How to Make a Soul with Poetry

The following is an essay I wrote last year, when I was still trying to think mostly in terms of reading poetry and less about living life.  It's not what I'm into so much these days, but I think it's still a damn good perspective on the proper use of poetry-- and it supplies some of the historical background of my thought, for those who are interested.  


How to Make a Soul with Poetry


When we speak of our souls, we often take them to be given, stable entities.  We usually consider them as existing things which might be moved or untouched, saved or lost, but we do not speak of them as things which could be as-yet-unformed, as things to be made.  Yet John Keats, in an 1810 letter to his brother, proposed that we consider this world as "'the vale of Soul-making" as opposed to a "'vale of tears.'"  With this proposal, Keats offered an essentially optimistic view of the world: he figured life as a school wherein we, starting out as sparks of divine intelligence (or what I like to call "souls" with a lower case "s"), might make ourselves into fully individuated Souls with "a bliss peculiar to each ones existence" by learning to read our experience according to our Heart's wisdom.  I apply Keats' idea of the Soul as something to be made to my spiritual life, and to my practice of reading, writing, and teaching poetry.

Tuesday: Keat$ Creative Commons License photo credit: ohdarling

Keats gave no explicit claims about poetry's role in the process of Soul-making, but his life's activity declares it: great poetry is what the soul studies in order to learn the Heart's way of reading life, and great poetry is what the Soul writes after it has learned the Heart's way of reading.  Emerson, in his observations on English literature, emphasized "...the fact that poetry exists to speak the spiritual law" and it seems to me that I might have never learned to read by the spiritual law of my Heart if poetry had not first spoke it to me. Keats wrote:

I will call the world a School instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read-- I will call the Child able to read, the Soul made from that school and its hornbook.

Since the hornbook in Keats' metaphor is the Heart itself, it's conceivable that one might participate in the process of Soul-making without ever hearing or reading poetry-- but only by attending to one's own Heart.  But what human lives without hearing or reading poetry? Whether it is sacred scripture, the lyrics of a folk song, or the wise words of a friend, all of us on earth experience poetry somehow.  I find it significant that as Keats presents it the work of Soul-making is interpretive work, hermeneutic work. Yet it is not an occult hermeneutic: it is a fundamental literacy, it is little children learning to read.  To learn to interpret the world via the Heart is essential, basic.  Perhaps because it is so basic, the Heart's hermeneutic is neglected in academia, and its language and insights are easily suspected of uncritical sentimentality or religiosity.  We could (and many do) dismiss the earnest optimism of the young Keats, and view his terms ("Soul," "Heart") as naive nineteenth-century Neo-Platonism, inapplicable to our present situation.

Keats at King's College Creative Commons License photo credit: Ben Sutherland


Instead, I would maintain that the lesson of how to read the world with the Heart is the most crucial lesson that can be gleaned from literary study, and perhaps most especially from the reading of poetry.  The centrality and sheer significance of this simple and much-needed lesson for the unfolding of the soul's evolution must not be lost in a fog of intellectual cynicism, or dismissed as inappropriately spiritual in a secular age. It is my experience that Keats did not exaggerate when he emphasized that the result of making one's Soul is bliss. I offer that bliss may be the only reward that could justify the difficulty of a serious engagement with poetry. To neglect to let my students know that reading poetry can lead to the cultivation of bliss would be to neglect to give them real inspiration for attempting the patient task of such reading. To talk earnestly of the Soul and the Heart within academic contexts does not threaten secularity; it threatens the intellectual complacency of atheists and nihilists.


In a brief letter, with a few quick gestures, Keats suggestively outlined what we might consider a metaphysics of literacy.  To flesh this outline, we must make explicit for ourselves what Keats took for granted: how poetry can make the soul, and how to engage with poetry in a manner that facilitates Soul-making (i.e., learning to read the world via the Heart).


Poetry can contribute to the making of a Soul because it works through the imagination, which affects and can alter the soul.  In his Biographia Literaria, Samuel Taylor Coleridge explained the phenomenon:

The poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity. He diffuses a tone, a spirit of unity, that blends and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical  power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination.

Similarly, the twentieth century metaphysician Ernest Holmes (a lover of Emerson's essays who was much more interested in systematizing Emerson's terms than was Emerson himself) identified the imagination in the human mind as a faculty of conscious spirit which works to impress its forms upon the subconscious, or receptive, soul.

