Theopoetics 2: defining a butterfly..

Yamabe no Akahito (active 724u2013736), One of the Three Gods of Poetry From the Spring Rain Collection (Harusame shu016b), vol. 1 by Yashima Gakutei is licensed under CC-CC0 1.0

One of the problems we have in trying to grapple with theopoetics is that it is almost impossible to define. Certainly there does not seem to be one single definition. You might argue that this kind of amorphous, pliable, porous approach is typical of many other post-modern ideas, typified by the retreat from hard-edged scientific truth, which is often understood as an instrument of power and control. You might be right.

But why do I gasp when I see a flight of swans or geese heading south as the winter approaches?

I return to the idea of ‘the poem’. I know there is a danger here as theopoetics is NOT about poetry – or not only about poetry – but hear me out. Remember that one third of the Hebrew bible was written as poetry, and that poetry has formed the bedrock of other religious movements, most notably the great Sufi writers of the middle east.

Here is the question though; what is a poem and where is its power? Or to put it another way, where is the truth of a poem and what use is it? You could also ask, who decides WHICH poems are important?

I would argue that there are many ways to answer these questions.

  1. Form, meter, rythm, technical matters. (In other words, all the things I hate to think about when I write poetry!) You can decontruct a poem down to individual parts and miss the point entirely
  2. The experience of WRITING the poem. For me this often a visceral experience. If I shake with anger, or weep real tears then I know I am writing something that matters. This does not make it a ‘good’ poem – or does it?
  3. The subject matter of a poem is important … or is it? I love poetry that is prophetic and speaks truth to power, but a poem can be about anything and still relate to the greatest human issues.
  4. Then there is the READING of a poem. They are often like swans in flight in their ability to make me gasp. Many do not, so I skip past them. There are technical and content reasons why some grab me more than others, but I feel this first in my body, as a physical reaction. It is like a spiritual narcotic.
  5. The truth of poetry is almost always ambigious to some extent. This is the nature of language – it often contains layers of meaning, and poetry mostly makes this less clear, as a deliberate practice, employing similie and metaphor not to explain as much as to open up spaces. We project truth on to poetry as much as we extract it.
  6. Some poems have been ‘adopted’, almost like official anthems. The meaning of these poems has almost always been obscured or distorted. Consider Blake’s ‘…and did those feet in ancient times walk upon England’s…”
  7. There is an open question for me about how we read scripture-poetry. The apocalypse of John? The beatitudes? The majestic poetry of Isaiah? Should we be allowed to read these differently or should we treat it ALL as poetry even? If so, how does this change the way we approach the text? Do we diminish it, or do we make it more true?
  8. Finally consider how poetry at school tends to be suffocated by the educational imperative.
Poetry in Motion by Ian Paterson is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

All of which is another way of saying that creative spiritual experiences of the kind we might describe as theopoetical will ALWAYS be difficult to define. Perhaps this is the very heart of their usefulness. In an age of sectarian cerainties we need ways to once more be confronted with mystery and unknowing, which is the very heart of mysicism. But this is certainly not about the absence of meaning. It is about the pregnancy of the moment when we sense a connection being made to what some (but not all) call god.

Theopoetics invites us to focus on the how. The doing. The shaping of the thing. The heartbeat. The physical reaction. The beauty of it. The love that inspires towards action.

What this looks like in practice is as varied as… poetry.

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