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The Language of Poetry
© 1997 by Dorothy E. Robbins

Poetry communicates human emotion; it is the voice of the heart

King David, the sweet psalmist of Israel, never took a course in how to write poetry. What makes the poetry of David and his contemporary psalm writers so dear to our hearts? Do you suppose he was "thinking God's thoughts after him"?

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; He maketh me to lie down in green pastures...

The Lord is good to Israel....But as for me, my steps had almost gone....

The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament sheweth his handiwork....

How our hearts vibrate when we come across these words. They make us want to express our thoughts to our wonderful saviour, too. How do we do it? What is poetry? Who can become a poet? Ah, my dear reader, we are all poets in the heart. It is out of the heart that the mouth speaketh and writeth. When our hearts are too full for common language, they pour forth the language of the poets. Sometimes the joy of living and loving bubbles out of our hearts; sometimes our hearts are full of anguish and questions, despair and doubt; and then, a poem is made.

Twenty years ago, after coming out of a nightmare experience, a poem started in my heart:

When earthly props are gone

Have you ever felt that way? The fog of life enveloped you. You thought, "There's no where to turn." the ghosts of fear seemed to reach out to clutch your heart in its chilling grip and run away with it. How did you feel? "And then you feel lost and down...." Yes, down, too far for a helping hand to reach - but then:

God is your strength:
I know.

When Despair wants a room
To make your heart a tomb,
God is there:
I know.

How many times those words have come back to me, reminding me:

It may look bad outside
And you want to run and hide:
God really cares:
I know.

Do these words speak to your heart? Do you feel the pain of someone else as though it were your own? And, perhaps, remind you of a time when you felt such pain - or, perhaps, now feel such? Is there an answering echo: "Yes, God does care! I know." Do those words give you courage to go on, to know:

Your heart may beat with fear - it will;
But love can live there still:
With God.
I know.

The terrible experience I went through was the genesis of the poem "When Earthly Props Are Gone." It is the kind of poetry that makes one feel the emotions of the writer; evokes a sympathetic image: "That's just like my sorrow, fear, distress and I, too, can hear the voice of God telling me , "I care. The one who wrote that poem got through her distress and I can too."

And hope and faith can rout
The deepest fear and doubt-
With God:
I know.

Can you write poetry? Of course you can! Poetry is the voice of ones heart.

What poems live longest? Here's one written at least 150 years ago. I love it. When I "see" the scene Wm. Wordsworth wrote about, something inside of me rejoices and says, "What a wonderful, wonderful God who made such lovely things!"

The Daffodils

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils,
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
and twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of the bay:
The thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced, but they
Outdid the sparkling waves with glee;
A poet could not but be gay
In such jocund company.
I gazed, and gazed, but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought;

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
and dances with the daffodils.

Here is a poem written over 300 years ago by the blind poet, John Milton, referring to his "one talent." It is has been named "Sonnet on His Blindness":

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent, which is death to hide,
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He, returning, chide:
"Doth God exact day labor, light denied?"
I fondly ask; but Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work, or His own gifts: who best
Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best. His state
Is kingly. Thousands at His bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.

Milton could not hide his one talent! And we know now why he couldn't. We know why that poem still speaks to our hearts. Actually, Milton wrote many lengthy poems and prose writings. His poetry and writings are studied (or used to be!) in universities and colleges all over the world. Why is this one printed in so many anthologies? Is it because men have had the same feelings, fears, and frustrations throughout the centuries. And aren't God's principles the same yesterday, today, and forever?

I chose this poem to illustrate several points. One is that it has been so inspirational to me and my husband. The last line had been so meaningful to us. My husband has been very ill for over three years. How often he has grieved, "Am I of any use at all?" And I remind him, "They also serve who only stand and wait. 'All things work together for good to them who love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.' Watchmen don't seem to be doing much, but they serve." How that last line has served us!

The heart of John Milton spoke and other hearts responded. This is true poetry. Whether one wishes to compose poetry or desires to know what real poetry is, this is the best measure of a poem. It is true, prose can speak to the heart, but the "voice" is not so direct. Poetry has an immediate effect. Have you noticed that?

