The Poetry Foundation website has posted a substantial excerpt from a forthcoming essay collection from Tupelo Press, A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith. This volume, edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler, gathers reflections from 19 accomplished poets about spirituality and the craft of writing. Here are a few choice passages to encourage you to read further. The book can be pre-ordered now and will be released in March.
“Hope is the opposite of desperation—it’s not as comfortable as certainty, and it’s much more certain than longing. It is always accompanied by the imagination, the will to see what our physical environment seems to deem impossible. Only the creative mind can make use of hope. Only a creative people can wield it.
“Today I believe that anything one visualizes consistently becomes reality. Isn’t that what prayer is? Maybe that means my beliefs have not changed at all: lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring. I am a believer. True believers see their way as the way. That doesn’t mean I can’t stand someone else’s way. It means that I am capable of joyfully getting lost in my own. Spirituality is important to me because I think there is something among us greater than the physical, something we know exists and can address directly. I love God. I love liberty. I shame one if I lose the other. I think of God now as way more patient than I could ever be. I have to believe that God is better than I am, and better than all of us. That’s the only thing that could make God God.”
“Prayer is speaking to someone you know is not going to be able to speak back, so you’re allowed to be the most honest that you can be. In prayer you’re allowed to be as purely selfish as you like. You can ask for something completely irrational. I have written that prayer is a form of panic, because in prayer you don’t really think you’re going to be answered. You’ll either get what you want or you won’t. It feels to me like that, a situation where you’re under the most duress. Often people who are not religious at all, when suddenly something terrible happens, they know they have to pray. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. We all engage with the spiritual at different points. Prayer is not a refuge or shelter so much as it is an opening of arms, an acceptance of whatever storms exist in the world. You don’t really pray for your situation to change, you pray to be able to handle your situation. It’s not the world you want to change; it’s you that you want to change.”
“Most Americans, I think, compartmentalize, because it is convenient: we find our modern lives intolerable otherwise. Now I am a teacher. No, now I am a consumer. No, now I am a parent, a man of faith, a poet, an investor in off-shore oil drilling, etc. It tears the soul. Even a serious faith commitment can become simply one more compartment.
“The Anabaptist conception of faith, on the other hand, is encompassing. Whatever one is doing, one should be doing it with a spiritual aim and value, hopefully in some connection with the life of the body, which is the church. It may seem inconvenient, but our lives are united and made complete in Christ, and in the community and fellowship of fellow Christians. Of course I know (non-Christian) poets who feel the same way about their art, about the community of work and feeling that poetry convokes. When I am someplace like the artists’ colonies of Yaddo or MacDowell, I tend to hear quite a bit about this. But for me, poetry inheres within the whole defined by Christ, His Word, and the church.
“Prayer is that which conveys a message to God, who is either known or knowing, more or less by definition. Poetry is that which conveys a message to a stranger.”
“Incantation and chant call something into being. They make a ceremonial field of meaning. Much of world poetry is incantation and chant. The poem that first made me truly want to become a poet was sung and performed by a healer in Southeast Asia. As he sang and performed the poem he became what he was singing/speaking, and even as he sang and spoke, his words healed his client. When I saw that in the early seventies on a television program, the idea of what it meant to be a poet shifted utterly for me.”
“I have faith that when the emotional, imaginative, and spiritual life is activated inside a person, when one becomes fully human, feeling and caring deeply, this represents a resurrection of some kind. This happens for me often when I read poems or hear songs. The feeling of being moved represents a resurrection. Every time meaning or feeling flows into your experience, that’s resurrection. I choose to believe that this has something to do with the beloved. One of the perils of being human, and of lyric poetry, is narcissism, the solipsistic sense that the self is all there is. Likewise, one of the perils of trauma is extreme isolation of the damaged self. To me, the beloved is that figure that exists independent of the self, that figure that calls us into relationship with the world and saves us from what I consider the emotional, spiritual, and psychological error of solipsism and narcissism. The beloved calls us out into connection with the world, into reciprocal relation with the world.”
“No one undertakes something as difficult as Zen practice because they already feel the perfection of ‘things as they are.’ We humans turn toward a spiritual practice in part to restore ourselves from some felt form of separation or exile. We feel something is wrong, or missing. This is not my usual vocabulary, but one of my poems, ‘Salt Heart,’ has a passage that may be relevant here: “I begin to believe the only sin is distance, refusal./All others stemming from this.” Separation from others, separation from self, are close to the root of suffering. Christians might say ‘separation from God,’ Sufis might say, ‘separation from the Beloved.’ Jung might call it a failure to recognize all parts of the psyche as parts of one self; that shadow-self, refused, grows perilous. Buddhism proposes that the separation of selfhood itself is a mistake of the mind, an attitude in some way reflected in our English use of the word ‘selfish.’ While Zen is the particular practice that drew me, I certainly don’t believe there’s only one ‘right’ spiritual path—if something is true, it will be findable anywhere, and there are as many spiritual paths as there are people, and probably sparrows and frogs and pebbles as well. Still, for me, this not uncommon sense of being exiled from full presence in the world brought me to both Zen and poetry.”
What a great post. Thanks for going to the trouble to do this. There is so much substance here!