I’ve been suffering from insomnia recently. This isn’t a wholly bad thing. I get a lot done during those hours when most people are sleeping. Sometimes I spend the hours by reading poetry, like Dylan Thomas’ great poem I Fellowed Sleep, which may possibly deal with insomnia. It ends with the line “My father’s ghost is climbing in the rain.”
Wow! Sometimes we read long poems just to encounter a single powerful line like that one: “My father’s ghost is climbing in the rain.”
What does this mean? I don’t know. I don’t know rationally, but I understand it anyway. Some part of me feels it, fathoms the meaning without having any need to explain it.
Sri Chinmoy makes this case far better than I, in Sri Chinmoy Answers part 7:
“I always say that man writes prose, but it is God who writes poetry in and through man. In poetry, each word carries us into the Unknowable, where there is tremendous joy. We may think that when we enter into the Unknowable, we will be totally lost. But we are not lost; we are flying.
“Poetry is intuitive, so we should not try to understand it. It is not the mind we need in order to derive joy, but the heart.”
Here Sri Chinmoy is explaining to us what poetry is, but at the same time his spontaneous creation is nothing but mantric poetry.
Joyce Kilmer said something similar, albeit in a whimsical fashion, about the intuitive power of poetry:
By Joyce Kilmer
“I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.”
It’s funny- I’ve never read this poem in its entirety until thirty seconds ago, when I googled the last two lines- the most famous part, much quoted in popular culture. But now, at this very moment, reading these lines, it’s clear that Mr. Kilmer was trite in his word-choice, his rhythm is flat and deadpan. Yet, for all that, what an affecting piece of word-music! He’s created a mantra, so soulful and haunting. No wonder the crown of this poem, the last two lines, has endured in the memory of humanity. It’s almost as if God played an inside joke on the poet. Kilmer is saying that only God can make a tree, and God, by creating this beautiful mantra through the poet, rejoins, “It is only God who writes poetry in and through man as well!”
Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree. What a line! Remarkable.
My mountain-climbing, English Channel swimming, tennis champion friend, Anugata, told me “We are people of high moments.” In other words, a spiritual seeker might spend a whole afternoon reading sacred books, just to find one line or one word that touches him, and elevates his consciousness to a higher pinnacle. He’s willing to spend a whole day just to get a drop of light. In the same way, when I read Keats or Thomas or Shelley, I read them for one or two brilliant phrases that I can keep with me and recite over and over.
Sri Chinmoy said something very interesting in this regard concerning a line of Keats’:
“When Keats wrote, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever,” he was in a very high consciousness. But did he remain in that consciousness? When you read the whole of ‘Endymion’, you see that there are many lines that are not at all good. But the first line is so powerful. He reached that height for a fleeting second and wrote an immortal line, but then he fell down most comfortably and stayed there. But his achievement remains immortal. It has become humanity’s achievement and humanity’s treasure. It is like a builder who builds a superb house. For a while he feels that it is his house: but then the person who employed him to build the house starts occupying the house and throws the builder out.” (From Art’s Life and the Soul’s Light by Sri Chinmoy)
As I said, Joyce Kilmer was not a particularly gifted poet- in any way. But he still wrote that immortal final couplet: “Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.” So, it doesn’t matter. He offered something that will last in the heart of humanity for Eternity. Keats offered us the great line: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” that incredible opening line that overshadows the rest of Endymion combined. Of course Keats, unlike Kilmer, was a supreme poet, but he still needed the Grace of God to write something truly immortal. He wrote in one of his letters: “…(M)y greatest elevations of Soul leave me every time more humbled.”
Today, for no reason at all, and to the displeasure of the new company code- speed of above all- I recited William Blake’s great poem “Tyger, Tyger” to a young couple. They really enjoyed it. But, as I was reciting it out, I was struck by the lines:
“…When the stars threw down their spears
And watered Heaven with their tears…”
Where did that line come from! What an inspired piece of word music. Once again, I don’t understand it. I don’t need to- it speaks to a deeper part of my being.
My friend Janaka, the great Scottish writer, wrote a really accomplished and polished book of verse called Glasgow Zen. I’ve been reading and re-reading it in my sleepless hours. In one section of the book he renders Japanese haikus written by Issa, Ryokan and Santoka, into Scots dialect. The effect is charming and oddly thought-provoking:
“the full moon shinin
on this buncha heidbangers
“a wee kickaboot
wi the kids in the street-
the night lights”
“nights drawin in
patchin my auld claes-
dae me another year”
(My Microsoft Office Word autocorrect function does not like Glasgow English!)
I’d just like to conclude with one of Sri Chinmoy’s mantras from his great collection Twenty-Five Aspiration-Flames, a brief anthology of some of his most inspired utterances from 1987:
“My son, the unknowable can be known.
My son, the unknown can be known.
My son, the known can easily
My son, the knowable can eternally remain
Interestingly, when Sri Chinmoy was discussing poetry, he said it carries us into the “Unknowable”. He did not use the term “Unknown” but rather “Unknowable”. Some things will never be understood by the outer mind of man. I was talking to some college kids in the sauna the other day and I mentioned one of the things my great philosophy Professor, Dr. Iorio told us, that science has never been able to account for the unity of a single thought. In other words, matter can be infinitely divided, taken apart and analysed: molecules into atoms, atoms into protons and electrons, which in turn can be broken down into quarks and so on. Everything in the physical world is subject to division and investigation. But a single thought, is self-evidently real, and is not susceptible to any division or investigation. It just is. And here immediately we see the difference between the world of matter and the world of consciousness. Talk about neurons and synapses until the sky falls down- science has not and never will be able to account for the unity of a single thought. Consciousness is unknowable. Only through prayer and meditation can we fathom these mysteries. Poetry can also help us in reaching these realms.