by Steve McDaniels
I am honored to be asked by the Senior Editor of Light & Life, Jim Cleveland, to foster the poetry vision for anyone whose eyes might fall like rain upon this fertile ground of spirit and page. I have been blessed to have a very passionate love affair with poetry. It started as a boy reading Poe and other poets and on to the writing of my first poems for my supporting mother. Fraught with re-occurring dreams of the death-experience coupled with frightening daymares and fevers as a child, my secret spiritual experiences began a journey for more light and understanding of the mystery of life. Poetry became a way of expressing my innermost feelings and it helped move me along in my search for God and Truth and, ultimately, living in more of that radiant experience.
Poetry is a major vehicle of the creative process. I have always considered myself a vigorous voice for the art of poetry. It is spiritual therapy for many readers and writers. Many of us read it and write it, simply, because we must or we might burst trying to contain a certain feeling bigger than our world. As poetry is a vehicle, so are all of us vehicles and instruments of Spirit. The creative process is Light-ordained and, of that, there is certainty beyond all belief. Like love, it is an invisible feeling that words can only dance around and, hopefully, open to the vast center of the ineffable Truth. Poetry, in its truest sense, is a spiritual experience. It can be profound and ecstatic.
It is in this light of the spiritual awakening that this column shall endeavor to make more aware the importance of poetry in our spiritual lives. We will target, primarily, the great poets of the 20th century to include Rilke, Yeats, Eliot, and many others, but lend ourselves to look at other great poems and poets from other eras such as Rumi, Wordsworth and Whitman. I will attempt to open hearts of understanding as to why poems can be powerful conduits of Spirit. The poetry experience spans a wide spectrum across the bare bones of mental knowledge and realization to mild euphoria and sensation to orgasmic states of ecstasy. Many poets have had less than profound mystical experiences with the art. Yet, poetry became their life and pointer to the absolute having encapsulated their quest to answer their deep intuitive questions of existence. All matter of experience is relative. One person’s dim light-experience is another’s bright light. But, light’s nature, according to Einstein, is the only thing that is extraneous and not relative. There, you have the conundrum of being human. One is always left with the choice of seeing the Light and going towards it or denying it. Yet the sun burns each and every day in an open invitation for more darkness to be illumined no matter our choices.
Light and dark is the primordial metaphor of our lives. And in this column we shall focus our receptors of the heart and mind on the brightest lights of poetry. I invite you to the process by your input and letters. And soon, A CALL FOR POEMS: a quest for poems that have moved you to a spiritual experience and an invite for new poems worthy of publication and experiences. I want to not only publish the old and new works of quality poetry, but as importantly, inspire readers and writers of poetry to better understand the art and power of the poem and to more fully comprehend the message in the poem that the writer intended.
The Reading and Writing of Good Poetry
THE ART OF POETRY Out of the Nutshell
Percy Shelley once wrote, “Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.” Not bad, but I feel a true analysis of what poetry is could better be likened to Truth and Beauty. Keats’ famous statement that Truth and Beauty are one and the same can be taken to the bank. Poetry is the expression of Truth made aware and it is Beauty. It is the bridge that connects all of us to our ultimate Being and a Beauty so profound and startling that even the soul shudders like a leaf in amazement. A poem should strive toward a certain entrance to Beauty and leave one traversing the distances full of emotion, storm and awe. This does not mean that Beauty is some happy, tranquil setting or stationary scene of the soul or landscape. It can be that. But humanity is fraught with great secrets of darkness like bright gems of the night, unraveled by blazing transcendent insights of Light and understanding. Revelation from darkness to light is humanity’s glory and art. There is Beauty in longing, grief, pain and sorrow as there is Beauty in love, innocence, and the natural things like the long grace of water streams or the Fall sycamores dripping with summer lights in late October evenings. There is Beauty in all things and ideas. And why Rodin helped create, perhaps, the greatest poet of the 20th century when he told Rilke to go find God in all the things and to transform his poetry. Beauty and Truth are synonymous. It is what lasts after all is said and done. Out of that ultimate, Invisible Beauty of Love, comes all beauty and love, the stars, the moon, and our precious earth and all its incredible, little beauties.
