The Language Poets Use

“From Homer, who never omits to tells us that the ships were black and the sea salty, or even wet, down to Eliot with his ‘hollow valley’ and ‘multifoliate rose,’ poets are always telling us that grass is green, or thunder loud, or lips red. This is the most remarkable of the powers of poetic language: to convey to us the quality of experiences.” — C. S. Lewis, The Language of Religion

Even if you’ve never written a sonnet or haiku, you use poetry all the time.  You speak of the sun rising, of juggling your schedule, and of running to the grocery store.  What, then, is poetry?  It is the specialized use of language that uses figurative rather than literal expression.  It is language condensed, heightened, and patterned for aesthetic effect.

Approximately one-third of the Bible is written in poetic form.  Here are some of the key ingredients you’ll find in the Bible’s poetry:

  • Images, also called imagery. An image is a word that names a concrete thing or action.  We might think of that as using words to paint pictures, or to evoke a concrete sensory experience of people, places, and things.  The image is the basic ingredient of the poetic idiom.
  • Metaphor, a form of comparison or analogy in which A is said to be B, without using the word like or as. “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1) is a metaphor.
  • Simile, a comparison between two things that uses “like” or “as” — A is like B: “They are like trees planted by streams of water” (Psalm 1:3).
  • Apostrophe, which consists of addressing someone absent as though the person (or people) were present: “Depart from me, all you workers of evil” (Psalm 6:8).
  • Personification, in which the poet endows a non-human subject with human attributes or actions: “Let the hills sing together for joy” (Psalm 98:8).
  • Hyperbole: conscious exaggeration for emotional effect, as when the poet states, “By my God I can leap over a wall” (Psalm 18:29).

Before looking at a brief discussion below of how some of these elements of poetic language appear in Psalm 23, you might wish to read this famous psalm.  You might additionally wish to jot down what you see by way of poetic idiom in Psalm 23.

What images does the poet use in Psalm 23?  The primary frame of reference is the shepherd’s daily routine as he provides for his sheep.  These pastoral (“shepherd”) images include pastures, still waters, dark valley, a shepherd’s rod and staff.  These images are concrete, specific, and drawn from nature and everyday life.  Additionally, Psalm 23 is built around the controlling metaphor of a shepherd herding his sheep to safety and provision.

The poet’s strategy is to compare God to a shepherd and his creatures to sheep.  The poem recreates a typical day in the life of a shepherd, and it shows him guiding and protecting his flock.  The word metaphor is based on two Greek words meaning “to carry over.”  That is a reader’s task with metaphor and simile.  Having experienced the literal image at level A, we need to carry over the meanings to level B, which is the actual subject of the statement.  For example, Just as a shepherd leads his sheep on safe paths to pastures and water, so God provides for people.  The effect of the poem is not only to paint a picture of a world of natural beauty that is fraught with hidden perils — darkness and evil — but also to reassure and comfort us with images of stability and sustenance.

The assigned reading for this lesson in How to Read the Bible as Literature will cover more aspects of poetry than were discussed above, including a section on the verse form of biblical poetry known as parallelism.  In the interests of keeping this part of the lesson simple, we will allow the book to cover those details.