The Ancient Modern
Poetry and the Image of God / Joshua Alan Sturgill
The Judeo-Christian tradition rests (though not as firmly as it once did) on the interpretation of the phrase “made in the image and likeness of God.” The worth and wonder of our humanity presupposes this divine connection.
Rarely considered, however, is the connection of this likeness with poetry. Literature—the recording of speech through writing—has nearly eclipsed the original meaning of this word. In Greek, poetry, poesis, means to make.
Poetry is not, essentially, a written art form. Though print media is currently its most common form of transmission, poetry was originally an oral and communal mode of expression. And this making-through-speech was thought possible because God also creates through speech.
“Spoken word poetry” is now a special and unusual category of poetry—and in my experience, an inferior and unpolished form of poetic art. Contemporary poetry is mostly about how words are arranged on a page—words that startle or intrigue or comfort. But almost never words that bring something new into being.
However, Homer did not write the Iliad and the Odyssey. Jesus did not write the Gospels. Adam did not commit the names of the animals to paper. These famous instances of poetry echo another poet’s dictum: “He spake and they came to be; he commanded and they were created” (Psalm 39).
Our materialism absolutely forbids that we should think of speech as more substantive than “things.” Yet, so many of the great traditions of the past affirmed the primacy of breath, word, language, utterance.
The same word in Hebrew (dabar) means both “speech” and “thing.” Logos means a word, but also a foundational principle. The Upanishads laud the breath as the master of all human faculties.
A children’s rhyme assures us that only sticks and stones have power. But recent history has contradicted this completely. Think how many lives have been ruled by the words of a Rousseau, a Kant, a Marx.
But what we are considering here is more than the result of a written word which is later put into (material) practice. The image of God in us suggests (really, requires) that what we say itself has a power greater than what we do—that our poetry creates our culture, and not the other way around.
What then, might it mean if a culture has no poetry? Or if its poetry has been silenced and relegated to the page? Poetry is the voice, the breath, the Let There Be. Can there be culture without poesis?
The immediate implications of this should be our return to spoken prayers, communal singing, recitation of stories, fairytales and myths, and the public performance of poetry.
If we want to see positive change in our communities, healing of the Earth, and vivid sainthood within our individual lives, perhaps we should return to the power of Sacred Utterance—trust that when we speak, it will come to be.
This makes no sense in a world dominated by machines whose only act is destruction, and whose only breath is the constant exhalation of smog. More powerful than technology, more creative and restorative, is the holy word spoken by the Image of God in imitation of God.