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Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Word Made Fresh: An Invitation to Poetry for the Church, by Abram Van Engen. Abram’s book releases on June 25. Our thanks to the Wm. B. Eerdmans company for permission to print this excerpt.

Poetry fills the Bible. It spills from column to column and page to page. It covers one-third of the entire Old Testament. The book of Psalms, the largest book in the Bible, offers up 150 poems. Surrounding those poems, one prophet after another laments, condemns, and comforts in ringing lines of verse. The entire creation story of Genesis 1, quite arguably, has been composed as a single poem of repetition and variation, crowned by the creation of human beings:

So God created man in his own image,

in the image of God he created him;

male and female he created them.

(Gen. 1:27)

Poetry continues from the Old Testament to the New. When Paul falls into wonder and praise, he composes a doxology for a God he cannot grasp or understand (Rom. 11:33–36). And when he tries to comprehend the acts of an incarnate Christ who suffers and dies on behalf of sinners, he finds himself reaching for a poem (Phil. 2:1–11). That incarnated God was not short of poetry himself. What are the Beatitudes but an unrhymed poem? Jesus’s poetry partakes of the same impulse that led him from parable to parable. When the disciples asked Jesus why he spoke so often in stories and tales, Jesus did them one better: he answered with a poem (Matt. 13:14–15).

Clearly, God delights in poetry. The question is whether and in what ways the people of God do too. This book is not about the many poems of the Bible. Instead, it asks what we can learn about the art of poetry from its prevalence in Scripture. Biblical lines of verse open onto a whole world of poetry—ancient and modern, rhymed and unrhymed, Christian and non-Christian. If God delights in poetry, how might we also partake in that pleasure and pursue the distinctive uses and particular functions of a poem? The Bible beckons beyond itself. It invites us to experience the art of poetry, old and new and everything in between.

To take up this invitation, however, we have to accept one simple claim up front: that poetry is for us. We will never read a poem if we assume that poetry has been written for someone else. True, poetry can be difficult (though certainly not all of it). And true, some poets do seem to write almost exclusively for one another (though certainly not all of them). But most poems enter the world in and through the hope of reaching ordinary people. Poets spend their lives carefully placing one word after another in order to touch us with some turn of phrase or quirk of words. Like the prophets and psalmists before them, poets write not for themselves—or at least not for themselves alone. They write always, as well, for us.

In his great book Adorning the Dark, the singer-songwriter Andrew Peterson gives new artists a simple piece of advice: “Always, always remember to love the listener,” he says.[1] Great artists make art for others. Singers who love their listeners remember that the song is not finally for themselves. As Peterson reminds us, “art isn’t art until it’s experienced by another.”[2] Poets also hold that point dear. Their work takes shape in light of the readers who give it life.

So poetry is for us, for readers. It longs for us, reaches for us, opens itself to our experience. The goal of poetry has always been to meet, mark, and make life new. In his beautiful book Winning the Dust Bowl, the Osage poet Carter Revard explains that his poems are not poems unless they help “readers to laugh and cry, understand, wonder, and be surprised by ordinary beings.”[3] That is the point. That is the offering.Poems broaden, deepen, enable, enliven, challenge, change, and enrich. They do all this for the writer in the process of writing, but ultimately, they aim at a reader who responds. Poetry is not for the poet. Poetry is for you.

. . .

“But how do you actually read poetry?” This earnest question came to me after I had just taught a class at church. I was recommending some books, and I talked about the difference between an anthology and a book of poems by a single author. I like show-and-tell, and I held up several examples. Class ended and people wandered out, but one man stopped at the podium. “Sure,” he said, “I get it. You like these books. But books of poetry . . . I mean, if I had one, what would I do with it? How do you actually read poetry?”

Poetry invites this question far more than other genres. The look of it often throws people for a loop. Everyone knows how to read a novel. You open the book and start reading. The same goes for memoirs, histories, almost any sort of bound book, really. We don’t think about how to read. We just do.

Give us a book of poetry, however, and we might feel stumped. Where do we start? How do we proceed? Do we begin at the beginning? Do we flip to the middle? Do we keep reading after each poem, or do we stop and meditate? Is each poem self-contained? Should we read just one poem a day? And what about within the poems themselves: Are we supposed to pause at the end of every line? Are we meant to read out loud or silently? How, exactly, do we read poetry?

Here is my well-studied and expert advice: it doesn’t matter. Just read it. Begin at the beginning if you want. That’s what I like to do. I start on the first page of a book of poems, and I read it to the end. It doesn’t usually take too long. Most books of poetry barely top one hundred pages, and most pages contain very little ink. In terms of brevity, poetry turns out to be easier to read than almost anything else you encounter. In a matter of minutes, you can cover a whole host of poems.

I start at the beginning, but other readers skip around. They choose a random page. They glance through titles in the table of contents and pick a few that seem compelling. Whatever the practice, the point is the same: just read. No flaming sword swings back and forth to guard the entrance. Any way will do.

