Friday, January 31, 2014
With poetry as our “sacred text,” Lectio Poetica is appropriate for people of any worldview. For how it works, visit our web site: Lectio.JayEValusek.com
“. . . your own intellect and imagination a kind of sunlight, a far out star illuminating from a great distance the world you read . . .” – David Whyte
Walking along a garden path with his grown children one evening in the final year of his life, Charles Darwin, the great Victorian naturalist and father of modern evolutionary theory, said, with quiet sadness, that if he had his life to live over again, he would “make it a rule to let no day pass without reading a few lines of poetry.”
As Darwin explained in his autobiography, after decades of rigorous scientific reasoning, “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts.” Parts of his brain, he feared, had atrophied from lack of use—those parts in particular on which “the higher tastes” for poetry, music and the arts depend—contributing, he admitted, to “a loss of happiness” by “enfeebling the emotional part of [my] nature.”
In 1933, T.S. Eliot noted that poetry can make us “a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.”
The so-called men’s movement of the 1980s and 90s, inspired by Robert Bly and some Jungian colleagues, gave poetry a central role in every gathering of men. Why poetry?
“We live in a poetically underdeveloped nation,” wrote Bly and his fellow editors of The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart: Poems for Men, a book I picked up in 1995, while going through divorce. “Without the fanciful delicacy and the powerful truths that poems convey, emotions and imagination flatten out.”
In my own life, plagued as I was with theological, existential, philosophical and interpersonal questions, I often found myself turning to poetry when my brain got weary of trying to “figure it all out.”
Twelve years ago, for example, exhausted after a stint of too much thinking and doing, I opened a book of poems by the obscure 11th century Eastern Orthodox mystic, Symeon the New Theologian. Drawn to his passionate inner experience yet distracted by a clunky, literal academic translation, I found myself spontaneously rendering whole sections of his poems into more congenial, more poetic language, as Coleman Barks had done for Rumi. For five days I was captivated by inspiration, joyfully scribbling in a notebook for hours on end. Later, I published several of those poems, “Songs of Sacred Union,” in Tiferet, a journal of spiritual literature.
Often, as I sit with others in our little circle on a Sunday morning, preparing to read yet another poem out loud, I wonder what the hell we’re doing. Why poetry? Why bother? What’s the point?
Sometimes, honestly, I can’t remember. I can’t figure it out. I listen anyway. I give myself to the poem, to the silence, to my own heart. The brain is welcome, too. But I encourage it to sit still, keep quiet, and see what happens.
Sometimes I do what the mystics of Symeon’s tradition called “descending with the mind into the heart.” I put my intellect on an elevator and send it down to visit the mysterious and creative part of me that Stephen King calls “the boys in the basement.”
In “Summer Reading” (River Flow, 2007), David Whyte describes our “intellect and imagination”—two apparently opposite parts of the psyche—as “a kind of sunlight” illuminating the world.
In poetry, as in music and dance and nature, I find a sort of sacred union between my cognitive capacities and my imaginative sensibilities. By opening to the unpredictable substratum of intuitive, emotional, and non-analytical experience I find the still point, once again, at the center of the turning world, as Eliot so eloquently put it.
It’s not that poetry puts me in touch, as they say, with my so-called “feminine” side. No, it’s more that poetry puts me back in touch with my full humanity—my essential subjectivity as well as my objectivity, my softness as well as my strength, my proximity and interconnectedness as well as my inevitable distance and duality. It makes me whole again. At least for a few, precious moments.
Like sunlight—the miraculous union of quite different wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum—intellect and imagination, head and heart, science and poetry can, should, and often do come together to conceive and give birth to something surprising, novel and wonderful: a whole human being.
So. Why poetry? Because, as David Whyte observes elsewhere, “Everything is born from an opposite and miraculous otherness.” And a good poem serves as a marvelously wise and compassionate midwife. Darwin’s intuition was right.
—Jay E. Valusek
(For more reflections on the poems we have used for Lectio Poetica, visit my blog at http://lectio.jayevalusek.com/reflections-blog.html).
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© 2014 Rocky Mountain Psychomaieutics, LLC
(The above photo was taken from my front window this morning. We are currently experiencing a major snow storm, but nothing like the Eastern seaboard. Boulder was predicted to receive about 10 inches of snow, but so far the total looks to be more like 5-6.)