1. Poetry to Change Your Life
National Poetry Month may officially be over now but to me every month is poetry month. From my earliest memories of my father reading the exciting narrative poems of Robert Service to my sister and I, poetry has been a constant presence. And in times of great upheaval and distress, it has been a spiritual anchor, a lifeline. “We only live, only suspire / consumed by either fire or fire,” T.S. Eliot wrote in Four Quartets. This is where the real power of poetry lies: in connecting us with the spirit, the élan vital, the One, whatever name you choose to give it. For me, anything less falls somewhere short of poetry’s promise.
Reinforcing this view of poetry as a vital spiritual force is the writing of Roger Housden on poetry in his Ten Poems series (Ten Poems to Change Your Life, Ten Poems to Last a Lifetime, Ten Poems to Say Goodbye, etc.). This transplanted Brit now living in the U.S. must have been as shocked as anyone that a series of books about poetry could become bestsellers in this day and age. But they have. The concept is simple: Housden chooses ten poems that have had a profound impact on his own life and then writes an essay drawing out the deeper resonances in each poem. Unlike academic theories of poetics, Housden concentrates on the spiritual implications, leaving the literary critics to the field of dissecting technique.
For many years now I’ve been fond of quoting Emily Dickinson’s famous dictum summing up what made poetry great to her. You can imagine my delight when I opened up Ten Poems to Change Your Life and discovered this very quote: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?” Just as Eliot hinted, Housden picks up the sparks: “Good poetry has the power to start a fire in your life. …Poetry like this is rigorous, demanding, ecstatic. Not just to write, but to read poetry like this can be a fierce and dangerous practice; dangerous because you may never be the same again.”
To which I would add: rigorous and demanding, because it demands we face ourselves and the world with truth and integrity; because a poem requires that we engage not just the brain’s evocative capacity but also the heart’s; and ecstatic because poetry that reaches us at this level is transformative, spiritually sustaining. I’ve often said that poetry is the most spiritual of arts and I think Housden would agree.
Given this unique capacity of poetry, why is it then that the subject is met with anything from shrugs of indifference to outright disdain these days? Aside from blaming generations of inept English teachers in public school, and the decreasing attention span being fostered by the media, what could cause so many to demean this ancient and honourable art?
Poets are often their own worst enemies. Whether they’re the self-infatuated types droning on artlessly at open mic events, the histrionic gyrations of slam poets, or the impenetrable hieroglyphics of academic poets, all of the above is reason enough for many readers to avoid poetry altogether. Even great poets like Eliot often suffer from an inability to present their work dynamically, while slam poets often perform well but show little evidence of craft. Many young poets actually show little interest in learning their own craft; a sign of the times perhaps, when everyone wants to be an instant artist, singer-songwriter, or movie star. Few seem to comprehend the apprenticeship required to reach competency in their chosen field. This may be gained through exposure to creative writing courses or by an assiduous personal study of the craft. As Eliot said, “no verse is free for the man concerned with craft.”
2. The Myth of Objective Distance
The other reason for poetry’s diminished audience stems from a historical hangover that has persisted in academia for a century now. The 20th century, even more so than the 19th, was the Scientific Century. In every field, the rational, the dispassionate was replacing historical modes of thought conditioned by centuries of dominance by the Church. Freud and Jung were opening up a whole new field they dubbed psychology; Darwin’s evolutionary theories were changing long-held views of humanity’s origins.
Not surprisingly, the scientific worldview crept into the arts, or at least—for the purposes of this discussion—poetry and creative writing generally. Suddenly the impassioned verses of the Romantic poets were held as distinctly passé, retrograde, as if they were merely earlier, outmoded stages of literary evolution. I’ve even seen this evolutionary metaphor used to describe literature courses surveying creative writing over the past century. As if the rational, scientific model could be applied seamlessly to the arts. Absurd.
