Tag Archives: god

‘The Spirit is too Blunt an Instrument’ by Anne Stevenson

The spirit is too blunt an instrument
to have made this baby.
Nothing so unskilful as human passions
could have managed the intricate
exacting particulars: the tiny
blind bones with their manipulating tendons,
the knee and the knucklebones, the resilient
fine meshings of ganglia and vertebrae,
the chain of the difficult spine.
Observe the distinct eyelashes and sharp crescent
fingernails, the shell-like complexity
of the ear, with its firm involutions
concentric in miniature to minute
ossicles. Imagine the
infinitesimal capillaries, the flawless connections
of the lungs, the invisible neural filaments
through which the completed body
already answers to the brain.
Then name any passion or sentiment
possessed of the simplest accuracy.
No, no desire or affection could have done
with practice what habit
has done perfectly, indifferently,
through the body’s ignorant precision.
It is left to the vagaries of the mind to invent
love and despair and anxiety
and their pain.
We looked at this poem in a poetry workshop I went to recently, and I found this a fascinating piece. In it, the poet expresses the notion that the spirit is “too blunt” or vague a thing to create the intricate perfection that is a human baby.”Nothing so unskilful as human passions” could have “managed the intricate/exacting particulars”, writes Stevenson. This statement puzzled me, when I first read it. I think it is true (but also untrue!) and ironic, because human passions are exactlywhat create new life… Of course, something other than human passion is needed to create a baby (and the poem goes into great, clinical detail about “meshings of ganglia” and “neural filaments”) but you still need passion in order for two people to come together (whatever passion that might be — lust, love, or something hateful).The poet talks about “the body’s ignorant precision”. This line really stood out for me, and I think it sums up what Stevenson is saying about the body in this poem. She is presenting the body to us as an unthinking, efficient machine. It is something quite miraculous, and I find it very interesting that she goes into such detail about its inner workings in the medical, scientific language that is so seldom found in poetry. I think Anne Stevenson does this because, although she is praising the great machine of the body, she is also subtly hinting at the coldness or pointlessness of a perfectly working body if there is no passion or love.Any “passion” — any “desire or affection” — is depicted as vague and imprecise in the poem, and incapable or creating anything so useful as the human body. For me, this evokes the conflict between science and religion. Perhaps I’m taking it too far, but this poem reminded me of a person trying to disprove God’s existence by saying how precise the body’s chemical reactions are, and insisting that the “spirit is too blunt an instrument” to be the cause of life. It is not love that creates life, but rather the ignorantly precise and obliviously diligent chemical reactions in the body. It is left to “the vagaries of the mind to invent/ love and despair and anxiety/ and their pain”.I haven’t really come to a conclusion about what Stevenson wants to say in this poem. I suspect her intention is to provoke thought, rather than to offer any definitive argument. It certainly made me think! I am fascinated by the conflict in the poem between the forces of “vague love” and “ignorant precision”. But I don’t  see why they should necessarily be mutually exclusive.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Bright Field’ by R. S. Thomas

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

I hope you all enjoy this beautiful poem by Welsh poet, R. S. Thomas. Thomas was an anglican priest, as well as a poet, but I think this piece is full of profound wisdom for everyone, regardless of creed.

The Bright Field speaks about those shining moments in life — moments of grace, beauty, inspiration, epiphany — where we fleetingly encounter the divine or feel a deep connection to the universe. This image of the bright field evokes for me various ideas: the moment you see your child’s face for the first time, the moment you realise you’ve fallen in love, or when you read and understand some complicated scientific theory about the universe, become transfixed by Shakespeare or an incredible piece of music… or, of course, when you pray or meditate, and feel a connection to the divine.

The poet confides that he has often seen the sun “illuminate a small field” for a moment, and continued on his way and “forgotten it”. But, says Thomas, he knows that that field was “the pearl of great price”; that moment was something rare and beautiful, to hold on to and spend your life searching for. He is admitting here that he has experienced moments of profound connection to God, but that he has proceeded to move on, without dwelling on it. However, he has now come to realise that he must “give all that I have/ To possess” that moment — that “bright field” — again.

