top of page

Word Made Fresh

by Abram Van Engen

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. 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.” Poets also hold that point dear. Their work takes shape in light of the readers who give it life.


“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.” Kevin Young recently put together an extraordinary collection of African American poetry spanning 250 years. You could try reading the supposedly “100 best-loved poems” (Dover sells that one for about four dollars), 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.


Abram Van Engen is a professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis and Executive Director of The Carver Project. He is the author of two books on early American religion and literature, and he also serves as co-host of the podcast Poetry For All. He is also the author of Word Made Fresh: An Invitation to Poetry for the Church.


bottom of page