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Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Poetry and Empty Heaven

And synchronicity goes marching on... Art Durkee first mentioned it in his comment to my Schweitzer (Part 1) post. I then picked up the thought in Schweitzer Part 2, intending to run with it not very far, but it out-paced me. In that post I also referred in passing to the way in which my bookshelves, which had once been crammed with tomes on theology, became gradually divested of those and restocked with books of poetry. I posted it on Sunday morning. In the afternoon I sat down, as is my wont, to read the Review section of the Guardian from the day before - I have given up on the Sunday papers, finding enough in Saturday's Guardian (usually) to last me through the weekend.
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.


yoon see said...

Thanks for visiting my blog!
Love your creativeness in writing.
Keep it up!

Alexandra said...

A wonderfull blog, thanks for visiting mine! Hope you are having a great day.

Art Durkee said...

Grand Theories of Everything are as tempting to poets as to physicists. It's an apparently universal human desire to explain WHY in the face of Mystery. But it's the "black swan" principle in action: there are always things we don't know that we don't know. Trying to assemble a Grand Unified Theory is always going to be a mess, as Laird put it, because the effort is always coming from the intellect trying to explain, trying to detail. In my opinion, grand unified theory poetry suffers for the same reason most political poetry suffers, as poetry: too much thinking, not enough observation or inspiration.

Robinson Jeffers came pretty close to a grand unified theory in poetry, to the inclusiveness that Laird attempts. But even he left a few poems around the edges that are lectures rather than evocations. Still, taken as a whole, his body of poems approaches a unified field.

I'm not sold on Wallace Stevens' viewpoint. I think it's only poets who claim poetry to be the highest artform, "exceeding music." Just as dancers make the same claim for dance; and so forth. Stevens did have an impulse towards Grand Unified Theory in his poetry; sometimes he gets at something good, but a lot of the time, he just gives us words on the page, not embodied experiences that tingle down the spine with awe.

I would rephrase some of the thoughts about religion and poetry as: they are parallel approaches to the numinous, the liminal, the transcendent, that which creates in us an experience of awe. I feel awe whenever I'm in the high mountains. (Maybe it's just the thin air, but I don't think so.) I feel awe many other places. But I don't put my experiences of awe into a traditional container approved and encapsulated by any organized institutional religion.

Neither did Goethe. And that's why his poetry of awe is profoundly connective without being remotely owned by institutional religion. (It is the organization and institutionalization of the experience of awe that leads to religious oppression and fundamentalism. Leaving the Mystery intact, as Goethe often did, helps prevent that autocratic impulse.)

In another synchronicity, going through the books I inherited from my father last week, as I continue to sort through stuff in the basement, I found Dad's copy from 1948 of Albert Schweitzer's "Goethe: Four Studies." I've been reading it, and thinking of you. In one of the studies, my Dad made some marginal notes, which also tie into all this. I'll get around to posting about that in the near future, I hope.

christopher said...

Dave, at the end of your piece is the observation which precisely limits me to short poems. I have found a voice that is true as long as I avoid trying to solve everything. Oh yes, I have tried. What ponderous pathetic crap.

I believe now that my limit is ultimately built in to the human conditions of my life. That is a personal adjustment rather than necessarily a universal truth.

There is a twofold issue always - I (you, we) have to be able to say/write it with clarity - and the world has to be able and willing to understand what has been said/written. A shortcoming on either part causes failure.

Speaking of religion, from that kind of direction (the spiritual dialogue of man and something alive, coherent, higher) seems to come the needed power that lifts the words into truths in works of whatever length. Without this participation of self and beyond self, there is not much depth and weight.

In my experience only this gives me any hope of real if modest success.

Thank you for visiting my blog.

Lucy said...

'at the borders of the sayable', that and much here, articulates so much that I feel but generally can't articulate.

It's as though the impulse behind religion always escapes and overflows the traditional container - I like that image too from Art -and finds its way through poetry, and other art too. Or perhaps that's where it was in the first place, and religion simply appropriates it falsely...

Thanks for this, there were so many 'Yes!' moments.

I'm glad you and Christopher have met.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Dave - as I was reading your piece my mind kept interrupting itself to say - why isn't he mentioning the poetry of the Bible and then, lo and behold, you mention it. I am not in any sense religious but I think the poetry of some parts of the Bible (Ecclesiastes springs to mind) is exquisite and not to be bettered.
Regarding hymns - do you ever read Ronald Blythe (Word from Wormingford etc)? He has a marvellous way of tying up poetry, nature and religion.

Dave King said...

Yoon See
Thanks for the comment.

