On Poetry and Preaching

A three year old list of some things I wanted to read was rescued out of my non-Dewey filing system yesterday.  “Poetry as a Means of Grace” by Charles Grosvenor Osgood was the third one down the page.  Because I’ve been reading more poetry than usual lately it caught my eye.  Born in 1871, educated at Yale and a professor at Princeton most of his career, Osgood published “Poetry as a Means of Grace” in 1941.  The book is described as a “validation of poetry and the liberal arts.”  His preface:

      For a genuine sense of literature I would insist upon a man’s passionate interests
      in the human individual, on his passionate concern in the spiritual life of men,
      in the issue between failure and success, between perdition and salvation… Such
      is the indispensable basis of a full, true and responsive sense of values in literature:
      For literature is life, with the same scale of values, the same ineluctable laws, the
      same unerring and beautiful justice.
Looking for a PDF of the book, I came across an editorial addressed to Presbyterian ministers.  If you like poetry you’ll probably enjoy reading it, regardless of whether you are a preacher, a listener, or just a reader.  Here follows a small part of that editorial:
      [P]oetry as a form of spoken art is a species of this general idea of God’s crafts-
      manship in creating and recreating. There is a world in every soul, and a poem
      is a tiny universe of meaning reflecting the reality that we are made in God’s image.
      As new creatures in Christ—new “poemas”—we say the world through his
      words, the incarnation of thinking God’s thoughts after him. A poem, like a
      person, is a carefully crafted creation, in which every part serves to form the
      beauty and meaning of the whole. Because poetry is so intimately connected
      with our humanity, I believe that our hearers are hungry for the beauty, healing,
      and recreative power of the word in every arena of life, especially in worship.

      As Paul Engle puts it:

            Poetry is ordinary language
            raised to the Nth power.
            Poetry is boned with ideas,
            nerved and blooded with emotions,
            all held together by the delicate,
            tough skin of words.

      A poem is words patterned to impress. This is the genius of hymnody. Poetry
      and song—the music of the human voice—are very closely related.
      …Poetry teaches us to love words—their sounds and their meanings. The preacher
      must cultivate a love for the English language, especially the spoken word.
      Ransack the best dictionaries. Above all read aloud. Choose the best poetry
      and prose and read it aloud. Read the Psalms, George Herbert, Dylan Thomas,
      Shakespeare, the essays and stories of G. K. Chesterton, Hillaire Belloc,
      Stephen Leacock, Christopher Morley—aloud!
      …The best hymns are poetry heightened by music. Or, because both poetry
      and song are musical in nature, we may say that hymnody is poetry in its
      highest form. Great hymns have retained or regained favor among those who
      have some measure of poetic sensibility. But properly sung and read they may
      also teach preachers and worshipers alike to be better stewards of the
      spoken word.
Two such hymns referenced were Cowper’s “God Moves in a Mysterious Way”, one of my favorites, and this one that I don’t remember ever seeing before:
         The Pulley” by George Herbert (1593-1633)

When God at first made man,
Having a glasse of blessings standing by,
‘Let us,’ said he, ‘poure on him all we can;
Let the world’s riches, which dispersèd lie,
Contract into a span.’

So strength first made a way;
The beautie flow’d, then wisdome, honour, pleasure;
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure,
Rest in the bottome lay.

‘For if I should,’ said he,
‘Bestow this jewell also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.

‘Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessnesse;
Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,
If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse
May tosse him to my breast.’
Here is the link to the editorial and also the link to the referenced “incomparable”reading by John Gielgud.

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