Perhaps the oldest function of poetry is to serve as a means to be in touch with the divine. But often, when poets start writing religious poetry, they end up with vague abstractions or pabulum. As in love poetry, generalities and overstatement create weak work. It can be difficult to find an authentic voice in this realm. However, the major antidote to writing sentimental verse is to borrow from great religious poetry and to be detailed and specific in both form and content.
As with all good writing, poets must avoid clicheés or shopworn, ready-made phrases. Religious poetry is just as susceptible to these traps as love poetry. Stating that God is all-powerful and has helped you is uninspiring. Find your own words to describe your relationship with God.
When Rabindranath Tagore, who later went on to become the first Asian writer to win the Nobel Prize, began writing religious poetry as a teenager, he used the traditional Hindu motifs of longing for God, the joy of union, the misery of separation, waiting and seeking. Tagore drew on his own distinct voice to write of the divine in the person of Krishna:
He's the whole dark ocean of love
And for the sake of love,
each being shall burn its own small flame.
THE SIMPLICITY OF THE PSALM
The Hebrew psalms are probably the best-known religious poetry in our society. They have a useful structure that avoids the too-easy structures of rhyme; Hebrew is an unrhymed language. The psalms have a parallel structure, which means they have long lines broken rhythmically in half by a caesura, or interior pause. For example, in Psalm 91: "You shall not be afraid of the terror of night, nor of the arrow that flies by day." These are comforting words, made more comforting by the parallel structure of the psalm.
How can you use this in your own poetry? Avoid rhyme, at least most of the time. Too often, rhyme creates a singsong effect that's more nursery rhyme than prayer. Reflect serenity by using lines that are long enough to be broken into two thoughts.
Psalms (and other religious poetry) are structured with a variety of techniques that essentially create a relationship between the poet and God. These can be broken into the following:
Invocation. This is one of the most ancient techniques of poetry. When poetry was first written down, poets didn't distinguish between the sacred and the secular—all poetic undertaking was sacred and needed divine support. The ancient Greek and Roman poets invoked the muse or spirit of poetry to help them whenever they recited or wrote a long poem. Psalms often begin with an appeal to God using a Hebrew word that translates as Adonai, or Lord. This immediately introduces the dynamics of the relationship.
Once you've decided to tackle religious poetry, you'll need to read some of the best religious and mystical poets. Here's a list of some great religious poetry. The Lover of God, Rabindranath Tagore, translated by Tony K. Stewart and Chase Twichell. For Love of the Dark One, Indian princess Mirabai, translated by Andrew Schelling. The Holy Sonnets, British poet John Donne. (Can be found in The Norton Anthology of British Literature.) Hebrew Psalms, King James. These remain the best-known and most resonant. Look at more recent versions, as well, for more accurate translations. Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms, Norman Fischer. These are personal "translations" of the psalms by a Zen priest. They function as improvisations on individual psalms. The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, St. John of the Cross. He's the Spanish Catholic mystic who expressed the "dark night of the soul". Collected Poems, Emily Dickinson. This American mystical poet's outpourings come from nature and solitude. Some other poets to check out include William Blake, William Wordsworth and Christina Rossetti.
Praise. Praise is often the next thing in a religious poem. It's an extension of invocation. One of the most vibrant ways to praise the divine is through a description of nature. The psalms are full of nature imagery, from hills that seem to skip to the great creatures hidden in the ocean. Tagore paints lovely pictures of scented trees and a deer nibbling at the forest's edge. When you praise, be specific and use concrete imagery. The natural world is a rich source of this.
Petition. When we think of prayer, we most often think of asking for something. In religious poetry, asking for help or comfort is set squarely in the relationship rather than just being a list of needs. One of the things most commonly asked for in such poetry is to feel the closeness or nearness of God. When you petition, be specific about where you need support and help. The British poet John Donne asked for something that may seem unusual by today's standards. One of his Holy Sonnets begins: "Batter my heart, three-personed God/For you as yet but knock ..." His longing was so great that he used the active, almost violent word "batter" to express it.
Thanksgiving. This is a way to close the poem. It doesn't mean that you assume you'll get everything you want; rather, that you assume the relationship will be positive.
COUNTING YOUR BLESSINGS
Specificity—real detail and imagery—is vitally important in religious poetry. Counting your blessings, a kind of list poem, can create fast access to feeling and image, and it can be written in a quick burst of inspiration. If you want to write religious poetry, this can be a great jump-start.
Try writing 10 blessings—or 100. Don't inhibit yourself; these don't have to be lofty thoughts. Maybe you're grateful for the car's air-conditioning in the summer heat or the ease of a silky fabric.
I recently taught a creative-writing class to a group of middle-school girls. They counted their blessings, which were charming, funny, heartfelt and idiosyncratic. Many of them included "night" on their list—a time of privacy, introspection, rest and, of course, dreams. One girl really surprised me, though.
"Diabetes" headed her list. How was that a blessing? She explained: "This disease has made me who I am; it has made me understand myself and learn how to take care of myself."
Through letting out who you really are, you fuel the religious poem with authenticity. Time-honored techniques can give you structure, but your individual voice is what will bring the poem to life.