MonthOctober 2018

The Poetry of Worship: Diction (2)

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

In my last post, I introduced my project to help songwriters and worship leaders to write and select more meaningful songs for corporate worship.

Words are the poet’s primary tool so let’s start with diction–the author’s choice of words.

Denotation and Connotation

Words can carry meaning beyond the definition(s) we find in the dictionary, the denotations.  Many words also have strong connotations–the associations, or imaginative meanings they carry.  Connotation can be a very effective tool for writing powerful lyrics, but they can mess up a song too.  When choosing words for your song, consider not just what the words mean, but also what they suggest.

Word Choice: A Literary Example

What can a sensitivity to diction do for my songwriting?

We will start by looking at a poem and discussing the effect of diction, then we will look at a praise and popular worship song that does a pretty good job with diction.

“Desert Places” by Robert Frost

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it–it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less–
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars–on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

This poem is the reflections on the loneliness of the speaker as he walks past a field in the evening.  But the words of the poem don’t simply explain the speaker’s loneliness–they allow us to imaginatively experience them.

In the first line, the words “falling” and “fast” are repeated.  Consider the effect of repeating these words in such close proximity–does it hint at a sense of alarm?  The rest of the first stanza partially allays this impression with a peaceful description of the snow-covered field.  But we can’t shake their disturbing effect, even in the peaceful context of a snowy evening.

When selecting worship songs, look for where the words are used in unexpected or unusual ways--these can make think again about what we know and reconsider meanings. Click To Tweet

After the first line of the second stanza, where the trees take possession of the field, we read, “All animals are smothered in their lairs.”  This line really shows the power of diction in the hands of a master.  Consider how different the effect would be if Frost had written, “All animals are cozy in their dens.”  Big difference.  The connotation of “smothered” is to murder someone by suffocating them with a pillow.  A “lair” where beast and monsters live.  Frost’s lines are disturbing, and this is the work of his choice of these particular words.

After this comes “The loneliness includes me unawares.”  This line, occupying the central position of the poem, carries the central idea.  The waves of loneliness come in four recurrences of the words lonely or loneliness.   Another group of words reinforces the idea of, for lack of a better term, absence:  “absent-spirited,” “blanker,” “no expression,” “empty,” “desert.”  The diction in the second stanza strongly emphasizes the ideas of loneliness and absence.  It is clear, the speaker doesn’t just lack friends.  We are talking about an existential loneliness.

The word “scare” is a most intriguing word in the context of this poem.  It lacks the sophistication of the other words used in this poem–it’s like he’s scoffing at the vastness of space, (“You can’t scare me!”)claiming his interior loneliness is far more profound.

This is not all we could say about this poem, but it’s enough to illustrate that the author’s choice of words can have a tremendous effect.

The best praise and worship songs will have words that excite our imaginations.Click To Tweet

Word Choice: A Worship Song Example

When I went looking for a praise and worship song that provided a good example of diction, I went to the list of most popular songs from CCLI.  I found very little until I got to the twenty-second in the list.  And this contained lyrics from an old hymn. I did not expect to find anything close to the density effective word choice of Robert Frost’s poem above, but it is clear that selecting words for effect is not a priority for worship-song writers.

Here are some lines from Stuart Townsend’s “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.”  This song, provides us with some examples of how diction can be used in a worship song.

How deep the Father’s love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure
How great the pain of searing loss
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the Chosen One
Bring many sons to glory
. . .
Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

In the first stanza, we find the word “wretch.”  The connotations of “wretch” are not simply that of a pathetic victim, but of a deliberately villainous rascal.  Words like ingrate, knave, liar, and lowlife, are its synonyms.  But in an amazing reversal of expectation, this villain is considered the Father’s “treasure.”  Here the connotations are of heaps of gold and jewels.   Meaning pulses at the intersection of “wretch” and “treasure.”

The second stanza shows us Christ’s suffering from the rejection of his Father on our behalf.  The pain of loss is “searing.”  It’s not just pain that this word communicates, but a very specific kind of pain.  The connotations of this word suggest the deliberate burning of flesh associated with medieval torture.   In spite of being ungrateful lowlifes, he pays our “ransom,”–another word loaded with meaning.

