Words have great power: They can bond or cleave apart; they can heal or maim; they can reveal or betray; they can inspire or deject; and they can built or burn bridges. So often we are told "think before you speak." In our world of mass media most words are collections of mass trinkets that say very little of worth.
A poem is different. Words, when arranged in a pattern, are like a painting or a piece of music that a person can see, hear and, above all, feel. Depending on who and why these patterns are spoken and written, so the effect they have. The motive, the image, the rhythm and idea determine the impact the patterned words make. Poetry is called the music of the soul. Throughout recorded history people of all cultures have sung, spoken and written poetry. We remember certain cultures through their epic poetry such as The Odyssey, The Iliad, Beowulf, Mahabharata, The Divine Comedy of Dante, The Aeneid of Virgil, and Paradise Lost of Milton, but also many other poets who wrote shorter but equally evocative pieces.
In the last days of June 2012, 100,000 poems were dropped by helicopter over Southbank Centre's Jubilee Gardens. It was called a "Rain of Poems" and, in previous years, such a ''rain" had happened in other cities such as Berlin and Warsaw, Dubrovnik, Santiago. Cities which, like London, had experienced aerial bombings. The Chilean group that organized these events wanted people to experience a poetry "bombing" from a variety of poets conveying messages of healing, renewal and inspiration.
These gifts of poems are part of the Cultural Olympiad, where theatre and music are also featured. At the ancient Olympics and especially at the Delphic Games poetry, music and other arts were included together with athletics.
For the ancient Greeks, prowess was not only of the body but also of the mind and spirit. In Delphi especially there were recitals, lyre contests, drama and choral dancing. In 1912 Sweden created the Pentathlon of the Muses, which included music, painting, sculpture, poetry and even architecture. However, commercialism, cheating, politics, even racism have threatened the integrity of the games. This was plainly seen with the games in Berlin in 1936, when Hitler tried to manipulate the games for his manic ideology.
After the 1940s the cultural aspect of the games was annulled because it seems brawn, money, name and fame took over the underpinning original ideals. Therefore, it is a great breath of fresh air to see that London has revived this more spiritual, humanistic and traditional aspect of the games. Hopefully it will continue into the next Olympics, due in Brazil in 2016, because the inner Olympics of the human spirit is as equally important, if not more so, than the physical events.
The poetry event organized in London is called Poetry Parnassus and includes the participation of poets from each of the 204 participating countries in the athletic Olympics. Verses are broadcasted on BBC and also are engraved on stone or metal or wood in Olympic Park.
Mt. Parnassus in Greece was the home of the nine muses who were the patrons of the arts and sciences. They were led by Apollo, the god of music, poetry, wisdom and healing. There was a particular muse for love, epic, and sacred poetry. Actually, the words we have -- "music," "museum," "musing," -- come from the word "muse." There was also a muse of comedy, Thalia. I wondered if the words "amuse/bemuse" have been created because of her. I did not find any evidence of such. Nonetheless, the Greeks had a very comprehensive set of gods and goddesses!
The most famous of the musicians and poets was Orpheus, the son of the muse Calliope and Apollo. Poetry and music were performed together. It is said that Orpheus' music and poems could soothe the wildest hearts and melt the deepest sorrows. He could even persuade the god of the Underworld, Hades, to restore his wife Eurydice back to life. Unfortunately, his desire to see her, which he was forewarned not to do until they were completely out of the underworld, sent her spiraling back to Hades, and Orpheus lost her forever.
Nowadays music and poems have separated to some extent, but still each of them carries the power to stimulate, uplift and heal the soul.
What is a poem? Well, many people would have many definitions and all would generally be credible. For me a poem opens a window to a special feeling and consciousness. A poem is an insight that is different from the norm but simultaneously comments on the norm but from another unheard, unseen, unimagined perspective -- words of insight that can transcend the banal and illuminate the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Each poem has its own music via the language that the poet uses. This is why only a very perceptive translator can capture the original spirit of a poem when translating from its mother tongue into another. It is very difficult, however, in the hands of an accomplished translator it is possible, which is why we have a precious access to diverse cultures, to their spirit, to their way of being.
A true poet can use words in a way that the ordinary person cannot. In many cultures the poet was regarded as a direct instrument of the Divine. He or she was a musician of words and through the rhythm of the language conveys the new, the hidden, and the unthought of. He or she could use idea, image and sound to create a vision in the mind and heart of a person. This vision of image, sound and idea could heal and please. However, such vision sometimes disturbed people, who could not comprehend or accept a poet's unique insight.
