Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Visionary Poetry: Interlude & Rondo

When I originally posted this series of mini-essays on the same topic, some of which were prompted in response to other poets' questions and thoughts, I realized at some point that I cared enough about the topic to let it become something of a Chataqua. I realize now, a year later, upon reviewing, the topic, that I still do care. I want to be clear again, though, that I do not regard visionary poetry as in any way tied to or representative of any sort of organized, normative religious stance. I maintain that there is a powerful difference between belief and faith. (Faith is about surrender to the Will of Heaven, or the Tao. Belief can be challenged; faith just is.) I further maintain that there is a strong distinction between rationalism and non-linear, irrational experience, and that visionary poetry falls towards the irrational and the Mysterious.

The complaint is then made that there is an assumption made in poetry criticism circles that much overtly Christian poetry is going to be pedantic, uninspired, and proselytizing, while a free pass is given to poetry of other faiths, or no faiths. Poems with an overtly Zen viewpoint, for example, are not attacked as toxically faith-based, yet Christian mystical poems are. I note that this objection comes primarily from avowed Christian writers. I would point out to these writers, however, that they represent the mainstream, the dominant hegemony (if we must use the post-modern critical theory), the reigning viewpoint, the majority worldview. Thus, for two reasons, the objection rings hollow: 1. hearing the majority viewpoint complain about being challenged is always ironic, because it contains an unspoken assumption of entitlement and privelege that does not understand, in itself, why it might be questioned; and 2. what do you expect of people who feel oppressed by the prevailing worldview, who in themselves, their entire lives, have been told repeatedly that they are abberant, bad, wrong, evil, or worse? do you not expect them to talk back? do you expect them to be silent in the face of what they might perceive as continued oppression? (Ignoring for the moment the accuracy of that assessment.) It is the pinnacle of psychological naivete to imagine that people won't speak up about something they dislike, don't agree with, and have felt damaged by.

But the real bottom line for me remains this: I am talking about visionary poetry, not religious poetry. It might be wise to remember that visions happen to people without regard to what their religions are; no one religion or belief-system has exclusive ownership of visionary experience, or even of mysticism.

What i find so fascinating about mysticism (and have found fascinating since I first began to study it, at age 13) is that, no matter what culture or tradition mysticism occurs in, most mystics say very, very similar things. The mystical experience is a human experience, transcending local culture, religion, and myth—although of course those local cultures do color how one might interpret or transcribe one's own visionary experience. (For example, a vision of the Divine Feminine in Boston would probably be interpreted as a vision of the Virgin Mary, while in Tokyo it might be interpreted as a vision of Kwannon; the Divine wears many faces, as the mystics say.)

Personally, I haven't seen much attacking of Christian poems going on in literary-critical circles, except as just plain bad poems. Just because a poem is a personal testament of faith, of whatever faith, that doesn't give it a free pass to evade critique as a bad poem. You've never seen me attack a poem simply because I don't share it's avowed faith, and you never will. You will see me give an honest critique of a bad poem, as a bad poem, regardless of its content.

Let me proffer a short civics lesson:

Statistically, since Christianity is the majority religion in Euro-American (Western) culture, it hardly needs to be defended: it already is the mainstream, by definition. Being the biggest fish in the school does mean that you're more easily targeted, yes—but what of it? Nothing new, there.

Furthermore, Christianity as a religious institution hardly has a perfect track record of loving tolerance towards opposing belief-systems, either within or without its orthodoxy. (I look at Christian fundies and Muslim fundies, and personally, I find it very hard to tell the difference. Both groups are shouting loud but not listening.) One recalls the Spanish inquisition, in which Europe turned on itself, and burned both men and women as witches, heretics, and non-believers. One recalls the Crusades, which while in some cases there were economic motivations behind them, all occurred under the banner of institutional religious faith, and all of which had as their goal the reclamation of the Holy Land from the infidels. (Which has not been forgotten by Islam, some branches of which claim that Christianity is the aggressor still, in modern times.) Christian institutions, as a matter of public record, have a very poor history of playing well with others.

