The New Spirituality
Postmodernism made a lot of experiential sense to me, even as most of those around me (mostly older poets and teachers) raged at it. It’s vacuous! It’s nihilistic! Raging at it seemed about as useful as complaining about the weather. And now, twenty five years on, I don’t see the weather changing. What I see, though, is that we’ve long ago stopped making up new words for snow, and have moved to making igloos.
All we have is what we have, as they say.
Post-modernity is our existential condition, it’s what we steep in; it’s not a belief system. So what we do is not what we do with it but in it.
The “weee,” the jouissance, may be getting a little forced, but the conditions that produced it remain. So the end of history that many saw in LANGUAGE writing is now academic, and the hundredth anniversary of R. Mutt’s “Fountain” is looming. Nothing’s shocking, as both Jane’s Addiction and The Replacements, as well as numerous artists, had it, and that’s all at least 20 years old now too . . .
So if nothing’s been shocking for over a generation now (or close to a hundred years, if you want to go back, or longer, if you want to draw the line somewhere else), what are we to do?
The New Sincerity was going to be the big joke, wasn’t it? But a funny thing happened: a lot of poets took it seriously. Duchamp’s R. Mutt fountain becomes Jeff Koons’s sincerity (as an extreme example). What was an ironic move, or a political move, has become a method. I was thinking about it last fall:
And so went The New Sincerity. And I’m thinking about it again. And this time in a related, but very different way: The New Spirituality. It’s not devotional poetry, at least not overtly, instead it’s searching, questioning:
Just One Thing
Diane Wald stands outside of this tendency, looking in, so I thought the poem fit, even if her poetry doesn’t. This desire to look in, and for many to then open the door and enter, has been brewing for years (Jean Valentine, Donald Revell, etc), and I think now we’re at something like critical mass. The recent more secular, but equally questioning, examples of Rae Armantrout and Mary Jo Bang having popular success (in poetry terms), is telling. Experimental poets write about real things. (The truth is, they always have.)
But the door is open now, and in walks several versions of spiritual and mythical investigation. One form this takes is the book of fables. Have you noticed how many poets are interested in writing fables lately? Craig Morgan Teicher and Sarah Goldstein both have recent books of fables, and the list goes on. I’m going blank right now on a complete list, but I’d put Sabrina Orah Mark there as well:
Sabrina Orah Mark
The Saddest Gown In the World
Call it fable or parable or analogy of metaphor, the result’s basically the same: the call to writing poetry such as this is, in the end, a call to spirit. It’s a way of explaining, of fixing a feeling of loss, the great loss of myth that poets can fill. This new ripple of interest fascinates me.
And then there’s the more direct route, spirituality itself. A great number of practicing poets belong to faith communities (G.C. Waldrep, Kazim Ali, Fanny Howe, Joshua Kryah, are just a few—there are many), but most don’t often write directly at the practice of faith. Or at least that’s been the case. It seems that the “direct treatment of the thing” is growing more common, with special issues of literary journals (a recent APR, for example, which wasn’t designated as such, but might as well have been), and more and more books with spiritual themes. Two recent examples are sitting right in front of me on my desk: Matt Mauch’s Prayer Book and Dana Levin’s Sky Burial.
Stephen Burt posed the question in a more generally existential way in a recent issue of Boston Review:
You can see where I’m going with this. It’s a landscape not a lot of poets have moved into for a long time. There will be cobwebs to deal with (and T.S. Eliot might have to make a reappearance at some point). My guess for why that suburb has been something of a ghost town lately is that because, to move there, poets run several risks: the risk of doctrine, which is potentially limiting to an artist; and the risk of apparent naïveté, which is the sort of accusation that circles in art circles. Perhaps we’re past that? It’ll be interesting to find out, as it appears there are many poets with their U-Haul’s loaded driving down the highway with their turn signals on.
Hawk perched low on a hedge of vine.
On hunt for what hid
in the tangle
The small citizens, mouse and gopher.
Body of Ra the hawk signified.
In the symbol book, which I opened after climbing the stairs,
after the hawk fanned out its banded tail like I should
pick a card—
The book was a prisoner of my ardor for the dark—through it I stalked,
It was a character out of a Victorian novel—Symbol Book, an
imbecile, a Dutch inventor.
Saying, You must bow
to the Hippogriff (half raptor, half horse), it must
lower its head to your hand.
Halcón Pradeño. Mexicano. Come to me for my winter ground.
According to Whatbird.com.
Hawk perched low on a hedge of vine. Going
heel to toe, so as not to startle.
Cloud unhooding body of Ra a pale pearl of winter sun—
often stamped their wares with hooded falcon,
emblem of the dungeoned seer.
That “hope for light” the darkened nourish.
Closed books, post tenebras spero lucem along the spine—
I found the phrase in the Office for the Dead, in the Latin Vulgate:
after darkness I hope for light—
Then: hell is my house, and in darkness I have made my bed—
I thought of my father and mother and sister being dead, I was so sick
of feeling anything about it—
The hood stood for hope of liberty.
Of wanting to swoop and soar over enormous swells,
as in my dream.
I hovered high, I could see the mammals in the raucous waters, their slick
of danger and wonder.
My soul hath thirsted, the Vulgate said, He hath put a new song
into my mouth.
The hawk appeared. Unhooded.
An auspice, from auspex, avispex, “one who looks at birds”—
I’d been wanting to know if it was all right to live.
An ascensional symbol on every level, the symbol book said.
Body of Ra. Solar victory. If one can believe the book