- Book Reviews
- About me
Welcome to the online home of Tim Challies, blogger, author, and book reviewer.
November 24, 2006
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about words. This must sound fascinating, I know, so congratulations if you have even made it to the second sentence of this article! With this being an unofficial holiday in the United States (and National Sleep-in Day, or something like that) I don’t expect too many people to visit my blog anyways. Still, for the benefit of myself and anyone else who cares to read it, here is a glimpse into something I have been considering recently.
As I was saying, I have been thinking a lot about words. Now I love words. They have always fascinated me. Many years ago, while I was still in high school, I studied Latin not so I could learn the language, or not primarily anyways, but so I could learn more about the source of so many English words. The teacher, one of these types who was no doubt over-qualified to be teaching entry-level high school Latin, really brought the dead language to life. He succeeded in making us not only learn the language but also in making us enjoy learning it. How did he do that? He proved to us that Latin is not truly dead and gone, but in fact, is still in common use. One ongoing task throughout the year was for all his students to collect Latin words and phrases we found in books, newspapers and magazines. We were to collect all these examples and at the end of the year, part of our grade was based on how many of these we found. The more of the language we learned, the more Latin we found. As our eyes were opened to the language, suddenly we saw it all around us - in print, in law, in theology, in advertising, and just about everywhere else. And of course we also saw it in our own language and in other languages we studied. Latin brought English and French to life in a fresh way. The study of this dead language helped undergird my study of other languages and gave me a greater love and appreciation for my own language. It made me appreciate many of the words that I use every day. A few years later I studied Greek and in this case the teacher expended little effort in tracing the Greek language to the English language. For that very reason, I’m sure, I never loved Greek in the way I loved Latin.
As I’ve thought about words, I’ve thought about the power of words used in poetry (and song, for what is song but verse set to music?). While I love prose and spend some time out of every day engaged in creating it, there is something about poetry that grabs my soul. There is quality in poetry that allows so much to be said in so few words. So often I can hold onto a line of a word or a poem in a way that just is not possible with prose. A memorable piece of prose may be several sentences or paragraphs. A memorable piece of poetry may be only a few scant words. And yet often the poetry seems to say so much more. John Wain said “Poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking.” Something in poetry just stirs the soul in a way prose cannot, just as there is a beauty inherent in dancing that is missing in walking.
I am no musician. I have little skill in differentiating between music that is good and music that is poor. There are certain musical patterns that appeal to me, certain styles of music, but more often than not, I react to the words of a song more than the music. Of course by its very nature, poetry can sometimes be difficult to understand or unravel, and it seems that there is even some subjectivity in poetry that sometimes allows people to interpret it as they wish.
Just recently I’ve purchased a few new albums and was thinking about some of the lines that really stood out above the rest in those albums. In one of these the songwriter sings about heaven and hell, reflecting on what hell really is. “Even heaven is hell if somehow You were not there” is what he sings in the chorus. There is a great truth in those few words. Even if the song does not represent great poetry, it still uses just a few words to convey the important truth that heaven would not be heaven if God were not there. This reminded me immediately of something John Piper wrote in God is the Gospel: “The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever say, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there?”
Another album has twelve songs each with many words, and yet two lines have stood out above the others. In one song the songwriter says, quite simply, “I’m free cause you’re holding me down.” He sees that true freedom is found when God extends His grace and holds a person down. Freedom is not found in a lack of rules, but in following God’s rules. Another line in another song says “It’s a long way down for me to lay here at your feet / I’m a self-made man / Knock me down.” Again, the songwriter expresses dependence on God, realizing that he needs God’s restraining power in keeping him from being a self-made man, a self-obsessed man. So few words and yet they spoke to me so powerfully. I could say the same in the form of prose, but it would take so many more words. I expect that some who read this will also be impressed with those words while others will think nothing of them. Again, that seems to be the nature of poetry. Each of us can react differently to it. A particular verse can stir the hearts of some while leaving the hearts of others cold.
It was Robert Frost who said “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” Or again, “A poem…begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness…It finds the thought and the thought finds the words.” Poetry somehow conveys emotion so well. And yet because of the subjective nature of poetry, it may always mean more to the author than to the reader. Emotion can be conveyed, but not necessarily that lump in the throat, that sense of wrong.
In any case, I’ve wondered over the past weeks if I should begin to dedicate some time to poetry as well as prose. Impressed by the power of poetry and the careful use of words it requires, I am compelled to try my hand at it. There was a time in my life when I felt more conflicted and when I wrote poetry (mostly really bad poetry). But it has been a long time. I wonder how it would change me and what the results would be. Because of the raw emotion of poetry I don’t know that I could ever share it with anyone, for it would no doubt be deeply personal. And yet I can’t help but wonder if it couldn’t be therapeutic, if it couldn’t be worship, if it couldn’t be powerful in my life. I may just have to give it a try.