On poetry: grasping at the ineffable

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“Poetry is what is lost in translation. It is also what is lost in interpretation.” – Robert Frost 

Why do we sing songs? To put the question more pointedly, why do we bother pouring out our souls through verbal art? Why, when ordinary words fail us, can poetry mine the depths of our heart and sooth our troubled spirit? How can finely crafted lyrics give voice to joy that we otherwise could not articulate?   

In the quote above, Robert Frost suggests that poetry is an event that resists being summarized. Poetry grasps at something that profane speech cannot adequately capture or repeat—something numinous, something ineffable. In poetry, the boundaries of finite language are probed in search of that which lies beyond the frontier of human discourse.  

Through its novelty, poetry shatters the conventions of everyday language to goad at something much deeper. The unorthodox syntax, difficult lexicon, dense speech, and vivid imagery slow us down, forcing us to reflect and linger on every word. In a world that is louder, faster, and busier than ever, our need for poetry has never been greater. Through poetry we rediscover our need for existential contemplation and our relationship to the world around us.  

Poetry protests what Ninian Smart calls a “debasement of currency” in Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis—i.e., when repetition and familiarity cause speech to lose its existential edge, poetry resupplies vividness to our expressive language. Dr. Brent A. Strawn, Professor of Old Testament in the Divinity School, writes in The New Interpreter’s Bible One Volume Commentary that “poetry is and becomes atypical speech—elevated language that, in and by means of its elevation, speaks of significant topics in arrestingly profound ways.” Strawn’s last point is especially helpful. In a technological era where many have been lulled into existential sleep and neglect philosophical and theological inquiry, we have need of being arrested once more.  

Dr. Ellen Davis, also in the Divinity School, writes similarly in Opening Israel’s Scriptures: “Poetry is ‘maximal speech’—condensed, intentional, rhythmic language, meant to get into the body and the deep memory. The combination of words and rhythm, especially when accompanied by music and physical movements, gives poetry the potential for unlocking emotions that discursive or explanatory language cannot touch.” Without poetry, we lose access to certain emotions, and thus, we lose access to ourselves.  

One can hardly open the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament without encountering poetry of some kind. Indeed, the authors of the Hebrew Bible do not communicate their theology through expansive philosophical treatises like those we are familiar with from the Hellenistic context, but through verbal art. Yet, far from unsophisticated, Hebrew poetry (and narrative) evinces careful and conscientious structuring that constructs the Weltanschauung — or “worldview” — of its audience. Hebrew poetry is not art for art’s sake but is aptly composed to make intellectual and religious claims about divine and human spheres.  

While it is true that Hebrew narrative is just as artful as Hebrew poetry, there is something more disruptive about the latter that confronts and piques the interest of the reader. This could be why at key moments in Hebrew narrative—often at the apex of narrative sections—characters break into song (e.g., Exod 15, Deut 32, Judg 5, 1 Sam 2, 2 Sam 22, Jon 2, etc.). For example, Dr. Stephen Chapman, a specialist in theological interpretation of the Old Testament, writes in 1 Samuel as Christian Scripture that the poetry of 1 Sam 2 is not inserted in a “slapstick fashion” but has a “socio-theological agenda” that offers rich reflections on the nature of God. When regular discourse does not suffice, characters elevate their speech to grasp at the ineffable spirit of the moment.  

The fact that Hebrew authors frequently use poetry to gesture toward the Infinite speaks to the transcendental nature of poetry. In Psalms, lyrical theologians deploy heightened poetic speech to speak about their joy and suffering and how these relate to the God of Israel. Even Hebrew prophets frequently use poetry to relay their divine message. Hans Urs von Balthasar writes in The Glory of The Lord: “God needs prophets in order to make himself known, and all prophets are necessarily artists. What a prophet has to say can never be said in prose.” This point is perhaps overstated since prose does exist within the Hebrew prophetic corpus, but his general point stands—prophetic literature in the Old Testament is overwhelmingly poetic. In fact, those sections which scholars designate as “oracles” are overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, poetic in form.  

The use of poetry as a vehicle for theology is not unique to the Hebrew Bible, however. Von Balthasar asks rhetorically: “Are we to insist that the Fathers of the Church reached the apex of theology only when they conformed more or less with the requirements of modern exactness and expressed themselves in polemical definitions, but not when they indulged in free rhapsodies, ‘confessions,’ and ‘enarrations,’ as was so often the case?” Poetry, even for dogmatic theologians, is a means of theologizing about God, humanity, and the cosmos. For millennia, poetry has been used to reflect on life’s most critical topics, and the same holds true today.  

What do we stand to lose if we neglect poetry? The answer is both surprising and chilling: Without poetry, we are in danger of losing ourselves. Only poetry can capture emotions that lie beyond the realm of discursive language. Let us therefore take poetry by the hand and let her guide us into the ineffable. There we will recover ourselves.  

Matthew Arakaky is a doctoral candidate in the Graduate Program of Religion at Duke University, where he studies the religion and literature of the Hebrew Bible. He previously studied at the University of Virginia, Princeton Seminary, the University of Chicago and the Johns Hopkins University. 



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