As for finding which poetry book to read, here again, I have solid advice: any practice will do. Look for one that seems intriguing. Start with a single author or pick out an anthology. You can choose any number of short, cheap collections on various themes, like love poems or elegies. Yale University Press sells two fantastic poetry anthologies edited by Christian Wiman: one on “joy” and the other on “home.”[4] Kevin Young recently put together an extraordinary collection of African American poetry spanning 250 years.[5] You could try reading the supposedly “100 best-loved poems” (Dover sells that one for about four dollars),[6] or you could look for poems that no one seems to know. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you read. Test the waters. Hop from pool to pool and puddle to puddle. Splash around in the world of poetry. Have a little fun.

Once you begin, keep going. Don’t stop. Don’t question yourself. Read until you find yourself caught by a poem, touched, spoken to, challenged, recognized. We are seeking an instance of resonance. Confusion, boredom, and frustration you will find, absolutely. But pleasure and delight, a sudden movement of the heart, will take you by surprise. Push through the coats and mothballs in the wardrobe of poetry until you find yourself unexpectedly brushing up against real trees, a whole world you didn’t expect, something unpredictably wonderful. That’s the introduction. That’s the inauguration. Mark that poem and remember it. For this poem is the door that opens to all the rest. All you need to do is find that door.

As you search for that poem, you can do no worse than to start with your own personal experience. “Though the pleasure which works of art give us must not be confused with other pleasures we enjoy,” writes W. H. Auden, “it is related to all of them simply by being our pleasure and not someone else’s.”[7] Our response to a poem involves whatever our own lives have brought to it—the memories, associations, experiences, loves, desires, hopes, and worries we hold. There is far more to a poem than a personal response, but never less.

Because we bring so many different lives and perspectives to bear on a poem, a good poem bears out many different possibilities. Poems have an abundance that spills beyond any particular meaning or point. “One sign that a book has literary value,” Auden adds, “is that it can be read in a number of different ways.”[8] We read it differently because we each read it through our own eyes. We meet it through our own ears. The personal, as the poetry critic David Orr writes, “has to do with how we see ourselves, how we see others, how we imagine others see us, how they actually see us, and the potential embarrassment, joy, and shame that occur at the intersection of these different perspectives.”[9] As a result, no poet can know how their poem will land. Every life encounters it differently. We often find more in a poem than the poet knew was there. As Madeleine L’Engle explains, “When the artist is truly the servant of the work, the work is better than the artist.”[10] That more, that excess and abundance, comes to fruition in the many ways that we, the readers, make a poem complete.

As we begin to read personally, we can start to experience the pleasures of poetry. “Poetry is ever accompanied with pleasure,” insists the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.[11] He does not mean that every poem will bring us laughter and delight. He means that when poetry works, it works from resonance. Without ever finding a poem to like, we’ll never find out what poetry can do. Which means that as we enter poetry with our lives, we can begin by reading for fun. Read just for the joy of it. Do not feel compelled to have deep thoughts or earth-shattering revelations. If such things come, welcome them. But mostly they won’t. Our responses to poetry will range from boredom to pleasure, from grimace to grin, from a little confusion to the possibility of delight. That’s good. Notice these responses. And remember that the response you have is the point. Poetry aims at experience. Boredom or confusion constitute experiences as well.

In the meantime, keep moving. When you run into poems you find boring or odd or off-putting, feel free to set them down and try other poems. The great glory of being a full-grown adult is that there is no test—or at least, no test about poetry. You don’t have to read any poem that you’d rather not read. Skip ahead. Pick a different book. Ignore some poems and focus on others. You’re in charge. No one is watching you. The only task is to find a poem that somehow reaches you—something that causes you to respond. Set aside all else.

If you keep reading, you’ll find one. I promise you. Poems have been written and published that will catch you entirely off guard. Something you never expected will occur. In the midst of boredom, suddenly a poem will touch you, stir you, make you smile, make you laugh. A poem you never saw coming might cause you to catch your breath. Another might move you to tears. The world overflows with poetry, and if you keep reading, you will find poems that cannot be ignored. It will happen, trust me. Reading for pleasure, passing from poem to poem, you will stumble into a set of verses that suddenly seem as though they were written especially for you—as though this poet from some other land or time or culture has somehow known you intimately. All you have to do is read.

[1]. Andrew Peterson, Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making (Nashville: B&H, 2019), 55.

[2]. Peterson, Adorning the Dark, 14.

[3]. Carter Revard, Winning the Dust Bowl (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2001), xv.

[4]. Christian Wiman, ed., Joy: 100 Poems (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017); Christian Wiman, ed., Home: 100 Poems (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2021).

[5]. Kevin Young, ed., African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song (Washington, DC: Library of America, 2020).

[6]. 100 Best-Loved Poems, ed. Philip Smith (New York: Dover, 1995).

[7]. W. H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays (London: Faber and Faber, 1962; New York: Vintage, 1989), 6. Citations refer to the Vintage edition.

[8]. Auden, Dyer’s Hand, 4.

[9]. David Orr, Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 5.

[10]. Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (New York: Convergent, 2016), 14.

[11]. Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defence of Poetry” (1840), online at

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.