Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Religion and Poetry

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

(The Greek muse Erato, painted by Simon Vouet.)

To combine the Blog Against Theocracy weekend with National Poetry Month, here's several poems.

Dogma and great art don't mix very well. Totalitarians generally respect and fear the power of art, and thus often seek to restrict and control it. Art can say more than one thing at once, and often deals with nuance and subtleties. Authoritarians typically cannot tolerate ambiguity. Biblical literalists cannot handle allegory, metaphor, symbolism and competing points of view in other literature, either. For them, truth is derived from, and dispensed by, authority. Authoritarian leaders like power, but for authoritarian followers the chief appeal of their movement is certainty. Certainty is a great solace, as is a sense of belonging with a group, and both diminish fear. A regulated path in life, however unpleasant, can be more appealing than a more naked, honest, unpredictable one. However, the comfort of an artificial, hierarchical order sacrifices some of the wonderful, occasionally chaotic beauty of life in the world.

Some religious organizations promote what could be called a Hobbesian view of human nature — humans are inherently bad, or prone to evil, and need some sort of external order. Control must be maintained or imposed. The Catholic Church at one point wanted to ban polyphonic music, because they feared its beauty would seduce congregations, and distract them from God (happily, they relented). It's one thing to condemn materialism, another to condemn a selfish hedonism, yet none of that requires condemning life, joy, beauty and art. Not all art is good, or effective, or resonates with everybody. Plenty of great art has an overtly religious theme. However, great art encourages an individual and often complex reaction. And even though the words that make up a poem are seemingly much more concrete and less ambiguous than, say, an abstract painting, there's no question that a favorite poem carries intensely personal meaning.

Dogma and the need for certainty can overwhelm the beauty of life and art:

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

— Billy Collins

Poetry can tell a story some might find heretical:

Sometime During Eternity

Sometime during eternity
some guys show up
and one of them
who shows up real late
is a kind of carpenter
from some square-type place
like Galilee
and he starts wailing
and claiming he is hip
to who made heaven
and earth
and that the cat
who really laid it on us
is his Dad

And moreover
he adds it's all writ down
on some scroll-type parchments
which some henchmen
leave lying around the Dead
Sea somewheres
a long time ago
and which you won't even find
for a coupla thousand years or so
or at least for
nineteen hundred and forty-seven
of them
to be exact
and even then
nobody really believes them
or me
for that matter

You're hot
they tell him

And they cool him

They stretch him on the Tree to cool

And everybody after that
is always making
of this Tree
with Him hung up
and always crooning His name
and calling Him to come
and sit in
in their combo
as if he is the king cat
who's got to blow
or they can't quite make it

Only he don't come down from His Tree
Him just hang there
on His Tree
looking real Petered out
and real cool
and also
according to a roundup
of late world new
from the usual unreliable source
real dead

— Lawrence Ferlinghetti

To read this poem with its original formatting, click here. (This poem has a special significance to me because I was assigned it to perform by a teacher years ago. As a friend of mine said, it really sort of asks for a string bass jamming away behind it.)

Many folks are familiar with this poem by William Blake, and its musings on a creature and its creator:

The Tyger

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

— William Blake

Less well known is its companion poem, deceptively simple:

The Lamb

Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed,
By the stream and o'er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Little Lamb, I'll tell thee,
Little Lamb, I'll tell thee.
He is called by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild;
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are called by His name.
Little Lamb, God bless thee!
Little Lamb, God bless thee!

— William Blake

Read as a pair, the poems take on new significance.

Some lovely poetry and wisdom can be found in religious texts:

Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?

Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?

Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?

And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:

And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

— Matthew 6:25-29, King James Bible

Meanwhile, a 15th Century Zen monk with a keen sense of humor takes a very human approach to his own religion's guidelines:

A Meal of Fresh Octopus

Lots of arms, just like Kannon the Goddess;
Sacrificed for me, garnished with citron, I
revere it so!
The taste of the sea, just divine!
Sorry, Buddha, this is another precept I just
cannot keep.

— Ikkyu (Translated by John Stevens)

Speaking of Solomon and his raiment, there's a lovely phrase from Song of Solomon 8:6: "Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death." Compare that sentiment to words of 13th Century Persian poet Rumi:

Spring Giddiness

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don't open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don't go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don't go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don't go back to sleep.

I would love to kiss you.
The price of kissing is your life.
Now my loving is running toward my life shouting,
What a bargain, let's buy it.

Daylight, full of small dancing particles
and the one great turning, our souls
are dancing with you, without feet, they dance.
Can you see them when I whisper in your ear?

All day and night, music,
a quiet, bright
reedsong. If it
fades, we fade.

— Rumi (Translated by Coleman Barks)

Still, divinity is at least partially in the eye of the beholder. When I was a teenager entering college, when asked about my religious beliefs, I used to say (only half-jokingly) that King Lear was my Bible. It was due to the depth and wisdom I found in passages such as this, when a gentleman describes Cordelia receiving news of her father Lear's torments:

Did your letters pierce the queen to any
demonstration of grief?

Ay, sir; she took them, read them in my presence;
And now and then an ample tear trill'd down
Her delicate cheek: it seem'd she was a queen
Over her passion; who, most rebel-like,
Sought to be king o'er her.

O, then it moved her.

Not to a rage: patience and sorrow strove
Who should express her goodliest. You have seen
Sunshine and rain at once: her smiles and tears
Were like a better way: those happy smilets,
That play'd on her ripe lip, seem'd not to know
What guests were in her eyes; which parted thence,
As pearls from diamonds dropp'd. In brief,
Sorrow would be a rarity most beloved,
If all could so become it.

— William Shakespeare, King Lear [Quarto, 4.3, 9-24]

(As to its meaning for me, that's a whole other piece.)

While galleries and individuals own paintings, no one owns their impact or meaning. There's a line in the film Il Postino that "poetry belongs to those who need it." The beauty of the First Amendment is that it allows for a wide range of religious beliefs, and a wide range of expression, creative or otherwise. We don't need a formalized Freedom of Creativity or Freedom of Interpretation, but I prefer to see divinity, such as it is, in kindness, connection, and inspiration.

(You can scroll through this site's series of posts for the Blog Against Theocracy weekend here, and visit the main site listing all participating bloggers and their sites here. I'm trying to make my way through all the great posts!)

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