None of the desert-spawned Middle Eastern religions, the three Abrahamic religions, for that matter, fare much better; perhaps it is the harshness of the climate in the Holy Land, but all the religions birthed in that region share a tendency towards insularity and intolerance, from ancient Sumer onwards. Contrast that with Hinduism, which takes tolerance to the opposite extreme, and converts and expands by absorption and assimilation. Did you know that the Christ was one of the Avatars of Vishnu? But I digress.

So, majority Christianity has often been intolerant of others—that's a matter of record. If Western culture had spent more time practicing what it preached, history might have been a little less bloody.

And, to be bluntly honest, many Christian groups do proselytize, and promote proselytization or missionary "witnessing" as a key element of religious practice: that is, to go out and preach to the unwashed and try to convert them to your own faith. Many Islamic groups also do this. (Those Middle Eastern religions again; Judaism is about the only religion born in that region that doesn't try to convert outsiders to their faith, but there are other reasons for that.) The fact is, many members of minority religions do feel like they're being proselytized, on an ongoing daily basis, when they encounter an avowedly Christian poem, because in their experience, 90 percent of their encounteres with Christians involve attempts to convert them and/or condemn them, simply for being who they are, and believing what they bbelieve. Shall we mention the gay marriage debate, just as an offhand example? Or women's reproductive rights? Virtually all of those "hot-button" issues in Western political discourse at this time are driven by religious groups with an agenda to convert everyone else to their way of doing things. So, you might understand that in a climate of daily exposure to this, some random gay pagan witch poet might get their dander up.

(Don't even bother to question my credentials on these grounds: I am the son of a doctor who took his family to India, where I grew up, and whose work and hospital were sponsored by the Lutheran Church in America. I am a forner mission brat. I grew up around missionary work, I spent all of my childhood interacting with mission work, seeing it happen, and seeing what it did to all involved. I hold no illusions whatsoever about proselytizing. I am not reactionary against it, just for the record—I am indifferent to it. I only mention this to underline that I know whereof I speak.)

Since Western culture is a majority Christian culture, those of minority positions, who have spent every day of their lives feeling embattled against the majority, might—rightly or wrongly—feel embattled here, too, and choose to say something about it.

Perhaps it is because those of a minority viewpint must speak up, or remain silenced. If not by intent, than by ignorance. If you don't tell people how they're oppressing you, they'll never know—and people of good intentions won't know that they're doing anything that might be bothering somebody. Sure, some won't care; but some will, and will change their behaviors, in order to be good neighbors. Those with good intent might, through education, be given the option of devloping a little sensitivity on the matter. Education provides options; taking personal responsibility for one's actions, after one has been educated, is another matter.

(The whole point of having a pluarlistic society, under a Constitution designed to operate a secular government, that is, one not governed by any one religious system, is that everyone can feel free and safe to practice their beliefs, in their own way. Yes, this even protects the practices of people we don't like, and don't agree with in any way. The point is to protect against religious oppression of the few by the many, or by the government.)

The history of Christian culture has been quite bloody, quite violent, and quite intolerant. So, to require those who have felt oppressed by the Christian cultural mainstream—such as those of modern minority religions, and those of modern minority political viewpoints, and those who are of unapproved sexual orientation or marriage status—to require those who have felt such oppression to not speak up about it, when they feel they are being oppressed, is the height of naivete. That's like asking them not to defend themselves, when they feel threatened. Granted, there will be over-reactions, and over-statements, and knee-jerk reactions, and hurt feelings, and some wounded knuckles—in both directions. But it is naive to wish this would never happen.

The question is then asked: But if we censor our poems to conceal their religious content, are we not guilty of literary dishonesty?

There are several responses to this.

1. Which is more dishonest, writing honestly what one believes, or speaking out in disagreement? I would say: neither. Which is the more censorious, speaking out one way, or speaking out the other way? I would say, only if one viewpoint refuses to listen to the other viewpoint's position; that works both ways, too.

2. It's a big Internet, and big world of literature. There are plenty of poetry boards that are specifically for religious poetry, of whatever faith. There are always other sandboxes. Is that censorship, or knowing your audience with wisdom?

