How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 21
Chapter 8: Writing toward the Core
Part 2: Connecting with God
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The most ordinary of prospects caused her to stop and stare. The last of the leaves dropped from the trees, and the bare branches made lace against pale skies. Sun after rain turned cobbled streets blue as fish scales, dazzling to the eye. Autumn winds, whipping the bay to a scud of white-caps, brought with them, not cold, but a surging sense of vitality. — Rosamunde Pilcher, The Shell Seekers
Living poetically begins with a sense of connectedness — with God, with the soul-candles of other creatures, with the earth. The poetic life is not lived in isolation.
I have heard equally intelligent and thoughtful people say contradictory things about God — that there is nothing that is not God, or that God is very “Other.” It doesn’t seem to make much difference, though I used to fret about such things quite a lot. Now I simply try to keep it in mind to honor the sacred, wherever I encounter it, or it encounters me, as the case may be. Though I am absent-minded and daydreamy, I try to remember to notice things, to be alert for any messages the Universe is trying to send me.
Rituals are important because they remind you to remember and to notice what you might otherwise take for granted, the way Mother’s Day prompts you to feel and to show gratitude to your mom. There is a calming, reassuring meditation on the site MyInnerWorld.com that calls to your attention the ways in which you are not self-sufficient but that in which, rather, you and your needs are supported — by the earth, by the air that you need to breathe, by food and water when you are thirsty and hungry…. More on rituals in another lesson.
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Where the self leaves off and God begins is the subject of a great deal of poetry. Here are three such poems (the third poem appears in two translations):
ARE YOU LOOKING FOR ME
Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
You will not find me in stupas, not in Indian shrine rooms, nor in synagogues, nor in cathedrals;
not in masses, nor kirtans, not in legs winding around your own neck, nor in eating nothing but vegetables.
When you really look for me, you will see me instantly—
you will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath.
—Kabir, translated by American author and poet Robert Bly in The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations
Kabir was “a mystic poet and saint of India” (Wikipedia, accessed Nov. 21, 2008) whose life spanned the first half of the fifteenth century. Born into a Muslim family, Kabir became a student of Ramananda, a Hindu. But Kabir’s views defied sectarianism, and his appeal has remained universal.
According to Kabir, all life is an interplay of two spiritual principles. One is the personal soul (Jivatma) and the other is God (Paramatma). It is Kabir’s view that salvation is the process of bringing into union these two divine principles. — Wikipedia
Of Kabir, Bly writes, “His metaphors act like a loose electric wire, or a two-by-four to the head. His contempt for those wishing to be saved by being good is endless…. In the shortest of his poems, he models the high-spiritedness that he thought is essential for the life we live on this earth.
“‘The buds are shouting:
”The Gardener is coming.
Today he picks the blossoms,
“If we cannot recite that last line with joy, then we are probably too gloomy to take Kabir in. He wants us not to worry whether we live or die.”
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The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.
The brain is deeper than the sea,
For, hold them, blue to blue,
The one the other will absorb,
As sponges, buckets do.
The brain is just the weight of God,
For, lift them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound.
— Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson — though not as solitary and reclusive as she has often been described — lived nearly all her life in her parents’ home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her poetry is deceptively simple, rigorously disciplined into conventional forms packed with paradox and insight. The poem above is in common meter, with the rhyming pattern ABCB arranged into alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter.
According to one analyst,
her subjects are often parts of the topography of her own psyche; she explores her own feelings with painstaking and often painful honesty but never loses sight of their universal poetic application; one of her greatest techniques is to write about the particulars of her own emotions in a kind of universal homiletic or adage-like tone (“After great pain, a formal feeling comes”) that seems to describe the reader’s mind as well as it does the poet’s. —Sparknotes.com, accessed November 21, 2008
The Wikipedia article on Dickinson observes that the poet considered her own mind to be “‘an undiscovered continent’…. Academic Suzanne Juhasz considers that Dickinson saw the mind and spirit as tangible visitable places and that for much of her life she lived within them.”
Both of these analyses are fine, as far as they go, though the words topography and continent suggest a surface exploration. In my view, Dickinson was not so superficial; she mined her own psyche for jewels that shine in all human consciousness.
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BUDDHA INSIDE THE LIGHT
The core of every core, the kernel of every kernel
an almond! held in itself, deepening in sweetness:
all of this, everything, right up to the stars,
is the meat around your stone. Accept my bow.
Oh, yes, you feel it, how the weights on you are gone!
Your husk has reached into what has no end,
and that is where the great saps are brewing now.
On the outside a warmth is helping,
for, high, high above, your own suns are growing
immense and they glow as they wheel around.
Yet something has already started to live
in you that will live longer than the sun.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Robert Bly in The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations
BUDDHA IN GLORY
Center of all centers, core of cores,
almond self-enclosed, and growing sweet–
all this universe, to the furthest stars
all beyond them, is your flesh, your fruit.
Now you feel how nothing clings to you;
your vast shell reaches into endless space,
and there the rich, thick fluids rise and flow.
Illuminated in your infinite peace,
a billion stars go spinning through the night,
blazing high above your head.
But in you is the presence that
will be, when all the stars are dead.
—Rainer Marie Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell
Rainer Maria Rilke was an Austrian poet who wrote in both German and French. Among the great twentieth-century poets, he is unusual in that his work is both accessible and hopeful, often joyous.
In his introduction to the Rilke translations in The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations, Bly writes, “Rilke has for hundreds of readers been their first introduction to poetry that goes steeply and unapologetically up with the spirit…. Poetry doesn’t mean talking well, but being truly alive. Poetry is ‘a god breathing.’”
I have included the Mitchell translation because, unlike Bly, Mitchell tries to reproduce the original poem’s meter and rhyme as well as its meaning. Every poem is diluted somewhat in translation, of course, because meter, rhyme, rhetoric, and vocabulary are never independent of one another.
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Assignment 21.1 Where Is God?
In each of these poems, the Divine is “placed” somewhere relative to the individual. Write a brief essay (a few hundred words) on the “location” of God as depicted in these works of Kabir, Dickinson, and Rilke.
Write a twelve-line poem in common meter on the “location” of God relative to you. If you are uncomfortable with the name God, substitute Spirit or love or inspiration, or one of the other names of God.
Please e-mail your assignment to me at Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.
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