Today I was writing a response to someone who wanted to claim that a certain part of biblical text was poetry. My objection was that simply the features of poetic speech do not make for poetry. It reminded me of a similar but reverse conversation I once had, in which I pointed out that a different part of scripture, while not being poetry, was poetic.
Which gets me to today's reflection. What ought to be going on when we read a text?
One of the helpful realisations over the last 200 years is the necessity of attention to genre in deciding what a text is trying to mean. We don't want to misread texts by deriving an understanding that those texts did not intend to mean. This is, ultimately, authorial intention. It was fashionable, for a while, to deny that authorial intention was meaningful at all, or accessible, or something to even think about. Texts just 'are', cut off from their makers. But I think that view is a philosophical anomaly safely left to the side for the moment. Texts are the means by which speakers and auditors communicate (or writers and readers, if you prefer).
When it comes to biblical texts this whole argument has higher stakes. What do different parts of the Bible mean to mean? Attempts to answer this question form the battleground of hermeneutical methodologies. There are those who have cut biblical texts free from any context, and implied author, so that they may be freely interpreted only with reference to what the reader finds in them. This is merely allegory repackaged, and quite frankly it's not a good way to read texts in general. The pure allegorical reader has the ability to find whatever they want in a text because the text exercises no control over the meaning they derive from that text. They are solipsists engaged in a narcissistic spiritual conversation with themselves.
There are others who are super-hyper-extra-literalists. Starting from a doctrine of Scripture that asserts the truth and inerrancy of the Bible, they feel constrained to interpret its every statement as true and meaningful in the same way. This is the essential hermeneutic of very conservative fundamentalism. I portray the position only for exaggerated polemic.
I would say that most readers find themselves lining up some version of a reading that involves an attempt to understand what the implied author was attempting to convey to implied readers in their socio-literary-historical context. That is the product of the history of philology and biblical criticism in the last couple of centuries.
Which brings me to discussions of genre. We rightfully recognise that texts signify in different ways. One way to describe that is through genre. Genre is a way of classifying and describing different 'types' of texts that have different conventions, different purposes, and different methods of conveying meaning. Genre is best thought of as a mostly firm, but slightly fluid, category. That is, every instantiation of a genre both draws on that genre's history and convention, and slightly alters it. For example, Vergil uses Epic, but he also changes what 'Epic' is. Later Latin poets utilise post-Vergilian Epic, and also alter what 'Epic' is. Eventually 'Epic' becomes unstable enough and unsuited enough that it cannot genuinely be written in the way Vergil wrote it. No one writes Epics today, because the endeavour has become impossible.
One of the macro-categories of distinction is between prose and poetry. We recognise that poetry does something very different to most forms of prose. Saying something is poetic seems to give an automatic license to recognise that the kinds of statements poetry makes, are not meant to be taken 'literally'. I think this is an area where there is real lack of clarity in interpretation. There is far more going on here.
In ancient writings, there is a far stricter and more formalised understanding of poetry than in contemporary English. Indeed, after what I call the 'free verse revolution', English language understandings of 'poetry' are far more varied than ancient counterparts. This is part of the problem here: in English, the presence of a number of poetic techniques may lead us to consider something poetry rather than prose, vague and slippery as that distinction can be. But in Greek, Hebrew, etc, the mere presence of poetic techniques does not poetry make. Rather the presence of formal markers of poetry convention demarcate what is poetry.
If we identify a certain part or portion of a biblical text as poetry per se, it is necessary to consider and read it in relation to ancient genres of poetry and their conventions. That is what I could call responsible reading.
However if we identify something as exhibiting a high number of poetic techniques or features, we have not then found 'poetry'. We in fact have not resolved the genre question. There is not a 'catch-all' category of 'prose' that demands certain interpretations. Rather the presence of poetic techniques are a guide to the type of text we are dealing with. It's for this reason that, for example, simply recognising that Genesis 1 is not 'poetry' does not demand a 'prose' interpretation. It's still highly formalised and poetic writing. We have excluded some forms of genre analysis, but we have not thereby resolved the genre question itself.
This simple dichotomy of "poetry is not meant to be taken literally, prose is" must go. It's like trying to sand wood with a hammer. It just won't do.