So, you want to be a religious poet?

October 18th, 2017

“Poetry is a form of power.” With that provocation Elizabeth Sewell begins The Orphic Voice, her exploration of poetry and natural history. “It fell to early thought,” she continues, “to make that power visible and human, and the story of Orpheus is that vision and that mortality.” The Orphic Voice was one of the few books Ronald Johnson insisted that I read during the years of my apprenticeship to him. He felt its vision of reality and its summons to poetic vocation could not be improved upon. He likewise insisted that it was an imperative for any poet worth your salt to find your myth. For him, not straying far from Sewell, it was the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, poetry and its imaginative absorption played out in ecstatic love, a journey to the underworld, and prophetic doom.

            I took Johnson’s advice to heart. But not an ancient Greek myth, at least not per se. Early on, I took the myth of the Holy Grail as talismanic. But that shifted during the years I was in graduate school at the Divinity School, where I found myself absorbed in the textures and haunting formative vistas of early Christianity as it shifted to Byzantium. (Shades of Yeats.) Everywhere I saw icons, eternal shapes emanating from an uncreated light. Or, at least I tried to see them! Since that time in graduate school, over twenty years ago, the myth absorbing my imagination has continued to shift shape, but in the forms of an essentially Christian mythos of creation, redemption, and apocalypse. In recent years, this myth has taken on geomantic properties: seeing in the evolution of life and consciousness glimmers of the creation; finding in mushroom foraging access to an anterior, redemptive form of vision. Properties of incantation, powers of magic. These move in and out of the work as well.

            All along, I have never separated what I call a religious vocation from a poetic one. As much as they are distinct, they are entwined and aligned along the axis of the “journey of the mind to God,” as Saint Bonaventure put it, by entering our own self where we see the species, which reflects the divine mind. Something like that.

            In light of that journey, here are some books I wouldn’t want to embark without.

            J.A. Baker, The Peregrine. This astonishing book is having its moment right now, thanks to its reissue over a decade ago by NYRB Classics, where I first read it (in an edition that mistakenly had a photo of a hawk and not a falcon on the cover) and was shocked. What language. Baker, who describes the falcon with hallucinatory vividness as he tracks it over the course of a winter in the British fenlands, never once mentions another person in the course of this book, nor even sees another soul. His unreliability as a narrator only intensifies the visionary thrill of a book in which he merges at last with his quarry. Sentences redefine reality. “The beaches flared and roared with salvoes of white wings. The sky shredded up, was torn by whirling birds.” Robert Macfarlane provides illuminating biographical details in Landmarks. And lately Werner Herzog has insisted The Peregrine to be the only book it is absolutely necessary for young filmmakers to read in order to become good at their craft.

            Robert Duncan, “The Truth and Life of Myth,” in Collected Essays and Other Prose. The same year that Baker was writing The Peregrine, Duncan wrote one of his greatest poems, “My Mother Would Be a Falconress,” in which the poet fantasizes that he is a falcon leashed to his mother’s wrist, performing her summons, killing little birds for sport, and dreaming of freedom. Duncan’s luminous “essay in essential autobiography” spells out the story of his upbringing by adoptive Theosophist parents in central California, attending family séances and reading reality as a mask of a truer reality lurking beneath the surface of things. I’ve read this essay so many times, it circumscribes my understanding of the art of poetry and its mythic imperatives, in which, as Duncan writes, “the actual and the spiritual are revealed, one in the other.”

            Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert. This assembly of the sayings of the desert fathers, published in 1960 by New Directions, formed part of a core of spiritual books that the avant-garde poetry publisher issued at the height of Merton’s popularity, a companion of sorts to Seeds of Contemplation, in which Merton introduced a new (and not necessarily Christian or believing) audience to the art and ardor of monastic life. I love sayings in The Wisdom of the Desert, as well as Merton’s thoughtful and extensive introduction. Thick and Dazzling Darkness concludes with saying LXXII:

Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not be totally changed to fire?

            T.S. Eliot, Dante. This superb volume was first published in a short-lived series Faber & Faber issued in the late 1920s called “The Poets on the Poets.” (It should be revived!) Eliot’s on Dante was number two in the series. A somewhat shortened version of the book (it’s really just an essay) appears in Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot edited by Frank Kermode. This is the kind of book you’re always looking for, and not only because it’s written by Eliot. You want someone to do the work of putting the oars in the water and, with obvious skill but no fancy maneuvers, pull your rowboat across the chop to the other shore. Along the way, Eliot makes claims about poetry that are for me total:

Dante’s is a visual imagination. It is a visual imagination in a different sense from that of a modern painter of still life: it is visual in the sense that he lived in an age in which men still saw visions. It was a psychological habit, the trick of which we have forgotten, but as good as any of our own. We have nothing but dreams, and we have forgotten that seeing visions—a practice now relegated to the aberrant and uneducated—was once a more significant, interesting, and disciplined kind of dreaming. We take it for granted that our dreams spring from below: possibly the quality of our dreams suffers in consequence.

