In April, I took part in National Poetry Month (NaPoWriMo) -- the challenge to write a poem every day throughout April -- in a slightly different way than usual. I did InternaPwoWriMo, the brainchild of Geof Huth, a poet and creator of pwoermds and visual poetry. I was invited by minimalist and visual poet Stephen Nelson to join in, as was Andrew Philip, and various other poets I've got to know through Facebook. I'm really glad I did it. The act of creating pwoermds -- poems made of single words which are themselves made up of two or more existing words -- got me thinking not only of their helpfulness in writing poems, but also in thinking about faith, spirituality and contemplation (as an aside, April also started me off thinking about contemplative prayer as a spiritual discipline). Here's a couple of things which Stephen wrote to me on Facebook, in response to my post yesterday, which he's kindly given me permission to post here. I think they set a good context for the rest of this post:
Yea, interesting. I liked it. Will follow your thoughts as you post them. What gets me really at the moment is how beyond conception God is, let alone language. The Bible and the idea of the Trinity are a framework to approach and seek to explore what is really beyond conceiving. Which is a paradox, I know, and leaves us perhaps wondering: why bother? But just because you can't conceive of something or express what it is, doesn't mean you can't experience It. All of which is very zen and that's where my mind is - heading for a limitless expanse, a void filled with love (how paradoxical is that?) which I call Jehovah of Hosts, but which is so much more/less. As for poetry, I feel myself floundering if I try to write religious poetry. I frame my experience in religious terms, sometimes Christian, sometimes Buddhist or Hindu, but language itself when applied minimally feels like the tiny key I need to get a glimmer of that space, which is why I like the minimalist Robert Lax, a friend of Thomas Merton, and Merton himself, who in his essays comes closest to expressing the inexpressible.
One more thing. A system of belief, what I think you referred to as dogma, has its uses, but is limited and can be abused when applied too rigidly, but ultimately has to be transcended by a direct, contemplative experience. You probably know that. And the minimalist type of prayer - short, repetitive - which relates to minimalist poetry, is an excellent way to enter that contemplative space. I don't think you have to believe "the right things" to be loved and accepted by God. His love is unconditional and only has to welcomed as the ego dissolves under it's influence.
I'm completely in agreement with Stephen here. I won't comment on his words too much; they speak for themselves. But they do provide a good background to some thoughts I had during my time creating pwoermds. The other thing which provided a basis for my thinking was hearing Ira Lightman -- conceptual poet, artist and a good friend -- on BBC Radio 3's programme The Verb, talking about fonts and their use in artwork. One aspect of his work is creating art installations for public spaces, and fonts are used heavily in them. The font is far more than just a letter in a pretty style. The letter itself is more than just something in the English alphabet. It's an image. It consists of straight lines and curves, shapes, serifs perhaps. Some letters close in on themselves to create new geometric shapes. If we come to the letter 't' completely fresh, forgetting that it symbolises 'toast', we might say (to use religious imagery) it's a cross shape, and that cross is attached at its base to an upside-down shepherd's staff, or an umbrella handle. What might that mean? If we take the letter 'e', we might say that the semi-circle at the top symbolises the rising sun, maybe, and the 'tail' underneath is its reflection, which isn't quite complete because the water has broken up the line.
In listening to The Verb, I was reminded that not only a poem, not only a word, but a letter, which so often apparently equals a thing ('t' is for 'toast', of course) is merely a representative symbol. No wonder poets distrust language. As much as we love it, can language ever really 'equal' or perfectly represent anything? That's why we try to 'make it new', to use Ezra Pound's phrase. We manipulate, play around, stitch sounds and words together to create new meanings, sometimes ridding them of their original meanings while we're at it. Because received language, what we've been told does this and that, is not quite good enough.
The act of making new pwoermds (you can see some of my efforts in April's blog posts) reminds me that language is actually completely fluid. In order to agree on what something means, we require agreement about what it means. People attach meanings to symbols all the time, and letters are a perfect example. In most of our minds, they tend to 'mean' something only when they're part of words. And words only 'mean' a given thing to a given number of people (in slang, 'bad' might be 'good', a 'wicked bloke' might be 'a very nice bloke, actually.') That sounds like a painfully obvious point, but in creating brand-new words, I was reminded that words and letters are in fact found, manipulatable, permeable objects. That's an exciting prospect for a poet, forefront in my mind recently, and has all led me to get fairly tired of the ability of everyday communicative language (even poetry, if you like) to do what we think and say it's doing.
