Over the years I’ve heard countless ministers, ministers-in-training, and even divinity-school professors tell me, often quite cheerfully, that they just don’t “get” poetry. Ancient theology, modern novels, academic philosophy so fanged and rebarbative it would make a layman’s brain bleed—no problem. But slip a sonnet into the mix and the gears grind to a stop.
On one hand, this makes sense. Poetry is a particular way of thinking. It enacts and enables meanings rather than (or often in addition to) expressing them. It requires a kind of non-utilitarian intelligence, a “willingness to exist among doubts and uncertainties without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” as Keats famously put it. This can be confusing to anyone combing Scripture for a “message” and an actual impediment to religious scholars systematically supporting some thesis.
On the other hand, roughly one third of the Old Testament is poetry, at times as bristly and semantically layered as any high-modernist text; and much of the New Testament, including some of its crucial moments (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”), consists of quotations or references to these ancient poems. It would seem, then, that if you can’t read poetry, a great part of the Bible is going to remain closed to you.
And indeed this is just what Michael Edwards says in The Bible and Poetry, a short but hugely ambitious book whose aim is essentially to correct the course of Christianity. (Edwards, the only Englishman ever elected to the Académie Francaise, is a winningly candid Christian and interprets Scripture in that context.) Poetic illiteracy, according to Edwards, is not simply an individual problem but an institutional one. Christianity has developed as a religion of precepts and articles of faith. It has been defined and determined by systematic theology, an enterprise that Edwards believes—from Aquinas to Calvin and right through the present day—is simply an “error.” There is, he thinks, a reason that God chooses poetry to speak to us. Understanding this reason might not only lead to spiritual consolation and clarity for the individual believer but might even begin to heal some of our deep divisions.
Take Communion, for instance, to which Edwards devotes a full chapter. He knows and quickly dismisses all the well-known historical and theological disputes, homing in on Jesus’ words “This is my body.” Protestants, he says, have diminished the strength of the verb in Jesus’ pronouncement, whereas Catholics have overinterpreted the phrase and allowed customs (the prayer of consecration, the insistence that communion require a presiding priest, etc.) to restrict and occlude the original significance, and both misunderstandings are the result of not reading the text poetically.
Neither Jesus in the gospels nor Paul in Corinthians elucidates “This is my body” at all, Edwards points out, and this “gives us an astonishing and salutary hermeneutical lesson.” We don’t have to literalize the act in ways that demean both it and us (exactly what part of Jesus’ body are we munching on?), and we don’t have to diminish the mystery by turning the act into a merely mental experience. “The words of Jesus are clear and secret, clear about the unheard-of gift that is given to us—hear him say to us, ‘This is my body… This is my blood’—and secret because of the transcendence of his divinity.” We are meant to inhabit the act without fully understanding it.
Or consider these lines from the Book of Job, when Job is cursing the night of his conception: “Let the stars of its twilight be dark; / let it look for light, but have none; / nor gaze on the eyelids of the dawn.” Edwards points out that Job, “in looking on the abyss of his sufferings,” experiences a nostalgic sense of wonder at creation that sends a kind of lightning flash through that total darkness. Is this a moment of faith, perhaps, even hope? Might it change how we read Job’s whole stance to God—and God’s to Job, as God presumably enables this relief—and thus our theological sense of the whole story?
I’m struck by Edwards’s reading but see another one as well. Job is cursing his very conception in this passage. The last line has an undeniable sexual element, as if the dawn and night were at the end of a tryst. One could argue that Job is enlarging his curse to include the very “conception” of reality, that it reaches beyond his life to include life itself. Some critics have suggested—I am one of them—that Job’s curse of his existence amounts to a curse of God and that Satan actually wins their cruel bet. Reading this passage as I have suggested is further evidence for this interpretation.
Is the reading, then, “right”? Right enough. But so is the one Edwards offers, which is entirely contradictory. Auden once defined poetry as “the clear expression of mixed feelings.” The phrase is a little bland for the conflicting intensities of Job, but you get the idea. The poem not only balances competing meanings but demands them, and any attempt to strangle its polyvalences with a single interpretation or to explain away complicated passages with paraphrase is a violation of the poem’s integrity and achievement. Edwards goes so far as to say that such attempts, however well-meaning, are ultimately “diabolical.”
It’s an odd—and compelling—aspect of this book that it focuses so much on the New Testament. The New Testament often quotes Hebrew poetry and hymns, and of course there are many “poetic” passages, like the one above from Jesus, that both distill and enlarge reality in the way that good poems do. Strictly speaking, though, there probably aren’t any original poems in the New Testament.
Occasionally, someone will dispute this. A few years ago, Willis Barnstone published The Poems of Jesus Christ, which argues that just about all the New Testament was originally poetry. No biblical scholar would support this, though, and the thought of Jesus walking around speaking in verse is difficult to reconcile with—and perhaps even a diminishment of—the ordinary, earthy, plainspoken person that comes through in the synoptic gospels. (John is a special case.) That his language could have the force of art without the artifice is part of its grounded power.
