Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Spirituality and Sincerity (Yes, I'm Back on That Again)

Keep your lens clean.

When I was noticing something in poetry last year, something I was thinking of as “spirituality,” I wasn’t thinking of “religiosity.” I wasn’t thinking about people writing, necessarily, about God or faith directly. What I was noticing was that a lot of poetry I was noticing felt spiritual, which is, felt philosophically open to the spirit of transcendence.

Very few of the poems I found were directly religious or even directly spiritual. It was the openness I was noticing, that was interesting me.

I saw it as tied to ideas of sincerity, in that, rather than espousing direct belief or experience, to have an air of possibility, in much the way that sincerity (whether you call it The New Sincerity2 or something else) is being thought of by some poets in less directly, historically sincere, emotional, ways, and more a sincerity of intent, not necessarily a culturally sanctioned sincerity in the poem’s content. The question of sincerity is an important one to me, for it's the place where viewers makes assumptions about the state of the artist. "The artist is being ironic.  The artist doesn't mean this." That sort of thing. How am I to really know this?  How will they know this in the future?  What if Jeffrey Koons is sincere?  What does that mean for art?  We've tried blank irony.  OK, we've got that now.  But what about the same art objects as sincere?

What I mean is that the poem itself can become a spiritual opportunity or a moment of sincerity, not as a recounting of spirituality or sincerity. Spirituality in the way that the poem is not closed off to what isn’t there, what is silent, mysterious, corporally unknowable, and sincerity in the way that “I mean this,” or “I’m not just f-ing around.”

This morning on Poetry Daily I came across the following bit from David Bottoms, a poet from a different generation, who did a decent job of setting out the “spiritual” case, though he goes too far against organized religion for my taste. Looking at his positive points though, it’s about metaphor and silence. It's a good place to start.

Anyway, as I’m just now starting to feel better after a week of just about the worst flu I’ve ever had, it seems a good place to start.

Here’s the relevant bit from David Bottoms:

I think the best way to approach this question is to step to the side for a moment and say that I am a believer in the power and the necessity of myth. I count myself a yearner after significance, as Robert Penn Warren called himself. I've experienced that personal yearning for meaning—call it the divine, if you like—and I take that yearning to be evidence of the possibility of the existence of its object. Why should I yearn for something that isn't there? I believe pretty much what Huston Smith suggests in his book Why Religion Matters. This yearning for something greater, he says, is built into the human makeup and suggests the existence of its object—the way, say, the wings of birds point to the reality of air or the way sunflowers bend toward the light because light exists.

Organized religion is another matter. The biggest problem I've had with churches—in my case, Baptist and Episcopal—is their insistence on approaching scripture in a literal way. Even now in the twenty-first century, when science and scholarship have proven beyond a doubt any number of historical inaccuracies in the Bible, churches persist in basing the validity of Christian doctrine on historical fact. This is mind-boggling to me. Never have I heard anyone in any church I've attended speak of the Christ story as metaphor and how that story might enlighten our lives. I believe this is likely out of a fear that most people are simply too literal to understand scripture in any other way. This puts me in mind of "Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr" that great story by the Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno. Here, you'll remember, the priest who has lost his faith continues to minister for the sake of his flock, which he fears will be unable to bear the truth he has discovered about life and death. We're speaking, of course, about literal truth, historical truth. And we're living in a time when the dangers of fundamentalism are readily apparent. I'm not just talking about Islam. There's an old song called "Broadminded" that the Louvin Brothers recorded in Nashville back in the early 1950s. The first line goes "That word 'broadminded' is spelled s-i-n." This is still what's being preached in a great number of Christian churches, perhaps even the majority. But there is another kind of truth, a figurative truth, a very useful mythology that may provide a path to enriched significance in our lives.

Your reference to negative capability is about as good a way as any to describe that state of yearning and unknowing that I live in. This reminds me of the great Welsh poet R.S. Thomas, a priest in the Church of Wales, who, if he never lost his faith, at least understood God in a much different way than his parishioners. Nevertheless, like Unamuno's Saint Emmanuel, he never strayed in his ministry from church orthodoxy. For Thomas, though, one could never experience the presence of God—only the absence. In his little poem "In Church," he talks about "testing his faith / on emptiness." And in a poem called "Moorland," he describes a harrier searching for prey as "hovering over the incipient / scream, here a moment, then / not here, like my belief in God." However, he believed strongly in the human condition of yearning, I think, and the suggestive state of God's absence. You might say that for Thomas one could only see where God had been, or you might say that the absence of God pointed to His existence.

