Friday, August 26, 2005

Religious Poets

There was a time when I used to be unsure about whether poetry was a "good thing" to spend my time in. I was in the grip of fundamentalist religion at the time - though even then I was squirming around in an iron glove that never fitted me. I looked about for Christian poets to confirm that it was OK. I discovered a few: Steve Turner was a kind of evangelical Roger McGough, for instance; and one or two others.

But it wasn't until I discovered Elizabeth Jennings that I realised you could be a Christian and write poetry that wasn't just a sermon in disguise; and sometime later got in touch with Rupert Loydell of Stride. Even then, he was probably more liberal theologically (I think I've probably caught up with him on that score) than me; but we at least shared an interest in the possibility of expressing one's faith, or even discovering one's faith, through poetry.

I read RS Thomas for his bracingly mordant faith, that seemed to be all silence with little or no communication from above. I discovered the religious poems of David Gascoyne, which I think has fired an interest in the neo-romantic and Apocalyptic writers of the 40's. There were others, and even now, if I find a decent poet who is also religious, I'm drawn to them.

I don't try and write to persuade anyone of my beliefs; I very rarely write specifically religious poems. But it does come through: one reviewer of my last book called it the "beast with two books", which was probably terribly supercillious of him. I don't you should try writing religious poetry to persuade; poets are not advertising execs, leave that to the evangelists in their glass cathedrals. But when you write down your life, your faith comes through; sometimes because your poems are as much a dialogue with the divine as much as they are anything else.

I think I probably needed to know that there were other poets out there with faith once. I still need to know that there are poets doing things that are in the same or similar ballpark as me; poets need to feel part of a community.


Scalljah said...

The further I drift into poetry, the more I am coming to see it as religion. I had one pop out a few eeks back and it was the first faith poem I had written, and since then have been infused with the notion that poetry is as good a religion as any. After all, what is religion but the manifistation of our need to belong. So we hone in on jesus, mohammed, or another real life figure and put divine status on them, which from what I can gather from jesus, he never claimed. And when we look at what has been doen by organised religion over the course of humanity, what credibility can they have when it comes to questions of ultimate meaning?

The muse is just another word for jesus, christianity, or any other sound we can denote as being the identifying tag of the supreme being, god, anu, anake etc. I came up with my own

"the unknowable order of unconscious tune"

The ancient poets association with priestly functions is one which is tempting to hold onto and to a large extent the residue of this is still colouring the whole received notional baggage this word has attached to it. Maybe this is why many poets are so sombre and cultivate a holy air.

I have attended many readings where the poet goes for a sermony vibe, book in hand spouting the word of their muse god to a congregation of the faithful.

I had ideas that the old fili and bards would have been like the slam poets of today, but am swinging round to the view that the minstrels would have been undertaking that role more, whilst the bards were the versifiers of official state business, but there reality I am still a long way from reaching.

I met a guy in a coffee shop in Holborn London a few years back and the discussion turned to religion and he said something which has stuck with me ever since. He said that if something feels right and positive, then, in his opinion, it is probably the truth, whereas if your instinct says something insn't so, it could well be the case.

This reminds me of a derek hines line in gilgamesh

"..instinct has surrendered to thought"

What is god? Does it matter we need to find out and understand?
I don't think it is, as god is a name for an ultimate reality which I don't think we are meant to understand.

My learning has revealed that the more I learn, the more I realise how little I will ever know, and my own search for god is through being a language artist, another name I made up after 4 years in the serious study of lingo game.

So the poem I wrote a few weeks ago, the faith one, could well be the first sign of my surrendring to a faith. One which isn't derived from other people's highly complex opinions and ideas on men who are long dead and never claimed divinity, but on my own personal god, based on love and basic human kindness.

To me, organised religion is nothing more than stories written down and people believing them. I could just as easy hold the dictionary or the washing instructions on a clothes label as my bible. Surely god is revealed to us privately, not by a man or woman who is part of a pyramid structure of heirarchy whereby one person is the main interpretor of god and what god's all about.

It seems to me that organised religion is more about human divinity than the divinity of god, as those at the top of the heap are as much career religion workers as anything else. And when we look at the abuses the catholic church has perpetrated, no one can take them too seriously.

