Contemporary Poetry and Spirituality 2. Poetry as container


This continues the text of my talk from last Wednesday… with a few more additions and asides  …
A church or cathedral can be a physical container. Spiritual beliefs, religion, or a personal philosophy, can be theoretical and practical containers for the complexities of existence. A poem can be a container for an emotional response to an aspect of experience.

Sometimes, contemporary poetry can be perceived as lacking form but there is huge revival in the popularity of writing in form.  An example from the year’s TS Eliot shortlist is Jacob Polley’s use of ballads to tell powerful contemporary stories about family life.  Most poets at some stage write sonnets, even if they stretch the rules to create a flexible form. Spiritual questions can be vast and over-powering – a sonnet sits squarely on the page and makes a precise journey with a beginning and end. Edna St Vincent Millais has written a sonnet about sonnets in which she says ‘I will put Chaos in fourteen lines and keep him there’. Gerard Manley Hopkins in the depths of his spiritual desolation wrote six so-called ‘Terrible Sonnets’ which manage to be devastating and decorous at the same time, with the form acting as a container for his doubts and fears.

The Scottish poet Don Paterson suggests in his introduction to the Faber 101 Sonnets that there might be neurological evidence for a 14-line thought. Robert Hamberger wrote sonnets about his best friend’s dying of AIDs and in an essay he contributed to Writing Works, says the following:

‘The start of any poem is wordlessness, struggling for voice, a rhythm and shape, a temporary break from silence.  In the early drafting process, when a poem starts to nudge itself towards the sonnet form, I know the tussle of finding the right rhymes and half-rhymes, in the expected order, will give me a template in which the mess of my emotions might feel secure enough to speak. Imagination is subversive. It’s as if the editing part of the mind is so distracted by finding the next rhyme that it allows the saboteur – the rule breaker – to smuggle taboo words under the wire.’  p.131

Robert Hamberger goes on to say:

‘It appeared to be a mixture of instinct and conscious choice when I deliberately picked the Petrarchan form for the ‘Acts of Parting’ sonnets.  I view this as the strictest sonnet form, because it only allows the poet four rhymes (compared to Shakespearean sonnets with seven rhymes).  It felt as if I was choosing a form whereby the apparent straitjacket of a limited rhyme-scheme would hold me tight, give me strange sense of security.  There’s no doubt my emotions were wild, contradictory and apparently incoherent.  How could I give them words, allow them to speak?’ p.132

All human life – personal and political – religious and spiritual – works with the tension between structure and freedom – too much of one is oppressive, too much of the other is disorienting – and where we locate ourselves depends partly on personality as well as culture. In poems, the use of form can sometimes liberate the emotional content.

‘The Bright Field’ is a contemporary, free verse sonnet from RS Thomas that has been much anthologised and appears 150,000 times on Google – it is probably familiar to you.  The religious poetry of RS Thomas is full of doubt and contradictions – he doesn’t aim to soothe.  A description of him attributed here to Seamus Heaney is that he’s ‘a loner taking on the universe, a kind of Clint Eastwood of the spirit’.

‘The Bright Field’ is masterfully economical and manages to be specifically Christian yet universal. It also brings in Einsteinian ideas of time and prefigures the current interest in mindfulness and meditation. It is one of those poems that has become talismanic – passed from person to person.  It’s also very beautiful.  More on beauty next!