January 29, 2014

Forms of Grief

Since Biblical lamentations, and even before, writers have poured their grief into writing.  The poems of grief seem to bring together the personal, cultural, political story together into a "social" form, meaning one designed for a wider audience. The poems of grief might fit into public discourse, but often the individual poem presents just one voice in one particular situation in one staggering loss.

The epitaph was chiseled onto headstones. The ode began as a heroic, ceremonial form and now, in current practice, exalts or celebrates a person or object. It does not have a particular form, but some poets have used meter and verse, sometimes sonnets.  The elegy, requiem, and kaddish forms offer their structures to poets.

In The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, the editors Eavan Boland and Mark Strand write:
In the traditional elegy, the grief the poet expresses is rarely a private one....In all societies death constitutes a cultural event--as well as an individual loss. That the elegy speaks to this: that it locates the cultural customs of death in whichever society it occurs, adds greatly to its power. The best elegies will always be sites of struggle between custom and decorum on one hand, and private feeling on the other.  
Many poems have honored the life and death of other poets.  W.H. Auden, in his poem "In Memory of W.B. Yeats:"
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives
A way of happening, a mouth.  
According to the American Academy of Poets, the elegy once was written in formal verse and reflected three stages of grief: grief and sorrow of the speaker, praise of the idealized dead, and consolation and solace. The regular rhythm and meter of this poem evokes the skilled language of Yeats and also provides some comment about the role of poetry itself and the moneyed culture that increasingly isolates and alienates its individuals.

Requiem is a musical composition adopted by poets.

January 26, 2014

Spirit of the Depth: Carl Jung and Poetry

As a poet, I've sometimes felt a sense of being joined in my work by a spirit or a muse. Of course, flow experience--the intense, creative focus when one is not conscious of time or events outside the door--feels spiritual.  At times, it's been a terrific struggle.  In its pursuit, I've gone through seismic changes.  In retrospect, it's been soul-making. Occasionally, I've had work that felt inspired, meaning in spiritus. So I ask what is the connection between spirituality and making art?

The poet Federico Garcia Lorca named and invoked the Duende, and the Duende created an almost atmospheric change. Neither muse nor angel, it was not a spirit (according to Lorca) as much as a struggle. The Duende did not bring gifts or even a livelihood.  It lent brilliance at the same time that it caused anguish.  He said it was "communication with God through the five senses." Lorca also explained:
...the duende wounds, and in trying to heal that wound that never heals, lies the strangeness, the inventiveness of a man’s work....
Seeking the duende, there is neither map nor discipline. We only know it burns the blood like powdered glass, that it exhausts, rejects all the sweet geometry we understand, that it shatters styles and makes Goya, master of the greys, silvers and pinks of the finest English art, paint with his knees and fists in terrible bitumen blacks....
Edward Hirsch has written much about Lorca's concept of the Duende, and he offered the example of the singer Billie Holiday. The spirit seemed to rise from under the feet, in darkness, and quickens in proximity to death. It turned out that Carl Jung had his own spirit that he called the "Spirit of the Depth." Jung's spirit also represented an extreme psychic struggle.

According to Gerhard Hauptmann, "Poetry evokes out of words the resonance of the primordial word." This quote appears in Carl Jung's essay about psychoanalysis and poetry.  Carl Jung has indelibly marked the understanding of the human psyche and art with his concepts of dream work, the collective unconscious, and archetypes, and he was heavily influenced by Gnosticism.

In an introduction to Gnosticism, Stephan Hoeller explains: "[it] is the teaching based on Gnosis, the knowledge of transcendence arrived at by way of interior, intuitive means." Gnosticism, instead of blaming man, attributes suffering of people in the world to a flawed design.

January 22, 2014

Dharma and Poetry

Walt Whitman 1854

A Dialogue of Spirit

This is a dialogue I've created between the Bhagavad Gita and Walt Whitman.  To begin, the speakers must introduce themselves. The poet wrote these words in Leaves of Grass:  
I am the poet of the Body, and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue. 
Whitman's voice is unmistakable.  He employs anaphoric lines, parallel structures, and expands himself across all borders of body and soul.  He does, as he says, graft and increase the pleasures, and the pains he does translate into a new tongue. He is without complaint and without woe. He embraces multitudes. Krishna says: One who knows Me as birth less, beginningless, and the supreme controller of all the worlds….

We hear Whitman's music as his voice rolls like thunder over the populated cities and over the prairies and mountains, from ocean to ocean. He addresses the multitudes, all people and presidents and God.  He also says much about methods and materials.
I will make the poems of materials, for I think they are
to be the most spiritual poems,
And I will make the poems of my body and of mortality,
For I think I shall then supply myself with the poems
of my soul and of immortality.