So the tradition of Idealist philosophy helps us to understand what we intuitively know: the soul does not respond to reasoned arguments: it responds to images.  The more vivid the images, the more vivid the souls' response.  The soul evolves into the shapes that the imagination has molded for it. Whatever one holds in one's imagination makes a form to which the soul actively responds, evolving or devolving accordingly. A made Soul (which we might also call an evolved Soul, or an expanded consciousness) is one which has benefited from imaginations which express the Heart's expansive wisdom rather that the cold calculations of the defensive and besieged rational mind.  In other words, it is a soul which has attended to beautiful or sublime imaginings-- to great poetry.

In his wise introduction to his translation of The Upanishads, the scholar Juan Mascaró put the matter succinctly:

Every spiritual and poetical vision comes from the imagination: because imagination is the light of the soul. Without imagination we cannot have faith, because 'Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen': things not seen of course by reason or by the eyes ofthe body, but seen by the spirit.  Without imagination there is no vision and no creation.  Most of the miseries of man, such as selfishness, injustice, and cruelty, have their root in a lack of imagination.

When we know that the imagination, which may express itself as poetry, is the light of the soul, we realize we can find in poetry the illumination we need to read the Heart's hornbook.


What follows are my suggestions for practices and attitudes that support a Soul-making reading of poetry. These suggestions arise out of my own degree of success in Soul-making, and my attention to the work of successfully made Souls. Some of these suggestions revive nineteenth-century literate practices and run counter to the current modes of mainstream literary study within the academy. Many of them are inspired by Søren Kierkegaard's great treatise on the unconditional hermeneutics of the Heart, Works of Love, and by Emerson's essays on "Self-Reliance", "Spiritual Law," and "The Poet."


1) Practice intensive, rather than extensive reading.

The endeavor of intensive reading is one well-known to devotees of canonically sacred texts like the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad-Gita.  It's my contention that every work to which we feel drawn to give our serious attention can become for us a personally sacred text, capable of expanding and elevating our perspective.  A soulful reading of poetry is one in which we become vulnerable to the poem's influence. Intensive reading is vulnerable reading.  By "intensive reading" I mean reading and re-reading, memorizing a poem until we know it "by heart." This kind of reading allows a poem to become a part of our consciousness, and thus to alter our consciousness in unpredictable ways.  The poem that we know by heart comes to our awareness when we have not consciously asked for it, speaking as if it is our own realization, arranging our perceptions through it and in it. As a child I memorized Blake's verse from Songs of Experience, "A Poison Tree." This poem continues to shade and color what I can experience of friendship and enmity, of the fruits that come from good or ill intention. Though "A Poison Tree" is canonical to no religion, to me it is a sacred text, a source of spiritual truth, an expression of imagination which illuminates the Heart's wisdom and thereby teaches my soul to recognize the Heart's truth in itself.

One might say there is a great risk in intensive reading: we may cultivate intimacy with the "wrong" poems, allow ourselves to be deeply vulnerable to works that do not contain spiritual truth but rather lies about life, humanity, divinity.  It is hard sometimes for me to imagine that anyone might richly benefit from knowing by heart a poem full of anger, say, Sylvia Plath's "Daddy." This worry was exactly the concern that motivated Plato's Socrates to ban poets and poetry from the Republic: poems which speak untruth can harm the soul and weaken it.  I offer that since we accept poets and poetry in our society, we must accept this risk.  We are obliged to give more trust to the natural magnetism of the individual soul than Plato's Socrates gave to it.  We must trust, as Emerson insisted, that the soul draws toward itself its own good: the poem which attracts the soul is the poem from which it will benefit.  Yet even with such trust the issue that Plato's Socrates raised remains a perplexing one, complicating the role of poetry in Soul-making, shading it with potential darkness and threat.  We should consider Jung's notion of the importance of the Shadow in the growth of the psyche. From this consideration we venture to guess that for its making the soul needs deep exposure to threat and danger, darkness and untruth, just as much as it needs nurturance from light and truth.


2) Give hospitable, rather than suspicious readings.

The ability to read suspiciously is considered the hallmark of sophistication in many circles. I offer that what we call "critical reading" is too often pessimistic, defensive reading-- it imagines that unless we suspect the poem at hand and dissect its underlying motives we will be attacked and defeated by it. The assumption at work is that in order to defend ourselves against the offending poem and its potentially insidious idealogies we need theory-- Marxist theory, feminist theory, queer theory, ad infinitum. In short, such theories frequently employ the same logic which motivated Plato's Socrates to ban poets and poetry from the Republic.  This logic goes something like this: poetry, for all its beauty, can be insidious and full of lies that might harm us if we take them to heart without question-- therefore, we must suspect poetry and protect ourselves and others from it.

