Sample text for Poetry as spiritual practice / by Robert McDowell.

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Clearing Obstacles:
Joyful Rituals of Poetry as Practice

Once you reconnect with poetry, realizing that in fact it has been a part of you since you were conceived, it's easier to rest in its company. From there you can work with it. But as you contemplate poetry as spiritual practice, consider, for the next few moments, how and why poetry may have frightened you.

A few years ago, I chaired a panel at the Northwest Bookfest in Seattle that engaged in a lively discussion with audience members about the perception that poetry turns a cold shoulder toward the general reader, that many who write it seem to be uninterested in communicating to a wide audience. One of the panelists, the poet Thomas Lux, agreed and said, "We have to stop writing poems that make people feel stupid."

Has poetry ever made you feel stupid? Self-conscious? Have you thought less of yourself in certain company after admitting that you like poetry?

In practical, earthly terms, what good is poetry? Having confessed that you like it, have your friends accused you of being highfalutin? Did your parents disown you? Did you lose your job or fail in your studies? Did your partner dump you? Did you walk down the street slump-shouldered and blushing while everyone laughed and pointed at you? Probably not. Your fears are almost always scarier, more dramatic, than the actual course you must run.

Exercise: Facing Your Fear
Before you can break through to a state of centered grace from which the spiritual practice of poetry is possible, you must make a friend of your fears about poetry. You must make your fear a good teacher. Here is a poem about fear, anxiety, and poetry by Cyrus Watson, a twenty-nine-year-old workshop student:

Bud & Night Terrors

Can't let them catch me!
If my parents find out I'm writing poems
They'll cancel Christmas. No Nikes, no Play Station III,
No kick-butt pants with twenty miles of chains on them.
They'll empty my college fund, certain I'll never be
The doctor or lawyer they want me to be. Worse,
Coach will kick me off the team, or knock
Me down to towel or water boy. My minister will
Unbaptize me, my Boy Scout pack will rescind
My merit badges, the Marines will get me
Though I'm only 17! All because of poetry.
What got into me? Why wasn't watching ten hours
Of TV a day good enough for me? Why?

Does this poem sound like something you have thought, like something you might have written once? Make a list of your own poetry fears. Share your list with friends. Discuss where they come from. How do you deal with them? Why should you? Be specific! Write your own poem poking fun at your poetry fear.

Exercise: "It's Alive! It's Alive!" What Is It?
First, make a list of your own definitions of poetry. Second, seek the opinions of others by asking people you know (spiritual mentor, family, friends, the grocer, the crossing guard, the librarian, your doctor, your coach, your employer, the barista at Starbucks). Meditate on these definitions. Discuss them with friends, which will give you an opportunity to read a friend's heart. What common ground can you discover among people with different spiritual beliefs, education, jobs, reading, and entertainment habits?

Exercise: Personal Pyramid
Visualization is always useful. Construct a personal pyramid of poetry, a pyramid that presents all of the reasons you've discovered to back up the fact that poetry is important to you. For example, the cornerstones of my personal poetry pyramid are Honesty and Community. From your own cornerstones, erect the pyramid using ten blocks in all, with four blocks as your foundation, three blocks across above it, two blocks in a shelf above that, and one block as your pyramid's tip. For example:

Character Witness
Imagery Spirituality Memory
Honesty Music Humor Community

Because we are all connected, you may use some of my pyramid parts, but you might place them in different positions. That's appropriate. All pyramids are valid, and all of them can change.

Share your pyramids. They're an opportunity to open up to each other. Discuss what you've learned about listening, truth, and prioritizing your concerns. How have the pyramids under discussion added to your expectations? Your writing and spiritual goals? It's insightful to revisit your pyramids from time to time, for they accurately depict your transformative journey. Tending them reminds you where you've been, where you really are, and where you may wish to go.

Collaborative Exercise: Poetry Pros and Cons
Team up with a friend and prepare a five-minute dialogue, with one of you taking a position defending poetry as spiritual practice, and one of you taking the opposite view. You could imagine that you are the host of a radio program interviewing your friend. Each of you should come up with three reasons for the point of view you represent. Discuss what you discover through this modeling/rehearsing. Your friend might argue, for example, that poets make things up or even lie; therefore, they are inappropriate spiritual mentors or guides. Or you might argue, as W. H. Auden once did, that poetry, spiritual or otherwise, makes nothing happen. Another argument you might make? Poetry makes us more compassionate.