The first several times we sing this song, the music or some of the lines will bring us into worship quite easily, but after we sing it five or six times, we begin to experience a deeper conviction through the power of these words.  The gratitude that results will be even greater, and probably the volume of the singing.

My desire is that almost every song we sing in church gets more powerful every time we sing it, rather than less.  Diction is the first, but it is not the only step toward this end.

Posts in this series:

The Poetry of Worship: The Sacrifice Of Praise (1)

The Poetry of Worship: Developing a Poetic Ear (3)

The Poetry of Worship: Unity and Focus (4)

The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbol (8)

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

The Poetry of Worship: The Sacrifice of Praise (1)

Occasionally, during corporate worship, my focus is taken away from the God who is deserving of all my praise and drawn to the words upon the screen.  Although I try to resist the distraction, it’s not easy.  Sometimes I am diverted from a bit of bad theology.  Yesterday, I chucked because a line was just weird.  Other times it is because I notice the words don’t really mean anything.  And then there’s the mediocre, or even bad, poetry.

It is clear from their enthusiasm that many worshippers either don’t notice or don’t care.  Maybe the words don’t matter as much to my fellow congregants as they do to me.  They might have some way to look past the lyrics, to the recipient of our praise.

The Test of Repetition

I too am able, for a time, to ignore unremarkable lyrics.  When we sing a new song in church, I don’t begin by scrutinizing every phrase, word, and rhyme to see if it is worthy of my voice.  Unless the words are truly silly or empty, I can be lead to worship several times with almost any song.  It is only at that point when the repeated singing of a truly great song begins to open up deeper worship through its inspired lyrics, do I notice the inadequacies of those of an inferior one.

It is at that point when the repeated singing of a great song opens up deeper worship through inspired lyrics, do I notice the inadequacies of those of an inferior one.Click To Tweet

After this happens, every recurrence of the so-so song impedes, rather than enhances worship.

Is it My Problem?

Some have told me that I have a problem, that I shouldn’t be so critical.  This may be true, but I believe I have three legitimate defenses against this accusation:

  1. Does not our creator deserve the best that we can offer up?  As we bring the sacrifice praise to the altar don’t we want it to be the best of the flock?  Should we not strive to present songs of praise that are excellent, not just musically but lyrically as well?
  2. God gives good gifts for the edification of the church and the world.  One of his gifts is the ability to create beautiful things–this includes poetry.  Some have only the gift of appreciation, but even so, I think we need to make as much of these gifts as possible so as to honour the giver.
  3. My third argument is more complex, and it is contained in the series of post that follows.  In essence, better lyrics lead to deeper worship, even if you don’t care about the lyrics.

It is certainly true that God probably doesn’t notice the difference between our best attempts and our blemished ones, for they are offerings of a sincere, but fallen people.  But does God need our songs and sheep?  When  God’s people are commanded to sacrifice the best lamb, grain or ox, it is for our sake.  It is a reflection and a reminder of how we are to think of him.

The Poetry of Worship

In the name of edifying the church, I will write a series of posts to help would-be lyricists take some steps toward becoming poets.   These posts will also be useful for those who choose the songs we sing each Sunday, as they too will be equipped to better judge the poetic from the prosaic.

As we bring the sacrifice praise to the altar don't we want it to be the best of the flock? Should we not strive to present songs of praise that are excellent, not just musically but lyrically as well?Click To Tweet

My assumption is that most of those who write the songs we sing in church started as musicians.  Some of the more passionate and gifted move on to writing their own music.  It is natural that some of these would, then, try their hand at writing a song, lyrics and all.  What they may not realize is that developing the skills to write great lyrics takes at least as much time as it takes to master an instrument.  A poet’s skill is in the same category as the composer of music, who has to acquire a whole set of new skills.

Developing the skills to write great lyrics takes at least as much time as it takes to master an instrument. Click To Tweet

This series of posts, called The Poetry of Worship, is designed to challenge would-be lyricists to consider some principles of poetry that will start them on a journey toward writing songs that will evoke, not just the emotions of worshipers, but their imaginations as well.

Posts in this series:

The Poetry of Worship: Diction (2)

The Poetry of Worship: Developing a Poetic Ear (3)

The Poetry of Worship: Unity and Focus (4)

The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbol (8)

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

How biased is your favourite news source?

