Thursday, November 10, 2011

Read Poetry for Better Preaching

Spurred on by my recent column in Gottesdienst, I’ve enjoyed a little series at Issues, Etc. with Rev. Todd Wilken on how to become a better preacher. In the midst of this, fellow Gotteseditor (that is edited by God and not the other way around) Rev. Jason Braaten put me on to the book Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media have Shaped the Messenger by T. Gordon David. It turns out, by the way, that Wilken has interviewed David. You can listen here:

You should read David’s book. $7.50 on the Kindle, which is deliciously ironic and also a great bargain.

In the course of the interview with Wilken, David advocates preachers reading poetry to become better preachers. I myself have advocated this for years. Once in a while some non-logophile preacher tries to take me up on it and then sends an e-mail asking, “How does one read poetry.” Generally, I’ve ignored those e-mails. But here is an attempt to help.

Step one: just do it. Subscribe to the Writer’s Almanac from NPR and read a poem a day. It is fast. It is easy. You don’t have to understand them or appreciate them. Just read them. Get into the habit. Sooner or later, one of them will make sense, one of them will hit you were you live.

Step two: go to the public library and get the audio course from the Teaching Company on listening to poetry. You might have to make an interlibrary loan request. You should know how to do that anyway. The public library is your friend.

If that spurs you on, I suggest you pick up poetry anthologies from the library. The Norton anthologies for English 101 are quite good. The notes are nice also.

I’ve ignored the question because I am not an English major: I simply love poetry. But I will now do a stupid thing and try to take you through a poem. Here is the poem from the Writer’s Almanac that landed in my in-box this morning.

When the War is Over
by W.S. Merwin

When the war is over
We will be proud of course the air will be
Good for breathing at last
The water will have been improved the salmon
And the silence of heaven will migrate more perfectly
The dead will think the living are worth it we will know
Who we are
And we will all enlist again

"When the War is Over" by W.S. Merwin, from The Lice. © Copper Canyon Press, 1993. Found at The Writer’s Almanac for November 10, 2011.

Read the poem out loud. Then read it again. Does it work? Maybe not. The poet is playing with you. The sense requires you ignore the line breaks and find the real breaks on your own. Here is how it should sound when read for sense:
When the war is over, we will be proud, of course.

The air will be good for breathing, at last.

The water will have been improved.

The salmon and the silence of heaven will migrate more perfectly.

The dead will think the living are worth it.

We will know who we are.

And we will all enlist again.

The poem is lamenting the sad reality that war is inevitable, that we do not learn from history. It subtly mocks the idea that the dead think the living are worth it, that we are proud of our violence. The poem is told, remember, from the perspective that the war has not yet ended. This is the private in the trench trying to comfort himself. He might be one of those dead. He is desperate that air and water quality improve again, that the salmon return. He hopes his future pride will make it worth it, that if he lives his dead buddies don’t begrudge him. But he is sad, confused, uncertain in these bold statements.

That sadness and confusion, that bitter note at the end, that we don’t learn, that war will never end, etc, is conveyed by more than the words. It is conveyed also by the lacking punctuation and weird line breaks. The poet seeks to create an experience in you. The only way to participate with him is to meet him half-way. He wrote the poem now you have to read it, carefully, deliberately, more than once or even twice. You have to invest. Then it becomes clear and you are part of it.

The poem is about more than war. It is about the lies we tell ourselves, our attempts to comfort ourselves, and our realism, knowing, that it won’t work.
What this does for preaching is create an awareness of the power of words not just for their dictionary definition, but for the exact right word at the exact right place.

So there you go. There is the Petersen method of poetry reading. English majors may now assault in all their manliness.


  1. Fr. Petersen,

    Also good is poetry180 edited by the inestimable Billy Collins, for whom I have you to thank:

    Now, as to this poem. I think it is darker than you give it credit for. These are not the statements of a private comforting himself, they are not sweet lies we can't quite believe: these are the words of Joseph Heller, they are bitterly ironic.

    And they are true. We all know it. But we have to dig, to experience a little life before we get. Just like we have to dig through the poem to find the line breaks, like we have to read Catch 22 first for a laugh, and then for a cry.

    Really excellent poem - thanks.


  2. I can't recommend Gordon's book highly enough. Even though it's written for the American Protestant scene, and I'm not on that scene. (Apparently his "Why Johnny can't sing hymns" is pretty good, too, but haven't read it.)

    I would like to add one more thing to your guide to reading poetry: read it aloud. That's really important, because it's rhythmic writing. It's written for the ears. Reading it silently is a bit like singing a song silently: can be done, but not the real deal.

  3. Fr. Simojoki,

    As to your "out loud" comment: spot on, absolutely. It needs to be read out loud.

    I suspect the Gordon book will work well almost anywhere their are televisions and American cinema as well as the internet. We've all been corrupted by the media.

  4. Thanks for the resources. I have heard others say the same thing about poetry and preaching. Dr. Peter Scaer is a big advocate of poetry and learning from it to make preaching better.


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