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Poetry and Knowledge
© 1997 by Dorothy E. Robbins

When writing poetry, be sure to know your subject well

The title of this offering on poetry clues you in that we will be discussing the connection between one's writing poetry and one's background. When you write poetry, don't you always write about that with which you are familiar? Your sorrows, your joys, that which you found humorous or instructive? It is my contention that one ought always to write about that of which one has a great deal of knowledge; and, of course, it goes without saying one can write nothing about a subject of which one is ignorant!

One of my suggestions to the prospective poet is to read good poetry extensively. Along with that I know you will agree that knowing one's subject well causes one to be able to write good poems. Are you going to write a poem about a historical event, about a flower, about cooking, about, well, anything? The best preparation is research, research, research - unless you've already been deeply involved with that subject.

"Being deeply involved with a subject" may mean that you are writing about something that happened to you that has impressed you in such a way that you cannot help expressing yourself. For instance, the following poem was written after a most traumatic experience I once had. Because of that it has touched the heart of others who have been through difficult experiences. That is really what poetry is all about: one heart speaking to another heart in such a way that we are being used of the Lord to empathize with others. The verse of Scripture that comes to my mind has to do with comfort. No doubt this same verse has popped into your mind:

Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God" (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

Perhaps you will appreciate the thoughts behind "When Earthly Props Are Gone."

When earthly props are gone
And you feel lost and down,
God is your strength:
I know.
When despair wants a room
To make your heart a tomb,
God is there:
I know.
It may look bad outside
And you want to run and hide;
God really cares:
I know.
For in the darkest night
There still shines one light:
God:
I know.
You wish that you could see
What is going to be:
God does:
I know.
Your heart may beat with fear-it will.
But love can live there still-
With God:
I know.
And hope and faith can rout
The deepest fear and doubt
With God:
I know.

Not all of our poetry has to do with our emotions (although without strong emotion our poetry will be shallow). Some of our poetry will have to do with certain subjects. I love to write about historical events. Such a poem is Longfellow's "Paul Revere's Ride." I have to admit that poem gives me a wonderful feeling of excitement and patriotism. How I am moved to admire our Founding Fathers. Listen to the sound of this poem:

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
He said to his friend, "If the British march
By land or sea from the town tonight,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,-
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and give the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm."

A hurry of hoofs in a village street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by that steed flying fearless and fleet;
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindles the land into flame with its heat.

It was twelve by the village clock,
When he galloped into Lexington.
He saw the gilded weathercock
Swim in the moonlight as he passed,
And the meetinghouse windows, black and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon.

You know the rest. In the books you have read
How the British Regulars fired and fled.-
How the farmers gave the ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farmyard wall,
Chasing the redcoats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.

And so through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,-
A cry of defiance and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo forevermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen and hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

We need messages like that today. And who better than poets can give it out? But, as I said previously, it is so important to KNOW ONE'S SUBJECT. How could Longfellow write such a poem (which, incidentally, is much abridged for this article - you should read it all!) unless he was familiar with the events of that time? And one's appreciation deepens immensely when one is well acquainted with our history. That brings me back to the thesis of this article: know your subject well whether it is something you have already become acquainted with or something about which you want to write.

I will close with a short poem that has meant much to me, a poem that expresses wonderful truths from God's inerrant word:

The Way

Oh, God, if thou wert only just
How could I come to thee?
If thou wert only righteousness,
How coulds't thou come to me?
But thou art also love
And through the Christ, thy son,
I dare to call thee Father,
And come, O, Righteous One.

Last updated: 12 April 2006
Updated by: Matt Bynum