In the Review I found Nick Laird ((here) writing about poetry and religion.
I don't like faith, I read, but I'm fond of its trappings - the kitschy icons, the candles, the paintings, the architecture and, especially, the poetry. Both religion and poetry, he goes on to say, work at the borders of the sayable. After a fascinating discussion on the poetry of The Lord's Prayer, he goes on: But give me real poetry over religion. Poems have the mythological dimension of religion... through which the invisible world is symbolised - but lack the doctrine.
Theology tries to systematise the accumulated revelations of religion... Poetry admits everything is apocrypha, that all things are open to faith or nothing is. In systematising, he says, religion tries to pick and choose, to say we'll have this, but not that. (That becomes heresy - my insertion.) Poetry can hold oppositions in equilibrium, life tends to paradox and poetry can cope with that.
Finally, he quotes Les Murray's (A true poem is dreamed and danced as well as thought)poem Poetry and Religion in which he (Murray) argues that the two things are:
The same mirror:
mobile, glancing, we call it poetry,
fixed centrally, we call it a religion
and God is the poetry caught in any religion,
caught, not imprisoned. Caught as in a mirror,
that he attracted, being in the world as poetry
is in the poem, a law against its closure.
There'll always be religion around while there is poetry
or a lack of it. Both are given and intermittent,
as the action of those birds - crested pigeon, rosella parrot -
who fly with wings shut, then beating, and again shut.
So Nick Laird, having introduced poetry's most obvious connection with religion, then somewhat shies away from it - which is, I guess, not far from the position most would take these days. I shall do likewise (save for one exception, which I shall come to later), if only because the obvious connection - shall I call it the first connection? - of poetry with religion is important enough for a post or two all to itself. As with painting, so much poetry from the past was produced, either in the service of religion or by those whose lives were ruled and ordered by religion.
In Grey Gowrie's Third Day: New and Selected Poems, the poems of the selected were written back in the 60's. He seems not to have written thereafter - until a life-threatening illness resulting in a heart transplant in the 90's brought him back to poetry and resulted in a stupendously moving sequence called The Domino Hymn. He writes with verve and distinction on the areas in which poetry is most potent: life, art, love. music and death. These, of course, are the great themes of religion also. His thirty year absence from poetry and his sudden return in a moment of crisis have all the hallmarks of a person in extremity refinding his religion - and we should not overlook the hint or resurrection in that Third Day in Gowrie's title.
Perhaps it might be in order at this point to say a word or two about the one promised exception to my self-imposed ban on poetry produced specifically to serve a religious purpose. My exception is the poetry of the Bible. It is, I think, different from other such poetry because it underlies, not just Christianity, but our whole (Western) civilisation, including, of course, our literature, in a way that no other poetry does. I am not able to speak on the poetry of any of the other great religions and their societies, except to point out that the majority of the world's great epic traditions, unlike the Bible, are in verse form. The Bible's narratives are almost all in prose. In view of this, it is maybe even more surprising to discover that almost one third of the Old Testament is poetry. And a very terse and evocative form of poetry it is, too, mainly because it is in binary style, achieving its effect by the juxtapositioning of short lines connected by ambiguous conjunctions or by none. (The connecting word/letter waw can mean and, or, but etc.) Often therefore, the specific relationships between lines are not made plain. Furthermore, other items of syntax are often omitted. The individual poetic units (usually 2 or 3 lines) often seem to me to have something of the character of a haiku. This from the Book of Judges, for example (5:25):
Water he asked
Milk she gave:
In a lordly cup she offered cream.
Those of you familiar with the concept will have noticed that the above quote is also a good example of parallelism, as is much Old Testament poetry. Parallelism is the pairing off of lines or half lines by giving them the same linguistic or semantic character. So in the quote above Water he asked is grammatically equivalent to milk she gave. In the case of semantic parallelism the second line or half line might reflect the first by echoing its meaning, by reversing it, extending it or intensifying it.
Other characteristics of Biblical poetry include word repetition, word association, ellipsis, chiasm (an A-B-B-A pattern of words, grammatical structures or lines and imagery.
My short introduction to the Bible's poetry will, I hope, emphasise the importance, indeed, the closeness of poetry to religion, without putting off those who might already be familiar with the points or be indisposed to the whole subject of organised religion.
Such and, (I sincerely hope) most others may be more predisposed to the thoughts of Wallace Stevens in The Man with the Blue Guitar, his long hymn to the special relationships existing between poetry and the other arts and religion, which has it that:
Exceeding music must take the place
Of empty heaven and its hymns,
Ourselves in poetry must take their place
Even in the chattering of your guitar.
Empty, I think, not because Heaven now has nothing to offer, but because in the modern world it has no takers. The people have left themselves with only poetry to which they can turn.
Stevens was much burdened by the idea of the passing of the old truths and beliefs, and could see nothing with which to replace them but that offered by his notion of The Supreme Fiction, a fictive replacement for the idea of God. In his wonderfully satirical poem, A High-Toned Old Christian Woman," he offers the readily available notions of the modern world, but finds them less than satisfying to the human soul:
Poetry is the supreme Fiction, madame.
Take the moral law and make a nave of it
And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus,
The conscience is converted into palms
Like windy citherns, hankering for hymns.
We agree in principle. That’s clear. But take
The opposing law and make a peristyle,
And from the peristyle project a masque
Beyond the planets. Thus, our bawdiness,
Unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last,
Is equally converted into palms,
Squiggling like saxophones. And palm for palm,
Madame, we are where we began.
J. Hillis Miller says in his book, Poets of Reality, that Wallace's saxophones squiggle because the theme of universal fluctuation is a constant theme throughout Stevens poetry: A great many of Stevens’ poems show an object or group of objects in aimless oscillation or circling movement. In the end, all that remains is reality.
I thought I would let Nick Laird take it and finish it from this point, for he seems to me in so many ways to be the voice of one crying in today's wilderness with more than a little of today's zeitgeist:
I've spent a lot of late nights over the past year working on a long poem that I hoped would pull everything together, would unify all my little thoughts and theories. It was meant to be a hymn to the natural world, but also touch on neuroscience and evolution and quantum physics. It had sections set in the past in Northern Ireland, in the present across several continents, and a scene set in the future. One bit was split into three sections meant to represent the ego, id and superego. It contained riddles, a recurring alter ego, and two creation myths. It is - was - an unbelievable mess.
A good poem is a closed belief system, and I was trying to create, I think, a kind of religion to supplant the one I was raised with, and have now lost.