Archives For Poetry

The Composer

Mark Beuving —  March 9, 2015 — Leave a comment

I have written a lot about music, both on this blog and in Resonate. And while I don’t want to always ride my own hobby horse, we can always stand to be re-awakened to amazing aspects of the world God made—like music. I recently came across this wonderful poem written by a friend of mine in my church, and I’m sharing it here.

Acoustic GuitarThe reason I want to share this poem is that it encapsulates in short, poetic thoughts so much of the wonder of music. In a short space, this poem explores many of music’s most powerful and enigmatic features: its physicality, its allure, its structure, its freedom and adaptability, its ability to suggest, its connection to the human experience and human emotions, its divine origin, etc. The poem does all of this while still preserving the inherent mystery of music.

So I’m posting the poem here (with the author’s permission) in hopes that you will reflect on the mysterious power of music and come to better appreciate the musical world you inhabit. We tend to take music for granted, in the sense that we fail to value it. But we should take music for granted, in the sense that we see it as a wonderful gift of God and make a continued effort to enjoy it for all it’s worth.

 

The Composer

© Jim O’Brien – January 2009

The overture lasted six days
After a measure of rest
He began to fill the staff
Of an unending composition
Infinite movements
Filled with keys and meters
Melodies and harmonies
Rhythms and timbres

A symphony of mystery
And anxious anticipation

A dissonant chord
Remains a constant reminder
And demands resolution

Modes change
Signatures modulate
As acts of engagement

There are no accidentals
Only “intentionals”

Grace notes

The music is miraculous
It transforms
It moves
It arouses

Overwhelming joy
Tears
Deepest despair
Tears
Amazement
Wonder
Freedom

Pondering…

How often does He sing the blues?
Does He cry when He hears Handel’s Messiah?
Do Gilbert and Sullivan make Him laugh?
What does He think of rap?

Finite styles from ethnic and regional identities
Different languages?
Who connects to all forms?
What is it that the Creator places in the heart
That makes the Russian and Italian
Express passion uniquely?

Why does a concerto enhance a sunset?
How is it that one style embellishes
And another distracts?

Who says that country or blue-grass
Only work when a mill and water-wheel are present?
A river absent a man’s intrusion
Wants a stringed quartet or piano and cello

Can a trombone paint a hummingbird?
Must the brush be a flute?

How is it possible that wind
Through branches and leaves
Can render an illusion of rain?

What comes to mind
With the sound of rolling timpani, crashing cymbals?
Is it the rhythm of the ocean?
Or a flash from a massive billowing anvil?

Man has been given a gift to create
Instruments that recreate
The sounds that He created
To what purpose?

We can guess
The composer knows
I think He wants us to know Him

I do have one question:
Why seven?
The frequency of eight is double that of one
Logical, simple, …divine?

This entry is part 3 of 8 in the seriesTips for Reading Bible Genres

PoetryWho doesn’t love the Psalms? These poem-songs have been treasured throughout church history. Yet we often have trouble with the imagery and figures of speech that make poetry what it is.

God loves poetry. Over a third of the Bible is recorded in poetic form. Essentially, poetry is a highly structured form of communication. Rather than speaking in free flowing prose, poetry takes pains not only with regard to what to say, but also how to say it. Poetry makes frequent use of imagery and figures of speech. This makes it a somewhat indirect form of communication. The goal isn’t to get us to assimilate information into our brains. The goal is to get us to feel the truth or experience presented by the author.

Here are some tips for navigating this complex genre:

 

1. Focus on the imagery.

When a poetic passage presents you with an image, see it in your mind’s eye. When Psalm 91:4 tells you that God will cover you with his feathers, image hiding under the shelter of a giant bird. The Psalmist is not trying to convince you that God is literally a bird, but he does want you to grasp that imagery and learn and feel more about God through it.

There is a difference here between taking poetry seriously and taking it literally. Psalm 91:4 refers to a literal truth: that God cares for his people. But the poetic phrase is not meant to be taken literally. Taking the poetry seriously means acknowledging the imagery and interpreting it as a figure of speech. Taking it literally leads us far away from the literal truth the Psalmist was trying to convey.

So do your best to fully appreciate the imagery presented. It’s there for a reason. Don’t translate it into propositional statements as quickly as you can; value the imagery.

 

2. Look for poetic elements and structure.

In other words, what makes this poem different than prose? Every poem can be summarized in a bald statement. But that strips the value of the poetry. So what elements are making this poem more powerful than a plain statement?

For example, why does “God is my shepherd; I shall not want” mean more than “God will take care of my needs”? What is added that makes the poetry poetic? In this case, it’s the parallel structure and the figures of speech.

