Poetry's religious function

So once again I continue my unbroken string of not completing a series. I ought to be putting up Revenge of the Invisible Hand Part II right about now. I did start on it, but time and tide have sidetracked me.

For those of you who care, that series has a better chance of being finished then most of my uncompleted series. Though you would never know it from the way I started out in Revenge of the Invisible Hand Part One, the series relates to my personal feelings of self pity over the last year or so. Since those particular feelings show no sign of going away in hurry, the impetus to finish the series is likely to remain.

But today I am going to put aside my personal “tragedy” and offer up my observations on poetry in general.

Now normally I don’t like writing out my thoughts on poems. Analyzing a poem in prose almost misses the point poetry. If prose can capture and explain a poem in detail then the poem is nothing more then a glorified cross word puzzle. Such a poem is an unnecessary act whose only function is to make its author feel sophisticated.

On the other hand, good poetry takes you places and shows you things that are beyond the power of prose. This is a hard thing to articulate. You know good poetry when you see it but how can you explain it?

Someone I know argues that good poetry is a type of prophecy. I understand what he is saying, but I think that this is a poor choice of words for this day and age. When you say the word prophecy everyone understands you to mean the foretelling of the future.

This is not what poetry is about. If I tell you that the sun is going to rise tomorrow, that is not poetry, even though it is a type of foretelling.

But if you think of prophecy as speaking for the gods as opposed to specifically foretelling the future, then the idea that good poetry is prophecy is pretty close to the mark. To put it another way, good poetry is the giving voice to the formless things that are beyond our understanding.

Sometimes this giving voice to those formless things can seem prophetic in the Old Testament sense. One thinks of William Butler Yeats famous poem “The Second Coming.”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

When you read that poem and remember that it was written in 1919 you cannot help but remember that Stalin and Hitler did come and set themselves up according to a messianic type. The remorseless beast did arrive in Bethlehem so to speak.

Yet if Yeats had simply predicted the rise of men like Stalin and Hitler it would not have been poetry. “The Second Coming” still has power because we recognize that the formless beast is still striving to be born.

But the “prophetic” nature of most good poetry is not as evident as it is in Yeats poetry. Take Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” as an example…

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Now most people would not think of the above poem as being “prophetic” in any sense of the word. But then, most people do not seem to have a very good understanding of “Do not go gentle into that good night.” This quote from Wikipedia is sadly typical….

Thomas addresses wise men, good men, wild men, and grave, or serious, somber men all with the same message to pursue their passions even in the face of their mortality and impending death. The message is not to let your passions be compromised. However, we are subtly reminded throughout that their rage will be ineffectual in the face of death. It is one of his most popular, most easily accessible poems, and implies that one shouldn’t die without giving death a battle or fighting for your life.

What this quote from Wikipedia and many other analysis of this poem miss is what Dylan is referring to when he says “Do not go gentle into the good night.” It simply amazes me that people can read that line and think that Dylan is simply telling people to try to battle death and stay alive.

To me, it seems obvious that Dylan’s phrase “going gentle into the good night” is referring to the ideal of peace in death that most Christians hold. After all, Dylan grew up in conservatively religious rural town in Wales. In such an environment, you would be expected to face death calmly and profess that you were ready for it. To rage against death in the way that Dylan demands would be to rage against all the values that such a community held dear.

Dylan is not up holding his rage as something will help you live longer. Nor is he giving you some kind of pap about how life is good and you should cherish it. Instead, he is holding up his rage as something that is better then the peace of those who go gentle into the night. In other words, Dylan is not writing out a prescription to help you live longer, he is writing out a moral imperative.

Once you understand what Dylan saw as the alternative to his rage and how his poem is demanding obedience to a moral imperative, you can how his poem is “prophetic.” Not prophetic in the sense of foretelling the future, but prophetic as in speaking the word of his “god” to an unbelieving people.

I have been stressing the “religious” nature of good poems in spite of my ambivalence over the use of such terminology. Such terminology can all too easily become a barrier to communication. But it can’t be helped. True art and religious thought are twins that can never be separated. So it is hard to talk seriously about one without talking about the other.

These two subjects can never be separated because the core of both “art” and “religion” revolve around the subject of meaning. You can not prove that this is meaningful or that this is not. Yet your understanding of what is meaningful and what is not meaningful governs how you live.

What gives your life meaning is your “god” regardless of whether you profess to believe in one or not. The meaning you attach to things reveals what your “god” is like no matter who you profess to believe in or what you say he is like. We get so hung up on names that we neglect the reality of people’s actions.

Put it another way, there is no gulf between the gods of the pagan Norse of long ago and the gods of Dylan Thomas. Both the Norse pagans and Dylan Thomas had a conception of what was meaningful that is almost indistinguishable. To argue that Dylan Thomas was an atheist while the Norse were polytheistic is to get hung up on meaningless words. The sprit that speaks through them both is the same even if the words are different.

That is not to say that all good poetry accomplishes the same “religious” function. More importantly, it does not mean that all poets attribute the same meaning to things. In other words, good poets can have completely different “religions.” But if you hold that good poetry is meaningful, then you should acknowledge that good poetry is in some sense “religious”.

As people who have followed my writings know, I believe that everyone is “religious.” To use a more commonly accepted philosophical terms, I believe that “existential” issues governs our reasoning process. To my mind, there is no such thing as a man whose core beliefs have been derived by reason. Rather, what man can reason is limited by his beliefs.

This is why I have been making a big deal about the “religious” function that poetry serves. To my mind, good poetry deals with the existential issues that shape how we can reason. Thus, I feel that good poetry provides a truer view into why people believe what they believe then a well reasoned polemics.

But that raises the question: If good poetry is the exploration of the existential issues that govern our thoughts, how can we understand poetry that comes from a “religious” (or existential if you prefer) starting point that differs from our own? But that question will have to wait for another day. I am already running out of time.

3 Responses to “Poetry's religious function”

  1. […] _uacct = “UA-1202685-1”; urchinTracker(); Map of the Ethereal Land The Ethereal Voice Front Page – Politics – Money – Knowledge – Art – Food – Fun Masthead About Poetry’s religious function By Ape Man | September 30, 2007 – 7:26 pm Posted in Category: Art So once again I continue my unbroken string of not completing a series. I ought to be putting up Revenge of the Invisible Hand Part II right about now. I did start on it, but time and tide have sidetracked me. For those of you who care, that series has a better chance of being finished Click Here to continue reading. […]

  2. […] My feeling of awkwardness is further compounded by my dogmatic insistence that good poetry conveys something that is beyond the ability of prose. Naturally, I feel inadequate to talk about good poems with mere prose. And when I do talk about poetry with prose it almost seems like an implied insult. […]

  3. […] Most of us who run the Ethereal Voice are sick this week. So not with standing the Ape Man’s theories on the subject, we just don’t have the stamina for deep poetry. So this week we are going to read a good old-fashioned epic poem. […]

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