Years ago, it was not uncommon for a pastor to hold to the mantra “Three Points and a Poem” when referring to preaching methodology. In fact, this practice was a rather common approach to sermon preparation for many decades.
Today, the three points won’t hold up as a form in most homiletics, and the use of poetry in sermons is all but dead. Why?
Millennials and younger appreciate poetry very much as evidenced by the rise of poetry readings, poetry workshops, and the many venues for poetical expression. Likewise, Baby Boomers and older have enjoyed those voices that make them laugh or cry, and a poem in a sermon still commands attention.
However, poems have fallen out of favor with pastors, perhaps due to time constraints and the feeling that one must cram as much essential material into a message as possible, or perhaps because reading poetry is much different than preaching prose. Then there is always the possibility that many pastors don’t know much about contemporary poetry (or poets) and simply prefer to live in the familiar world of commentaries, illustrations and movie subplots.
Yet in the event the latter is accurate and pastors are looking for a way back into poetry, there are ways to incorporate powerful poems into messages—and helpful ways pastors can be reminded that much of the Bible itself is poetry (think Psalms and prophets). Leaving poetry out of a sermon is like leaving behind large portions of Scripture or failing to recognize psalm singers and prophets (such as Isaiah) were some of the greatest poets who ever lived. Poems, similar to many of the teachings of Jesus, deal in metaphors and images that can speak powerfully to the events and needs of our time. In fact, poetry may be the one form that can save a sermon and make it sing.
Among those preachers and professors who have made names for themselves as poetical speakers, Eugene Lowry and Walter Brueggemann come to mind, but greater voices such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were also more poetical in power and persuasion. Poetry can stir the heart in ways prose cannot, and metaphors still can speak to the heart and reach us in ways beyond the literal. Often, preachers might be using more poetry than they realize, but it can help to join heart and mind together.
As a starting point, preachers would do well to include a few poetry anthologies on their shelves and to acquaint themselves with contemporary poets. This is easy to do and costs little.
A great place to begin would be the anthologies edited by former Poet Laureate of the United States, Billy Collins' 180: Poems for Every Day and 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day. These collections include poems written by some of the leading American poets, verse written on many themes and topics, not a few of which lend themselves handily to our contemporary questions and struggles. Included now in the best anthologies would be Garrison Keillor’s ongoing series with titles such as Good Poems and Good Poems for Hard Times. Here, and on websites such as The American Academy of Poets and Poetry Magazine one can find a rich assortment of voices and gain a greater appreciation for those contemporary poets who are writing and publishing in the current landscape.
Pastors will not be returning to the three points and a poem mantra, but there is certainly a place for poetry in preaching, even if reading poetry makes one’s prose/preaching more fluid, more dramatic, more elegant or terse. There is a tendency in modern preaching, after all, to be stout with facts and figures, biblical citations, or stolid illustrations that have been gleaned from websites or personal experience. These have their place and power, but a sermon also must flow out of word play and turns of phrase—evocative images that stun listeners or new metaphors that pound away at our apathy or cold sensibilities. Poetry can entice in ways that prose cannot. Poetry often can reach more deeply than narrative.
Poetry can also tell a story.
When Raymond Carver writes, “So early it’s still almost dark out”; or David Ignatow, “We’re not going to die”; or W.S. Merwin, “Something continues and I don’t know what to call it,” we have a sense of revelation, of some story about to be told. Yet it will not be prose, but poetry. There will be other words and ideas espoused than can be discovered in a short story.
Pastors also can use poems in other ways. Many contemporary poems can be used as litanies, reflections or devotions. Other poems lend themselves very well as prayers, and some poets even approach the writing of poetry as a kind of spiritual exercise. God (and not just the muse) often speaks through these poetical observations. There is beauty to be found if one looks hard enough.
In this age of expository preaching, through the dense clouds of statistics that often leave congregations numb, poetry may be just the thing to jumpstart discipleship or provoke response. A great poem, properly placed and proffered, can have impact.
Reading poetry, or practicing the reading of poetry, also can help even the best preacher. Keeping the tongue alert is good practice, and poetry can help to make a sermon sharper. Reading poetry also helps preachers alleviate themselves of verbosity or at least can alert them to words or phrases in the sermon that may detract rather than add to the pace or the tone of the message.
Poetry is not the answer to every sermon and may not need to be included each week (as in decades past), but a great poem discovered certainly should be considered now in the mix of homiletical preparation. A preacher will not have to go far to find these gems and today they are readily available at the fingertips.