This week’s prompt was inspired by a Facebook post a few weeks ago that was written by my old friend and fellow poet (and my godson’s father), Joe Weil.
By Joe Weil
In the middle of being busy, I grew distracted (I have that talent), and soon forgot to be busy, and I was four years old and sitting under the sweeping arch of a large forsythia bush that used to border our back yard. There were no blooms yet, but it was late winter, the beginning of March, and sparrows were puffing up their little bodies, perching close together to stay warm. I started to pray to God though I did not know any prayers yet or how to pray. I kept saying, “God, God, God.” God, and laughing. I was silly with the word. I made a song out of it. I said God in a deep voice and a high voice—very, very slowly, then very quickly. The sky was cloudy, the color of old oatmeal. The rich and slightly damp soil beneath the forsythia was on my hands, and it smelled vaguely of root beer. I heard my mother call my name, but I did not answer her right away, “Joseph! Where are you?” I blessed myself the way I saw my grandmother do a hundred times, and I shouted, “Ma!” I came out of this reverie stained with the grief of knowing even my most sophisticated prayers, all the work I do, can never make me feel that alive and intimate with God again. I thought, “I peaked at age five,” and then I realized the longing I felt to return to some interior life like that was a gift—perhaps my only gift, a genuine prayer given to me while, as Auden said, the dog goes on with its doggy life.
What struck me about this prose poem is its intense spiritual nature and its sense of wonder and awe. It is, in my reckoning, profoundly spiritual. It isn’t self-consciously religious and it doesn’t stand on superficial pretension. It’s spiritual, not because it mentions God, but because it affirms God’s presence in the poet’s life, the importance of the poet’s family members, how childhood’s innocence is something we all lose, and how we long for communion with the sacred.
To me, Joe’s words read like a prose poem; but, more importantly, they do what Joe is noted for: they approache the “sacred” through the here and now—an important component of spiritual poetry.
As poetry editor of Tiferet Journal, I’m often asked what spiritual poetry is. My first answer is always that spiritual poetry isn’t necessarily religious, a statement of faith, or about an “ism” of any kind. For me, it is:
- poetry that approaches the sacred through the here and now,
- meditative poetry that doesn’t just skim the surface of experiences,
- poetry that avoids the sentimental, the corny, and the obvious while reaching toward deeper truths,
- poetry that incorporates silence, awe, and humility,
- poetry that may or may not include reference to a deity but somehow affirms something larger than humanity at the core of existence,
- poetry that, without being overtly mystical or obscure, understands it has touched something that is unknowable and holy.
According to poet and translator, Jane Hirschfield, “The root of 'spirit' is the Latin spirare, to breathe. Whatever lives on the breath, then, must have its spiritual dimension—including all poems, even the most unlikely. Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath, William Carlos Williams: all poets of spiritual life. A useful exercise of soul would be to open any doorstop-sized anthology at random a dozen times and find in each of the resulting pages its spiritual dimension. If the poems are worth the cost of their ink, it can be done.” (Source)
I realized when writing this that “spiritual poetry” is hard to define, but I know it when I read it, and I suspect that you do too. I thought you might be interested in reading other poets’ thoughts on the subject, so I consulted a few poet friends, and their thoughts follow.
From Renée Ashley www.reneeashley.com
I tend to think of spiritual poems as those that address the state of the inner being in the context of the long now as opposed to the lyric moment. Perhaps another way to say that is, those that address the condition of the soul over the long term, though I’m not certain what soul may be. Brigit Pegeen Kelly is very much a spiritual poet, I think. For example, her poem “Song” builds brilliantly and elegantly throughout and culminates with its reveal of the ongoing state of the boys’ inner lives after their murder of the goat. "Song" by Brigit Pegeen Kelly
From Priscilla Orr www.priscillaorr.com
For me, spiritual poems reach into the numinous. What I mean is that the poems may be anchored in the natural world or even the human world, but they also reach into the ether. They take the poem into territory, which is inexplicable to us but that we somehow all know or recognize as a place where we move beyond rational knowing to pure intuitive knowing. We may not understand or comprehend in that rationale way, but we recognize the place we've entered as sacred in some way. And sometimes it's the collision of these two worlds that reveals what we typically miss. Elizabeth Bishop's "The Moose" is a good example. The last stanzas illustrate the sense of wonder. "The Moose" by Elizabeth Bishop
From Penny Harter www.penhart.wordpress.com
Spiritual poetry is poetry that celebrates life with a sense of wonder and humility, poetry that finds the most simple moments of our everyday experience revelatory and radiant with meaning. Also, it is poetry that searches for understanding as it probes the eternal questions of time and mortality, exploring our place in the mystery of the cosmos. Among contemporaries, Jane Hirshfield, Barbara Crooker, Julie L. Moore, Therese Halscheid, and Adele Kenny come first to mind as spiritual poets. And of course James Wright, and the late Galway Kinnell ...whom we will sorely miss! Many poets write "spiritual" poetry, too many for me to keep naming. It's an essential part of who our best poets are, I think.
