A Poem that Desires: Changing the Secular/Sacred Conversation

A Poem that Desires: Changing the Secular/Sacred Conversation

March 25, 2014

Last month, along with 12,000 or so other writers, I attended AWP in Seattle, WA—an annual conference that draws poets, editors, prose writers, and agents from all over the world. One thing I was pleasantly surprised by this year was the overwhelming representation of “writers of faith.” Several magazines, including Ruminate, were addressing questions of faith—the sacred, the spiritual, whatever you want to call it—and there were a number of panels that focused on the divide between “secular” and “sacred” and how to overcome or negotiate that divide. Now, I really appreciate this conversation; I think it’s an important one. But, I’m also ready to move past it.

One reason I think “writers of faith” need to move beyond this conversation is that it often turns to thematic concerns. Should one use the word “god” in a poem and if so should it be capitalized? Or, will “secular” magazines accept work that investigates historical biblical figures or discusses spiritual darkness? These are all valid concerns, but I believe they are, at best, superficial ones that stem from a deeper and more ambiguous issue: how is the poem itself spiritual? Let’s ignore for a moment the secular/sacred dichotomy and talk about how the writing of a poem is an act of desire, and that this desire is the same one that reaches out toward the other, the sacred, the little or big “g,” “God.” If this is the conversation we engage in, not only is there no need for the secular/sacred divide—it doesn’t even exist.

So how is the poem an act of desire? Well, let me start by unpacking what I mean by desire. When I say desire, think longing. When I say longing, think eros. Yes, this yearning is erotic. The faith that your yearning is not in vain is erotic. But before I go further, it's important to note that eros has become a muddied word in our culture, one of many we must reclaim and follow back to its source. Poet and essayist Anne Carson does the best job at defining eros: it is a verb that awakens in the lover a “nostalgia for wholeness.” Eros teaches the soul to long for its completion and its wholeness, through love for another. However, this process of recognizing the hole in your self means that you have to also recognize that the beloved is always just beyond your grasp, that you can never be whole, merely (w)hole. It is our human condition to reach out toward what might fill this hole, even though we are never, wholly, successful.

Writing, then, is reaching. As I write the poem, I have no idea where it is going to lead me, or if it will lead me anywhere. If I do know, then that isn’t the poem I need to be writing. Otherwise I will run into the same problem I see with some faith traditions: blind certainty. If I already know the answer, what is the use in asking, or living the question, as Rilke says? If I continue to write toward uncertainty then, it is an act of faith—faith that somehow language can reach beyond my own limits. This reaching mirrors my desire for God, in fact, it is my desire for God. Writing a poem is a body-spirit act, inseparable and hopelessly entwined: it is erotic. As I reach toward the mystery of the poem, I reach toward the mystery of the divine.

What is at the end of this reaching? Doubt. After I have written a poem that feels like it has arrived somewhere unexpected, I am overwhelmed by doubt: will I ever write a poem “like this” again? The answer is, of course, yes but also no. This acknowledgement of doubt knocks me off-balance, reorients my perspective. The only way out of it is to keep writing, to extend my reach further and further, in hopes that my fingertips might again brush the hem of that presence.

I can see why we’re not having this conversation: it’s hard, and it’s ambiguous. It probably sounds a little weird, too. But I do think we need to use the foundation established by these other conversations to dig into that ground, blind as moles, and trust our reach.


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