Another quality of these “bright” moments becomes clear as we enter the second stanza; the poem says that life is not “hurrying on/ to a receding future” or “hankering after/ and imagined past”. These lines deliver to me the notion that these bright moments of grace are in fact moments where we are intensely present. These are the moments we are most alive, and when we feel most connected to life, the universe, and/or God. This is as relevant for prayer and meditation as it is for all the other instances I have mentioned where one might experience a moment of exhilarating and glorious connection to the universe.

The poem ends with the beautiful image of the burning bush from the story of Moses. Thomas tells us that life — and these moments — is about “turning/ like Moses to the miracle/ of the lit bush”. Again, there is a real sense of intense presence in this image. I think the way the bright light — which is God, and grace — is described in the final lines is just exquisite: though it had once seemed “as transitory as your youth”, it is in fact “the eternity that awaits you.”

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Last night’ by Jalalud’din Rumi

Last night
I begged the Wise One to tell me
the secret of the world.
Gently, gently he whispered,
“Be quiet,
the secret cannot be spoken,
it is wrapped in silence”.

This poem is taken from the collection of Rumi’s quatrains called Whispers of the Beloved, translated by Maryam Mafi and Azima Melita Kolin. This particular poem really touched me when I read it, and I thought it would be a lovely one to post on here.

There is not much I want to say about it; my usual reaction to Rumi poems is quiet reflection! I will say, however, that the wisdom of this piece is just so beautifully expressed (beautifully translated!), and that I am in love with that final line, “it is wrapped in silence”.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘All things will die’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Clearly the blue river chimes in its flowing
Under my eye;
Warmly and broadly the south winds are blowing
Over the sky.
One after another the white clouds are fleeting;
Every heart this May morning in joyance is beating
Full merrily;
Yet all things must die.
The stream will cease to flow;
The wind will cease to blow;
The clouds will cease to fleet;
The heart will cease to beat;
For all things must die.
All things must die.
Spring will come never more.
O, vanity!
Death waits at the door.
See! our friends are all forsaking
The wine and the merrymaking.
We are call’d–we must go.
Laid low, very low,
In the dark we must lie.
The merry glees are still;
The voice of the bird
Shall no more be heard,
Nor the wind on the hill.
O, misery!
Hark! death is calling
While I speak to ye,
The jaw is falling,
The red cheek paling,
The strong limbs failing;
Ice with the warm blood mixing;
The eyeballs fixing.
Nine times goes the passing bell:
Ye merry souls, farewell.
The old earth
Had a birth,
As all men know,
Long ago.
And the old earth must die.
So let the warm winds range,
And the blue wave beat the shore;
For even and morn
Ye will never see
Thro’ eternity.
All things were born.
Ye will come never more,
For all things must die.

This poem is supposed to be read in partnership with the previous poem I posted yesterday, Nothing will die. Today’s poem, as you can tell from its title, is a lot darker, though I don’t think that it’s necessarily sadder, in the final analysis.

You will notice that this poem contains many of the same elements as yesterday’s; we still have the “stream”, the “wind”, the “clouds” and the “heart.” However, in the shadow of mortality hangs heavy over this poem, and we are constantly aware that the time will come when the stream will “cease to flow”, the wind will “cease to flow”, the clouds “cease to fleet” and the heart “cease to beat”. From the perspective of this poem, nature is not an unending cycle, but rather something heading inevitably for its definite end; “Spring will come never more… Death waits at the door”, writes Tennyson.

The piece becomes quite harrowing as we get into an actual physical description of death. The jaw “falling”, the “red cheek paling”, “Ice with the warm blood mixing” and “the eyeballs fixing” are all images that made me feel very cold as I read this. Death, in this poem, is long drawn out (the passing bells ring “Nine times”) but the departing souls are “merry”. Perhaps it is their awareness of mortality that spurs them to partake of “wine” and “merrymaking”, and their hearts to beat “in joyance”… I think that it is our awareness of death that encourages us to enjoy and savour life, as well as to make progress as a species.

