Why Poetry Matters

Written by Drew on March 31st, 2009

My recent post on line breaks in the Bible didn’t draw much attention.  I’m not surprised.  Most people run from poetry as if it had the ability to free itself from the book binding and chase people around the room.

Notwithstanding this public distaste for verse, the fact remains that a third of the Bible is poetry.  Why would God choose such a complex form of communication for something so important as revealing his will to mankind?

Maybe the answer lies in understanding what poetry is.  W.H. Auden said, “Poetry must say something significant about a reality common to us all, but perceived from a unique perspective.”  More than anything else–more than rhyme and meter, metaphor and simile, assonance and enjambment, or any other poetical devices–I think it’s the “unique perspective” that frustrates people the most.

Poetry skews the familiar just enough to get us to meditate upon it.  This is what makes it valuable.

After I read the following lines from Ted Kooser, I have never looked at a wheelchair the same way again.

“A Rainy Morning”

A young woman in a wheelchair,
wearing a black nylon poncho spattered with rain,
is pushing herself through the morning.
You have seen how pianists
sometimes bend forward to strike the keys,
then lift their hands, draw back to rest,
then lean again to strike just as the chord fades.
Such is the way this woman
strikes at the wheels, then lifts her long white fingers,
letting them float, then bends again to strike
just as the chair slows, as if into a silence.
So expertly she plays the chords
of this difficult music she has mastered,
her wet face beautiful in its concentration,
while the wind turns the pages of rain.

One of the problems with modern translations that approach the text through dynamic equivalence (attempting to translate the thoughts of the writers rather than the words) is that by simplifying the language, they destroy the poetry.

Take, for example, the ESV’s translation of Psalm 78:33: “So he made their days vanish like a breath” (ESV).  Compare this rendering with the NIV: “So he ended their days in futility”; or the New Living Translation: “So he ended their lives in failure.”  The more abstract passages have deprived us of the imagery afforded by the idea of “breath.”  Not only do we lose the original wording, but we lose the poetry as well.

Consider a lengthier example from Psalm 73.  The ESV reads:

For they have no pangs until death;
their bodies are fat and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
violence covers them as a garment.
Their eyes swell out through fatness,
their hearts overflow with follies.  (Ps. 73:4-7)

Now read the bland attempt of another translation that takes it upon itself to make the meaning “clearer”:

They seem to live such a painless life;
their bodies are so health and strong.
They aren’t troubled like other people
or plagued with problems like everyone else.
They wear pride like a jeweled necklace,
and their clothing is woven of cruelty.
These fat cats have everything
their hearts could ever wish for! (NLT)

It’s hard not to blush when you get to the fourth couplet and read “fat cats.”  If we didn’t know better, we would think Asaph listened to jazz and had a closet full of zoot suits.

A common statement about easy-to-read translations is, “I can understand God’s word when I read this!”  But the truth is, you may not be reading God’s word.  Comprehension is an important goal, but updated idioms and a watered-down vocabulary do not always help us reach that goal.  When it comes to poetry, the twists and strange perspective improve our understanding.  Only when we get comfortable with them will we really be making comprehension our goal.


6 Comments so far ↓

  1. cmlee says:

    Yet another reason why I love the ESV.

  2. Bryant Evans says:

    Thanks for a scholarly article on a much neglected topic. I added you to my Wednesday Blog Roundup and am adding you to my blogroll as well.

    If you think its worth it, a reciprocal link would be appreciated.

    Thanks again,
    Bryant Evans
    Eastern Shore church of Christ



    You did an excellent job exposing how the loss of accuracy sometimes destroys both the poetry and the accuracy of the text.

    I wish more people would understand the underlying assumptions of some of these translators. They assume that we are lazy, poor students of the Bible who cannot understand the text as given. Therefore, they make it “accessible” to us and impoverish us forever spiritually.

    It’s kind of like welfare: the intentions may be good, but pay attention to the long term consequences.

  4. Tom Youngfield says:


    You said, ” our worship ought to be regulated by God’s word”.

    Where does God’s word say that in order to worship in spirit and truth that you must do your “five acts of worship”?

    Why do you call instrumental music an “innovation”?

    Why do you call “communion services on Saturday evenings” an “innovation”?

    Do you also call ” communion services on Thursday evenings” an “innovation”?

    Where does the Bible say that you must only have the communion services on Sunday and only on Sunday?

    You also said “We must remember that our worship is for God. Any benefit that we derive is secondary” Why do you say that?

    Tom Youngfield.

  5. Drew says:

    Tom: Read John 4:24; Col. 3:16-17; and Acts 20:7. These three passages answer all of your questions.

    And in the future, try to limit your comments to the topics discussed in the post.

    Also, drop the pseudonym.

  6. PB says:

    Yet another reason why I love the ESV.

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