For the past four years, I’ve taught sophomore English at a Jesuit college prep high school. An odd destination for me, since I’ve been firmly planted on the religious sidelines for most of my life. I was hired and about to sign my contract; I knew I still had a tough confession to make to the principal: that I was…..um……a time-tested, dyed-in-the-wool, non-believer. He went silent, but I kept talking. I told him (only half facetiously), that poetry was the closest thing to a religion I’ve ever had. I told him my faith arises from my five senses, images, words, text, subtext, metaphor, and mystery. I wanted this job, no doubt, so I quickly positioned myself as the school’s “token non-believer.” Fortunately, he saw it the same way. (He graciously went on to tell me he would like “one of everything, eventually.”) Today, I understand the daily tensions and discernments valued in the Jesuit philosophy lead to growth (they call it getting closer to God’s glory). My family and friends tell me I sound like I’ve been “sipping on the Kool-Aid.” To that, I say: Forgive me / it was delicious / so sweet / and so cold.
So, is it possible to reasonably combine a poetry practice with a spiritual practice? There is a helpful book out on this topic, Poetry as Spiritual Practice: Reading, Writing, and Using Poetry in Your Daily Rituals, Aspirations, and Intentions, by Poet Robert McDowell. I got in touch with him to ask what prompted his poetic career and his spiritual life to intersect in such a deep way. He said there was a series of undeniable events that made him question his life and the way he was living it. Up until that point, he’d been affiliated with the Catholic church, but their meager responses to the scandals and devotion to the notion of celibacy eventually soured him. Religious limbo took him to Tibet and resulted in years of studying Buddhism. We spoke about the affect this has had on his work. He said he enters poems these days from a more compassionate place—his best self stepping forward—instead of writing from a cynical, default place. He feels the edginess is not there anymore in his work, (“for better or worse”).
If I use this common definition of religion—a cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion—then poetry easily fits into the category. I am happy to discover there is an emerging field of study called theopoetics. It is a hybridization of poetry and theology, with a splash of postmodern philosophy thrown in for further complication. In other words, it seems to be an inspired way of working with language and worldviews that ideally leaves more than a little wiggle room for exploration of the Divine. At least that is my understanding of it.
Here are my tenets of a poetry religion:
God/s: There are too many poetry deities to name, but let’s just say I will gladly place oranges on the poetry altars of Szymborska, Dunn, Strand, Stevens, Simic, McHugh, Plath, C.D. Wright, Whitman, et al.
Rituals: Wake early. Sit quietly at a desk. Find the right pen. Get up from desk. Wash dishes. Fold laundry. Pay bills. Make calls. Feed the dogs. Pick-up the kids. Brew tea. Nap. (Repeat)
Church Offerings: 99.9999% of your poetry income will be voluntarily tithed to “Da Poetry Church.”
Daily Prayers: “God, please let me have at least one more decent poem in me.” “Dear Lord, let me get through this MFA program.” “Please help me decide once and for all: should it be “a kiss” or “the kiss”?”
Judgment Day: When an esteemed guest judge decrees the fates of all poetry contest entrants according to the style and worth of their earthly verse.
Life after Death?: No one knows for sure. Jean Cocteau called poetry “a religion without hope.” Yeah, that sounds about right.