Poetry in Psalms


Posted on February 14th, by nicholas in creativity, poets, rumination, theology, vocation, writing. 1 Comment

Poetry in Psalms

{John Leax reflects on the poetic nature of psalms.}

One wall of the living room of my late childhood home was floor to ceiling windows.  The wall opposite it was floor to ceiling books.  Never the less, as a child, I came no closer to literature than the animal stories of Thornton Burgess and Ernest Thompson Seaton. Looking back I recognize one exception to that statement; in Sunday school I was required to memorize Bible verses. The only acknowledged, inspired version in a mainline protestant church at that time, the late 40s and early 50s, was the King James Version.  So my first experience of poetry was Psalm 100.

I didn’t know it was poetry.  I don’t think I thought of it as poetry until I was an adult.  


But when I came to poetry as an adolescent, the Psalm was there—its language and its imagery alive in of my consciousness, alive in my body where it remains.

 Frequently it comes to me like the pleasure of tensed muscles about to swing an ax or the inhalation of lilac in the spring.

 

Make a joyful noise unto the Lord,

all ye lands.

Serve the Lord with gladness:

come before his presence with singing.

 

Thoreau called the Psalms an outdoor book, one best read open to the expansive, looming sky. Years of carrying the psalm within me lead me to agree.  I imagine standing on that hill of my childhood, looking back at those windows and reciting at the top of my voice:

 

Know ye that the Lord he is God:

it is he that hath made us,

and not we ourselves:

we are the sheep of his people

and the sheep of his pasture.

 

My access to that hill is gone, but I often stand on the ridge overlooking the wide Genesee Valley where I believe the land does make a joyful noise.  


I hear the creak of tree branches rubbing in the wind.  I hear the wind itself, the sharp rapping of the pileated  woodpecker so unlike the pecking of his diminutive downy cousin, the scolding squirrels, offended and helpless, the crunch of my own shuffling feet in the accumulation of leaves on the ground.

 I hear the drone of cars and trucks, the buzz of a motorcycle on the two-lane a half mile away, and I hear the shouts and laughter of students on the college athletic fields beyond the wall of trees on the jutting rise of devil’s back.  All join to serve with gladness.  All dwell in his presence with singing.

This psalm, this poem longest in my memory, lives apart from explication.  It simply tells me what to do, and I love being told for its words are as sure and irresistible as the wind.  They have shaped my response to the world.  They are shaping my response to the world, for they do allow me to stay on my ridge looking down.  They tell me

 

Enter into his gates with thanksgiving;

and into his courts with praise;

For the Lord is good;

his mercy is everlasting.

 

In its simplicity the psalm holds before me all a poem should do.  It instructs.  It sings.  It celebrates in the courts of the Lord.

+++++

John Leax (pronunciation: leks) was for many years poet-in-residence at Houghton College in Houghton, New York. His articles, fiction and poems have been widely published in anthologies and in periodicals such as Image, The Christian Century, The Other Side, The Cresset, The Reformed Journal, Christianity Today, ASLE, Christianity and Literature, Radix, Cold Mountain Review and Midwest Quarterly.

His books of poetry include Reaching into Silence (1974), The Task of Adam(1985), Country Labors (1991), Tabloid News (2005) and Recluse Freedom(2012). His novel, Nightwatch, was published in 1989. And his non-fiction works include In Season and Out (1985), Standing Ground (1991), Out Walking (2000) and Grace Is Where I Live (first edition, 1993; revised and expanded edition 2004).

Leax gives several readings and lectures each year at various colleges, libraries and conferences. He has read at Calvin College, Concordia College, Nyack College, The Kings College, Asbury Theological Seminary, Gordon College, St. Joseph’s College, SUNY Buffalo and others. He has been featured as a panelist and seminar leader at Calvin College’s biannual Festival of Faith & Writing.

He is a member of the Conference on Christianity and Literature, The Chrysostom Society, The Orion Society, The Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment and the Nature Conservancy.

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One Response to “Poetry in Psalms”

  1. Stephanie says:

    “Thoreau called the Psalms an outdoor book, one best read open to the expansive, looming sky.” I’ll have to remember this next time I crack open psalms. Thanks for your reflection!

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