In 2005 I became a Sufi.
Why and how I came to do so is not important. What matters for the purposes of this blog is the consequence: I became a writer. Mostly a poet, though I’ve written a fair amount of fiction and had some of it published. Below is a piece I wrote in February of 2006:
DISCLAIMER: Everything I say here is true for me. It may not be true for anyone else. Truth is One, but wears many faces.
The purpose of poetry is to serve God. Poetry can accomplish this in the same ways as other speech: for example, by praising God, by upholding His rights, by warning against His wrongs. Powerful poetry can spark a truer understanding of God in the hearts of readers and listeners; who hasn’t felt this over a poem by Rumi or John Donne or others? Even poetry that isn’t apparently “about” anything religious may serve to forge a deeper emotional connection between the reader and the poet, or between the reader and other people, or between the reader and the glory of the natural world.
It’s in making these emotional connections that poetry truly excels. This is because of the property I alluded to earlier. Poetry, far more than prose, stimulates the reader or listener to project her- or himself into the experience of the poem; to imaginatively recreate that experience in all its freshness and power.
Notice that asking what a poem is “about” can be as problematic as asking “What does it mean?” In particular, a poem may praise God without explicitly being “about” Him. As a Sufi, I believe that the divine essence is inherent in everything. Therefore, a poem about a snail, your child, or the ocean, may in fact be about God– to the extent that it recognizes or acknowledges God’s essence within the snail, child, or ocean. Read Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Windhover” ( a great example of a poem that should always be read aloud).
I said at the beginning that poetry should be communication. I believe communication is what makes us human; communication is our gift from God. Certainly other animals communicate with their conspecifics, but the breadth, depth and subtlety of human communication is unmatched on this planet. Therefore, if we cut ourselves off from listening and from speaking, we reject this gift. If we deny speech to others, we offend against their humanity and we offend against God.
This then is the Work: to communicate to others, as poets, that which God chooses to reveal to us of His majesty. This task denies reserve, calls upon all our skills, and demands an unselfish heart and a self-critical eye.
This Verse Does Not Belong To Me
For me, the experience of writing poetry is often more like remembering something than “making up” something. Poetry comes through, not from, the poet: we are transmitters rather than creators. Claiming “creativity” should really be seen as shirk—it’s accepted usage and I’m not seriously proposing to censure anyone for it, but I think the mindset behind it deserves some attention.
I wrote in another place that art requires three things: inspiration, effort, and ability. I believe inspiration comes from God, perhaps directly or perhaps through His agents. Ability is given by God as well, but most kinds of ability need to be developed through practice: God may have made you able to run, but if you want to do marathons you’d better train. Effort requires conscious choice on our part; if I have an idea for a poem, and decide not to put the effort into writing it, no poem will result (or, if I put a half-hearted effort into it, I’ll get a half-assed poem). Our responsibility as poets is for the amount and quality of the effort we invest in realizing the inspirations we receive; and also, for developing and training whatever talent God saw fit to give us.
Pride and despair are the twin pitfalls of the artist. We have to avoid becoming too attached to the results of our efforts. Be careful of speaking or thinking about “my” poetry, “my” work; remember that God owns all that is in the heavens and in the earth. God only lends His poetry to us that we may share it with others; it’s not for us to keep or to own.
I don’t want to be interpreted as being against intellectual property rights, copyright law and so forth. Artists deserve to be rewarded for their efforts, and plagiarists are beneath contempt. Indeed, following the argument above, plagiarism is both theft and shirk. But the warning to the poet (myself) is about possessive, emotional attachment. We have to remember to ask ourselves, not “What do I want this poem to be?” but “What does God want this poem to be? What does God want it to say? How does God want people to feel when they read it?”
Despair is pride in disguise. Despair may say: “I’ll never be able to make this as good as I think it should be. Why expose my inadequacy to the public?” I, I, I. True humility says: “I’ll do my best, insh’allah it will serve.” If in our true, humble judgment, our skills are not up to the task we think has been set before us, we need to improve our skills rather than refuse the task.
Ultimately, the poet’s skill or lack of it ceases to be an issue. The ideal for a poet is to become simply a conduit. The self dissolves, God’s thoughts pass through and fall on the page, unfiltered, uncensored, and pure.
This is still my ideal as a poet. I’ve touched that state a few times; have come close, often. Perhaps it’s not a state that can be permanently grasped. I’m not Rumi, nor Hopkins, and comparing myself to them is only another pitfall, another line of self-defeat scored under the “I.”
In the nearly six years since I wrote this, my understanding of poetry has not really changed, though my technique has certainly improved. What has changed is this: at that time I knew nothing about the poetry industry and very little about other poets. I had barely begun to dip my toes in the world of publication.
My project for 2012 is going to be to get my second book published. More detail in next month’s post: stay tuned…