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The Psalms as Poetry

Ian David Philpot

Heather Cadenhead unravels Psalm 77 and looks closely for the all of the great poetic bits within it.  She also examines her own personal poetry for the same "beautiful truth" she has found in the psalmists verses.

The first time I heard someone refer to the Psalms as a book of poetry, I was considerably moved.  As a creative writer living under the grace of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, the idea of God speaking to me through a book of poems was an altogether beautiful notion.  I imagine that it's the same sort of feeling that Johan Huibers, a Dutch contractor, got when he was able to recreate Noah's ark using the exact measurements given in the Old Testament.  There is a sense of wonder in meshing God's perfect truth with the things we most love to make with our hands, whether that is something functional like an ark or aesthetic like a poem.

As of late, I've loved the poetry in Psalm 77 because it seamlessly weaves together three elements of poetry that I believe to be crucial to any completed work of verse.

  • It uses metaphor skillfully: "The waters saw You, O God; / The waters saw You, they were afraid; / The depths also trembled" (Psalm 77:16, NKJV).  Water, as an inhuman thing, cannot feel the human emotion of fear; however, water is at the mercy of God's hand.  Knowledge of God's mercy over us creates a fear of the Lord, making the line "The waters saw You, they were afraid" an appropriate and beautiful metaphor.
  • It uses beautiful imagery and shows a strong command of language: "Your way was in the sea, / Your path in the great waters, / And Your footsteps were not known" (Psalm 77:19, NKJV).  The sea imagery here is not only lovely, but succinct: the Psalmist's verse isn't wordy and he doesn't use unnecessary adjectives or adverbs. In fact, the only adjective in this verse is the word "great" to describe "waters."  The phrase "great waters" serves as a synonym for "sea" here. So, the adjective isn't meant to be flowery.  It's a necessary description.
  • It conveys truth in a chilling way: "Your path was in the great waters, / And Your footsteps were not known" (Psalm 77:19b, NKJV).  I discussed this verse in the last point, while talking about imagery, but it also conveys a bone-rattling truth: God can perform the greatest of miracles without even being seen.  If He chooses, He may roam the sea without leaving a single footprint. It's an entirely chilling and beautiful truth conveyed skillfully in the Psalmist's verse.

As a Christian writer, my goal should be to write beautiful truth. By beautiful, I don't mean to imply that our poems should read like textual versions of Thomas Kinkade paintings.  Far from it.  I mean that we should write poems that sound good; we ought to choose strong words (not necessarily concrete words over abstract words, but concrete words to convey abstract ideas).  A well-written poem is, to me, a beautiful poem. It isn't related to the content. Psalm 77, in fact, has a few bleak moments: "Has His mercy ceased forever? / Has His promise failed forevermore?" (Psalm 77:8, NKJV).  It has moments that stop you dead in your tracks: "I remembered God, and was troubled; / I complained, and my spirit was overwhelmed" (Psalm 77:3, NKJV).

By truth, I mean that our poems as Christians should convey what is true, what is real.  In Psalm 77, I find two truths: one is the truth of man's frailty ("My hand was stretched out in the night without ceasing; / My soul refused to be comforted" [Psalm 77:2b, NKJV]); the other is the truth of God's sovereign grace ("Your way, O God, is in the sanctuary; / Who is so great a God as our God?" [Psalm 77:13, NKJV]).


Heather Cadenhead’s poems "Embalming" and "Bone Collection" were published in Relief Issue 3.2.  Her work has been featured in Illuminations, Arbor Vitae, The Ampersand Review, Boston Literary Magazine, and other publications.  She recently won the Editor’s Prize for an upcoming issue of New Plains Review.  Heather lives in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, with her husband, Tyson, and their dog, Arthur.  She is the senior editor of The Basilica Review.