Once when I had a day off, I decided to spend the afternoon reading poetry. Time got away from me. My wife can home that evening and came back to the study. She took one look and said, “What is the matter?” (brief pause) “You’ve been fooling around with poetry again haven’t you?” I know how I felt, but I’m not sure what she saw. Maybe it was a distant look in my eye, some inward orientation, or perhaps my ear was tuned to some other-worldly beacon. Maybe I was just “visibly moved.” I know that for me, those moments of transcendence can leave me feeling somewhat “out-of-sync” with my surroundings. It may take me a while to get my bearings.
Hidden Beauty and Higher Callings
Consider what Percy Bysshe Shelley says of poetry: “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.” Is it any surprise that poetry can move the reader or listener to a world beyond space and time?
There are a number of poetic witnesses whose words can tip me over the edge. When Edna St. Vincent Millay says, “I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for death” or Emily Dickenson declares that “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul” my mind may shift into a higher frequency. When I hear William Shakespeare tell of riding away from the one he loves, I begin to move within that world. By the time I get to that last line, “My grief lies onward, my joy behind,” life is moving at a different pace and sounds have a new cadence. Hearing Bob Dylan sing “In another lifetime she must have owned the world, or been faithfully wed / To some righteous king who wrote psalms beside moonlit streams,” can make my spirit take flight in pursuit of those distant streams. Or consider those ominous words of William Butler Yeats in a poem set in wartime, “Those that I fight I do not hate, / Those that I guard I do not love.”
To quote Shelley once more: “A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.” Indeed, that eternal truth gives weight to our ordinary life. Of course, it is not always a question of transport to another realm during those times spent with poetic voices. Sometimes it is simply a feeling of joy or a recognition of longing. There may be a subtle illumination or an “aha moment” when a new insight is gained by seeing from another perspective.
During those times of transcendence, the coming back is just as important as the experience itself. Relative to this there is an old Christian saying, “He’s so heavenly minded that he’s no earthly good.” Likewise, there is a Buddhist saying often used in reference to new practitioners of meditation, “He stinks of Zen.”
Since I did not want to be caught “fooling around with poetry,” I did not want my wife to see me coming in the door with a new book of poems from the library. I made sure it was hidden among other things I was carrying and I surreptitiously moved the book to the back of the house post-haste. I left it on a table to wait for an opportune time.
Finding a Remedy to the Poetry Problem
My wife and I attended a Jungian workshop which explored various means of transcendence in different cultures (my wife is a licensed professional counselor and I enjoy Jungian studies, so that is an interest we share). There were discussions and film presentations of various religious rituals designed to achieve religious ecstasy. One thing that was addressed in the workshop was the importance of having someone skilled not only in achieving an altered state of consciousness, but also in assisting the practitioner back to a normal state after the experience is complete.
After one of the sessions my wife and I approached the workshop leader. We told her of my “problem with poetry” and asked how it might be managed. She gave what I thought was very sound advice. She suggested that I create my own ritual. It could be the lighting of a candle at the beginning and the extinguishing of the flame at the end of the reading – something to signify a beginning and an end. The ritual would serve as a kind of container for the experience, thereby easing the transition back to the everyday world.
Finding those moments of transcendence seems to be a universal human trait. Some find it in music, whether it be listening to a symphony or hearing one’s favorite hymn. Others may find it in dance, theatre, or other forms of the arts. John Muir spoke and wrote of the wonders of nature in explicitly transcendent and religious terms. There are multiple ways of finding transcendence. Even for one individual there are many ways to experience the wonder. However you get there, I’m all for it. Just be sure you come back to carry on with life and be with the ones you love.
A Defence of Poetry, by Percy Bysshe Shelley
“Conscientious Objector,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay
“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” (Poem 254), by Emily Dickinson
“Sonnet 50,” by William Shakespeare
“I and I,” by Bob Dylan (From Infidels)“An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” by William Butler Yeats