January 15, 2014

Poetry: The Language of Mystics

The language of mystics and the language of poets bear similarities. Paradox, metaphor, accumulating parallel syntax, negations, and silence are techniques used for the ineffable, for saying what cannot be said. In The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance, Dorothee Soelle describes the obstacle of language itself when it comes to describing a mystical experience. Ecstasy comes from the Greek word, ek-stasis, meaning to stand alongside or step outside. In the multiplicity of experience, among a commotion of things, the mystic experiences unity and peace. This experience has been named in different ways: wonder, joy, awe, amazement. Soelle says, “language is incapable of communicating the experience of oneness.” As Teresa of Avila says in her prayer: “Lord, give me other words.” These other words that mystics and poets use are so moving:
Written by a fourteenth century anonymous monk to instruct others in contemplation, The Cloud of Unknowing, seems to be based on the premise that it is impossible to know God, that the experience is best described as the Cloud of Unknowing.:  
When I say ‘darkness,’ I mean a privation of knowing…which is between you and your God….If ever you come to this cloud, and live and work in it, as I bid you, just as this cloud of unknowing is above you, between you and your God, in the same way you must put beneath you a cloud of forgetting, between you all the creatures that have ever been made.

January 8, 2014

Considering Emily: Poetry and the Spirit

Poetry has the ability to evoke and invoke the spirit.  Emily Dickinson said to her friend Higginson:  "If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it."  A poem becomes vivid and strong when it is grounded in the body:

Wild Nights! Wild Nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile the winds
To a heart in port, --
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart!

Rowing in Eden!
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor
To-night in Thee!

An ambiguity exists in this poem that allows it to cast more than one shadow. Mary Oliver has identified the ability to cast more than one shadow, to make multiple meanings, a characteristic of good poetry. The one to whom the poem is addressed is obscure, it could be a mortal or it could be an immortal.  In this ambiguity, the subject which could have very straightforward becomes figurative, becomes a metaphor.  The poet gains additional meanings.  Besides this, Emily Dickinson makes very effective use of repetition, rhyme, consonance and assonance (consonant and vowel sounds). Paul Valery says the difference between poetry and prose is physiological. The poem attends to meter, measure, and breath. "Wild Nights" has a definite, compact form. It's based on the liturgy, or the hymn stanza.  Emily Dickinson's work is distinctive and entirely her own--it reflects her individuality.

In addition, a good poem uses the visible image to give a glimpse of the invisible. She invokes.  In another poem, Emily Dickinson has made this quite clear and indisputable:

January 1, 2014

Poetry and the Spirit

To begin again with a new year, and to ask again what is this urge?  I write and write.  It's a habit, a discipline, a practice.

According to P. Yogananda, "Should you not find the pearl after one or two divings, do not blame the ocean! Blame your diving. You are not going deep enough."  In the morning, my walk takes me up the hill where I can see Lake Superior, blue as an opal, white with ice. I'm glad to see freighters anchored near the harbor or hear their horns as they signal to the lift bridge and the bridge signals back, but at this time of year, the ship traffic diminishes. The last ocean going vessel departed a few weeks ago.  The shoreline, with its hillocks of ice and wind off the lake, does not invite. Even in summer, to enter the water is to receive a shock of cold.  One steps on an unstable bottom, always different, a shifting pattern of sand and stones and driftwood. If I were to go deeper, the water would press against my chest and shoulders with its weight. I haven't dived in Lake Superior, but I do dive into writing. Sometimes I don't know what I am looking for. The surfaces of things distract, deflect, and distort. But Yogananda knows what it is: a pearl.  It's true. I seek a pearl that will become a poem or story.

My urge is twined, twinned with writing. The urge toward the spiritual is an urge to approach and search I-don't know-what.  It does not come easy.  First there is nothing, nothingness.  If it is not nothing, then it's impenetrable.  Writing may be a metaphor.  Initially, writing is difficult.  At some point, even within a flow of writing, a block occurs. One wants to do anything but write: laundry, email correspondence, chores.  It also occurs to me that the initial encounter with the spiritual can be an encounter with nothingness.  It is the "mystery" that which is impenetrable.

In my search today for poems to bring to the Poetry and the Spirit workshop, I discovered this one:


Go inside a stone.
That would be my way.
Let somebody else become a dove
Or gnash with a tiger's tooth.
I am happy to be a stone.

