One of the pleasures of my life recently is a class that I am taking on poetry. The format is simple: each week, we gather to share poems that we like or that have particular meaning to one of us, reading them aloud and then talking about what makes them "work." This week, we were asked to reflect on the connections between poetic and sacred language.
This is something that I think about quite a bit, as I also participate in a group that meets weekly to write liturgical texts collaboratively. As we wrestle with which word or phrase best expresses a particular image, or where to break a line so that the congregation can read it easily in unison, many of our decisions are based on poetic considerations. What makes the language both poetic and sacred is the attention to detail, both in the Does the rhythm scan easily, or does it clunk? Is there too much or too little alliteration, repetition, or internal rhyme? Do the sounds of the words flow easily from one to the next, or will people stumble over awkward combinations?
In a recent post, Kathy Staudt spoke of Mary Oliver’s advice to “Just//pay attention”. That quality of careful attention, both in the writing and in the reading, is what evokes the sense of the sacred, whether or not a poem is explicitly about matters of faith. What makes something poetic rather than prosaic is the poet’s attention to such matters as how the words sound, both singly and in relation to one another; the metaphoric quality of specific, concrete images; and a kind of inner logic holding together images and ideas that don’t logically seem to go together at all.
To speak particularly unpoetically, I might say that sacred language is a particular use, or subset, of poetic language. The difference between sacred language and poetry is that, while poetry may have virtually any subject matter, and may take virtually any stance towards it, sacred language is intended to speak of or to God, to engage specifically religious ideas, or to evoke certain spiritual states. Some poetry does this, of course, but poetry has many other modes and intentions, as well. Nevertheless, when we really pay attention to the particular moment of the poem, we may be transported into the realm of the sacred, no matter what the poem seems to be about.