Writing a Poem is a Confrontation with the Unknowable

It’s been a long time since I believed in a god like the biblical one I learned as a child that I was supposed to love and fear, respect and obey. I’ve written a little bit about why I stopped believing, and I’ve written out of, though I have not precisely named, my deep sense of irony at having become a translator of Sufi poetry, which concerns itself almost solely with how to reach that kind of god through love. I have not, however, written anything about the process of trying to make sing in English a poetry rooted in something that I do not feel—though I suppose the phrase “do not feel” is not entirely accurate.

When I was a young teenager, I knew I wanted to be a religious Jew, and I was pretty sure I wanted to be a rabbi. In pursuit of this ambition, I left public school after 7th grade and attended the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County (HANC), an orthodox Jewish day school that had a program for kids like me who came from non-religious homes. While my years at HANC eventually cured me of my religious yearnings—something I will write about another time—I do remember what it felt like to want to be religious, to be close to God (which I am capitalizing here because that is his name in English), and to live a life infused with the meaning of that closeness.

One of the lessons I learned at HANC that has remained with me all these years is the importance of performing religious obligations with kavana,with the appropriate intent. I don’t think of it in religious terms anymore, but it does matter to me as a poet, not because I think of poetry as my religion, but because, for me, writing a poem is a confrontation with the absolutely unknowable, with what it is impossible to express fully in language, in a way that feels analogous to what I imagined a confrontation with God would be like when I believed in him, and so perhaps it is also analogous to what that confrontation is for those who believe in him now. The nature of one’s intent in pursuing this confrontation matters, I think, because intent inevitably shapes content.

A Sufi might say that finding this analogy is a first step along the path—“path” being the metaphor the Sufis use for the process of achieving enlightenment—and I would probably answer that I do not consider myself a seeker in those terms. Nonetheless, it is this analogy that has allowed me to appreciate both the wisdom and the beauty in Sa’di’s overtly religious poetry and to find the words within myself to help those poems to sing in English. Here is the beginning of this week’s Sa’di Says, the passage illustrated in the picture above, which is from an Indian manuscript of Sa’di’s Golestan:

A man of God immersed himself in meditation. When he emerged from the vision that was granted him, a smiling companion welcomed him back, “What beautiful gift have you brought us from the garden in which you were walking?”

To read the rest, click here.

(Cross-posted.)

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One Response to Writing a Poem is a Confrontation with the Unknowable

  1. 1
    RonF says:

    One of the lessons I learned at HANC that has remained with me all these years is the importance of performing religious obligations with kavana,with the appropriate intent.

    This jumps out at me, because it is something I have had problems with. I belong to an Episcopal Church parish, and our liturgical tradition is Anglo-Catholic. That means that we tend to be somewhat traditional and elaborate, especially on the holy days like Pentecost, Easter, Advent, Christmas, etc. Robes all the time, incense and chanting and all that. As I am in the choir and have a decent speaking voice as well I can be pretty busy. I’ll end up singing 4 hymns, a Prelude/Introit, an Offertory Anthem, a Communion Anthem, a Recessional, all the service music, chanting the Psalm, and so forth and read the Prayers of the People to boot. We’re up there whispering questions to each other, reminding each other of how we are to handle a particularly difficult musical phrase, making the occasional snarky remark on the sermon, etc.

    Sometimes you’re so busy making sure you’re doing it right and sounding the best you can for the parishioners that you forget you’re there to worship. To talk to God. Making your way through a 16th century polyphonic motet without making one serious mistake takes a lot of concentration. You find yourself thinking about that instead of the prayers that come next.

    The nature of one’s intent in pursuing this confrontation matters, I think, because intent inevitably shapes content.

    I’m sure it does. I’m a technical guy. I tend to approach things from a technical viewpoint. And there is technique to music just as I’m sure there is to poetry – but if you let that be the primary focus of your approach you’ll not have music and I suspect you’ll not have poetry. I have to remind myself of that every so often.

    Thanks for the reminder.

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