Poetic License

This year is the hundredth anniversary of the death of Walt Whitman, one of America's most celebrated poets. New York City is marking the occasion with a year-long commemoration. Festivities are being held all across the country. Why make such a fuss over a poet? The answer is that poetry is powerful. That may sound strange to those of us who think of poetry as something we studied under duress in a high school English class. But in fact poetry is all around us, and it affects people in powerful ways. Think of popular music. What is it but poetry set to music? With its strong rhythms and clever rhymes, the lyrics of rock and roll music and rap songs are replayed in the mind over and over. Sometimes with greater sticking power than the words of mom and dad, you can bet on that. The hymns we sing in church are—once again—poetry set to music. Many early hymn writers saw music as the most effective means of teaching the church—sometimes even more effective than sermons. The Scriptures are sprinkled throughout with poetry. Anyone can tell the difference between a doctrinal passage from Romans and the poetic rhythms of a Psalm. And guess which is more easily remembered in times of trouble. Yes, poetry is powerful. And not just because it is easily recalled. Poetry is powerful because it expresses truths that are deeply emotional, that do not lend themselves easily to dry argument and explication. Look at the Bible, where God uses a love poem—the Song of Solomon—as one of the most effective vehicles to communicate His love for us. Many of the greatest masters of the English language throughout history have been Christian poets. Think of John Donne, who wrote such memorable lines as "Death be not proud," "No man is an island," and "Never ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee." Or think of John Milton, who composed the magnificent epic poem Paradise Lost in order to "justify the ways of God to man." And the rich language of Gerard Manley Hopkins is always a call to worship. Listen to the opening lines of "God's Grandeur": "The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil." Hear the way Hopkins evokes the dreariness of the human condition: "Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; And all is smeared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil." Rich, evocative words like these are far more powerful than a simple factual description. So why not take this opportunity—the anniversary of Walt Whitman's death—to rediscover poetry. Whitman was not a Christian, yet he had a powerful impact on American culture that Christians need to recognize and understand. The writer Percy Shelley once said, "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." What he meant is that through their vivid imagery and memorable rhythms. Poets have the power to shape how people think. It's a power Christians need to understand—and use to the glory of God.


Chuck Colson



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