Painting With Words
POETS are a mixture of artist and songwriter. Their pens are impelled as much by their hearts as by their heads. Hence, well-written poems can inspire you. They can also make you think, laugh, or cry. The book The Need for Words says: “Poetry is often nothing more than words organised to have a high, sudden impact. That’s partly the reason why great poems . . . are unforgettable in every way.”
Beautiful poetry is rarely the work of a shallow mind. Poetry has a long association with what matters most in life—relationships, love, spirituality, nature, and the meaning of life. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that poetry is one of the oldest art forms. Comparing poetry with prose (ordinary written language), one famous poet said that if both described the same thing and were equally well written, “the verse will be read a hundred times where the prose is read once.”
As you may have noticed, however, poetry takes many different forms. It may rhyme, or it may not. Sometimes it even seems to border on prose. So, what exactly is poetry?
What Is Poetry?
The Macquarie Dictionary defines poetry as “the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts” and as “literary work in metrical form; verse.” Note the two key aspects of poetry—rhythm and meter. Rhythm is part of the world around us. We see it in the ocean tides, in the seasons, and even in the beat of our heart. In verse, rhythm is the flow of sound produced by the language; we sense something repeating as we read. Meter is the pattern of rhythm, and it may vary from poem to poem. Another popular poetic device is rhyme. The rhyming elements are usually the last words on a line. Of course, rhyming patterns may vary. Sometimes the rhyme follows immediately on the next line, or it may be delayed.
Not dependent on rhyme, Japanese haiku is famous for combining beauty of thought with astonishing brevity. It packs its thoughts into just three lines comprising 17 syllables—5 in the first and third lines and 7 in the second.* Its beauty and simplicity have made haiku an enjoyable introduction to poetry for many, even kindergartners.
Traditionally, poetry is renowned for compressing considerable thought into few words. The World Book Encyclopedia states that poetic words “suggest much more than they say. They stir your imagination . . . The language of poetry is packed under pressure, and the meaning of a single word may trigger the thought, letting the entire poem explode in your imagination.” Of course, you may have to read some poems a number of times before they “detonate” in your mind, allowing you to grasp their sense.
In order to create the desired effects, poets select their words the way a jeweler selects his stones. King Solomon of Israel, a composer of proverbs and songs, “pondered and made a thorough search” in order to find “delightful words” and “correct words of truth.”—Ecclesiastes 12:9, 10; 1 Kings 4:32.
Solomon and his father, David, wrote in the traditional Hebrew form of their day. Hebrew verse, which was often sung to musical accompaniment, is not dependent on rhyme. Rather, it is noted for its rhythm of thought, or ideas—a literary form called parallelism. Lines may be synonymous in expression, or they may present contrasting thoughts. (Psalm 37:6, 9) Often the second line expands the thought of the first by adding something fresh. Observe how this is done at Psalm 119:1:
Happy are the ones faultless in their way,
The ones walking in the law of Jehovah.
Note how the second line reveals what it means to be faultless, namely, to walk in the law of Jehovah. Because Biblical Hebrew employs parallelism, or sense rhythm, rather than rhyme, it is more readily translated.*
A Vehicle for Every Emotion
Along with song, poetry is a superb vehicle for carrying the full range of emotions. Observe the blend of utter delight and the feeling of patience rewarded that is captured by Adam’s words when Jehovah presented Eve to him in the garden of Eden:
This is at last bone of my bones
And flesh of my flesh.
This one will be called Woman,
Because from man this one was taken.
What is truly remarkable about this passage is how much it says literally and conveys emotionally in just a few lines—an economy that is even more evident in the original tongue. Likewise, the poetic books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, and Lamentations capture an impressive range of emotions, besides teaching vital spiritual truths. In fact, in the original Hebrew, the very first psalm opens with the word “happy” or “blessed.” How would you describe the feelings of the writer of the following words of Psalm 63:1? Note the rich imagery, a salient feature of Hebrew verse.
O God, you are my God, I keep looking for you.
My soul does thirst for you.
For you my flesh has grown faint with longing
In a land dry and exhausted, where there is no water.
The book of Lamentations captures yet another spirit. In it Jeremiah laments the tragedy that befell Jerusalem at Babylonian hands in 607 B.C.E. He pours out his heart in five lyrical dirges that exude the prophet’s sadness yet also his awareness that divine justice was done.
Poetry Aids the Memory
Because of its attributes, poetry often lends itself well to memorization. The oldest surviving Greek poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were recited from memory at Greek festivals—quite a feat, given the epic proportions of these works! Evidently, many Biblical psalms were also committed to memory. Note how imagery, simplicity, and unassailable logic are carried along by the rhythm of the following lines of Psalm 115:4-8 portraying the folly of idol worship:
Their idols are silver and gold,
The work of the hands of earthling man.
A mouth they have, but they cannot speak;
Eyes they have, but they cannot see;
Ears they have, but they cannot hear.
A nose they have, but they cannot smell.
Hands are theirs, but they cannot feel.
Feet are theirs, but they cannot walk;
They utter no sound with their throat.
Those making them will become just like them,
All those who are trusting in them.
No doubt most people would have little trouble remembering a vivid, powerful passage like that.
Do You Want to Write Poetry?
From nursery rhymes to advertising jingles, poetry is a part of our lives. Hence, most people are familiar with at least the basic concepts of verse. But if you want to write poetry yourself, you may first want to read a broad selection of verse. This will help you to grasp the various principles of composition, besides expanding your vocabulary. Of course, you need to be selective so as not to expose yourself to anything that is unwholesome or degrading. (Philippians 4:8, 9) Naturally, the best way to learn to write verse is to sit down with pencil and paper and write.
In time, you may even be able to write poetry for the enjoyment of family and friends. Why not try putting your thoughts into verse when you send someone a get-well or thank-you card? Your poem need not be long or brilliant. Just write a few lines expressing what is in your heart. The challenge will not only give you pleasure and a sense of satisfaction but no doubt delight the receiver when he or she sees the effort you went to in composing your thoughts in such an imaginative and heartfelt way.
You do not have to be a genius with words to enjoy writing poetry, any more than you have to be a great chef to enjoy preparing a meal. Mix equal amounts of desire, imagination, effort, and persistence with the latent bard in you, and the paintings with words that you produce may give you a pleasant surprise.
For a discussion of haiku, please see Awake! of January 8, 1989.
Awake! is translated into 83 languages. Hence, we have chosen to use Biblical, rather than non-Biblical, verse as examples in this article.
[Picture on page 21]
A considerable portion of the Hebrew Scriptures consists of poetry