All poetry is spiritual, as all is Spirit, or God. But the better the poetry the brighter the light and the more intense the potential for the spiritual awareness brought by the poem. The poem itself, composed of mere words, is not the real experience of poetry. The words are the transmission and transcendence to the experience. This experience is happening right now if we can only get out of the way. Poetry helps us to do just that- to get out of the way. It is why contradiction and paradox in poetry, used wisely, can be as powerful a tool as metaphor and downright, good writing. (See further, THE CRAFT OF POETY, In A Nutshell) The door opens when the words give their final push into the consciousness of Light. There, one stands in awe of all words left behind for the Beauty of Being. The good and bad with the symbols of language along with all conceptual dualism is fused into the paradoxical miracle of Life. This is the true poetry experience: a shift in consciousness. And yet, there are many sparks in the fire of awareness along the way that by no means are any lesser in value to the burning. In fact, the little things of awareness in a poem can be huge and function as critical cogs in the wheel of our awakening. Good poetry not only speaks from the page but cries from within our hearts to be heard as if our very soul sings a song beyond our earthly senses. “Still, there are words that can calmly approach the unsayable . . . “ (Rilke)
Poetry is an art that can take us to what pervades as spiritual presence. At its best, it is what spans the distances and connects all the dots to map our voyage to the ineffable Godhead. It is a ladder to what exemplifies our Being. This is what poets must aspire towards. Otherwise, they fall short to the prey of their own shallow image, of a road half-traveled immersed in the folly of duality and delusion, and too often their poetry shouts awkwardly of sentimentality and bare romance. With that in mind, the greatest romance is with Truth and Beauty as God. And hence, like Rumi and other great poets have purported, no lovemaking can compare with the lovemaking of the Creator and Created. This is the ultimate union in which all other unions are made. And yet, these symbols and metaphors of our lives are so incredible in that they are great lights of magnitude to help guide us in our precious lives. Good poems must point the way to the Light. The words must go beyond the words as if a path to the soul where one finally jumps out of the sheer thought of the poem and into the vast air, or sea, of the heart of understanding. It is light, and more light. And it is that simple and difficult.
The reading and writing of poetry, like other arts, is a wide and variable ocean. If you want to write good poetry and expect others to read it, or if you want a spiritual awakening via the art of poetry and grace, then you must read good poetry. “Only poetry inspires poetry,” Emerson once said. Reading poetry brings one into the throes of the sensation that transmits the energy to words. And the greater the poetry the brighter the light and energy for transmission. You must stand on the shoulders of giants as Newton implied when he notably gave credit to those before him in science. Anything less would be like Garth Brooks never having listened to Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard or Hank Williams. Anything less would be like Yo Yo Ma never having listened to Beethoven.
Know the art if you are going to read it or write it for the most impact. It is not about emotion as much as Truth and Beauty. Emotion is the voltage for the current to move. “Good poetry seems too simple and natural a thing that when we meet it we wonder that all men are not always poets. Poetry is nothing but healthy speech.” –Thoreau. Here, Thoreau is defining the commonality and simplicity of poetry and correlating it to a healthiness of Spirit in Man. Someone asked Ginsberg, years ago, how to be poet. He remarked to go into the woods and fast for forty days. Not an easy task for any of us who have fasted. Yet, Jesus and others have done it with incredible spiritual results. But what Ginsberg was getting at was the necessity to cleanse the soul of all our conceptual thinking and approach the art like a child: fresh, reborn, and innocent.
If you ever see a child around a simple Scarab, or dung beetle, you will notice a wonder and awe in the child unsurpassed by most adults. The source and power of poetry is running through the child’s blood. There is this amazement in the little things. An adult will come by and scowl at the tiny creature having found life and beauty in shit. Or, the grand little play will go totally unnoticed. But the child will be in sheer bewildering joy. It is that feeling of seeing through the eyes of a child with an adult’s capacity to communicate is what makes good poets. Poets need to get out of the box. Out of the nutshell.
Another example of this would be the idea of writing a poem (arriving at the truth) by sitting near a pond and listening to the birds singing in the trees. An out of the box lesson (out of the body experience?) would be to suddenly stop yourself of much, if not all, of your conditioning and pre-conceived notions as if you were an alien having come to Earth for the first time. Imagine you just appeared and have never seen a bird. To you, the trees would be singing as all the birds are deeply hidden in the forest. Suddenly, you see a song launched upon wings with a beating heart. Then, other songs are sent high into the air as if the voice of trees were contained in some sacred life soaring through open space. The light of your vision expands with the tiny bird growing out and traversing the distances with song. Well, you get the picture. Each and every one of us as a child saw our first experience of birds and trees with incredible wonder and awe. Poets need to get back there, somehow, and use their adult language to explain what is really happening to be in service to others with this art. It takes undoing a lot of our adult ideas of separateness and dark disunity. We have been pummeled down into our suppressed issues where they are stuffed into our gut with grown-up self-righteousness at having played the right and wrong game too long. Again, it is about the dark blossoming into light like a simple morning. It is not an easy art, but a most wonderful one and worth every effort to understand it more fully.