            Vladimir Lossky, A Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. In the period of my immersion in Orthodoxy, I discovered this book and its sheen still emanates an aura of revelation for me. Though it proceeds as a concise argument about the mystical nature of theology in Orthodox Christianity, it reads like a sequence of axioms. “If God is called Light, it is because He cannot remain foreign to our experience.” I have stolen shamelessly and repeatedly from this book for my own poetry and will surely do so again. “Union with God is a mystery which is worked out in human persons.”

            Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels. The last chapter of this book, entitled “Gnosis: Self-Knowledge as Knowledge of God,” pretty much defines my sense of the mystical itinerary that writing poetry enables. The project of initiation and redemption through secret mysteries and higher teachings that Pagels describes in the pages of this book continues to drench my esoteric thalamus in sophic liquor, especially her suspicion that the Gnostics were more like artists in their “search for interior self-knowledge as the key to understanding universal truths.” Being a poet, especially an obscure religious poet, is more like belonging to a renegade spiritual movement than belonging to a profession. Since very few people besides other poets ever read the work you produce and that work has little traction outside the world of poetry, you find yourself moving through the world, uttering shibboleths, going from waystation to waystation, sharing the passions and the fruit of your labor. Exactly, according to Pagels, what the Gnostics were doing in the early years of the first millennium.

            To these books and essays, I’ll add three poems. In the Western imagination, the compact of religion and poetry has often defined the limits of the art even as it has rested at its core. Not so anymore. Nevertheless, some of the best poetry written in the last century is manifestly religious, in both content and effect.

            In August, I went down to St. Louis to witness the total solar eclipse. With family and friends, I ventured outside of the city to Eureka, well within the path of totality, awaiting the cosmic conjunction and hoping for clear skies. The Moon inched across the face of the Sun for ninety lucid minutes, the light polarizing, casting sharp shadows and shifting the world into silver-blue twilight. At the moment of totality, I whooped ecstatically, tossing my solar glasses aside, staring like a wizard or a god at the dark throbbing socket of the Moon sizzling with the Sun’s pearlescent corona. As I whooped, I was not alone. Everyone around me whooped. It was one of the greatest things I have ever seen. After the totality passed, like an oracle, I found myself repeating, “For beauty is nothing / but the beginning of terror.” A total solar eclipse is pure Rilke! And the power of the eclipse is precisely that it “serenely disdains / to annihilate us.” Rilke’s Duino Elegies are in many ways the master text of religious perception for the twentieth century, poems as unsurpassable as they are pernicious in the ease with which they inspire truly bad poetry. I love them dearly. The canonical Leishman/Spender translation remains the best, easily gotten in the Everyman Rilke volume, but my favorite translation is Stephen Mitchell’s (which is the one the quotes come from).

           Speaking of an eclipse:

Every hour, every moment

has its specific attendant Spirit;


the clock-hand, minute by minute,

ticks round its prescribed orbit;


but this curious mechanical perfection

should not separate but relate rather,


our life, this temporary eclipse

to that other...

H.D.’s Trilogy wasn’t published as a single volume until 1973, long after the poet was dead. The individual volumes, however, appeared in the 1940s: The Walls Do Not Fall, Tribute to the Angels, and The Flowering of the Rod. As esoteric as it is apocalyptic, this crypto-pagan, Christian-mystical epic, written in limpid, translucent couplets, reads as thrillingly and more easily than any of the other major Modernist long poems, each of which, year by year, it seems in its excellence to surpass.

            Though he didn’t consider himself a religious person, Ronald Johnson wrote one of the great spiritual poems in the English-language tradition, namely ARK, his poem of a lifetime. Selecting Johnson’s poem for this list is an inside job. Shortly before he died in 1998, Johnson asked me to be his literary executor. In 2013, Flood Editions issued a new and corrected edition of ARK, Johnson’s masterpiece. The poet himself likened the poem to the works of outsider artists possessed by total cosmic visions they then committed their lives to manifesting. ARK was such a work for Johnson, a poem as much a religious fantasy of the spiritual orders of reality as it is an accounting – through physics, architecture, and collage – of natural and supernatural realms. Here is Johnson staring like Blake into the whorls of eternity:

Internetted eternities, interspersed

with cypresses

ply ringed air around the many spectacled apples there.

Flamestitch niches orb in swivel orb, The Muses thrust at center

turning. Phospheros arborescens they sing



struck crystal clarities

to knock the knees

(or scarlet hollyhock, against a near blue sky).

No end of fountains lost among the shrubberies full eye may bare.

Fixed stars

with fireflies jam the lilac.

The last two lines compress Dante’s Paradiso into a couplet. As much as any other lines of poetry I can think of, these perform the cosmography at the heart of the two crucial questions you should ask of any poem you find worthwhile. First, how did the poet do that? And second, how can I do that myself?

Peter O’Leary is the author of several books of poetry, most recently The Sampo (Cultural Society), a book-length fantasy poem set in the far north, featuring a wizard, a sorceress, a sword, and a mysterious magical object of absorbing perfection. A new book of criticism, Thick and Dazzling Darkness: Religious Poetry in a Secular Age, is forthcoming from Columbia University Press. He lives in Oak Park and teaches at both the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago.