Magazine article Tikkun

Spirituality and American Poetry

Magazine article Tikkun

Spirituality and American Poetry

Article excerpt

Ralph Waldo Emerson described poets as "liberating gods." For Emerson, poetry is not only religious in its function, but superior to revealed religions and other attempts to embody unchanging truth. Poetry, for Emerson, "is vehicular and transitive, and is good, as ferries and horses are, for conveyance, not as farms and houses are, for homestead." With this homey metaphor, Emerson highlights the way language echoes "the quality of the imagination," which "is to flow, and not to freeze." While religious communities and dogmas took the poetic utterances of a particular time and place and denatured them by understanding them as unchanging sacred texts, the poetic recognizes freedom and time as part and parcel of the divinely human. Poetry, in the new American dispensation, was to bring all Americans closer to what Emerson saw, at that optimistic high point of his career, as their own natural inner divinity.

Human history, particularly the history of the twentieth century, renders faith in an innate human divinity difficult for many of us. Nor have poets consistently acted as "liberating gods," though some have certainly seen themselves as such. Ezra Pound's virulent anti-Semitism, his radio broadcasts and tracts in support of Mussolini, stand as potent reminders of the limits and dangers of the human imagination. And Robert Frost's curmudgeonly Yankee conservatism contrasts starkly with his ability to imagine fully, and from within, the lives of the poor, the mad, and the disenfranchised in poems like "The Self-Seeker," "A Servant to Servants," or "The Death of the Hired Man." Why is it, then, that I feel Emerson was right, that poetry can be liberating, that it can expand the spirit, bust up the ice, and let the living waters flow?

Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," having drunk deeply from Emerson's essays, sought to be something entirely new, a poetry distinctively American in its cadences, vision, and voice. In "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," surrounded by ordinary women and men whom he does not know and upon whom he meditates tenderly and longingly, the poet addresses the ebb and flow of a particular river, of place and time-and of us! IMAGE FORMULA25

At his best, Whitman forces us to imagine ourselves in others' bodies and places, calling into question our own bodies and places: as slaves on the block, Native Americans, women, physical laborers. Whitman claims, "I too had received identity by my body." For Whitman, the daily and the bodily are holy. (How many poets write of armpits as giving forth "divinest odors"?) He puts no stock in purity of religious identity, as he writes in "Song of Myself": "Not objecting to special revelations, considering a curl of smoke or a hair on the back of my hand just as curious as any revelation." For Whitman, the divine is in the temporal; flux itself is part of the eternal, when experienced in its holiness.

In Whitman's time and since, many poets identified their work as spiritual (think Emily Dickinson) or liberating (from the socialist poets of the Thirties to the more traditional spiritual urge of Allen Tate and his fellow agrarians). Both impulses in the poetry of our day tend to be masked or downplayed, but they remain. For example, when the poet Adrienne Rich was asked a few years ago at a gathering of the Modern Language Association whether her poetry was "spiritual," she strongly took issue with the suggestion. My guess is that she objected to this Pauline sense of the word. In the Hebraic understanding of the "heart," much of our best contemporary American poetry is indeed spiritual, concerned with the roots of the whole person and with ultimate questions about identity, relationship, understanding, and justice.

Poetry can also serve as a means of defining and addressing the root causes of alienation: In "Hunger: for Audre Lord," Rich writes, "Until we find each other, we are alone." Rich's poems are alert to the dangers of individualism, the "I," lyric or otherwise, whose "wellness" may be bought at the expense of a greater good and the truer person: "In those years, people will say, we lost track / of the meaning of we, of you / we found ourselves / reduced to I / and the whole thing became / silly, ironic, terrible: / we were trying to live a personal life . …

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