In words the language of the gods’ presence is poetry, which substantiates them in rhythm and images bound by strong feeling for their persons – usually longing, though horror or anger will do as well. God can be a traitor to believers.
Poetry is the language of ancient connections, not only to the gods who are distillations of our experience of life on earth, but directly to the earth itself. Its rhythms are closer to our bodies, to our breathing and our hearts, than those of prose. Its images arouse our senses. Its metaphors crystallize relationships between different dimensions of experience, patterning feeling in physical terms and endowing the surrounding world with emotions, suggesting a grand constellation where all things would realize their affinities and their common origin in boundless compassion and delight.
This kind of awareness is not fashionable, and nor in general is the writing that aims at it. Poetry itself, in fact, is given very little importance now. On the one side there is still fine nature poetry (such as that of Mary Oliver), and on the other plenty of writers describe, sometimes mimetically, the squalor and disintegration of our age, or complain against it; but only a few poets have the courage and greatness of heart to embrace the horrors and despoiling of this century and the last within a perspective of cultural and moral depth, and with an awareness of inhabiting earth that keeps vision whole, at moments joyful. (I’m thinking in particular of the Polish poets, Herbert and Milosz and Szymborska.)
It’s not surprising that nature poetry is rare, as direct contact with nature is not the common experience of people nowadays. In the past the different facets of earth, the phases of the yearly cycle, were the accompaniment of all human experience, and people found their emotions reflected – or ignored – in natural events. Any ancient Chinese poem, to take one example, makes nature a protagonist, rather than background, whether the theme is love, conflict or exile. Natural images or metaphors were the language of poetry. I’ve always felt impatient with arguments against the ‘pathetic fallacy’. Poets are not just projecting their own feelings on to inert or insensitive creatures. Joy exists in the world, both in the bird’s flight and in the poet’s mood. We have the words for emotions, but that doesn’t make us separate.
The sympathetic awareness of our affinity to all living things, the desire to illuminate more and more widely and deeply the connections, to increase love and respect for earth and all its inhabitants, is what poetry is capable of embodying. It’s also the only attitude that can save earth – and ourselves with it. Why don’t we try harder to achieve it?
Many people, conscious of the imbalance in contemporary life, have become involved in religions and movements for spiritual development. Most of these seem to promote ego comfort rather than the endeavor to see and act beyond the ego; but there are plenty of honest teachers and practitioners too. The effort to become more aware can only be positive; the rejection of the body and its desires, a facet of many spiritual traditions, is a betrayal of our nature.
In any case it’s impossible for us to escape our affinity to earth, whose elements we are made of and whose objects enter us through our senses from the moment we are born, furnishing our understanding as well as our appetites. The spiritual teachings that make most sense to me are those of Tibetan Buddhism, which insists there is no real distinction between pure mind and the sphere of sense experience and ideas. Illumination dissolves reality back into the elements, the light from which they are born and the void beyond, and reverses the process to reconstitute the world, all in the space of a breath. As long as we hold loosely what we care for, don’t build ego blocks of it, enjoyment, desire, love are to be lived.
Poetry in any case lives on this side of the light and has its roots in the affirmation that is the creation itself. Conceptions such as Octavio Paz’s picture of being arising out of the creator’s desire (in El mono gramático) show us imagination grappling with our origins in matter and sense.
What we are seeing today is a society where more and more people have their most intense and intimate emotional experiences sitting in front of a TV or keyboard or play station and projecting their own lives on to the fictional lives being played out within the set parameters (however ingenious) of the games they play, or constructing virtual relationships (which can also be fictitious) with others in cyberspace. Is this another shift or ‘fall’, like the first step away from unconscious, animal being into the alienation of individual mind? Are we trying to leave our bodies even further behind as we fail in making planet earth into the comfortable, unthreatening home we want, since we are instead destroying it?
I believe, and I’m not alone, that it’s only by re-imagining our relationship to earth, to the biosphere, to the cosmos, that we can assure a future to the human race. We need to think metaphorically in a way that overcomes the conflict between science and religion: between blinkered science and literal-minded religion. Out of what the sciences teach us about the origin, composition and evolution of our physical reality, together with the knowledge of inner growth, the sense of reverence and the good will toward our fellow beings that religions, outside their dogmas, have taught, we need to create a new foundation myth and a new code of respect. We need to give up the violence of the apes that we were and finally learn to share because we recognize the other has the same hungers, the same senses, the same source that we have. We need to recognize that the basis of being is joy and our ability to perceive beauty is the clue and access to it.
Poetry can be the language of this understanding…
The Marriage of Wolf and Ship, also on this website, is a small and fragmentary attempt of my own to imagine a new myth of this kind.
No generation before ours had to fear for the survival of earth itself, or of the ecosphere on its surface which is what we mean by earth when we feel for it. An ashy desert inhabited by cockroaches, or a colossal burnt-out cinder spinning in space, is not the home we’re attached to; and now images of this kind are presented to us regularly as possibilities. It seems we’re haunted by the suspicion that the whole ecosystem of our planet has begun to run down.
One day when I was very young and hitchhiking in the south of France, I had a kind of vision. The stages of creation unfolded themselves in my imagination, the elements separating out of the original stuff of the universe, minerals producing the chemistry of life, the slow evolution of warm-blooded animals to the moment where consciousness irrupted under a furry skull. I don’t know why this happened to me, at that moment in time (I had been working in the wine harvest), with no apparent provocation. The kind driver who had given me a lift kept trying to talk to me, and the images kept cascading in my mind, making me incapable of answering.
Since then my conviction of the generative power of nature has been and still is a strong counterbalance to fears of destruction and decay. I’m aware that the boundaries between inertness and life, and between life and mind, are turning out to be much less clear than once seemed, but at a long view it’s possible to see the story of this planet as a series of miraculous births – and rebirths.
As for our human species, the unsatisfactory animal, what we could have done, what we should have done, with the light of consciousness that arose in us was use it to distance ourselves from the blind necessity to survive, and to dominate in order to survive better, and instead become the gaze of the world in which we find ourselves and which in the end is ourselves. We didn’t do that, but maybe it’s not too late. Maybe the foundations of mind can be shaken so that it perceives not only the danger we are in but the horror of the crimes we continue to commit against the planet and against our fellow human beings. The shaking and the perception of guilt reinforcing each other till we have to react. The understanding, finally, that the proper use of consciousness is to affirm, to love.