In 1933, T.S. Eliot noted that poetry can make us “a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.”
The so-called men’s movement of the 1980s and 90s, inspired by Robert Bly and some Jungian colleagues, gave poetry a central role in every gathering of men. Why poetry?
“We live in a poetically underdeveloped nation,” wrote Bly and his fellow editors of The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart: Poems for Men, a book I picked up in 1995, while going through divorce. “Without the fanciful delicacy and the powerful truths that poems convey, emotions and imagination flatten out.”
In my own life, plagued as I was with theological, existential, philosophical and interpersonal questions, I often found myself turning to poetry when my brain got weary of trying to “figure it all out.”
Twelve years ago, for example, exhausted after a stint of too much thinking and doing, I opened a book of poems by the obscure 11th century Eastern Orthodox mystic, Symeon the New Theologian. Drawn to his passionate inner experience yet distracted by a clunky, literal academic translation, I found myself spontaneously rendering whole sections of his poems into more congenial, more poetic language, as Coleman Barks had done for Rumi. For five days I was captivated by inspiration, joyfully scribbling in a notebook for hours on end. Later, I published several of those poems, “Songs of Sacred Union,” in Tiferet, a journal of spiritual literature.
Often, as I sit with others in our little circle on a Sunday morning, preparing to read yet another poem out loud, I wonder what the hell we’re doing. Why poetry? Why bother? What’s the point?
Sometimes, honestly, I can’t remember. I can’t figure it out. I listen anyway. I give myself to the poem, to the silence, to my own heart. The brain is welcome, too. But I encourage it to sit still, keep quiet, and see what happens.
Sometimes I do what the mystics of Symeon’s tradition called “descending with the mind into the heart.” I put my intellect on an elevator and send it down to visit the mysterious and creative part of me that Stephen King calls “the boys in the basement.”
In “Summer Reading” (River Flow, 2007), David Whyte describes our “intellect and imagination”—two apparently opposite parts of the psyche—as “a kind of sunlight” illuminating the world.
In poetry, as in music and dance and nature, I find a sort of sacred union between my cognitive capacities and my imaginative sensibilities. By opening to the unpredictable substratum of intuitive, emotional, and non-analytical experience I find the still point, once again, at the center of the turning world, as Eliot so eloquently put it.
It’s not that poetry puts me in touch, as they say, with my so-called “feminine” side. No, it’s more that poetry puts me back in touch with my full humanity—my essential subjectivity as well as my objectivity, my softness as well as my strength, my proximity and interconnectedness as well as my inevitable distance and duality. It makes me whole again. At least for a few, precious moments.
Like sunlight—the miraculous union of quite different wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum—intellect and imagination, head and heart, science and poetry can, should, and often do come together to conceive and give birth to something surprising, novel and wonderful: a whole human being.
So. Why poetry? Because, as David Whyte observes elsewhere, “Everything is born from an opposite and miraculous otherness.” And a good poem serves as a marvelously wise and compassionate midwife. Darwin’s intuition was right.
—Jay E. Valusek