And all this hell stuff seems to me to be a human construction. Imagine being tortured 500 years ago in the name of god?

As long as we are on the side of love and wanting to be genuinely helpful to our fellow man, that's enough.

Scalljah said...

By trying to make out, however subtley, that you have access to god and know how god wants others to behave, or what god has in store, is the ultimate flag of ego blowing in the public face.

The grouping of poets I am a part of all have one thing in common, a wish to belong. From my recent experience, it seesm that people want to believe in god, but because the organised religions have a monopoly on that word, then many people are confused as to what belief and faith is all about. What they seem to buy into is the belief of others who they belive to be sincere in their own faith. So you go to an evangelical preacher and fall for their aura and the neat concept of christianity, but poetry as religion is just as valid, and ultimately, it would appear, has a longer lineage to that of organised religion. It's not important to understand the full root of the greek gods and godesses in order to understand poetry, as every culture has its own myth and stories.

My culture, like the greeks, has a few different gods of poetry and speech, and there is nothing definitive, as the more you look into it the more you realise it's not quite cut and dried, but the god dagda who is associated with newgrange is one of the ultimate language gods and he is related to the ogham alphabet, which is still uncracked, but which an interesting bloke whose name escapes me has positied to have got to the bottom of. He reckons that it's all related to the basque language.

Sussing all the folklore out is a lifelong process and very neglected. Irelands culture was one of the longest unbroken ones in europe and evolved from the druid times straight through, without disruption to the 17C when cromwell came and annihalated it, so really we are not too far removed from it as a real living thing.

The english base their poetic linegae on greece, after the renaissance court poets thoght it would be best to adopt that country's myth as the basis for their own imitation, and where 1000 years away from a foreign culture at her closest point of connection.

So there is loads of Irish history pre 17C which is fascinating and unlocks the tricky questions of poetry far easier than the greco-roman routes the west has decided to stick with. There are very few people interested in this subject and very few poets, but it is an area that is truly fascinating, and for me is bringing real answers which others would like not to be so, as they are not greco centric, and to truly understand them would mean undertaking a long period of study.

They are simple enough to understand, but unfortunately like all things, easy to understand with a minimal amount of info, which by itself is a fair amount.

Scalljah said...

Plus of course, a lot more easier to be considered relevant to me as I am effectively irish and will have more of a desire to connect. What has always seemed funny to me is the way epople go all round the world looking for the naswers, so you get european buddhists etc. The answers are often closer to home. Briatain was all celtic up till the romans came and the english celtic poetic is a lot closer in time, geography and populace than the greek.

Not that I am arguing for one taking precedance over the other, as from what I can gether, they are both rooted in the same well, and one where the poetry of memorisation came before text.

This is another debate entirely, but the essence of which I would advise anyone to undertake as a plank in their practice, as having a few in the head is always a good idea, and when you think about it, the old bards would have had to have a good few hours of stuff in their head before they reached the top grade after 20 years, so the ultimate of what is a poet I suppose is that a poet used to be someone who trained for 20 years, had over 350 standard narratives memorised, so maybe that part of the job would be the equivalent of reaching the role of lear in the RSC after playing every role in between. Then you would have had to be able to rhyme official business, contracts and such, so that would be like training to be a law writer but using various metrics. Then there was the lineages you had to remeber and the elegies you had to write, and apparently all this had to be done in the head before it could be committed to writing.

This is why I think that it is important that some work should be memorised and performed off the page, as it is a token gesture to the reality of the past. Imagine one of these poets returning through time and pitching up at a reading today?

Phil said...

Hi, you might both be interested in a couple of letters Ted Hughes wrote to Lambeth Palace on being invited to take part in a discussion of common ground between poetry and religion. He declined on a mixture of grounds but mainly the idea that you cannot coral poetic inspiration to an evangelical purpose and that poetry lives on 'the decay' of formal religion and maybe offers an alternative to those who would, metaphorically, prefer a country healer to Orthodox medicine and the National Health Service. He obviously struggled to ariticulate his position satisfactorily as there were five different drafts two of which you can read in Letters (ed.Christopher Reid) on pages 457-462.