Last year, I attended a poetry seminar at Laity Lodge with poet and teacher Scott Cairns, who led 12 of us on a two-day journey to destinations none of us quite imagined when we started. Our overnight assignment was to write a poem based on a hard or difficult passage in Scripture.
I chose certain passages from the book of Joshua – the command by God on more than one occasion for the Israelites to commit herem against the towns and cities they conquered – total annihilation of the people and even animals. Other seminar participants chose other, equally or more difficult passages.
It was something I had not considered before – using poetry to explicate Scripture. Cairns and most of the others in the seminar seemed quite comfortable with the idea and practice. I wasn’t; I was also nervous about the idea of reading a poem I had written to a group of people, something I had never done before. But I plunged ahead, wrote (and rewrote and rewrote) my poem, and actually read it.
It opened up a new world for me, a new way to study and understand Scripture.
Poet D.S. Martin did something just like this in several of the poems included in his 2008 collection Poiema: Poems. (In August, I wrote “Poetry as Family History,” about Martin’s collection So the Moon Would Not Be Swallowed.) Poiema is a rich collection of poems, covering subjects ranging from family to Scripture to meditations.
Martin tackles difficult passages – like God telling Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac – but he also uses poetry to consider less difficult passages, ones whose meanings seem obvious – until the poet addresses them. Consider Psalm 90:17: “Let the favor the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!” (English Standard Bible).
Here’s what Martin does with that passage, in a poem entitled “Let Beauty Come:”
Let beauty rest on us like a shaft of light
penetrating to the dimness of our forest floor
our eager green turns toward it
Let beauty come like rain for Hopkins’ roots
splattering exuberantly on our disappointments
making right what we could never foresee
Awaken our hibernating senses so we find
what was hiding & what was on its way
The affirmation of blessing
Let the beauty grow in the work of our hands
not our own but truest beauty
growing in the work of our hands
(The multiple spaces between words on some lines is deliberate by the poet – Martin does this in many of his poems, and it almost forces the reader to pause, which may be the point.)
He takes the idea of the work of our hands – work ordained by God – and relates it directly and intimately to beauty, beauty that can be both focused like that shaft of light cutting through the dense cover of forest and effusive, like the splattering of a hard rain. Even more, the beauty which comes from God fixes disappointments, makes things right, awakens us to see what we did not and could not see before.
And the real miracle is that this beauty, this truest beauty originating in God, grows in the work of our hands. No wonder the Scripture passage includes an exclamation point.
This is what poetry can do when we study Scripture – help us speak possible meaning and understanding, deepen our understanding, and astound us with God’s bounty and grace.