A while back, I posted Vanessa Ortero’s Media Chart.  A new chart has been made that is even more detailed.

How do we walk like a lion?

Photo by Luke Tanis on Unsplash

For the last few years, Abbotsford Christian School has selected a theme song.  We regularly sing this song in our chapels at all three campuses. This year our school’s theme song is “Lions” by Skillet.  “Be Bold,” an idea derived from this song, is the topic we will explore in our chapels this year at the high school.

The Lion Attitude

Courage, Strength, Leadership, Bravery are characteristics that are strongly associated with lions.  The connection between lions and courage are central to many of the motivational speeches I found on YouTube.  And there are a bunch of them!  If you can handle speakers yelling at you for 6 minutes straight, you’ve got to listen to this video called “The Lion Attitude.”  If you get tired of the yelling, the first 2:53 seconds will be enough.

The lion that is presented in this, and all the other video clips, is different than the actual creature that roams the plains of Africa.  The speaker is talking about this imaginary lion when he tells us we need to be like one.

“You tread your own path. Only you know what’s best for you.  Only you know what path to take.”

Real lions survive by interdependence within the group or pride.  They often work together to bring down large game.

The motivational speaker makes other false claims:

“Real lions, they are hungry when the time comes for their mission. Lions are not followers; they are leaders, who lead the rest of the animals.”

In reality:

Real lions go hunting when they are hungry when the time comes for their mission. Most Lions are not followers; they are not leaders but work together, to who lead eat the rest of the animals, all of them.

So my question is, “How am I supposed to walk like a lion, when real lions don’t even walk like lions?”  If the lion attitude really was everything, one would think that at least lions would have it.

“Attitude is Everything”?

Attitude is everything in life . . . whether you rise or fall, everything is based on the attitude that you showed at that moment.  Your attitude determines your altitude.

This is Cody, from Disney’s The Rescuers Down Under.  Cody is falling off of a cliff.

Does Cody have an attitude problem?   If he had a better attitude, would he cease to fall off this cliff?  Does attitude really determine his altitude?  Or does altitude determine his attitude? He’s way up there, but I’m sure he’s not too happy about altitude right now.

You need the lion attitude to take charge of your destiny.  You need the lion attitude that says, “I CAN.”  You need the lion attitude, the attitude that says, “I WILL.”

 

Will a change in attitude change Cody’s destiny?  Will he soar on eagles wings if only he screams, “I WILL soar like an eagle”?

Although our motivational speaker sounds convincing, our experience with life tells us that he’s full of malarkey.  Attitude clearly isn’t everything.

More Important Than Attitude

Attitude is important.

Attitude will certainly contribute to worldly success and success in school.  But it will also help with success in things that give us deeper fulfillment–success in relationships, in loving our neighbours, in obedience to God and in his purposes.

But where does the right attitude come from?  It doesn’t come from thinking that you are something you are not–a lion, an eagle, an infallible human being who is able to defy the laws of nature or our fallen nature.

Attitude brings about success, but what brings about Attitude?Click To Tweet

How can we be bold like a lion and soar like an eagle?

Disney, perhaps accidentally, gives us the beginnings of a very good answer in this clip from The Rescuers Down Under.

In this clip, Cody falls twice–but his attitude is very different the second time.

Cody can’t fly.  On his own, he’s doomed to plummet to his death–both times.  But the second time, he knows something he didn’t know before.

His attitude is different, not because of what he can do.  His abilities or attitude won’t save him. He must look outside of himself.  His new attitude comes from his faith in the eagle.  He’s got his arms spread out, but he’s not flying on his own power. It’s not a quality within himself, like attitude, that he trusts in.

His trust in the eagle gives him the attitude.

Skillet’s song gets at exactly this:

If we’re gonna fly, we fly like eagles
Arms out wide
If we’re gonna fear, we fear no evil
We will rise
By your power, we will go
By your spirit, we are bold
If we’re gonna stand, we stand as giants
If we’re gonna walk, we walk as lions
We walk as lions

It’s hard to be bold, when you are not an eagle or a lion.  It can be hard to:

  • Be a friend.
  • Be involved.
  • Challenge an idea.
  • Resist peer pressure.
  • Say, “No.”
  • Say, “Yes.”
  • Be generous.
  • Forgive.
  • Do the right thing.

