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In the beginning was the Word. So begins the gospel of John. And so, according to John, begins everything. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and he did so in and through Jesus, who acted as language. The Word. God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. A spoken word and something new.

In using language to create, God begins the world in relation. For all language—spoken or written or otherwise employed—comes from a prior relation and extends a new one. Language does not and cannot develop in a vacuum. Isolation never made a single word. Instead, every word signals a community, some relation to another. As each word is spoken or written or in some other way sent out into the world, it reaches for a listener, a reader, a person to respond. Words come from society and go out from individuals in attempts to communicate and connect. In the process, they create.

Poetry dwells in words. It uses, as its tool and medium, the words that others have made and use every day for countless tasks other than poetry. As W.H. Auden noted long ago, “It is both the glory and the shame of poetry that its medium is not its private property, that a poet cannot invent his words and that words are products, not of nature, but of a human society which uses them for a thousand different purposes.” For Auden, though, that shared medium served as a constant reminder that the poet is never alone: “however esoteric a poem may be,” he added, “the fact that all its words have meanings which can be looked up in a dictionary makes it testify to the existence of other people. Even the language of Finnegans Wake was not created by Joyce ex nihilo; a purely private verbal world is not possible.”

For a Christian, that sense of language as inherently social and communal flows from an understanding of God’s very nature. “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” The “us” and the “our” of this proclamation can be quite confusing. How can the one and only monotheistic God speak to himself in a plural pronoun?

Jewish interpreters are not stumped by this pronoun; they have good reason for seeing it differently than Christians. Some understand it as a kind of royal (singular) we. But even in that singular royal we, God seems to be speaking to himself. It’s as though he has divided himself in order to have a conversation with himself. He has a relation, born of language and signaled by its use. Christian interpreters have often seen in that conference something other than a singular royal we; many have suggested that this strange plural pronoun could serve as a very early, certainly unintentional, God-inspired indication of the Trinity. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

If the Trinity forms a concept of God, then God is, in a very real sense, a community: three persons in one essence, united by mutual love—a mystery, to be sure, but a mystery that spawns words as both sign and function of relationship. The language spoken at Creation flows from the language of relation between Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. For wherever language appears, we know that a community exists—something other than complete isolation. In speaking Creation into being, God bestows on it an element that is the heart of God’s nature: he creates a world in relationship with him, made and sustained in part by the very language that flows from his own relationship as a Triune God.

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Creation, I believe, is the best place to begin when considering the art of poetry and why it matters. For every poem participates by invitation in that first creative act of God. It does so not just by extending the words first spoken by God, but also by using those words to name.Just after making human beings in his image (Genesis 1:27), God gives human beings dominion over the earth, and then he rests. In chapter 2, he extends that assigned role of dominion and stewardship: having made all things, God brings “every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens” before Adam “to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name” (Genesis 2:19).

I love this image. For me, it lies at the heart of poetry and the ongoing presence of poetry in the world. You don’t need a literal view of seven-day creation to take the wonder of the theology present in this creation story. Language creates, and God loans that language to human beings to name the world. Poetry is built into the vocation of human nature. The art of naming is the first task of stewardship God assigns. And He takes delight in what we do with that task. In this moment of creation, still before the Fall, God bends in and looks with eager anticipation to see what Adam will do. What names will he choose?

Genesis 2 gives us the picture of a God who wants to partner with human beings. The same language that made the heavens and the earth and everything in them could have simply declared the name of each and all its parts, tasking Adam solely with memorizing and rehearsing what God had already ordained. But that is not what happens. The words that first formed Creation are handed over to human beings to use. Name it, God says. You take it from here. Say what each thing, each creature, shall be called.

I’m not the first to suggest that this remarkable moment in the Bible suggests the start of poetry in the world—nor will I probably be the last. Tish Harrison Warren comments on this call:

“When we write, we participate in Adam and Eve’s vocation in the garden: the vocation of naming. We give words to reality, and through our words we help shape reality. This vocation of naming…allows us to encounter a new and mysterious depth of relationship with the realities we name. These creative acts change how we experience the world—and they change us. The stories we tell, the poems we write, the arguments we make, spin the shape of our lives.”

But she, too, was not the first. Listen to W.H. Auden as he discusses Creation and the vocation of naming:

“We are told in the first chapter of Genesis that the Lord brought to unfallen Adam all the creatures that he might name them and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof, which is to say, its Proper Name. Here Adam plays the role of the Proto-poet, not the Proto-prosewriter. A Proper Name must not only refer, it must refer aptly and this aptness must be publicly recognizable.”

Auden separates poetry from prose here by the aptness of the Proper Name and its public recognition. Whether that would accurately distinguish poetry from prose is debatable, but the point remains that Auden sees in this moment what many writers have seized upon: the act of naming is a call to language. God desires an artful use of words, and he brings forth that use by asking Adam to speak, to name. That, for Auden, is what makes Adam the Proto-poet.

