One of my great loves is poetry. I have written in the past about the traditional links between poetry and masculinity. For most of history, the poet was considered one of the supreme spokesman of and for whatever society he lived in. From the earliest bards of oral tradition, the men who handed down the stories, usually heroic, of their own people from generation to generation, to modern statesmen or generals who pursued a passion for poetry, this ancient art form as always been a part of our world. A great example of the old bard would be Homer, the author of the Iliad and Odyssey, the two great epic poems of ancient Greece. A modern man of action who enjoyed poetry would be someone such as General George Patton, as much a man of action if ever there was one. Poetry is the ultimate use of the spoken or written word to express things that are often inexpressible.
As a medium for things that are inexpressible, there is an old link between poetry and spirituality. As far as I am concerned, most good poetry has some sort of spiritual element. Poetry, unlike most prose or fiction, speaks of things that are hard to define, more ephemeral yet permanent, spiritual yet concrete. A good poem, like a good song or good food or a good lover, stays with you long after you have finished reading, or listening to it. Perhaps the greatest spiritual poetry of all time are the Psalms. The fact that they were written nearly three thousand years ago, yet still speak intimately to us today, is proof of the timeless beauty that all good poetry possesses.
Some time ago I came across an interview with Denise Levertov (1923-1997) in Poets and Writers, May/June 1998. Levertov was a poet whose spiritual journey took her from agnostic Jew to Catholic and her later poetry is infused with spiritual themes. She once described her last book of poetry as a work to, “trace my slow movement from agnosticism to Christian faith, a movement incorporating much doubt and questioning as well as affirmation.” Doubt, questioning and affirmation, are not these things that all people on a spiritual journey experience? Faith in God is not necessarily an easy thing. And for me art, rather than theology, is the best way to explore, ponder and express the nuances and difficulties of faith.
In this particular interview, her last, she talks about the relationship between her Christian faith and her life and work as a poet.
When I started writing explicitly Christian poems, I thought I’d lost part of my readership. But I haven’t actually…This sense of spiritual hunger is something of a counterforce or unconscious reaction to all that technological euphoria.
I like her description of a “sense of spiritual hunger”. This is something I experience quite often myself.
She then draws a nice comparison between the act of writing poetry and prayer. In response to the question, “Did your understanding of poetic inspiration help to imagine what it would be like to have religious faith,” she answers:
That’s one way of putting it. When you’re really caught up in writing a poem, it can be a form of prayer. I’m not very good at praying, but what I experience when I’m writing a poem is close to prayer. I feel it in different degrees and not with every poem. But in certain ways writing is a form of prayer.
I find this to be quite true. There is a powerful similarity between writing poetry and prayer. She then goes on to elaborate this connection:
I was really amazed at how close the exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola were to a poet or a novelist imagining a scene. You focus your attention on some particular aspect of the life of Christ. You try to compose that scene in your imagination, place yourself there. If it’s the Via Dolorosa, you have to ask yourself, are you one of the disciples? Are you a passerby? Are you a spectator that likes to watch from the side, the way people used to watch hangings? You establish who you are and where you stand and then you look at what you see.
I have a deep and abiding belief in the relationship between art and spirituality. It is a relationship as old as art itself. Whether in poetry, painting, sculpture, music or whatever artistic genre is used, throughout all of cultural history the great forms of artistic endeavor almost always have some sort of spiritual dimension. They speak of things that touch our innermost beings and lives, that reflect our deepest hopes and fears and longings. Many people think that most modern poetry is devoid of all spiritual themes, but as Levertov shows, this is certainly not the case. As the end of Lent nears, and Easter comes closer, those in the Catholic faith know all too well the great liturgical drama that is being played out, and how powerful a drama it is. It is one of the finest fusions of both art and religion.
Whether we are reading the Psalms or a poet like Levertov, the link between poetry and spirituality is an unbroken one as old as art and religion themselves.