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Saturday, 29 November 2008

Poetry and religion

There is something dispiriting - literally - about Nick Laird's latest column in this weekend's Guardian Review (the Review lists Tuesday's Oxfam event in London, by the way, and also features a best of the year book roundup, which might be of interest to readers of Eyewear) - in how he discusses his lost faith - and subsequent attempt to find it in poetry. Faith isn't just lost. Faith is like a radio that needs to be constantly tuned - sometimes, the faintest signals of possibility can be detected, at other times, it is all a fuzz.

When one entirely loses faith, one is in a sense saying something about the human soul: that there isn't one. Otherwise, if one still believed that, then not all would be lost. Nihilism and poetry reached an exquisite dead-end in the darkly fascinating morgues and flesh of Gottfried Benn. Laird, though, seeks to argue that poetry can replace, even supplant religion - not a new thought, surely. Keats thought this. Wallace Stevens exemplified it. And Heaney continues the modern-romantic quest to achieve epiphany in the world, not beyond it. So too, does Ashbery, in abstract indeterminate ways. Most poets these days are atheists, or non-God-types, who place a lot of store in pure poetry, to achieve the lift-off their discarded faith (or religion) can no longer supply.

Poetry, though, is not a sturdy belief system, nor does it supply the constant sources of wisdom, warmth, and illumination, that a religious, or spiritual, belief system can. Poetry, in the occult hands of a Yeats, has immense symbolic resources, and can yield extraordinary instances of illumination (Bloom speaks of such sublime instances in Emerson, or Whitman) - but poetic visions are rarely sustainable coherent systems capable of assisting one through all of life's natural cycles of joy and grief.

Lord knows, poets try. Poetry, however, is a handmaid to religion - as in the work of later Donne, or Hopkins. Poetry finds words for things that may not have words beforehand. But it isn't those things, itself. Beyond language: a mystery. In that mystery, perhaps, a God. I wish Laird well on his journey to map a search, with science and language as his guides. One day, the poet who seeks a new religion may find an old faith waiting for him, where his journey began.
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