Here is a poem by Gretchen Fletcher of Florida about writing poetry:


It all starts with a line
whisked from behind
the head, flung far out
across the shoulder to hover
over a pregnant stream
before breaking the surface and sinking,
sinking till thumb-stopped
and set with a backward crank.
Then down there in that black world
a midge-sized feather of an idea
goes to work, looking,
looking for something to use --
some prism-scaled trout, perhaps,
that will land flapping at our feet,
gasping our air with vermillion gills.
Even some ancient algaed boot
Will do, home to worms and leeches,
tailing long untied strings
and strands of water weeds.
Then the process starts
All over with the casting,
casting about for something
to write about line after line,
to the last line.

In this poem, Fletcher suggests that fishing and writing require supreme patience, a giving in to process. The practitioner must discover satisfaction not so much in the end result, but in the act of doing. This requires faith, and all who have faith are really quite brave, are they not?

Here is another poem about poetry. This one is by Dori Appel of Ashland, Oregon.

The Management of Poems

Sometimes you need to outsmart them --
when they lapse into a silent sulk
or become too reasonable or
get puffed up with their cleverness.
Occasionally, they imagine they've
arrived through divine inspiration
and sashay through the house
embarrassing everyone, or they go on
a jag with the family albums,
lamenting dead hamsters they never
got to say goodbye to, pissing and
moaning their old regrets.

Those are the times to leave them
to themselves, and go pull weeds.

In this poem, the author's relationship to the writing of poems seems adversarial, even exasperated. Haven't we all been there? In fact, this poem is itself a metaphor for its author and her obstacles. As in the Fletcher poem, Appel comes to the realization that great patience is needed, but that sometimes the best way to achieve patience (and complete a poem) is to walk away, to rest, regroup, and redirect energy until the inevitable return to the task. This poem is really a lesson in detachment, in letting go.

Both of these poems, like many other poems about poetry, chronicle a writer's starts and stops. They bear witness to the poem's quicksilver nature, to the writer's frustration and humility. Perhaps most important, they share the experience of making poems and celebrate poetry itself.

David Chase, the creator and producer of the HBO series The Sopranos, was asked in an interview to describe the formal distinctions between his show and shows on network television.

"Network television is all talk," Chase said. "I think there should be visuals on a show, some sense of mystery to it, connections that don't add up....There should be, God forgive me, a little bit of poetry."

David Chase is nearly right. There should be poetry in everything. But not just a little bit. There should be a lot, and there is. There is poetry in every aspect of our daily lives. We worry that poetry is not useful. We fear it is not practical, that it will somehow turn others against us, that it will impede our day-to-day progress. We are afraid that poetry will somehow get in the way of our life plans.

Yet once we open ourselves anew to poetry, remembering perhaps how sacred poetry defined our earliest moments and experiences, once we retrain our faculties, we discover that we are richer in every way. President John F. Kennedy understood poetry's importance when he wrote, "When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations....The artist...becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society...."

Once you've neutralized your poetry fears, once you've cleared away your personal obstacles and opened yourself to the promise of a spiritual practice blessed by poetry, you may very well ask yourself, How? How do I proceed? It's an appropriate question at such a life-turning moment, and it may be answered best by considering the processes of some notable writers.

John Keats, the great English poet who died at age twenty-six in 1821, prepared to write poetry by taking a bath. Afterward, he would dress in his finest clothes, peel and slice an apple, and pour a glass of good red wine. Placing the apple slices and the wine glass just so on his desk, he would sit down, dip his quill in an ink pot, and begin to write.

Despite the fact that he was poor and dying of tuberculosis, Keats wrote until he was too sick to sit up or move his pen across paper. His writing ritual sustained Keats to the end of a brief life in which he never lost the desire to analyze his deepest insights and feelings and communicate them to those close to him, and those who might one day read his verses and letters. On some important, divinely human level, illness did not matter. Even though he would not live long enough to share a life with the woman he loved, he created enduring communication, poems we read and feel and learn from even today. Here is the inspiring conclusion of his long poem Sleep and Poetry:

...from off her throne
She [poetry] overlooked things that I scarce could tell.
The very sense of where I was might well
Keep Sleep aloof: but more than that there came
Thought after thought to nourish up the flame
Within my breast; so that the morning light
Surprised me even from a sleepless night;
And up I rose refreshed, and glad, and gay,
Resolving to begin that very day
These lines; and howsoever they be done,
I leave them as a father does his son.

