3 Reasons to Read Poetry

Most school days, my 10-year-old son and I play on the Playstation when he gets home. A few days ago, we finished the first of three games. As soon as we had a few seconds between games, I ran to my home office to work on something and ran back when the game began. I did the same after the second game. Thinking about it later, I wondered what was so important that I couldn’t hang with my son for those few seconds. I couldn’t remember. Something in me felt like I couldn’t sit. I had to find something to do. I had to speed up. Isn’t that what TV, the Internet, smart phones, and iPads do? These extensions of work and non-work busyness bury us. We’ve all experienced the person who can’t stop looking at their phone in the middle of a conversation or who made us think they were talking to us while actually on Bluetooth with someone else. We’ve done this to others, too. We are always looking for something to fill the space. We are in a hurry even at times when we have no reason to be.

Living as disciples of Christ with the distractions and attractions of the modern world isn’t easy. We need the disciplines of the Christian life to slow us down and reorganize our lives and hearts around the Savior. When the speed of culture and life is overwhelming and I need to slow down, I turn to the poetic warmth of the Psalms. Poetry holds a special place for us as followers of Jesus because God put in the hearts of our Scriptures’ songs and poems. Poetry holds a special place because central to our personal and corporate meeting times is songs and poems. We even call Jesus the Son of David, and David is the most prolific writer of biblical poetry.

Christians should make biblical poetry a central part of our lives because it retunes our hearts. We can resonate with those who suffered, were threatened, scared, in despair, and who through it all learned to praise the sovereign God. Christians should also make reading and enjoying cultural poetry a part of life. In a busy world, it does a couple of specific things that are very good for us.

1. The Importance and Power of Words

Poetry is packed tight with meaning. The poet places each word with great intent. We live in a time where we take pride in how much content we can consume. As we read poetry, we force ourselves to see the purpose and place of each word. Poetry reminds us how to be selective, to use words for a greater impact.

Consider your life, family, church, and city. What would be different if God’s people were more choice in their words? Read for yourself, see how much can be said in such a tight space. And then go and make the most of what you say.

2. Slowing Down

I’ve already hit on this one, but it’s an important point and one of the greatest blessings of poetry. It slows us down.

As a kid, I loved golf and played almost every day of every summer. I remember when I was old enough to start driving golf carts. The electric ones were fun enough, but nothing like the gas carts. They zipped around the course and I felt the wind in my hair. Then one day I rented a gas golf cart with a governor, which is a device used to regulate the speed of the cart. What a massive disappointment, but what an important tool to keep me from driving off a bridge at a high rate of speed. Slowing down kept me in the game and not in the hospital.

Your life, at the pace you are going, may very well be too fast for the next bridge. Slow down. Poetry is a wonderful governor that helps to regulate the speed of our lives. Notice the rhymes, the meter, the cadence of a poem. Regulate your mental breathing. Allow poetry to judge you, to question your pace, and consider an alternate path. Life is lived better in a rhythm.

Try it. Pick a poem, take some time, and read it deliberately. See if it doesn’t relax you a bit by slowing you down. Then ponder how living as a poet might change you and the people around you.

3. Seeing and Feeling

In a busy world, we need to see and feel what our neighbors see and feel that we may better share the gospel with them. One of the great evangelistic helps of any age is to know the art that influences the world we intend to reach. Ezra Pound said that “[Poets are] the antennae of the race.” Paul must have know that since he quoted them in an apologetic/evangelistic opportunity (Acts 17).

Poetry is more than a tool in our hands to connect culture and gospel; it helps us reach our neighbor’s heart. One of the things I love most about poetry is it connects us to the emotional pulse around us.

When my mom died a few years ago, I spent time with my dad. We were waiting for a meeting so he could order a gravestone. We waited at local restaurant bar for a bit. He knew the bartender a little and the bartender knew what happened to my mom and asked for permission to recite a poem for us. Reluctant, but desiring not to be rude, my dad said that he could. It was remarkable. I can’t remember a line of the poem, but I can remember how it spoke of both the pain of loss and of a coming peace in a way that “I’m so sorry” could never do.

Poems are made to do things like that. You just have to slow down and stare into the words as you would a painting or a night under the stars.

Is there anyone or anything we need to see more clearly than God and neighbor? We see our neighbors often, but do we really see them? Do we know their lives, their longings, their hearts, or their pains? Poetry opens up these doors. Poetry makes us aware of the world and people around us. It tells us to spend time in their shoes, considering their worlds and their struggles and dream. And poetry can help with that by both instructing us and opening our eyes that we would see them truly.

Where To Start

So let’s say you are willing to give it a whirl. How do you start? Well, you need poetry and time. Here are some helpful resources.

John Piper has written a number of notable poems available in various forms. Also, check out solid websites like Poetry Foundation, Poets.org, and Poetry.com. There’s a lot of free poetry online as well as essays on poetry and a number of other resources you might find helpful. Maybe one of the simplest ways to get started enjoying poetry is to grab an app for your phone or tablet. My favorite is the Poetry Mobile app from Poetry Foundation, though you may want to look up Pocket Poetry and Poetry Daily apps that send poem a day. I highly encourage you to check The Writer’s Almanac podcast with Garrison Keillor. It’s excellent whether or not you are a writer. Along with nuggets and tidbits from history he reads a short poem every day.

You might want to check out a few books. Good Poems is a nice compilation. Your public library probably has a decent selection. I highly recommend you find some living poets you can follow. Some of my favorites are Dana Gioia, Wendell Berry, and Billy Collins. Search YouTube for Billy Collins’s animated poetry. If those don’t get you interested in poetry, I don’t know what will.

Let me close with Billy Collins’s poem, “Introduction to Poetry.” Sense how he encourages you to approach poetry:

I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide

 or press an ear against its hive.

 I say drop a mouse into a poem and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski across the surface of a poem waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose to find out what it really means.


Steve McCoy is pastor of Doxa Fellowship and blogs regularly at SteveKMcCoy.com. Follow him on Twitter: @stevekmccoy.