What preachers can learn from poets

February 14th, 2023

If imagery is so important for sermons, if a good image helps make a sermon impactful and memorable, where can we preachers go to learn more about how images work? Are there other masters who use images, who study how they work, and who know the value of controlling images in particular? Who might help us hone our craft?

The poets might help us. Preachers have used images over the years, but when it comes to choosing and molding a metaphor, we are rank amateurs compared to poets. Poets have been working with images from the beginning. As long as poetry has existed, men and women have been trying to find good metaphors for their compositions. As long as poetry has existed, men and women have been trying to understand how images work and where their power comes from. If we preachers want to write sermons that use controlling images effectively, we could learn a thing or two from the poets. 

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A Poem’s Trajectory: From Delight to Wisdom

How do poets harness the image’s power? They start with a blank sheet of paper and the sprawl of personal experience; out of this beautiful mess, how do they manage to pluck one perfect image around which to build a poem? 

It’s not easy. Poets are hunters, looking for a phrase, a picture, a newspaper headline, an evocative moment that will sprout into a poem. They prod the beautiful mess of their experiences, turning over rocks, combing the dark corners of their attics looking for something that will take hold of their imaginations.

Sometimes the search can be long. Just as preachers will tell you that the hardest part of preaching is moving from the beautiful mess of exegesis to the specificity and structure of a good sermon, so poets will tell you that plucking a meaningful image out of the mess of their experiences is really difficult. Both poets and preachers find a blank sheet of paper intimidating. 

Poet David Citino admits to being intimidated. He thinks that grabbing something out of the beautiful mess of your experience is definitely the hardest part of writing a poem, much harder than all the other technical aspects.

Line breaks, rhythms, exigencies of form. A sonnet? That’s easy. Fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. It’s when we try to talk about the creation, the willing into existence of something palpable and living where before we could detect only blank space, the white page or the blank screen, that we find ourselves with a severe case of aphasia, or at least a prolonged spell of hemming and hawing.[1]

Prolonged spells of hemming and hawing. What preacher can’t identify with that? We may have lots of information in front of us, we may start with a pile of good exegesis but that doesn’t make it easy. Just ask poets Ted Kooser and Steve Cox: 

You are bombarded every moment with sensations—the sight of a cereus blossom on your morning walk, the sound of a curve-billed thrasher’s call nearby, the taste lingering from breakfast, the smell of a creosote brush, the touch of a warm sweater on your arms—so many sensations that you may feel overwhelmed. Again, were do you begin?[2]

Fortunately, poets do more than hem and haw in answer to this question. As they describe the process, finding and using that one perfect image seems to involve three steps: seeing, specifying, and going deep. Together these three steps describe a trajectory, a path; the poem and its imagery propel first the poet, then the reader, on a kind of journey. We can map that journey: a good image takes the reader on a journey that begins in delight and ends in wisdom.

The language of “delight to wisdom” comes from Robert Frost. He said that this was “the figure a poem makes,” which was his attempt to describe the way a poem propels the reader.

It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with a first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification such as the sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.[3]

Preachers would benefit from following a little behind the poets and watching to see how they make this journey from delight to wisdom, because this isn’t so different from the figure a sermon makes. We, too, want to communicate wisdom. We want to offer our listeners a (hopefully more than momentary) stay against confusion. Our attempts to communicate a sermon theme are pretty close to Frost’s desire to bring a “clarification of life,” and we also want to do it in a way that delights. 

Poets and Preachers: Parallels and Differences

I hope the analogy with preaching is clear here. In most of our best sermons our listeners have been on that same journey. The sermon writing process began with some bit of the biblical text that we feel strongly; something that delights us. We sit down at our computer and, with the Spirit’s help and with lots of prayer, we work hard to share that delight with our congregation by describing what we’ve seen in its concrete specificity, and if things go the way we hope, by the end of the sermon, the sermon will take them on a journey toward wisdom, toward the sermon theme. 

We, too, search for an image “around which to wind” the sermon “tighter and tighter.” We, too, take an individual image like a doorknob or a little country shop or Jacob limping against the sunrise or dying Moses staring westward from Mount Nebo toward the promised land, and from that single image, we move toward something larger: not the “existentialist account of your own experience” that Lowell aimed for but rather a larger account of God working his purposes out in this world. A sermon moves from the delight in something specific in the text to the universal wisdom of the gospel.

Of course, preaching is not exactly like writing poetry. We don’t simply start with an image and see where it leads. Poets tend to begin without any notion of theme whatsoever; all they have is a single vivid image. They take this image and they just start writing and see where the muse leads them. The image primes the pump of the imagination and, once the pump starts cranking, who knows what might flow? The poet could start with the memory of trying to eat melting ice cream on a hot day and end up with a poem that reflects on the transience of life, or the poet could find himself or herself with a poem that celebrates the joy of childhood summer afternoons. The theme comes at the end—ultimately the poet does want to tell you something that could be stated in a single sentence[4]—but this theme is derived from the image by way of the free imagination. 

Preachers don’t work quite this way. Preachers start with a text and a theme and bring the image in afterward. You can’t just grab any old biblical image that captures your attention and start writing. A sermon that begins with the fatted calf of Luke 15, and, steered by the preacher’s imagination, ends up in a broad reflection on the place of food in the life of God’s people is not a biblical sermon. The scripture text, and our grammatical, historical exegesis of it, disciplines our imagination. Our sermonic playground is wide, there’s lots of room for us to experiment, but our playground does have a fence, defined boundaries that limit the imagination’s play. 

In spite of these differences, the similarities are striking. When it comes to putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), when it comes actually constructing the sermon, we preachers, just like Robert Lowell, are looking for an image or a phrase to capture our theme. Once we’ve found it, we wind our sermon tightly around this vivid image, so that our sermon won’t simply convey solid information about God; it will take us on that journey from delight to wisdom.

And that’s the most important parallel between poetry and preaching. The journey from delight to wisdom is a good description of the bridge we try to build from a sermon theme—a bit of wisdom that summarizes of the action of God in the text—to a sermon that makes something happen in our listeners’ hearts. In every sermon we are trying to bring the gospel both as delight that touches listeners’ emotions and wisdom that feeds their minds. The poets show us that there is a way to connect delight and wisdom, and the connection is made through luminous, connotative images. By showing us this connection the poets have shown us a way in which we can make our sermons more impactful.

Excerpted from Preaching in Pictures: Using Images for Sermons That Connect by Peter Jonker. Copyright © 2015 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

[1] David Citino, ed., The Eye of the Poet: Six Views of the Art and Craft of Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 178.

[2] Ted Kooser and Steve Cox, Writing Brave and Free (Lincoln: Bison Books, 2006), 21.

[3] Robert Frost, “The Figure a Poem Makes,” in Modern Poetics, ed. James Scully (New York: McGraw Hill, 1965), 56.

[4] There are exceptions to this, of course. There is a kind of poetry made of free association where the poet doesn’t want you to think there’s any kind of message. This kind of work is to poetry what Jackson Pollock’s art is to painting. That kind of poetry may have its place, but it’s not really useful to this discussion. As I study poets in this book I’ll restrict myself to poets like Frost and Oliver and many others who write poems that do intend to say something specific about the nature of life.

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