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Returning the Soul to Poetry

Jennifer Ferraro

In a techno-consumer culture enraptured with externals and superficiality, the tendency toward poetry can represent a struggle to value, protect and embody those qualities that are most hidden in oneself, the qualities of the soul. This hidden-ness that lives within us formlessly recognizes and loves beauty and is nurtured in being, as well as in doing. To affirm that that which cannot be seen exists, that that which is wordless and elusive to language has presence and power and reality, is no small feat.

In a time when our world grows increasingly wed to surfaces, we need to actively protect and foster that which is hidden from the eye of superficial vision. We need poetry more than ever now. We need it in order to remember, to revalue what we have left behind as the “childish” dreams of youth and innocence, to remind us of unseen and invisible worlds. So the task of poetry is not to simply describe or convey what is seen but to be a reminder of how, when what is seen penetrates the depths of our silences, vision opens and can transfigure reality. The real act of poetry happens in the heart, not on the page.

People need poetry in order to remember that soul exists. Sometimes our lives take us away from who we deeply are into a façade that we live in for years. Yet amidst this numbness an aching hunger for meaning and beauty, for a home in one’s own being, persists. We long for a time when we will feel fully at home in ourselves and our lives, and wildly alive in ways which we have only glimpsed. We want life to be rich with love, full of gifts given and shared, a continual praising. The note we were given to sing pursues us, waiting for us to remember, to return to its urging. More and more I have come to feel that the only thing we really have to do here is to try to stay true to that note each one of us was entrusted with that is the unique signature of our soul. We must sing it clearly, with every ounce of our attention and faithfulness and strength.

In the wasteland of exile from your soul’s note, how you wander and throw yourself into various occupations, trying to forget. How you long for one who might hear you and see you and coax you into the becoming you know is possible. You are vast as the universe, and inwardly you sense that nothing you do here will ever equal what you are actually a capable of. Redemption seems to spring from the very barrenness that you have let claim your life’s voice. From the interior loneliness of finding yourself isolated from other beings, and from love, something new is often born. Ultimately you must stand up for innocence and soul sweetness, for beauty that is constantly assaulted by hollow, shallow and cynical images that repeat the mantra “There is no meaning here.”

Each of us, male and female, has a harsh, critical and often assassinating inner voice that functions as henchman to what is mysterious and soulful in us. When you feel sadness it tells you that you are a sissy, or irrational or pathetic. When you feel something in your gut, it tells you to be logical and to filter everything through rational thinking. It says discipline is what you need, and it rules through control. It tells you that you must achieve and conquer, that you are nothing except what you produce, that otherwise your life has no meaning or value. Success is tangible and worldly, and power is what you should possess and desire. This voice within tells you to get over yourself and your heartbrokenness, to forget what happened to your love as a child, with those people you called family.

There is a time when that voice is needed to move you through the ruts of self-pity or self-defeated lethargy. But more often that voice becomes a willful dictator, robbing your life of its vitality, its quiet joys and potential for true contentment. The voice of what you should be, do, or fix in your life distances you from your soul’s innocent curiosity. There is a part of you, however small and buried, that has utter faith in life, that is willing to go wherever you are taken, that looks out upon this precious existence with wonder and praising, for the simple blades of grass, for the smell of the earth, for the warm flesh of your loved one and the laughter of strangers. This part of you sometimes breaks through the mask of control and affirms the childlike innocence of your heart. There is a moment when the rational discursive thinking breaks through to the symbolic, feeling language of rhythm and image hidden in your blood. This happened just now as I was writing this:

In the land of image only

of sound without word only

I’ll search for you

I gather the golden leaves

each one inscribed with a destiny

 a calligraphy no one has yet understood

the meaning of which must be whispered

As I was writing about language and the inner voice my own inner voice rose up to speak. Notice how my third person objective prose turned into intimate address, into “You” all of a sudden. Where the limitations of rational language appear, soul must find a way through to greater truth.  Poetry is both a veil and the rending of the veil covering Reality. It is a cover for the poet, yet it is designed to reveal much more than other kinds of language can reveal about the complex multidimensionality of experience. Is it straightforward? Is it the language of therapeutic self-disclosure? No it is not. Which kind of language glimpses a fuller, richer more mysterious experience? Which feels more real to you? Which is more vulnerable and exposed.

Poetry resists the overt statement; instead, it suggests. Mind would create a bottom line platform or position out of our rich lived experience of each moment. Mind seeks to reduce, categorize and control, to discriminate and choose this over that. It desires or rejects in each moment, constantly affirming yes or no to every thing that crosses our path. This is how we make sense of reality and make the choices necessary to live complete lives. Rationality is a beautiful thing. Yet beyond the logic of our rational mind awaits its utter bafflement before the mystery of being and non-being, birth, and death, pain, loss and love. We know nothing. We know everything there is to be known. These contradictions can coexist within poetry, since poetry resists a bottom line, a black and white conclusion. Poetry is true to the grayness of the soul’s terrain. We are separate and live most of our lives feeling bounded within our own skin and minds. And yet, since every life we encounter is ourselves, how can we pretend we are separate? Since everything in the universe exists within the soul, how can it say this or that is wholly other?

Poetry can contain and suggest this paradox, playing with it like a lover, coaxing it out and speaking to it from inside and outside. Poetry loves distance, and originates from closeness. But all of this is lost unless one has the courage to affirm the soul, the sacred inwardness of one’s own precious vision. This is especially challenging when inwardness has been given no value in the world, in culture, yet it is where everything is conceived, ripened and born. There is an empty fertile darkness where all the forms are born. Without silence, no word could form.

Who will honor and protect the soul’s darkness? Will you protect and value your own inner life, even if there is never any applause or money or accomplishment you can hold up as its outer sign? Will you give your life to becoming tender-hearted—to learn how to truly see? Will you make a space for poetry, even if it has no value in the world but affirms the value of that which is mysterious, dark and silent in us, that which lives, paradoxically, beyond words?

Jennifer Ferraro, MFA, is a poet, artist, and translator of Quarreling with God: Mystic Rebel Poems of the Dervishes of Turkey and a collection of her own illustrated poems, Divine Nostalgia. She has led workshops and has presented poetry performances combining poetry, dance and music in innovative ways. For four years she toured with a Turkish music ensemble performing percussion, dance and sacred poetry all over the world. Her work is particularly concerned with presenting poetry as a sacred art and in illuminating the neglected beauty and passionate wisdom of the sacred feminine. Jennifer lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and is currently working on a new book.

Read more about Jennifer Ferraro

18 June 2010

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