Tagpoetry

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. #praiseandworship #worshipleader

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. #praiseandworship #worship

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.

Next time we will return to the important topic of diction in Developing a Poetic Ear

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)

 

 

Praise Songs: Sound

Praise 1I am totally cheating on this one.  I’m using a song that will not likely be sung in church.

But I just have to share Josh Garrels with anyone who will listen.  His music is incredible.  You don’t need to be a Christian to think so.  He’s just good and he writes what is true, and it’s beautiful.

Praise and worship songs usually get the sound right, at least in the general sense.  Probably without really thinking about it–songs with happy words are usually happy.

But poets, and by this I also mean songwriters, can manage this on a line by line level.  Josh Garrels frequently does.  Listen to this song and attend to where the music changes slightly.  The words and the music work together.  This is no accident.

 Slip Away

 

 Hold on, before I slip away

 The flames gone, dark I am afraid

 How strong, is flesh and blood

 I cannot, can take back what I’ve done

 To you, my sweetest friend

 I betrayed you, I walked away again

 Now all that’s left, is what might have been

 Please forgive me, before we reach the end

Hold on, before I slip away

 My loves gone cold, I’ve gone astray

 How strong, is flesh and blood

 I cannot take back what I’ve done

I find the correspondence of sound to sense in the poetry of this song greatly enhances the experience of it as a whole.  This correspondence could also significantly contribute to the corporate worship experience.  Some sounds suggest strength, others suggest sadness.  What sounds suggest joy?  What might happen to the musical line when singing about regret?

Again, if the sound doesn’t work with what the words say, that’s not so bad, but when the sound of the song contradict the sense, it’s a bad song.  Unless of course the writer is being ironic.  Are there ANY ironic praise and worship songs? Hmmm….

More Josh Garrels here.

Previous Posts on this Topic:

 

Praise Songs: Central Purpose

I teach senior English and early in every term, I assign a paragraph.  Usually it’s some simple literary analysis.  I don’t even need to look at them to know that 60% of them will read like a tangled fishing line.  For many, the best we can hope for is that all the sentences will be about the same subject.  This will only be possible if the student remembered the concept of the “topic sentence” that has been taught since at least the forth grade.  But even with the topic sentence, many papers show no logical development, as if the ideas were just tossed in the air and caught on loose-leaf paper in the order that they came down.  Thankfully, this is a problem easily fixed, at least temporarily.  I wish I could impress on all students, even the very young, that all writing needs to be organized–not just the writing one does for an English teacher.

Praise and worship songs are not an exception to this principle.

 I think every great piece of writing, whatever the genre, has some purpose and every detail serves this central purpose.   It’s should be no different with a praise song.

 Like this one: “Blessed Be Your Name” by Matt Redman

Verse 1:

 Blessed Be Your Name

In the land that is plentiful

Where Your streams of abundance flow

Blessed be Your name

 

Blessed Be Your name

When I’m found in the desert place

Though I walk through the wilderness

Blessed Be Your name

 

Chorus:

Every blessing You pour out

I’ll turn back to praise

When the darkness closes in, Lord

Still I will say

 

Blessed be the name of the Lord

Blessed be Your name

Blessed be the name of the Lord

Blessed be Your glorious name

 

Verse 2:

Blessed be Your name

When the sun’s shining down on me

When the world’s ‘all as it should be’

Blessed be Your name

 

Blessed be Your name

On the road marked with suffering

Though there’s pain in the offering

Blessed be Your name

 

Praise 1This song has one central purpose: God is worthy of my praise regardless of the circumstances in which I find myself.

The verses come in pairs.  The first set uses the same metaphor–human experience of life is as varied as terrestrial landscapes.  Sometimes we experience life as a fertile and productive valley where “streams of abundance flow.”  At other times, life is as desolate as a desert wilderness.  The second set of verses repeats this idea.

The chorus declares that regardless of the circumstances in which I find myself, I will praise God, and then, in the second  part of the chorus, I get to do just that.  Those who just got the big promotion or were told by their child, “You’re the bestest mom in the world” will, through the singing of  this song, turn these blessings into praise.   Those who discovered that their marriage was in trouble,  or were told by their doctor it’s “not the good kind” will praise God no less, simply because He is worthy of it.

The best songs we sing in church have a single purpose.  The means by which this purpose is achieved — structure, symbol, metaphor, allusion, etc.  — all support this end.

There are some praise and worship songs that read like a bad high school paragraph.  I find it really hard to a song that hasn’t settled on a purpose, because I don’t know why I am singing it.