Maybe we should see words as objects of contemplation. Mark Rothko (an atheist, I believe) wanted us to view his paintings that way, and if you've spent any time in the Rothko room at The Tate Modern, you might think (as I do) they perform that function perfectly. They're doors and windows into an unsettling, brooding experience. You can't quite put your finger on what the paintings are doing, but it's tangible. Paradoxically, Rothko was 'religious' in the sense that he believed in art as the vessel for the viewer's experience, embodied in a painting incarnationally. To my mind (and this was further confirmed during the conference), maybe 'religious poetry' has less to do with piety (not forgetting that how to remain holy and be a good poet was a major subject for John Donne) than craft, technique, ways of working, aesthetic.
One idea talked about in the conference was poetry as 'incarnation'. The word became flesh. Well that's what words do, isn't it? Christians believe that God was carried by humanity: the Word, God, was carried by a human body (again, we get so pedantic about how this is expressed, but you get the idea). Words do that: contain something 'other', something mysterious. God, or an emotion, or a thought. So words are carriers, vessels. 'Orange' is not an orange. It's just a container for the idea, or the object, of an orange, or the colour orange, or a mobile phone company. Like I said, as soon as we decide a word definitely means something, as opposed to something else, we'll be disappointed unless we can become more accomodating, and realise what it also means.
Some conference speakers also talked about the word as 'sacramental object', and the writing of a poem as a sacramental act. Words don't simply represent things. They physically embody realities which can only be grasped with the spirit. This sounds rather like 'no ideas but in things' (Wallace Stephens), or even 'the devil is in the details', which strangely subverts the ancient idea of 'God in all things.' (See? Language is fluid.) That's another way to view words, then: not as descriptors (here's where adjectives start to sound rather boring and useless) but as sacramental signs. We handle words carefully because they represent, embody, enact, point towards. They transubstantiate, become flesh, in our minds. Or we hope they will, at least. We hope that the word 'tree' becomes a tree in a reader's mind, or we don't bother with it. If we think it won't, we'll use something more specific, like 'Birch.'
'Cross'; 'blood / wine'; 'body / bread'; 'water / grave' -- these are tried and tested symbols, established sacramental signs Christians believe were given to them by Christ. But poets could be understood to have seen in the world -- possibly even created -- new ones, either through placing existing symbols in a new context, or (and this is where pwoermds come in) creating brand-new words which 'embody' a host of meanings. In this way, no word obviously means what springs to mind immediately. Meaning is not a given. Indeed, a pwoermd doesn't really claim to mean anything except for what its composite parts suggest. A pwoemrd, like any good poem, is an open book: it suggests, hints, and in doing so, moves us, shocks us, makes us laugh.
So, to use a religious analogy, maybe, just maybe, some of our more familiar words 'preach' too much? Maybe we need to think about them as pliable materials, like clay (which, interestingly, is another Biblical motif, symbolising new life, flesh, formation). Maybe we need to think of them as vessels for something other: word made flesh. Maybe we need to think of them as as transformed by their context, like objects in the sacramental act. Since April, one of my preoccupations has been the question: aren't we all just scrambling and unscrambling letters, playing Scrabble, in the hope of getting a good score (whether that be socially, or in terms of personal epiphanies)? The reality of God, if you believe it, cannot be described. It cannot be explained. Neither can anything 'other', anything ethereal. But might we be able to embody these ideas, carry them, point our minds to contemplate them? Maybe that's what language is for.
All this brings me back to Stephen Nelson's words at the beginning. Poems, words, letters: they're all framework. It's what they point towards that counts. That's why poets have so much fun manipulating them, stretching them, mixing them up, juxtaposing them. In themselves, they're a bit slippery and untrustworthy. Writing a poem makes them bend to our own will. (That's where Donne is torn, since he also wants to live under God's will; but we got some fascinating poetry out of his struggle.)
So I've hinted at John Donne. In my next post, I might look at him, and two or three other poets, who use these 'religious' ideas as a framework for their own craft. As usual, I'll be responding as a reader and writer, not an expert scholar. For now though, have a look at some of Stephen's work, which manipulates words and images, making us wonder what the difference really is between the two. Then go and see Ira's work, conceptual poetry in which fonts and words are transformed into imagery, which is then tranformed into physical, tactile objects.