The Christ story is a wonderful way to talk about God, but there are many ways. What's important to see is that each of these points toward something ultimate. I think my stance is one of hopeful questioning, and it's not really a studied literary stance but more the condition I find myself living in—a sort of hopeful holding-out for the possibility of the ultimate thing these stories, or myths, point toward.

35 Comments:

At 2/22/2012 5:15 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

I wish I had time to think and write more about this. Maybe later.

“He who has not God in himself cannot feel His absence.” Simone Weil.

 
At 2/22/2012 8:21 AM, Blogger Todd said...

That's an excellent interview up at Poetry Daily, and lots more at that website -- just click on the Archives section for prose pieces, essays, interviews, etc.

I remember David Bottoms I suppose mostly for the great book titles, must have been back in the early 1980s or so, Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump. In a U-haul North of Damascus. Hard to beat that, those.

He's written some excellent poems, too. Nice to see him mention Robert Penn Warren in the interview. I'd align him among his peers (or contemporaries) with William Stafford, Maxine Kumin, Hayden Carruth, etc., and spirituality, connectedness, whatever you want to call it, is certainly a major chord in his work, and/or at least a very long note.

Glad you are feeling better John. Last time I had a 104 temp, I remember feeling kind of spiritual too, speaking in tongues, all that stuff. Best,

tpeterson

 
At 2/22/2012 8:30 AM, Blogger David said...

John,

Where does poetry that is more explicit -- and literal -- in its affirmation of faith come into this? David Bottom's piece suggests to me that such poetry will be written off as "dangerous fundamentalism". I'm all for the spiritual "openness" of a secular poet like Tomas Tranströmer, and I don't require that a poet be explicitly "religious" before I acknowledge and accept his sincerity and spirituality. I just wonder if that acknowledgement and acceptance goes both ways.

 
At 2/22/2012 8:56 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

David,

True, it doesn’t necessarily go the other way, especially in Bottoms’s formulation. That’s why, in the post, I wanted to make a point to distance myself from that part of what he had to say. From that perspective, the Bottoms perspective, organized religion is, well, too organized. I neither see it that way nor do I not see it that way. I just absent myself from that aspect of the conversation. When it’s general I can relate to it much better. The more specific it (the religious affiliation of the poem, its denomination) gets, the less I find to hold onto. But I prefer to dwell in the positive side of this. The shared part of the endeavor.

 
At 2/22/2012 9:08 AM, Blogger Todd said...

A large part of the "spiritual" interview with David Bottoms deals with humor, which made me think of some fine younger writers, Jason Bredle, Jennifer Knox, David Berman, etc, whose writing, I imagine, may be considered, occasionally, as spiritual, but never religeous, I don't think. I don't know?

There are so many bad readings of the Bible, let alone poetry. What should anybody ever expect.

I see things, admittedly, where I shouldn't, but I still try my best to be careful, direct, not to confuse things, issues, mix up my metaphors, etc, to bring it, as the kids like to say, all to the table.

That said, one of the more spiritual poems I know is "The Mockingbird" by Charles Bukowski. Summer's over, imagine that, and it's not even spring.

tpeterson

 
At 2/22/2012 10:30 AM, Blogger David said...

The more specific it (the religious affiliation of the poem, its denomination) gets, the less I find to hold onto.

John,

If there is greatness in a poem, there should be plenty to hold onto. Even a militant atheist like Shelley could not avoid the poetic influence of Dante, whose poetry is informed by Catholic dogma that was obviously repellent to Shelley. By the same token, I cannot deny (or refuse to enjoy) the high poetic quality of "Queen Mab", even as I must in conscience reject the atheism that informs it.

 
At 2/22/2012 10:35 AM, Blogger David said...

But I prefer to dwell in the positive side of this. The shared part of the endeavor.

Agreed!

 
At 2/22/2012 12:11 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Todd,

I remember reading that once, a long time ago. It feels like a life ago now. Indeed. To bargain it to another place.

And it's not even spring, indeed.

 
At 2/22/2012 12:32 PM, Blogger ayatollah said...

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At 2/22/2012 12:36 PM, Blogger where's the pepsi said...

I would add, too, regarding Bottom's trouble w/ Anglicanism, that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowann Williams, is also a Wittgensteinian theologian, who does not read scripture at all 'literally' in the sense Bottoms means. Williams' theological writings, in fact, are most often associated with a type of religious non realism, or at the very least, revisionist hermeneutics.