I suggest that a suspicious response to poetry and literature, if continuously unalloyed by love and hospitality, is ultimately as useless, tiring, and alienating as a habitual suspicious response to people.  Such an attitude, in any of its modes, is a work of cleverness and calculation and not a work of love. In order to read soulfully we must read lovingly.  An attitude of love protects us from anything in a poem that might irrevocably harm us (though it may invite us to encounters with Shadow elements) while allowing us to benefit from whatever virtue the poem offers.

If we wish a poem to aid us in our work of Soul-making we should greet the poem with hospitality, with open arms and not with suspicion or doubt.


3) Respond to what you've read with creative productions.

The surest sign that one is practicing a soulful reading of poetry written visibly in words is that one begins to read the poetry written invisibly in life.  Out of this reading can then come forth fresh creative work.  The point of a soul-centered reading poetry is to come closer to what Walt Whitman termed "the Origin of all Poems." As one moves closer to this Creative Origin, one becomes increasingly creative oneself. Emerson identified poetry as "new thought" in any form.  The best poems give us a new thought, a liberated perspective.  In order to complete the alchemy of Soul-making initiated by the reception of this liberated perspective, we should give forth from ourselves a new thought in turn. Our expression of our new thought can come forth in any genre or medium, it need not itself be a verbal poem.  But it does need to be something vital, alive.  Our response to reading a great poem should be equally as great and loveable as that poem.

Though many readings of poems published by scholars of poetry may be informative or interesting, they tend to be primarily intellectual exercises.  Analyses or close-readings of poems don't constitute soulful responses unless they are full of inspiration and power equal to those of the original poems.  I can count on my fingers the number of essayistic analyses of poems I have encountered that achieve this level of power and inspiration.  For this reason I now invite my students in my Reading Poetry classes to produce Montaigne-style personal essays which use poems as aids to thought about various subjects (see my suggestion 5, "Think-with poetry") or to create poetry or other artwork of their own in response to the poetry we've read rather than asking them to write analyses or close-readings.

shadowed hands of chance Creative Commons License photo credit: dreamsjung


4) Keep a commonplace book.

A commonplace book is simply a blank book or document in which one records appealing quotations or "commonplaces" from what one has read.  Commonplace books can be technologies for recording and remembering what has affected the soul during reading.  Reading which takes Soul-making as its aim necessarily works with fragments, bits, highlights.  The sublime strikes in lightning flashes, and the sublime (along with the beautiful) is what the soul requires in order to be made.  By recording in our commonplace book passages which stir our souls as we read, we create a condensed primer for ourselves; we generate a physical and real "hornbook" of the Heart to match the invisible one we carry inside us.  This material hornbook can teach us to read in a way that makes our Souls when we give what we have recorded therein our intensive attention.  Opening our commonplace books, we find passages with whom we desire greater intimacy.  We can then cultivate this intimacy with intensive reading.


5) Think-with poetry.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger, in his essayistic engagements with poems by Hölderlin and Rilke, provided the exemplary standard of what it can mean to not think "about" a poem (which is what analyses and close-readings do) but to think-with a poem, to take the poem as a deeper authority than one's own knowledge and to accordingly to set aside one's own conventional terms of thought in order to adopt the poem's terms.  This, again, is a soulful position of humility and vulnerability.  It is an expression of a loving, hospitable attitude toward the poem and also it is certainly a mode of intensive reading. To think-with poetry is to allow the language that the poem offers and the world that the poem imagines to alter our language and our perception of the world.  In this mode we become the students of the poem, allowing it to teach us to read life.


Much have I travelled in the realms of gold Creative Commons License photo credit: dreamsjung


6) Use poems as occasions to "dwell in Possibility"

Emily Dickinson famously wrote:


I dwell in Possibility--

A fairer House than Prose--

More numerous of Windows--

Superior -- for Doors--


Of Chambers as the Cedars--

Impregnable of eye--

And for an everlasting Roof

The Gambrels of the Sky--


Of Visitors -- the fairest--

For Occupation-- This--

The spreading wide my narrow Hands

To gather Paradise-

In comparing the houses of "Possibility" and "Prose," Dickinson implies an identity between Possibility and Prose's conventional counterpart, Poetry.  In thinking-with Dickinson we learn that Poetry is Possibility.  Poems (especially those restless with the troubling and irresolvable vibration that Kant called "the aesthetic idea,") provoke us, as Gaston Bachelard noted in The Poetics of Reverie, to dream.  Our dreaming may have nothing much to do with the ostensible topic of the poem on the page before us-- it is likely to be associative and wandering.  While reading, we "zone out" and become absorbed in facets of our memory and fancy that would otherwise remain unstirred, un-evoked.  Thus through reverie, through day-dreaming, poetry acquaints us with possibilities of our own being that are unfamiliar.


