Poetry and Wisdom

It has been said that the proper language of wisdom is poetry. We realize this when we read the classic texts of the world’s great sapiential traditions. The literature of antiquity, indeed, when not merely factual or legislative, lives most often within an aura which is at once poetic and sapiential. The patristic and medieval wisdom literature of Christianity, though mostly prose, was saturated with a kind of poetry which is directly derivative from the poetry of the Bible. There is a music of sound and meaning, there are resonances on deeper planes of meaning. The matter itself of the sapiential discourse is intrinsically musical or poetic: internally resonant, polyphonic, multilayered, symmetrical, ultimately simple and unitive. The music of words draws us into an inner music of meaning, of the reality itself.

The West is now emerging from a long era of abstract rationality in which poetry—and literature itself—were pushed into the margins of the cultural discourse. This was the time when public meaning was largely narrowed to the limits of empirical-rational thought. As we now awaken from this long period of sapiential slumber it is natural to look to poetry for a language—and an exploratory vessel—suited to the more subtle and spiritual wavelengths of consciousness.

Bede Griffiths’ first love was poetry, and he remained convinced of the importance of poetry as a way towards the realization of unitive spirit.

My interest in my youth had always centred on poetry, especially the English Romantic poets, Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats. It was they who taught me to look beyond the world of senses to the world beyond senses, the infinite and the eternal. Poets use language of symbolism which always points beyond the finite temporal world to the infinite and eternal. It was Jacques Maritain and his wife Raissa, who taught me to see the link between poetry and mysticism….

Both poetry and mysticism spring from the depths of the soul beyond the senses, but whereas the poet seeks to embody his experience of this inner mystery in words and images, the mystic seeks to go beyond word and thought to experience the hidden mystery from which all words and thoughts are derived. (Pathways to the Supreme, Introduction, ix-x.)

In this first article on poetry and wisdom, I would like to introduce several more or less contemporary books which offer different insights into this relationship. Philosopher Jacques Maritain’s major work on poetry, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (Bollingen/Pantheon, 1955) strongly influenced Bede Griffiths; Thomas Merton’s views owe much to Maritain as well. It is not possible here even to suggest the wealth of thought and experience that come to expression in this book. Maritain is one of the thinkers who has entered most deeply into the meaning that is hidden within the poetic experience.

Maritain distinguishes between poetry in the common understanding of the word, and that poetry which is at the heart of all artistic creation.

Poetry, with which this book is fundamentally concerned, is the free creativity of the spirit, and the intuitive knowledge through emotion, which transcend and permeate all arts, inasmuch as they tend toward beauty as an end beyond the end. Then poetry, like Plato’s mousike, is taken in a primary, most universal sense. (393)

Poetic intuition takes place at the center of the person, and here the whole of the person is gathered together.

The first thing, I think, which we have to mention in this connection is the essential requirement of totality or integrity… Poetic experience brings the poet back to the hidden place, at the single root of the powers of the soul, where the entire subjectivity is, as it were, gathered in a state of expectation and virtual creativity. Into this place he enters, not by any effort of voluntary concentration, but by a recollection, fleeting as it may be, of all the senses, and a kind of unifying repose which is like a natural grace, a primordial gift, but to which he has to consent, and which he can cultivate, first of all by removing obstacles and silencing concepts….In such a spiritual contact of the soul with itself, all the sources are touched together, and the first obligation of the poet is to respect the integrity of this original experience. Any systematic denial of any of the faculties involved would be a sort of self-mutilation. Poetry cannot be reduced to a mere gushing forth of images separated from intelligence, any more than to a discursus of logical reason… (238-39)

The fullness of this ‘unitive event’ of poetic intuition appears in a Maritain text which is included without reference in Griffiths’ Pathways. (30)

In it [the feeling-intuition of poetic creation] and in an inseparable way there then coexist the real and the self, the world and the whole soul. Then sense and sensation are taken up into the heart, the blood to the spirit, passion to intuition. And along with the vital actuation of the intellect, all the faculties are actuated likewise, in their depths and in their roots. It is the soul which is known in the experience of the world, and the world which is known in the experience of the soul…

Maritain, though committed to the philosophical vison of Thomas Aquinas, was intensely interested throughout his life in modern art and poetry. He finds a distinctively new element emerging in the ‘modern poetry’ which has appeared in the West since the time of Baudelaire. In the modern poem, creative intuition becomes conscious of itself and is freed not only from conventional poetic forms but from a fixed external world of reference.

The [modern] poem signifies only the transreality caught by poetic intuition, without being bound first to signify a definite set of things standing as objects of thought. It has, thus, one single significance, which has to do with poetic intelligence, not with rationalized and socialized communicability. St. Paul says that those who are unmarried have only a single care, how they may please God, having not to please a wife or husband too (1 Cor 7: 32-33). So the virgin poem tends to its unique object without division. (321)

The reference to St. Paul seems curious in this context, but suggests that Maritain finds, in modern poetry, a fresh breaking forth of the new freedom which Paul proclaimed (particularly in his letter to the Galatians). In the modern poem, the human creative spirit has broken free—symbolically at least—of the ‘old order.’

Arthur L. Clements, in Poetry of Contemplation (State University of New York Press, 1990), studies three of the sixteenth century English Metaphysical Poets—John Donne, George Herbert and Charles Vaughan—and then three modern poets, D.H. Lawrence, Robert Penn Warren and Galway Kinnell, in whom he also finds evidence of contemplative experience and a contemplative perspective.

In addition to Lawrence, Warren, and Kinnell, there are many other modern and contemporary poets whose work may fruitfully be studied from the point of view of contemplative tradition and concerns, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Hart Crane, E.E.Cummings, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke, Ruth Stone, Robert Bly, Allen Ginsberg, James Wright, Gary Snyder, A.R.Ammons, Mary Oliver, John Logan, and Maria Gillan, among others. (225)

Clements’ central focus, in discussing his six poets, is on the expression of a contemplative experience which is characterized principally by its unitive character. Adopting the classification of W.H. Auden, he distinguishes four “Visions” of this kind: 1) the Vision of Dame Kind (unitive experience in nature), 2) the Vision of Eros (unitive experience in sexual relationship), 3) the Vision of Philia (similar experience in friendship or other non-erotic relationships) and 4) the Vision of God (unmediated experience of divine union). Clements himself adds a fifth variety which is essentially related to the process of poetic creation: a contemplative experience which he calls the Vision of Art. It is this experience which most resembles Maritain’s “poetic intuition.”

The poetic experience, while not externally determined, is not without value to humanity. In a crazy, ego-maniacal, divided and self-destructive world,

…what we need and what poetry and the Vision of Art generally can help to give us is a new consciousness, not of separation and division, of which we have more than enough, but of connectedness and wholeness. Because the contemplative experience of oneness is unspeakable, in the sense of being beyond [rational comprehension, to describe it in rational terms is at least very difficult. To convey this experience, the language of poetry, which is the language of imagination and love, is much more appropriate and effective. As art, particularly as a verbal art, poetry is especially suited to make us aware of interrelationships and unity both within and without the poem. The aesthetic and moral functions of poetry are intrinsically and ultimately interwoven…

Continuing, he quotes from Shelley’s eloquent treatise, A Defense of Poetry (in Selected Poetry and Prose, 502),

“The great secret of morals is love…a going out of one’s own nature.” A sympathetic identification with others. The “imagination” is the means for this sympathetic identification with others, and poetry enlarges the range and scope of the imagination, exercises and strengthens this “great instrument of moral good.” (238)

Poetry of Contemplation is a thorough study which rewards careful reading.

William Bevis’ Mind of Winter: Wallace Stevens, Meditation and Literature (Universe of Pittsburgh Press, 1988), looks at the poetry of this pre-eminent American modernist poet in the light of what Bevis calls the experience of meditation. Bevis finds a special affinity between Stevens and Buddhism, adding that Amany post-1950 writers such as Ginsberg, Merwin, Snyder, and Kinnell make conscious and informed use of Buddhist theory and practice.@ (14).