For me, the defining notion in this poem is this: “The old earth/ Had a birth… and the old earth must die”; “All things were born… all things must die.” This is the exact opposite to the ideas presented in Nothing will die, where we see a cyclical world that was never created, and will “never fade” — where there is no death, but only change. Here, the earth was created and so must die — it is not eternal. This world is full of suffering, sadness, and death, but there is also joy and passion, and perhaps love (the poem ends with, “Ye will come never more”).

I find the contrast between these two poems (today’s and yesterday’s) really fascinating because to me they evoke the contrast between a belief-system that includes reincarnation, and one that does not. Our beliefs about life after death or otherwise surely make a huge impact on the way we live our lives. I’m wondering if life feels more precious if you feel this life is your only, fleeting chance to experience this world, or if feeling part of an unending cycle is something that brings great peace… but that’s a conversation for another time! What do you think?

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Nothing will die’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson

When will the stream be aweary of flowing
Under my eye?
When will the wind be aweary of blowing
Over the sky?
When will the clouds be aweary of fleeting?
When will the heart be aweary of beating?
And nature die?
Never, oh! never, nothing will die;
The stream flows,
The wind blows,
The cloud fleets,
The heart beats,
Nothing will die.

Nothing will die;
All things will change
Thro’ eternity.
‘Tis the world’s winter;
Autumn and summer
Are gone long ago;
Earth is dry to the centre,
But spring, a new comer,
A spring rich and strange,
Shall make the winds blow
Round and round,
Thro’ and thro’,
Here and there,
Till the air
And the ground
Shall be fill’d with life anew.

The world was never made;
It will change, but it will not fade.
So let the wind range;
For even and morn
Ever will be
Thro’ eternity.
Nothing was born;
Nothing will die;
All things will change.

This in an early poem by Tennyson, which appeared in his first book (Poems, chiefly lyrical) published in 1830. I like this poem, and the poem that will follow it tomorrow (the cheerfully titled, All things will die). I thought it was most appropriate to post them consecutively because they seem to go together. They present entirely contrasting perspectives on the world and on existence, and I think it is really interesting to compare the two.

In this first poem, Nothing will die, the speaker seemingly believes in a world that is in constant motion, constant change, always going “Round and round,/ Thro’ and thro’”. The world depicted is one where nature never tires of its cycles: “The stream flows,/ The wind blows,/ The cloud fleets,/ The heart beats,/ Nothing will die.” I love the way Tennyson uses this energetic rhythm here to reflect the rhythms of the natural world (I also love ‘fleet’ as a verb!) Life moves constantly through the seasons, always coming full circle to Spring, which fills it “with life anew”.

The defining statement in this poem, I think, is “The world was never made;/ It will change, but it will not fade.” This is a beautiful expression of the idea that if the world was never created/’born’ then it need not end; if something is born it must die, but if something simply exists, without being born or created, then it can be said to be eternal. Our notions of God (in most religions, I think) tell us that he is uncreated and can never die (i.e. he is eternal.) I like this idea of death not existing, but of it simply being a change, and part of a continual cycle.

I think that this poem could also be read as being a poem of denial – the voice of one so afraid of death that he tries to convince himself that ‘Nothing will die’. Read in this way, the rhythm of the poem seems feverish and frantic – a mantra to convince oneself of a fantasy. However, I don’t personally read it like that.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘I was nothing’ by Lalla

When my mind was cleansed of impurities,
like a mirror of its dust and dirt,
I recognized the Self in me:
When I saw Him dwelling in me,
I realized that He was the Everything
and I was nothing.

