Example poetry

Poetry: seizing the ineffable


“Poetry is what gets lost in translation. This is also what gets lost in interpretation. –Robert Frost

Why do we sing songs? To put the question more specifically, why do we bother to pour out our souls through verbal art? Why, when ordinary words fail us, can poetry dig deep into our hearts and soothe our troubled minds? Why can finely crafted lyrics give a voice to joy that we could not otherwise express?

In the quote above, Robert Frost suggests that poetry is an event that resists being summarized. Poetry takes hold of something that secular discourse cannot adequately capture or repeat – something numinous, something ineffable. In poetry, the boundaries of finite language are probed in search of what lies beyond the boundary of human discourse.

By its novelty, poetry breaks the conventions of everyday language to push for something much deeper. The unorthodox syntax, difficult lexicon, dense speech and vivid imagery slow us down, forcing us to ponder and dwell on every word. In a louder, faster and busier world than ever, our need for poetry has never been greater. Through poetry we rediscover our need for existential contemplation and our relationship to the world around us.

Poetry protests against what Ninian Smart, in his book Mysticism and philosophical analysis, calls a “debasement of money”, that is to say when repetition and familiarity make the word lose its existential side, poetry restores liveliness to our expressive language. Dr. Brent A. Strawn, professor of Old Testament at the Divinity School, writes in Commentary on the first volume of the New Interpreter’s Bible that “poetry is and becomes atypical speech – an elevated language which, in and by means of its elevation, speaks of important matters in a strikingly deep way”. Strawn’s last point is particularly helpful. In a technological age where many have been lulled into an existential slumber and neglected philosophical and theological research, we need to be stopped once again.

Dr. Ellen Davis, also at Divinity School, similarly writes in Opening the Scriptures of Israel“Poetry is ‘maximal speech’ – condensed, intentional, rhythmic language, meant to enter the body and deep memory. The combination of words and rhythm, especially when accompanied by music and physical movement, gives poetry the potential to release emotions that discursive or explanatory language cannot touch. Without poetry, we lose access to certain emotions, and therefore, we lose access to ourselves.

One can hardly open the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament without encountering some poetry. Indeed, the authors of the Hebrew Bible do not communicate their theology through vast philosophical treatises like those we know from the Hellenistic context, but through verbal art. However, far from being simplistic, Hebrew poetry (and narration) testifies to a careful and conscientious structuring which builds the weltanschauung – or “worldview” – of its audience. Hebrew poetry is not art for art’s sake, but is precisely composed to make intellectual and religious claims to divine and human spheres.

While it is true that Hebrew storytelling is just as clever as Hebrew poetry, there is something more disruptive about the latter that confronts and piques the reader’s interest. This could be why at key points in the Hebrew narrative – often at the top of narrative sections – the characters break into song (e.g. Exodus 15, Deut 32, Judg 5, 1 Sam 2, 2 Sam 22, Jon 2, etc). For example, Dr. Stephen Chapman, a specialist in theological interpretation of the Old Testament, writes in 1 Samuel as Christian Scripture that the poetry of 1 Sam 2 is not inserted in a “slapstick fashion” but has a “socio-theological agenda” that offers rich reflections on the nature of God. When regular speech isn’t enough, characters elevate their speech to capture the ineffable spirit of the moment.

The fact that Hebrew authors frequently use poetry to gesture towards the Infinite testifies to the transcendental nature of poetry. In the Psalms, the lyrical theologians deploy heightened poetic discourse to speak of their joy and suffering and their relationship with the God of Israel. Even the Hebrew prophets frequently use poetry to relay their divine message. Hans Urs von Balthasar writes in The Glory of the Lord“God needs prophets to make himself known, and all prophets are necessarily artists. What a prophet has to say can never be said in prose. This point is perhaps overstated since prose exists in the Hebrew prophetic corpus, but its general point remains – the prophetic literature in the Old Testament is extremely poetic. In fact, the sections that scholars refer to as “oracles” are mostly, if not exclusively, poetic in form.

The use of poetry as a vehicle for theology, however, is not unique to the Hebrew Bible. Von Balthasar asks rhetorically: “Must it be insisted that the Church Fathers only reached the pinnacle of theology when they more or less conformed to the demands of modern accuracy and spoke in polemical definitions, but not when they indulged in free rhapsodies, ‘confessions’ and ‘narratives’, as was so often the case? Poetry, even for dogmatic theologians, is a means of theologizing about God, humanity, and the cosmos. For millennia, poetry has been used to reflect on life’s most critical topics, and the same is true today.

What do we have to lose if we neglect poetry? The answer is both surprising and frightening: without poetry, we risk losing ourselves. Only poetry can capture emotions that lie beyond the realm of discursive language. So let’s take poetry by the hand and let it guide us towards the ineffable. There we will recover.

Matthew Arakaky is a doctoral candidate in Duke University’s Religion Graduate Program, where he studies religion and Hebrew Bible literature. Previously, he studied at the University of Virginia, Princeton Seminary, University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins University.

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