Tuesday, May 17, 2011

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:

Diane Wald
Just One Thing

It occurs to me that the problem is that I keep thinking that I’ll be able to fix something so that it will stay fixed—not change. For example if I cut my nails correctly I won’t have to do it again, or if I get the garden to look just perfectly the way I want it nothing will grow or change or get ruined by hail or slugs—or if I could just for once just once get you to see how imperfectly I have loved you, that would explain everything for all time for both of us. This foolishness is a huge thing—a Buddhist I think would advise me about it. If I could find the right Buddhist that Buddhist would advise me and then everything would be all right forever and not change.

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

“I do not give anymore,” said Walter B., “a fig about you.” “Are 
you sure?” asked Beatrice. “Absolutely,” said Walter B. “Not a fig?” asked Beatrice. “Not a fig,” said Walter B. “Promise?” asked Beatrice. “Promise,” said Walter B. “When do you suppose,” asked Beatrice, “you will give about me a fig again?” Walter B. looked up at the sky. “Probably not for many years,” said Walter B. “Oh,” said Beatrice. “Should I wait?” “Of course,” said Walter B., “you should wait.” “I’d be very happy,” said Beatrice, “if you joined me while I waited.” Walter B. squeezed her hand. “One day,” said Walter B., “I will make for you a sewing of all the figs I never gave about you.” And one day Walter B. would. He would sew all the figs together. It would not be easy, but he would do it. If he could promise Beatrice anything he could promise her this. He would make for Beatrice a perfect sewing of all the figs he never gave about her. She could wear it, thought Walter B., like a gown. And everyone would applaud.

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:

“To the questions, linked arm in arm, ‘Should we believe that we have genuine, unique, consequential, inward selves? Do you have one? Do your poems express it? Do they participate in the tradition called ‘lyric’?’ poets from Ashbery to Jorie Graham to Juan Felipe Herrera, have given the answer, ‘it’s complicated.’ Young poets still pursue intricately ambivalent answers. But poets can also answer ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”

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.

Dana Levin

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,
          a seeker.

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—

Renaissance printers
          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
          of symbols.


At 5/17/2011 7:02 PM, Anonymous Kazim said...

Hi John,

A lovely and thought-provoking post. And how funny to see my name in it! I don't belong to a faith community actually. It's a luxury in a way--to think and write about matters of faith but not have to do the sticky work of community building. And where will I find a mosque that will have me?

My home mosque, the men and women I grew up with, when such a mosque was just a white sheet spread on someone's living room floor with all the furniture pushed to the side, was recently in the news: an angry neighbor put up a sign saying "bomb-makers next driveway over." Alas, faith in the post-modern age.

Fanny Howe does write explicitly about her faith as does Revell at least since My Mojave. And I-- even though my newest book is called "Fasting for Ramadan" and is all about fasting as a spiritual practice-- still don't know what it is I believe. And "believing," *real* "believing" seems only possible (as if for the first time) in a postmodern age...


At 5/17/2011 7:20 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I was a little nervous of my list as I was making it, that's why I was keeping it so short and tentative. I recieved an email from someone about this post who said almost just what you said here:

". . . seems only possible (as if for the first time) in a postmodern age..."

Howe and Revell, as high-profile writers, have certainly helped give visibility to this tendency. Absolutely.

At 5/17/2011 8:10 PM, Anonymous Kazim said...

Lucille Clifton is another poet who wrote extensively, complexly yet unironically about faith-- I love her "brothers" and "tree of life" sequences but certainly also her "some jesus" sequence was as an early inspiration for me.

At 5/18/2011 1:28 PM, Blogger libramoon said...

Bearing Water for Brigid

Sketches for a water vessel --
bottle and message elide on waves.
Voice of Brigid calls.
All who hear: Imagine.
Exposed to wind, to grit, to rain
and hail,
rock faces erode.

Designated fixed space
Sacrosanct container
Conveyor through fluid
Creates place, surface to paint.
diffusement of emotion,
beatitude, foment of dueling farce.

Harsh edges polished,
pure colors
blend in the dark.
Brief infusion
of giddy illusion
just enough to guilefully entice.
Sparkling Neural net
a secret
clue revealing
purpose, meaning,
wild eternal child,
ages' flamboyant fool,

(Voice rains from within)

A wound is a sacred vessel.
Pain carves into flesh
sense memory;
carries the seed
of its own demise.
engulfed in life
learns anew to be whole.

Wounded with the potential for wisdom
when eyes are are pried
from seeping, sucking, suffering
aching to censure what future we admire.
Redefine the schizm.
This wound is our project.
To heal, discover the vision;
realign the seam to fit
self-framed landscape.

Let loose that genie of desire.
Ride rushing blood streams.
Build a roaring pyre of grief,
insane belief in wrathfilled deities.
Revile that old refrain: "life is pain" or a game
to be lost.
No Faustian bargain.
Just a
rambling adventure
to explore
essence of ecstasy.
Don't wait for the rest to see
and demur.
Stretch your sail.
Take sight of your guiding star.
The only failure is self-denial
in favor of the vile lie
that pain is destiny
instead of faithful friend
lending energy
for change.

Slice vivid memories.
Exult in the tastes, the textures.
Enliven your way.

In the end
the vessel breaks.
There the Goddess stirs

2011 Aquarius

At 5/18/2011 2:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And your point is...what, exactly?


At 5/19/2011 5:41 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Well, I guess it's another of the risks one takes when one turns into this community. Not every street will be one you want to live on. Call it the "Woo woo culdesac" perhpas.

At 5/19/2011 6:44 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Hey, I live there!

At 5/19/2011 6:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Me too! Nevertheless...

