November 1, 2019
Jesus, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, says to his followers, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” (5:7 NRSV) Preachers often feel that Jesus’ counsel may apply to prayer, but when it comes to sermons, well, many words are required to deliver the message. Poetry, conversely, shows us how an economy of words can speak volumes, and evoke intense emotions at the same time.
Our church book club just finished reading, Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens. It is the story of a young girl, abandoned in a swamp in North Carolina, who as she survives and grows, has a friend who helps her learn how to read and write. Because of his joy in reading poems, she too develops and affinity for poetry. She reads the works of various poets, and writes her own poems that convey her emotions and give her a voice even in the isolation of the swamp. The poems, and their messages, are a recurring theme throughout the novel, both advancing the story line and speaking on their own.
When I was in school, probably at about the age of twelve or thirteen, I did not find poetry to be engaging. It was difficult for me to make sense of it. But when a teacher introduced us to haiku, and required that we write our own haiku, I found a home in poetry. Most of that was because the structure of a haiku was simple, five syllables-seven syllables-five syllables, in three lines. I could understand that, especially with my more mathematically inclined mind. But most of all, perhaps, it was short. That was the mindset when I was that age.
But the joy and intrigue of haiku never left me. I have occasionally written haiku in more recent years. I bought a book of haiku a while back. I have even challenged young people in education classes at church to write using this form of poetry. And through all of these experiences, I have gained a great appreciation for the ways in which writers of haiku so carefully choose their words, and for how they convey beauty and meaning in seventeen syllables.
The editor of Haiku Moment: An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku, explains that there is a difference between haiku as I learned it, and more modern, non-Japanese poets who often follow a somewhat different structure. He writes that, “Traditional Japanese poetry is based on combinations of lines of five and seven onji, a syllable-like unit of a vowel or a consonant and vowel. Haiku uses a pattern of five-seven-five onji originally arranged in vertical columns. A haiku in Japanese is extremely short so that it is recited in one breath. Since an average syllable in English is much longer than an onji, modern haiku in English generally range from twelve to fourteen syllables, although many haiku poets try to maintain a five-seven-five syllable count.” (p. xiii)
Whether written in Japanese or English, the beauty of haiku is dependent upon making the most of each and every word. I find this precise use of words to be a characteristic of most poetry. The word-crafting of poets is indeed amazing.
Such a technique, such care in choosing words, is important in how the church worships as well. In Protestant traditions, where the preaching of the message has long held a central position in worship gatherings, the use of many words has been expected and accepted. But if, taking a cue from poets, we can communicate the same message with both brevity and poignancy, then doesn’t that lend itself to being a richer experience for all?
Worship is not just about speaking many words. Worship is something that is meant to touch our spirits, and through that to bring us into a deeper experience of God’s presence. It seems to me that poets offer us a gift to consider, as we ponder and plan the best ways to bring words into worship.
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