But it’s a lot easier if we are not relying on ourselves.

How do we fly like eagles?

We put our hope and trust, in the courage, strength, and power of the eagle in Isaiah 40:31

Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.

How do we walk like lions?

By putting our faith in the lion of Revelation 5:5

The lion from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has won the victory!

We know we are inadequate, but we can still be bold because it’s not by our power that we will succeed.

How do we fly like eagles? We put our hope and trust, in the courage, strength, and power of the eagle in Isaiah 40:31Click To Tweet

Adding To Hymns? Do So Carefully

 

Tama66 / Pixabay

John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” (1779) tops almost every list of the most popular hymns of all time.

It’s been covered by Whitney Houston, Al Green, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Steven Tyler, Alan Jackson, Carrie UnderwoodElvis Presley and thousands of others.

Why this popularity?

The tune is beautiful, even when played by bagpipes.  The poetry is rich.  The song presents the Gospel of Grace.  Its significance is both cosmic and individual. It takes us from our present, through death, into eternity.  It’s the complete package.

New Choruses to Old Songs

Feelings are becoming more and more important in our culture.  Have you noticed that people no longer say, “I think” anymore?  They always say, “I feel.”  Although emotions are important, they are often given too much authority in our culture.

We can see this swing in contemporary worship music.  Choruses are added to the old favourites to give them the emotional lift they lacked in their original form.  The music goes higher, the vowels go longer, hearts rise up, hands join hearts . . .

There is nothing wrong with the addition of new choruses.  We can critique older styles of worship for not engaging enough of our emotions and these new choruses actually lead to more holistic worship.  The new choruses do go wrong when they are emotion for emotion’s sake–one of the indications that the mind is not invited into this emotional climax is that the words don’t really mean anything, or worse, they fail to connect to the rest of the song, or worse, they are incomprehensible.

Why the need to add to the good ol’ hymns?

I get it.  Times are different.   We like choruses now.  The old hymns don’t have choruses.

Why do we like choruses?  Why does a song without a chorus just feel incomplete? It’s because, these days, we are very emotional.  Not just Christian culture, but the culture at large.  More and more it is our feelings that matter, sometimes at the expense of everything else.

We might feel let down if worshipful feelings aren’t are not evoked by the songs we sing.   Consequently, many of our songs are designed to generate worshipful feelings.  The original “Amazing Grace” was not written with an emotional climax, so Tomlin gives us a chorus with a building and rising melody that pulla our feelings up, along with our hands, to that place where we feel worshipful.

Our worship is becoming more sentimental; if we don't feel worshipful, we feel as if we have worshiped adequately.Click To Tweet

It is not wrong for the songs we sing to evoke worshipful feelings.  Nor is it wrong to add refrains to old songs to serve this purpose.  I like Todd Agnew’s “Grace Like Rain” which also adds such a chorus to Amazing Grace.

Our emotions ought to be involved in worship, but so should the rest of us.

The choruses that Tomlin adds to the best of our traditional hymns are designed to make us feel worshipful–more worshipful than we would feel if we sang the hymn in its original form.  Fine.  Unfortunately, these additions are often shallow and trite.  They can make us feel worshipful, but they do little for our mind or imagination.

Traditional hymns were not structured to provide an emotional climax, but they can be fixed with the addition of a sentimental refrain.Click To Tweet

Metaphors are Magic

Metaphors are amazing things.  They are comparisons.  Properly executed something magical can happen in the comparison.   “Amazing Grace” has many metaphors including:

  • Life is a path with hidden snares.
  • Heaven is home.
  • Our heavenly bodies will be like the sun.
  • Because of Grace, death is a mere veil.
  • God is our shield.

These metaphors engage our minds, our emotions, and our imaginations.  And they contribute to holistic worship.  Let’s look at one of these metaphors.

He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.

Here the poet metaphorically compares the Lord to a shield.  All kinds of meaning flow from this comparison.  Most clearly, the Lord protects us for our entire lives.  But a little deeper is the idea that life is a war, and that we are in desperate need of protection.  It’s interesting that the song doesn’t name the threat, only the shield; this song is about God and his Grace; our foe can be the subject of other songs, not this one.  This is the power of metaphor–it is layered and complex and they can surprise you even after you’ve sung them a hundred times.

