A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,
As old medallions to the thumb,
Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—
A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds. …
A poem should not mean
—”Ars Poetica” by Archibald Macleish
In general, good ritual uses poetic language and is succinct; bad ritual uses didactic language and is verbose. Some people may wonder about the need for symbolic language and why poets don’t just “say what they mean.” In their view, poetic language is just rhetorical flourish, which obfuscates the meaning. But this betrays a misunderstanding of the nature of poetry and overestimates the power of representational language.
Poetry or symbolic language is not representational language; it is evocative language. Symbols, in this sense, are not metaphors or analogies. Metaphors have a known and finite meaning, but a symbol has a surplus of meaning which cannot be conveyed through explanation. A metaphor points to a single referent (a=x), but a symbol connects us to a complex web of associations with a practically infinite range of meanings, and which will vary depending on the cultural context and personal history of each individual. Ritual uses visual symbols, symbolic movements, and symbolic language (poetry) to evoke this surplus of meaning. This is why the meaning of a ritual, just like a B.T. Newberg, the founder of the Humanistic Paganism community blog (humanisticpaganism.org), explains the nature of symbolic language, like myth:
“The allegorical tradition has a venerable pedigree indeed. However, I can’t help but feel that each in their own way has somehow gotten it wrong. Interpreting myth x to signify meaning y has an air of finality to it that silences other interpretations.
“What myths really are, in my opinion, are deeply resonant images to which the human imagination responds by creating meaning. In the act of searching for the ‘true’ meaning, a new meaning is created. Myths are not reservoirs containing meanings waiting to be found; they are creative stimuli midwifing the birth of the new. Each allegorist is startled to see in it something no one else has, and feels compelled to go tell it on the mountain. In truth, however, they are simply participating in an eternal process of meaning-making.”
The same is true of symbolism in ritual. For example, when a devotee of Dionysus places a cup of wine on an altar, the wine does not “represent” the god, Dionysus. Rather, the wine connects the worshiper to every myth they have heard or read about Dionysus and every association they have consciously and unconsciously drawn to wine or the experience of intoxication. These webs of meaning evoke the memories of remembered experiences and moods of forgotten experiences of intoxication of all kinds.
Symbolic language is a rich resource for making rituals more emotionally powerful and both personally and collectively transformative. It is not enough to just add a poem into a didactic ritual. Wherever possible, poetic language should be used instead of discursive language. Ideally, the entire ritual will be a kind of poem.