The Poet Within

Written By John Tintera

A very intriguing little book appeared in my mailbox last week: Poetry as Spiritual Practice: Reading, Writing, and Using Poetry in Your Daily Rituals, Aspirations, and Intentions by Robert McDowell. I have read the first 50 pages where the author lays out his thesis. He believes that poetic inspiration is inextricably linked with divine inspiration and offers a quote from the poet Robert Bly to back it up: “...Reclaiming the sacred in our lives naturally brings us close once more to the wellsprings of poetry.”

This to me is a very profound statement. I love poetry—I love reading and writing it—but for years now I have been what Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, calls “a creative anorexic.” In other words, the voice in my head that criticizes every line of poetry I write has become more powerful than the impulse to create it. McDowell recognizes this as a common problem with adults and recommends his readers write down their fears about poetry. Here are mine:

I’ll never be as good as Milton

I’m not as clever as Elvis Costello (i.e. my favorite song lyricist)

No one will want to read my stuff.

It’s not masculine to write poetry.

I don’t have anything to say, or I will say the same thing over and over.

There’s no time for poetry—prose is more efficient.

The human word is insufficient to the divine, and secular poetry is inferior to sacred scripture; Whitman and Auden are inferior to St. Paul (even though Paul can be dreadfully boring).

For a person like me who struggles to follow Christ and lead a good Christian life, this last point is the thorniest. McDowell faces it head on. By baldly stating that the human word can be infused with divine wisdom, he takes the sting out of my biggest poetic fear. I could argue till doomsday for the visibility of the breath of God in all things—especially the words of poetry—but when it comes to applying that principle to my own writing I cavil or run for cover.

McDowell also takes on the issues of time and poetry vs. prose. In speaking about time, he believes that the rhythmic element of poetry gives it a kinship with the incessant beating of our hearts. There is a primal, pre-conscious quality to poetry with which all human beings are naturally in sync. Poetry is timeless. With regard to poetry vs. prose, he writes that, “the rhythms of sentences differ from the rhythms of lines of poetry. We breathe differently when we read a sentence aloud or in our heads than we do when we read a line of poetry. The difference between the two is physiological and imaginative.”

I like that word physiological. It reminds me of one of my favorite passages in scripture, Genesis 32:25. During Jacob’s wrestling match with God, God touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh: “And when He saw that he prevailed not against him, He touched the hollow of his thigh.” Reading a poem can touch you in a way that makes you feel you’ve been touched by God. Writing a poem can touch you in the hollow of your thigh. I can’t wait to dig into McDowell’s book and get back to writing poetry.

Copyright © 2008 John Tintera.