by Sarah Wells for Poets Quarterly
I’ve used the phrase “engaging the spiritual” as if there’s some outlet I plug into in order to upload God. Or if I posture myself just so, with the right lighting and some incense burning, maybe then the environment will be suitable to properly “engage the spirit,” and then I am a vessel, a mouthpiece, a projector from which pours the cryptic, holy, inspired words of God.
But forget the candles for a while and rely instead on the shrinking sun to illuminate the earth beneath your feet, your now quite bare feet, because “engaging the spiritual” means getting the grit between your toes and then needing to clean it out. There’s nothing like running that spray from the hose over your feet, the blades of grass bending beneath the weight of water.
After all, you don’t spend your day in the chapel underneath a stained glass window composing devotional poems. You are sweeping up Cheerios from underneath the table. You are balancing budgets in spreadsheets. You are sitting in meetings checking your Twitter feed. There might be times and seasons for incense, but in the world of databases and dirty laundry, sippy cups and playground swings, it is critical to remember that God is in the small things, that spiritual truths are not hiding away in cathedrals. They are here in the plain sight of day.
This means living open to what the universe delivers. Maybe a field of dandelions, maybe a sparrow attacking a bluebird nest, maybe the scab on your shin… there is so much and every molecule pulses with spirit, every atom embodies an element of holiness, surely something interesting exists within your eyesight right now that deserves a little closer observation. Even the dirt and water and grass and your feet—consider it.
Write poetry from the ground up. Ask “Why this and not that?” or “What does this mean?” or “What else is there to know about this?” Rather than observe and then presume to know all of the answers, questioning propels the writer into the realm of mystery, questioning humbles the speaker down from the position of all-knowing observer to one who has eyes to see and ears to hear. Questioning opens up possibility.
Writing spiritual poetry requires this repositioning because spiritual poetry is acknowledging that something greater than the “I” exists. This confession changes the entire perspective of the observer, and as the writer of a spiritual poem, I must aim the lens through which the reader sees my world at the proper angle. Through this repositioning, the ego of the poem takes a backseat to everything else, and instead of the poet declaring just how clever she is through the poem, she becomes smaller while her subject becomes greater. An effective spiritual poem probably won’t be didactic, because in order to teach, one must speak with authority. Instead, the spiritual poem speaks with its one small voice in relation to something much larger, it holds out its hand and says, see what I found? A pebble! A flower! Cheerios!
This is partly achieved through the exploration of the questions that have been asked in the poem, and it is communicated through tone, rhythm, and spacing. Consider this poem by Franz Wright, which begins his Pulitzer-prize winning book, Walking to Martha’s Vineyard:
I was still standing
on a northern corner
Moonlit winter clouds the color of the desperation of wolves.
of Your existence? There is nothing
This poem is a poem of beginnings, of initial awe and awakening to some greater presence in the world. There is a tremendous amount of white space happening in the poem which seems to give it breathing room and emphasize the wintry emptiness of a “northern corner” and those dark clouds. And then that final stanza, so simply stated, with that beautiful turn of the line. I can almost see the camera zoom out from the speaker of the poem to the whole world. All of it. Proof.
It is an effective spiritual poem, not just because Wright capitalizes “Your,” but because there is a clear issue at stake: the speaker is suddenly aware of his world and his place in it (that shrinking ego thing I mentioned), and because he is asking a question that opens up possibilities, that invites the spirit in with a flicker of recognition. Or sometimes it’s a strobe light, and because you invited, suddenly you see something new you hadn’t seen in that object or moment before, some truth or beauty or goodness or reality that was concealed until just now.
What excites me about spiritual poetry is that you can work on the macro-level and on the micro-level, zoom in, zoom out, ask for more, talk directly at God or just look for his thumbprint. As a poet deeply interested in spiritual matters, I find God turning up in all sorts of places where you wouldn’t think he’d be. That is the joy of writing and reading spiritual poetry, discovering something I’d never known or felt before, my body nodding, yes, yes, that is it, there it is, the divine indwelt. And then this greater joy: to share that experience with another human being through the written word, poet and reader, a small community of believers who are now gathered in worship around this little altar.
Sarah M. Wells is the author of Pruning Burning Bushes and the chapbook Acquiesce. Her poems and essays have appeared in Ascent, Christianity & Literature, Measure, New Ohio Review, Poetry East, Puerto del Sol, River Teeth, and elsewhere. www.sarahmwells.com.