7) Use poems as occasions to question reality.


We all carry with us assumptions about who we are, how the world is, how life works.  Poetry, by its very strangeness, can provide us with occasions to become conscious of our unconscious assumptions and subsequently to challenge them.  I once stayed awake all night reading H.D.'s Helen in Egypt. That poem put to question everything I thought I knew about mortality and immortality, violence and love, narrative and humanness. The uncanny in-betweenness of Helen's quasi-life caused me to rethink my own story of myself and my relationship to memories that I thought defined me.  This questioning gradually led me to a reinvention of life. Every poem, by virtue of presenting itself, makes a claim to a kind of truth.  When reading, we can ask-- "is this indeed true? is this more true than what I've known?" and allow ourselves to expand in response to the question. In doing this work of questioning, one becomes aware of the extent to which the soul itself is produced by poēisis-- by shifting combinations and re-combinations of image and narrative, music and rhyme.


8) Passionately devote yourself to a dead poet.

In Works of Love, Kierkegaard asserted that "The work of love in remembering one who is dead is ... a work of the most disinterested, the freest, the most faithful love." He reasoned that this is so because a dead person can command no obligation, return no favors, demand no attention.  According to Kierkegaard, to practice the faithful remembering of a dead person could provide "the best guidance to understanding life: that it is one's duty to love the men we do not see, but also those we do see."

I don't wish to detract from the high qualities that Kierkegaard ascribes to the work of love in remembering one dead, but I should note that for we living Soul-makers, dead poets do command our obligation, return our favors, and demand our attention in an undeniable way. To passionately love a dead poet whose work has inspired you, to learn about her life, to speak of her, to remember her reverently is perhaps not so much an act of disinterested virtue as it is a necessity of spiritual law.  The poet, through her poetry, has bestowed a gift on us. We need to acknowledge and honor that poet as the temporal source of this gift if we are to come closer to the eternal source of the Gift of Poetry itself, the Origin of All Poems.

I am fortunate that the university where I work has a chapel with a stained glass window depicting Emily Dickinson.  I can sit in the chapel and devote to her my love and thanks.  This devotion contributes to the work of Soul-making by sensitizing me to the Heart-centeredness of my relationship with Dickinson and her genius, which (for me as for many lovers of her poetry) is personal and actual and transcends merely intellectual interestedness.


9) Be willing to pass through the offense of poetry.

In his book The Offense of Poetry, Hazard Adams, the venerable scholar of poetic criticism, notes that throughout the centuries poetry has been the object of manifold attacks and the subject of an equal number of defenses against those attacks. Rather than providing another defense of poetry against its attackers, Adams judiciously offers an encomium to poetry's inherent offensiveness.

Adams locates poetry's offensiveness in the fact that it violates age-old commonsense assumptions "that fact is always superior to fiction, that there is a real life and a false life (the latter being identified with drama and deception), that language is adequately defined as a tool of communication, and that tropes stand in the way of clarity and are at best only rhetorical decorations."  In other words, poetry can scandalize us because it deploys language in a manner that not only counters and confounds our instrumental everyday attitudes, but also frustrates our desire to use language to create fixed truths or certainties.

According to Adams, we can pass through the offense of poetry (i.e., choose to not actually take offense) into an experience of enlarged imagination.

I would add to Adams' insight that by passing through the offense of poetry and enlarging imaginations, we also make our Souls, since our souls expand as our imaginations do. Also, the offense that poetry offers (confounding our expectations) is actually the same as that offered by the mysterious world itself, and to practice accepting the offenses of poetry with good faith is to practice accepting the offenses of the world with good-faith-- the attitude that is necessary for us to experience the world not as a 'vale of tears" but as a "Vale of Soul-making."


By engaging in these and other soulful practices of encountering poetry, we allow ourselves to be altered, taught, made able to interpret the world with a hermeneutic that comprehends essence and love.  We come to experience "a bliss peculiar" to our own being. We become fully individual Souls.


Posted on July 25, 2011 and filed under Creativity.