Visionary Poetry 12: definitions, revisited
I want to emphasize mostly the spiritual and visionary, even the mystical, aspects this time out. Every poem I write is a spiritual poem; the roots of my spirituality and my creativity are intertwined and inseparable. All of my poems are therefore spiritual poems. But not every poem I write is a "faith-based" or "religious" poem, or even overtly spiritual. (Ignoring for the moment the continuing attempts by the Christian right-wing to claim ownership of the term "faith-based.") My particular spirituality is broad and nature-based, shamanic, based in mysticism and the direct experience of the Divine, so the range of topics in my poetry is all-inclusive. The first assumption you can let go of is that nature is somehow separate from me, us, you, humanity; nothing could be further from the truth.
For me, spiritual means practice: a continuous process of engagement, discovery, exploration, growth, and change; a process of personal and collective evolution; an awareness that the physical is spiritual, and the spiritual is physical, and there is no mind-body dualistic separation. For others, spirituality may mean something different. For example, it is my experience that people of strong religious backgrounds tend to assume that "religious" and "spiritual" mean the same thing, in terms of poetry—ultimately, meaning doctrinal and dogmatic conformity, no matter else is said—when in fact they don't have to mean the same thing, and often do not, and will not. Nevertheless, the tendency to conflate "spiritual" and "religious" is a tendency common to many poets of the religious mainstream and fringe alike. The problem is: many such poets tend to also conflate how well they state their beliefs in the poem, with literary quality. Again, nothing couuld be further from the truth.
I'll be honest: I do indeed find many "faith-based" or overtly religious poems to be lacking something, AS POEMS, because there often occurs in such poems the collapse of the literary-critical intelligence into a dogmatic or doctrinal restatement of faith. (I am not picking on any particular faith; I see the same thing happen in poems that come from many different religious backgrounds.) Many faith-based poems are witnesses, credos, or screeds, and as such they tend to repeat or restate, rather than giving a fresh perspective or a fresh insight. Their most common failing, AS POEMS, is the resortment to cliché to make a familiar point, which the poet often assumes the reader already knows about, and agrees with. Especially when the poet assumes that all readers share their particular faith, or know all of its details. This sort of poetry is, literally, preaching to the choir. It might be fine when in fact one is presenting the poem to those who agree with one's own faith; but it can be a problem when one presents the poem, AS A POEM, in a purely literary-critical context.
It is quite possible to read any religious tradition's sacred texts as literature, and study them, as literature, without believing any of the doctrine of faith presented in that same sacred text. This is quite possible, and people do it all the time, when looking at sacred texts from faiths other than their own. (The dialogue between Judaism and Buddhism has been interesting to follow, in recent years, and there are numerous books on the topic from both perspectives.) The problem arises when one drops one's literary-critical faculties when regarding the sacred texts of one's own faith, whatever that faith may be, and gives the text a free pass in terms of literary and technical standards of writing, not excluding grammar, spelling, and the elements of style. There are many overtly religious poetry boards out there on the Web; the quality of writing on viritually every one of these boards is abyssmal.
This situation is very parallel to the situation wherein a poet posts a therapy-poem or a journal-poem that means a great deal to them, personally, because it records a psychological or emotional crisis they went through (or may still be going through), and then the poet gets upset when someone criticizes the poem, AS A POEM—in other words, they make the common mistake of all, in confusing critiques on the poem with personal attacks on the poet. This is the most common problem that I have seen occurring in discussions of spiritual, religious, or visionary poetry, here and elsewhere. My experience has been that many faith-based poems do share many of the same problems, AS POEMS, as journal-poems and therapy-poems, because many such poems spring forth from the same wellspring: the narrative of witness.
It is perhaps too easy to take a comment ABOUT THE POEM personally, when the poem is written about one's own faith, and one therefore naturally cares deeply about the contents of the poem.The resort to defensiveness about one's own faith-based poems is a constant source of contention, misunderstanding, and argument, wherever one sees a faith-based poem posted; this is rooted in the reality that the underlying assumption that the poet makes is that most readers will share the poet's own faith, and agree with the poet about fiath. Argument arises when not everyone falls into the same boat.
But the poet who posts a faith-based poem must be aware of the same rules of literary criticism that apply to all poetry, faith-based or otherwise: If you cannot honestly act objectively about your own faith-based poems, AS POEMS, then I guarantee you get will critiques OF THE POEMS that you don't want to hear. If you assume that "faith" means your own faith, and forget that not everyone out there shares it—especially in the context of a large-membership, free-wheeling, internet poetry board—you are going to run into this problem. There are many people who are generally interested in the poems, AS POEMS, and who will be civil and courteous in their critiques; but the poet must also be civil and courteous in their response, for a discussion to continue. Everyone involved is responsible for the tone of the discussion.
It is quite true that some readers will be excluded from completely understanding certain spiritual, religious, or visionary poems, simply because they might not know the details of a theological, doctrinal, or faith-based concept as reflected in the poem. This is an inherent problem with "insider poetry," of any kind or genre, and is as common when discussing Language Poetry as it is when discussing faith-based poetry. I am not opposed to some readers being excluded in this way—it is simply something they can go look up, if they're interested, just as they can go look up the details of a little-known Greek myth—but what one occasionally does find, on the part of some faith-based poets, is an unwillingness to engage in a discussion, ABOUT THE POEM, as to whether or not the poem succeeds in getting the idea across. Some faith-based poets just state something and let it drop like a brick, and blink in incomprehension when a critique points out an alternative way of presenting the idea, or asks a question on a doctrinal point that might seem obvious to an insider, but isn't obvious to an outsider.
This can lead to dismissive responses. "What, you didn't already know all that? What are you, stupid?" I see that often, in discussion threads about religious poems. The poet, in such cases, might need to let go of their assumption that everyone reading the poem might know all the details of the poet's faith. Again, this is also true when a critique asks whether or not the poem succeeds in presenting the concept clearly and effectively, AS A POEM.
I'll be blunt here, and say what I'm sure some people are already thinking: This is the real reason you don't see too many purely spiritual-poetry forums on poetry boards dedicated primarily to quality-of-writing and literary critique: discussions get too contentious, people get bristly, sometimes even a provocateur shows up who is maliciously disruptive, and everyone gets upset, people leave in a huff, and emotions run very very high, causing months of disruption to a previously smooth-running board. I have seen this disrupt boards. I have seen this kill and destroy previously wonderful poetry boards.
It is similar to the situation that happens whenever a poet's ego gets too bound up with the poem. As a sign at the entrance of a martial arts dojo once said, in the area where one leaves one's street clothes: "Leave your ego with your shoes." That's wise advice, at all times.
Getting back to definitions, then, I am comfortable conflating "spiritual" and "mystical" with regard to poetry, because the thread of mysticism that runs through all the world's cultures and religions is a unitary thread. if there is any thread of spiritual experience and writing that seems universal, and a human birthright in all times and places, it is the mystical experience. I find it fascinating that many of the mystics, of whatever time, culture, or religious background, all say some essentially similar things. I tend to believe that the heart of all the established religions, even the ones that have gone astray, was a revelation of divine compassion: a mystical vision. The same mystical principles, we might even call them spiritual laws, are present in the root traditions of all the worlds major religions, and often in remarkably similar language. One wonder where they all went astray, after that.