Lalla was a Hindu mystic and saint who lived in Kashmir, India, in the 1300s. I think this poem is a beautiful expression of what it feels like to meditate on God. We realise that God is “Everything” and that the “I’ — our ego — is “nothing”. This is not a negative thing, and we are losing nothing in this transformation, we simply become connected to the Divine — are filled and consumed by it — and become one with it.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘That sanity be kept’ by Dylan Thomas

That sanity be kept I sit at open windows,
Regard the sky, make unobtrusive comment on the moon,
Sit at open windows in my shirt,
And let the traffic pass, the signals shine,
The engines run, the brass bands keep in tune,
For sanity must be preserved

Thinking of death, I sit and watch the park
Where children play in all their innocence,
And matrons on the littered grass
Absorb the daily sun.

The sweet suburban music from a hundred lawns
Comes softly to my ears. The English mowers mow and mow.

I mark the couples walking arm in arm,

Observe their smiles,

Sweet invitations and inventions,

See them lend love illustration
By gesture and grimace,
I watch them curiously, detect beneath the laughs
What stands for grief, a vague bewilderment
At things not turning right.

I sit at open windows in my shirt,
Observe, like some Jehova of the west
What passes by, that sanity be kept.

I loved this poem from the first time I read it, as a teenager. It is a poem I often come back to; I don’t think I ever open my Dylan Thomas book of poems without reading this one.

Its music is, of course, glorious, as with all Dylan Thomas’ poetry. For me, ‘That sanity be kept’ describes the complexity of the role of the poet beautifully. There is, near the end of the poem, a rather exaggeratedly grand description, as Thomas describes himself as a “Jehova of the west”. I find something ironic in the way Thomas describes himself in this way, when he is talking about preserving sanity… by describing himself as a sort of God makes himself sound a little bit delusional. But then, don’t you have to have a certain amount of ego to create poetry, or any form of art for that matter? And poets are God-like in the sense that they are creators. Poets create what Thomas loved to describe as his “craft”; they observe, describe, comment, philosophise, and, on occasion, prophesy.

There also seems to me to be in this poem a sense of ritual — of the religion of poetry. It is almost as though the speaker believes that, were he not to “sit at open windows” in his shirt, making “unobtrusive comment”, then the “traffic” would fail to circulate, that the “signals” would fail to “shine”, and the “brass bands” would fail to “keep in tune”. The writing of poetry becomes a sort of compulsive prayer. Thomas keeps leaving hints to reveal to us the complexity of his relationship to his craft, adding that, as he sits at his open window — that symbolic position of an observer, apart from the world — he is “Thinking of death”.

Another line in the poem that fascinates me is “The English mowers mow and mow”. Why the repetition of such a banal word? I think Dylan is showing us here how sometimes poetry is difficult, and that sometimes the world is dull, leaving him without inspiration (with Thomas, though, this phase is very short-lived.)

I love how the poet describes himself watching the couples “curiously”, watching them “lend love illustration”. This is a very interesting line to me because it seems to suggest that the speaker has only ever read about Love — not experienced it first-hand — and so what he observes in the couples walking “arm in arm” is simply an “illustration” of a theory… he “detect[s]” the meaning behind their behaviour from his high window. This is a very sad image of the poet — he is sort of doomed in his role of observer, apart from the real world. He can make only “unobtrusive comment”, which suggests that he cannot change things. He is a passive observer and commentator, rather than an actor in life’s continuation.

So, in this poem, the poet’s very complicated role is at once that of a passive observer and commentator, a creator with very grandiose (possibly deluded) ambitions or opinions of himself, and that of a sad person who does not connect with others, and who remains apart from the real world… Which is all quite negative and sad. But then I love the image of Thomas sitting at his window in his shirt because there’s something so romantic about it.

As a final thought, I love the idea of the poet doing what he does in order “that sanity be kept”. I love that phrase, and the variation of it — “for sanity must be preserved”. Throughout my life so far, poetry has been a great preserver of sanity for me. Poetry reminds us that we are not alone, it reminds us that there is beauty in this world, and that, even where there is none, we can nevertheless create beauty, through the expression of our experience.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Consecrated’ by St. Catherine of Sienna

All has been consecrated.
The creatures in the forest know this,
The earth does, the seas do, the clouds know
as does the heart
full of love.