One of my favorite poets is Rupert Brooke, who died at the very young age of 27. About poetry he said: "There are only three things in the world-one is to read poetry, another is to write poetry, and the best of all is to live poetry!"
He was about 20 years old and certainly idealistic when he wrote this. He remained with a deep yearning for the ideal until his death. By living poetry he could have meant living a life that is real, true, creative and spontaneous beyond the mundane, beyond society's superficialities and illusions.
He was much esteemed at the beginning of the First World War, as he embodied the ideals of youth seeking a noble cause. The Great War provided that knightly, noble cause for him and other young men of that era. However, in retrospect, if had lived longer he would most certainly have realized how unrealistic and brutal that cause actually was. Youth always and naturally looks for a purpose and a way to make a significant contribution to life. Rupert expressed his sense of purpose and identity through these poems. When you read them you can feel how his existential confusion and sense of emptiness was, to some extent, healed through finding his purpose, or rather what he thought was his purpose. It seems he died unfulfilled, regarding himself a failure, still aspiring for that something more.
He was buried in Greece, the land of the muses. His most famous poem from 1915 until even today is recited at numerous service memorials for fallen soldiers. The poem is called "The Soldier," although he had originally called it "The Recruit," possibly a more apt expression of his attitude. His ideals died with him but remained preserved in his poems. He writes:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England...
People often think these lines are patriotic. Maybe, but on a deeper psychological level England symbolizes a sense of belonging, a desire for roots, a desperate attempt for identity with something. This is true of all of us. In fact, during his brief life he left England because he was sick and tired of it, and in this poem he seems to glorify it! People receive their sense of belonging from a country, culture, a relationship, a cause, an ideology and even from nature. Actually, Rupert's poem is more about the English countryside, which he loved, than anything to do with war. And he finishes the poem with the Platonic idea of "A pulse in the eternal mind..." After all is said and done he felt his ultimate destination was that. Certainly not the exemplary golden warrior that Churchill and others of the British propaganda war machine made him out to be. His highest ideal was to enjoy
... laughter, learnt from friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
Poems in a few lines, with an image or two, can jolt us into unexpected realizations. Emily Dickenson, who died a year before Brooke was born, was a master "jolter." Through her brilliant and sharp wit she is able to say in a few words what philosophers, theologians, politicians say in volumes.
For example, in her poem "Death and Immortality," she writes:
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me,
The carriage held but just Ourselves
Lost in our material existence, in the superficialities of mortality, we never think to stop, to reflect, to realize life. Death did that for her. To see Death as kind would have startled the people around her, as it still would today! For her, "Death" is not as bad as people think because it takes her into another space of consciousness: immortality.
Speaking about herself and introducing herself to someone she is humorously ironic about her sense of identity:
I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody too?
Then there's a pair of us... don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.
How dreary to be a somebody!
Society demands you are a somebody, but to be a social somebody is empty and meaningless. Actually this "somebody" is the true "nobody," one who lives in the falseness of social rituals. In all her poems Emily opens many new windows of perceiving -- sometimes humorous, sometimes existential, sometimes quaint but always stimulating.
Another very poignant poet is Yunus Emre, a Sufi mystic who lived about eight centuries ago in Turkey. His clear, wise thoughts make him accessible to all, even to us today. One of his poems pinpoints what it means to really know:
Knowledge means to know yourself, heart and soul.
If you have failed to understand yourself
Then all your reading has missed its call.
In these days of social media, in these days of explosive information, how does one manage all the knowledge? Where is the priority? What is important to really know? Yunus tells us: Understand who you are, otherwise all the reading and thinking is a real waste of time! Lack of spiritual self-awareness seems to have always been a problem even when there was no information age!
His quintessential insight on the power of words says it all:
A single word can brighten the face
Of one who knows the value of words.
Ripened in silence, a single word
Acquires a great energy for work.
One very well-known poetess who died this year is a marvel in the use of irony, juxtaposing seemingly ordinary, understated ideas that express striking truths. Like all poets, she said she needed solitude to create but emphasized solitude was not the same as isolation. Solitude connected her to the subtle realities of living.
Wislava Szymborska, called the Mozart of poetry, was a Noble prize winner of literature who lived through the sufferings and unimaginable situations of World War II in her native Poland. About her readers she said:
"I prefer my reader to take my poem and have a one-on-one relationship with it."
I do agree with her, for when you read a poem that touches you, there is the feeling that poem is for especially for you! It is a special gift.
Here are extracts from her poem "Possibilities," where she uses contrast and irony to ingeniously express her opinions about things:
I prefer myself liking people
To myself loving mankind ...
