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  • Grounding the Spirit
  • Rod Jellema (bio)

I'm not going to say much in this piece about the big word Spirit, capital-S, the third person of the Trinity. I want to get into some thinking about the derivative word spirit, lower-case-s, and then what I think the two words mean for the making of poems.

In the many good years I have spent with students in poetry writing workshops, I have not thought of myself as one who could instruct them in how to write poems. A poem cannot be constructed from a blueprint; poems take shape through creative processes in which language can crystallize into a whole, poem. I invited them into a process that I was learning: start with a hunch for a phrase or an image; let the imagination move, very freely at first, through a creative process that makes something you did not quite know when you started, trusting words to generate more words, bringing a body to life.

But one of the impediments to their getting into the work and flow of the process was that tricky word spirit. The temptation for some of them was simply to wait for the spirit—or "my muse"—to act. Once a poem that's only directed or felt is on paper, any advice toward its revision would be something like an affront to "the inspiration." Workshop discussion would be, if not irreverent, irrelevant.

I somehow escaped having to work in classes with poems really attributed to the upper-case big-S Spirit. The students sensed that instant poems with such claims to their origin might be weak; it wouldn't do having almighty God the Creator, who was not on the class list, blamed for inferior poems.

But the students caught up in the popular wave of New Age spirituality (lower case) made the art of free creative workshopping even tougher. Why not accept as inviolable the words that tumbled into place in the first draft? I would have to trust that such students, catching the aliveness in assigned canonical poems, would look for something like the same kind of aliveness in each other's work. They would not find it, I knew, in "it-just-came-to-me" poems but in poems, likewise miraculous, coming out of a creative process—starting without theme or idea, fed by leaps of imagination, undergoing expansion and contraction, using the self-generating energies of words as well as final unifying and crafting. The poems thus created would show the others to [End Page 255] be, in comparison, stale and generalized. Thus workshopping could go on.

There's another problem about contemporary "spiritualist" poetry that surfaces more slowly. Although it is sometimes movingly meditative and can fold itself into a long and distinguished meditative tradition, such a poem can also be so deeply personal, isolated, and inward-dwelling that there are no people in its realm—only a lonely "I" who writes it. The readers of such poems tend to genuflect toward their poet, but then to envy her spiritual otherworldliness from a lonely distance. The solipsism fits in with characteristic American individualism, here thought to lead to self-enlightenment as well as to self-made "success." Each individual must seek out the inner light or the inner self, and apparently you can take your pick. G. K Chesterton a century ago saw that as no choice at all:

That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean Jones shall worship Jones. . . . Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man has not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, with astonishment and enthusiasm. . . .

But the present strain of the meditative voice often says only:

Twinkle twinkleLittle star,How I wonderWho I am.

New Age spiritualism is not always individuals in isolation. But when New Age meditation and contemplation draw people together into groups, the occasions are called "retreats." Often, "spiritual retreats." To achieve spiritual experience, the seekers withdraw from a materialistic world they take to be dulled by immature and outmoded beliefs. But retreats are not workshops. The products of meditation can be shared...


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