Why I Write Poetry

Henry Miller

Henry MillerThe first poem I ever wrote didn’t rhyme. In fact, I didn’t even write it down. One day, when I was about three years old, my mom was pushing me on a swing and I said to her:

When I swing,
my shadow plays tag with me.

Apparently she thought that was a very profound thing for me to say at that age, because she has told me that story several times since I became an adult. I’m looking back at that scene now and thinking to myself, That makes perfect sense; that’s absolutely something I would say. I think my mom is thinking the same thing when she tells the story. You see, I’ve been writing poetry for about thirty years now. Sometimes I set out to write a poem about a particular subject; sometimes I set out to write something else entirely and wind up with a poem. I write silly poems, serious poems, songs, hymns - I even wrote a sonnet for my proposal to my wife, Catherine. I’m happy to report that she approved!

So why do I write poems? I write them because I like helping people experience “Aha!” moments. I love seeing someone’s face light up when I’m trying to explain or show something to them and - Aha! - they get it! In other words, I like connecting with people in a way that helps us see the world through each others’ eyes. I like understanding other people’s experiences and helping them understand mine. How does poetry help me do that? 

First, poetry lets me take people on a journey of discovery. As a poet, I have almost unlimited linguistic freedom right up until I write something down. Then I must decide what rules I’m going to hold myself to. Once those rules are in place, I need to stick to them or I risk writing my poem off the rails. Fortunately, these restrictions force me to generate creative solutions like shortening phrases, making analogies, or using one word instead of four. Such solutions then force readers to become forensic anthropologists: they take clues from the skeleton of my thoughts (the poem) and connect them with their own knowledge and experiences to flesh out a fuller picture of what I’m trying to say. 

Second, poetry helps me express my emotions. I am not usually a demonstrative person; I tend to hold my emotions in. That’s particularly true for emotions like fear, sadness, or anger. When I start feeling those feelings, I tend to clam up and disengage from whatever is making me feel that way. I don’t want other people to perceive me as weak, fearful, or temperamental—or worse, to start asking me questions that could reveal the deep places of my heart where I keep my hopes and fears hidden away.

It’s easier for me to be vulnerable when I’m writing (as you can tell from the previous paragraph). I have some time to think about what I want to say and how it will sound to the person receiving my message. In particular, poetry allows me to express emotions in writing without being too specific about the cause of my emotions. The medium of poetry acts as a sort of veil between the cause and the effect. For me, it’s easier to express the effect without revealing the cause. I don’t have to tell you the whole story; I just have to give enough words to convey the feeling. 

Here’s an example from a song Catherine and I wrote several years ago. The opening stanza says:

My soul is filled with scars
from wars of life that have cut me to the core.
And yet, I don’t lose heart,
but look to him with the power to restore.

Those words express deep hurt and strong hope. You can get those impressions without knowing the background of the song. If you asked me what inspired the lyrics, I would tell you that it was partly the story of a friend with terminal cancer, partly 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, and partly some of my own story. I have plenty of emotions about those things. Poetry gives me a way to express them.

Third, poetry helps me share important truths with people in a memorable way. That is especially true for songs. Important words married with singable melodies: that’s a powerful tool in the discipleship toolbox. Take, for example, a song that Catherine and I wrote recently for Family Bible School at St. Peter’s Anglican Cathedral in Tallahassee. It’s called “Crazy John.”

Crazy John, Crazy John
Walked around with hairy clothes on
Ate some locusts, honey too
He saw the Pharisees and said:
“Hey you!”
“You better repent, ‘cause the kingdom’s at hand!
God’s gonna come and heal this land.
People get ready, make the way clear!
Your Savior’s coming and he’ll soon be here!”

Add a walking blues guitar line to that and a few hundred people, and you’ve got yourself a few hundred people who can remember the gist of John the Baptist’s message.

Last, I have found that poetry gives me a way to connect with other people through the very process of creating it. You may have noticed that I mention my wife a lot in this article. That’s because she is my partner: not just in life, but in creativity. We have found that we do our best work when we work together. She’ll come up with a melody and I’ll put some words to it or vice versa. Then we’ll sing it and adjust the key, or read it and flip a few lines around to better fit the rhyme scheme. We will hit a wall, get frustrated with the song and each other, go to bed, and finish it up a few days later when one of us gets an “Aha!” moment of inspiration. Engaging in that creative process together has enriched our marriage and our spiritual lives.

That’s why I write poetry. I want to help people. I want them to learn, to discover, to feel. I also want to be known by others - something which, to be honest, I’m not always comfortable with. But poetry helps me with it.

God made us to bring his love to the world. But, as Dr. Curt Thompson says in his book Anatomy of the Soul, “...it is only when we are known that we are positioned to become conduits of love.”  So I encourage you to find a way to help other people know who you truly are. Poems and songs are helpful paths for me; perhaps your path may be painting, fishing, or singing. Just pick something, try it, and see how it goes! Whatever you choose, look for others to join with or to invite. The journey is better with fellow travelers.

Henry Miller is a poet, writer, and father of three rambunctious boys. He enjoys Nerf battles, Wendell Berry, and agri-ventures with his family.


All Things New

Words by Henry Miller
Music by Catherine Miller

My soul is filled with scars
From wars of life that have cut me to the core
And yet, I don’t lose heart
But look to Him with the power to restore (2 Cor 4:16-18)

For every wound I receive serves to pave the way
For glory incomparable on that day (2 Cor. 4:17)
When everything sad will become untrue (Tolkein, LOTR Ch.4 Book 6, The Return of the King)
He will make all things new

At last, I close my eyesAnd lay to rest from my long-fought battle strife
“O, Come,” He bids me, “Rise!”
“Come enter into my kingdom of new life”

I hear the voice of my Father, “Well done, my child! (Matt. 25:21)
You suffered these things but a little while. (1 Peter 5:10)
And now in my house there’s a place for you; (John 14:2-3)
I will make all things new.”

I see a city new, Descending just like a bride walks down the aisle. (Rev. 21:2)
“Behold, I dwell with you. (Rev. 21:3)
I am your God and you are my precious child.” (Rev. 21:7)

“And there shall be no more pain, no more death, no fear!For with my own hand I will dry your tears. (Rev. 21:4)
My kingdom, at last, shall be home for you!
I’m making all things new; (Rev. 21:5)
I will make all things new."

Crazy John

Words by Henry Miller
Music by Catherine Miller

Crazy John,
Crazy John,
Walked around with hairy clothes on 
Ate some locusts, honey too 
He saw the Pharisees and said, “hey you!”

You better repent cuz the kingdom’s at hand 
God’s gonna come and heal this land 
People get ready! Make the way clear!
Your Savior’s coming and he’ll soon be here

Crazy John,
Crazy John,
Walked around with hairy clothes on 
Ate some locusts, honey too 
He saw Jesus coming, said, “hey you!” 

It’s the Lamb of God who takes away
The sin of the world; he’s here today!
He’ll heal the sick and set the prisoners free
He’s come to pay the price for you and me

Crazy John,
Crazy John,
Walked around with hairy clothes on 
Ate some locusts, honey too 
When you meet him up in heaven, say, “Hey You!”