January 4, 2010

Poetry and Spiritual Practice: Work in Progress

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body… . from Preface to Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (1855)

Is writing a spiritual practice?  Maybe you believe in God or maybe you don't. To me, spirituality means "spirit mutuality."   This mutuality of spirit can be found in relationship with others, with animals, with things.   I seek this mutuality.   Regardless of one’s beliefs or lack of them, each usually finds oneself in need of healing one’s own spirit; not only that, each of us is needed to help heal the world, to somehow address violence, abuse, exploitation, environmental damage, war, and suffering.

Writing, among other things, can heal the spirit and contribute positively to the world. This is also true of making art, music and other creative pursuits. I’ve found parallels between poetry and spirituality in my years of writing practice. I speak from the perspective of a poet and the tradition of Unitarian Universalism. Obviously, writing and art-making provide a ritual, meditative process. Creative work (or play) allows one to stay or become receptive, open, and interactive. It’s more than that, however. Poems often employ paradox, metaphor and other devices. Anne Carson writes this:

My religion makes no sense
and does not help me
therefore I pursue it.

To me, this expresses how the unanswerable questions, often addressed by religion, offer the poet a quest. The answers are likely personal, idiosyncratic, or even of temporary use, but the continual seeking is highly worthwhile.

In our world, the forces of creation and destruction exist in a dynamic, ebbing and flowing. I draw this as an image of a sphere deliberately to avoid either/or thinking. Creative work can confront the destructive, draw from the destructive, or assemble what has been destroyed into something new. In this sphere, the activity of creating, or the struggle to create, is useful to others. Creative work may, like many of our things, last longer than we do. Art is the one of the few things that we have left from cultures long gone. Poetry is, as Wislawa Szymborska says, “The revenge of the mortal hand.”

Spirit / Object

Original art, said Walter Benjamin, has an “aura” or a sense of being. It calls to us, we respond. I consider this response to be a spiritual response. I’ve been moved by many kinds of art and much poetry. Even the arrangements of stones called Inuksuit seem to embody a being. Poems have been called “tensile beings” or “perceptual objects.” Often they capture the contradictions or opposing forces (like paradox or opposites). They have a unique tension that makes them remarkable. Consider this excerpt of the poem “If the Owl Calls Again” by John Haines:

at dusk
from the island in the river
and it’s not too cold,

I’ll wait for the moon
to rise,
then take wing and glide
to meet him.

We will not speak,
but hooded against the frost
soar above
the alder flats, searching
with tawny eyes.

And then we’ll sit
in the shadowy spruce
and pick the bones
of careless mice….

Spirit can be many things, including one’s soul, one’s mood, the thing that animates the living being. It also suggests spirits, the supernatural perhaps. Ghosts, God, gods. The word spiritual has its roots in Middle English, Middle French, and Late Latin. From Latin, the word relates to “breathing, of wind, from spiritus.” (Merriam Webster) This last definition is much more attractive to me, and seems to suggest a much needed spaciousness.

The French poet Paul Valery said the difference between prose and poetry is physiological. Poems shape our breath and sound. “In…prose, the form in not preserved, does not outlive understanding, but dissolves in the light, for it has acted, it has made itself understood, it has lived.” He says, “But the poem, on the contrary, does not die for having been of use; it is purposely made to be reborn from its ashes and perpetually to become what it has been.” The body--the five senses and the breath—give poetry its life.

Poems are spirit / objects. They are made of sound and breath and truly good poems seem to have life—they bring us an experience, a body experience, and spirit or light. I listened to a talk by Gladys Naybenayash, a Native American teacher and a poet. “Somehow in all my poems, some spirits come in there....” she said. “I write about a bear and the spirit of the bear comes.”

Flow/ Resistance

Flow and resistance is another concept that is useful in the consideration of writing or spirituality. Simone Weil said, “Prayer is absolute unmixed attention.” Regular writing practice provides flow experience. What is it like? It gives you a sense of alertness without tension in your body, of being outside of time and open to a trusted source.

Poetry can slow or stop time. Poems may or may not be linear. Associations, often characteristic of poems, can bound over time and location with Seven League boots.

Writing is not necessarily easy. When we sit down to write, we battle endless distractions. Our families interrupt us. The phone rings. Our pets whimper for attention. Even without those, noises intrude, or our own impulses to surf the internet, clean the dust out of the corners, or fidget about doing meaningless tasks. Even when a writer gets past the “entry” phase, writing has its challenges. The edit phase is essential. We get too flowery, or abstract, or trivial and risk losing interest of the reader. Writers and nonwriters alike struggle to find the right words to say when we need to say them. Abstract ideas get in our way sometimes. A poet needs to break down the abstract into things more concrete.

Language can be an obstacle, but so is silence. How much have we lost by silences? Too often the price is far higher than we ever would think. Intolerable oppression operates well when people keep silence.

Language and silence also exist in equal and opposing forces. Image offers a way out. Image is much more easily transmitted, translated, and understood. It is the image that makes writing vivid.

Resistance: obstacles and challenges can reveal so much about our own needs and that of the work. Notice and honor the resistance! Consider the possible reasons for it. One might be taking the poem in the wrong direction. One might have another obstacle that has not yet been addressed. One might need to shift position, or approach, or change altogether.

Ambiguity/ Certainty

I use a phrase when I teach, and I tell students to “listen to the work.” This means that the poet attends to the words on the page to see the developing patterns, simply noticing what has been written and enhance the interesting aspects. Details are key elements in any creative work. Notice what has emerged, what is unexpected or surprising. In other words, pay deep attention. Allow the image or the pattern to lead you.

