Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Into the Wordless

After a productive day (Tuesday) writing a new chapter in my novel, memorizing another poem and writing another reflection for my nonfiction book-in-progress, "Sleeping With Poets," there was little time left for a blog post. I'm driving down to Jackson (MS) this afternoon to hear Jeanette Walls read from her latest book, Half Broke Horses, at Lemuria Bookstore, and having dinner with a writing buddy afterwords, so again, no time to write a blog post. (And yes, I'll be visiting my mother at the nursing home on Thursday.) So.... here's another entry in my 100-day poetry memorization project. I wrote this one day last week. This particular reflection is less about how poetry affects my prose and more about how it affects my spiritual life. I'd love to hear your comments on the part poetry plays in your life. Just click on "comments" at the end of the post.

"Into the Wordless"
Day 36—Sleeping With Poets

Following on the loneliness of moons from yesterday, I find myself embracing Walt Whitman’s “A Clear Midnight” today. Although I memorized the poem in the morning, I waited until night time to write this reflection. Somehow it called for a evening rendering.

This is thy hour O soul, thy free flight into the
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the
lesson done

Unlike Shelley’s weary moon, caught in a cycle of “climbing Heaven and gazing on the earth,” Whitman addresses his soul, and what it means to truly find rest at the end of the day. His words remind me of the Orthodox Church fathers who write about detachment—the ascetic work of freeing oneself from enslavement to material things and earthly works. Just before going forward to receive the sacrament of communion during the Divine Liturgy, we sing, “Now lay aside all earthly cares.” Why do we do this? In order to receive God into ourselves. We have to make room for Him in our cluttered, over-worked, over-stimulated selves.

It’s not that those material things and earthly works are bad. Words, books, art, lessons—the things that Whitman urges his soul to flee—are things that he loved. But the soul (like the weary moon) needs rest from all that intensity, in order to find itself.

Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering
the themes thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death and the stars.

I can’t get away from the spiritual elements here—that even “death” is one of the themes that the soul loves best. It’s not only the Church fathers who urge us to always keep our deaths before us. Contemporary musician, Tim McGraw, expresses this idea in his song “Live Like You Were Dying.” The popular movie, “The Bucket List” follows the same theme—what would you do if you knew you were going to die soon?

The thing is, we are all going to die, and it could be today, for any of us. When I’m writing at a fever pitch, driven to get an essay polished and “out there,” laboring to finish a book and seek its audience in the publishing world, my soul and all things eternal are pushed into the background. Maybe it’s that way with everyone’s work. Maybe the schoolteacher and the architect, the salesman and the physician are all caught up in the work at hand and not aware of the spiritual world in the midst of their pursuits. But somehow I believe that creative work—writing, painting, designing—takes so much of our souls that at the end of the day it’s crucial to flee, with Whitman, “into the wordless.”

This is much harder to do than it sounds. Have you ever tried to turn your brain off, to think on nothing? There are plenty of Eastern spiritual practices (not all Christian) that emphasize this emptying of self, this seeking of stillness. And maybe it’s possible to achieve this during the day—in the midst of our work—but I think Whitman was onto something when he wrote these words: night, sleep, death.

Darkness doesn’t guarantee this freedom from words. When I write late into the night, my brain has difficulty shutting down and embracing the rest that sleep should bring. I recently read that staring at a computer screen (or watching television) just before going to bed inhibits restful sleep. It’s just harder to turn the brain off when it’s been fed a steady stream of images just before retiring for the day. One of the claims of the Kindle reader is that it’s more restful than the iPad because it doesn’t have a backlit screen. I find this to be true in my own experience, but reading from a Kindle—or from a print book—is still engaging the soul with words. So what’s a lover of words to do? Who is going to give up reading in bed?

Perhaps I need to change my evening routine a bit. Instead of saying my prayers and then getting in bed and reading, my mind and soul would be better served if I were to save the prayers for after the reading. The problem with this plan, of course, is that the chances of getting up out of my warm, cozy bed, in order to do the difficult work of prayer, are pretty slim. Another problem is that I often fall asleep while reading in bed, and find myself gently awakened as my husband removes my glasses and book to the bedside table and turns off my light. I wonder if my soul can then erase the day and ponder the themes it loves best. Can I train it to slip quietly into the wordless?


anna said...

Perhaps it is in the choice of reading that one finds the answer to this question? I agree it is too hard to get back up again for prayers once in bed - but I also try to take only certain reading to bed with me. In St. Theophan's Path to Salvation, he prescribes an order of reading for the day - the scripture in the morning, the lives of saints at the noonday, and the Holy Fathers before going to sleep. I know that if I try to read an engaging novel or piece of fiction at bedtime I do have a more difficult time settling my mind down for the night (same goes for if I watch a television show). When I pick up writings of the Church before bed, I find it a much easier transition, to keep the focus of reading after prayers on God, and save the other reading for the day.

Louise said...

Susan, I feel that I am Poetry Challenged. Maybe I need a Poetry for Dummies book. I've never really been drawn to it, and felt it was for people who are more artistic than I am. (Hmm, funny I am just now composing a post on just that theme only talking about visual art.) I do love Mary Oliver, however, though I don't know that her work inspires my writing directly. I posted about one of her poems I discovered on the Interdependence Project site at

I am taking it slow learning about poetry, and I am always impressed with people who seem to know so much more about it than I do.

Susan Marquez said...

Like Louise, I'm a bit poetry-challenged as well! I tend to pray myself to sleep most nights...praying for loved ones and those in need, I have a list of people I pray for nightly, yet I rarely get through the list before falling asleep. I think that God is patient with me...and besides,He knows all our needs. It was great seeing you last night at Lemuria! You inspire me daily!

mary said...

Very thought provoking, girls.
I find reading spiritual works or the bible in bed is so soothing to me I always drift off.
Keep on with all of your literary endevours. I enjoy them!

mary said...

Susan, I am poetry challenged also.
It is such a gift. You are so lucky you can write beautiful thought provoking prose. City Girl's Lament, really gave me a look at the other side of the fence.

water said...

Dear Susan,I was attracted by the blog's title and your beautiful prose.
I share almost the same experience. To erase the day's weariness ending with prayers help to slide into the wordless world.
Poetry's always been inspiring me and I write myself too.