A Conversation with Eugene Peterson about Poetry

During the summer of 1991, when Nina and I lived in Oakland, California, Eugene Peterson taught a class at nearby New College, and stayed in our home and entered into our own daily rhythms. These reflections, written later that summer, trace one theme from our conversations.

I read a lot. Commentaries, theology, ethics. Sociology, urban studies, ethnic studies. Biographies, science fiction, fantasy. I know I should read poetry, but. . . .

It’s not that I haven’t tried. High school and college instructors offered the required doses. I even have several volumes in my library. And I’ve read something from each one. But my brain is linear (poems aren’t), my schedule is full (with important things), my reading agenda is already booked (with prose).

Some of my friends major in other media—movies, music, television. Like me, they spend many hours with their selected sources of ideas, distraction, images, and vicarious experiences. Schedules are full; options are plentiful. The response, when I ask about poetry, is consistently, “(sigh). . .well, I do have a few books of poetry, but it’s been awhile since I read any. . . .”

Yet the lure is persistent for me (and perhaps I sense some wistful longing with some friends). Maybe I want to be cultured and insure that others know I am sophisticated enough to read poetry. Only a bit less vain is a vocational motivation. As a teacher and preacher, word-craft is important, and I know poets can teach me about words. Even more important, though, is my desire to understand Scripture. Since over sixty percent of the Bible is poetry, I know I’m missing something that God thinks is important. And Eugene Peterson tells me that the poet is a friend of those interested in spirituality. During a summer week, as he taught an evening course on the Psalms, I had an agenda. On several mornings, after grinding coffee beans, toasting the bagels, filling our mugs, and settling into chairs on the deck, I confessed my (rather vague) interest. And as the week progressed, we took hikes, talked about poetry, drank lemonade, read poetry, discussed pastoring, and talked more about poetry.


“We do not have more information after we read a poem,” Peterson writes. “We have more experience.” (RT 5) I value facts, knowledge, information. I enjoy the process of reading history or theology or social sciences while I reflect on what is helpful for me, my family, my church, my city. But poetry is different. Auden helps Peterson make his point, “a poem must be a well-made verbal object that does honor to the language in which it is written.” (More on that later.) “Secondly, it must say something significant about a reality common to us all, but perceived from a unique perspective.” (RT 7)

I take walks in a redwood forest to gain new perspectives—or just to restore sanity. My spirit gets dulled in the midst of urban labors. Ten minutes from our Oakland home is an entrance to a regional park—thousands of acres of hills, trees, streams, paths, animals . . . and silence. Eugene, also a habitual walker, joined me. How was I to know he thought this provided an experience parallel to reading poetry? He focused on the transition we had made from asphalt to forest. “Notice that your mind didn’t quit—it shifted. We didn’t look at the redwoods and ask about board feet and what that means to society. We were just there, experiencing it. You pointed out the circular patterns of the redwoods—something I’d never noticed. Once you provided that perception, though, I saw it all over. We didn’t ask ‘what does that mean,’ rather we entered into its reality a little more.

“You make that transition from city to forest a lot, so you make it without even deciding, without intentionality. But we are not trained, we don’t have practice, in the transition from prose to poetry. You really have to intervene with yourself. You have to say, ‘Don’t look for the meaning.’ Enter the poem like we entered the forest—just be there.”

So my expectations need to shift. I always look for meaning. I want new information, new analysis, new procedures. But Peterson tells me a poet offers a new way of living, a new experience, a different set of receptors. “Poets tell us what our eyes, blurred with too much gawking, and our ears, dulled with too much chatter, miss around and within us. Poets use words to drag us into the depth of reality itself. They do it not by reporting on how life is, but by pushing-pulling us into the middle of it. Poetry grabs for the jugular. Far from being cosmetic language, it is intestinal. It is root language. Poetry doesn’t so much tell us something we never knew as bring into recognition what is latent, forgotten, overlooked, or suppressed.” (AG 11-12)

So I can’t read poetry on the run, squeezing it between the newspaper and professional journals. I need to create a space. I need to get rid of my operative expectations. I need to be conscious of transitioning. This sounds a lot like my efforts at daily prayer. In fact, Peterson links poetry and prayer, but I think he got that idea from God.


“Is it not significant that the biblical prophets and psalmists were all poets?” (CP 162) Peterson’s Answering God provides his most extensive development of this relationship between prayer and poetry. The Psalms, he writes, don’t provide new revelation. Rather they provide a response language—a collection of prayers for personal and corporate use that take us by the hand and lead us into this holy, relational language.

We need allies in this call to prayer. “The poet forces you to do something that is very important for prayer: slow down. You can’t speed read a poem. You need to shift out of your normal asphalt-driving-to-work-being-productive mentality. You need to be submissive to a reality you didn’t make. You have to read the poem three times before you start getting the hang of it. It means you aren’t in control of it. There is somebody who perceives some truth that you don’t. It’s humbling and maybe even humiliating.” That may be an appropriate place for prayer.

“We are unskilled in shifting from prose to poetry in our prayers. We want to tell God what is going on and what we want to happen. We are production-oriented and goal-oriented. In America we have this inordinate emphasis on answered prayer. Strange, really. This is not a biblical emphasis. Biblical prayers may include, ‘Answer me when I call, O God of my right.’ But after you get that out of your system you forget about it. There is little in the Bible about answered prayer. There is no preoccupation with keeping track, with working on a production schedule. The final product of prayer is not a product, it is belief. The poet trains us in that shift of perception so we are no longer as interested in production. There is a wholly different way of dealing with language and with your life.” So Peterson encourages us to pray the Psalms—enter into them, mumble them, imagine them, sense them, let our perceptions of God and good, of creation and covenant, of fraud and faith be transformed as we pray.