2.b. Which is more dishonest, knowing one's audience, and being honest about intentions and expectations—or posting something that one knows darn well is going provoke someone, and deliberately posts it, anyway? (Note: This is not limited to religious poetry, but can occur around many other topics, contents, and styles.) Which is more dishonest, having a covert agenda to be a provacateur, or to speak up against such an agenda, when perceives it in play?

3. We are only being guilty of literary dishonesty if we censor ourselves, and never write a religious poem, for fear of being attacked by it. If you stop yourself from writing, because of internalized censorship, then yes, that is a shame, because self-censorship is the very worst form od censorship. I oppose all forms of internalized censorship, self-censorship, or writerly inhibition, about any and all topics. That does not mean, however, that I will go out of my way to read poems I'm pretty sure are going to offend me.  That's not dishonesty, that's choosing to avoid provocation. Because, frankly, it's usually a complete waste of time with something you already know is going to piss you off.

The question is then raised: Where is it written that a Christian cannot also be a visionary? or that a religious poem is a priori less insightful than a more secular poem, all other literary merit such as technical competence being equal?

It's not written anywhere. Christianity has a strong, ongoing tradition of vision and mysticism. One thinog you can say for the Catholic Church, with all their other faults, they at least preserved a Western tradition of mysticism, while Protestant groups mostly threw it away. It's not the only thread of mysticism innate to Western culture, but it an imporant one. Personally, I've spent a great deal of time studying and exploring Medieval and modern Christian mysticism, and have gained a great deal of wisdom and knowledge from it. From Meister Eckhart, who I have cited on this thread, to Thomas Merton and Nikos Kazantzakis, to name only a few.

However, neither is it written that visionary poetry must be conventionally, formally, or openly religious, either. Nowhere is it written that visionary poetry must be dogmatically and theologically correct. If anything, the history of visionary and mystical creativity shows us, repeatedly, that genuine vision is very often disruptive of conventional theology, contradicts doctrine and dogma, and often takes us back to direct contact with the Divine, with their being no need for institutional mediation. If anything, the Church has demonstrated, repeatedly, that one of its chief fears about visionary and mystical experiences is that they make the priestly, intermediary caste unnecessary and obsolete—thus putting the whole instituional framework into question. That, of course, is something most institutions tolerate poorly.

For this reason, then, I would say that, yes, a poem that is dogmatically or doctrinally conformist—ex nihil obstat, without error, as the Vatican would say—can be quite a but less insightful than one that is open to exploring wherever the vision wants to lead. Let us not automatically oppose "secular" to "religious." I am neither particularly impressed by religious poems that merely repeat existing articles of faith—which, in terms of poetry, are usually cliches—or are personal statements of faith, any more than I am particularly impressed by journal-entry poems, and for many of the same reasons. They're simply bad poems, when they're mired in cliche, or are a list of symbols we're all supposed to agree on (says who?) without question, and nothing new has been added to the work of Poetry in general. Credo in unum whatever. But is it a good poem?

Perhaps the real reason some critics don't like religious poems is because they rarely require much thought—or because they rely on stereotypes that are little more than symbols, or signs. In other words: they're easy, and they're cheap. They don't require a mental stretch. They merely replicate existing structures. Replication of existing doctrinal formulations is a habit-of-thought that misses or ignores the wide range of non-religious-yet-spiritual material available. It is precisely such habits-of-thought that are the problem: because habits of thought are filters between person and reality, that keep us from seeing what is really there, versus what we think or assume is there.

I understand that many people will disagree with a lot of what i've said here, yet I don't have any interest in engaging in a long debate on the topic.

Again, I'd rather talk about visionary poetry, which is a much larger, inclusive, and more interesting (for me) category of poetry.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...


I wrote a piece once, definitely from a Christian perspective. Don’t think it contains doctrine, although can one write and truly leave out the very essence of his/her faith? Very few understood it was heart emotions for my God; the title being, “Writing You Upon My Heart.” Most thought I was speaking of a lover, and that is exactly how I wanted it portrayed, easily interpreted from two different perspectives.

It wasn‘t particularly insightful, only into the heart of me for those who were interested.

Thanks for bringing it to mind :)

10:48 AM  

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