Making Space for the Inner Life: Judith Beveridge on Poetry & Spirituality

We are extremely pleased to present this guest post by esteemed poet Judith Beveridge in the lead up to the announcement of the 2013 Blake Poetry Prize winner in October, and our Poetry Festival in late June. Entries for the Blake close Friday June 14, with more information here.

Throughout history, poetry has always been the most powerful and effective form for addressing and exploring deep spiritual questions. Partly this is because poetry is connected so intimately with the breath. Poets know that the breath can act as an interpreting spirit, something which will help move, uplift and carry lived experience into rhythms and tones which allow both writer and reader to feel as if they are in communion and intense dialogue with the world around them.

Poetry as an art form employs repeating structures of sound, image and rhythm, and this patterned approach enables both writer and reader to access knowledge in non-discursive ways. Patterns can lead to insights and revelations which may not be attained or reached through logical or rational methods alone.

These lines from Graham Kershaw’s poem ‘Altar Rock’, which won last year’s Blake Poetry Prize, show how feeling is carried through the sounds and rhythm, and how these operate to give immense power to the landscape described:

 

So savour these last wheatlands, where slopes carpeted
with golden grain’s choral glow still flap and crack
like hot sheets, outcrops burnt back to the blood-red bone
fired limbs of blackened stone.

 

Kershaw’s poem imbues a sense of stark grandeur to a dry landscape where stone and rock are symbols of mortality, yet also promise and hope. As Kershaw points out in his Blake Prize interview <www.blakeprize.com/news/interview-graham-kershaw>, spirituality is broader than religion. It’s in how we engage imaginatively, emotionally and intellectually with the world. Spirituality is also about perceiving relationships. Poets become especially practiced in this through metaphor-making. Metaphors build bridges and create new pathways of understanding. Metaphors, then, can be seen as having a healing or remedial function. The image, in its truth telling, allows for an expansion and an activation of knowledge. We need the poet’s eye to explore, to celebrate, to make the familiar extraordinary and to make space for the inner life.

The Anglo-Saxons had the idea that the poet or scop was a shaper, someone who imparted form or ‘scape’ onto what they might find shapeless, whether it be the landscape, or the demands and vicissitudes of life. A scop was someone who spoke about their human needs and who also praised.

A great deal of poetry does not directly engage with political or social issues, but what it does deal with is inwardness, or the inner life. A poem, to be successful, has to come from inside the poet’s own life. This ability of poetry to go inwards and to touch the psyche both at an individual and a communal level is one of its most significant forces. WH Auden says this memorably in his memorial to WB Yeats (WH Auden, Collected Poems, Faber and Faber, 1976).

 

With your unconstraining voice
still persuade us to rejoice;

with the farming of a verse
make a vineyard of the curse.
Sing of human unsuccess,
in a rapture of distress;

in the deserts of the heart
let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
teach the free man how to praise.

 

In the past, poetry was more community-centred. It functioned to draw people together. Poetry was a vehicle for transmitting the stories, beliefs and values of a people. While the communal function of poetry may have diminished in modern times, poetry has never lost its role, which Wallace Stevens has described as, ‘a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right’.

One of the dangers that we face as a culture, with so much of the natural world disappearing, with so much of the environment slipping into degradation and so much of it reduced to cityscape, pop culture and consumerism, is that people can easily slip into self-centredness and lack of attention. We are quickly losing a direct, intimate connection with the things we depend upon for survival. Poetry is a great tool through which human relations to nature can be called to account, as well as exalted. Writing and reading poetry forces us, if we are to become any good at it, to pay attention. Mary Oliver, the American nature poet, says:

 

Before we move from recklessness to responsibility, from selfishness to a decent happiness, we must want to save our world. And in order to want to save our world we must learn to love it — and in order to love it we must become familiar with it again. That is where my work begins, and why I keep walking, and looking.
(From Marjory Wenthworth‘s website).

 

At its best, poetry provides us with an active means of empathic enlargement.

Many poets I think would agree with Keats when he said that writing poetry was essentially about ‘soul-making’. In one of his letters to John Hamilton Reynolds, Keats wrote:

 

I find that I cannot exist without poetry, without eternal poetry. Half the day will not do it—the whole of it. I had become all in a tremble from not having written anything of late—the sonnet ‘On the Sea’ did me some good. I slept the better last night for it—this morning, however, I am nearly as bad again.
(Selected Letters, John Keats, Oxford University Press, 2009)

 

Australian poets are especially good at writing ‘the scripture of the ground’. Robert Adamson, Robert Gray, Martin Harrison, Les Murray, Mark Tredinnick, Judith Wright, to name a few, have written superb meditations on nature, metaphysics and mortality. Many of their poems take us into active seeing, and from contemplation into response. Here are some lines from Mark Tredinnick’s poem ‘No Particular Ending in Mind’:

                                                                    Let your mind rest,
you think; let it belong to the stars. Let it belong, as it does, to the weather,

to the psychopathology of stones. Let it run the way the river ran this
afternoon among the feet of your children, cold and clear and sufficient
unto itself. There a bend coming and a fall after that, but they can wait.

Let your mind be like the fox you caught earlier, eating pizza from a box
on the porch in the dark: go hungry, but not too hungry. Know a gift
when you see one. Take it, but leave the box. Turn, but don’t run.

 

Perhaps the most astounding responses of all are the Aboriginal song-cycles which deliver extraordinary power through rhythm, mythology, cultural references and sacred connections to place. Here are some lines from part 13 of the ‘Wonguri-Mandjikai Song Cycle of the Moon-Bone’:

 

Up and up soars the evening Star, hanging there in the sky.
Men watch it, at the place of the Dugong and of the Clouds and of the Evening Star,
Along way off, at the place of Mist, of Lilies and of the Dugong,
The Lotus, the Evening Star, hangs there on its long stalk, held by the Spirits.
It shines on that place of Shade, on the Dugong place, and onto
                              the Moonlight clay pan…
The evening star is shining, back towards Milingimbi,
                               and over the Wulamba people…

 

The indigenous people have understood, perhaps more than any group, that ‘no place is a place until it has had a poet’. We can extend this thought further to include the understanding, that if we want to best learn about the human spirit, about what it means to have human consciousness and sentience on this Earth, then we cannot do better than to turn to poetry.

FURTHER READING

  • Robert Adamson, The Golden Bird, Black Inc, Melbourne, 2008
  • Louise Gluck, Poems 1962-2012, Farrear, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2012
  • Robert Gray, Cumulus: Collected Poems, John Leonard Press, Melbourne, 2012
  • Martin Harrison, Wild Bees, University of Western Australia Press, 2008
  • Kevin Hart, Your Shadow, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1984
  • Les Murray, Collected Poems, Duffy and Snellgrove, Sydney, 2002
  • Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, Beacon Press, Boston, 1992
  • Mark Tredinnick, Fire Diary, Puncher and Wattmann, Sydney, 2010
  • Francis Webb, Collected Poems, edited by Toby Davidson, University of Western Australia Press, 2011
  • Charles Wright, Bye-and-Bye: Collected Late Poems, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, 2011
  • Judith Wright, Collected Poems, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1994
  • Anthology of Australian Religious Poetry, edited by Les Murray, Collins Dove, Melbourne, 1991

 

Judith Beveridge is the author of The Domesticity of Giraffes, Accidental Grace, Wolf Notes and Storm and Honey. She is the poetry editor for Meanjin and teaches poetry writing at postgraduate level at Sydney University. Her new volume of poems will be published by Giramondo in 2013.

 

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