Poetry has been most likened to painting. "Painting was called silent poetry and poetry speaking painting."- Ralph Waldo Emerson. So, paint a story from a child’s intuition and an adult’s use of language. Ginsberg was a poet who became a Buddhist. His advice on how to write poetry was very direct and succinct, “I have a new method of poetry. All you got to do is look over your notebooks. . . and think of anything that comes into your head, especially the miseries. . . . Then arrange in lines of two, three or four words each, don't bother about sentences . . .” Actually, many feel that too much art, today, is like this. From poetry to Hollywood films. But this advice from Ginsberg on how to write poetry is a very good beginning coming from the great Beat poet himself. And I say ‘beginning’ because after you write all your miseries down then find the beauty in them and write a really good poem!
Many poets journal every day. Write anything. It doesn’t matter. In a page of blathering you will always find a seed worth nurturing a poem. Water it with insight and with the fertile ground of your own shit. Don’t forget the world of the dung beetle. And create something of Beauty through understanding. And don’t ever forget there are many people who write poetry, but very few poets. It takes a lot of solitude and introspection on a level that few can commit. I know a lot of wordsmiths who can dance around their witty worlds and lines, and dazzle, but most are far from being poets. They might have even published volumes. Real poets know that quiet mind and the voice of solitude heals and administers to all poets their true sustenance. And truly inspired writing is never written by the writers. They are only the conduits for the Spirit of God.
THE CRAFT OF POETRY (In A Nutshell)
It is no easy task to summarize, in a short narrative, the craft of poetry. But let’s give it the old college try. First, there is the sound of poetry. Many people rhyme poetry and adhere to it for the structure and meter, or musical sound. But in the mainstream of most published poetry, rhyme has been fairly dead since Walt Whitman celebrated not only his soul, but also the liberation of structured rhyming poetry. Yet, rhyme at the end of lines is still employed as technique in many common poetic forms, such as ballads, sonnets and rhyming couplets. Rhyme evolved to European poetry from Arabic writings as most Greek and Latin poetry did not rhyme. Alliteration and rhyme, when used in poetic structure help define a resounding pattern much like patchwork stitching. But even structured poems of certain meter and cadence have been further liberated by various poets of stature. Modern poets like Williams, Cummings, Moore, and others have freed us from traditional meter as a necessary component of poetry. This does not mean there is not structure. And in many ways, it has made the writing of poetry rely more on the art and the understanding of the craft, and more difficult for some. Why? Because, to write in free verse, for example, requires a developed sense for rhythm, as in the feels of playing an instrument from hearing music and not writing music, and hence, writing the music of poetry in a style that is indicative to one’s own adeptness to listening.
In free verse the rhythm of lines is often organized into less organized units of cadence and sound. Poetry, like many arts, has been a movement to unleash the chains of confinement and imposition of the art itself. But with that freedom comes a newfound demand for the writer to feel grace and music in his/her poetry. An excellent way to develop grace and natural rhythm and sound is to read your poetry aloud. Pulitzer prize winner Stanley Kunitz, a few years ago in an interview, told how he still reads his new poems to his wife. She is his listening post. He also said it drives his wife a bit crazy in that he reads it aloud over and over until it sounds right. You can never really know how a poem sounds, or reads, until you read it aloud. Poetry is meant to be read aloud. Sounds that float out into the air and settle down like dew upon a quiet space will fill a page with similar certainty and grace. But the tools of this grace and power of understanding for you and an audience must include a few hammers and chisels. Particular styles of poetry run the gamut from haiku to epic to narrative form leaving the art very diverse. Learn from reading and studying the movements of poetry if you want to learn more about poetry, but mostly, tell a story with as much grace as you can muster if writing.