Wallace Stevens’ poetry seems to move between a strange and often abstract emptiness (The Snow Man, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, I) and a sensuous fullness (Sunday Morning, Peter Quince at the Clavier). Correspondingly, Bevis finds in the poetry of Wallace Stevens a creative polarity between two poles, corresponding to the “contemplation” and “creativity” which we find interacting in one after another of our authors.

Stevens’ passive, blank, detached aspect—an aspect essentially comic even though words such as passive or blank often have negative connotations in our culture—is the source of much of his power and a complementary opposite of imagination. The meditative Stevens is in constant tension with the imaginative Stevens. The tension between those poles of meditation and imagination, the circulating back and forth between them, the view of one from the other, the longing for one from the other, join his ear, wit, and comic spirit to define Stevens’ work. (8)

This polarity defines the author’s own project.

I hope to clarify the aspect of Stevens’ poetry that has remained most puzzling, and to show how his meditative detachment conspires with his imaginative exuberance to define his work. (14)

Contemplative or unitive experience (experience of ‘meditation’ in Bevis’ language), appears in Stevens, then, not precisely as identified with the poetic intuition , but differentiated as a kind of northern hemisphere or apophatic pole, interacting in a creative tension with its earthy, colorful and often luxuriant southern counterpart.

Like Bede Griffiths, Thomas Merton began his lifelong sapiential journey with one of the English Romantic poets, William Blake. Later he was to extend this interest to the wisdom literature of East and West. A poet himself, he was continually reading, with a sapiential eye, the work of contemporary poets. The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton (New Directions, 1981) contains most of his published literary criticism and commentary, including the Blake Master’s thesis and other early writings. Because of the depth and range of his awareness, and because of his passionate engagement both with contemplative wisdom and with creative literature, Merton offers us the richest complex of connections between poetry and wisdom. The essays in this book concern not only poetry but literature in general, and rather than focusing precisely on meditative or contemplative experience, Merton surveys the whole range of sapiential consciousness. This large book contains, among many other pieces, Merton’s extensive writings on William Faulkner and Albert Camus, and a number of introductory essays on modern Latin American poets.

Among the several more general theoretical essays on art and poetry, creativity and freedom, appears “Poetry and Contemplation: A Reappraisal”, in which Merton—himself both poet and contemplative—brings a more supple discernment to bear upon the burning and personal question on which he had written ten years earlier, in 1948. In the new essay he arrives once again at a stern judgment of poetry.

What, then, is the conclusion? That poetry can, indeed, help to bring us rapidly through that early part of the journey to contemplation that is called active; but when we are entering the realm of true contemplation, where eternal happiness is tasted in anticipation, poetic intuition may ruin our rest in God “beyond all images.” (352)

Having faithfully established the principle, however, Merton turns from this vision of an unforgiving straight ascent toward spiritual repose, to imagine several different possible ‘vocations,’ among them that “a man should remain at the same time a mystic and a poet and ascend to the greatest heights of poetic creation and of mystical prayer without any evident contradiction between them.” (353)

On this newly opened path one may be happily startled to find oneself together with…none other than St. John of the Cross.

Thomas Merton seems more himself, less pinched by the scruples of an idealistic spiritual theology, when he is discussing specific writers, especially those of his own time. In “’Baptism in the Forest’: Wisdom and Initiation in William Faulkner,” Merton explicitly confronts the question of the presence of wisdom in contemporary literature. Having defined this wisdom with splendid breadth as “an imaginative awareness of basic meaning”, he proceeds to survey the contemporary scene.

