Saturday, March 29, 2008

Visionary Poetry 14: Primary Technology

Eugene Peterson, a Christian theologian, has an interesting point to make about spirituality in poetry. He says, with regard to the Psalms: At the center of the whole enterprise of being human, prayers are the primary technology. Prayers are tools that God uses to work his will in our bodies and souls. Prayers are tools that we use to collaborate in his work with us.

Does this not also describe poetry? Especially that poetry that takes us out of ourselves, that takes us towards transcendence, that which we have sometimes called visionary poetry?

The Psalms, like several other books of the Christian Bible (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, etc.), are considered wisdom literature. These books of the Bible are different from many of the other Biblical books. They are non-narrative, for the most part; or, their narratives frame essential discussions about the nature of God, and the relationships between humans and the Divine. They are books that describe rather than proscribe; unlike many of the Prophetic books of the Bible, which are stories in which a prophet appears to set the straying people back on course, the wisdom books contain more lists of questions than of law-giving. The wisdom books are full of complaint, and in many cases those complaints are not answered, directly or indirectly. The wisdom books are in many ways the most profound, most mystical books of the entire collection of gathered literatures that was compiled into what we know as the Bible. (Never confuse mysticism with the miraculous; there may be overlap, but miracles are time-bound into narrative, while mystical experience is always timeless.)

(Just to be clear about my own position here: although I have studied Christian theology extensively, I have not considered myself a Christian for a very long time. Furthermore, in my normal discourse I tend to avoid using the word "God" because it carries a great deal of baggage, and most people discuss "God" as though the person they were talking to meant the same thing by "God" as they did themselves, which in my experience is rarely true. I am unable to avoid using the word "God" here, though, because this is a discussion of spiritual and religious poetry; it's a necessary aspect of the discussion.)

The Wisdom Books are my favorite books of the Bible because in them the human voice is clearest and most honest, most plain. These are books that present the existential paradoxes of living without cloaking them in received wisdom or doctrine: in truth, the wisdom books ask a lot of very profound questions that they do not always answer. In them, you can hear human voices assert their personal and universal responses to life, love, and the divine—voices that seem very contemporary to us still, because they are timeless and their subjects are universal to the human experience—but what you don't hear very often is self-righteousness or overt judgmentalism. Even the Psalms attributed to King David—a complex, conflicted character in the Bible if ever there was one—are full of paradox and contradiction, which the author leaves in suspension, as a question: Why do you heap praise upon me yet steal away those I love? The wisdom literature is full of such complexities and paradoxes. These books bring into high relief the understanding of many mystics who have said that the Divine exists at the point of every paradox. That irreconcilable and difficult moment suspended without resolution between seeming opposites: that's where God lives, and is most closely available to us.

Poetry, if it is to be visionary, needs to be like the wisdom literature: It needs to be honest, it needs to be undogmatic and exploratory, it must be as heartfelt and simultaneously artful as possible. It must also express and contain paradox and complexity. Dogmatism and doctrine tend by contrast to be overly simplistic and sentimental. The wisdom books of the Bible take a hard look at life, and are not always soothing or pleasant. The paradox is often left unresolved—which is as it should be.

Peterson said: At the center of the whole enterprise of being human, prayers are the primary technology. Prayers are a primary technology. But prayers are also a kind of poetry. Genuine prayer fits many of the rules of poetry: concision, depth, intensity, layered complexity and resonant experience are all built in.

Perhaps this only applies to visionary poetry, but it seems to me that when a poem is praise (as Rilke says all poetry must be), then such praise is a kind of prayer.

When Pablo Neruda writes his Elementary Odes to ordinary things, or in the Ode to Broken Things, he exalts the everyday by making it special, illumined, sacred. Neruda's erotic poems are very prayerful in tone, as well as playful; they remind one of The Song of Songs in the wisdom literature.

There is also the tradition of songs to the Dark Lord, Krishna, by the 16th century mystical poet, Mirabai (or Meera). These are bhakti (devotional) poems, in which the God is praised both for his mercy and for the derangement he brings upon the poet. (As Rilke wrote in one of the Duino Elegies: Beauty is the beginning of terror.) He is a dark god, not only a happy god. Mirabai occasionally sounds like the author of the Psalms, in her simultaneous encapsulation of ecstasy and strife.

And then there's Rumi. At present the best-known Sufi poet to the West, although not the only one of greatness. Much has been discovered and written about Rumi for many years now, in the West. There are numerous translations and academic studies; numerous anthologies, and several translators. (The best translations into English are the separate works of Coleman Barks and Andrew Harvey.) So there's very little I need to add, except to continue to recommend that one read him. There is also in Rumi that seed of paradox, of contradiction, of the explosion of expectations into something genuinely original, truly poetic. I find, whenever I read Rumi, that I feel like taking up the pen, and responding with a poem or two of my own. That itself is a poetic response, and a prayer.

It's hard sometimes to separate out poetry from sacred literature, since so much sacred literature has been expressed as poetry. I think it's important to be very clear, however, that a lot of religious poetry is not at all spiritual: because it is rote, it is dogmatic, it is easy, and it offers answers to questions that were never asked. Far too much religious poetry is the poetry of witness. It is a statement of creed. All of which tends to bad art, because thoughtless, rote, and automatic. Recitation of dogma or creed is not creative; it is imitative.

The primary technology of prayer can be expressed poetically, as poetry, or in the form of poetry. Scripture is often poetic, because the language of metaphor and analogy gets closer to the heart than does analytical philosophical discourse. Poetry is the technology of faith, of knowing. Poetry is a primary (verbal) technology of recording vision. Poetry, like prayer, like shamanism, is spiritual technology. It needs to be recognized as such, and not locked up in the conceptual box of being only language. Language is the tool of prayer and of poetry alike.

Soul receives from soul that knowledge, therefore not by book
nor from tongue.
If knowledge of mysteries come after emptiness of mind, that is
illumination of heart.

—Rumi

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