How to Read Poetry
Let’s start with some confession:
At some point, most of us have all given up on poetry.
Maybe as a sophomore in HS, you had that one really cool, laid back English teacher, and you also had that one person you thought you loved but had never talked to, and maybe for a few weeks there, you thought, maybe…. Maybe poetry will give words to all my feelings. I’ll put in the work. I’ll understand. And I’ll figure out how to make all these extra feelings inside sound beautiful, even elegant!
And then you found out the person you loved was actually a jerk, and you saw your English teacher left your school in the middle of the year to play the futures on the stock market. And you decided to re-evaluate your life, and that was the last time you put any effort into poetry.
Well. I have some bad news. We’re doing a series on genres in the bible, and poetry is one of the genres. So we’re gonna have to deal with it. Ok, one more bad news before we start having a positive attitude here: Poetry is actually about 27% of the verses in the Bible. More than a quarter of the Bible. So, like it or not, we’re going to need to take it seriously.
Ok.. I need you all to take a deep breath and try to think positive with me. Maybe, if God allowed a quarter of the Bible to be poetry… maybe it’s significant. And MAYBE God will help us understand how to think about it.
Alright. It’s time to rip off the band aid. Let’s read a poem.
This is by Billy Collins, a poet laureate, and professor of English. It’s called “Introduction to Poetry”
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
So if this were a high school classroom, we’d have some obligatory silence right here, as is necessary after reading any poem. And then, of course, we’d ask, what do you think it means? What’s the point?
But it seems with this poem, professor Collins is telling us that’s the wrong question altogether. What it MEANS is not his primary concern.
And not to get too far ahead of myself, but perhaps, maybe, and I’m just wondering aloud here…. Perhaps asking what scripture means, especially the quarter that’s poetry… isn’t the only question, or the best question to ask.
What if we learned to hold scripture up to the light like a color slide? Or to press our ear against the hive of its apocalyptic literature, or to walk into scripture’s wisdom literature and feel around for a light switch?
What if our beginning point, our expectation of scripture, was an encounter, rather than meaning or understanding?