July 6, 2012 by Reader's Connection
Nineteen poets spoke with Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler, the editors of A God in the House: Poets Talk about Faith. Coming from different backgrounds and engaging in different practices, they talk about how Zen Buddhism, Christianity, paganism, Judaism and other forms of worship or belief or lack thereof have informed their writing.
Kaminsky and Towler have printed the results as essays or memoirs rather than as interviews. Here are three excerpts, to give you some idea of the different grounds being covered.
Grace Paley came from a secular Jewish background and espoused no religious beliefs. You may wonder why she was even included in the book. She wondered herself.
I don’t think in terms of being an atheist or not. I would just say that we live in mystery, and the making of this world is simply great and mysterious. Just this morning I was listening to a man talking about finding rocks that were four billion years old. So we live in mystery. I’m not unsatisfied with that. I don’t have to find a god or not find a god. There’s a quote—I don’t remember who said it—“Find me a god because I am full of prayers.” I think my husband could be described this way. He’s an old Episcopalian boy. He has lost his god, but I think he’s full of prayers.
I’m not full of prayers. I’m full of language.
Christian Wiman grew up in a rural Baptist church where the Bible was read literally and now attends a liberal Christian church so “undoctrinaire that even the walls are woozy.”
I remain uneasy with the equation of poetry with religious experience, not because I don’t feel the connection—it’s often the only reason I write—but because my own experience of poetry is (terminally?) contaminated by my life in the world—by pride, mostly, the need to be known, to have the self acknowledged, the poem claimed rather than released as the free gift of grace that it was. I would say that this is just a personal failing, except that I’ve never met a poet who transcends it.
Our minds are constantly trying to bring God down to our level, rather than letting him lift us into levels of which we were not previously capable. This is as true in life as it is in art. Thus we love within the lines that experience has drawn for us, we create out of impulses that are familiar and, if we are honest with ourselves, exhausted. What might it mean to be drawn into meanings that, in some profound and necessary sense, shatter us? This is what it means to love. This is what it should mean to write one more poem. The inner and outer urgency of it, the mysterious and confused agency of it: all love abhors habit, and poetry is a species of love.
Jane Hirshfield writes about how her life as a poet has grown from her years spent at a Zen Buddhist monastery.
Human feelings fall rather easily into the consciousness of purposeful action: “I want this, so I will go get it.” “I need this.” “I have to do that.” “If I don’t do this, something bad will happen and I will die.” Such is the basic murmur of mammalian consciousness. Spiritual practices (along with other basic lineaments of human culture, of course) are in part a set of techniques to free a person from unquestioning enslavement to that imperative mind. They allow us to look around, to step back and see things as they are, to apprehend thoughts, impulses, concepts as part of a larger whole. Art does this as well, and art plays a role in human life that is probably not unrelated to spiritual ritual. Both stop you in your mammalian tracks and let you see and know your life through larger eyes and ears.
–from A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith, published by Tupelo Press, © 2012 Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler. Used with permission.