I also wonder, in the case of a poet like Fanny Howe, or even a mystic like Simone Weil, why one can't associate oneself (perhaps loosely) with an institutional faith while also despising current leadership.

Surely there can be radical subgroups!

Franciscans have rarely gotten along with the Pope.

 
At 2/22/2012 1:25 PM, Blogger knott said...

http://atheistpoetryblog.blogspot.com/?zx=ca7062e5a52233f4

 
At 2/23/2012 5:31 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Affirmations and denials of God's existence always jostle me off balance because the word "God" is an ambiguous symbol, and when the the affirmer or denier defines his conception of God specifically, I feel like striking out on the via negativa.

Is that trite? Sorry.

Atheistic poetry is a great idea for an anthology, however. I wonder if there's ever been such an anthol. before.

God might buy a copy of it Himself.

 
At 2/23/2012 7:54 AM, Blogger underbelly said...

"If there is greatness in a poem, there should be plenty to hold onto."

The catch for me is that I rarely find greatness in art of any kind when it functions as a position statement. Art that comes out of a place of certainty tends to bore me, if doesn't happen to overachieve and actually insult me.

Faith is the kind of certainty I happen to have the least patience with, in any setting, but especially in the divergent worlds of politics and art.

But my dislike of certainty is true whether the subject is theological or not, or whether I agree with the position or not. I'm along for the exploration, for the shared surprise.

I suspect I'm saying something similar to what John is saying, but with a crankier tone.

 
At 2/23/2012 8:55 AM, Blogger David said...

Art that comes out of a place of certainty tends to bore me ...

Underbelly, if you refer to art that is didactic, I agree with you. In those places where Shelley takes an obvious position against Christianity in his poetry, such as when he mocks Christ on the Cross in "Queen Mab", he manages to be both boring and insulting. (Fortunately, his poetry is more often elevating and delightful.) By the same token, sincere Christians can write poetry that is dreadfully boring and intellectually insulting.

All of that said, I would question whether certainty in and of itself ruins art. How is it that uncertainty is an artistic virtue and certainty an artistic vice? Many of Shakespeare's Sonnets appear to come from a very firm and certain point of view (the procreative sequence comes especially to mind). Do you find the Sonnets boring?

 
At 2/23/2012 9:21 AM, Blogger David said...

From a place of absolute certainty comes poetry whose greatness has stood the test of time:

O Light Eterne, sole in thyself that dwellest,
Sole knowest thyself, and, known unto thyself
And knowing, lovest and smilest on thyself!

That circulation, which being thus conceived
Appeared in thee as a reflected light,
When somewhat contemplated by mine eyes,

Within itself, of its own very colour
Seemed to me painted with our effigy,
Wherefore my sight was all absorbed therein.

As the geometrician, who endeavours
To square the circle, and discovers not,
By taking thought, the principle he wants,

Even such was I at that new apparition;
I wished to see how the image to the circle
Conformed itself, and how it there finds place;

But my own wings were not enough for this,
Had it not been that then my mind there smote
A flash of lightning, wherein came its wish.

Here vigour failed the lofty fantasy:
But now was turning my desire and will,
Even as a wheel that equally is moved,

The Love which moves the sun and the other stars.


Paradiso: Canto XXXIII

 
At 2/23/2012 9:39 AM, Blogger David said...

Finally I'll note that W.S. Merwin, who practices a religion not known for dogmatic verities (Buddhism), would not have labored over yet another verse translation of Dante's Purgatorio if it bored him.

 
At 2/23/2012 1:33 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

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At 2/23/2012 1:42 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

David,

Yes, it's didacticism that I don't like. And perhaps it's not a problem for art to come from a place of certainty unless it stays there without learning anything. I think of Stephen Colbert praising George W. Bush for believing the same thing on Wednesday that he believed Monday, regardless of what happened on Tuesday.

That Dante passage grapples with the mysterious, and with the fallibility of the human witness, and so seems to me to go beyond mere certainty.

But there's plenty of didactic art that bores me and has stood the test of time anyhow. It just means that there's an esthetic divide. People who like certainty in their stew don't tend to like what I like, either.

A separate issue is that I'm unimpressed by most arguments that show up in art. Artists are often brilliant at assocition and exploration. They are less often brilliant at research and rhetoric. If I'm looking for a position on God (unlikely) I'll read philosophy, not poetry.

 
At 2/23/2012 2:04 PM, Blogger where's the pepsi said...