Poetry's surprise, its ability to restore us, making us feel "refreshed, and glad, and gay," is also the gift it gives our spiritual practice.

John Keats shared with all people the desire to find in life the spiritual intimacy that creates successful community and makes living a fully awake life so worthwhile. As a poet, Keats certainly responded to urgency, as in real time rapidly running out, as in recording his words just so, as in making memorable language that both worries and wins over the ear, as well as the heart and mind connected to the ear. He succeeded by reuniting poetry and spirituality, by opening himself up, by attending to detail, which we may assume is a skill he acquired as a medical student. Shaping words into pentameter ballads, sonnets, brief lyrics, and gorgeous meditations, Keats created forms of sound and idea that ring true to this day.

Where's the Poet?

Where's the poet? Show him! show him,
Muses nine, that I may know him!
'Tis the man who with a man
Is an equal, be he king,
Or poorest of the beggar-clan,
Or any other wondrous thing
A man may be 'twixt ape and Plato.
'Tis the man who with a bird,
Wren or eagle, finds his way to
All its instincts. He hath heard
The lion's roaring, and can tell
What his horny throat expresseth,
And to him the tiger's yell
Comes articulate and presseth
On his ear like mother-tongue.

Emily Dickinson grew up and lived all her life in Amherst, Massachusetts, when that village was one of America's first cultural centers. Hers was a prominent family, but not so much so that they were set apart from general Amherst life. Dickinson herself was a petite, vivacious girl and woman, probably disappointed in love, definitely a protofeminist, always capable of discovering surprise in the world and being surprising herself. In her drab, long-sleeved dresses, with her hair tied back in a tight bun, she would burst into conversation that must have startled listeners, at times, like heat lightning in a distant summer sky. Bristling with nervous energy, fearful that she would not be able to control herself and thus offend someone, in later years she would sometimes talk to visitors from around the corner of the second-story landing while remaining out of sight.

She wrote wonderful, lively letters, thousands of them, to family members and close friends, and she wrote poems, strange, magnificent verses that stutter, soar, and pierce like no poems ever written before, or since. Growing up under the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson's grand philosophical thought, Transcendentalism, Dickinson also learned by heart the effective formal style of New England hymnals (again, poetry as the language of exultation, of prayer), before giving up going to church in her teens. Even so, few poets have ever so diligently and brilliantly braided together poetry and a spiritual practice. Poems were Dickinson's prayers, her mantras.

Poem #949

Under the Light, yet under,
Under the Grass and the Dirt,
Under the Beetle's Cellar
Under the Clover's Root,
Further than Arm could stretch
Were it Giant long,
Further than Sunshine could

Were the Day Year long,
Over the Light, yet over,
Over the Arc of the Bird --
Over the Comet's chimney --
Over the Cubit's Head,

Further than Guess can gallop
Further than Riddle ride --
Oh for a Disc to the Distance
Between Ourselves and the Dead!

I adore the nimble balance in this poem of yearning. The poet strives to see the intricate, mysterious connections between people and the rest of the natural world, and between the living and the dead. By capitalizing nouns, by starting every line but the last one with an emphatic, stressed syllable, she instills in her query an urgency that sweeps us up and feels exhilarating. Who wouldn't want to burrow and soar like...well, like angels!

Surely Emily Dickinson aimed to say it right and be heard. Of her success with the former, there can be no doubt; the latter goal mostly proved elusive in her lifetime. But after her death at age fifty-seven, her sister discovered in her dresser neatly hand-sewn packets of more than 1,700 poems. Though she published only seven poems during her life, it is inconceivable to imagine her living without the daily companionship, the daily discoveries she found in her poetry. It is equally hard to believe that she did not care if her poems ever reached a wide audience. Today a worldwide community, surely larger than Dickinson ever imagined, communes through her poems with her formidable, inspiring spirit.

Poem #1151

Soul, take thy risk,
With Death to be
Were better than be not
With thee

This is poetry as spiritual practice. Though we will never meet the poets we've met here in person, they're available to us as inspiring mentors and spiritual friends. They lift us out of ourselves, transcend self-interest, and make life more meaningful and fun.