Questions that can be asked of poems: who is speaking? to whom is the poem addressed? This answer yields interesting things about the connections poets make. The poet may assume a mask, or may address reader as if the reader had a mask. Helen Vendler has examined the poetry of George Herbert, Walt Whitman and John Ashberry in regards to whom their poems are addressed. Herbert spoke to God, Whitman to the future reader, and Ashberry, a painter from the past. Each of these poets established a relationship of intimacy that transcended ordinary time and place.

Listen to this poem by Lisel Mueller, “‘Night Song”:

Among rocks, I am the loose one,
among arrows, I am the heart,
among daughters, I am the recluse,
among sons, the one who dies young.

Among answers, I am the question,
between lovers, I am the sword,
among scars, I am the fresh wound,
among confetti, the black flag.

Among shoes, I am the one with the pebble,
among days, the one that never comes,
among the bones you find on the beach
the one that sings was mine.

Poetry focuses on image and sound. It allows or wants a pattern of some kind. If you are writing poetry, you must search for this, and allow the form and the pattern to emerge organically, to grow as the work grows, not to be imposed on, but to be watered, fed, and given all the right conditions so that it grows strong. And so I suggest this approach to your own spiritual work (play). Do not use force or impose your will. Practice receptivity, openness, question your assumptions.

Ambiguity is one of the most pleasing aspects of poems. It occurs in a number of places in a poem—it could be in the use of space, a line break, a type of punctuation, a sound, or the use of a homonym. This quality allows you to return again and again to a poem and come away with new meaning each time.
Mary Oliver says that poetry is writing that casts more than one shadow.

Some people do not tolerate ambiguity well. It makes us uncomfortable and sometimes, we like to have certainty. I must also say that absolutes also can occur in poetry, for instance, in the use of particular form like a sonnet or a villanelle. Sometimes, bringing the poem into the constraints and limits of a form enlarges the poem. Sometimes it does not. One needs to experiment and evaluate, and then listen to the work.

Writing poems becomes intuitive, but I value critical thinking. This also exists as a dynamic, a sphere of thinking, critical evaluation, intuition, and perhaps another element that I would say joins the working artist, you or me. Magic, some might say, or the Muse: it is a spirit of creation. I can’t name what that element is. A sense of being joined is a powerful, spiritual experience.

Vision/ Revision

And last, I believe in another creative dynamic, vision/revision. To each person, something is revealed. None of us can see the whole at any time. We see some things, and infer that there is more that we cannot see. It is important to speak about one’s own vision. Listen to others’ visions. Form a writers group where you can read your own and listen to others’ work. Read other texts. I believe in the path of dialogue and in the beauty of an open mind. Don’t be afraid to change. Revision reflects a deepening understanding, more breadth, an acknowledgement that what we think of as truth is not fixed, but changing.

Thomas Moore, in the book Original Self, writes:

“The soul has its own set of rules, which are not the same as those
of life…the events of the soul are cyclic and repetitive. Familiar themes come round and round. The past is more important than the future. The
living and the dead have equal roles. Emotions and the sense of
meaning are paramount. Pleasures are deep, and pain can reach
the very foundations of our existence.”

To give an image to this idea, consider the lines from Ranier Maria Rilke:

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

Use writing practice to engage with your own life’s questions. Stephen Mitchell suggests improvising new versions of the prayers you spoke as a child. Spiritual practice calls us to the same deep listening to our experience and the world around us. I invite you to explore these in writing and to find the images that speak to you. Write about devotions or symbols that are meaningful. Consider the language of spirituality: transfiguration, crucifixion, miracles. Enter into these with your own images. The word artist has always been associated with freedom and unconventional thinking. So be an artist.

Writing discipline, like other disciplines, offers the opportunity for “absolute, unmixed attention” (called prayer), processes of creation (rituals) and connection with the self and the world (the work in progress).  The four spiritual dynamics, spirit/object, resistance/flow, ambiguity/certainty, and vision/revision,  can bring healing.  Using these dynamics with your material--that which is given to you--helps you engage in an interaction or exchange.   The last dynamic, vision / revision, provides an opportunity to reframe experience, to identify a cultural, historical and even mythic pattern.    In the Art of Possibility, Rosamunde and Benjamin Zander write: “Art, after all, is about rearranging us, creating surprising juxtapositions, emotional openings, startling presences, flight paths to the eternal.”


Allen, Pat B. Art Is a Spiritual Path. Shambala, Boston, MA, c2005.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”
c1936. Retrieved 04/07/2006. http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosphy/works/ge/benjamin.htm

Carson, Anne. Glass, Irony, and God. New Directions. New York. c1995.

Moore, Thomas. Original Self: Living with Paradox and Originality. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. c2000.

Mayes, Frances. The Discovery of Poetry: A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems, Harcourt Publishers, New York, c2001.

Mitchell, Stephen. The Enlightened Mind: An Anthology of Sacred Prose,
HarperCollins, New York, c1991.

Mueller, Lisel. The Need to Hold Still. Louisiana State University Press. c1980.

Oliver, Mary. The Poetry Handbook. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York. c

Rilke, Ranier Maria. The Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Robert Bly, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. c1981.

Taylor, Dennis. "The Need for a Religious Literary Criticism." Religion and The Arts Journal. Boston College. c2006. Retrieved April 5, 2006.

Valery, Paul. The Art of Poetry. Denise Folliot, translator. Vintage Books, Random House, New York, First Vintage Edition 1961, c1958 Bollingen Foundation.

Vendler, Helen. Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman and Ashberry. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. c2005.

Zander, Rosamund Stone and Benjamin Zander. The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life. Penguin Books, New York, c2000.

No comments:

Post a Comment