Monday, July 12, 2010

Poems and Prayers

published in New View magazine, UK- Summer Issue 2010

Poetry is a ‘term’ often used to describe rhyming verse that expresses feelings. And, of course, anyone is free to write and call it whatever they wish; however, if a creation is to be ‘art’, it must embody more than personal feelings. The art of poetry is in its ability to embody "living thought" in which the reader can sense the shaping, as truly as possible, of the "vision" or experience the poet is conveying. “Poetry… should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts and appear almost a remembrance” (Keats).

Great poetry can often strike us just that way, as both personal and universal, whether it be a simple haiku or an epic. Gilgamesh, The Mahabharata, The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s plays (which are all poetry); Parsifal and others represent an age or culture, and also transcend it. Together, the greatest works of the ages can be understood as a kind of history of humanity’s evolution in imaginative form, moral ‘guides’ for those who can see and hear.To be true to a vision or experience, and to re-create them in words (which are not just words) takes some effort and some understanding.

The art of poetry must involve interest in many elements and resources, both inner and outer. One might look to the classics (or other works of art) and compare them with mere verse. Yes, it is true that we are not slaves to the past, to conventions, or to any rules per se. In fact, in our time, we feel ourselves to be individuals free from the past and standards, which we perceive as limitations. But to disregard, or, worse yet, to be ignorant of how poetry evolved (or any other art for that matter) is to be isolated from true “originality.” Self-reference only, in an effort to express one’s feelings, can result in nothing more than sentimental verse, which has neither wide appeal nor longevity.

Students of poetry can begin to build a picture of and a sense for just what makes classics and other true poetry living, lasting and essentially different from mere verse or prose. What resounds in poetry that moves us so deeply and transports us so fully? The connections of poetry to nature's rhythms and to its inherent analogies to the human being and human experiences also must be considered. The poet’s vision embodied might dawn on us as though it is our own, as Keats suggests, because we recognize the truth and wisdom in it, as its ‘revelations’ transcend the personal and touch on the universally human. One can imagine that the first human utterances, chants, stories and prayers were all music and meaning.

In James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the young Stephen Dedalus is aware of “an unsubstantial image which his soul constantly beheld.” Ishmael in Moby Dick senses “the ungraspable phantom of life.” The Romantic poet, Shelley, spoke of “The everlasting universe of things which flows through the mind.” In “A Defence of Poetry” he writes, “A poem is the image of life expressed in its eternal truth.” Implied in all of these examples is the recognition of something that stands behind ordinary experience in the sense world whose brilliance is felt and understood, yet is paradoxical and beyond definition. “A poem is the burning bow that once could shoot an arrow out of the up and down” (Yeats). The capacity of Imagination “sees” into and beyond that world into the "deep, deep well of the past," not only to our cultural/geographic roots, but, it can be argued, to our biological, psychological and even pre-historic origins (Campbell).

Imagination “subdues to union all irreconcilable things” (Shelley) and lifts the veil on a world often hidden to ordinary vision, which can become clouded by the intellect. The intellect categorizes, analyzes and separates. The imagination grasps the unseen and reveals the underlying patterns and forms which appear and reappear throughout the universe, nature and in the human being. It perceives those inherent relationships and similarities among things and unifies. It goes to the origins of things, which are the sources of inspiration, and the “sources of our strength” (Carson).

Behold the plant;
It is the butterfly
Held prisoner by the earth.

Behold the butterfly;
It is the plant
By the whole cosmos freed. (Rudolf Steiner)

For the true poet (and for us), insights like these are not simply ‘metaphors’ or mere ‘poetic devices’; they are revelations. They are realities to be recognized by the poetic ‘mind soul’. Coleridge describes imagination as, “the living power and prime agent of all human perception in man’s infinite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite ‘I am’.”

Inspiration may seem fleeting, but can be trained. When poets are inspired, they are breathing in what they behold, whether it be a leaf, an insect or an idea radiating from within. They see, not with their eyes, but through their eyes, which Plato describes as the "windows of the soul." Therefore, they see with an extraordinary clarity. That which may appear distorted, common or uninteresting to us, is transformed in the breathing out of the poet’s pen. The poet takes the “forms of things unknown” and “turns them into shapes and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name” (Shakespeare).

Intuition is a way of knowing what is true. It is “the intellect’s being where and what it sees.” We might think of it as what Emerson called "self-reliance," that is, an inherent trust in experience and the inner voice that says, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string… The Eternal is stirring at our hearts, working through our hands, predominating in all our being. Poets are inspired, in touch with imagination and trust their intuition.

Though I mention Wonder last, it is the prerequisite capacity, without which the other capacities would not be as available. Wonder is an openness to beauty, goodness and truth, which we naturally have as children, if we are allowed and encouraged to experience life. Things of beauty are valued and create a sense of reverence that does not have to be taught. Look at a mountain peak; a blanket of stars in a dark sky; the leaves of grass (Whitman); a child's shining face, "holding wonder like a cup" (Teasdale).

Conversely, an emerging sense of wonder can easily be crushed or thwarted if it is met with cynicism or negativity. One can see its opposite in disrespect, a lack of sensibilities or in destructive tendencies and apathy, or just plain detachment from the immediacy, intimacy and impact of those sources of strength. Increasingly, all of these capacities are at risk of lying dormant with the use of and dependence on technology, which at the most basic, but essential level, isolates children from just the experiences which can develop and build these capacities.

“Ah!” (an open vowel sound) emerges from us – in all languages – when we stand in awe and simply behold that which ‘is’. Something in us opens, fills a void, and may emerge in ways we could never imagine or predict, perhaps, as Wordworth suggests in his poem “Tintern Abby”, in "little unremembered acts of kindness of love, " and for the poet (and us also as creators), as beauty in all of its forms. The Greeks knew that wonder is the beginning of wisdom; it is also a foundation for creation of the beautiful. Dostoevsky went so far as to say that beauty could save the world, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (Keats).

Poems that convey a sense of the “living Word,” must emerge from poets as prayer calling upon the capacities of Wonder, Imagination, Inspiration and Intuition. Whether or not we think of ourselves as artists, we can all be creators with an understanding, an appreciation and a practice toward development of these capacities.

Tribute and acknowledgement go to Christy MacKaye Barnes, a master Waldorf teacher of students and teachers, for some of the thoughts conveyed in “Poems and Prayers.” She was an inspirational mentor who freely shared and passed on her insights, knowledge and love of language to many.

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