In his book The Mastery of Love, the nagual from the Toltec Eagle Knight Lineage, Don Miguel Ruiz, speaks of the "shock that stops love little by little over time." Specifically, he is talking about a moment when a child is surprised by the actions of a fearsome mother. The child, who is interested only in now, in happiness and play, is hurt by what he perceives as an uncalled-for punishment. The punishment diminishes the child's innocent awareness, his natural freedom. Poetry recalls and embodies that natural freedom. It restores our connection to innocence. But most of all, poetry is created out of love, which never survives in a vacuum. It springs from the unquenchable desire to learn, to connect with others, to process and transform loneliness. Even if no one ever reads my poem, I imagine someone in the room with me, listening, benefiting. Communicating, after all, is intrinsic to the poet's calling.

Exercise: Eavesdropping
This activity can be done virtually anywhere. All it requires is good listening and note-taking. It can be a great icebreaker, a way of overcoming writer's block.

Go to a public place like a coffee shop, bookstore, or gym. Listen to the conversations going on around you. Record one or more. Later, construct a poem out of them. This exercise will simply get you started, and you will learn something about handling dialogue in a poem. The next day in your spiritual practice, recite the poem you wrote while generating compassion for the strangers you listened to.

Collaborative Exercise: Cutting Up
Exchange poems with a partner. Take scissors in hand and cut up your partner's poem (while your partner does the same to yours). Rearrange the lines to make a new poem. A variation: put the cut-up lines in a hat, then draw them out one line at a time. The result is your new poem. You may learn something about the random aspects of inspiration and the lucky or happy gift that writers dream about. This exercise may also be useful in developing the practice of letting go of attachments to negative emotions and past experiences that impede living wholly in the moment.

The exercise we have just done delivers us to another question about poetry, and another potential obstacle. The question? Why isn't poetry prose? It's not a silly question at all! Professional writers sometimes ask it, too. Some critics and teachers even argue that there is no difference, but there is. A cat's tail, after all, is not spaghetti. An apple is not an orange. A Toyota is not a Jaguar.

There is a simple difference between poetry and prose, and here it is. The delivery system of all prose is the sentence, while the delivery system of poetry is the line. The rhythms of sentences differ from the rhythms of lines of poetry. We breathe differently when we read a sentence aloud or in our heads than we do when we read a line of poetry. The difference between the two is physiological and imaginative.

Those who doubt this claim should consider the late, great Raymond Carver. Why did Carver, universally recognized as our modern master of short fiction, bother to write poetry at all? He won fame and made money, a lot of it, writing fiction, but he wrote poetry early on and all through his life because he recognized that verse allowed him to discover things and say things that prose did not. Specifically, as a man recovering from an addiction that was almost fatal several times, he found in poetry a spiritual practice that aided his program.

What Carver knew, and what many have found as well, is that lines of poetry manage and present the passage of time in ways that prose sentences do not. Poetry is more concerned with timelessness and less with literal or fractured sequence. Poetry is more capable of associative leaps and makes greater use of the power of suggestion. Its primacy in our rituals proves that poetry is accessible communication, not code. Ultimately, poetry distills emotion, experience, and even location in ways that would feel unsatisfying in a novel or creative nonfiction. Poetry aims to say what absolutely must be said, and in the fewest possible words.

A poem wants to realize and offer up, no matter how loud or quiet, a rhythmically ordered moment of powerful emotional discovery. It wants to separate itself from the business and busyness of prose. For example, consider Walt Whitman's beautiful twenty-two line poem, Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking. The poem is in fact a single sentence, but it works in our ears and hearts because it is measured out in lines. This is the magic of rhythm in poetry.

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird's throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and fields beyond, where the child
Leaving his bed wander'd alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
Down from the shower'd halo,
Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting
As if they were alive,
Out from the patches of briers and blackberries,
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me,
From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings
And fallings I heard,
From under the yellow half-moon late-risen and swollen
As if with tears,
From those beginning notes of yearning and love there
In the mist,
From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease,
From the myriad thence-arous'd words,
From the word stronger and more delicious than any,
From such as now they start the scene revisiting,
As a flock, twittering, rising, or overhead passing,
Borne hither, ere all eludes me, hurriedly,
A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,
I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them,
A reminiscence sing.