I do not want to suggest that the act of naming is exclusive to the art of poetry. I think many tasks participate in the stewardship of naming: science and history and all kinds of disciplines and arts attempt to categorize, identify, specify, and name in order to know and remember. And every art, whether it dwells in language or not, is crucial. But I love this moment in scripture for thinking in particular about poetry—and for several reasons.

First, a name identifies. It picks out particulars. It separates this from that on the basis of distinguishing elements in each item, creature, person, or experience. So to identify properly, a poet—as a person who names—must first of all be observant. They are tasked with paying attention, and the names they choose will, in turn, draw attention to the essential elements their poems try to highlight, those markings that make one thing or experience this and another thing or experience that. Many of us have heard the lore that the Inuit have over a hundred words for snow. I don’t know if this is true. I do believe, though, that they are far more attuned to the conditions and properties of snow than I will ever be—and language is a way to mark that attunement, to honor that attention, to make it known name by name, and to pass the wisdom of those names to the next generation. As an act of naming, poetry is an art of attention.

But second, a name, by its nature, seems short. Naming calls to mind the brevity of most poems. A quick lyric, a few lines, a simple minute or less is all it takes to name (or try to name) with wisdom and precision a particular aspect of God’s world. A novel can no doubt name many things as it goes, but a poem is more likely to attempt the art of naming in one fell swoop, as the title of countless poems reveal: “Prayer” (George Herbert), “Grace” (Stephen Dunn), “Joy” (Lisel Mueller), “Who the Meek Are Not” (Mary Karr), and other such poems all set up, by their very titles, an attempt to identify, define, explain, and understand. This is true of hundreds and thousands of poems (including many more poems with those same titles). Marianne Moore, a Presbyterian poet from the St. Louis region, seemed to have taken in earnest Adam’s task of naming all the creatures, since her litany of poems often reads simply like a list of God’s most strange and wonderful creatures: “The Jerboa,” “The Buffalo,” ‘The Fish,” “The Monkeys,” “The Pangolin,” “The Paper Nautilus,” and so on. In each case she offers not just detailed descriptions of animals but also insights gained from the creative act of carefully noticing them. If names pack power in just a word or two, then poetry seems aptly described as the art of naming.

Finally, I love the idea that the process of naming discovers new knowledge, new elements to name. Within the story of Creation, Adam’s process of naming—before the Fall—brings him up short with the realization that he is alone. He has no partner. Eve does not yet exist. This realization seems strange for paradise. Yet the recognition, the newfound almost-loneliness, is dependent on the vocation of naming that God gave to Adam, as though God knew this would be the outcome of the process when he told Adam to begin naming his creation. Perhaps part of God’s eager anticipation to see what Adam would call each creature came from his knowledge that in finding the right names Adam would discover the need for Eve. He would learn not just what God had created, but what God was on the cusp of creating. He would see that he was alone, and then his lack would be supplied: God would create not just another creature to be named, but a new and entirely independent human person who would do all her own naming as well.

In other words, the art of naming before the Fall is already a process of discovery. Naming brings knowledge. It sheds light. It allows Adam to know he is alone and to ask for what he needs. Naming should not be thought of merely as sticking a label on what already exists, as though all creatures were marched down a grocery aisle and Adam stood there with a sticker gun slapping on tags. Instead, naming means knowing, and the process of knowing brings discovery, and discoveries create. God makes human beings partners of his in the endeavor of world-making.

That, too, is why I think it crucial to link the art of poetry to the vocation of naming. Poems do not just aim to label; they aim to know. And as insights abound through the process of naming, poems help create and give shape to the very things they would hope to identify and understand. The art of naming is God’s ongoing invitation to participate in creation. He pulls up a chair, he leans he, he delights to see what we will do with the words he first gave us to use—the task he first asked us to take up.

Abram Van Engen

Abram Van Engen is Professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis and co-host of the podcast Poetry For All.


  • Travis West says:

    Thanks Abram. I love the idea of poetry participating in God’s original creative speech.

  • William Harris says:

    This seems so distant from the actual poems I know and enjoy. I think what is missing is the core idea that poetry is a form of self-conscious communication; it is less naming than speaking. Take how the imprecations pile up in Ps 109:8-15–we’re doing the “dozens” only in Hebrew. Or consider the slyness of W Szymborska in “Water” with its wonderful closing couplet: “Whenever wherever whatever has happened/ is written on the waters of Babel.” Mourn with Donald Hall at the loss of his wife in Without; or consider Tracy K Smith’s ode to her father, “My God, It’s Full of Stars” (from Life on Mars). Put your bard hat on with Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, or sing through Paradise Lost.

    Or consider the writer of Ps 104
    Yonder is the great and wide sea
    With its living things too many to number,
    Creatures both small and great.

    There move the ships,
    and there us that Leviathan,
    Which you have made for the sport of it. (26-27)

    “For the sport of it” —there’s less naming here than delight and wonder; that’s a poet at work.