Sunday, October 6, 2013

Poetry and Prose

I forget who said that you campaign in poetry and govern in prose (?Mario Cuomo).  The point being that the language of the campaign is the language of inspiration, which paints word pictures rather than definitions.  When governing, however, the text is often the tedious and nuanced language of law and diplomacy.

A friend tried to borrow the phrase to say that the language of the liturgy and hymnody of the Church is poetry while the sermon is prose.  His point being that the language of the liturgy (and hymns) paints word pictures that says a great deal with as few words as possible.  In contrast to that, he believed the task of the sermon was better to communicate in the language of everyman the application of the Word of the Lord to daily life.  I am still thinking about that one.

Another wag put it this way.  Some people hear the word “poetic” and think “obscure”, when they should be thinking “vivid”. Others hear the word “accessible” and think “bland”, when they should be thinking “inviting”.  In other words, poetry has come to mean something like modern art -- obscure, unclear, and hidden.  I do not know when people began to think this way -- perhaps when we stopped having school children memorize the great poems of our past.  Sadly, the most poetry people know today is the forced and often jarring rhyming words of pop music or rap.

The language of poetry is the language of description.  The words of the liturgy paint pictures.  They bring to vivid form what it is that we believe, confess, and teach.  This is especially true of hymnody.  The great hymns of the faith build images in our minds that are easy to access and hard to let go.  "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" is one such Lutheran example familiar to most of Christendom.  But the liturgy is also written in poetic style.  I think of great lines such as the Marriage Supper of the Lamb in His Kingdom which has no end..." from Revelation and which has been commonly used in the language of prayer (both Eucharistic Prayers and the intercessions).

One of the great failings of the rush to liturgical reform in the 1960s and 1970s is that we traded in the language of the poet for the utilitarian language of information.  Roman Catholics went from Latin to an English bare and plain that seemed to many to be trading down from a luxury car to a bare bones compact.  Lutherans experimented in similar ways with similar pedestrian result.  The LCMS Worship Supplement (1969) has one unforgettable line that says "We are here... because we are men..."  Ugh.  Or who can forget the bland attempts to put into modern English the text of the Our Father.  For Rome, the epitome of the failed result of the "new" Mass were the collects.  Wonderful and rich Latin text turned out eminently forgettable prayers that we hard to pray.  Contrast that with the wonderful English of the Cranmer translations in the Book of Common Prayer.

Good poetry is accessible.  It is not obscure or difficult.  That is why hymnwriters labor so in their task.  It is not easy to write words that are faithful, poetic, and accessible.  The result of this is that new hymns quickly become among those beloved and familiar to the people.  Such is also the fruit of good liturgical writing.

It seems that things have tilted far and away from the poetic to a linguistic style that is blunt, sparse, and common.  Our penchant for texting and tweeting has left us with a new language in which words are reduced to as few characters as possible and the bare minimum of words are used to say what we mean.  In this culture, poetry may be less appreciated than ever before.  Even today, however, we value the blessing of a good turn of the phrase.  The texts and tweets of a modern generation work to fashion language which is not only economic but rich.  I say to the Church:  hang in there.  Do not exchange your poetry for bland prose in the name of accessibility.  We need to speak in phrases that endure and the people need this as well. 

Karl Barth, the theologian and not the LCMS District and Seminary President, once said that the church will always have its queer language in worship but when the church speaks the Gospel to the world, it speaks in the language of everyman.  It is not either/or but both/and.

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