Unfortunately the effect of this new rationality in creative writing has had the effect of stripping out the spirit, the logos that breathes divine fire into the language of poetry. The conceit adopted was that the poet was to be excised from the poem, leaving only the objective image or scene to be perceived by the reader. Housden captures this perfectly: “In the early part of the 20th century, there was a generation of poets in America who were obsessed with conveying the natural world in as objective a manner as possible… What mattered to them was the external object in its pristine, even scientific, clarity, not the subjective content of the poet. It was as if there was no room in the poem for the soul of the poet. The result was that, in the United States, for generations, images shooting up with no apparent relevance from the subconscious were largely discarded, even if noticed.” (Ten Poems to Change Your Life, p.73)
Without even getting into the fact that much of Jung’s work on the collective unconscious made crystal clear the relevance of apparently disparate impulses from the poet, this conceit has had a long reach. And although Housden writes of its effect on American poetry, Canadian poetry too remains locked in its sway a hundred years later. This ‘objective distance’ has become a staple of creative writing courses, handed down as a received yet unquestioned axiom. It’s a spurious view I’ve fought against my whole career as a poet. It’s as spurious as the notion of objective journalism or objective history. They don’t exist.
So you can imagine with what joy I devoured Robert Bly’s wonderful little book Leaping Poetry. “In many ancient works of art we notice a long floating leap at the center of the work,” writes Bly. “That leap an be described as a leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known.” In Bly’s view this ‘leaping’ was actively discouraged by the Christian tradition, which saw the subconscious as related to our animal nature and therefore to be avoided. “Christian thought… builds a firm distinction between spiritual energy and animal energy, a distinction so sharp it became symbolized by black and white.” Thus, in the hands of poets like Pope and Dryden, poetry took a turn toward the linear, the denotative rather than the myriad implications of connotative language. As Bly points out, it took William Blake to turn the whole false nomenclature on its head, in his Songs of Innocence and Experience. “Blake could see that after eighteen hundred years of no-leaping, joy was disappearing, poetry was dying, ‘the languid strings do scarcely move! The sound is forced, the notes are few.’” (Leaping Poetry, pp. 1,2)
Bly felt that the move back toward ‘leaping poetry’ was finally beginning, paradoxically, in the 20th century, particularly with poets such as Neruda. Yet others in the Imagist school were retrenching the rational, ‘objective’ distance, insisting that the poet had no place in the poem. Here is where the whole scientific metaphor applied to poetics goes off the rails. It assumes that, as with science, literature can be mapped on a linear trajectory from the darkness of insufficient data to the clear light of present knowledge.
The net result is a scientific materialism that has affected all aspects of modern civilization. The detachment so necessary for unbiased scientific enquiry has unfortunately infected all of society, to the point where we are more disconnected from nature than ever. The disastrous impact on the planet speaks for itself. Whether in poetry or the world at large, scientific materialism excises the spirit and turns the world into a panoply of lifeless objects to be used as we see fit.
This is the very antithesis of poetry, that most spiritual of arts. The ‘objective’ poets—like the scientists and capitalists—conveniently forgot that the observer is also the observed, and vice versa. They are one. Even quantum physics suggests that the very act of observation can change or at least affect the observed. A synergy occurs that is more than the sum of its individual parts, rendering objectivity at best a fiction. Any aboriginal shaman can tell you this. We cannot divide ourselves from the world we perceive, nor should we. Our reaction to it at any given moment is part of its dance—the giver and the receiver, the taker and the taken, in one endless round, each affecting the other.
The poet’s gift lies in articulating this dance, this central truth at the heart of perception, and awakening the reader to its many-faceted possibilities. And while it’s true that the poet needs to ‘get out of the way’ as much as possible to allow the greatest possible clarity, it does not mean the poet has no place in the poem. As Blake and Bly make plain, it is the poet’s unconscious ‘leaping’ that intuitively connects the dots between seemingly disparate objects and ideas.
Allen Ginsberg spoke of it in terms of the poet’s ‘vatic’ role, “the voice in the burning bush” that illuminates as in a fire yet never destroys even as it burns. Like Moses, the poet intuits a pathway to the divine in the moment through an ordinary, everyday object. If the object is merely described with scientific detachment, the spiritual connection is lost. The role of the poet’s presence in the poem is to make the connection clear.
Poetic craft is not analogous to a set of surgeon’s instruments, excising the cancerous growth of the poet’s presence from the body under observation. Craft is the music of language, the particular notes and chords, the key chosen from long experience that creates the song and all its resonating under- or overtones. Just as there can be no song without the musician, there can be no poem without the presence of the poet. He or she is the keeper of divine fire that breathes life into us all.