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“In the beginning was the Word,
          and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
          He was with God in the beginning….
In him was life,
          and the life was the light of mankind….
The Word became a human being and lived with us,
          And we saw his Sh’khinah….
We have all received from his fullness,
                      Yes, grace upon grace.    (John 1:1-2, 4, 14a, 16)

In 2021, I am determined to spend more time playing with words.

One might think this an odd statement fora writer to make. Am I not always playing with words? Isn’t this my every day?

It should be. However, often it is not. I write words. I delete words. I agonize over words. I look up words. I strain to make every word count. But, play with words? This would imply delight. And delight in words is something I do occasionally, but not often enough.

One of the best ways to play with words is through playing with poetry. A beautiful poem is a garden delight of words. This is because the words aren’t simply telling us something, they are giving image to an idea. Words in a poem are skin and feather, blood and sinew, bell song, stone echo, grace, and love. This is true of any well-crafted piece of literature, poem and prose alike. But it is felt most immediately in poetry.

In our Beauty class last Sunday, we did a slow reading of As Kingfishers Catch Fire, by Gerard Manly Hopkins. I’ve not read much poetry by Hopkins. His image-rich, densely packed, Yoda-like word order had me upside-down in an instant. I could recognize Hopkin’s sacramental vision being expressed in every word, every image. But I couldn’t immediately discern what he was getting at, outside a faint shadow barely visible on a hazy day. If I hadn’t been practicing poetry play, I confess, I might have been easily frustrated.

I hope you find this encouraging. Sometimes I think people assume those of us who live in the world of words can read anything and instantly understand its meaning. Not so. Besides, this would defeat the purpose of the form. For poetry contains within it life. And life is always best understood over time and through relationship.

I also hope I’m convincing you to spend time playing with poetry, too. The more time I spend delighting in and immersing in the beauty of words, the more I recognize its incarnational nature. There must be something to this, for Hopkins declares it in his poem:

As Kingfishers Catch Fire

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

Playing with words isn’t a waste of time. It’s living in Christ-likeness.

Some ideas for playing with words and poetry

With poetry:

  • Read a poem slow. Savor the sounds, images, ideas.
  • Look up words you don’t know.
  • Write images you “see” in the margins.
  • Meditate on a single word, line, phrase, or stanza (group of lines arranged as a unit). Use it as an inspiration for writing your own prayer, journal meditation or play with ideas.
  • Notice rhyming words. Notice words that have the same beginning sounds (alliteration).
  • Look for where the poem might “take a turn” in idea or expression or imaging.
  • Take a word you like and create your own “image” phrase with it. Write a sentence with it. Journal for 5-10 minutes about that word: why you like it, what it sounds like, reminds you of, etc.
  • Wonder how the poem might be “talking with” the Scriptures: echoing images and ideas from God’s Word. Connect them through your own study, meditation, prayer… Your own playing with the Word.

With words:

(Note: you will need index cards for these activities. Many of the following ideas were inspired from poemcrazy, by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge):

  • Write words you found wonderful from poems you read—either one per card or several put together.
  • Cut your index cards in half or thirds. Open a dictionary, thesaurus, instruction manual, or Bible. Write down words (especially nouns and verbs) that catch your eye—one per card.
  • Go through your house and label things with your “word tickets.” Have fun pairing word with object. (eg: abide labeling a bedroom door, tarantula labeling a lamp, soil labeling the fruit dish, painted mountain labeling your coffee maker)
  • Cut words out of magazines and tape or paste them onto your index cards—either one per card, or several on a card that are completely unrelated. (eg: festering diagram; heirloom smile).
  • Choose an object in your home. Cover a card with words to describe your object. Write the words in all different directions. Use all five senses. Think of actions for your object. Then place the card by that object for others (and you!) to enjoy.
  • Take a walk with a card. Write down all that you see. Or, cover a card with image words—all you saw, imagined, sensed—after your walk. Save your cards.
  • From any of your card activities above: choose a card. Using the word (or words) written on it, write a poem, or prayer, or meditation.