Previous Posts on this Topic:

Praise Songs: Meaningful Metaphors

Katheryn Scott’s “At the Foot of the Cross” contains these words:

Trade these ashes in for beauty

And wear forgiveness like a crown

Coming to kiss the feet of mercy

I lay every burden down

At the foot of the cross

I’ve sang this song quite a few times and the I have never sung it in the same way twice.  That’s a good thing; we won’t always experience good poetry, good art of any kind, the same way.  We will, however, experience bad poetry the same way every time.  I’ve read Hamlet many times and it still surprises me.  The same can be said for the songs of Josh Garrels and the book of Genesis.  The best church songs will have the same quality.  The presence and power of the figurative language contributes to the effectiveness of a song to bring some listeners into worship.

 One of the first times I sang “At the Foot of the Cross” I was caught by the idea of trading “ashes in for beauty.”

The next time I noticed that this phrase was preceded by the word “these.”  This demonstrative pronoun puts the ashes  I’m singing about right here–I walked into church covered in them.  In Biblical language, to wear ashes, or “sackcloth and ashes,” is to demonstrate grief or repentance; importantly, it is an act of humility.   This song, if sung honestly is a song of confession where the worshiper acknowledges his or her sin and the need for forgiveness.

By grace, these ashes are exchanged for beauty the song reminds us, for we are transformed to royalty as a crown is placed upon our heads.  We aren’t just forgiven, but received as children of the King.  This transformation occurs, not by our merit, but by the death of Jesus on the cross.Praise 1

 We sang this song in church again a few weeks ago.  I was caught by the line “Coming to kiss the feet of mercy.”  In Luke 7:38, there was a woman who had “lived a sinful life”–Luke doesn’t say she was a prostitute, but this is certainly likely.  When I sing this line, I am placed in the position of a prostitute.  This is the point and the power of the line.  I cannot judge others when I remember that my sin is no less than that of the woman in Luke.  But my guilt as well as the woman’s is, nonetheless, erased by Jesus death on the cross.  She wept and wet his feet with tears and wiped them with her hair.  This is the response that this line can evoke in those who sing it–overwhelming gratitude.

 This is only one verse: there are two more that are just as powerful.

 Not all the songs that we sing in church use metaphors like this–nor need they.  Metaphor and allusion are but two tools that the poet might use.  And there are many tools.  However, when figurative language is used in a song, it should work to achieve the purpose of the song–in this case, lead those who sing it into confession–an awareness of ones guilt and gratitude in complete forgiveness.

 This is an example of how figurative language (and allusion) can work powerfully in a song.

But then there are those praise and worship songs where the figures of speech get in the way of, well, praise and worship.

Here are some of the metaphor issues that completely distract me from engaging with the song:

  • one dimensional comparisons just lie there with no meaning to explore in the comparison
  • cliché–these metaphors are so overused so as to become meaningless
  • barrage–when figures are so numerous that there is no opportunity to receive them
  • metaphor mosaic–when figures are so completely unrelated that I don’t know if we are talking about clothing, branches,  wind, or wineskins
  • And then there are the dreaded mixed metaphors

Previous Posts on this topic:

Good Metaphors

Next Post:

Higher Times — Why it’s good to sing the classics

An English Teacher Looks at Praise and Worship Songs

Praise 1One of the things we do in church is sing.  I love singing.  When I was a kid I didn’t; I think I must have driven the Sunday school teachers crazy.   I was one of a group of boys who delighted in changing the lyrics of the Sunday school songs and then giggled at our cleverness.

 I am much older now, and most of the time, the songs are very effective in bringing me, sometimes  incrementally, to a place of worship.  This is, I believe, the purpose of singing in church.  But some songs, at least for me, can work contrary to this purpose.

 In these cases, I just can’t get past something in the song and I end up focusing on what I believe is bad writing and not on the intention of the song–be that praise, thanksgiving, confession, prayer, or whatever.

 I struggle with whether this is my problem; perhaps I am too critical.  I am critical of movies, songs on the radio, books and restaurants, so it’s difficult to turn it off on Sunday morning.  But maybe I should try harder.

 On the other hand, perhaps everyone would benefit from praise and worship songs that overly critical people like me could sing without distraction.  Would it not be better if the songs we sing in church were excellent in every way?

 I understand that there is a lot of personal preference in the songs we like or don’t like.  This can’t be avoided entirely, but I believe there are objective standards to which I am appealing.  As a matter of fact, some of the songs that I think are excellent I don’t particularly like.   I understand that all human art is likely pretty poor to its heavenly audience no matter how good it is, but I do believe that it is important that our offerings of praise be our best, nonetheless.

 My first impulse was to level an indictment at specific examples of songs that I believe fail artistically (or theologically).   But, this approach can be upsetting and the point of the critique is completely missed.  John Stackhouse wrote a blog critiquing inferior worship music and many were unable to receive what he had to say.

 I thought it would be better to praise aspects of some songs that are excellent.  My hope is that present and future worship leaders and songwriters would give a great deal of thought to the songs they sing and write so as to powerfully serve the connection between mere human beings and their creator.

Next Post:  Good Metaphors, Bad Metaphors

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