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Friday, 19 December 2008

On poetry and religion : After-thoughts

It has occurred to me sinc reading through the comments (including my own!) on my most recent post, Poetry and Empty Heaven, that the debate on what constitutes the finest religious poetry (and particularly Art Durkee's parallel approach to the numinous and his remarks about beliefs being internal to the poem), the aspect which I had set out primarily to discuss was not so much any of those, fascinating though I found them to be, as the reality or otherwise of (as Wallace Steven, for example, saw it) poetry taking the place of religion. This was the reason I decided that, with the exception of the poetry of The Bible, I would not discuss religious poetry per se. I made mention of Nick Laird's quasi-religious return to poetry in a time of extremity, and of the fact that to a degree poetry has supplanted religion in my own experience. Poetry and religion do seem to me to be parallel in many respects, and at times to stand-in for each other. One interesting question that I did not raise might be that of whether poetry replacing religion must of necessity be religious in some generally accepted meaning of the term.

I was fascinated, then (by the continuing synchronicity as much as anything else), having posted that, to read (in the T.L.S.) in a review of the recently published interviews with Seamus Heaney, Stepping Stones, the following:

A Catholicism of the imagination is voiced in the book, in contrast with his position in the 1960's, when he would have been "diffident" in answering questions about the teachings and ceremonies associated with the "first visionary world" of acradle Catholic. So his fresh starts have included reversions, and the book is particularly interesting in its discussion of the scope of his born-again imaginative Christianity - if that is not to overstate, for there was never an outright abeyance or denial.

God is no longer dead, at all events, as Heaney may have been moved, with his generation, to wonder in the 1960s. The poet sees ghosts, and his poetry, when it began in him,was experienced as a "redemptive grace". There is, if not an after-life, an "after-image of life". This does not make him a theocratic defender of Ireland's Catholic Church, but it may be that he has followed a different course from those of its flocks who are now less faithful than they were once.

My thanks to all those who took part in the earlier debate, and particularly to Art Durkee and Sorlil for their contributions.


acornmoon said...

I just called by to wish you "Happy Christmas". I have read your last two posts and tried to think of something intelligent, witty and articulate to say but I'm afraid it's all too clever for my befuddled brain!

walk2write said...

I've always considered poetry to be an expression of the soul, and the acknowledgment of a soul presupposes the existence of an afterlife, so it should be no surprise that Heaney or any other poet finds faith and communion in the word.

Dave King said...

Nice of you to say so, but no one who has seen your blog is going to believe the fuddled brain bit! A really happy Christmas to you and yours!

I am not sure about your assumption, but there is certainly a strong correspondence between faith and poetry. The issue, I suppose, is the nature of that correspondence.

Sarah Laurence said...

What a thoughtful discussion below. I see symbolism and spirituality in both poetry and religious texts. The poetry that moves me the most is connected to nature.

Art Durkee said...

When I was young and learning to think for myself, I assembled for myself a list of books that make up my own personal Bible—since a bible, is after all, literarily as well as religiously a collection of books. I have often found what we could call "the religious impulse,' which I have used other language for here, in poetry and fiction, and also in some naturalist essay-writing. (One thinks of Loren Eiseley's "The Star Thrower, and his poetry.) I am very aware that the Bible IS a collection, that its various books were written over a long space of time, and that it was only compiled into its present form in the 4th century CE. It had a whole series of writers, and truly is a compilation—which of course accounts for its many contradictions and discrepancies. (Even if one believes it was nonetheless divinely-inspired writing, one must still accept that the writing came through many hands at many times.)

What I have found in the "alternative" collection of books that I still take to be a core of my own spiritual reading, which I do every day, is a group of things that are similar rather than diverse. Perhaps this is what the book of Heaney is saying: many roads, one goal.

I prefer to leave that goal Unnamed. Or perhaps, multi-named; I do use many different names at different times. Meister Eckhart called it the Godhead: that for which even God is merely a mask. The Sufis and the Hindus all have many other names, some of them very beautiful; as do some Native American groups. It is a very human need to name what is a human birthright. (The difficulty comes in when one person says their name is more true than another's.)

I think, if poetry is to "replace" religion—I rather think, though, that poetry and religion arise out of the same origins—then one must make a distinction between "religion" and "spirituality." Rightly or wrongly, "religion" carries the connotation of organization, or doctrinal formulation and dogma, of conformity, of institutional control. Whereas "spirituality" connotes the personal revelation, the experience of awe, of the sublime, which may or may not be framed within an established religion's context. People have always had visions and revelation of the Divine; this has happened in every land, in every era. How people frame it, the way they talk about it, and the stories they build up around the revelation: these are what to lead to the religion, when people get around to organizing their disparate personal experiences of revelation into a codified unitary whole. This is historically how religions develop; the first 300 years of Christianity exemplify how orthodoxy and heresy get sorted out from one another via codification. (It does amaze one sometimes the resistance that so many have believers to learning about the history of their own faith(s); as if their faith was so weak that it could be shaken to its foundations by being revealed as historical rather than ahistorical and timeless.)

I think there are many ways to practice the Way. Poetry is one of those ways. Matsuo Basho explicitly declared that Poetry is a Way; some of the Taoists have chosen to use poetic expression as more nearly approximating their experience than ever can prose or ordinary speech. Perhaps the poetic impulse itself is tied up with the attempt to express the impulse which leads to religion. Make no mistake: religion, in its organized institutional forms, is what happens AFTER revelation, not before. Poetry is often used to express revelation: Rumi; Basho; Rilke; every other visionary poet we could list, including those of our own century.

I think at times that Heaney yearns for this, and tries to approach it; I'm not sure how often he's succeeded. I do feel that he tries so hard at times that he doesn't let go enough to really be able to attain what he wants. Other poets who are more able to let go of their need to control everything they write seem to approach revelation a bit more readily.

For myself, I definitely feel that poetry is a Way. It's not the only Way I practice, nor do I practice it very religiously (as it were). I think once again of Frederick Franck, whose art-making and writing and teaching were all a Way. He even wrote a book called "Art As A Way," which is directly relevant to this topic.

mand said...

Just popped across from Jim Murdoch's blog, and i'm doing what we all deplore, scan-reading - and 'The poet sees ghosts' leaped out as a wonderful, meaningful, accurate phrase. Sometimes reading out of the corner of my eye works better. Though not when i need to get the full and/or prosaic meaning! Hm...

I'm not saying anything about religion in any context, cos i'm a wimp.

Dave King said...

I think one of the confusions that have arisen concerns the word religion in that we are using it sometimes in the sense of organised religion, and sometimes in the sense of a spiritual impulse. I take the notion of poetry replacing religion to refer to religion in the latter sense.

It is interesting that you refer to poetry as a way, given that Christ also referred to Himself as The Way. Indeed, I rather think that most of the geat religions speak of themselves as being a way.

Thanks again for some absorbing comments

Welcome, and thanks for taking the time and trouble to comment. I guess we all scan read at times - and I can accept that sometimes that works just fine.
Hope to see you again before long.

mansuetude said...

I love this post. The ghosts are seen, felt, tasted... and some of them are asking us to move deeper within; to taste the realization told or pointed at or hinted at in the texts like Tao Te Ching; also Rilke and his angels, terrifying... I agree that poetry can be a practice, personal... and try to, try to, express an inner light or knowing which will never ever be told...

or knowing
or understanding
have fine levels of understandings woven in each of us.


I think what little I know of Heaney's work, he approaches the world as a witness...

Dave King said...

Welcome and many thanks for your comments. I think we are basically on the same wavelength, particularly when it comes to Heaney.

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