"Faith is the kind of certainty I happen to have the least patience with, in any setting, but especially in the divergent worlds of politics and art."

Underbelly, I agree that mainstream faith that sees it as its mission to impart a CERTAIN truth is beyond boring. It is harmful, both to politics and art.

I don't think, however, that faith itself is a "kind of certainty." Properly understood, faith, if not entirely opposed to certainty, is at least unrelated to it. e.g. a leap of faith is an action taken without reference to reason or 'evidence,' in an empirical or scientific sense.

True is that such an attitude has the potential to justify terrible things on the grounds of faith, and to REPLACE reason and complexity with some inscrutable belief.

That said, faith can also empower one to--like Keats--rest in uncertainty without feeling a need to transcend it towards certainty. Fanny Howe has a great essay about this, called "Bewilderment," in her book "The Wedding Dress."

Susan Howe, Fanny's sister, could also shed some light on the promise of uncertainty within a revisionist but still institutional faith.

Jack Spicer is another example of someone with a kind of reluctant faith--a love/hate relationship with Calvinism--that was anything but certain. But I think it would be irresponsible to say he wasn't struggling with/for messages from a perceived divine 'otherness,' whether martian or gnostic God.

See Imaginary Elegies, or Fifteen False Propositions Against God.

Either way, his relationship with a particular institutional faith seems one of the main subjects of his, by my estimates, enormously important body of work.

 
At 2/23/2012 2:46 PM, Blogger David said...

For me, faith and certainty are inseparably linked. The certainty of faith is not confined within the limits imposed by empiricism and the scientific method. Therefore, if I write poetry informed by faith, the "certainty" so distrusted in modern artistic circles will be lurking there, although it might not be front and center of my poems.

 
At 2/23/2012 3:07 PM, Blogger David said...

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At 2/23/2012 3:11 PM, Blogger David said...

A certain wild-eyed and dangerous fanatic who's on the top of every secular shit-list wrote something that is positively pregnant with the stuff of skittery poetry:

"What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate." (Rom 7:15)

Read the "Terrible Sonnets" by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Pretty skittery stuff, yet Fr. Hopkins attested to the absolute certainty of his Catholic faith -- which is to say his absolute trus in God -- to his dying day.

John probably regrets opening this can of worms, but it's what happens when you raise the topic of spirituality in mixed company.

 
At 2/23/2012 3:17 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

Faith is doubt.

 
At 2/23/2012 3:48 PM, Blogger David said...

Are you SURE?

Without a DOUBT?

There is something potentially dogmatic about that little word "is", isn't there?

There's more in heaven and earth ... well, you know the rest, Horatio.

 
At 2/23/2012 3:53 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

"For me, faith and certainty are inseparably linked. The certainty of faith is not confined within the limits imposed by empiricism and the scientific method."

Yes, this is the idea of faith I'm speaking to. It is a certainty beyond mere trust, which, unlike faith, implies a sense of human fallibility.

 
At 2/23/2012 4:05 PM, Blogger where's the pepsi said...

David and Underbelly,

I can see what you mean by this link between certainty and faith. However, being certain that one has a faith doesn't require that what one has faith in is certain, does it? That being the case, can't one be certain about one's faith while still being fallible?

One could say, "I am certain it is raining," or "I am certain I have a headache," but it would be silly to say, because it is no different from saying, "it is raining," or "I have a headache."

I guess what I mean is, the certainty that you think is linked to faith seems linked to any kind of statement or belief.

To be certain you believe something is not to be certain ABOUT what you believe. That, it seems to me, is what faith is for--making that distinction.

 
At 2/23/2012 4:45 PM, Blogger David said...

However, being certain that one has a faith doesn't require that what one has faith in is certain, does it?

Oh, but it absolutely does. Bringing the conversation back to poetry, let's consider the writing of someone like St. Therese of Lisieux or St. John of the Cross, that is to say, the religious poetry of LOVE. Such poetry assumes certainty in the existence of the beloved. You might call such certainty a foolish illusion, but it is necessary to the authentic emotion that is expressed in the poem.

 
At 2/23/2012 5:05 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

Epigrammatic terseness is not dogmatism.

Do you know Franz Wright's devotional poetry, David? I like it.

 
At 2/23/2012 5:12 PM, Blogger where's the pepsi said...

David,

What about the examples I gave of Spicer and the Howe sisters?

Also, even in the context of St. John of the Cross, there were "Dark nights of the soul," in which there is a perceived absence of the 'other,' who is loved and who IS love. This perceived absence seems to imply a sense of uncertainty about one's relationship with the divine, even if one is certain of some kind of relationship.