Strange a priest would rob us of this knowledge
and then empower himself with the ability
to make holy
what already was.

This is a poem by one of the great Catholic saints, Catherine of Sienna, who lived in the 14th Century. Her’s is a fascinating biography: she saw guardian angels from the age of 6, and became a nun at the age of 16 (against the wishes of her parents, who wanted her to marry.) She continued having visions and mystical experiences throughout her short life (she died at just 33), as well as writing much poetry, letters, and as other writings that are still considered very important in the Church.

I love this poem because it seems almost heretical, yet it was written by a saint. It is so beautiful, and voices something that I have often thought myself — Why do I need a priest to act as a mediator between myself and God?

“Everything has been consecrated”, St Catherine tells us. The world knows this; nobody has a special authority to make places, things or people holy. There is something almost pagan here, in the idea that the “creatures in the forest”, the “earth”, the “seas” and the “clouds” know it. St Catherine finds holiness everywhere — in nature — and tells us that we do not need another person or ‘holy man’ to consecrate what God has already consecrated. You do not need a person to perform any kind of ritual, or blessing over you to make you holy: you already are holy.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Reality’ by Rabia al-Basri

In love, nothing exists between heart and heart.
Speech is born out of longing,
True description from the real taste.
The one who tastes, knows;
the one who explains, lies.
How can you describe the true form of Something
In whose presence you are blotted out?
And in whose being you still exist?
And who lives as a sign for your journey?

Rabia al-Basri lived in the 8th century in Basra, Iraq, and is generally considered to be the first female Sufi saint. There are many fascinating myths surrounding her life, though there doesn’t seem to be any definitive story for her. What does seem sure is that she never married, and that she instead devoted her entire existence to God, surrounded by some very faithful disciples.

To me, the first line of this poem really communicates what I understand to be the essence of mystical Islam: “In love, nothing exists between heart and heart”. Here, we find the idea of there being no reality but God: God is omnipresent. God and man — God and all of creation — are one. It is easy to understand this if you have ever been in love.

All of this puts me in mind of the Sufi practice of Silent Dhikr. Silent Dhikr is a form of meditation; it is the constant prayer of the Sufis. It literally means ‘remembrance of God’. The prayer consists of contemplation of the First Kalima, which is heard in the Islamic call to prayer:

La Illaha, Il Allahu.

I only know a few words in Arabic, and so my understanding of this vital phrase comes from books on Sufism that I have read. The traditional translation of this phrase is “There is no God but God”, which is fairly straightforward. However, other translations (which I prefer) are “There is no reality but God” and “The ‘I’ is an illusion; God alone is real”. What a beautiful, far-reaching mantra on which to meditate.

I love the part of this poem that says, “The one who tastes, knows;/ the one who explains, lies”. Surely knowledge of God is something that one cannot employ reason to attain. As Keats said of poetry, it is “an experience beyond thought.”

Next, Basri beautifully illustrates an important spiritual paradox: God is one “in whose presence you are blotted out” and yet “in whose being you still exist”. This is a wonderful poetic expression of the experience of Divine Love. One is annihilated by God — one’s ego dissolves in his presence — and yet one’s entire existence is only in Him. It is a peculiar and (I think) eternally fascinating paradox. It reminds me of something the Prophet Mohammed said: “Die before you die”.

In my opinion, Rabia al-Basri had an incredible gift to be able to express such elusive, intangible truths in her poetry.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Starry Night’ by Anne Sexton

That does not keep me from having a terrible need of — shall I say the word — religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars. –Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother

The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.
The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die.

It moves. They are all alive.
Even the moon bulges in its orange irons
to push children, like a god, from its eye.
The old unseen serpent swallows up the stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die:

into that rushing beast of the night,
sucked up by that great dragon, to split
from my life with no flag,
no belly,
no cry.

