The Religion of Poetry

After some deliberation, when I wondered if I actually meant The Poetry of Religion, I've settled on things as they currently rest. "The Poetry of Religion" would emphasize the endpoint of religion, presumably with its different categorizes of doctrine and spiritual subjectivity, even myth. It states that poetry is a way of seeing religion, a way of describing it, experiencing it. That isn't the way that I think religion works at all. Rather, it is the poetry that we experience, not the religion. It is more correct to say that we form our religions out of poetry, not the poetry from the our religion.

Poetry has, at least within the English-speaking world where I reside, hit upon tough times. Virtually no one reads poetry anymore, other than a few serious practitioners (it is true, though, that many do write poetry but few of them take it so seriously as to study it, revere it, and take it into themselves as mental food). It isn't strange then to conclude that few understand how to read poetry, even what poetry is.

If I say to some other Christians, that the Bible is poetry, no doubt they will nod in agreement. They might add that yes, there is much good poetry in the Bible, and perhaps they will example The Song of Solomon, and Psalms. If I then go on to explain that no, I meant that the entire Bible is poetry, even the dry Leviticus and the historical Chronicles and Kings and the parables of Jesus (especially, I would add, the parables of Jesus). That is when I will get the blank stare of confoundment.

Look, I will say. You are a woman (or man). How do you experience life? As a woman, you say. I conclude, then, that you understand the things of the feminine life--you feel the commonality of other women. Also, you have in common other things--things such as being a wife, or mother, or sister, or daughter, or grandmother. You understand what it is to be a small girl, and a grown woman. But you also have the ability to look at your husband and comprehend at least something of what he goes through as well. Men aren't different species, after all. You can look about you and reference what it is to be a person in your own community, your own culture; but also you have the ability to reference something that others in the wider world experience, too. So many different classifications, and references, all bouncing off one another to create the wide ocean of human understanding. That is poetry.

Poetry is the cloud of meaning that hovers above us, through us, and down below us. It is the algorithm of meaning and referents that occur in our day-to-day lives, and also the bird's-eye view, the novelist's perspective that can take it all in, our entire lives or portions of it. Poetry as a subclass of literature, or what we can call verse, is this in a focused view (whether telescopic or microscopic) with an emphasis on sound (though some modernists eschew the sound in hopes of finding a poetics of image upon a page...I believe they fail). But it is not only this; to think it is will cause you to be blind to the larger implications of poetry as a language of poetics. Language, you see, is poetry. And poetry, as verse, is the meat and potatoes of language. The Bible, then, is poetry. And anyone who wishes to think theologically, spiritually, to seek within the Bible some larger spiritual meaning, should spend a great deal of thought on poetry.

I do not know any theologian, pastor, priest, who does so. (Not that there isn't one out there; just never met the man/woman.)

As an example of the poetry of religion I can think of few better illustrations than that of the prodigal son, or any of the parables of Jesus for that matter (and there is a wonderful reference which I highly recommend, and on from which I draw from, Amy-Jill Levine's book Short Stories by Jesus). The prodigal son (and the prodigal father as well for he foolishly gave his estate away, as a forerunner of Lear one might say) brings to mind the referents of other younger sons in the Bible, Jacob and Esau, Isaac and Ishmael, Cain and Abel. As Jesus told the story, listeners must have held in their minds those very referents and noted how Jesus overturned their preconceptions.

That many in the fundamentalist camp read this, and other parables of Jesus, as allegory misses the poetic reading entirely. So many wish there to be a reading that allows for a one-to-one correspondence (or allegorical) with some idea or other spiritual force. They see in the father figure of this parable the figure of our Heavenly Father. It does not match up with the reading of Jesus, but they see that this is a father and so there must be a correspondence with the Father God. A poetical reading disavows this. (Note that the father is also prodigal, and would not have received the approval of his peers.)

As Amy-Jill Levine notes, the prodigal, once he becomes famished, seeks a rapprochement with his father (his words echo the hollow statement of Pharaoh indicating, poetically, that there is no real remorse). The son is thinking selfishly.

Coming back home, the younger son gets a ring and robe for his troubles (a referent of Joseph?), his speech preempted by a father who is only concerned that here was his son, who he might have supposed was lost to him for good, perhaps even perishing in the famine. Here is the son back, "resurrected" as it were. I don't see this as a resurrection story, per se, but a poetical reading must include this. The point here is that it not be allegorical. The meaning lies in the "cloud" of referents.

The son comes back, pleading for forgiveness (unremorsefully), gets a nice reception, but the story ends with the older son, who was left out and feeling quite alone and forgotten by his father. His father, who had forgotten the older son, tries to make amends and explains in soothing tones that he was always with him, never lost. But the older son did not feel this way. It is left unsaid if the entire family comes together as one. It is a question, not an answer, as is all of poetry.

It is here, at the end of the story, where the meaning of the poem --that is truly what this is-- hovers: looking and remembering at all the history of the Lord's peoples, holding the anguish and difficulty of their lives at once, and in the end we face the ultimate question of relationship.

A poetical reading is what is necessary to hold this meaning of relationship. Allegory spins out an answer much like plugging in the solved factors of an algebraic equation. Poetry is the hovering quantum cloud of an electron, whose position is unknown for the trying of its momentum (complementarity). If a physicist measures the momentum of an electron its position is unknowable, and vice-versa. A fundamentalist takes the "position" of a reading as allegorical, where he should allow the position to hover in a cloud of meanings. Taking the position "unclouds" the meaning, as it were; he thus misses other possibilities, some of which are only connotated by sound and rhythmic arrangements (I think here of Keats, Ode to Autumn with its easy sibilants and assonances that might refer one to autumn's decadent ease).

We like to think of truth as a prize, something that can be sought after, worked for and finally attained. Something we can point to, like some trophy placed on a mantle. I see truth as experience. Truth can have lies within it even; truth can have contradictions, kind of like how physics teaches us that waves and particles are simultaneously true ("There is nothing more beautiful than a well-constructed lie."--Syrian proverb). This might be what Keats referred to when he said Beauty is truth; truth beauty--that is all. It seems that the only container for truth is a lie.

The truth of a poem is the truth of life: the experience of life. The more we can experience of life the more truth we can feel and know. We can go around living our lives as a selfish existence, where our experience is limited to our surroundings and our own passions and desires; or we can widen our point of view, encompassing others into a larger community, a spiritual community. Here our referents are other points of view, other experiences--our truth becomes wider, larger, grander. It encompasses more and more experiences, we become not just ourselves, but a bit of the others as well. Our referents go from us outwards. We uncloud our meaning until we see ourselves not as ourselves, but as others, as all, poetically, truthfully.


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