“A Sense of Presence”: Poetry and the Education of the Soul

From the Introduction to The Paraclete Poetry Anthology by Mark S. Burrows

Where do we find what’s lasting? Where do the deathless
things hide? . . . Maybe we’re not altogether alone in
our empty room, in our workshop: if so many writers
love solitude it may be because they’re not really all that
lonely. There really is a higher voice that sometimes—
too rarely—speaks. We catch it only in the moments of
our greatest concentration. This voice may only speak
once, it may make itself heard only after long years of
waiting; still, it changes everything.1

We are made for poems. As children, we come to them naturally, delighting in how words play on our tongues, whether in nursery rhymes and lullabies or the songs we make up in the delicious hours of daydreaming. In their early presence in our lives, poems are companions to us in the ways they lure us into the dance of speech. They are for us tools of discovery and expression, inviting us to delight in the newness of language, initially for their sounds but just as surely for their manifold senses—and the playful hesitations that come between.2 We are made for words and seem destined for poems, giving ourselves over to their allure long before we can read. With them, we learn to new-name the world: in our first speech, we discover our world with words—some real, many imagined—that help us negotiate our lives from day to day. Indeed, words seem to discover us in childhood, finding out what they are capable of through the unexpected ways we play with them. A word on children’s lips can be an epiphany—for themselves, for those around them, perhaps even for language itself. This is one of the ways poems live.

Sadly, we seem to drift apart from such enjoyments as we grow older. Poems can come to seem a luxury at best and an irrelevance at worst, driven as we are by the duties of work and ensnared in what Wordsworth more than two centuries ago memorably described as “the world” that is

. . . too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.

The problem is clearly not a new one. It is part and parcel of a form of life Wordsworth sensed, even if he could not have imagined how it might develop over the centuries of industrialization and the recent emergence of the “information age.” Yet he already knew the feeling we also experience in having “given our heart away, a sordid boon!”

A hundred years later, long before anyone could imagine the velocities of jet travel or the Internet’s conveyance of information at the speed of light, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke gave us a way of naming our plight:

My life is not this steep hour
in which you see me hurrying so. . .3

Speed has come to measure the outward shape of our experience, but Rilke knew that it had little to do with our inner core where we come to know ourselves as “the stillness between two sounds,” as he went on to put it. Even if the relentless tempo of our lives seems far removed from the temperament of our heart, our yearning for this sense of stillness suggests what philosophers and theologians have long named the soul.

As we grow older, the presence of young children reminds us of the purpose poetry might still hold for us. This happens in the quiet hours spent reading with them, or in those precious moments when we witness a child’s gleeful discovery of words. In the ways they seem instinctively attuned to the delight that words in their instrumentality play in our lives, children help us feel again the marvel of how words bring us what the poet Jane Hirshfield describes as “a doubled awareness,”4 expanding our sense of reality beyond the literal sense. Fr. John-Julian suggests this when he suggests how vision moves in two directions and with two intensities at once:

Eyes have I that see
behind the eye,
within the tree
above the sky . . .5

This ability to see “behind the eye,” to be carried by metaphor from the outer to the inner and back again, to imagine something as delightfully impossible as seeing “within the tree above the sky”: all this is what makes poems essential for the vibrancy and sanctity of life.

Notes for the Introduction

  1. Adam Zagajewski, “The Shabby and the Sublime,” in A Defense of Ardor, trans. Clare Cavanagh (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), 37, 44
  2. Paul Valéry speaks of poetry as “the prolonged hesitation between sound and sense,” a claim that plays on the close sounds in the French—i.e., “le son” (the sound) and “le sens” (the sense).
  3. Rilke, 168. This and other citations, unless otherwise noted, refer to this volume.
  4. Jane Hirshfield, “Strange Reaches, Impossibility, and Big Hidden Drawers,” in Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), 287.In the last of Rilke’s late Sonnets to Orpheus, he invites us to “go forth in this change, leaving and coming.” See below, 179.
  5. Hilde Domin, “Lyrik,” in Sämtliche Gedichte, 113 (my translation).
  6. Thurston, “The Sixth Day,” 84.
  7. Cairns, “Sacred Time,” p. 2. Charles Taylor speaks of this as a “sense of fullness”; see A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 5.
  8. Simone Weil, Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1951), 112.
  9. Robert Frost, “The Figure a Poem Makes,” in Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays (New York: Library of America, 1995), 777.
  10. On this theme and its relation to the arts, see George Steiner, RealPresences
  11. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 226ff.
  12. The phrase echoes the ancient Hebrew text Jesus invoked in the wilderness (see Matt. 4:1–4, and Deut. 8:3). Hilde Domin, “Die Heiligen,” in Nur eine Rose als Stütze. Gedichte (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer Verlag, 1994), 30 (my translation).
  13. Kamieńska, “On The Threshold of the Poem,” xxix.
  14. Jane Hirshfield, Hiddenness, Uncertainty, Surprise: Three Generative Energies of Poetry
  15. (Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 2008), 45, 49–50.
  16. Rilke, 180
  17. Zagajewski, 44.
  18. Rilke, 179.
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