This poem is inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting Starry Night. It begins with a quote from a letter written by Van Gogh, which says that, despite himself, he has a deep, “terrible” need for religion, and that it is when he feels this need that he goes out and “paint[s] the stars”. I think there is something profound here about man’s need for something eternal and sacred. Though Van Gogh didn’t want religion in his life, he nevertheless had a need for the sacred. By creating art — by going out and painting the stars — Van Gogh was in effect immortalising the beauty of the world. He was acknowledging the transcendent power of beauty. Though he may not necessarily feel the presence of the Divine, a painter understands eternity, and s/he understands the holiness of beauty.

Van Gogh was a tortured, troubled artist just as Sexton was. When you look at ‘Starry Night’, the painting, there is such movement in the brushstrokes, and such turbulence — almost violence — in the thick swirling sky with its “eleven stars”, boiling in the “hot sky.” I love Sexton’s description of the painting, with the “black-haired tree” slipping up “like a drowned woman into the hot sky”. This particular description really struck me. When you look at the painting you will see that the tree does indeed look as though it were made of hair. There is something so dark and sinister about that image — it’s so “alive”, and “it moves”, as Sexton writes. I love the way the night “boils” in the poet’s description, because that is exactly how the painting looks to me.

The refrain “This is how I want to die” is repeated twice in the poem. It is a sort of mantra, and is central to the meaning of this poem in my view. I know that I always bring everything back to Keats, but this reminds me of his Ode to a Nightingale. In Nightingale, the poet listens to the beautiful sound of the bird’s voice (which represents the eternal beauty of Poetry and Art) and feels that this would be the perfect moment to die:

“Now more than ever seems it rich to die,/ To cease upon the midnight with no pain,/ While thou art pouring forth thy soul/ In such an ecstasy!”

I think Sexton is expressing something similar, here. However, there is of course more violence in Sexton’s desire for death, which I think reflects her suicidal nature and the fact that she would eventually commit suicide. Sexton does not want to simply “cease upon the midnight with no pain”; she wants to be “sucked up by that great dragon, to split/ from my life with no flag,/ no belly,/ no cry.” Sexton wants to be a part of the violent narrative. She wants to be a part of the mythology — the world where the “old, unseen serpent swallows up the stars”. There is religious imagery here with the serpent (the devil), and the moon pushing children “like a god, from its eye”. I think perhaps that — in the same way that Van Gogh painted the stars because he had a “terrible need” for something eternal and sacred — Sexton wanted to die in a glorified way — through suicide, as a tortured poet  – in order to join the hosts of dead poets that are immortal because their stories and their work is eternal. Perhaps this poem expresses a sense that Sexton felt suicide would be dramatic and violent and would immortalise her.

My final thought on this poem is to do with the final words: “no flag,/ no belly,/ no cry”. This part of the poem seems extremely violent to me. Sexton is expressing her deep, dark desire to part with life, but she goes further… The “no flag” part suggests to me that the poet is saying she wants to die not as a martyr, or for any particular cause — not holding up the flag of patriotism, or religion (or even the white flag of surrender.) No, the poet does not want to die as a victim (perhaps that is part of the attraction of suicide to her). She also writes that she wants to die with “no belly”. This is an interesting image, which is clearly linked to the poet’s femininity (the belly being the home of the womb and the place in the body where life starts.) Is Sexton saying here that she wants to die with no belly — with no gender? Sexton did have children in reality, I think maybe three or even more, I can’t remember. In any case, here she is expressing a desire to die without producing more life in the process; she wants her belly — her ability to reproduce — to be gone. I think that is is mostly about not wanting to be defined by her womanhood, but rather by her abilities as a poet. There might also be a sense here in which she is saying that she wants her creative production to stop (as it would, at her death) — to be final and untouchable.  Finally, the poet writes “no cry”. I think that these final words come back again to the idea of surrender. I think Sexton is saying that she does not want to die a victim, with a “cry” of pain or defiance. She wants to go willingly, bravely, and on her own terms.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh