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