Alex Mason
Enjoyed my visit. Thanks for yours.

Your thoughts on the parallel approaches of poetry and religion are getting very close to Laird's position, I think, especially where you speak of not putting your experiences into traditional containers - which he says religion does.Stevens, I agree, is often guilty of special pleading, but then so are we all at times.

I shall look forward with great interest to the post on Goethe and Schweitzer. It's time I learnt more about the former.

The spiritual dialogue of man and something alive, coherent, higher.. I can take a lot from that phrase, as from the idea of the dialogue between self and the beyond self. Thanks for the visit and the comments.

Thanks for that. Nothing there I disagree with or think I need to add to. Very helpful.

Weaver of Grass

I don't know Word from Wormingford, I regret to say. Will try to put that right before too long. Thanks for the comments.

Shadow said...

VERY interesting, thank you! i like the part of poetry being dreams, dance and thought. makes perfect sense to me!

Marion McCready said...

Interesting post, thanks for that, Dave. I think it's enormously difficult to write about the metaphysical in poetry and make it good poetry. I almost never write about my Christian faith in my poems and yet I would like to, but in a way that isn't foreign to the way I write or come across as preachy. I just haven't worked out how to do that yet.

Dave King said...

Absolutely agree.

I do know what you mean. I find it very much like writing love poetry, one of the most difficult themes to take on, yet responsible for some of the best works. (Charles Wesley, of course, took some of his love poems and turned them into hymns - and vice versa, I believe. An enormous subject, though - which is one reason I tried not to stray into it.)

Unknown said...

I hesitate to add anything too simple to this discussion, which is as thought provoking as it full of serious thought. Speaking for myself I find it hard to escape from - I think it was Emily Dickinson who defined it thus - the definition of poetry as what makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Some religious poetry does this, as does some of the Bible, whether or not it is supposed to be prose.

I don't see the point in making distinctions about form.

For me the Authorised Version contains a lot more "poetry" than other translations. Witness Judges 5. 25.

"He asked water and she gave gave him milk; she brought forth butter in a lordly dish." That's poetry.

"In a lordly cup she offered cream" does nothing to the hairs on the back of my neck. While "She brought forth butter in a lordly dish" makes them stand up.

swiss said...

unrelated but...

dave, that link on rachel's blog re bishop and lowell. like an early christmas present! and i doubt i'll get a better one!

Sepiru Chris said...

Thank you for a great article. I greatly enjoy reading your postings.

Art Durkee said...

It occurs to me, reading through the comments here again, that it might be important to clarify one further point. (Thanks to Sorill for sparking these thoughts.)

I think often that the best poetry contains the (parallel to religious) encounter with awe, the numinous, as I said before. To add to that, I think that the viewpoint is implicit. The poet's beliefs and experiences are internal to the poem, and don't need to be explicitly, didactically stated. I don't need or want to know what the poet's brand of institutional faith is, if any. It's not relevant to the poem. A lot of "religious poets" make the mistake of turning their poems into sermons, by turning away from the visionary voice towards the lecturing voice. The point here is that, if the poet's faith is internal and integral to the poem, for the sake of the poem's own best voice, it doesn't need to be stated. Let it remain implicit, so that the poem remains a poem, and doesn't become a sermon.

For example, I think often "religious poetry," when the religious viewpoint becomes explicitly stated in the poem, tends to become a Credo, a statement of dogmatic faith, a repetition of received wisdom, rather than something rising innately from the poet, in the poet's own viewpoint and the poet's own language. (Sorill, it strikes me that your approach, as you describe it here, is a very good way to avoid the preachy kind of Credo poem.)

I think of Rilke and of jeffers again in this context, because both of those avoided poets merely recasting dogma or doctrine while at the same time making brilliant poems that are full of the experience of awe and wonder. Rilke's angels and Jeffers' hawks are sublime and evocative. Their poems evoke a parallel feeling of awe without needing to don the vestments of formalized faith.

I don't want to tell people not to write Credo poems. I do however suggest that poetry, as poetry, is better when the awe is implicit and integral—internalized, even—rather than stated overtly and explicitly in a doctrinaire manner. Few things kill an otherwise good poem faster than openly-stated political or religious dogma. The point here is not about the subject of the poem per se, but how to make the poem a good poem AS a poem. Explicit dogmatic statements in a poem tend to limit the poem's scope rather than expand it; just as most political (protest) poetry becomes topical but not enduring, much "religious poetry" (as opposed to poetry that follows that experience parallel to the religious impulse) ends up being one personal statement of faith among too many others.

So, implicit and internalized and integral. The temptation as poets to avoid is overt "witnessing" and explicit preachiness. Again, this is about making a good poem.