The use of tropes is critical in poetry. There are a few common tropes that cannot be ignored in the writing of good poetry. A trope is the use of a word or expression in a figurative sense, or figure of speech. It is a certain play on words or a turning from its literal meaning and suggesting something other than its normal meaning. A trope, used constructively, can blur the boundaries of separate ideas into one ultra-sense of unity. Perhaps the greatest trope is the use of the metaphor. A metaphor creates a likeness of an idea, or object, to another. It blends two dissimilar things into one and traverses the boundary lines that inhibit intuitive understanding. At it’s best, it brings separate things to the same light as this feeling of oneness resonates in the depths of our intuition and compels us to wholeness through comparatives. This movement, or transcendence, is why poetry can be so powerful, at times, and moves us into spiritual realms. As we know, Jesus talked in metaphor. And poets have been using it in their arsenal of tools for eons. I have never read from any good poets (or saints) who did not employ the use of metaphor (to make identical) or the simile (to compare) in their works.
Somehow, things must be likened unto another so that the audience is not only widened but so is the understanding. When we say that ‘My broken heart is a wounded bird’ a metaphor, or ‘Like a wounded bird my heart is broken’, a simile, we create a certain shift in consciousness. Other tropes include the metonymy which is associative use of a word or phrase for that of another, and the synecdoche, a figure of speech by which a part is used for the whole, the specific for the general and visa-versa. However you use these speech and writing tools, good poetry must create a connection and unison of worlds and ideas. This, done well, unleashes the spirit of poetry to move one beyond the words to an experience of the eternal, newfound presence.
Another tool is the simple, but powerful, use of contradiction, paradox and irony. Dylan Thomas was a master of these kinds of word play. In his famous line and poem, ‘Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines’ he epitomizes the use of these kinds of linguistic tools. He goes on in that poem to write “the things of light, file through the flesh where no flesh decks the bones.” These are powerful words full of contradiction and paradox that defy common sense but ring true. Many of his poems employ these methods to grab the reader and send them out of the very world of the poem and into another world full of presence and Being. Thomas changed my life as a young poet. I could not believe the power of his oratory and mastery of the iamb, or syllabic stresses of structured meter. He wrote with such Beauty and music. His words flowed like the very hills of Wales from where he wrote many of his poems. And like his tools of contradiction and irony, so was his life a contradiction to his writing. His drunken states and blatant affairs were a contradiction to the incredible insights and wisdom in his poems. But as Thomas stated so eloquently, “The words must stand on their own.” More on Thomas in future writings.
There you have it. “In my craft or sullen art, exercised in the still night when only the moon rages . . . “ (Thomas). I hope I have enriched your life a little to better understand the Beauty of poetry as an incredible art form. It is the spiritual experience personified in glory. Poetry opens doors to the beyond within our soul. I cannot imagine my life without the power of it. The frustration of writing poetry is that there are no words that can even approach the spirit of Beauty. But Truth is something that resonates in all of us and poetry can unleash the real artist writing the poems. It’s not you or me. We know when we hear it. It rings clear with high notes and uses us as instruments of Love. Poetry is a very private, lonely art, and yet, universal. It’s akin to going inside your soul in the deep of night only to find everyone there. And so, I will see you there, here, everywhere!
With that I leave you with one of the most beautiful and deeply spiritual poems of all time. The piece is replete with profound truth. It is from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), philosopher, novelist, playwright, poet, and German director of sciences and arts. His masterwork and most famous drama, Faust, Goethe worked on for most of his life. He started to compose Faust about the age of twenty-three, and finished the second part in 1832, just before his death. His life was spiritually rich and his writings were prolific. He once wrote, "If only politics and poetry could be united!” His dear friend, Laertes, wisely answered: "That would be the end of longing and the end of the world."
More on the spiritual analysis of this poem, its implication and Truth, in my next writings!
NEXT EDITION: THE IMPORTANCE AND MODERN POPULARITY OF THE ECSTATIC, 13TH CENTURY SUFI POET, JALALUDDIN RUMI
Peace be with you! And always, light, more light!
THE HOLY LONGING by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
(Translated by Robert Bly)
Tell a wise person, or else keep silent,
Because the massman will mock it right away.
I praise what is truly alive,
What longs to be burned to death.
In the calm water of the love-nights,
Where you were begotten, where you have begotten,
A strange feeling comes over you
When you see the silent candle burning.
Now you are no longer caught
In the obsession with darkness,
And a desire for higher love-making
Sweeps you upward.
Distance does not make you falter,
Now, arriving in magic, flying,
And finally, insane for the light,
You are the butterfly and you are gone.
And so long as you haven't experienced
This: to die and so to grow,
You are only a troubled guest
On the dark earth.
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