I prefer not to maintain
That reason is to blame for everything ...
I prefer the absurdity of writing poems
To the absurdity of not writing poetry ...
I prefer the hell of chaos to the hell of order.
I prefer Grimm's fairytales to the newspapers' front pages ...
I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility
That existence has its own reason for being.
So Wislava, thanks for sharing this gift. I also prefer writing poetry to not writing and fairytales to newspapers no matter how much some friends say it's absurd!
From the 21st century let's go back to the 8th century in China. There we find a great poet Wang Wei, who shared the stresses, rejections and confusions that we experience in our modern world. We can learn from him in the way he dealt with his issues as expressed via his poems. He was working for the Chinese civil service, promoted, demoted, arrested, imprisoned, and then acquitted, declared a traitor to the Tang government and then pardoned, as he had been wrongly accused. No wonder, deep in the silence of nature, his poetry, music and painting became the means through which he found a comforting refuge.
In nature he started to appreciate stillness. There, he prioritized what was truly important in his life. He began to cherish solitude, Buddha's teachings and especially his true friends to whom he would often write poems sharing his thoughts and feelings. Sharing the truest part of yourself with trusted friends is a great blessing. For example, that Keats and Shelley could share their poems was a great encouragement for each of them because the English society of their time greatly criticized and dismissed their poetic imagination. Now they are acclaimed as amongst the greatest stars in English literature, but then they were regarded as talentless outcasts. However between themselves and with a few others they found appreciation and support, otherwise it would have been unbearable, though still for the gentle Keats it often was.
For, Wei nature and true friends healed his wounds because nature and friends always offer another perspective to one's thoughts. His poem "In Answer" to a fellow poet expresses his freedom from the stresses of his work and responsibilities:
In these quiet years growing calmer,
Lacking knowledge of the world's affairs,
I stop worrying how the things will turn out.
My quiet mind makes no subtle plans.
Returning to the woods I love
A pine breeze rustles in my robes.
Mountain moonlight fills the lute's bowl,
Shows up what learning I have left ...
So why not write a poem to express your inner peace or insight? Why not compose a poem and gift it to either yourself or another person whom you appreciate? This creativity is not as difficult as we think, for we all have a poet inside us. In silence, sitting calmly anywhere, string some thoughts together, gently turning them in the mind and letting them be absorbed inside.
To show how it is done, let's take another poem of our friend Wei and you can see how. This short poem is called "Meditation":
Thin cloud. Light rain.
Far cell. Closed to noon.
Sit. Look. Green moss
Becomes one with your clothes.
The image dwells on his absorption in the green tranquility surrounding him. Using single thoughts and few words he communicates his feeling. His friends liked reading such poems.
Choose the words as they reflect your deeper feelings: one thought, one feeling at a time, no rush. As you sit mindfully in your room, in your garden, near a brook, in a forest and maybe even in your office, think of the special qualities of a friend, colleague, a spouse, a child, a kind doctor or nurse at a hospital, a shop assistant in the city, or you may ponder on the wonders of nature that inspire or comfort you.
In silence, think of the words and phrases that best describe any of these. When ready to write, you may take breaks in between the mindfulness and the writing. Then at the appropriate time, share with a person in person or "rain" them in cyberspace to as many friends as possible. If you feel you cannot write one, choose one poem and send it, although it is best to write it yourself. Emerge the inner poet that expresses the deepest and purest part of one's self. We cannot drop poems from helicopters, but through cyberspace we can rain and gift poems that can inspire, comfort, heal, acknowledge, express appreciation or even to share a laugh. We can send one poem to many or many poems to one. Cyberspace can rain; it can reach everywhere, anyone, anytime. It has its positive uses.
Let me end with a poem written by me whilst in a state of mindfulness, fascinated by observing and listening to time constantly circling, circling second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, season by season, and year by year:
I put my ear
to the Heart of Time
and heard in His Hands
Moment by moment
and breath by breath
All was repeated,
each birth and each death.
Moment by moment
and wheel by wheel,
Rupert Brooke; Eternal Poetry.
Reflections for Dawn, Day & Dusk: http://www.bkpublications.com/ProductDetails.aspx?ID=3712%20&prodCategory=Books
Discovering Spirituality: http://www.bkpublications.com/ProductDetails.aspx?ID=2810%20&prodCategory=Books
Remember: A Journey Back to the Essence: http://www.bkpublications.com/ProductDetails.aspx?ID=3893%20&prodCategory=Books
For more by Anthony Strano, click here.
For more on poetry for the soul, click here.