I might say at once that creative writing and imaginative criticism provide a privileged area for wisdom in the modern world. At times one feels they do so even more than current philosophy and theology. The literary and creative current of thought that has been enriched and stimulated by depth psychology, comparative religion, social anthropology, existentialism, and the renewal of classical, patristic, Biblical and mystical studies has brought in a sapiential harvest which is not to be despised. Let me mention some of the obvious examples: T.S. Eliot both as critic and as poet, Boris Pasternak, St.-John Perse, D.H. Lawrence, and William Butler Yeats. Jacques Maritain’s Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry illustrates what I mean, as do D.T.Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture and William Carlos Williams’ In the American Grain. A great deal of what I call “sapiential” thinking has come out in studies of Melville and of the American novel in general, as well as in some of the recent Milton and Shakespeare criticism….In the classics Jane Harrison, Werner Jaeger, and F. M. Cornford have left us “sapiential” material.

The “wisdom” approach to man seeks to apprehend man’s value and destiny in their global and even ultimate significance. (99-100)

Here in Merton, ‘contemplation,’ ‘meditative experience’ and experience itself have been taken up into the more inclusive perspective which we have been calling ‘wisdom.’ This wisdom is centered emphatically in the human person, bringing us home to our own time—yet at the same time, implicitly, to the ancient sapiential traditions and the New Testament.

In The Great Circle: American Writers and the Orient (Detroit: Wayne State University Press,1983), Beongcheon Yu, a Korean-American scholar, examines the influence of the Asian traditions first upon European literature, then on the American Transcendentalists Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, and then upon five pilgrims from North America to Japan—Henry Adams, John La Farge, Percival Lowell, Ernest Fenollosa and Lafcadio Hearn. Yu then discusses the influence of Asian culture and literature upon Irving Babbitt, Eugene O’Neill, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. He concludes the account with Salinger, Kerouac and Snyder from the Post-World War II Beat generation. While Yu’s focus is not directly upon the contemplative dimension in these authors, the implicit influence of Asian wisdom—and ‘nonduality’—upon their thought and work is often evident.

Jim Rhodes explores the relation between theology and poetry in fourteenth century England in Poetry Does Theology: Chaucer, Grosseteste, and the PEARL-poet (University of Notre Dame Press, 2001). In this early ‘Renaissance period,’ the traditional confinement of theological reflection within the learned clerical precincts of a Latin scholasticism begins to give way to a new lay literature which explores theological concerns in the context of ordinary life and in the vernacular languages. Rhodes presents the fictional world of Chaucer’s poetic masterpiece, the Canterbury Tales, as a space of free play in which human beings can work out for themselves the meaning of their existence.

…The persistence of theological problems in the Canterbury Tales attests to the importance these issues had on the lives of the audience involved, both inside and outside the poem. In this poem, Chaucer successfully selects and combines a wide range of discursive systems B chivalric, monastic, clerical, mercantile, and pastoral—while allowing no one of them to establish a stable consistency. His fictions, to borrow the vocabulary of [Wolfgang] Iser, allow human beings to become present to themselves as no other discourse can….his fictional creations, because they do not have a determinate nature, expand into an “almost unlimited range of culture-bound patternings.” As a medium, his fiction resists essentialization and shows all determination to be illusory. If we take the Nun’s Priest’s Tale as an example of how Chaucer transforms theological discourse, we will see how human beings can construct through a poem a new image of themselves in the absence of God’s truth. (25)

Though we may suspect that this picture strongly reflects Rhodes’ own theological perspective, it does point to a historical parallel. We seem to be listening to an account of the experience of many twentieth-century Christians. Once again in our time, the leading edge of Christian consciousness seems largely to have shifted from formal and professional theological discourse toward a polyphony of human voices, some of the more poignant and profound among them voices of poetry. Few would still hope to hold it all together in an abstract conceptual system, but the universe of human experience and human consciousness continues to live and grow within a unity: something that we can call wisdom.

