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THE PROSPECTUS FOR THIS SERIES of essays requests that I write about “some aspect of the way poetry and hymnody feed and nurture each other.” For someone whose mother often recited poetry and sang and played hymns to him, who has read poetry and sung hymns ever since, and has now been creating hymn texts for forty years, this statement is problematic. It assumes that poetry and hymnody are two different genres, whereas hymnody is in fact poetry, albeit of a particular kind. Once we acknowledge this, we can explore in more nuanced ways the nurturing conversation that can be cultivated between hymnody and other forms of poetry. The first step in building that relationship is to recognize the unique characteristics of hymns as poems.

Some might characterize hymnody as formal poetry, because most English language hymns are written to specific meters and usually feature regular rhyme schemes. For this reason there is a temptation to disparage hymns as mere “verse,” especially since there is a contemporary tendency to think less of poets who employ traditional, formal conventions. As Christian Wiman observed in his recent tribute to Richard Wilbur: “Wilbur has long been praised for his formal accomplishments. Often there has been some condescension in the praise since we live in a time that prizes innovation, and Wilbur is one of those artists who perfected rather than invented a style.” The same might be said of the most beloved “hymnpoets,” a term I have coined to make clear that hymnody is a form of poetry. To the extent that they use established meters and rhyme schemes, they perfect rather than invent a style. However, such perfecting does not exclude the possibility of novelty and invention.

For example, many years ago, a group of clergy were holding a conference on “ministry in a postmodern world.” (“Postmodern” was then a trendy word meaning many things to different people, but in general it signified that all authority was under suspicion for its self-serving interests.) These ministers were feeling postmodernity in the way their own authority was not nearly as stable as it had been when they were first ordained. Their conference was to be held during the season of Epiphany, and so they asked me to create for them a postmodern Epiphany hymn in 8-7-8-7 D, one of the most popular classical hymn meters: “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” and “Love Divine All Loves Excelling” are both written to 8-7-8-7 D. Since Epiphany celebrates the arrival of the Magi before the newborn Christ, I started with the imagery of the star—only now in a postmodern vein:

When there is no star to guide you
and you cannot wait for day
and your ancient maps provide you
only hints to find the way,
keep within each other’s calling,
mark each time you make a turn,
shout for help if you are falling,
tell each other all you learn.

The poet Donald Davie, in his introduction to the 1981 edition of the New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, made a strong case for what he terms “the plain style” that characterizes most hymns: “Among the pleas, never long stilled, that poetry be brought ‘to the people,’ we habitually overlook this poetry that has been brought to the people, and still abides with them.”

We also need to consider that hymnpoets write in a more classical than Romantic mode. T.S. Eliot writes that classical poets “arrive at poetry through eloquence…. Wisdom has the primacy over inspiration…[and they] are more concerned with the world about them than with their own joys and sorrows, and concerned with their own feelings in their likeness to those of other men [and women] rather than in their particularity.”

Eliot’s classical poet stands in contrast to Helen Vendler’s assessment of what is valued by contemporary critics and readers: “The price paid for individuality of voice—the quality, after all, for which we remember poets—is absolute social singularity. Each poet is a species to himself, a mutant in the human herd, speaking an idiolect he shares with no one.”

I find nurture as a hymn writer in poets who have their own idiolect, whose language is striking and original enough to spark my own imagination, while at the same time I strive to maintain enough of the classical poet’s consciousness that I consider my own feelings “in their likeness to those of other men [and women] rather than in their particularity.” Thus the classical and Romantic poets converse within me when I am creating hymns. As a hymnpoet, I write as a congregation member, mindful of all those who will be singing my words as the corporate body of Christ.

Yet at the same time I want to help them experience the gospel in fresh ways through inventive language, language that leans toward the idiomatic without losing touch with the communal. I think of this as stretching or expanding the communal hymnic idiom. For example, in writing about the annunciation, instead of using a word like “mystery” or naming a doctrine (“Of the Father’s love begotten, / ere the worlds began to be”), I decided to probe the experience of the mystery, attempting to awaken wonder through words that I hope might astonish without leaving us utterly baffled:

Startled by a holy humming
drumming in her heart and ear,
Mary heard an angel coming,
Gabriel was drawing near.
From the loud though soundless beating
of the flashing, unseen wings
pulsed the words of sacred greeting:
she would bear the king of kings.

I have heard from churches that find the hymn too strange, and from churches that look forward to singing it every year, to Carol Doran’s haunting setting. Whether or not a new hymnic idiom goes too far or not far enough is a judgment that emerges over time. But that is equally true of other forms of poetry, whether they be classical or Romantic, communal or idiocentric.

Hymns face another challenge in being taken seriously as poetry: they are about God, and that makes their literary merit suspect to many. As Ruth Franklin wrote of Mary Oliver in The New Yorker: “Still, perhaps because she writes about old-fashioned subjects—nature, beauty, and, worst of all, God—she has not been taken seriously by most poetry critics.” But just as Helen Vendler’s “idiolect” of contemporary poetry can stir hymnpoets to risk more experimental language, so too can the anti-theological bias of much literary poetry be helpful to a church that needs new ways of talking about God. Certainly such a need is present in many congregations, as well as in a world that seeks authentic forms of spirituality.

For example, a congregation celebrating the historic founding of their church once commissioned me to write a hymn of praise. In a telephone conversation, one of them warned me that although they were asking me to write a hymn of praise, several of them were “iffy about God.” As I worked on the hymn, that phrase echoed in my head. It forced me to think. How do we talk about praising the source of our being when we are iffy about God? I decided that what we are not iffy about is the materiality of our being, and that if I started from that reality, then perhaps I could present the wonder of existence in a way that God is known, if not explicitly addressed with a divine name:

Each breath is borrowed air,
not ours to keep and own,
and all our breaths as one declare
what wisdom long has known:

to live is to receive
and answer back with praise
to what our minds cannot conceive:
the source of all our days.

The sea flows in our veins.
The dust of stars is spun
to form the coiled, encoded skeins
by which our cells are run:

to live is to receive
and answer back with praise
to what our minds cannot conceive:
the source of all our days.

From earth and sea and dust
arise yet greater things,
the wonders born of love and trust,
a grateful heart that sings:

to live is to receive
and answer back with praise
to what our minds cannot conceive:
the source of all our days.

And when our death draws near
and tries to dim our song,
our parting breath will make it clear
to whom we still belong:

to live is to receive
and answer back with praise
to what our minds cannot conceive:
the source of all our days.

So here are at least four conversation points at which hymnpoets can be nurtured by poets working in a host of other forms: hymnpoets can use traditional forms to give expression to contemporary concerns; they can work to balance the classical and Romantic voices that sound within them; they can expand the idiom of hymnody by listening to the idiolect of poets who are not writing for a singing community; and they can explore new ways of talking about the deep, dear core of things in ways that do not rely on traditional ways of naming the divine.

Thomas H. Troeger studied to become a flutist but under the impact of a great preacher entered the ministry. After serving as a pastor, he began teaching homiletics, hymnody, and liturgics, with a focus on the role of the imagination in preaching and worship.

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