from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Monday, 12 September 2011

Elements of Poetry Part 11: poetry & soul

Was it really back in June that I said I'd be offering two follow-ups to my post on Part 1 of elements of poetry? We've had a summer since then (of sorts)!

Now it's September, and here's Part 11. These thoughts, below, come from the Introduction to my poetry correspondence course (the next 6-month course begins in January).

* * *

The territory of the soul 
Rooted as it might be in our own experience of our own lives, poetry is also more than simply personal emotional expression. Poetry has cultural and spiritual implications as well as political or social aspects. In my opinion, one thing poetry also does is reactivate, or emerge from, the soul; and in that way it can be transpersonal, communicating to others, acting as a connecting thread between people and also between the realm of the personal, the wider realm of the collective, and more subtle realms of being, tapping into something universal and larger than what one generally thinks of as personal consciousness.
          It can also be a profound force force for healing.

In our twenty-first century world, there is a soul-deficiency in the culture. We also live in a ‘poetically underdeveloped nation’, says Robert Bly, where what we have is the dryness of materialism and the jingles of the advertising agencies. ‘…Without the fanciful delicacy and the powerful truths that poems convey, emotions and imagination flatten out. There’s a lack of spirit, of vision. The loss in the heart appears as a loss of heart…’ he continues (my italics).
A good poem points at something less tangible, a different reality, behind or beyond the form of the combined words. It is as if poetry might allow entry to the numinous in some way. Within our British culture at least, a poet in the past was charged with the role of bard, seer, diviner, healer, visionary, shaman, repository of ancient tribal wisdom. ‘Poets were specialists in liminality’, says author Michael Dames, ‘they operated at the thresholds, between categories of space, time or identity, in dangerous, ‘frontier’ conditions, among uncomfortable truths. These they shaped into harmonious knowledge on behalf of the community.’ (Scottish poet John Burnside is a good exemplar of this.)

I should say this is not a widely-held view in the contemporary poetry scene, some aspects of which inevitably reflect the reductionist values of our consumer culture. The ‘popular’ poetry movement demands that poetry espouse a kind of easy sloganism that offers itself in a humorous sound-bite form. Some academic poets, and those concerned with the social implications of language, are aligned with notions of the ‘politics’ of language (as opposed to the politics of current affairs/international relations) as a force for reinforcing or subverting social mores. There is also generally a movement away from the ‘language of the heart’ in favour of a more cerebral approach; and again, the very opposite: an easy emotionality that verges on the sentimental.
Each of these approaches has its place and its aficionados; it’s just that I’m not one. I suppose that I am drawn to the skilled use of the multi-level lyric/imagist poem (although as an eco-poet I do also feel strongly that political poetry, in terms of drawing attention to and challenging environmental crises, oppression, injustice, cruelty and so on has an important role).

Having said what I did about the numinous, I don’t mean to imply that the role of poet inevitably includes pretentiousness, a sense of being ‘special’, a kind of divine messenger; nor that poetry needs to be ‘spiritual’ in order to count. Much of the best poetry, after all, proceeds from our experience of daily life in all its aspects; and speaks to the very humanness of and in others. And the most effective poetry is usually very rooted in the sensory or concrete world; and yet reaches beyond that. Seamus Heaney is an excellent example of someone whose work goes to the core behind all poems, and yet he does this very much within the context of the everyday, the human, the concrete; and with humility and modesty. What I’m seeking is a life behind the poem, not simply the one that’s obvious on the surface.

Many of us still feel that poetry occupies a place unfilled for the most part by other aspects of life, and possesses a quality not easily found elsewhere. Many of the better-known poets of the late twentieth century acknowledge that a poem has to do with two things in particular: consciousness and its transformation, and expressing or attempting connectedness, which we could also express as inclusive consciousness. ‘Poetry is not a luxury’, said the late Audre Lorde. ‘The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing on the product which we live, and the changes we hope to bring about through those lives.’
A poem is also a means of conveying complex ideas in a way that is more immediate, holistic, or multi-dimensional – and a good deal less dry – than philosophical treatises. It also, if it’s a good poem, exemplifies a kind of synergy: the whole assumes a quality that cannot be explained through the component parts.
But while a poem may comfort, it's not, nonetheless, necessarily comfortable, nor intended to be. It needs to speak to us but at the same time it needs to stretch us. ‘Poetry wrenches around our ideas about our lives,’ said Adrienne Rich.
A ‘good’ poem should illuminate aspects of the ‘human condition’, offering new insight and understanding at the same time as it addresses our own experience.
Peter Abbs, Professor of Poetry at Sussex University, says: ‘The poet has to engage with the contending ideas that inform our understanding of time and matter, of biology and consciousness. We cannot disconnect poetry from philosophy, science and ecology, nor the historic moment which it is our fate to live.’ 
This doesn’t mean that you need to be an authority on current affairs: simply that a poem, if it is to work, needs to contain, hint at or point to more than simply an anecdotal record of your personal life (or at least it needs to shed some light in some way on universal experience through the personal). It needs to offer us a threshold of some sort between the inner and outer worlds. Wendell Berry speaks of ineffective poetry where the speaker is present and the world is absent, or the converse: world present, speaker absent (this is a bit of a litmus test).
The perceiving, thinking, feeling human stands like a two-way lightning conductor (a ‘locus-of-experience’) at the intersection of the visible world (our experience in the environment) and the invisible world, as mediated, at least in part, by our inner world of imagination, memory and feeling. Arguably, one task of the artist is to bring the two into dialogue through creative expression, mapping the two terrains. Both artist and audience to that artistic expression may experience within themselves a shift of vision, insight and understanding as a result.

Poetry, though often sidelined, is crucial to the life of the soul. It is not an exaggeration to say, as Adrienne Rich suggests, that poetry might save your life. It is also true to say that once you have befriended poetry, you will notice its absence if you stray too far.


  1. Hi, Roselle. I like this. It's intersting and inspiring. I feel the juices flowing and a curiosity to look up the poets mentioned, some of which I don't know.
    I had an idea while reading your blog, an image just came to me, of a workwshop where the group disperses and writes things and leaves it on trees and stones etc for the rest to read. A kind of hide and seek. Wouldn't that be fun?
    Imagine the cross pollination that could occur.
    Anyway, I'm off to explore the poets on the web. (No access to English library books here...)

  2. What a brilliant idea, Veronica! LOTS of mileage in this. Could also be a web-based idea... Thank you - I love it.


Blog Archive