Poetry and the Spirit

Poetry and the Spirit Air Date: June 27, 2009

The Hebrew word for spirit is Ruach, meaning wind, spirit, breath, or air. We generally have a sense of poetry being connected to the spirit—let’s see if we can pin down that sense a little more.

Let’s begin by thinking for a minute about poetry as a ritual. Rituals focus our attention, make us more aware of the moment passing. Rituals bring us together in mutual celebration of the moment of being alive, of what we also call spirit, the electric awareness of being alive.

How is poetry a ritual?

First of all, in a poem, the words call us to attention by offering a vision that’s a little surprising, that perks up our awareness.

Second, a poem creates ritual space as a part of its tools to enhance awareness. It doesn’t come all the way out to the end of the line. It holds the language in, drives the eye and ear inward, within the experience of the words.

Third, the poem asks us to participate with our bodies—it uses ritual devices—repetition of lines and phrases, like a chant—repetition of sounds, both in the obvious rhyme (bone/stone, reign/ sustain) and in other kinds of sounds that chime off each other within the poem.

Fourth, a poem often makes comparisons. Never underestimate the power of simile and metaphor. I think of the poem by Archibald McLeish, with these lines: “A poem should be palpable and mute/ as a globed fruit”. It’s a scientific fact that a round fruit is palpable and mute. But beyond that, the mind has to relax to make a different sort of sense. A poem isn’t literally palpable except as we touch the page it’s printed on. It’s mute only in that it can’t literally speak from the page. Our attention gets pulled away from the idea of poem, and from the fruit, and is set free, into the inexplicable space between the two.

You can see how this is like the intention of any sort of ritual designed to evoke and nurture the spirit. A space is carved out of “ordinary time.” Various devices are used to keep us within that space—a ringing of the bell, special, repeated words. The purpose is not to bring us to immediate action, but, though singing, listening, standing and sitting, to increase awareness within our whole bodies.

The modern poem mirrors the modern world in that it is more aware of the impossibility of fixed or complete meaning, both within the poem and without. Here is a poem by the former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, in which he makes fun of the attempt to capture a poem’s meaning. Notice how, although he does have a controlling idea in the poem, we are held within it by his images, and its sounds. We live within this poem.

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski across the surface of a poem waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose to find out what it really means.

Most scholars like to say that “modern poetry,” at least in this country, began with the 19th century poets Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. The opposite ways they worked can be summed up in a line of poetry from each of them, “I am nobody, who are you?” from Dickinson, and “I am large, I contain multitudes” from Whitman.

Whitman tried to cram the whole world into one poem, a whole culture, a whole deep spiritual desiring. Walt Whitman never separated his poetry from his vision of American democracy.

I don’t think I can do better than to use the two to exemplify the opposite approaches to the spirit poetry can provide. Here is a snippet from Whitman’s Song of Myself….Notice how nothing is resolved, nothing is left out, from birth to death. Notice that the lines have the intonations of a chant. They are as long as a breath. They require the body to be in them, they require the whole self.

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands; How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it is any more than he. I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord, A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped, Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic, And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,

Growing among black folks as among white, Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same. And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass, It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men, It may be if I had known them I would have loved them; It may be you are from old people and from women, and from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps, And here you are the mother’s laps.

If Walt Whitman casts his net to catch the whole world in it, Emily Dickinson draws her poems into the smallest space possible. Think of both of these approaches in terms of the rituals we invent to try to do to contact our spirits directly. We draw a circle around space and call it sacred—an hour, a place, certain words repeated to give them ritual power. And at the same time, there’s the casting outward, the intent of the ritual to reach beyond the immediate into whatever vastness connects us.

The speaker in this small poem by Emily Dickinson is equally enraptured by the world. But look how the emotion is packed into a tight container. She describes what it’s like when the sense of wonder, of life being wonderful—of heaven, she calls it, just simply seems to go away, and there’s nothing to do but stare into space.

I’ve known a Heaven, like a Tent— To wrap its shining Yards— Pluck up its stakes, and disappear— Without the sound of Boards or Rip of Nail—or Carpenter— But just the miles of Stare—

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle tells us that “It is owing to wonder that people both now begin and at first began to philosophize.” We can think of wonder and astonishment as the well-spring of the poem, as well. From the brief opening those emotions provide, we’re able to reenter and become whole with the world.


Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry