By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah
17 Aug 2017
What is the Faith of Poets? Isn’t poetry a species of faith? Poets open up another window to the Divine.
“One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.” Goethe
If one is sad for no reason or has suffered any humiliation or tragedy or one wishes to enjoy travel, nature, friendship or meals better, or one seeks special modes of worshipping or thanking the Divine or anyone we value, read poetry. If one is hankering after a Master, consider taking some help for finding the same from poetry. If one is seeking to heal some strain in relationship with anyone one holds dear, ask poets for help. If one wishes to treasure a great experience or a simple routine work or little tasks that constitute our lot, poets show how and why. If one seeks to taste something from the otherworldly joys here and now, have a lasting truce with the God one imagined during childhood, taste the rare joy of forgiving everyone unconditionally, laugh away every care or sorrow, celebrate love in a lovelier way, consider reading poets. If we want to appreciate the magical or better miraculous character of the world we better approach it through the lens of poetic language and see how words can do wonders – heal us, lift us high above the horizons, cheer us, reveal ourselves to us. Every human is potentially a poet – as children everyone lives poetry – though not all write poetry or keep the poet in them alive with age.
When any intense experience, like deep sorrow or ecstasy, touches us, one may spontaneously switch on the poetic mode of being. In Kashmir almost every woman traditionally composed poetry on experiencing death in family that consoled her. We, in Kashmir, have traditionally been in love with the poetry of Alamdar or Lalla or Sufi poets. It is poetry that in one or the other form (poetry and music were one and the same originally) constitutes the language of worship in major religions and all scriptures have used the power of poetry for their own ends which are ultimately not different from – or at least not incompatible with – the end of poetry. To be is to be open to the Muse that is Being that calls forth our response – we are required to sing to express the joy that is the gift of being. To live a fulfilling life requires keeping wondering, transcending, perfecting, creating – or live poetic mode of existence. Poetry begins with the surrender of the self to the Beauty/Love/Other/Muse (corresponding to Islam) and culminates in creating/manifesting more beauty or perfection (corresponding to Ihsan as Husn Paeda Kerden) in any experience/work. Humans have begun with poetry as their original language and it is only in later decadent times that prose was invented. Traditionally people have been using language suffused with poetry – one may note, for instance, traditionally Kashmiri women using great figurative language in not only laeli (mourning songs) and slang but in ordinary conversation as well. People seem to have progressively forgotten poetry of language and their poetic dwelling and essential connection between poetry and thinking. Fear or neglect of metaphor is a modern heresy and evidence of impoverishment of our understanding of language and its higher functions. In Kashmir we have a tradition of slang (that has especially been appropriated and elaborately developed by certain Sufi circles) that makes ingenious use of symbolism – for instance such supposedly abusive expressions as Paye Traeth and Payei Taember are really prayers for encounter with/descent of the Divine in addressee’s life. Proverbs and most of folk expressions are poetically inflected.
All natural/cosmic rhythms and key natural processes have an element of music or lead to silence that draws us to the transpersonal depths of the Self/ Being. Rituals too appropriate this music and that partly explains their efficacy. Elaboration of practices of Zikr, Sama, Awrad, Durood etc. involve using the poetic or musical dimension of language. Pervasive presence of na’t in Islamic cultures means sacred use of language is not ignored. Quranic recitation is itself a great substitute for/complement to more familiar modes of poetic recitations that invokes and evokes sacred understanding of poetry. How sacred and poetry are closely intertwined in Islamic cultures may be gleaned by review of the practice of writing poetry/commenting on poetry or sacred poetry from the time of Companions to stalwart Ulema of Deoband and other traditional seminaries. Islamic culture is essentially a poetic culture (even the best of Muslim philosophy seems to have done by poets or poet-philosophers) that gave rise to the great poetic expressions in many traditional Islamic languages including the Persian and Urdu. Sacred connections of the science of Urooz are well known to the scholars of literature and mysticism.
Poetry is mankind’s chief arsenal against life’s weal and woe and a tool for developing consciousness of resistance against injustice. “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.” To be a social activist or a true citizen in the Greek sense that Plato explained is not possible for those who are not poets at heart. This is what Mary Karr said “Poetry is for me Eucharistic. You take someone else's suffering into your body, their passion comes into your body, and in doing that you commune, you take communion, you make a community with others.”
Poetry involves use of Imagination and in that sense isn’t restricted to the particular class of people ordinarily called poets. In his “A Defence of Poetry” Shelley has used poetry in wider sense that encompasses every sensitive imaginative response to the world. When you leap up on seeing a child smile, a bird sing, sun rise or stars shine, that is poetry. Poetry is “awaiting perpetually and forever a renaissance of wonder.” It has been well said that “The only thing that can save the world is the reclaiming of the awareness of the world. That's what poetry does.” Poetry seeks, as Formalist school points out, to defamiliarise the world and thereby makes it liveable, meaningful. Religion and mysticism also are directed at reclaiming awareness of Reality. In fact sorrow is distance from reality as Simone Weil put it, and poetry gives us access to reality and not an escape from it. “Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives” as Audre Lorde noted.
Edith Sitwell said that poetry is the deification of reality. I think more proper expression is sacralisation of reality and the proper language then is that of myth. Fiction is true in human terms though in non-human scientific terms, it falls short of correspondence to facts. And humans need human truths to keep living and that is why myths are so significant to human culture and it is another function of poetry to make accessible mythic truth.
Recovering poetic dimension of our lives would put an end to poverty that exists amongst the rich more than the official poor. This is what probably explains Rilke when he said “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for the Creator, there is no poverty.” Hazlitt put the same point thus: “He who has a contempt for poetry, cannot have much respect for himself, or for anything else.” So if you find anyone who ignorant of poetry, have pity on him and help him/her to treat cataract of the eye of soul.
What distinguishes the poet’s way of seeing the world from the non-poetic way? Wallace Stevens answers succinctly: “A poet looks at the world the way a man looks at a woman.” Although religious way of seeing the world ultimately converges with this poetic way – and aesthetic and mystical impulses are united to begin with – many in the modern world would resist religious label and embrace “conversion” to the Way of the poet – it is the poet who shows the track of fugitive gods as Heidegger seeks to emphasize. Thus even Russell can say: “The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as poetry.” Eliot points out why we need poetry: “Poetry may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives is mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.”
Poetry saves by helping escape the personality through love that the poet invokes and evokes and this saves us from life’s sting as Neruda would say elsewhere. Poetry sells beauty and wonder of being and in the holy sanctuary of our own being accessible to those who have transformed ego to let the other seep in and universalize consciousness that is a joy and serenity of spirit attaining which is, in a way, the end of ethic. Poetry is an alchemical art – alchemy of happiness – which is the common project of religion, mysticism and philosophy as well.
Poetry helped save the faith of no less a person than Iqbal. After reading likes of Hafiz and Bedil and Wordsworth and Holderlin and Rilke one can’t afford conventional cut and dry atheism. Something of the Sacred invoked in and evoked by the Romantic poetry finds believers amongst new atheists such as Dawkins. Art and nature are revelations even for the secularists and understanding them aright leads one to the border of Book centric revealed religions. If one is truly a poet, one is a believer of a sort. Poets show to those who supposedly don’t know God or religion the path to heaven.