O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?
Wallace Stevens –
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
Spiritual life is primarily concerned with overcoming self-centredness, with committing ourselves to values such as empathy and insight. Poetry can be a spiritual practice, a way of life. My thirteen points below describe some of the more important aspects of that life. I’m aware that a series of ‘points’ like this can seem didactic, even preachy; but I wanted to avoid submerging the article in caveats and qualifications, which anyway space would not allow.
1. Cultivate Uselessness. Poetry and spiritual life overlap – if they are genuine, neither are undertaken for any kind of worldly advantage, prestige or use. Much of our life is spent in the acquisitive mode, in Wordsworth’s “getting and spending” – we need to butter our parsnips somehow – but the value of poetry is in its antithesis: the appreciative mode. Yes, we need to buy things and earn money, but poets need to stake their claim in uselessness – in non-utilitarian appreciation. Our primary mode of being should be one of appreciation. We should just stand back and enjoy it all – relate to life not for what it can give us but for its own sake. Within this larger uselessness, we’ll need to work to pay the bills and feed the cat, but our real work is appreciation. This implies an element of asceticism. We need to live simply with as few distractions as possible so that we can get on with the real business of poetry.
2. Work Hard. Floppy, soppy, badly made poems are not ‘spiritual’ – however laudable their sentiments might be. Spiritual life is a pursuit of excellence; in fact it is the pursuit of excellence par excellence: the cultivation of excellence at every level of our being and activity – moral excellence, intellectual and emotional excellence, human excellence. False feeling, unearned epiphany, cliché and platitude are stand-ins in for authentic feeling, clear thinking and imaginative sympathy. Drafting and redrafting is therefore a spiritual practice, a pursuit of excellence.
3. Be Open to Criticism. Especially from those more experienced than you. If you are lucky enough to have a mentor: do what they say. Let go of what you think, what you want, and be directed by them. Spiritual life is a letting go of pride and egotism. Every time we take a perceptive criticism on the chin, we let go of ourselves – at least to some extent. If you’re serious about writing, assume with Rilke that “everything is yet to be done: everything”.
4. Engage with Primary Experience. Engage with direct experience through the physical senses – sight, sound, touch, and taste. Secure yourself in that. Keep coming back to that. In Buddhism this means the systematic cultivation of mindfulness. So, feel the sensations of your body as you walk to the tube, taste your tea, listen to music or birdsong. Consciously drop beneath the racket of thought – the repetitive mental chatter, the worry and flurry – into direct, unmediated sensation. Then the richness of life, rather than the hubbub of thought, will find it’s way into your poems.
5. Develop Imagination. Imagination is the synthesis and transcendence of reason and emotion. It develops out of our engagement with primary experience and is leached away by the alienations of distracted thought. So often we think one thing and feel another; or we don’t know what we feel; or our thoughts are really nothing but the half-baked views of the marketplace and the media. Imagination brings the whole person together – thought, feeling, volition, perception – into a single act of creation. You have to discover imagination, uncover it, find the place where the poem takes off and leaves you behind. Imagination always goes beyond you.
6. Beware ‘Fancy’. Coleridge contrasts imagination or the ‘imaginal faculty’ with ‘fancy’. Fancy is the same old thing – the same old you – arranged in bizarre, arbitrary combinations. Nothing genuinely new comes into being with fancy; no deeper perception has been unearthed; there has been no discovery, no realization of the thought the poem is trying to think. Fancy is characterised by ‘empty images’ and/or ‘empty thought’ – either the poet’s images have no internal necessity or purpose, or the poet’s thought has no emotional commitment or foundation in experience. Fancy can be brilliant, even virtuosic, but it is incapable of moving us. Imagination unifies reason and emotion: thought finds its place in immediately loved images, while images are underpinned by genuine thought. This unification of thought and feeling is experienced as having value – we feel that that something both meaningful and pleasurable is being communicated, and this is inherently satisfying. Fancy, on the other hand, is a kind of showing off.
7. Beware Success. We probably need some success in order to carry on with the “stitching and unstitching” of serious writing. But success is dangerous. The more success we experience the less it satisfies, and the more disappointed we feel by lack of success. Success becomes the unappreciated norm while un-success becomes more and more painful. Success can lure us away from the inner space and solitude essential to achieved writing. In the small world of poetry, success needs to be striven for and, when achieved, maintained and this can atrophy your gifts (as was the case with Frost and Auden, for instance). It can inflate your ego and separate you from your friends. Most importantly, success is addictive: we become willing to sacrifice present happiness for the promise of future honour and prestige. To mitigate the dangers of success: give. If you win money, give some away; help others in their writing; do some chores for your partner instead of insisting you need time to write. Share your success; spread it round.