From the outside the stone is a riddle:
No one knows how to answer it.
Yet within, it must be cool and quiet
Even though a cow steps on it full weight,
Even though a child throws it in a river;
The stone sinks, slow, unperturbed
To the river bottom
Where the fishes come to knock on it
And listen.

I have seen sparks fly out
When two stones are rubbed,
So perhaps it is not dark inside after all;
Perhaps there is a moon shining
From somewhere, as though behind a hill --
Just enough light to make out
The strange writings, the star-charts
On the inner walls.

-- Charles Simic
from News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness
chosen and introduced by Robert Bly

Good poetry has so much beauty: clear image and metaphor, a pleasing pattern, and multiple meanings. Simic enters the figurative in the first sentence.  "Go inside a stone./ That would be my way."  The first line is imperative, but the second line makes it something else, suddenly the imperative turns into a reflection about always having to do things that are hard. It becomes an acceptance, an embracing of the difficult.  In the lines, "From the outside the stone is a riddle:/ No one knows how to answer it," Simic approaches, as if he were beholding the impossible task, and then he enters in with a modal verb, "must," meaning an obligation or necessity.  This choice is in line with the first imperative verb, "Go."   It allows him to be outside and inside the stone simultaneously. In language, we have so much freedom. It allows us to penetrate the impenetrable.

So on this first day of the new year, I shall attempt to go inside the nothing, enter the impenetrable with language.  How does one begin, and how does one carry an image or metaphor throughout a poem? Writers say, "stay focused."  We try to achieve unity within the work.  We recognize this quality when we see it done well, but it does take practice. In the poem "Stone," Simic demonstrates unity. Does the spiritual also require this skill?  Are there rules?  Like in writing, I suspect one finds the rules as one goes. One finds a pattern. Some things work better than others.

As a writer, I know each piece of writing creates its own world with its own laws.  What works for one poem will not work for another.  What works for one writer won't work for another. What works for a poem may not work for an essay or fiction.  Each time the writer begins anew and must discover the rules of the new creative project as it unfolds.  Each new writing project requires a new strategy. This is why one must, at any stage, "give oneself permission to be a beginner."

I am prepared then to apply this same concept to the investigation of the spiritual.  So often the spiritual is described as a journey or path.  Is it?   In the poem,"There Is No Road," Machado says:

Traveler, your footprints
are the only road, nothing else.
Traveler, there is no road;
you make your own path as you walk.
As you walk, you make your own road,
and when you look back
you see the path
you will never travel again.
Traveler, there is no road;
only a ship's wake in the sea.

--Antonio Machado

In her essay "Spiritual Poetry," Jane Hirshfield writes: "Spiritual poems emerge in response to the central questions of human life--mortality and transience, isolation and alienation, the question of suffering in all its dimensions."  Of course, this is true for much writing. Art-making allows for an emotional investigation of a topic.

A British literary journal Magma posted an excellent article:  13 Ways of Making Poetry a Spiritual Practice. According to the author, Maitreyabandu, spiritual life is about developing empathy and insight and it demands that a person "engage with primary experience" and imagination.  Both needs a certain level of ascetism and "effort, application, and concentration."

In poetry, in the spiritual, I will be a traveler. If I follow a well established road, a road used by many, it will not be true to me. Formulas exist, and formulas sometimes work, but often fall short.  Each situation will present that which can not be solved by an existing formula, and so writers experiment, persist and take risks.  Everyday, the path I follow is new.  This must be the way.

To be continued....

P.S. If you live in the Duluth area, I invite you to come to Poetry and the Spirit group that I'll be facilitating with Rev. Bruce Johnson at UUCD.  Email me for details:  sheila@sheilapacka.com


Bly, Robert. News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness.  Sierra Club Books. 1995.

Hirshfield, Jane. "Spiritual Poetry."  Poetry Foundation.  June 28, 2006.  Retrieved 1 Jan 2014.  Web.

Machado, Antonio.  "There Is No Road."  Copyright 2013. White Pine Press. Buffalo, NY. Web. Retrieved 1 Jan 2014. http://www.whitepine.org/noroad.pdf

Maitreyabandu.  "Thirteen Ways of Making Poetry a Spiritual Practice." Magma Journal.  c2013.  England.  http://magmapoetry.com/archive/magma-51/articles/13-ways-of-making-poetry-a-spiritual-practice/

Yogananda, P.  Prayer Demands.  n.d. Web. Retrieved 1 Jan 2014. http://paramhansa-yogananda.npage.eu/whispers-from-eternity/prayer-demands-5.html