Mixed Metaphors are Ludicrous

Mixed metaphors are not magical.

On the surface, a mixed metaphor looks like a metaphor, but it is a comparison that doesn’t work.

First, here are two wonderful metaphors that Jesus uses for himself:

“I am the good shepherd, . . . and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

“I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never grow hungry.”

These are both legit metaphors, but if we mix them we have

I am the bread of life, and I lay down my life for the sheep.

The comparison is nonsensical.

Unlike a metaphor, this silly comparison does not lead to deeper reflections on who Jesus is–it has no magic.  It just leaves us puzzled.

Jesus did not say, I am the bread of life, and I lay down my life for the sheep.Click To Tweet

Tomlin’s Mixed Metaphor

The chorus that Tomlin added to the most beloved of hymns climaxes on a mixed metaphor.

My chains are gone
I’ve been set free
My God, my Savior has ransomed me
And like a flood His mercy reigns
Unending love, amazing grace

“Like a flood, his mercy reigns” is a mixed metaphor.   It is saying that God’s mercy is like a reigning flood.  But floods don’t reign.  This is like saying, “Like a flood, his mercy shines.”  Or soars, or melts, or skates.

Floods flow.  They overwhelm.  They cover and destroy.  They glut, stream, spate and surge.  For various reasons, none of these work very well as a replacement for reign–but, hey, it’s very is hard to write good poetry.

If we are going to add choruses to the old hymns, indeed if we are going to write worship songs at all, they should be the best we can make them, in every way possible.

Tomlin attempts to provide an emotional high in the singing of “Amazing Grace,” but this mixed metaphor makes this possible only if the worshipers don’t think about what they are singing.  It seems to me that we ought to sing songs that are like a symphony firing on all cylinders.

It seems to me that the songs we sing in worship should help to draw out whole being into the worship of our Gracious God: hearts, minds souls and imaginations.Click To Tweet

In my series The Poetry of Worship, offer ways we can improve the lyrics of the praise and worship songs we sing.  More importantly, I explain why we ought to.

 

 

Silentpilot / Pixabay

Worship Fail

I was recently in a crowd of more than a thousand worshippers.  The echoing cords of the final note of the chorus we had just sung were still hanging in the air.   The very talented praise band beautifully transitioned to the next song, and its lyrics appeared on the large screens overhead.

You could feel the energy and delight run through the 1300 worshippers as they enthusiastically sang the opening line.

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;

The energy and volume of the singing were double that of the previous song.   We were well into

Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.

when we realized that the song leaders were no longer singing.  At that moment I, too, was overwhelmed with the full-throated worship as we sang praises to our Provider.  It was totally appropriate for the band to pull back and let the praises of the thronging worshippers bless the Lord unlead and unadorned.

But the band had not spontaneously stopped singing to allow this amazing worship naturally flow towards its heavenly audience.

They had stopped singing because, unbeknownst to the people of God, they were singing a different song.

Attn. Worship leader: Don't change up the traditional hymns; after 200 years, we still aren't tired of them.Click To Tweet

We were singing King’s Kaleidoscope’s 2012 version of Come Thou Fount.  This is a great version of the classic hymn, but in this context, it didn’t go over very well.

The singing collapsed.  The worship ceased.  Attention was wrenched from The Fount of Every Blessing and diverted to the song leaders so we could figure out what we were supposed to do.

The audience was going with the traditional song, but the band was doing something else– four beats after each line and a syncopated rhythm.  In one place, the words were even different.

On the surface, it seems as if we realized our mistakes quickly, adapted to the new style and continued in this new manner.  But the energy of the singing was half of what it was when we started.  I felt disappointed and a little betrayed.  It was fine; I too carried on.  I tried to turn my focus back to worshipping our God, but something beautiful was lost.  I don’t think it was just the old folks that sensed this.  The crowd was filled with 20-somethings, and they, too, had lost some of their verve.

We Like to Sing Hymns

I want to implore all Worship leaders, while you add new instrumentation and alternate styles to these hymns that you, at least, stick to the same melodies.  I’d be happy if you keep the same rhythms and chords, as well; I love to sing the bass part.