This difference in language styles—prose and poetry—is beginning to shape not only my prayers but also my Bible study. I won’t abandon historical research, social analysis, and theological inquiry. However, I will attend to the transition required by the literature. I hope to enter the liturgical awe of Genesis one, the communal celebration of Leviticus twenty-five, the visceral proclamations of the prophets and the new kingdom rhythms of the beatitudes. In Reversed Thunder Peterson introduces us to St. John, theologian, pastor and poet: “Poetry is not the language of objective explanation but the language of imagination. It makes an image of reality in such a way as to invite our participation in it.” Prior to John’s final book we have a complete revelation. We know of salvation and the call to discipleship. So, Peterson writes,

“There is no danger that we are inadequately informed. But there is danger that through familiarity and fatigue we will not pay attention to the splendors that surround us. . . .” John wants to intensify our relationship with God. “He is not trying to get us to think more accurately or to train us into better behavior, but to get us to believe more recklessly. . . .” (RT 5-6)

I too often act as though a little more theological clarity, a few more facts about the world, and a more pointed word of motivation will provide what my students and congregation need. Maybe, rather, I can have my imagination rekindled. Then, perhaps, my word-crafting will assist us all in being drawn together and to God.


I understand how words are used to destroy. I’ve seen individuals and communities devastated by lies and manipulation. Words have many roles in a society. As a professor and pastor, I am dependent on words. I believe everyone—whether administrator or parent or technician or neighbor—is dependent on and affected by our language’s use and misuse. If we were to read poems as regularly as we read advertisements and memos and newspapers, perhaps our language would be more redeemed, more useful. This is work that Peterson ascribes to poets,

“Poets are caretakers of language, the shepherds of word, keeping them from harm, exploitation, misuse. Words not only mean something, they are something, each with a sound and rhythm all its own. Poets are not primarily trying to tell us, or get us, to do something. By attending to words with playful discipline, they draw us into deeper respect both for words and for the reality they set before us.” (CP 161)

Peterson explains three stages in human language development. Language I is foundational—it begins with an infant’s noises that draw other non-sense from parents. This is primary experience. Language I reappears in the meandering words of lovers. In its maturity, Language I is the sphere of the poet.

Language II concerns the naming of things, the making of connections, and the exchange of information. Schools major in language II. Language III is for motivation. We move others with words, whether persuasion, sales, manipulation or coercion. Words have power. This is the realm of politics and advertising (CP 98-99; AG 37-40). So Peterson expanded on Language I, “If we let Language I operate at its most natural level, there are unfinished sentences, illusive phrases and lots of metaphors. We quit looking for instructions and meaning and become receptive to ambiguity. A good poet may draw you into multi-level reality—rhythm, silence and metaphor that may carry five different experiences at the same time. A metaphor is a terrible way to tell somebody something. You will probably misunderstand. The poet doesn’t care because the concern is not to tell you something but to get you involved in a cluster of words and images that radiate truth and actuality. The poet is not invested in which image you get as long as you participate in the experience. In the forest, you didn’t care whether I became more fond of redwoods or pines. Your offer was to be there, to experience it.”

Prayer is Language I. Prophecy and apocalyptic are Language I. Preaching can be Language I. Society often works to rob us all of a valuable tool. Numerous powers are at work stealing our words and changing the definitions. We are cheated out of life when words are pirated and images are cheapened: “the good life,” “making love,” “making a living,” “self-help” books on spirituality. Language does have a legitimate role with information and motivation, but dare we lose the language of intimacy and experience that the poet offers? We are already immersed in advertising and data—so we need to choose a parallel immersion in poetry if language is to be whole.


I have often found myself rereading books—reentering that relationship, taking time to experience a certain companionship. Peterson says there is hope for me. “When you re-read a book, what are you doing? You know the ending, you know what is going to be said, but you like to hear the voice. That’s why I keep reading Barth. It’s kind of like surfing—the waves may behave the same, but if you catch one just right it’s a thrill. You aren’t learning anything in a didactic sense, but you are assimilating it and participating in it in a wonderful way.”

I had already found Peterson’s poetry to be accessible. (CP 63, 75, 93 101, 117, 122, 135, 147, 163-176) More recently I have been grabbed by Langston Hughes, startled by Alice Walker, delighted by G.K. Chesterton, and drawn to contemplation by T.S. Eliot and Thomas Merton. I have been drawn into Peterson’s recommendations: Luci Shaw, William Stafford, Walter Wangerin, W.H. Auden, Czeslaw Milosz. So now I make a little time and space available for poetry. Not so incidentally, I am making more time and space available for daily prayer: reading the Psalms with more senses and having less of a productivity-driven agenda with Bible reading.

Maybe pride and the drive for productivity have kept me from poetry. But I don’t need to let that continue. Most of us have a start with some “non-productive” activities—re-experiencing movies and television shows, retracing walks, re-hearing music, rereading books. Maybe rereading poems isn’t too drastic of a life change. We need, Peterson says, the “slower, unproductive ways — like taking a walk in the woods, taking our shoes off as we enter your home, grinding beans for a cup of coffee, being leisurely on Saturday mornings. We do build such rituals, and the poet just happens to be someone who specializes in this way of being. The Christian who wants to restore the dominance of the spirit and restore creativity to our lives needs all the help available. I think poets are of special value here.”

All books are by Eugene H. Peterson.
AG:  Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989).
CP:  The Contemplative Pastor (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today/Word, 1989).
RT:  Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination (San Francisco: Harper Row, 1988).
This article originally appeared as “But I’m Too Busy To Read Poetry. . . .” in Radix (Vol. 20 No. 3)
© Radix magazine 1991