Posts Tagged ‘poets’

When I was in the first grade, our class memorized this poem and recited it over the loudspeaker system to the whole school during the morning devotional time.  (Public schools were different then!) It is a poem, you know, not just a psalm. Remember how Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon were the division of the Bible called the Books of Poetry! The Spirit of God is a prolific poet.

Add to the pure poetry then the lyrical words of songs that Moses sang, Miriam, Deborah, and all Israel together with the Magnificat of Mary and the probable hymns of the early Christians reflected in Paul’s writings. I think God really likes poetry!

I think you will like poetry better, if you learn the technique of close reading. Let’s read this favorite poem of mine together and I will record my thoughts as I do a close reading so that you can see a concrete example of what I’m talking about.

A close reading of a biblical text for me means that the reader looks more closely at the detail of the text, but probably does not do a historical or linguistic analysis.  Let me show you what I mean. Stay with me and let’s read the text together. It may feel a little disjointed, but the goal is to experience the poem and understand it in a meaningful way.

The LORD is my shepherd; To claim the Creator of the Universe with the word my is pretty audacious! Either the speaker is a pompous fool or he has an extraordinary sense of relationship with his God! And why does he choose the shepherd metaphor? Why not king or mountain or ocean or sun? Or if he’s choosing a profession, why not carpenter or farmer or winemaker? Probably in this case, the poet wants to reveal the relationship that the shepherd establishes with the sheep. The writer puts himself in the position of being a sheep by calling the LORD his shepherd.  Is being a sheep a good thing? Aren’t sheep a little dumb? Oops, maybe that’s part of the poem?  Well let’s go on.

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. What confidence in the shepherd! Can a human shepherd provide everything for the sheep as well as protect them from all harm? Not really, but the poet says his shepherd can—the LORD can.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters. I must admit, this sounds pretty good. Green pastures for eating and still waters for drinking—but, in fact, it doesn’t seem to me that creature comforts are not what the writer focuses on. No, he is describing a place of quiet rest—perhaps just a place of contentment where the sheep don’t have to worry about their needs because they can just look around and see that everything is there that they need—so they can relax.

He restoreth my soul. Yes, that seems to be the whole direction of this poem so far—restoration. Not just meeting physical needs, but feeding and watering the soul is what the poet means when he says, “I shall not want.”

He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness .  . . The word righteousness gets in the way for me. It’s too churchy, too theological. Would it be just as right to say, “He leads me down the right path,” or, “He makes sure that I stay on the path?”

. . . for his name’s sake: Then the poet just reminds us that while the shepherd is doing so much for the care of the sheep, ultimately the sheep are there for the benefit of the shepherd! It is the shepherd’s will for the sheep that will ultimately be done, not the sheep’s will for themselves. They will be petted, they will be shorn, some may be eaten—they belong to the Shepherd, not to themselves.  The Shepherd cares for the flock for his own sake!  And that seems to be OK with the poet.

4Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: I know that it is a misreading of the text, but I can’t help but love the Yea, because it sounds like “Yay!!” or maybe YES!! Sometimes poets use words to mean one thing, but to suggest other things. I wish that were the case here, but I don’t think it is.  Well, that is probably a sidetrack.  Not being afraid as one is threatened with death is not normal! But the poet didn’t say he wasn’t afraid; rather, he said he would fear no evil! His fearlessness is certainly because of his confidence that he is being led along the righteous path where evil does not prevail.

For thou art with me! One of these words is shocking!  It’s OK to talk about the Majestic God of heaven as the Shepherd, even though it is a lowly image. It was bold to call Him my Shepherd, but at least the poet is still speaking metaphorically and positions himself well below the Shepherd, but suddenly here, the poet switches voices and addresses Almighty God directly—with one of the most common words in the English language—and one of the most familiarly intimate words:  YOU! Most languages have forms of address for royalty, for class or gender differentiation. In English, the poet just says, “YOU” to God. I don’t think a Muslim could be so familiar with Allah.

Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.  Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. The rod and staff are for protection and rescue mostly, I suppose, therefore to know the shepherd has all he needs to protect and rescue me is comforting.  But to spread a picnic in the middle of a battlefield, that’s a peculiar image—unless his enemies were not yet active, not yet aggressive, still his enemies, however.  We too live in a world of intrigue. Think about your family drama, the tensions at work—or at church as people trample others to get what they want or where they want.  OK, I’m getting a better picture of sitting down to eat among people who are after me, but without fear because . . .

Thou anointest my head with oil! Because I’m a sheep of the Almighty Shepherd and I have been chosen, anointed, so the Shepherd and I stand together.

My cup runneth over! My cup of wine or cup of blessing or cup of joy or cup of thanksgiving—any of those work for me.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, It’s all based on this relationship between the Shepherd and the sheep. If the Shepherd is as good as He seems, then surely that sheep need not worry one day of his life that he will be left to evil and judgment—the opposites of goodness and mercy!

And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever. Sheep in the house?? I don’t know about that. I think with the shift to YOU, the poet starts giving up the sheep metaphor and is wrapped up in the goodness of his own relationship to the LORD.  And the house of the LORD could be just where He is, but it could be the metaphorical temple—which was the house of the LORD! And could it be the household of the LORD or His family?

Don’t you love the word forever! There is no forever to anything that we know in the physical universe. So by using the word forever, the poet carries himself and us with him far beyond anything that we know! That says to me that anything we even conceive of in the image the house of the LORD is wrong and whatever it is, it is so much more than we can imagine—and I shall dwell there forever!

I love to read closely—to read poetry closely, but especially to read God’s poetry closely because the richness is completely satisfying—but never exhausted.  I’m glad my English teachers taught me to love poetry. I’m quite sure we will do poetry readings in the house of the Lord forever!

Are you ready?




Read Full Post »

The land was ours before we were the land’s.

She was our land more than a hundred years

Before we were her people. . . .

When he was 86 years old, Robert Frost was invited by the freshly elected young president to read a poem at the inauguration in Washington. The year is 1961, the president is John F. Kennedy, and the poem that Frost wrote for the inauguration was one entitled “Dedication” – which does not contain the above lines.  The glare of the sun off the snow on the ground blinded the elderly poet to the point that he could neither read nor recite the newly written poem. Frost stopped and in a strong and commanding voice, he began quoting a very familiar poem of his “The Gift Outright.”

Other poets have spoken powerfully at political moments. One of the earliest may have been Walt Whitman’s “O Captain, My Captain” upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln:

O Captain my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.


Lt. John McCrae’s famous poem “In Flanders Field,” written during the horrors of WWI continues to represent that whole event in literature as does the novel All Quiet On The Western Front. Somehow when we move to WWII and the arts, things seem to shift to film and music—until the late fifties and sixties when poetry once more joined the triumvirate!

Lately, when I find myself thinking of pure poetry, I find myself thinking mostly of African-American poetry, starting, of course, with Langston Hughes and not ending but certainly finding one of its mountaintops in Maya Angelou. Certainly because of the racial conflict of the previous decades fourscore, these poets have been voices heard when more virulent voices were not.

Poetry and politics are not from different edges of the globe. Poetry is often the purest expression, the most concentrated form of the arguments of the human soul.

My thesis at Ole Miss is entitled “Frost Among the Leaves: The Dark Side of Robert Frost.” I’m sure you can find it in the university library in Oxford—probably untouched by human hands. I had always liked Frost’s poetry, and although I’m quite aware that he is considered second tier by some scholars who prefer more obscurity, I believe that very few can equal the depth of emotion that he captures in quite carefully crafted language.

He wrote of pastures, he wrote of paths in woods, he wrote of cows, but he also wrote of death, of fear, of betrayal, of angst, of the quest for meaning—and he wrote about God.

Next I want to read closely perhaps my favorite poem, written by another pastoral poet, also about sheep and pastures—and also about God.  I learned this poem in the first grade—and it continues to move me to quiet and to faith.

I bet you know this poem as well!


Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: