Poetry and the Holy now moment
POETS ARE THE MODELS PAR EXCELLENCE of people who live in the “Now moment.” They are people who tingle with life. Their verse is charged with their life-force so that when we read it, we too are often charged with life and promise ourselves to make more of an effort to live more intensely in our own Now moments. All poets in some fashion remind us, like Horace’s dictum, carpe them (seize the day), that we don’t have an eternity of time here on earth, that we must seize the day every day.
Turning to Poetry
When I was younger, I turned to poetry not so much to embrace immediate reality but to escape it. Poetry became my haven where I could abide with poets like Wordsworth, roaming the Lake District along with the great poet and his sister Dorothy. Coleridge’s verse transported me to exotic and exciting places, dreamscapes that expelled all that was mundane, all that was ordinary. For the sheer joy of language drenched in beauty there were always Shelley and Keats, with their landscapes fraught with skylarks, nightingales, autumnal beauty, and magical moonlight. For Arthurian romance I need only open Tennyson’s Idylls of the King to be transported to a Pre-Raphaelite land of chivalry and damsels in distress.
Gerard Manley Hopkins’s verse reminded me of life’s holiness and God’s abiding presence, omnipresent even through his dark night of the terrible sonnets. Francis Thompson’s gorgeous verse was a constant reminder of God’s love for us, a love that “hounds” us to the ends of the earth. During my own spiritual aridity, I read Eliot’s The Four Quartets. If he could successfully pass through and survive the Waste Land so too could 1.
There were so many other poets who nourished my soul in my good and bad days, poets offering me the saving word, the very one I desperately required to face and to overcome a problem, an anxiety, an inadequacy, or simply to get through a day. Suffice it to say that without the poets I may not have prevailed, may not be writing this essay. To this day, I find it mysterious that the very poet I needed has always appeared at the very time I needed him or her. Perhaps it’s not so mysterious because I believe God sends us the messengers we require, and for me, because the teaching of literature is my vocation, they have most often been poets.
Now as a person over fifty, I turn to poetry for different reasons. Rarely do I desire to escape reality. On the contrary, I want to embrace it, to become one with the immediate, to live acutely in the Present Moment in the manner of the mystics and poets. Too often in my life I’ve chastised myself for not living intensely, for being inattentive to life’s splendid and various details. I was once embarrassed because I couldn’t identify a flower, a common one at that. When it occurred to me that I couldn’t identify the trees on my street nor the birds visiting my garden’s birdbath, I knew I had to pay more attention to what life offers for it indeed is, as the poet Hopkins reminds us, “charged with grandeur of God.”
Then it struck me: I’ve lived with an Attention Deficit Disorder for too much of my life. ADD, as it is known to educators, is a psychological syndrome with which many of today’s students suffer. Simply put, it means that students have wandering minds and can’t focus their attention on anything for long periods of time. In the past a teacher would simply say, “Pay attention!”-often an insufficient and ineffective command although I do think many of us by an act of will can become more attentive. Under pressure, today’s educators have learned to adapt their teaching methodologies in order to reach children who for various psychological and physical reasons can’t pay attention.
At this stage of my life I need poets (who are my teachers) who will shout “Pay attention!” until I learn to live by it. I don’t want to come to the end of my life and realize that I’ve not lived acutely, or as Thoreau would say, “deliberately.” Like the poet Denise Levertov in her poem “Flickering Mind,” I have been “absent” from too much of my life, absent too much from God’s presence in the world, manifested, as St. Augustine reminds us, in the world’s beauty. Having reached my life’s halfcentury, I better learn rather quickly how to be present to the Now moment-time is of the essence!
The Energy of Poetry
Often when I read great (especially religious) poetry I feel recharged and more alive; I feel as if a voltage of energy has electrified my spirit. After reading certain poets, I want to shout with joy and dance in abandon and share my enthusiasm with all I know. The great poet of Carmel, California, Robinson Jeffers delineates poetry’s gifts:
Like the other arts, poetry is a source of high and lasting pleasure, but more than most of the others it is capable of affecting life directly; it sharpens the perceptions and emotions, and it can reconcile man to his environment or inspire him to change it. And poetry enriches life, adding overtones of significance and nobility to common things, as for instance wine, honey, horses, gold, bread, are more valuable for the sake of their (even half-forgotten) associations… For all the arts-but I think poetry more than others-are instruments of discovery, like a telescope, as well as instruments of expression, like a violin.’
So unlike W. H. Auden who says that poetry changes nothing, I believe that if we devote our attentive efforts to reading poetry, we will be richly rewarded. In his just published book Errata, George Steiner writes,
The third demand made of us by serious art, music, literature, or philosophy is the most difficult to formulate, let alone satisfy. Any experience modifies consciousness. Be it subliminal or traumatic, there is no psychic or physical-material happening which does not alter the complex of our identity. In the flux of the instantaneous, the impact, like that of the charged particles streaming through our planet, is infinitesimal and unperceived. But personal being is process; it is in perpetual change. Being disinterested and so often entirely unexpected-the painting seen suddenly on a wall or in a gallery, the melody which possesses our bodily motion and memory unbidden, the poem or novel or play which, as it were, lay in ambush-the meeting, the collision between awareness and signifying form, between perception and the aesthetic, is among the most powerful. It can transmute US.2 (my emphasis)
How does poetry “transmute us”? For one thing it requires us to pay attention. Think about it: What does attention demand of us? To read a poem we must be silent and often alone. In our noisy and crowded world silence and solitude can only be good and restorative for us. Next we must concentrate our attention on the poem before us. What does this require? We must enter into a self-forgetting-the ego and all its demands must be placed on the back burner of our minds so that we can give ourselves wholly to the verse before us.
Entering the terra incognita (unknown land) of verse, we are like the first explorers who traveled to America. We are like John Keats who, when he first read Chapman’s translation of Homer, says, “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken.” Such is the power of verse that we feel we have discovered new planets and stars, but what is often discovered is something about ourselves along with an intense realization of the moment. It is my contention, I say again, that great poetry renders us aware of the Now moment.
In his poem To the Skylark, Shelley pinpoints the dilemma of most modern people:
We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught.
Either we live in life’s “before” (the past) or we “pine for what is not” (the future). As for Now, we don’t pay attention to it; we thus lose it forever. But if we read poetry closely, we can indeed not only develop our power of attention, but we can also in the process of contemplating the poem achieve a sense of Now because all great poetry, as D. H. Lawrence says, is “poetry of the present.” About life’s immediacy Lawrence says,
Life, the ever-present, knows no finality, no finished crystallisation. The perfect rose is only a running flame, emerging and flowing off, and never in any sense at rest, static, finished. Herein lies its transcendent loveliness. The whole tide of all life and all time suddenly heaves and appears before us as an apparition, a revelation… It is the source and issue, the bubbling up of the stream. Here, in this very instant moment, up bubbles the stream of time, out of the wells of futurity, flowing on the oceans of the past. The source, the issue, the creative quick.3
The poet throws herself wholly into the creation of beauty. Her mind, body, and soul all conjoin together in the Now moment to capture a Now moment. We as reader, if we are acutely attuned in our attention, can become charged by the poet’s attention which intensifies our own sense of the Now. Consequently, we feel more alive because, in a vicarious way, we too become present to the very beauty that initially moved the poet, that is now captured forever in verse.
Entering Sacred Ground
When we decide to read a poem (it is an act of will), it is like entering sacred ground where the Holy can happen. Some modern poets who have converted to Catholicism did so because they “sneaked” into the sacred ground of Catholic churches. I think of Thomas Merton who visited the splendid churches of Rome and for the first time wanted to know Christ. I think of Wallace Stevens sneaking into St. Patrick’s Cathedral on his trips to New York just to sit in its holy ambiance. World War I poet/artist David Jones, while gathering wood for a fire, saw a light gleaming from a barn. Peeking though boards, he observed a Mass being celebrated with soldiers reverently on their knees and hands folded-a sight that changed his life forever.
There is also the other great World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon who converted to Catholicism late in life. In his poetic account of his conversion, Lenten Illuminations, he writes, “What were you up togoing into churches all those years / Of faith unfaithful?” A more recent poet, Denise Levertov, also confesses to surreptitious visitations to churches: “At first / belief was a joy I kept secret, / stealing into sacred places.”