If we may be Platonic for a moment, poetic imagination can be seen as an urgent (though often ironic) expression of our innate knowledge of perfection, of the good, of how things ought to be—and of an ultimate luminous simplicity at the core of things. As there is a light of consciousness in us, so there is, in this very light, a kind of absolute knowledge or awareness of the absolute, of perfect good, of a simple fullness anterior to thought and word. This innate knowledge may draw a person inward toward pure spirit, or impel a person outward toward some embodiment—some expression of this ultimate good in the world. The first, still immanent stage of this embodiment—in the intermediate world of image and word—is poetic imagination.

Following Maritain, we can imagine that a new wisdom, in contrast to the sapiential Christianity of past ages, will be characterized by creative self-possession, by self-conscious creativity. A Newness@ here, as in the New Testament, is carried to a higher power. Perhaps it is in this key insight that Maritain’s vision is most significant for our time—and in his implicit joining of this creative ‘newness’ with the unitive realization which characterizes the perennial philosophy, the old wisdom.

In this brief and scattered survey, we can do no more than point to the rich sapiential poetry of the Bible. Most obvious examples are the Song of Songs and the Book of Psalms, in which the poetic form becomes explicit and primary. These writings, and the poetic narratives of Genesis and Exodus, of Samuel and Kings and Job, the poetry of Isaiah and Jeremiah, are the hills and fields in which the church Fathers found the dense veins of symbolism and allusion on which they wrote their endless commentaries, in the light of the Gospels. The ‘wisdom books’ (Proverbs, Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon) contain a particularly deep and poignant sapiential poetry.

For wisdom is more mobile than any motion;
because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things.
For she is a breath of the power of God,
and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty;
therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her.
For she is a reflection of eternal light,
a spotless mirror of the working of God,
and an image of his goodness.
Though she is but one, she can do all things,
and while remaining in herself, she renews all things;
in every generation she passes into holy souls
and makes them friends of God, and prophets;

(Wisdom of Solomon 7:24-27, RSV)

Christianity's Religious Texts

The Holy Bible

The poetry of the Bible is not only literary, however; it is embodied, existential, ontological. As Thomas Aquinas asserted at the beginning of his Summa Theologica, in the divine Revelation meaning is to be found not only in the words but in the things themselves: the land, the events, the people and their concrete history. The history of Israel, itself a kind of ‘wisdom poetry’ become transparent in the unitive light of Christ, was the inexhaustible pasture of the theologians of patristic and medieval times.

This peculiar density of ‘sapiential poetry’ reaches a maximum in Jesus Christ, who is the divine Wisdom itself, embodied in a human person and a human life. In the New Testament we have an explosion of creative energy which refusing to be confined within pre-existing literary forms, creates new wineskins for the new wine: forms of its own. (see Amos Wilder, Early Christian Rhetoric, Harper & Row, 1964) The simple light which shines from within these first Christian writings gathers all that it touches into a new and unified world of meaning. Reading Paul’s letters, one finds the words fused together in the intense heat and pressure of the Event. In chapter after chapter of the gospels, we experience a poetry of which the words are only the surface: the poetry is in the totality of the scene itself, in the persons and the action. This ‘poetry of reality’ then becomes most transparent in the Gospel of John.

Something radically new has appeared, has happened, is present, and the writings of the New Testament are permeated with its light and its creative energy.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life —the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing this that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4, RSV)

In the Incarnation, the divine Word and Spirit both become newly present within humanity, and in the interaction of these two creative principles a new creation is initiated. The effects of this creative interaction continue within the culture of the West at different levels of depth; one of its manifestations can be seen in the emergence of a new and self-conscious creativity in literature: in what Maritain calls “poetry” in its deeper and more general sense. In recent centuries, human rationality and poetic creativity have become more clearly differentiated, more completely autonomous. Within this cultural history a theological mystery unfolds, and we have hardly begun to decipher its signs.

In Christ, the seed of unitive and creative divine Wisdom has fallen into the ground of humanity. The creative energy of this primordial event has been the leaven of the cultural development of the West. The harvest of this sowing—and the immanent presence of this creative power—has only begun to be recognized.

By Bruno Barnhart, OSB Cam

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