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What is the Purpose of Poetry?

Updated: Feb 14, 2022

I’ve always wanted to be good at understanding literature, but I’m not. Maybe it’s because my dad loved it so much…I even got to study American Literature under him in high school. Maybe I wanted to be good at it because I love words and believe in the power of words to change the human heart.

Now my dad, he loved literature and he loved to write. I mean he loved to write. Unfortunately, he was often frustrated because his thinking, for writing to be worth the work, it needed to be read/received. We had a lot of philosophical conversations about whether or not art needed to be seen by others to be worth creating. In my opinion the answer is obvious - art is first a reflection of the creator and secondarily it is a vehicle of communication. Communication may be the goal, but it comes after the desire to create. In my opinion the inception of the art, the origination of the art, is in the need of the artist to express. My dad’s opinion was that may very well be where the creation starts, but that is not the most important or valuable purpose of the art – the goal of the art is what it communicates and the purpose of art is connection. My rebuttal was, “yes, but if the only resulting connection the art makes is connection with self, that connection alone makes the creation worth the effort.” Besides, who knows when the connection with others will happen and who can say what that connection will actually be? It’s very much a chicken and the egg debate!

Every weekend worship experience involves many art forms: oratory, visual art, and song. Songwriting is poetry, a unique art form. Music experienced live is another unique art form in that it exists only in the moment – there is no past or future with live music, there is only the shared experience.

But back to the poetry…is it more about the creator or the receiver? I would say that answer is found in the moment of connection and that connection is a moving target (yeah, I think the chicken came first). In the same way a Beethoven piano sonata has been experienced for centuries, the poems of songs have multiple points of connection and communication, sometimes across generations, but not always.

I’ve written in these blogs before how certain song lyrics helped trigger understanding at a totally new level some truth the Holy Spirit has been trying to build into me (see “Dear Younger Me” blog post). I’m pretty sure what God helped me understand through those lyrics is not what Bart Millard had in mind when he penned the poetry. Bart had his experience he was working through and I had my experience I was working through.

I think that is the key: Poetry provides context for experience.

It is a means to communicate feelings, thoughts, life events, intellectual ideas and in our context on the weekend, Scriptural truth. Isn’t that why some hymns have stood the test of time? Because of common experience and the expression of eternal truth? One could easily stand firm in the camp that the act of writing hymns and spiritual songs is more about the receiver than the giver, but I would say again – who is to say what will actually be received?

So my encouragement to you is this: let the poetry of the spiritual songs and hymns we sing together on the weekend drive you back into Scripture and back into looking at your own journey with Jesus. Let the poetry simply be art form that helps you celebrate what you’re experiencing on your faith journey and what God is teaching you through your personal time in Scripture.

See you this weekend, and COME SING LOUD!

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