The first poem I ever had published was in our church newsletter. I dictated it to my patient mother at the age of five.
At age fourteen, I started my daily practice of spiritual exercises (“SEs”), a form of active meditation. In my late twenties, I began writing poetry almost daily as well.
Coming full circle, I recently gave an interview to the church newsletter’s online successor, The New Day Herald, about the intersection of poetry and spiritual practice.
You can read the interview, along with a poem, here.
Jack Gilbert’s The Great Fires is a meditation on solitude and loss. In fact, it contains many of the elements of the medieval Christian meditative tradition. In his introduction to The Meditative Poem, Louis L. Martz describes this tradition as producing a poem “in which a man projects a self upon a mental stage, and there comes to understand that self in the light of a divine presence.” For Gilbert, this presence is God, whom he addresses directly in colloquy, and also the presence of Nature. I find some of these poems bold, compelling, and strange. Others I find somewhat generic in their philosophy, or vague. Others still are mixed.
Gilbert takes on a difficult subject: the loss of his wife, Michiko. Because of the deeply personal nature of this topic, Gilbert must find inroads to describing his grief in ways that will render these feelings accessible to his reader. One technique that seems to work particularly well is his focus on nature. Consider the movement of the poem “Betrothed”:
You hear yourself walking on snow.
You hear the absence of birds.
A stillness so complete, you hear
the whispering inside of you. Alone
morning after morning, and even more
at night. They say we are born alone,
to live and die alone. But they are wrong.
We get to be alone by time, by luck,
or by misadventure. When I hit the log
frozen in the woodpile to break it free,
it makes a sound of perfect inhumanity,
which goes pure all through the valley,
like a crow calling unexpectedly
at the darker end of the twilight that awakens
me in the middle of a life. The black
and white of me mated with this indifferent
winter landscape. I think of the moon
coming in a little while to find the white
among these colorless pines.
I’ve decided cats like poets, and not just because they’re warm and still while reading and writing. It seems poets like cats as well. I was sorry to hear of Michael’s loss today. Having grown up highly allergic to cats, I always thought I didn’t like them. Then Miranda came into our lives.
This morning, during meditation, she curled up on my lap. Afterwards, Val pointed out that she has been much more inclined to be close to me since I have been getting up early to write. I have been calmer, and more in touch with my poetic sensibilities (rather than my type-a technocrat sensibilities), and our cat can tell.
She’s a kind of barometer of consciousness on furry little legs. And, of course, she knows all the coziest spots in the house, suitable for reading, writing, or having a good wash with the tongue.