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From the Archives: POETRY | 'The Natural Prayer of the Soul'
Originally published Friday, June 02, 2006
Treasure Beach, JAMAICA—The moon had risen over the shores of Treasure Beach hours before the poet ascended the bamboo podium and began to read.
An occasional lazy breeze stirred the otherwise balmy torpor of the Jamaican night.
But the crowd of hundreds gathered to hear poet Kwame Dawes read was wide awake, as he spun a tale of tornadoes -- the human kind.
I am a tornado child,
you can tell us from far,
by the crazy of our hair;
couldn't tame it if we tried.
Even now I tie a bandanna
to silence the din of anarchy
in these coir-thick plaits.
Reading selections from his new volume, Wisteria: Poems from the Swamp Country, Dawes had our full attention.
His poetry had seized us. By our spirits.
Poems have a way of doing that.
Not in a high-minded, thee-thou-thine kind of way. Not in a manner that allows us to wrestle the elusive into the rational with our intellect.
A poem appeals to something deeper, eternal, transcendent.
There is an odd, peaceful power about it.
"The poem seems to have the capacity to contain and give voice to the spiritual," said Dawes, the celebrated poet, author and co-founder of the Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica, where I had the truly humbling honor of being one of two dozen authors and poets to read our work last week. "But the truth is, for me, that the poem is a mystery.
"Very often, poetry is about using language to articulate that which is difficult to articulate, which is the emotional space that we find ourselves in, and the things that have allowed us to reach that emotional space," Dawes, the distinguished poet-in-residence at the University of South Carolina, said in his lush Jamaican accent.
Poetry has a peculiar draw. It lures me in when I am the most restless and offers an oasis of serenity.
Time stops. There is only the word.
The last year of my life has been more frenetic than any before it. I have more to do, more to not forget, more people to not disappoint, more responsibility, more joy and, some days, more chaos than I can handle.
Not long ago, I began reading poetry again. It started one night when I was fighting insomnia and downloaded an audio recording of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass onto my iPod. I listened until I fell asleep.
From there, I pulled out volumes of poetry I hadn't opened in far too long. Paging through them felt like playing hooky from all of the books I should have been reading, all the things I should have been writing.
Eventually I turned, as I have so many times over the years, to Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and Nobel laureate.
Heaney has long been a literary companion of mine. On my first trip to Ireland, the homeland my grandmother had left nearly a century before, I took a copy of Heaney's Field Work with me.
I used it like a spiritual travel guide as I tried to figure out where I was, what I was feeling, and why this strange place felt so familiar, at times so exhilarating, and at others so profoundly sad.
Heaney's poem "Homecomings" was one I read over and over again. The last stanza is one I can recite by heart because that's where it has been written on mine.
Mould my shoulders inward to you.
Be damp clay pouting.
Let me listen under your eaves.
Those lines speak to me of solace and grace. They could be a prayer. At times, for me, they have been.
Heaney's latest collection of poems, District and Circle, published just last month, offered comfort in a turn of phrase from its eponymous poem:
Tunes from a tin whistle underground
Curled up the corridor I'd be walking down
To where I knew I was always going to find
My watcher on the tiles. . . .
Most recently, I've spent more than a few stolen moments reading the poems of Mevlana Rumi, the 13th century Sufi Muslim mystic.
In one of his more famous passages, Rumi writes:
Something opens our wings.
Something makes boredom and hurt disappear.
Someone fills the cup in front of us:
We taste only sacredness.
Every major world religion (and most of the minor ones, I'm guessing) have a tradition of poetry as a means of communicating the sacred. Psalms, odes, songs, haiku.
What magic is it that poetry can do?
"I think poetry provides a space for a spiritual lollygag," Illinois Poet Laureate Kevin Stein told me when I asked him the same question. "A place to dawdle, to dillydally. ... It is that time in which you risk wasting time as a way to invest in yourself and your spirit and that which makes you human.
"Our lives are so hectic. We live in an age seduced by velocity," Stein said. "Poetry rewards patience. So few things in our lives reward patience."
Poetry gently demands our full attention. Or, as Stein said, quoting the 17th century French theologian Nicolas Malebranche: "Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul."
Another of my favorite poets, one to whom I return often like an old friend, is Mary Oliver, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet. Her poem "Banyan" calls to mind -- at least to mine -- that kind of attentiveness of the soul that Malebranche described.
Listen, said the voice.
This is your dream.
I'm only stopping here for a little while.
Don't be afraid.
Last year, while I was writing a book -- The God Factor, a collection of spiritual profiles of famous folks -- I asked Heaney if he would allow me to interview him. He graciously declined, saying his faith was one area about which he was inarticulate.
Instead, the poet, a wonderfully generous soul, sent me a poem. I am convinced it is better than anything he could have said in an interview.
The last lines of Heaney's great gift to me -- he titled it "A Found Poem" -- offer an apt description of poetry's spiritual power.
In the poem, Heaney is, I believe, talking about his relationship with the religion of his youth.
But it could just as easily be a plausible explanation for why hundreds of people would be gathered under a tent in the middle of a tropical night, to hear poems read aloud.
"They have an undying pallor and draw," Heaney wrote, "like well water far down."
God Girl will read from and discuss her new book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Chicago's Printers Row Book Fair, inside Grace Place, 637 S. Dearborn.
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