Discalced Carmelite Friars

Province of St. Therese

Poet and Contemplative

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“From the abundance of his spirit [the poet] pours out secrets and mysteries rather than rational explanation” (Prologue, The Spiritual Canticle).

“In contemplation God teaches the soul very quietly and secretly, without its knowing how, without the sound of words” (Chapter 39, The Spiritual Canticle).

In the spirit of St. John of the Cross, this blog reflects on the contemplative experience and the poetic experience, sometimes separately and distinctly, sometimes in common, as mutually enlightening.

I will also post to this blog, from time to time, my own poetry, with a short interpretive note attached.

~ Fr. Bonaventure Sauer, OCD

Setting the Table—Part One

        How a poem gets written varies from poet to poet, even from poem to poem.  Yet across the board there must be something mysterious about the process.  Why does the poet decide on just this particular word rather than another, although both appear, at least at first, to work equally well?  Why does the poet choose this image or metaphor or particular verbal rhythm and not some other?  Where do these decisions come from, and why do they seem right?  Often even the poet can’t say.  “It just seems right” is the best he or she can offer.  And usually that answer suffices—the poem does read better this way.  It means what it means better, with greater precision, resonance, and depth.
        A poem isn’t gibberish.  Yet it’s not reasoned prose either, with its whole meaning riding on the surface.  The poet does, in a manner of speaking, “speak in tongues.”  And sometimes, though not always, that “tongue” is the speech of angels.  The poem emerges from an inner abundance of spirit and seeks its precise form and verbal texture through that mysterious act which is the poet's writing of it, the process of its composition.  And all the while, as the poem comes to be, something of its hidden, mysterious origins remains.  A poem can hold its cards tight to the vest.
        “From the abundance of his spirit [the poet] pours out secrets and mysteries rather than rational explanation."

    *

        “In the beginning . . . the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters—then God said:  Let there be light, and there was light.  God saw that the light was good.  God then separated the light from the darkness” (Gen. 1:1-4).
        It may sound presumptuous to say it, but these word depicting God’s very first act of creation, his proto-creation, as it were—calling forth light from the dark abyss, inspecting it, seeing that it is good, setting it in place over against the primeval  darkness—they’re not a bad depiction of poetic creation either.  But it’s not really presumptuous to make this comparison, between God’s act and the poet’s act of creation, because in doing so we're simply following Scripture's lead.  The Book of Genesis itself uses precisely poetic creation—or artistic creation, more generally speaking—as a basis in human creative action for telling the story of divine creation.
        God doesn’t create in the way a king creates, for example—by the exercise of an overmastering force that conquers, establishes a kingdom, and then reigns.  Nor does God create as a mighty warrior creates—by deeds of strength and valor that lead to the destruction one's enemies in battle and the triumph of the hero's self.
        God doesn’t create as do those persons of high degree and great wealth in our world, the movers and shakers who set their slaves to work to till their fields and reap their harvests, to build their homes and raise for them ever bigger barns, to prepare their feasts and set their tables—to raise up monuments to wealth and plenty, privilege, and all else that is their due.
        Nor does God create—no, not even in this way—as one generation creates the next--by conceiving and bearing new life within, by giving birth and then raising the newborn and the young.
        No, God creates as an artist creates, as a master craftsman making beautiful things—things that function well, as they are intended to do, but also that, necessarily, give pleasure to their creator, things which, therefore, are good.  What is more, we might say, for our purposes here, that God creates as a poet, a weaver of words, who speaks from some dark, shapeless, secret place, yet a place that is nonetheless ripe with the Spirit sweeping like a mighty wind over the waters.  And God then, having so spoken, sees that what He has said is what He meant to say--that it is, therefore, right, true, and good.

    *

        To open this blog—and it is meant to be a rather rambling, free-floating journey, following no preordained path, aiming at no predetermined destination—I’ll take up these four verses of Scripture quoted above, Gen. 1:1-4, and ponder them in the light of my topic, Poet and Contemplative.  What does this depiction of divine creation say about poetic creation?  And what does it say about that inner re-creation of the human heart and soul that is contemplative prayer?  And how do these three—divine and poetic and contemplative, interior, spiritual creation—mutually illuminate each other?  How, in other words, can we experience God’s creative power and presence at work in us through both contemplative prayer and poetic expression?
        To be continued . . .



 Written by Bonaventure Sauer, OCD
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