poem index

The Body of Poetry

Written by

Annie Finch
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Year

2007
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Since Romanticism, the dominant movement of poetry has consisted of a continual thrust to transcend the defining physical limitations of the art, from Wordsworth's jettisoning of "poetic" diction in favor of a language like that of a "man speaking to men," through the transcendence of meter in the free verse revolution and of the line in projective verse. The most recent stages of the process have been evident in the transcendence of voice in collage poetics and of syntax in fractal or disjunctive poetics, which now includes its own space for further transcendence: repeated breaks within the language plane itself.

During the same two centuries lyric poetry, like the other arts, has come partially to fulfill the role of religion in the spiritual lives of many educated secular humanists. As the individualized self has increasingly taken on a quasi-religious significance through the Romantic and Modernist movements (compare how ancient or even medieval poetry centered itself in social convention and allusions rather than the individualized perspective of the self), the structural bases of poetry have been reorganized to reflect a new emphasis on the experience of the individual soul, and on an aesthetics of transcendence as opposed to immanence. So, ironically, lyric poetry has itself taken on key spiritual and metaphysical characteristics of the dominant religious tradition. These unspoken assumptions have come to dominate both mainstream and "avant-garde" contemporary poetics, a situation with implications not only for the content of spiritually-oriented poetry, but also for poetics on a level deeper than that of religious content.

In contemporary free-verse anecdotal poetry, that mode which Ron Silliman, following Edgar Allan Poe, has called the "school of quietude," the apparent sincerity of the individual self, or soul, becomes the central transcendent poetic criterion, a site of spiritual fetishization. All other factors—form, diction, image, subject, tone—are subsumed in the service of this effect. On the other hand, in the case of much avant-garde poetry, including such experimental-spiritual poets as Fanny Howe and Ann Lauterbach, the spontaneous shapes of an increasingly disjointed poetry are conjured as a means to invoke the transcendent-inexpressible, a grace that defies and overwhelms language.

Both kinds of poetry gain authenticity in the reader's eyes to the extent that they appear to leave behind, or transcend, the "poem" as artifice, a crafted piece of language with its conventions of diction and rhythm and distinct, recognizable structural characteristics. Whether the spiritual self or its transcendent object is the center of a contemporary poem, in either case the sensual "body" of the poem, and the language that builds it, is beside the point, for both mainstream and avant-garde critics. Whether purged with Puritanical zeal of anything that disturbs the mundane linguistic flow with the reek of the "poetic" on the one hand, or "fractured," "fragmented," "ruptured" with tireless violence on the other, the poem's body has come to be despised by literary culture.

In what I have come to name as a Goddess-oriented spirituality, the attitude towards the body is the opposite to that in the mainstream Judeo-Christian tradition. Dirt, blood, sex, soul, earth, death, animal are not destined to be transcended; as direct embodiments of the immanent sacred, they by extension are sacred. The traditions of Christianity, Buddhism, and other religions may tell us mystically that God is present in everything ("I draw water, I carry wood; that is my prayer," said the monk in one of my earliest favorite stories), but the notion of the Goddess actually constitutes a physical presence. Not only is the Goddess of the world; the world is her manifestation. Though the transcendent god and the immanent goddess are complementary sides of the same human spiritual coin, their resonances are fundamentally different.

In a poetics of thealogy as opposed to theology, connections of shape and identity within and between poems are not accidental embarrassments, but crucial kinships. For one thing, the skeleton of pattern that creates coherence gives the ability for the self to let go of a single, ego-oriented identity within the larger identity of a patterned shape. Transcendence is not the only way out of the self; there are several ways to skin a soul. And the connection and difference between various poems' forms and shapes, like varieties of species, make evident the polyvalent nature of the sacred. In this context, to write a poem as a separately formed individual poem, united to others only in relation to a single abstract formlessness, would be to sacrifice the texture of specificity and the multiplicity of patterned and formal structures for what amounts to a sort of free-verse monotheism.

In contemporary literary culture, a powerful patterned formal poetic tradition is still strongly associated with the pre-feminist, male-dominated literary world of the 1950s. Not only are many feminists hesitant to write formal poems (although this has begun to change with the turn of the millennium); often, convoluted or reactionary motives are still attributed to those who do. My own motivation for writing in form is a product of creative innovation. An irresistible attraction towards the inevitably familiar pulls me with wordless single-mindedness towards something older than patriarchal poetics. This is what I consider "the Craft," to use an ancient term for an embodied devotion so passionate it attains the stature of religion in the service of the Goddess. When I invent a stanza, match a rhyme, ease a meter through, I feel spiritually connected to timeless traditions of crafts worldwide such as embroidery, weaving and pottery; I feel connected not only with pre-Raphaelite artisans or medieval scribes but with the makers of a Turkish carpet or Celtic brooch, expressing the central joy of worship by crafting a worthy object.

The poetics of immanent spirituality are more concerned with sustainability (which by nature—in the literal, organic sense of the term—suggests endurance) than with contemporary notions of progress. As I will define it, "goddess poetics" celebrate and are made of the playful and physical; I am led to linger in rhyme and repetition, to glory in the surprising artifices of poetry's body. These artifices of form provide a source of spiritual power in and of themselves. This spiritual imperative of the intrinsic pleasure of form, as I have understood it, has long drawn me to an oppositional poetics that grounds itself in the immanent particularities of poetic structure: pattern, repetition, spell, charm, incantation.