[Guest blogger Tony Jones]
Blindered by heat-flashes
of banality; the sacred barnyard
tells us nothing except it has
no room for us without our becoming
at once greater and smaller.
This is what it means to have
the mind of Christ; to become as a child
with the heart-space of a 1000 goslings,
arrow-tipped with lightning.
One of the reasons it’s hard to write good religious or spiritual verse — and I am well aware that the terms spiritual and religious are not synonyms — is that the “truths” of religion/spirituality are so public — known by millions and millions — of people that to even utter them in their publicly known form is to start from the realm of cliché and banality. This doesn’t mean those truths really are banal, it just means that they have been pounded deep into the wagon-ruts of collective consciousness, where they often lie lifeless, or at least embalmed.
Art demands two things: “Make it new,” (Ezra Pound), and “tell the truth but tell it slant,” (Emily Dickinson.) So there’s immediately a tension between the fabrication of any art and the public truths of religion. In fact, note that I have just used the word fabrication, which can also have the meaning of “deception.” Thus art/artifice already lies in a semi-antagonists relation to the public truths of tradition. Generally, the truths of religion are old, very old, because they’re traditional. And as such they fall within the black-box structure of a society, i.e. tend to be among the constellations of meanings within a culture that are not only unexamined but that there is a sense of threat at the possibility of being reflected on.
So the poet, say — could be another artist but for argument’s sake let’s say poet because that’s what I am, as well as a very poor bowler — in trying to make it new, because this is unalienable to the craft of poetry, is already paddling against the stream, and will both be likely misunderstood by the majority of the public and also, because of the nature of the truths s/he appears to call into question by the very nature of his/her rhetoric, that public is likely to be hostile as well as unsympathetic. Well, an elucidation of the role of a poet or artist in society is yet another subject for yet another time, but we should recognize that even apart from some of us writers and artists consciously taking an adversarial position toward societal norms, the meta-cultures we dwell in are likely to think that we’re being adversarial anyway, and that will flavor our relations, especially when we write about subjects that touch on religion.
The “tell it slant” part is also problematic as well, because generally public truths demand straightforwardness, so when you are involved in writing any sort of abstruseness, you get back into the 1) not being understood area and 2) suspicion of your motives territory. I know this is a stretch, but I see a similarity between public perceptions of the slant-telling poet and, say, military perceptions of a general like Stonewall Jackson in the American Civil War, who tended to keep his movements secret, not just from his enemies, but from his own officers and troops. It drove them absolutely nuts. And often made his superiors very suspicious of him, even though he won battles. Why? Because the public demands straightforwardness. And always will. So the slant-teller, the jester, the troubadour, the outflanker who holds her/his cards close at all times, will never be quite accepted, even if at times they are seen to be performing a useful service for society.
So where does this leave us in the writing of religious/spiritual verse? Firstly, if we are inspired, inflamed by vision as well as the passion that first produced the art in and through us, then we are going to be telling things anew. That is going to make some people suspicious. Or at the very least (and possibly better) they just won’t understand, won’t see anything in it for them, and they will ignore us. But for a critical mass of people, that vision will speak to them — deep will call unto deep — and, intrigued at first, they will look into the passionate vision and become entranced. They may or may not actually be inspired, but at least the form you have shaped with your art will be replicated in their minds and souls, without which nothing else would be communicated. And maybe, just maybe, you will have illuminated a heretofore hidden corner of some religious (or other) truth that they had never considered before.