Friday, November 15, 2013

Poetry and the Soul

Like a wild animal, the soul is tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self-sufficient: it knows how to survive in hard places….  Yet despite its toughness, the soul is also shy.
                                                            Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness, 58

            I just returned from the third and final of a series of “Soul Leaders” retreats.  These retreats were intended to provide space for the exploration of our souls as ordained or licensed leaders within the United Methodist Church in Minnesota.  We used poetry, music and art in circles of trust to welcome our shy souls, in methods based-in and inspired by Parker Palmer.
            For some, poetry is, at best, a tolerable method for exploring the soul.  For me, the opportunity to use poetry to explore my hopes, dreams, fears, longings and relationship to God is a delight.  I rarely leave a book of poems without having had my soul enlarged a bit.
            One of the delights of this Soul Leaders experience for me was that prior to each retreat some poetry was working on me already.  I brought with me some poetry that had been finding its way into my life in the days and weeks just prior to each retreat.
            In the winter, there were these lines from Rilke that I took with me:

                        How we squander our hours of pain,
How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration
to see if they have an end.  Though they are really
seasons of us, our winter-
enduring foliage, ponds, meadows, our inborn landscape,
where birds and reed-dwelling creatures are at home.
                        (an early version of the Tenth Duino Elegy, tr. Stephen Mitchell)

            When we met in September, it was not long after Seamus Heaney died, and I was re-reading some of his work, and when I do that I often find something I had previously overlooked.  This time it was his poem “The Rain Stick” (The Spirit Level).  The lines that held me, in particular were these:

You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a raindrop.  Listen now again.

At that retreat we did a lot of drumming
            This week, I carried with me Wallace Stevens.  I first encountered Stevens’ poetry while working on my doctoral dissertation.  My dissertation had nothing to do with poetry, but exercising late at night, I watched the PBS Voices and Visions series on poetry.  Wallace Stevens was one of the poets featured.  Stevens poetry can be challenging, but I find him worth the struggle.  Both his poems and his reflection on poetry are meaningful.
            I don’t know what drew me back to Stevens last week, just before the retreat, but something did.  Here are a couple of his reflections on poetry:

It is life that we are trying to get at in poetry.  Opus Posthumous, 185

One reads poetry with one’s nerves.  Opus Posthumous, 189

Things that have their origin in the imagination or in the emotions (poems) very often have meanings that differ in nature from the meanings of things that have their origin in reason.  They have imaginative or emotional meanings….  In short, things that have their origin in the imagination or in the emotions very often take on a form that is ambiguous or uncertain.  It is not possible to attach a single, rational meaning to such things without destroying the imaginative or emotional ambiguity or uncertainty that is inherent in them.                                                             Opus Posthumous, 249

This latter helps me understand not only the potential richness of poetry, but also the potential richness of Scriptures which are often poetic.
            The Stevens poem that has been sticking with me most the past few days is a late poem, “July Mountain” (Opus Posthumous, 140).  It contains these lines that have been particularly moving within me:

We live in a constellation
Of patches and of pitches

Thinkers without final thoughts
In an always incipient cosmos

The sense of openness and adventure and creativity in these lines captures something important to me, to my soul, to my relationship with God.
            I am grateful for the poetry which opens my soul.

With Faith and With Feathers,