8. Embrace Disappointment. Disappointment is part of the practice of writing – whether it’s receiving a rejection slip, or not being commended in the National. Disappointment is one of those feelings that hangs around like a stray dog that’s taken a liking to you. We need to turn toward it, embrace it. All that’s happened is we’ve not got what we want. Part of growing up means feeling disappointment instead of thinking about it, i.e. indulging in harsh self-criticism, self-pity, or blame. The spiritual value of disappointment is in our willingness to feel it, and this requires a letting go self – which is what spiritual life really consists in. One antidote to disappointment is reading really great poems: they are the real markers of ‘success’. We are trying to write that well. Compared with say, what Dickinson can do or Larkin, winning prizes or being accepted for publication is neither here nor there.
9. Read Deeply (and broadly). Everyone says it, but if you are going to write poems you need to read them. Read broadly in contemporary poetry and read poetry in translation. Many contemporary artists have a extremely limited cultural memory – they know about art created in the last ten years by a few people in the south of England. I suspect this might be true of many contemporary poets. It’s too early to judge the stature of most contemporary writing – as George Steiner put it, every artwork “wagers on lastingness” – but the truth is that most poems being written today will not last out the generation. So as well as reading broadly, read deeply – which mean reading the acknowledged best: Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, etc, etc. Read them intensely. Read biographies and the best critics (such as Helen Vendler). Read broadly, but more importantly, read deeply.
10. Read Well. Read for the sake of enjoyment, delight and ecstasy. That’s the whole point. From a spiritual point of view the value in art is in the special kind of pleasure it can give – a pleasure that’s an end it itself; an innocent pleasure that takes you out of yourself. Poetry can give us value-laden pleasure – it can feel both intensely meaningful and deeply satisfying. This is what makes poetry worth reading. This is what all the fuss is all about! And it means no cramming. You just can’t cram poems – they need your dedicated time. You can’t keep up to date with the latest work and read the greats and expect to enjoy them all. Take The Faerie Queen, for example, or The Divine Comedy – to read these masterworks deeply (by which I mean actually being moved and uplifted by them) well, that’s quite an undertaking! They need your emotional and intellectual commitment. This is one of my gripes with poetry in academia – the instinct is to cram and to cram is not to read. Reading deeply also means cultivating the right state of mind in order to read – calm, concentrated and receptive. If reading is to give us genuine pleasure and fulfilment it needs to be a kind of meditation.
11. Do it for Poetry. Anything you write, any poem that lifts off the page, is only partly your own. You have been helped by the poems you’ve read, the courses you’ve attended, the tuition, mentoring and editing you’ve received. You’re standing on the proverbial shoulders of giants, and your tutors or the members of your writing group are helping you stay up there. So honour your debts, express gratitude to those who have helped you. And do it for poetry: for the love of poetry, for the value of poetry. Concert pianists often touch their piano as they take their bows, as if to honour all that’s made the performance possible – from the invention of the piano to the composer who actually wrote the stuff! Poets should take their applause holding a copy of the Norton Anthology.
12. Pass it on. Pass on your love of Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Celan or Spenser. Pass it on by engaging deeply with poetry and by writing out of that engagement. Share your enthusiasm. Help people catch it. And not because poems are ‘good for you’ but because you love them, because, as CK Williams put it, you get “whacked” by them. No one knows what the future will bring, but one distinct possibility – along with the death of liberal education – is the death of culture. Poems look dull and hard-going compared with Harry Potter and YouTube. They need effort, application and concentration. Help people see why it’s an effort worth making.
13. Develop yourself. Spiritual life is a path of self-transcendence. The poet’s life is rarely so self-conscious. For a poet, the moment of imaginative self-transcendence is discovered within the work, and, often as not, fallen away from outside of it. This accounts for the famous double life poets – how they can create beauty within their work and ugliness outside of it. Either that or they are poets of ‘fancy’ only, and therefore not really poets at all. Having said that, the faults of the poet will gradually become the faults of the poem. Poetry is the expression of the poet’s sensibility – the sum total of his or her life. Deep poems, achieved poems, are written by deep people. If you want to write well you need to live deeply, you need to develop yourself. A poem is the crystallization of the best of the poet: how they live and spend their time, how they treat others, what they read, how fully they engage with the world, and how energetically they apply themselves to the act of writing. For a poem to communicate profound thought, the poet need to think deeply; for a poem to express deep emotion, the poet needs to feel deeply; for a poem to be beautiful, the poet needs to experience beauty. The poet needs to live in such a way that needs to be expressed in poetry, which cannot be expressed in any other way. Poetry expresses our deepest reflections and intuitions, our subtlest feelings and our highest ideals. A poet therefore needs to observe vividly, feel strongly, reflect deeply and think rigorously. They need to cultivate robust sympathy for others, while at the same time developing a genuine independence of mind – without which there is no poetry.