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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.

Comments

Mark Granier said…
"Poetry, though, is not a sturdy belief system..."

Thanks God!

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Wheeler Light for 'Life Jacket'.

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Wheeler Light currently lives in Boulder, Colorado.



Life Jacket

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JOHN ASHBERY HAS DIED

With the death of the poetic genius John Ashbery, whose poems, translations, and criticism made him, to my mind, the most influential American poet since TS Eliot, 21st century poetry is moving into less certain territory.

Over the past few years, we have lost most of the truly great of our era: Edwin Morgan, Gunn, Hill, Heaney and Walcott, to name just five.  There are many more, of course. This is news too sad and deep to fathom this week.  I will write more perhaps later. 

I had a letter from Ashbery on my wall, and it inspired me daily.  He gave me advice for my PhD. He said kind things about a poetry book of mine.

He was a force for good serious play in poetry, and his appeal great. So many people I know and admire are at a loss this week because of his death. It is no consolation at present to think of the many thousands of living poets, just right now. But impressively, and even oddly, poetry itself seems to keep flowing.