Edwards’s focus on the New Testament is an aesthetic surprise as well. “Even the most powerful parts of the New Testament from a literary point of view,” writes Harold Bloom, “are not works that can sustain a close aesthetic comparison with the stronger parts of the Hebrew Bible.” This seems hard to dispute. The Book of Job is as powerful and irreducible as anything in Western literature (and, in my opinion, towers over the rest of the Hebrew Bible). Throw in the Psalms, the Prophetic books, the Song of Songs, Proverbs, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes, and the poetic achievement seems immense.
The New Testament is operating at a different frequency and has different ambitions, which can cause some consternation for believers with a literary bent. A divinity student once came to me in despair, wondering how it could be that this book that was meant to be the most important book in the world—in fact meant to be the very word of God—could often be so…boring.
Edwards doesn’t address this discrepancy, and I suspect he would say that it misses the point. The New Testament is so thoroughly emergent from the Old that the two together amount, as Jack Miles has written, to a kind of palimpsest. Learning how to read the Old Testament teaches us how to read the New. The sixteenth-century thinker Isaac Luria created the famous image of the “shattering vessels” to describe the moment of creation. The forms were inadequate to contain God’s creative power and the divine sparks that flew at their shattering were dispersed throughout reality. The task of existence becomes to reclaim or redeem that scattered light. As I was reading Edwards’s book, it seemed to me that Luria’s image casts “light” on the reading of the New Testament, which has embedded within it all these fugitive gleams from the Old.
This is why Edwards focuses so closely on certain short passages from the New Testament, and why he justifies reading them as poetry. He does this with great sensitivity and illumination, and I find him completely convincing in these moments. Late in the book, though, after he has devoted chapters to the Psalms, the Song of Songs, and the Book of Isaiah, Edwards returns to the New Testament and begins making much greater claims for certain passages as autonomous poems, much in the way Barnstone does. This is a mistake. Lineating prose does not improve its literary quality. It can in fact have the opposite effect, causing perfectly serviceable prose to seem like mediocre poetry. I found my spiritual attention flagging in the face of my aesthetic resistance.
Edwards writes well about the power of poetry in general and the kind of spiritual insight that may be found therein. But he draws a clean line between the poetry of the Bible and “secular” verse. This is an orthodox position, but is it valid? Scripture, the thinking goes, was inspired by the Holy Spirit and speaks the Word of God. Secular literature, for all its force and beauty, is inevitably the product of a fallen world and can’t be read in the light of faith in the same way.
I wonder. That student who came to me depressed by the flat prose of the New Testament was himself a poet and fresh off a seminar spent reading the modernists. He discovered a fact that has both bolstered and troubled many believers who are also serious readers: great poetry can bring one close to God, even though the subject may be entirely “secular,” and even though it may have been written by a poet who was not religious. My student, in fact, found himself more spiritually moved by some secular poetry than he was by Scripture.
The dilemma is familiar to me, but after a lifetime spent reading and writing poetry, I have come to an uneasy peace with it. Isaac Luria’s image is a useful lens for reading the New Testament in light of the Old, but the image’s original aim is all creation. Some of those initial divine sparks must have lodged in some very unlikely places—in the brain of Wallace Stevens, for instance, or for that matter, in Friedrich Nietzsche’s. Surely the Holy Spirit didn’t exhaust her creative powers between the covers of a single book.
Am I suggesting that the Bible might not be the “book of all books,” that not only has its status “as Holy Writ…discouraged the perception of it as a body of literature that uses poetry to realize meanings,” as Robert Alter has written, but that this status has also kept us from allowing God to speak to us in other ways? I am. Idolatry of the Bible is in part the cause of the split and antagonism between Judaism and Christianity, not to mention the endless and often insipid rifts and retrenchments within Christianity itself. Just stop to ponder how many people have been murdered over the interpretation of those few words of Jesus as he broke bread. Can something this divisive, this poisoned with prejudice and human vanity, be salvaged?
Edwards’s book is at least a step in the right direction. Will it have any effect? I suspect its chances of diverting the course of Christianity itself are roughly the same as those of the previous paragraph. But one of the great virtues of this book is its modesty. “If the words and the gestures of Jesus speak otherwise to the reader,” Edwards says after one argument, “may he deepen them for himself, forgetting what I have written.” No doubt some determined readers will do just that. But for those literate Christians out there who often find themselves caught between the clarity of their call and the obscurity of its course, and who find themselves alternately drawn to and repelled by the Bible, this little book may prove very helpful indeed. I hope they find in it both the provocation and the consolation that I have.
The Bible and Poetry
Trans. by Stephen E. Lewis
New York Review Books
$18.95 | 176 pp.