Feature Articles

POETRY BEYOND FAITH, POETRY BEYOND DOGMA by John W Sexton

( Poetry Ireland News, November/December 2012)

In issue 107 of Poetry Ireland Review, its editor John F Deane included a section of what was largely Christocentric pieces under the heading of ‘Religious Poetry’, presenting it as ‘a sampling of the kind of work being done in the service of renewal of humanity’s work at self-transcendence, and in the service of poetry’. The thrust appeared to be against secularism, but with no real acknowledgement to pluralism or that we are now a multi-faith society. I wish here to briefly express an alternative view regarding poetry and spirituality.

Although born a Catholic, it is a faith I no longer want; I disowned it long ago and put it away from me. Christianity as a doctrine has no personal relevance for me, and these days I would describe myself as a pagan. If there is a God the Father, then for me he is an always absent one – cold, unemotional and selfabsorbed. My only feeling of relationship is with a God the Mother. This model of faith has no formal structure or ‘church’, it is simply a personal conviction. But what has any of this to do with poetry? The brief case I will try to make here is that it has nothing whatsoever to do with poetry, and nor should it.

Since I was a child I have seen things apparently not visible to others. I have seen men and women composed of what I can only describe as a dense light, a kind of static of light. They have appeared, said nothing, looked me up and down, and then gone on their way. I have also seen animals of light, small compact creatures that can best be described as electrical cats. I’d point out here that these experiences are within the realm of much mystical experience; and that’s how I would choose to explain them, as another spectrum of vision that reveals chakra. I believe, if I might be so bold as to quote the New Testament, that this other spectrum is what Jesus was referring to when he says, ‘be careful lest the light in you be darkness’ (Luke 11:35). The significance of such visions is really not accurately quantifiable. Neither is the voice that I have heard in my head since I was a boy. This voice has always been the voice of a woman, but I hear it less and less now. I do still see her sometimes though, but only in dreams. She can be either young or incredibly aged, and I have come personally to associate her with the Muse Goddess, the feminine and ancient energy that informs creation. Of course, whether she is such a thing at all is pure speculation. I can offer no more proof for my ideas than I can offer proof that I have seen even as much as a spark floating in the water of my eye. Seeing or hearing these things in no way marks me out; I know enough to know that much to be true; and thus I have never been too impressed by anyone else who has claimed to experience such things and to further claim some form of revelatory office. Such a man or woman, and most certainly myself, will know no more of gods or of angels than a person, looking from their window and seeing a blackbird, knows of the blackbird. We may see the blackbird, we may hear the blackbird’s song, we may even transcribe the tune of the blackbird’s song and play it back on instruments of our own; but this will make us neither servants of the blackbird or blackbirds ourselves. It makes us merely spectators under Heaven.

To assume that our personal revelations and convictions have anything to do with our office as poets might indeed be nothing more than naivety or perhaps even arrogance. The duty of the poet is simply to serve poetry. It is the poetry that will serve the reader, if the reader deems it good enough. But once the poet has composed the poem, the poem becomes the communion for the reader. This makes the poet neither a priest, a priestess or a grail, but simply an artisan passing a vessel of grace from his or herself to another. But the grace we pass on is independent of us; it comes simply from the poem we have created. We may indeed be so corrupt ourselves that the poem has no value in our own hands even though we have created it. But true poetry, of itself, is incorruptible, and will pass the grace that belongs to itself onto whoever is capable of receiving it. Sometimes the poet is the last person capable or even worthy of receiving the grace of their own poem.

For my own part I strive to somehow follow the Feminine Aspect that informs the universe. However, it may very well turn out that my observance amounts to nothing more than living my life and then one day dying. Any further claims are Messianic and absurd. Neither my life nor my service has really anything to do with my poetry. If our poetry is to be true, then it must be something beyond ourselves. It must be something we can let go of. Something we strive not to own or keep. It must be something, by its giving away, that makes us wealthy by its absence once we have achieved it. By giving it away we agree to make more of the same, and to give that away in turn. Poetry is not of Heaven. Poetry is more accurately something, if made well, that Heaven can reside in if it so pleases. But whether Heaven resides there or not, it is not pertinent for the poet to say. Of course, the poet may indeed write religious verse; but once we name it as such it becomes irreligious. Poetry is best just written, and left to speak for itself.

John W Sexton’s fifth collection, The Offspring of the Moon, is due from Salmon Poetry early in 2013.

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