This is an ecstasy of rhythm, an exquisite bouquet of devotional form. In twenty-two lines, Whitman demonstrates what it means to be a poet, a "chanter of pains and joys." Emily Dickinson surely would have said that this poem satisfies her definition of verse: "If I feel as if the top of my head were taken off, then I know it is poetry."

An insight like Dickinson's provokes deeper investigations into ourselves, the nature of poetry, the making of poetry, and what it does for us. But at other times, insights like it can be discouraging. Sometimes we feel that an accomplished poet confounds us as much as the mysteries of life itself.

No writer of poetry escapes feeling this discouragement many times, just as no serious spiritual practitioner denies encountering many disturbing bumps in the path. How often have you caught yourself thinking, I cannot write a poem, I don't know what to say, or I practice and practice but never feel profoundly different, or I'm just not getting anywhere in my spiritual practice! All of us experience these doubts and frustrations, and when we do, we're being tested. Through such adversity we learn perseverance, patience, humility.

It is no different when we write poems. In any pursuit, it's natural to feel, at times, a personal futility, a sense that all of the work worth doing has already been done. Anyone who has ever played baseball marvels at the effortlessness in the performance of even the most marginal major leaguer, but that grace is a product of commitment and endless repetition, endless learning. It is a result of taking thousands of practice swings and ground balls in order to train the mind and body to achieve that artful illusion of simplicity. The most renowned spiritual teachers have suffered and overcome breathtaking doubt. All poets, even the greatest who ever lived, have experienced moments of profound futility. For all of us, the time comes when it's inevitable to think, Why bother?

The answer is not a riddle. The answer is that our divine energy compels us to work and play. It is our nature to work, to practice. It is essential that we play. As thinking, spiritual beings, we are compelled to focus and direct our abilities, to bring them to bear on chosen and appointed tasks. We thrive on teasing out the intricately wound skein of experience and natural laws. Because we also have feelings, we must open ourselves more deeply to the spiritual journey, to relationships with ourselves and others.

We can learn to write and read poetry as a valuable aid to this process. We can learn to share poetry, its beauty, wisdom, and lessons, with others. In doing so, we enhance our abilities in our chosen life paths, our work. Most important, we wake up to poetry's essential part in our spiritual practice. At that moment, it is as if a long-settled cloud in our mind suddenly lifts, and we are divine once again.

Poetry opens up a thrilling lifelong dialogue, self to creator and self to self, that makes possible greater understanding of who we are, and of how we responsibly create and care for community. Poetry makes us better listeners, wiser talkers. Poetry is tolerance, understanding, empowerment. Poetry is practice, spiritual practice.


I like that ancient Saxon phrase, which calls
The burial-ground God's-Acre! It is just;
It consecrates each grave within its walls,
And breathes a benison o'er the sleeping dust.
God's-Acre! Yes, that blessed name imparts
Comfort to those who in the grave have sown
The seed that they had garnered in their hearts,
Their bread of life, alas! no more their own.

Into its furrows shall we all be cast,
In the sure faith, that we shall rise again
At the great harvest, when the archangel's blast
Shall winnow, like a fan, the chaff and grain.

Then shall the good stand in immortal bloom,
In the fair gardens of that second birth;
And each bright blossom mingle its perfume
With that of flowers, which never bloomed on earth.

With thy rude ploughshare, Death, turn up the sod,
And spread the furrow for the seed we sow;
This is the field and acre of our God,
This is the place where human harvests grow.
(Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

Exercise: Poetry to ProseTake one of your poems and turn it into one or two paragraphs. Add or delete words and punctuation as needed. How does rhythm and intention change?

Exercise: Prose to Poetry
Select a meaty paragraph from a contemporary novel. Using its sentences as a diving board, rewrite the paragraph in lines, adding or subtracting words and punctuation as needed. Does the meaning change? What about the rhythm? What has been gained or lost, or both?

Collaborative Exercise: Two Ways of Telling the News
With a partner, research and compose paragraphs that report a compelling news story. Next, tell the same story as a poem. Imagine Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein cracking the Watergate scandal wide open in a poem. Again, what is gained or lost?Copyright © 2008 by Robert McDowell

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Religion and poetry.