keep making poets? In every generation and every culture across the world there are poets. There’s a great poem by W.H. Auden, an elegy for Yeats, and he says three times that poetry “survives.” No matter what else, it’s going to keep going. It’s just a part of who we are as human beings, so it behooves us to think about why is it that God made us as people who write poetry?

So why does God keep making poets? Or, to put it another way, what is this inherent human urge for poetry?

One reason I think we keep making poetry is because we are ourselves poems. There’s a verse in the Bible (Ephesians 2:10) in which we are described as the “handiwork of God.” But it’s the same Greek root that goes into the word “poetry.” It means “a made thing.” A more literal translation is that we are, as human beings, the poems of God. So we keep making poetry because we are ourselves poems.

Another way to think about it is that we keep making poetry because it’s part of natural curiosity, exploration and discovery. I trace poetry back to the story in Genesis, when God brings all the creatures of the world before Adam and says, “You name it.” Poetry is created in the world as one of the very first vocations and tasks of human beings, because poetry very often is an attempt to name the world properly, because to name it is to know it. And if we’re going to know it well, we’ve got to name it well, and if we’re going to name it well, we’ve got to pay very careful attention to this world that God has made. So I also think of poetry as the art of attention. It’s the ability to pay attention to the world and produce for the world the name of something that must be known.

How has poetry affected your faith or inspired you?

I think it’s hard to have faith without wonder. You need to have some sense of awe, mystery and not-knowing-ness to have faith in the possibilities of the world and what God has done. And I find that poetry is the art that produces in me the most wonder.

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