In 1916, Wallace Stevens moved to Hartford, Conn., where he worked as an executive in the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company for the remainder of his career. While serving as vice president, Stevens wrote much of his poetry, verse that not only would win critical acclaim and prizes, but also recognition as “poet in residence.” The residence, however, was not at Harvard (though, in 1955 he was offered a chair at the university following the publication of his Collected Poems and the subsequent Pulitzer Prize). Rather, Stevens remained a Hartford resident and never relinquished his position at the insurance company.
Stevens chose to be poet in residence among those who knew him, people who often sat on their porches during the morning hours in order to catch a glimpse of the vice president walking to work, a daily routine, which in style and substance allowed Stevens the necessary solitude for writing his verse. “There goes a great poet,” some would say as he strode past.
Stevens understood: A poet cannot be removed from the community in which he or she labors. In fact, a poet most often is defined by residence—those familiar sights, situations and faces that inform the creation of poetry itself.
Creativity does not happen outside of community, and pastors know this. Most pastors, however, do not regard themselves as poets—certainly not poets in residence—but there is ample history and tradition to suggest otherwise.
Pastors, after all, deal in poetry every week. Much of the Bible—such as Isaiah’s majestic Servant Songs, Jeremiah’s lamentations, Christ’s parables and the ancient hymns within Paul’s epistles—is astounding poetry. Throw in Psalms, the Book of Job, the prophetic lot from major to minor and the austere Book of Revelation, and one realizes nearly half the Bible is poetic in form and message.
It takes a poet in residence to read, interpret and offer it back to the community in other poetic expression, most frequently the sermonic form.
In more recent times, some pastors have given voice to this poetic approach to pastoral ministry. Eugene Lowry, for instance, insists a sermon is a poetic expression and that his sermons are, if nothing else, shaped by poetic style and metaphor. Eugene Peterson speaks to these concerns, as well, and Henry Nouwen had a knack for describing the pastoral art in poetic phrases such as “Wounded Healer.”
Much of the Bible is not transparent…perhaps none of it is. It takes a poet to read poetry, to understand metaphor, to live through it, to offer it to others. Stained glass, icons, architecture, liturgy—all of these and more traditionally have been understood and encountered through the lenses of poetry and metaphor. One does not just see what one gets. There are layers, deeper meanings, words and expressions—sometimes sounds and scents—that only can be understood through poetry.
The pastor is a poet in residence: Others often look to the pastor to interpret the meaning of an event; to give voice to pain, tragedy or triumph. Similar to the ancient prophets, pastors often are called upon to speak God’s Word. This Word is not always offered to the masses (sermon), but more frequently and intimately offered to those with broken hearts, broken marriages, broken homes and shattered lives. Proximity matters. Words matter. Form matters. People need a poet to help them understand how God has made residence amid their difficulties.
What do the people hear? How do they hear?
Pastors may not consider their counsel, their messages, their casual conversations to be poetic, but people often hear their words as such. A single word can set off a domino-effect of emotion, assurance or forgiveness. A carefully crafted phrase often can move the church to action or repentance. Some of these words and phrases, in fact, bind us to the past and call into effect the whole dramatic movement of faith. Some words and phrases are loaded with meaning that not to speak them would be to deny all that God has done and will do.
The poetry of communion (Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper) and baptism are two such examples. “This is My body” is poetic. “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” has a rhythm that has moved the hearts and feet of generations. The pastor is one who presides over the poetry, who offers it afresh each time the words are spoken, each time grace is offered. In the familiar phrases, people find comfort, as well as challenge. Each time poetry is spoken or sung, the old passes and away and the new has come.
In fact, people hear God’s voice through poetry. Scripture testifies as much. Prayer books, liturgies, worship forms, hymns—all of these are poetic expressions containing the rich metaphors of faith. When pastors use metaphor well, people are challenged and comforted.
Jesus Himself seemed content with poetry. Not everyone, as He pointed out, could hear a parable and understand it immediately. Some could hear and not understand. Others could see, but not comprehend. Jesus spent much of His time, it seems, helping others understand the method. Poetry has this effect on people. Many want to disregard it entirely, preferring or insisting upon the literal. Others need help finding a still place from which they can listen and receive. As our world has become more hectic and shot-through with violence and an incomprehensible pace toward self-annihilation, the poetic center is increasingly difficult to find, including within the church. People want answers—and fast.
Herein lies the beauty of poetry and the metaphors the poet in residence can offer. The pastor, through words and poetic acts, can help the church and the world to find the quiet center. There is a power in phrases such as “body of Christ,” “Christ is risen,” or “the Lord is my Shepherd.” The words we choose, the phrases we offer, are testimony born of the metaphors from God. We can speak of wilderness, water or washing and know these simple words carry a surplus of meaning. Words such as love, faith and hope have meaning to the masses, but need to be re-interpreted and dissected for a new age. Only a poet in residence can write or speak the new into the old.
As Paul Tillich understood in his Systematic Theology, words are the key to doing theology, preaching and teaching. Words convey faith. We must choose them well. Pastors are poets in residence. Where we live and with whom is a poetic act, a poetic witness; but we don’t have to write poetry to be recognized as poets. Sometimes the walk itself is poetry enough.