Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Poetry and Preaching

Before I moved to Burbania I wrote a lot of poetry.  This isn't a lament for days gone by.  It is a statement of fact.  The poems weren't very good but I wrote them to make sense of some things that were going on at the time.  I also wrote them in order to practice writing in what is essentially a medium built for sound.  Some of the key elements of poetry (meter, imagery, word choice...less so rhyme--at least for my particular style) are also important in the act of preaching. 

Nine years of poet's writer's block means I am not qualified to talk too much about poems.  However, I can say quite a bit about sermons.  I have found that the written sermon can be treated in a number of ways.  By "written sermon" I mean the actual notes that are taken into the metaphorical pulpit for the purpose of sermon performance and delivery.   I also mean the various preparation techniques used by "noteless" preachers.  If someone tells you they don't prepare for preaching they are either not very good preachers, or incredible liars.

Some see the sermon as an essay or lecture that is spoken but essentially written.  This, I think, is why sermon collections continue to be published by people like Peter Gomes.  They are interesting even in the written form.  It helps, of course, if you are--like Gomes--also a good writer.  Others see the sermon as a poetic form.  If you have been in church for a long time, you may even remember hearing a poem actually delivered as a sermon.  The fact that I have found these to be quite bad--both as poems and sermons--may be why I try not to do this myself.

What I do think, however, is that what we bring with us to the preaching act on Sunday are the notes and meter for a spoken art form.  This is true for a great deal of poetry as well.  It is also true whether the sermon is written word for word as a  "sermon text" as much as with any other mode of preparation.  In this sense one's poetic skills are incredibly important as is the preacher's gift at speaking in the actual idiom of her hearers.  There is some great poetry that takes a few readings to truly understand.  If this is the case with a sermon, it is a failure.  The preacher gets one shot.

As a preacher I have spent a great deal of time on word choice and rhythm.  I have worked on making a thoughtful presentation seem "natural" to my listeners.  Imagery--particularly geographically based--has been particularly helpful to me.  Speaking the language (and I don't mean "English" or even "American English" but "MetroWest Boston English") has been essential.  Sometimes I am able to pull it off.  Sometimes the sermon never quite comes together.  However, if I am to effectively invite people into the imagined world of the sermon, then it remains the goal. 

Not surprisingly, every great preacher has a different style.  I have been impressed by people like Samuel Longfellow, for example, whose sermon style still allows for access to a modern reader today.  The same can be said for Henry Ward Beecher.   There are also many sermons that were probably great at the time that do not translate well.  I find Emerson difficult and need to study the context to get the message.  This is through not fault of the preacher, by the way.  It may just be me.  Quite possibly, the very time-place specificity is what made it great.

Anyway, I want to thank my friend Dawn Potter for posting on this same subject.  Dawn is a poet (you can find her book about "Paradise Lost" in the margin of this blog) and, therefore, more qualified than me.


  1. I'll be linking to this post on my blog today. I think the intersections and non-intersections of the various sound-based arts are interesting to ponder. I like your point that a preacher has one shot at success whereas a poet has infinite shots. I myself have spent a fair amount of time thinking about the ways in which pop music repeats stupid lyrics in ways that make the stupid lyrics become increasingly more profound. Poetry cannot do that. Can sermons?

  2. Repetition can work very well. The problem is, since stupidity is generally frowned upon, stupid phrases make one sound stupid. That is, what works for KISS doesn't work for Cotton Mather.

    I have preached sermons with a modified "call and response" like when I would say "This is the day that God has made" and the congregation says "let us rejoice and be glad in it". However I don't do this often because they enjoy it in small doses (or they are just humoring me). It isn't really part of our cultural language.

    Of course, in 1988 Jesse Jackson would repeat the line "I am somebody". Actually it came out "I am....some-body" and we would repeat it with him. I thought it was quite moving. Not everyone did. Stupid is a matter of perspective, I guess... ;)

  3. If you are asking if poems go well as part of a larger sermon they most certainly do. One of the most venerable sermons forms is referred to by preachers as "Three Points and a Poem". It is overused, but is quite effective...