A really interesting thing you're noticing, John. I think often about how postmodern technique and some of its guiding philosophies can create a really vivid spiritual poetry, along the lines of the Via Negativa, where God is considered ultimately incomprehensible, unknowable: the Christian mystic tradition, which seems itself to have fallen into obscurity? Its sister way is the Via Positiva, which we see expressed in Hopkins (glory be to God for dappled things): that God is in all phenomena, and in that, we know him/her/it. In terms of a post-modern Via Negativa poetics, I was thinking of Michael Palmer as my prime example. I always read him metaphysically---I'd really be curious if anyone else reads him this way too. Brenda Hillman is a more obvious example; when I first encountered the gnostic and alchemic thinking infusing Death Tractates, Bright Existence and Loose Sugar it was like (forgive me) water from the rock.

At 5/19/2011 7:07 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I’m so glad you posted this, DL. This is part of a question I’ve been having about the secular vs the sacred as the two intersect and wander through the miasma.

Michael Palmer was the poet I read more closely and more often than any other poet for years (late 80s, when I found him, though the mid 90s, when his production and attention declined). I always read him as the “Wittgenstein in Verse” that someone in a review or something dubbed him. I always thought of that as the Wittgenstein of the philosophical investigations, passing over what can’t be languaged in silence. But as Wittgenstein was also devout in his way, there could be a large measure of that in Palmer as well.

Can one be devoutly secular? Or metaphysically non-metaphysical? What really DO we do, after the turn of the century with the idea of the Necessary Fiction? Or does it cease to become fiction? Or does it wander in and out of fiction?

In othe words, I don't live there. Maybe Palmer commutes? What is one's relationship to dwelling vs wandering through? Or driving by on the freeway seeing the roofs of the houses? (Where does naming the sights and signing a lease intersect and diverge?)

PS. Fuzz: Mow your lawn. People are starting to talk.

At 5/19/2011 8:21 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Let 'em talk, this isn't Levittown.

At 5/19/2011 8:25 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

"Love it of Levitt" as they used to say back when I lived on the Island.

At 5/19/2011 8:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hwy John--the new Michael Palmer collection is out now (reviews in LJ, PW, et al.). Aren't you overdue for reviewing it here? New Spirituality or no New Spirituality.


At 5/19/2011 9:36 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


My life mirrors that of the state. Namely, an ongoing revenue short-fall. But I will. I must learn patience.

On the other hand, DL and I passed our most important Palmer poems back and forth in email. Mine was "Notes for Echo Lake 4" and DL went with "Autobiography [All clocks are clouds.]"

I'm nervous about his new work. There's been a drop-off of achievement in his last couple books. I so want that not to be the case.

At 5/19/2011 9:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looking up that Publisher's Weekly review seems to reflect your post:

Thread. Michael Palmer's 21st collection of poems, at first glance, looks like many of his previous books, but he's got some new tricks up his sleeve. Like many poets in later stages of their careers, Palmer is meditating on mortality in these lyrics and sequences, but he's doing it in a style that has evolved increasingly toward an unlikely intersection of mythic imagination and experimental techniques.

The book opens with a group of poems addressed to the "Master of Shadows," who often speaks in lines that sound like dark nursery rhymes: "My head is a cracked and pitted bell/ or only the crack within the bell// and I've lost my reflection/ down the town well." Other sequences--Palmer uses groups of poems with the same title to establish and then vary themes over several fugue-like pages--are reminiscent of fables and, at times, the poems of Wallace Stevens: "There is no more/ a Joao Cabral//that one who wrote/ of lucid spindles."

Most surprising are intermittent prose poems that flirt with, then subvert, the most quotidian autobiography: "I have been to countless poetry readings over the years, some I'm certain very good, many of course not. Yet I have no memory of any of them."

Finally, the long, closing title sequence strings new lines from lines that seem to come from other sources: "So, Alyosha, maybe it is true./ that we live in perhaps./ Perhaps the earth... perhaps the sky...." Throughout, we see a master surprising himself and his readers with a poetry that feels as old as it does new.

At 5/19/2011 10:17 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Indeed. To go along with the post before this one (The Canon Cannon Post), it's fascinating that poets as diverse as John Ashbery and Michael Palmer are placed next to Stevens. And Stevens, as well as Palmer, has at times been placed next to Wittgenstein. And all three were close readers of various French poets.

And here we go with "mythic."

Which reminds me, in a non-direct way, the most devoutly faithful person I know is an atheist. Thesis: Faith is the wind that blows from all directions at once.

At 5/19/2011 10:37 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

After a few hiccups my Palmer piece ought to be live in a few days.

At 5/19/2011 10:52 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Is it going to be at Constant Critic?

At 5/19/2011 11:09 AM, Blogger Jordan said...



At 5/19/2011 11:43 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I went ahead and ordered it as it was only $10.66 at Amazon. It should be here Saturday, thereabouts. So I won't be able to engage what you write very thoughtfully until after I get some time with it.

There are some artists, that even thought they aren't always good, are always important to pay attention to.

At 5/19/2011 12:37 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

I agree, John. Palmer is one of those writers for me too.

At 5/20/2011 2:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


How reconcile this paradox,
this Creator who loves creation,
with the brutality and blood
that makes it turn,
the endless flow of life,
forms granted their existence
by the eating of each other,
the bewildered, starving young
still awaiting their dead mother?

How resolve this lack of compassion,
this cruelly designed summation
by the One who loves us all,
those lost to fire and fang and flood
or blown from nests in storms?

We will reason, for we are human,
and create our fine Religions
which our reason then deforms.

Copyright 2010 – Ponds & Lawns-New and Corrected Poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald


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