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

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