The parallel structure gives us two phrases that are meant to be considered together. Biblical poetry gives us these parallel phrases, typically in groups of two, three, or four lines. So “God is my shepherd” is presented in relationship to “I shall not want.” What is that relationship? How does the one line help us understand the other? Are they saying the same thing (as in Ps. 19:1)? Adding more information (as in Ps. 46:1)? Answering a question (as in Ps. 119:9)? Showing a contrast (as in Ps. 1:6)? All of these are common types of parallelism. In this case, the two lines are complementing one another in a cause and effect relationship. “I shall not want.” Why? Because “God is my shepherd.” The parallel structure adds beauty and depth to this assertion.

The power of the statement also comes from the figure of speech. “God is my shepherd” is not a literal statement. We are meant to visualize it (see point 1) and contemplate our relationship to God in these terms.

Unfortunately, since these poems were written in an ancient language, the figures of speech are sometimes odd or difficult for us to interpret. But we do our best, consulting a pastor, Study Bible, or commentary when it gets tough. This is a common problem in cross-cultural situations (as the video below illustrates).

We should also keep an eye open for unique structure. How are key thoughts structured in the poem? Does the poem show signs of unusual formatting? For example, Psalm 119 is a big acrostic. Verses 1–8 start with the Hebrew “A” (aleph), verses 9–16 start with the Hebrew “B” (beth), etc. Many English translations note this so that you can appreciate the structure. Proverbs 31:10–31 is an acrostic. So are several other Psalms. When you identify these elements, ask how it heightens the impact of the poetry to realize that it has been so carefully crafted.

 

3. Consider the overall impact

Poetry is complex, and the elements that make it unique are often varied and difficult to pinpoint. But that’s what makes it poetry. So when you read through Psalm 23, live in the imagery. Consider the structure and the figures of speech. Then sit back and consider the poem as a whole. How does it impact you? How do you feel after meditating on God as your shepherd, after the assurances of his presence in the “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” and after the visual of a banquet laid out even as your enemies look on? It’s not just about identifying propositions to fill in your theological beliefs (though biblical poetry gives us these), it’s about experiencing God in a unique and powerful way through contemplation.

And by the way, if you’re reading through the poetic sections of Scripture quickly, you’re doing it wrong. Speed-reading is such an attractive concept these days, but poetry resists speed-reading. If you’re not willing to take your time and soak it in, you’re not ready to read biblical poetry.

 

Lamech said to his wives:
“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.
If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold,
then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.” (Genesis 4:23-24)

Have you ever noticed this little poem tucked into the early chapters of Genesis? Doesn’t it seem strange that a poem like this would be recorded in Scripture at all, much less in the beginning chapters of the whole Bible? This is the first poem recorded in Scripture (let’s leave Genesis 1 out of this for now). It’s literally the oldest poem we know of. And it’s a bad poem.

We can learn a lot about culture in general from this one poem. We know for sure that poetry is a good gift that can be used to glorify God. The book of Psalms alone contains 150 God-glorifying poems. So poetry can and should be used for God’s glory.

This is true of all culture. Culture itself is a good gift of God. In fact, God was the first culture maker. He spoke the world into existence in Genesis 1, then stuck His finger into the dirt and formed something amazing out of it—human beings! He made raw plant life, but He also created a garden. And if all of that is not enough to establish God as a culture maker, He took his most glorious creation—the man—and placed him in the midst of his garden “to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15).

So culture was God’s idea. He got the cultural ball rolling. And then God formed a culture making creature and placed him in the midst of His cultural project to keep producing culture (which is what “working” and “keeping” the garden amounts to).  Culture can and should be used to God’s glory.

But as we know, something went horribly wrong. Humanity rebelled. They should have been continuing to form the garden for God’s glory, but instead they found themselves forming leaves into makeshift clothes (culture making again) to hide their shame. Read on a bit further and you’ll see Cain killing Abel—the first instance of death in history. And then we find Cain—the first murderer—forming a city (culture making again; see Gen. 4:17).

And then we come across the first poem, written by the father of a prominent musician (4:21) and a prominent instrument maker (4:22). The poem is incredibly vengeful. Lamech writes a poem about the first murder, glories in a murder of his own, and claims that his murder was far better than Cain’s.

This serves as a great case-in-point for where culture stands in the wake of the fall. What was to be used for God’s glory is now being used as a weapon against God. We see this in so many aspects of our culture. Music, movies, literature, and so many other forms of culture glory in killing, self-promotion, and sexual promiscuity. Lamech’s poem is tame compared to a lot of the rap songs being produced, but the concept is the same.

So what do we do with culture? Turn our backs and put it all behind us? No! Rather, we should remember that culture was God’s idea, it is His gift, and He placed us on earth to be culture makers. And when we remember that, we get involved. Lamech had his poem, and David had his Psalms. Culture can be used against God, but culture can be used for God as well. We can’t give up on culture (we couldn’t even if we wanted to—Amish culture may be defined by the avoidance of the surrounding culture, but it is still culture). We are God’s culture making creation. And culture is too important to turn over to the destructive forces of the kingdom of this world.

 

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