In the beginning was the Word, I read again, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Whatever your theology, that’s a sublime lede.
We call this anonymous text the Gospel of John. Tradition attributes it to the Apostle John or John of Patmos, but the author identifies himself only as a disciple “whom Jesus loved.”
No one asked me, but I think he must have been a poet.
Who else would have the nerve to rewrite the creation story in the Book of Genesis?—to tell us that God not only creates through speech—Let there be light—but that language itself is divine.
We acknowledge the creative force of language when word becomes deed. We hear magicians say presto and abracadabra just before something wonderful appears; we teach our children the “magic word” please.
But the Gospel of John makes even more of language. It tells us that the Word was God, and that the Word was made flesh.
God speaks, and we reply, if only in the confusion of our own human tongues.
O, we say, in that open vowel that at once invokes and cries out. Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu. Holy, holy, holy. Inshallah.
Made in the image of the divine, we too strive to create. Poetry is making, as the Ancient Greek word poesis reminds us. If the scale of its creation is smaller, its concerns are nothing less than the cosmos.
“All good poets sing hymns,” says the American poet Charles Wright. Indeed, prayer and poetry alike are plea and lament and praise.
God speaks, and we reply. But we know that human language is too fallible, too fungible, to address the divine. Words cannot approach the Word. “God is not the things whereby we imagine Him,” the American poet Christian Wiman writes.
So we turn to metaphor, that linguistic paradox that in the same breath says something is—and is not—what it is.
Such metaphor can be as succinct as “God is love.” Or as elaborate as the “verse of light” (Sûrah XXIV:35) of the Qur’an:
Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The similitude of His light is as a niche wherein is a lamp. The lamp is in a glass. The glass is as it were a shining star. (This lamp is) kindled from a blessed tree, an olive neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil would almost glow forth (of itself) though no fire touched it. Light upon light.
The Psalms too tell us that God is light. In those sacred songs God is light, a shield, a rock, and more. The Lord is refuge, fortress, deliverer, high tower and, of course, shepherd.
We read the Psalms as lyric poems that portray the relationship between their speaker and the divine. Thousands of years later, Walt Whitman read them as models for his own poems. The parallel structure of the Psalms also provides the formal template for much of Leaves of Grass.
I cannot read section 48 of “Song of Myself”—
I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least
[. . .]
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,
I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign’d by God’s
—without hearing the opening lines of Psalm 9:
I will praise thee, O Lord, with my whole heart; I will shew forth all thy marvelous works.
I will be glad and rejoice in thee: I will sing praise to thy name, O thou Most High.
What Whitman found in the Psalms—a form to inhabit and to renew—Emily Dickinson found in traditional Christian hymns. In many Dickinson poems you can hear the rhythmic and rhyming echoes of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” “Amazing Grace,” and more.
Dickinson creates poetic tension between her hymnodic form and her theological doubt. Her meters may resemble church music, but their content more closely resembles Job’s lament before the whirlwind or Christ’s cry (itself an echo of Psalm 22) “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” from the agony of the cross:
Apparently with no surprise
To any happy Flower
The Frost beheads it at its play—
In accidental power—
The blonde Assassin passes on—
The Sun proceeds unmoved
To measure off another Day
For an Approving God.
Even the most ecstatic praise for the divine cannot escape the question of theodicy—of how death and suffering and injustice can fit into the divine plan of a benevolent God. How we may labor to feel the presence of that God in our all-too-human lives.
“The love of God is the loneliest thing I know of,” says Charles Wright, whose Christ-haunted poetic career reads as a struggle with—and for—faith. For Wright, as we read in “Ars Poetica II,” the love of God and the love of words are inseparable:
I find, after all these years, I am a believer—
I believe what the thunder and lightning have to say;
[. . .]
I believe that dead leaves and black water fill my heart.
[. . .]
God is the fire my feet are held to.
Wright’s final line returns us to metaphor as perhaps the only way we can imagine God.
Here metaphor intersects with a branch of theology called the via negativa (“negative way”), which attempts to reconcile our urge to speak of God with the knowledge that God transcends anything we might say.
Made in the image of the divine, we try to approach the divine in human terms. As the Tunisian-American poet Leila Chatti attempts in her poem “Confession”:
Truth be told, I like Mary a little better
when I imagine her like this, crouched
and cursing, a boy-God pushing on
her cervix (I like remembering
she had a cervix, her body ordinary
and so like mine) [. . .]
“Confession” is one of several poems in which Chatti imagines Mary, mother of Jesus (and the only woman named in the Qur’an). This Mary is the teenaged girl we meet in the Gospels, someone whose plans, like those of the speaker’s, are interrupted by God or fate or chance.
Such poetry does not seek or profess answers to divine questions. It aspires to something else: the peace that passeth all understanding, the Amen that agrees, and blesses, and acknowledges that for the present, sacred moment, nothing more need be said.
Dave Lucas is the author of Weather (VQR/Georgia, 2011), which received the 2012 Ohioana Book Award in Poetry. In 2018 he was appointed the second Poet Laureate of the State of Ohio. He lives in Cleveland.