To all worship leaders: It may be preferable to sing no hymns at all than to sing altered versions of them.Click To Tweet

I have no problem with King’s Kaleidoscope altering this or any other traditional song.   These new versions can add new life to an old hymn, but altered versions are appropriate for a performance, or for Christian Radio.  Not for purposes of corporate worship. I suppose we could add a caveat: because the old melodies are so familiar, you need to give us some warning if we are going to be singing something considerably different.

My suggestion would be to just stick to the familiar version.  At least for another 30 years, when no one remembers the incredible experience of one’s small voice joined to a throng of others, in four-part harmony, singing poetry, with heart and mind and imagination, essentially unplugged, to the one who gives us breath.

Truth and Poetry

Photo by Patrick Brinksma on Unsplash

The first discussion we have in the English 12 Poetry Unit is about truth.

Too many people consider poetry to be something that exists on a continuum between fluff and falsehood. This drives us Humanities types batty. Many hold to the mistaken idea that a thing is true if it is factual.  And thus, since poetry isn’t usually factual, it isn’t usually  true.

Just because poetry isn’t factual does not mean poetry isn’t true.Click To Tweet

Whoa-ness of Eagles

Perrine’s Literature, a textbook we used to use, talks about the difference between encyclopedic facts of eagles with Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Eagle” to make the point that poetry offers a different experience than do facts.

A lot more can be made of this comparison.

I have my students collect a bunch of facts about bald eagles and we fill a whiteboard with them. Here’s a sample of what they find:

  • The female bald eagle is 35 to 37 inches, slightly larger than the male.
  • Wingspan ranges from 72 to 90 inches.
  • Bald eagles can fly to an altitude of 10,000 feet. During level flight, they can achieve speeds of about 48 to 55 km per hour.
  • The beak, talons, and feathers are made of keratin.
  • Bald eagles have 7,000 feathers.
  • Wild bald eagles may live as long as thirty years.
  • Lifting power is about 4 pounds.
  • All eagles are renowned for their excellent eyesight.
  • Once paired, bald eagles remain together until one dies.
  • Bald eagles lay from one to three eggs at a time.

These items gleaned from online encyclopedias are factual and they are true.

Then we look at Tennyson’s poem.

THE EAGLE

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

In this simple, six-line poem, Tennyson attempts to communicate that eagles are, in a word, awesome. But awesome doesn’t really capture it, nor does formidable or magnificent.

When I was 8 or so, I went with my class to a bird sanctuary. After viewing crows, seagulls and owls recovering from various injuries, I came face-to-face with a bald eagle—close up! It looked at me, and then looked away. I was awed by his size, his talons, his beak, his eyes—I remember my reaction; I whispered, “Whoa!”

Tennyson attempts to communicate the “whoa-ness” of eagles.

Beyond the facts

We fill another whiteboard with notes about of Tennyson’s poem, unpacking the figurative language, sound devices, imagery, and allusions. In the words and between the lines of this poem, readers experience the power and strength of this majestic bird as it is metaphorically compared to a wise and solitary king whose power is absolute.

I ask my students which is truer—the list of facts on the first whiteboard or the poem that we’ve annotated on the second. Many, perhaps most, confidently say the list of facts is “truer.” Some are uncertain. Eventually, someone calls out, “both are true but in different ways.

There we go!

“The Eagle” communicates a truth about eagles that go beyond the encyclopedic facts. A truth that is best communicated with poetry. Our culture has been resistant to this broader understanding of truth for a long time, to its detriment.

How much of the Bible becomes inaccessible when we reduce truth to fact?Click To Tweet

Things get even more interesting when I suggest, in line with C. S. Lewis in Abolition of Man, that “whoa-ness” is a quality inherent to the eagle, and not just a description of my subjective reaction to it. I’ll spare you the details, but this is often an enlightening discussion.

The next poem we look at is A. E. Houseman’s “Is My Team Ploughing,” a conversation between a dead man and his still-living friend. I ask my class, is this a true poem? This time, less than half say, “No.” Some are still uncertain.

But many, reflecting on the central idea of the poem, declare it to be true.

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