Poetry is how we pray, now. In these skeptical times, poets are Caedmon and poems hymns. Past the personal, poets sing for those who cannot – registering our awe, making sense of our anguish, and harnessing the inchoate longing of countless souls. Unlike prose, poetry can keep its secrets - deepening our silences, so that we might overhear ourselves.
Poetry, also, can restore our sight, helping us to bear better witness to Now and, past that, calmly gaze over the head of our harried times. By lending us this third (metaphysical) eye which collapses distances, poetry can act as a sort of journalism of the soul, reporting on the state of our spiritual life. After all this, too, is what prayer can do: serving as our conscience, and reminding us in times of (personal or political) duress of our essential selves, or who we might become: ‘the better angels of our nature.’ Thus, poetry reconciles false distinctions between vita active and vita contemplativa – demonstrating how words are also actions. I pray by admiring a rose, Persian poet Omar Khayyam once said. In contemplating poetry’s rose – its inscrutable architecture and scented essence — we’re made finer morally, able to conceive of a greater reality.
Our metaphysical eyes are expert at collapsing distances, seeing through the apparent to the infinite. Lately, I’m consumed with the idea of the artist as mystic, and the worship of beauty as a form of prayer. How, in Khayyam’s deceptively simple utterance (prayerful admiration of a rose) one finds the connection among the visible, invisible, and indivisible laid bare. Theologian and Sufi mystic, Al Ghazali, puts it thus: This visible world is a trace of that invisible one and the former follows the latter like a shadow."
One year before his death, Rilke is meditating upon the inseparability of the material and spiritual worlds, in these memorable words:
"It was within the power of the creative artist to build a bridge between two worlds, even though the task was almost too great for a man… Everywhere transience is plunging into the depths of Being. It is our task to imprint this temporary, perishable earth into ourselves, so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its essence can rise again, invisible, inside of us. We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible."
Reverence for the visible world is not in opposition to the invisible one; in the same way that it is through the body we access the life of the spirit. Remembering we are "bees of the invisible," sweetens the suffering and even cheats death of its ultimate sting. We are saved by the very idea of a back and forth, between a Here and There. Bodies are like poems that way, only a fraction of their power resides in the skin of things. The remainder belongs to the spirit that swims through them.
Here is another Persian and Sufi poet, Hafiz, reflecting on the centrality of beauty to our well-being:
“The heart suffers when it cannot see and touch beauty, but beauty is not shy it is synonymous with existence.”
Beauty, far from being a superficial concern is essential, and can be a turnstile that leads us from the visible to the invisible world. To return to Khayyam, yet again, by admiring the rose — its inscrutable architecture and scented essence — we are made finer morally, spiritually even. This is how aesthetics can serve as an ethical code, and prayer is "the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul" (Emerson’s definition).
Poets, philosophers and mystics, by their nature, seem especially well-suited to exposing the false divisions between the visible and invisible worlds. While a calling in the life of an artist might be divorced from the strictly religious sense of the word, it still requires similar renunciations, obedience and sacrifice. I can’t say I’ve studied the lives of mystics as closely as I have those of artists, yet the profound similarities seem difficult to dismiss. Time and again, I discover poets and thinkers I respect powerlessly submitting their private lives in the service of intensifying consciousness (out of what can only be described as an indestructible inner imperative). Thus, entire lives are anxiously arranged around the conditions most conducive to the maturity of this elusive faculty.
The artistic-philosophic landscape is teeming with seers of this type. The power and aura of these fiery spirits derives as much from the truths or realities they have revealed as what they’ve had to sacrifice along the way; it is an authority born of the tension between what is accomplished and what is suffered.
What such poets or thinkers have in common is a life-long struggle to build a bridge between the two worlds — an uncommon commitment to bear better witness and Be, more fully. To travel to and fro, between the visible and the invisible, required a kind of vanishing act of the traveler, what Foucault called “a voluntary obliteration that does not have to be represented in books because it takes place in the very existence of the writer.”