This same perceived apartness can be found in Donald Revell's early books as well as in Spicers Fifteen Propositions mentioned earlier. In both cases, however, there is still a decided faith in something. It may not be a redeeming faith, but a frightening and bewildering faith is still a faith.

Also, we should be clear about the difference between a belief IN and a belief THAT. That is, to have faith in something or to believe in something is not always the same thing as a belief THAT it exists. As Wittgenstein suggests, you must ask what someone is willing to risk.

To simply say "I believe that God exists" says nothing about who or what God IS or about the level of your investment in the belief. If God IS love, in the predicative sense, then to believe in God is very different from believing in God's existence, because when we say "love exists" we aren't using existence in the same way as when we say "this chair exists."

If simply being certain that one has faith also requires that one is certain about the details of the object of one's faith, then it should also be the case that an atheist who is certain she is atheist (a silly way to talk about certainty) must also be certain that religious belief has no currency. That just doesn't seem to be true to my experience of either believers or atheists.

 
At 2/23/2012 7:47 PM, Blogger David said...

David,

I was just joking about your epigrammatic dogmatism. And, yes, I do like Franz Wright's devotional poetry, the little of it that I've read.

where's the pepsi,

Points well taken. We agree more than might have first appeared. I feel that there should be appreciation for all kinds of poetic impulses that fall under the heading of "spirituality and sincerity" -- including those that spring from more traditional and, dare we say, dogmatic forms of faith. Dante is the most prominent example. Needless to say, poetry that tries to argue a dogmatic position is not going to be good poetry. On that we can all agree.

 
At 2/23/2012 8:06 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

"If simply being certain that one has faith also requires that one is certain about the details of the object of one's faith, then it should also be the case that an atheist who is certain she is atheist (a silly way to talk about certainty) must also be certain that religious belief has no currency."

This presumes that the standards for disbelief are the same as the standards for belief, which isn't so in rational theories of justification. To say "I don't believe X exists" doesn't mean that I am certain of the non-existence of X; it means that I haven't been offered sufficient justification for the belief in X.

I do not believe, and I am uncertain.

Some have argued that atheism is essentially a religious belief in itself, because it must be faith-based. But this is only true for the minority of atheists who (irrationally) claim certainty in the non-existence of god.

Rational atheists disbelieve in god for the same reasons they probably disbelieve in a mile-high statue of Elvis on the dark side of the moon. They could never prove or otherwise have certainty in the object's non-existence, but they have also not been shown sufficient cause to believe. Lack of evidence is generally a factor, as are basic laws of probability.

These ideas are handled gracefully by the ministers of my religion of choice, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
http://www.venganza.org/about/open-letter/

 
At 2/23/2012 8:49 PM, Blogger David said...

Underbelly,

Your comment circles back, in a way, to John's original intent in starting this tread:

What I mean is that the poem itself can become a spiritual opportunity or a moment of sincerity, not as a recounting of spirituality or sincerity. Spirituality in the way that the poem is not closed off to what isn’t there, what is silent, mysterious, corporally unknowable, and sincerity in the way that “I mean this,” or “I’m not just f-ing around.”

 
At 2/24/2012 4:02 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Paul,

I also like spaghetti.

 
At 2/24/2012 6:37 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Spaghetti's a skein of machetes.

 
At 2/24/2012 9:59 AM, Blogger where's the pepsi said...

@underbelly

"To say "I don't believe X exists" doesn't mean that I am certain of the non-existence of X; it means that I haven't been offered sufficient justification for the belief in X."

Fair enough. In general questions of belief, I agree with you on this. And in fact, the point I had been making was that to be certain one believes or does not believe something does not require that the object of their belief must in some way be certain.

And interestingly, while an atheist may disbelieve based on "insufficient evidence for belief" or however you want to put it, I think religious believers don't come to believe after a series of evidentiary standards are satisfied. Part of this is because, for some believers, belief that God exists is based on a narrow definition of what God IS, e.g. some kind of conciousness, agent in the world, disembodied being, etc. I think one can be a religious believer and not believe any of those things about God.

@ David:
regarding the full paragraph starting "I feel that there should be appreciation for all kinds of poetic impulses that fall under the heading of "spirituality and sincerity""

Well put, and I agree completely

@ John:
Thanks for running this blog. I've been a reader for several years, but have never really posted anything before. It's a great place for dialogue.

 

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