“Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”
Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be;
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.[i]
Every writer, including a poet, has a point of view. The poet addresses the subjects of God, life, humans, ethics, or the afterlife. The poet allows feeling about thinking, wrestles ambiguity within reality, expresses life through symbols, employs imagery about substance, and stresses experience as trustworthy. A word paints a thousand pictures. Poetry is premised upon the visual power of verbal connections in the human imagination.
Biblical Theology of Poetry
And we must extinguish the candle, put out the light and relight it;
Forever must quench, forever relight the flame.
There we thank Thee for our little light, that is dappled with shadow.
And we thank Thee that darkness reminds us of light.
O Light Invisible, we give Thee thanks for Thy great glory![ii]
When a person points to an object, the focus is not on the finger but upon its intended target. For the Christian, poetry is not an end in itself but a descriptive pointer toward Heaven (Ps. 141:2; 142:2) or a marker of experience on earth (Ps. 19:1-6). Unbelieving poets may accept the mythical muse as their director; the Christian believes God’s Spirit communes with the poet’s spirit (Pss. 32, 51), responding to the vagaries and vicissitudes of life. God uses poetry to communicate His Truth to people within His revelation to them. Jesus’ famous words “Haven’t you read?!” (Mat. 12:3, 5; 19:1; 21:16, 42; 22:31) establish the expectation: reading, reflection, and response to revelation is necessary (Ps. 139:23-24).
The interpretation of peoples’ words is important. Ecclesiastes uses poetry to examine naturalism showing that its insufficient view of the world must be corrected (1:2; 3:19-21; 9:1, 10). Laments from Job (chapter 3) or Psalms (88) must be understood in the energetic, emotive spirit of the Eastern mindset. Song of Solomon uses poetic terminology for physical affection between Solomon and his bride. Jeremiah uses animal husbandry to communicate Israel’s sin (2:23-25). Isaiah uses Middle Eastern vineyards to explain Israel’s rootedness to God (Is. 5:1-5).
Response to the wonder-awe of the mysteries of life, the immensity of creation, and the ineffable nature of God must be part of the poetic interpretive process (Pss. 104, 149, 150). Poetry demands an attention to peoples’ emotions (Ps. 13:1-2). Personal-relational-historical connections from the reader to the author are necessary (Ps. 57). Imagination is necessary to understand poetic connections (Hab. 3:17-19). Repetition of truth through poetry strengthens Christian teaching processes (Deut. 32; Jud. 5; 1 Sam. 15:22-23; Col. 3:16; 1 Tim. 3:16).
Word pictures are used to make the reader visualize (see), empathize (feel), and synthesize (fuse) their worlds. Advertisements in television, radio, magazines and billboards explain what is obvious: pictures are important. When Isaiah (44:6-20) sarcastically belittles idol makers, the visual imagery in the poetic diatribe reverberates off the page. Zoomorphism, personification, metaphors, and anthropomorphism bring words to life. Christian teaching should utilize the power of poetry both inside and outside of the Bible.
Christian Practice of Poetry
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.[iii]
Methods of teaching could employ various uses for poetry. Hopkins’ poem above explains that everything in God’s world has purpose; its meaning is tied up in what it is, what it was intended to be. The design of God’s creation cannot be overlooked. In another way, poetry can be used to compare and contrast point of view. The poetry of the skeptic William Ernest Henley “Captain of My Fate” can be seductive. But Alfred Lord Tennyson’s eternal view in “Crossing the Bar” gives one pause when the poems are placed side-by-side. e.e. cummings “pity this busy monster manunkind, not” could be held up next to Shakespeare’s seven stages of a man in “As You Like It” and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Conquerer Worm.” The images by themselves are stark, showing human-centered, earth-bound views of people. A comparative, distinctive Christian view would be obvious. Symbolism, imagery, and figures can be aptly used in worship and teaching. Allowing words to be heard, to be given honor, would benefit all who listen, giving credence once again to the importance of expression and memory. Poetry addresses wounds too great to bear, helps to deepen the understanding of the tear, cleansing the wound.
Poetry stimulates imagination and activates possibilities. Poetry exposes ideas in different ways. Poetry builds theological vocabulary. Creating connections with people happens through poesy. Peoples’ perspectives are broadened through different thinking processes in poetry. Ultimately, transformation—people changed in their thinking and living—is the ultimate Christian teaching outcome (Ps. 119:103; Jer. 15:16; Ezek. 3:2).
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise.
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.[iv]
Dana Gioia Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture (Minneapolis, Graywolf Press, 2002).
W.H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays (New York, Vintage Books, 1990).
“Poetry” © is one of 17 articles included in The Encyclopedia of Christian Education, Rowman & Littlefield, April, 2015 by Dr. Mark Eckel, Professor of Leadership, Education & Discipleship at Capital Seminary & Graduate School.
[i] Alfred Lord Tennyson, “In Memorium: A.H.H. The Prelude”
[ii] T. S. Eliot, “The Rock”
[iii] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”
[iv] Emily Dickenson, “Tell It Slant.”