I’ve just added my sixth poem to my lectionary project. It took a month to write and I don’t like it. I have added it to the collection because I’ve stopped fighting with it and need to move on.
The struggle is between simply retelling a story and responding to a story. Over the years I’ve taken a number of lay speaker classes from my church, where I’ve learned how to craft a sermon based on a Bible story. Speaking comes naturally to me and telling stories is easy. When preaching to a church audience the goal is to take a fragment of a passage, translate it, make it meaningful, and provide an insight with perhaps a touch of humor.
That is retelling a story. The story of the prodigal son can be rewritten in modern language, with modern characters and possibly in entertaining and memorable ways. Perhaps the father owns a shoe factory rather than a farm. The son runs away to Las Vegas and becomes a parking lot attendant. Meaning, metaphor, and the lesson can remain.
That is a retelling.
Responding is different. In response you ask how does this story make you feel? What images resonate in your mind? What is the story truly saying to you – what life changing message is there?
Responding to the prodigal son would not tell of farms, pigs or fatted calfs.
Responding would be imaging you’re the father watching your son walk away – do you cry?
Responding would be you as the older brother watching your brother, the brat, return to a triumphal party, that’s never been given for you.
Responding would be speaking of old brother’s hurt, the father’s relief, and younger son’s confusion.
And there lies the problem I have with writing poems based on fragments of scripture. My training, my intellect, my writer brain naturally bends toward the unemotional retelling – the translation, the moral, the simplistic – The Answer.
While in my heart I know I need to not tell you a story, but rather show you my response to the story – my emotion, the pictures I see, the changes in my heart and the questions rising in my soul. Often I write two poems, a retelling and a response. I fight to not simply rephrase what Matthew has said.
And then I find emotion is often flawed. Sometimes the feeling I have feels wrong – like I’ve not understood the passage. I, the older brother, should be happy like my father, but yet there is anger, hurt, and resentment. And yet, true response should include everything so we can allow the power of the words to take us somewhere beyond a mere story.
It’s a struggle I have.
Sometime ago I wrote a comment on Jacqui Murray’s WordDreams blog with some advice for writing a poem. I started writing a little advice that turned into a poem. She was kind enough to include them in a post last October about National Poetry Day.
This poem comes to my mind often when I am working on my poems. I share them with you and hope it’s something you can use:
Advice for Writing a Poem
Sit in a quiet room and let the words come to you.
Stand in the noisy concert and let the rhythms of the music beat the words into you.
Listen to the babbling brook and write down all it says.
It’s all about the feeling
It’s about letting your emotions run wild
and then corralling them in 12 lines.
It’s about explaining rocks to apples.
It’s about comparing nails to clouds.
It’s about seeing infinity in a glass of water.
and so I look to rocks and clouds and speak of my struggle with the words.