How does a poem do this? The next time you read a poem notice several things: the rhythm, often hardly noticeable, moves, swells, declines with the rhythm of the heart. Sometimes one feels the beat of sadness, sometimes of hope or joy, or, perhaps, exuberance. Read the last lines of "The Daffodils." Does that make you smile? Did you feel the lilt of joy as you read? But not alone do the words which paint a picture for you, bring pleasure to your heart and a smile to your lips. Some poems will almost lift you off your feet. Listen to these lines:

Hats off!
Along the street there comes
A blare of bugles, a ruffle of drums,
A flash of color beneath the sky:
Hats off!
The flag is passing by.

Don't you just want to jump up out of your chair and go marching across the room? I do. I hear those bugles, the drub-a-drub-drub of the drums and, look, there goes our red white and blue steaming back behind the shoulders of a big, burly soldier. "Hats off! The flag is passing by."

Now try this one:

Out of the hills of Habersham
Down the valleys of Hall,
I hurry amain to reach the plain,
Run the rapid and leap the fall,
Split at the rock and together again,
Accept my bed, or narrow or wide,
And flee from the folly on every side
With a lover's pain to attain the plain
Far from the hills of Habersham,
Far from the valleys of Hall.

Can you hear the brook singing as if its heart would break? Sparkling its way to the sea? It makes you want to read the rest of it doesn't it? Ah, but gleeful feeling that makes your heart dance is sometimes missing and a different beat has hold of us.

For a change of pace read "The Song of the Shirt." The poet seems almost to make us feel the pricks of the needle as this dear lady holds her needle between her fingers as it goes "stitch, stitch, stitch."

With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread-
Stitch, stitch, stitch;
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sings the "Song of the Shirt!"

Oh, but for one short hour,-
A respite, however brief!
No blessed leisure for love or hope,
But only time for grief!
A little weeping would ease the heart;
But in their briny bed
My tears must stop, for every drop
Hinders needle and thread!

With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread-
Stitch, stitch, stitch;
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch-
Would that its tone could reach the rich!-
She sang the "Song of the Shirt."

The words seem to weave themselves in and out of the rhythm, while her fingers, weary and worn, send that tiny steel instrument into the cloth and out again: "stitch, stitch, stitch." What makes this poem seem, also, to weave itself around your heart, making you think, "Justice! Where is the justice? Oh, God, what can I do to make a difference?" Poetry like this can be used of God to make a difference in our country. Notice the rhythm, the choice of words, the alliteration, the repetition? It makes us want to write poetry that will help restore kindness and caring, justice and truth. Poetry can do that to one. That is another reason poetry is important. It makes us think, evaluate, it challenges us. As a poet or aspiring poet, perhaps this poem, based on a quotation from the play "Richelieu," will inspire you.

The Pen is Mightier Than the Sword

The pen is mightier than the sword:
The inward man, pierce by that Word,
Has all his senses brought to view;
And when the sees himself a fallen wretch,
Toward Christ he'll every longing stretch
Til by that Word his inward man's renewed.

The pen is mightier than the sword;
The outer man now can wield that still unchanging Word
And by its power make all the powers of darkness flee.
Promulgate the truths our fathers knew;
Tell out the news-old, ever new:
If Christ, the son, shall make you free,
You shall, indeed, be free!

(Quoted from the play, "Richelieu" by Edward Bulwar-Lytton, 1803-1873.)

When you have read the following poem, think about how the poet made the final point. Is the ending a surprise? Does it challenge the reader? Can poetry be used as a tool that makes truth come alive as well as be interesting?

The Danger

I do not fear a war:
There have been such before
When men fought men-
For honor or for home or truth
Laid down their lives:
And will again.
I do not fear a tyrant's rage,
One such arises every age
And is put down.
It was not meant that evil men
Should ever wear
A lasting crown.

Nor do I fear that truth will fail,
That falsehood and deceit prevail,
For truth is sure
As God is sure
And, like our God,
It shall endure.
I do not fear what man may do,
He has his day and then is through
But, friend, beware
He that inhabits
Thy soul's house
Can spoil thee fair.


Last updated: 12 April 2006
Updated by: Matt Bynum