The book of my soul

Image source: Gitksan woman Shaman and Chief, Kispiox, British Columbia, 1909, by George Thornton Emmons Collection no. 131 (University of Washington Libraries) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Why do we write poetry? In a world of inexhaustible archives, where we are overwhelmed with voices, why would we ply our own into the unending and infinite conversation? Why do this when although we have control over the words we write, we have no control over their reception in the world or the fruits of the work?

“Alas! What boots it with uncessant care

To tend the homely slighted shepherd’s trade,

And strictly meditate the thankless Muse?” (Milton, Lycidas)

My last post on conceptual poetry prompted me to think on this, since there is a way in which the proponents of the cutting edge have abandoned the thankless muse and turned their poetry into a species of barren, mechanical marketing. They abolish the anxiety of authentic authorship by turning everything into a cheap showman’s trick.

My post also prompted thoughtful responses from one of my readers, Daniel Paul Marshall, who says, quite beautifully, that “my entire reason to write poetry is due to Wallace Stevens saying it isn’t everyday the world forms into a poem.”

Daniel also pointed me towards the Inflectionist Review, which does articulate a sense of poetry as belonging to a long and deep tradition of infinite conversation between readers and writers, who are readers, rather than a ceaseless war of the new against the old, of radicalism against tradition.

At the Inflectionist Review they say, in describing their poetry movement:

The literary tradition is as ancient as our capacity for verbal communication. Through ages, most of the core human concerns have remained the same, although our ability to analyze and discuss them has evolved. Poetry has remained essentially the same in that it elicits our reaction by appealing to those concerns indirectly.

They also say “Poetry seeks to represent the type of human interaction that causes a positive spark, an epiphany, a sense of growth.” This connection of poetry to psyche or to soul seems to me, as I discussed in an earlier post, what Wallace Stevens referred to when he spoke of nobility in poetry. The poet’s special privilege and responsibility is an ecstatic freedom of the mind, and the worst forms of literary avant-gardism abandon and abuse this privilege.

Now, I am not one to raise an aesthetic war banner and plant it in the ground, but I do see my poetry – and my writing more generally, my prose and whatever the art form that this blog is attempting to shape – as part of a longer, humbler and more secret tradition than the loud brash declarations of the avant-garde.

When I write I belong in Milton’s homely slighted shepherd’s trade, and to the spirit worlds of all the unknown shamans of the world, who sang their chants, beat their drums, and went on unknowable journeys into the night.

Instead of a statement of an aesthetic philosophy, my mind turned to a poem I wrote some years back, and included in my self-published e-book, After the Pills. It was the first poem in the second half of that collection, which were poems written after I began to take medication for my mental illness. It was one of the first poems I wrote after that time, and it marked, perhaps even broke open the ground that made possible, the beginning of a more productive, more enjoyable, more free writing life.

Here it is.

The book of my soul

“The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof but canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth.”
John, chapter 3. verse 8.

In a plain bound book
I tattoo white paper in blue
Then wrap myself in this shaman’s cloak
To fly with the eagle to a sky renewed.

I sing words salvaged from the press
In the intervals of Te Deum,
Stolen from its church,
Sung so only its melancholy shines.

Pärt turned to church and tradition
Amidst a century of horror
And I turn to these conjured spirits
In a world polluted by podcast trash.

Inwardly, I turn – not without question.
The simplest words are sewn with elaborate doubt.
But into the image of inwardness
I dive deeper, and there find reasons to go on.

In the mandalas, strange mazes, of this book
I encircle, tame, and then hold fast
The sound of the blowing wind.

Jeff Rich

If this kind of writing practice makes me a traditionalist or even a conservative, who will never be fashionable, so be it. I do not seek fame or fashion from what I do with my voices, and I draw inspiration from others who do the same. The poem refers to the music of Arvo Pärt, the Estonian composer, who fled Soviet repression, and produced some of the most beautiful music of the twentieth century, springing from the traditions of church music.

Here is a performance of Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum if you do not know it, via YouTube and created by Akademisk Kor, Akademisk Orkester, Nenia Zenana, conductor.
Marianne G. Nielsen, solist. I can think of no more fitting end.

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