Singing the Words

For many of us, the source and power of poetry lies in its oral performance. It is first of all an oral and auditory medium. Indeed, this power of the spoken word is recognized in our major religious traditions. The Qu’ran means literally “the recitation.” Christians and Jews still approach the Bible in worship by having it read aloud.

This is not merely an archaism from a time when most people could not read, but a testament to something powerful that goes on when words are spoken and heard. Something goes on in us that makes them more “real.”

Part of this may even be physiological. Part of it is certainly that speaking and hearing already require two persons, thus creating the beginnings of community and the possibility of the relational virtues of love and justice.

Indeed, well-crafted poetry deepens our capacity for empathy and imagination of other possibilities in life — two capacities underlying the Golden Rule at the heart of our ethics.

Poetry is the arrangement of words aimed at maximizing this auditory and social power. In that sense, poems are first of all the texts for songs. Indeed, long after other mental faculties fall away, it is the songs that still ripple in our brains and consciousness.

Granted, there is still power in a silent reading of words in our solitude. But this dialogue within the self, giving rise to our preoccupation with our inner thoughts and feelings, arose only slowly in antiquity.

Plato’s philosophy was written as dialogues. St. Augustine recounts with some amazement in his Confessions (themselves written as a prayer to God) how his mentor, Bishop Ambrose, read silently, without moving his lips. The spoken word, made more hearable and memorable by its poetic composition, is both the vehicle of sociality and, as I think Muslims would most affirm, the door to prayer.

It is also a primary basis of vital public life. This is why the oral presentation of words in religious and public settings requires real training and attention to the power inherent in words and their auditory composition.

While much of my poetry is very personal (is not all good poetry thus?), it is not private. The very act of putting something personal into poetic form is an act of going public. This is why poetry that struggles to be intricate and puzzling simply to display mental or linguistic virtuosity seems to me to miss the mark.

While some of my poetry is simply having a good time with words, meanings, and sounds, I constantly return to the value of public connection through the spoken poetic word.

Poet Kathryn Stripling Byer commented about my poems that they seem to be “…on the brink of turning into nothing less than song itself.” This, at least, is the value I aspire to.

In this light, an enormous gift was sent to me by Robert Steiner, a theologian and Pastor of Rondebosch United Church in Cape Town, who is also an accomplished singer and songwriter. He has taken some of my poems and set them to some accompaniment to amplify their meaning and depth as oral creations.

He has given me permission to share them here – first, the words as they appear in Turnings: Poems of Transformation, and then Robert’s musical composition of them.

The first is entitled “Between,” the second “A Single Thread.” (Depending on your computer, you may need to wait a few moments for “buffering” after clicking on the audio icon.)

There is a space between chapters,

a crack in the spine.

Two pages meet

and disappear

into a hidden abyss

where they are sewn invisibly together.

A single thread

in the cloth bag

holding our treasures


Our glistening marbles,

photographs of younger smiles,

address books,

journals of our inward thoughts,

slip through

the widening tear.

We fall

with them,


if loving hands will catch us.

3 thoughts on “Singing the Words”

  1. Thanks to you, Bill, and to pastor Steiner, who has now given this beautiful gift to many through your blog site. How perfect that it is a rainy Sunday morning in spring…a great setting for worship and healing.

  2. This blog about poetry itself is beautiful poetry. Your poetry then moves to a touchingly deep level, only becoming more transcendent when put to music.

  3. That is one of the most honestly moving poems I have ever heard, and the musical setting is perfect. Of course, it is a song about death, but then I read a while back that at heart all songs are.
    Thanks you.

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