December 30, 2010

Ecstatic Poetry

What is ecstatic poetry?  For examples of ecstatic poetry, I can name names:  Rumi, Kabir, Coleridge, Emily Dickinson, Baudelaire, Rilke, Rimbaud, Ginsberg.  It is poetry that is visionary, reveals spiritual wisdom, crosses beyond ordinary boundaries.  The self dissolves.  The poem is a ladder that the reader climbs.  The poem is a lightning bolt.   

Rilke's poem, "Archaic Torso of Apollo," ( is an ekphrastic poem, a response to visual art.  The poem grasps not just the art but the god in a sudden flash of beauty.   I consider it an ecstatic poem; at the end, Rilke writes in the final line:  "You must change your life."

In a brilliant flash of light, ecstatic experience changes you.  This is often described as an awakening, like in this Rumi poem (translated by Coleman Barks)

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you
Don't go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.

Don't go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill

where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.

Don't go back to sleep.

An ecstatic poem, in my opinion, is an intersection with the divine.  Falling in love is ecstatic; one's vision expands. The poet Anne Carson has an interesting essay about women and ecstatic experience in her book, Decreation.  The essay can be found online at this web address:

This essay was pivotal for me while I was revising the ecstatic poems in Echo and Lightning.   In the poems of Sappho, and in the writings of a 13th century female mystic, and in the writing of Simone Weil, Carson examines the 'dissolving of the self.'    I believe it is the point of profound change for an individual, to leave oneself is to let go of the past, to let go of an investment in one's identity, to let go of attempts at control and enter the present moment.

The ecstatic is best expressed in poetry.  Poetry has its roots in religious ritual; poetry has the immediacy, metaphoric capacity, and compression that best creates the divine flash.

The poet Federico Garcia Lorca gave a lecture about the Duende, a dark spirit that he called before each poetry reading.  It was a spirit close to death and sexuality, he explained, that infused his work with power and beauty. Poetry that can evoke the power of the gods is ecstatic poetry.  To read his lecture, click on this link or paste it in your browser:

Other resources:
  • Women In Praise of the Sacred, edited by Jane Hirschfield (Harper Perennial)
  • Holy Fire - Nine Visionary Poets and the Quest for Enlightenment, edited by Daniel Halpern (Harper Perennial)
  • News of the Universe Poems of Twofold Consciousness, chosen and introduced by Robert Bly (Sierra Books)
  • How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, by Edward Hirsch, Harcourt Press

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed your post on ecstatic poetry and the poems you provided links too. Ecstatic poetry is so filled with devotion and light woven into the very fabric of the words themselves, that it can lift the reader into a beautiful love filled space that feels, strangely enough, like home.

    Please check out my poems and tell me what you think.