The sacred is not only contained within the stone and wood architecture of churches; it can be found in spiritual poetry. There is much religious poetry available for today’s reader. I believe that the frame of mind with which we approach religious poetry is important. Meister Eckhart wrote, “As thou art in church or cell, that same frame of mind carry out into the world, into its turmoil and its fitfulness.”
When we enter into a reading of a poem, we must bring with us what J. Krishnamurti calls our “religious mind.” Krishnamurti describes the religious mind: “It is the investigation, with all one’s attention, with the summation of all one’s energy, to find that which is sacred, to come upon that which is holy.”4 When we read poetry, we create our own oratory of the heart and mind where both the poet and the reader engage in holy dialogue.
There is no doubt that religious poems contain the power to change our lives. I offer Simone Weil as an example. She says that after reading George Herbert’s poem “Love Bade Me Welcome,” Christ possessed her soul. So when entering the sacred ground of poetry, be prepared for anything to happen, but one thing is certainly bound to happen: We become attentive to the Now moment. Whether or not we are allowed a glimpse of the mysterium tremendum (the presence of God) is something to be hoped for but not demanded because such is a gift of God’s grace.
How to Read Poetry in a Holy Way
1. Choose a poem to read. Do not be concerned about whether or not it is a religious poem or a secular one. Every great poem’s source is the soul, therefore a gift of grace.
2. Choose a quiet place to read. In silence and solitude create your own oratory of the heart and mind where you can be alone with the poem. The reader is like a monk reciting his Lectio Divina.
3. Poetry, like the Liturgy of Hours, should be read aloud because it is meant to be heard. Often the poem reveals its deeper meaning when it is spoken.
4. Focus your attention completely on the poem. When you give yourself to a poem, you lose yourself in an act of meditation which always has the potential to be a moment of grace, if not a moment of epiphany.
5. Look up the definitions of the words you don’t understand, but try not to be obsessive about it. T. S. Eliot remarked that poetry can communicate even when one doesn’t understand every word. For instance, as a young Catholic acolyte, I did not understand every Latin word of the Mass, but I felt the awe and mystery of the language used by the priest.
6. Take note of capitalization and punctuation which can serve as important clues as to the meaning of the poem.
7. Take note of poetic devices such as metaphor, simile, alliteration, onomatopoeia, assonance, consonance, hyperbole, etc. Attention to poetic figures of speech enhances our appreciation of the poem.
8. Do not become discouraged if you feel you haven’t plumbed the meaning of the poetry. You have not wasted your time. Simone Weil says, “Never in any case whatever is a genuine effort of the attention wasted. It always has its effect on the spiritual plane and in consequence on the lower one of the intelligence, for all spiritual light lightens the mind.”‘
In honor of our theme and the mystic Simone Weil, I offer “Attention,” a poem I composed after I wrote this essay:
Teach me to be attentive
To all your vestiges:
To the first light,
To the waking bird,
To the leaf’s rustle and the rain’s drop,
To the scent of water and the sky’s hue
and the rise of the wind;
Teach me to be so attentive that
I shall hear the first flakes of the snow’s fall.
Inspired by Simone Weil
1. Robinson Jeffers, The Selected Letters of Robinson Jeffers, ed. by Ann N. Ridgeway (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1968), p. 225.
2. George Steiner,Errata (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), p. 27.
3. D. H. Lawrence, The Complete Poems, edited by Vivian de Sola Pints, and F. War
ren Roberts (New York, Penguin, 1964), pp. 182-83.
4. J. Krishnamurti, The Wholeness of Life (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 145.
5. Simone Weil, The Simone Weil Reader, ed. George A. Panichas (New York: David Mckay Co., 1977), p. 53.
Robert Waldron holds masters’ degrees in English and Education. A teacher of thirty years, he is a four-time recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is the author of the recently published work, Poetry as Prayer: The Hound of Heaven (Pauline Books and Media). His other works include Thomas Merton in Search of His Soul and numerous articles which have appeared in Catholic Digest, Spiritual Life, and other journals.
Copyright Spiritual Life Fall 1999
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