Pensées on the mechanics and magic of poetry

The study of poetry is a study of both the mechanics and the “magic” of words.

What do words do when they make meaning? We can map and analyze some of it (the mechanics), and some of it will remain a mystery (the “magic”).

To read a text well, you have to attend to both how the words work, and how the words refer to things beyond themselves.

The liminal space between a word and its meaning(s) is one key place where the “magic” happens.

The transformation of a word when it is severed from its original context and placed in an alien environment is a second key place where the “magic” of poetry happens.

To read the Bible well, you have to attend to both the mechanics and the “magic” of the words.

Therefore, studying poetry should make you a better reader of scripture. The skills learned in reading the former will spill over into your reading of the latter.

This is, of course, not all there is to reading the Bible. In mysterious cooperation with (and sometimes contradicting) our labor, the Holy Spirit acts in freedom and speaks to us through scripture.

It is a mistake to conflate the “magic” of words with the revelation of the Holy Spirit. This was Coleridge’s mistake in the Romantic period.

All the same, I still strongly suspect that there is something super-rational about words and the way that they mean meaning.

Dickinson, the hymn tradition, and the theology of poetic forms

In his entry for “hymn” in A Poet’s Glossary, Edward Hirsch quotes literary critic and poet Susan Stewart as saying, “Common meter [the hymn quatrain*] presents itself as the most suitable for group singing –– the coordination of song and the coordination of social life under a common temporal framework emphasize integration and solidarity.” Hirsch continues, “Think, then, of what it meant for Emily Dickinson to fracture the common measure, thus invoking the hymn tradition and responding to its communal nature with a radical individualism of her own.”

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