Poetry as a Spiritual Practice

Writing, by its very nature, is contemplative. You have to slow down long enough to put words on paper (or in pixels on your screen), and that requires a certain amount of conscious effort.

As such, it is a very useful tool for self-discovery. That’s what this course is about.

Too many of us have the idea that writing is a magic process achieved only by geniuses.

This is what I call the Zeus complex. In Greek mythology, Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, had a very unusual birth. It started with a headache. Zeus had a terrible pain in his brain. His head was throbbing, his brow pressing in on him, his whole head wrapped in pulsing pain, and he couldn’t get rid of it — until he put his hands to his temples and concentrated. Then, in a burst of energy, Athena popped out of his skull, fully formed — the Goddess of Wisdom with her helmet, shield and flowing robe. 

Too often, writers (especially inexperienced ones) think this is how writing happens. They think they have to have a clear idea of what they want to say, and then they just should write it down, miraculously finding it fully formed on the page. 

But that’s not how writing happens.

The writing process is complex and recursive. Attempts to break it down into stepwise actions such as pre-writing, writing, and rewriting are inevitably, uselessly simplistic.

Writing is not so much a means for recording what you think as a way of figuring out or developing your thinking. A better metaphor than the spontaneous birth of the Goddess of Wisdom would be chasing a rabbit. The idea is out there, hopping around, and you try to follow it. It may disappear into a hole occasionally, but then it is likely to pop up again from some unexpected direction. You have to pay careful attention to the wandering thought, seek it out, but not kill it before it makes its destination known. 

Some people have a similar idea that spirituality, too, happens by divine intervention.

But true spiritual wisdom comes from careful cultivation of the ability to be open. This is why great sages go off on vision quests. They have to train themselves to be ready for the insight that they hope will strike them. 

Often this training involves prayer or meditation, but one possible practice — indeed, one of the best — is poetry. In this context, we are not concerned with literary merit, with publication or accolades, but rather just trying to use the skill of writing poetry to develop habits of perception. 

This course is about developing a spiritual practice that will help us to better understand and appreciate our own situation. It’s kind of like an overweight person making a decision to lose weight. It requires motivation, but also planning and dedication. 

It’s also true that taking on this kind of self transformation happens better in a context of support. In developing our skills as poets, we also develop our skills in supporting each other, in careful listening and developing the skills to offer meaningful feedback. 

Many years ago, one writing teacher of mine used a metaphor that has stuck with me ever since: the workshop is like a wood stove, where putting a new log on a bed of coals may keep a fire going, but if you put a bunch of sticks in together, they will help each other ignite and burn hotter. 

This is why this course has to be interactive, with participants present in real time (even if virtually on a small screen), so that we can feed each other and feed off of each other. 

I hope that you might consent to join me in the process. 

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