From Gary J. Whitehead www.garyjwhitehead.com
It seems to me that there are many ways of defining spiritual poetry. Some see spiritual poetry to mean religious verse. Others think of it as poetry that deals with New Age topics or the occult. I've always thought of it in the metaphysical sense—as poetry that attempts to examine one's own place as a living, breathing (think of the Latin meaning of spiritus), mortal being in the world. Spirit, separate from soul, then, is that unique breath of life of the individual. Stanley Kunitz comes to mind as a good example of a spiritual poet.
From Joe Weil www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Weil
The word spiritual often gets in the way. Its connotations are usually that of uplift or wisdom or nature writing that seeks to induce "Serenity" on the part of the reader and to cater to easy epiphanies. There is an enormous market for serenity—countless self help books, and inspirational tales of affirmation, but I think serenity without some sense of ferocity is always a bit of a cheat. Miguel Hernandez was a deeply spiritual poet as was St. John of the cross and they didn't tidy things up to look like sunsets on a lake. George Herbert's pains and contradictions, and the absolutely sexual heat of much mystical writing also factor in. I think the best spiritual writing proves that uncertainty and trouble are not diametrically opposed to a peace that surpasses all understanding, or more importantly to joy. Joy can exist beyond the conditional without being in denial. Happiness is far more precarious and those who lust for easy transport often misunderstand that the spirit goes where it will, like a wind, plumbing and testing even the depths of God. It’s raucous, and rippling. The spirit has energy and ferocity to spare, and so does the best spiritual poetry. To me, it is not spiritual to sit on a lake at the end of the day feeling all blessed-out if your fanny gets to sit there because thousands of others are suffering and far from any lakes. We cannot make a heaven of others’ misery, but we can try as poets not to make misery the end all/be all. Spiritual poetry is kind, compassionate, in love with the physicality of life, and deeply wise, but it is not polite. It is not a "seeming."
1. Begin by thinking in terms of awe-filled moments you’ve experienced. Remember that these moments may be the simplest and seemingly unimportant but are moments through which your awareness of something special and good in the world was enhanced.
2. Pick one moment and free write about it for fifteen or twenty minutes.
3. Come back to your free write several hours (or even a day or two later) and read what you wrote. Cull from your free write images and ideas to work into a poem.
4. Begin writing—think in terms of form (free verse, pantoum, sonnet, haiku, haibun, etc.).
5. “Direct” your poem: to a particular person, from the first person, in narrative form.
6. Create a mood or tone.
7. Consider the spiritual insight you hope to share. What exactly is the point you want to make?
1. Spend time on your line breaks. Remember that how you break your lines (scansion) can help the reader pause exactly where you want pauses to occur. Line breaks can also be used to accentuate content and meaning.
2. Keep in mind that the best poems make their points by showing and not telling.
3. Beware of becoming self-consciously “religious.”
4. After you’ve written a couple of drafts, put the poem aside for a while and then come back to it. Try some reorganization; that is, move your lines around (sometimes the first line of a poem should become the last line and vice versa).
5. Look for adjectives and adverbs that are unnecessary.
6. Drop articles when possible and remove prepositional phrases.
7. Create an integrated whole of language, form, and meaning.
1. For a wonderful article and numerous example poems with commentary, click here.
2. My personal all-time favorite when I think of spiritual poetry. (Note that this is a poem about God; that notwithstanding, how does Hopkins use language to empower the poem?)
God’s Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
3. Here's another personal favorite (first published in Tiferet: A Journal of Spiritual Literature, Issue 19, 2011).
A Valediction to the Horizon by Robert Carnevale
I marvel at friends who believe
that they will see loved ones again
The Earth falls forward without belief,
and no struggle, no anguish of ours
can begin to deceive it.
It seems the most I could believe in
was how some grace brought us
together in ways no god would imagine.
But plots thicken beyond believing.
Nothing is still there where we knew it,
no one, still there where we knew them.
Whose leaving was our arriving?
What did they have to take with them?
What will grow from our going?
But even to question is to believe
in what makes the question conceivable
over here in the impossible.
Here, now, we can only be
on one side of a door or the other.
That is not how it is where we’re going.