The truth is, the approach to the experience of awe is so hard to put into language of any kind, period. This is the point at which words often fail even the greatest of bards. This is the point where it's tempting to fall back on cliché because we struggle so hard to speak in our own voices at this threshold of revelation; but this is exactly the place poets MUST avoid cliché, here more than almost anywhere else. In some ways it's as if each poet, when speaking from their own experiences of awe, invents their own personal religion, or version, or way of expressing their spiritual feelings. I think this makes for much better poetry than any poetic repetition of established creeds.

This is also the point at which one could do worse than study Rilke and Jeffers, and Rumi, and others, for their examples of how to speak even when awed and overwhelmed by the experience. Study and learn from, if not imitate.

Anonymous said...

I made a comment earlier and lost it so this will be, of necessity, shorter.

A good poem, like a good novel, creates its own world. I'm not sure what you mean by a closed belief system, but depending on the depth, seriousness and length of the poem, a belief system may be implicit within that world. Do you mean 'closed' in an Enlightenment sense of there being a mechanistic universe, in which there is no place for God. Like Christopher, I tend to restrict myself to short poems which may be either be transformations of personal experience or purely fanciful.

I used to hanker after Plato's ideal forms and something beyond existence. The poetry of Wallace Stevens, Rilke and in T s Eliot's 'Four Quartets' seemed to provide this. I'm now more inclined to think this is illusory. Eliot's 'objective correlatives' are concrete images that provoke strong associations and resonances.

This doesn't mea, however, that I'm ready to throw out God and heaven. My current thinking is Aristotelian and strongly influenced by a book called Faith Within Reason by Norman McCabe. Despite the author being a Roman catholic priest, the book is remarkably free of dogma. McCabe's belief system is able to incorporate evolutionary science, Freud and even Marxist ideas. I believe in something called 'God' because there is something rather than nothing.

Maybe Nick Laird's attempts to pull everything together within a poem are symptomatic, as you say, of the current zeitgeist and a return to the search for universals. I for one have had enough of post-modern fragmentation. However, as a Christian agnostic ( best label i can manage) I believe that much that cannot be known within our closed material world (1Cor13:12).

Poems that set out to propagate a religious or a political message usually end up being propaganda. The writer's religious or political beliefs may emerge within the world of the poem

Ah well, I've ended up saying even more than last time! A good post, Dave.

Anonymous said...

I'm just splashing around here, newest blogger on the planet, and here you are with ten bushels of poetry. Mind if I taste some?
In your self portrait, Billy Elliot! Why do I love Billy Elliot so much? Dancing is so irrational, a hot coal. Poetry is cold water, looking for a container. I am in possession of an urn.
The show,(Billy) now here in NYC, not affordable, my billions dwindled. Guess I'll just watch the film again.

Dave King said...

Welcome and many thanks for your contribution. Simple's often best, I find.

I hadn't intended to make distinctions about form, except to point out that there is a preponderance of binary poetry in the Old Testament, though I did not mean to imply that prose cannot also be poetry. Indeed it can, and in the Bible often is - especially in the Authorised translation. Here, too, I agree with your comment about translations, though that takes us into a wholly different - and rather fraught - area.

Glad it was of use.

Sepiru Chris
Very grateful for the feedback.

Art Durkee
Art, there is absolutely nothing in this comment with which I can disagree. Nothing, even, that I would want to qualify. It is a fine exposition of my own views (I could wish I had written it!) and would have made an excellent post in its own right. My thanks to you for the trouble you have taken and to Sorlil for her part in debate.

I think closed belief system could perhaps be described as a cross between your remark that the poem creates its own world and Art Durkee's excellent exposition of the poet's faith not being explicitly stated, but being internal and integral to the poem.

As I stated, I don't take Stevens to mean that Heaven has passed it's use-by date, merely Merely?> that it is no longer the chosen vehicle for most people.

I agree with you about poems that set out to propogate a message. The better ones are those that set out to explore a position, I find -whether it is the poet's preferred position or not.
At least, I hope that is the better starting position, as it is usually my own! (Like you - I am an ex Methodist lay preacher - I would classify myself as Christian-agnostic - but with a good deal of humanism stirred in.) Many thanks for another great comment.

Welcome aboard - but are you confusing me with someone else? Taste away!

Marion McCready said...

Thanks for that Art, you've given me some things to think about. And, for the record, I'm an ex-christian marxist, ex-christian humanist and now I'm just a plain old doubting christian taking a daily Kierkegaardian leap of faith, lol! It's not easy being a christian is it?!

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