This is the second part of a series of essays. Read the first part here – Poetry beyond the Closed Room.
Nobel-Laureate poet Octavio Paz wrote, “Poetry is the antidote to technology and the market. What poetry’s function might be, in our time and in the time to come, is reduced to this. Nothing more than this? Nothing less.”1 I believe this to be true—profoundly, urgently true. Technology and the market drive the closed-room world: it exists by means of and for the glory of that twin-headed idol our society worships with every breath. The poets are the ones who can, and who must, lead us out of this mess. Heidegger and Marcel have written brilliant essays about Rilke’s role in a return to the creative spiritual center of ourselves and our earth, and those essays and Rilke’s poetry (especially the Sonnets to Orpheus) are worth long and deep consideration. But there are other poets who deserve mention, poets of the New World whose ancestors lived in and encountered the wild, rugged geographies of the North and South American continents and whose poetry pulses with the life-force of Creation. I want to mention briefly two of these poets (there are others, of course) who are often overlooked and misunderstood, and whom every Catholic should know about.
The first is a Native American poet, medicine man and mystic who converted to Catholicism and whose cause for canonization was recently opened. His name is Nicholas Black Elk, and together with Nebraskan poet John Neihardt, the great Lakota visionary set forth one of the most extraordinary epic poems of all time in a book called Black Elk Speaks. The book is problematic because Neihardt, against Black Elk’s wishes, left out Black Elk’s conversion to Catholicism and subsequent life as a catechist to his people, giving the book a character Black Elk did not intend or approve. But one does not have to look very far to see the Catholic-infused poetic and religious sensibility visible in every word that Black Elk spoke and Neihardt transcribed. In an appendix to the book, Neihardt describes feeling:
that he had been sitting at the feet of a poet fit to dine with the finest spirits that have sung in his discordant world and are now among the tallest of the dead. Black Elk is a truly great poet; and if ever our world shall be privileged to see and understand his masterpiece, the horse dance…there will be few to question the indubitable truth of this statement.2
I encountered Black Elk in graduate school as a convert desperate for a way to begin reconciling what I had found in Rilke with what I had found in Catholicism, desperate for a voice from this side of the Atlantic and this side of the equator who could speak to things I was feeling in a true way. When I picked up Black Elk Speaks, it was like the book burned white hot in my hands. I’m going to quote at length from the opening section, because it is a deeply moving and poetic invitation into the space of his vision, which he has made available in writing “to help in bringing peace upon the earth, not only among men, but within men and between the whole of creation”:
My friend, I am going to tell you the story of my life, as you wish; and if it were only the story of my life I think I would not tell it; for what is one man that he should make much of his winters, even when they bend him like a heavy snow? So many other men have lived and shall live that story, [only] to be grass upon the hills.
It is the story of all life that is holy and is good to tell, and of us two-legged sharing in it with the four-legged and the wings of the air and all green things, for these are children of one mother and their father is one Spirit.
This, then, is not the tale of a great hunter or of a great warrior, or of a great traveler, although I have made much meat in my time and fought for my people both as boy and man, and have gone far and seen strange lands and men. So also have many others done, and better than I. These things I shall remember by the way, and often they may seem to be the very tale itself, as when I was living them in happiness and sorrow. But now that I can see it all as from a lonely hilltop, I know it was the story of a mighty vision given to a man too weak to use it; of a holy tree that should have flourished in a people’s heart with flowers and singing birds, and now is withered; and of a people’s dream that died in bloody snow.
But if the vision was true and mighty, as I know, it is true and mighty yet; for such things are of the spirit, and it is in the darkness of their eyes that men get lost.3
The vision that follows is one of such spiritual intensity, so charged with symbolism and mystical depth, that it would be futile to attempt to excerpt a piece of it to quote here. But it is a vision of a world in which all will be well, in which all of the destructiveness of money and machines will be gone, and in which creation no longer suffers at the hands of men. That this vision is a gift to all people was made explicit in a final prayer Black Elk uttered near the end of his life, when he wished that through his vision and the book which made it available, and through the peace pipe which is a foundational symbol and ritual of the Lakota people, his children and those of Neidhardt—which is to say, all those people who come to Black Elk’s vision through the poetic power of the book—would “see many happy days.
I remain convinced that the future of the Church in America will find hope and direction in Black Elk’s great vision, which wants to help lead us into a deeper communion with God’s creation and into a deeper understanding of one another. But like Marcel, Black Elk recognized that as Christians born of a predominantly European culture, we must humble ourselves to realize that we have not embraced a peaceful relation with creation, and that we have much to learn, and much to do, in order to rediscover the secret of God’s creative love. In a beautiful and challenging forward to his book The Sacred Pipe, Black Elk said:
We should understand well that all things are the works of the Great Spirit. We should know that he is within all things: the trees, the grasses, the rivers, the mountains, and all the four-legged animals, and the winged peoples; and even more important, we should understand that he is also above all these things and peoples. When we do understand all this deeply in our hearts, then we will fear, and love, and know the Great Spirit, and then we will be and act and live as He intends.4
It is important to note in this passage how much emphasis Black Elk places on the knowing and understanding of the heart. He prays earlier in the same forward that “peace may come to those peoples who can understand, an understanding which must be of the heart and not of the head alone.” He who has ears, let him hear.
That there are two kinds of knowing, one of the head and one of the heart, is also emphasized in the epic work of seventeenth-century Mexican poet-nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Again here a well-meaning but confused intellectual (this time the searching poet and critic Octavio Paz, quoted earlier in this essay) is responsible for having written the Catholicism out of deeply Catholic work, leading to a critical assessment which takes Sor Juana’s great poem “First Dream” to a conclusion that is directly opposed to its content—a remarkable and unfortunate feat of critical acrobatics. But like Rilke in Europe and Black Elk in North America, Sor Juana found that our deepest knowledge of and relation to creation comes not through science, technology or machines—the fruits of the closed room—but through poetry.
“First Dream” begins with a long and dark descent into night, into the dream of comprehensive scientific knowledge, a theory of everything, as it were; the symbolism is full of vapors and shadows, strangenesses and fears. It is telling that the search after this kind of knowledge leads to greater and greater darkness as night deepens in the poem’s telling of Sor Juana’s desire to understand all things by “investigating nature.” But then something happens: at the near middle of night, there is a turn in her way of thinking. She writes of her struggle with her desire for a theory of everything, at times desiring it,
but at others I forswore
that wish, judging it excessive boldness
in one who failed to comprehend the smallest,
the most simple part of natural effects
nearest at hand, to attempt
to apprehend everything;
one who could not grasp the secret, obscure way
the pleasant fountain led its crystalline course,
one who did not know why an ivory cast
circles the frail beauty of a brief flower:
why a mingling of colors, scarlet blending
with the whiteness of dawn, is
its fragrant finery, or
why it exhales the scent of amber, unfolds
to the wind its raiment, beauteous because
delicate, which multiplies
into countless new daughters, forming a frilled
display fringed with gold tracings5
It is the investigator, Sor Juana-the-scientist, who fails to comprehend the truth of the fountain and of the flower. As the poem progresses, Sor Juana continues to wrestle with her desire to investigate nature and achieve comprehensive scientific knowledge; her part of the world turns towards the day, night lessens and her body begins to stir, her mind lets go of the dark dream, and at last:
…the fair golden mane of the Sun lit our
hemisphere, with just light and distributive
order, gave all things visible their colors,
restoring to the external senses their
function, the world illuminated with more
certain light, and I, awake.6
These are the final lines, when in the more certain light of day, it becomes clear that the fruit of her struggle is not scientific knowledge, but the poem—that knowledge of the heart which leads to a true understanding of creation. The brilliant thing about this poem is that it turns standard symbolism on its head and in so doing reveals a deeper truth: in western poetry and philosophy, day and the sun are typically associated with reason, and night or the dream are typically associated with poetry, that surreal, untrustworthy world that has been held in suspicion by scientific, rationalist minds since at least the time of Plato. Sor Juana sees the darkness of the investigative approach, wakes up, writes a magnificent poem, empties her room of all of its scientific texts and instruments, dons sackcloth and ashes, tends to plague-stricken nuns, and dies a beautiful death shortly thereafter. Far from defeat (as Paz would have it), her final act is one of true peace and reconciliation with God and with his creation.
There is of course much more to say about these magnificent poets, and about the ways in which poetry is the antidote to the ills plaguing our society, but it is perhaps enough, for now, to gesture in the direction of possibility. That it could take a global pandemic and a global climate catastrophe for us to wake up to the destructiveness and limitations of our closed-room ways is maybe a little sad, but also maybe a little hopeful. Neruda, in his turn, had an unbounded hope for poetry, and in particular for the poetry of the new world. It was a hope for a poetry of the open window, of walking through the window. So he continues the observation at the beginning of this essay with advice for the poets of the future:
I would say to young poets of my country and of Latin America—perhaps this is our tradition—to discover things, to be in the sea, to be in the mountains, and approach every living thing. And how can you not love such an approach to life, that has such extravagant surprises?7
This call is not just to the poets of his time and place, but a universal call, an invitation for all of us to exit the cave, leave the prison of our four walls and recycled air, take a deep breath and find a new way forward.
1The Other Voice: Essays on Modern Poetry by Octavio Paz. Translated from the Spanish by Helen Lane, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990, p. 159.
2Black Elk Speaks, University of Nebraska Press, 2014. p 241.
3Black Elk Speaks, University of Nebraska Press, 2014. p 1.
4The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux, Recorded & Edited by Joseph Epes Brown, University of Oklahoma Press, 1953, p. xx.
5Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Selected Works, Translated by Edith Grossman, W. W. Norton & Company, 2014, pp. 102-103.
6Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Selected Works, Translated by Edith Grossman, W. W. Norton & Company, 2014, p. 110.
7“The Lamb and the Pine Cone: An Interview with Pablo Neruda by Robert Bly” in Neruda & Vallejo: Selected Poems, edited by Robert Bly, Beacon Press, Boston, 1993, p. 158.