Print Edition

Essays

|

Jan 31, 2022

The Logic of the Birds

An Orange-Headed Ground Thrush and a Death's-Head Moth on a Purple Ebony Orchid Branch, Shaikh Zain al-Din, 1778

An Orange-Headed Ground Thrush and a Death's-Head Moth on a Purple Ebony Orchid Branch, Shaikh Zain al-Din, 1778

Read Time
|

Collecting Ogunnaike Rgb

Oludamini Ogunnaike

University of Virginia

Oludamini Ogunnaike’s research interests include Islamic philosophy, spirituality, art, and African diasporic religions.

More About this Author

The Logic of the Birds

Poetry and Poetic Knowledge

For my father, the poet Babatunde Ogunnaike

There is magic in eloquence and wisdom in poetry.
— Hadith1

What is poetry? The song of the bird of the intellect.
What is poetry? The similitude of the world of eternity.
— Jāmī
Since your love was kindled in my heart
Apart from your love, all that I have has burned
My heart put reason and study and books on the shelf
And was taught poetry and ghazals and quatrains
— Rūmī, Dīvān-i Shams, Ghazal 6161

When I speak of poetry I am not thinking of it as a genre. Poetry is an awareness of the world, a particular way of relating to reality. So poetry becomes a philosophy to guide a man throughout his life.
— Andrei Tarkovsky

What the Islamic tradition calls the “licit magic” (siĥr ĥalāl) of poetry seems to be almost universally recognized throughout human history around the world. The power of poetry—language shaped and patterned by rhythm, music, beauty—to produce profound effects both within human beings and without is prominent in all cultures with which I have some familiarity, save perhaps certain sad segments of modernized cultures, which (for reasons we will explore later) have tried to push poetry into obscurity. To give but one contemporary example, when asked to define poetry, a contemporary South Asian poet retorted, “That’s like a fish trying to describe the sea”;2 the questioner later noted that “the rhythmic word is widely regarded as ruh ki giza or food for the soul in Muslim South Asia.”3 Moreover, poets and writers as disparate as Aimé Césaire and Amīr Khusrau, Jāmī and Jacques Maritain, Shelley and Bullhe Shah, Audre Lorde and Aquinas, Liu Xie and Lal Ded, Bashō and Aĥmadu Bambā have advanced the idea of a distinct mode of poetic knowledge that animates and undergirds poetry and much more. Indeed, the biologist Edward O. Wilson called Homo sapiens “the poetic species” because our cognition depends so much on language, analogy, and association.4 Communications theorist Eric McLuhan expanded upon this insight, noting that “words are modes of experience, and are themselves experiences; a language is an organ of perception (poetic knowledge).”5  As the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas said, “A good poem helps to change the shape and significance of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.”6 That is, poetry is not mere sing-song rhymes and pretty words but of the greatest intellectual significance. Little wonder, then, that poetry has been at the heart of Islamic and other traditional educational and cultural formations—for most of human history, poetry (whether oral, written, or both) has been central to the ways in which we define and understand ourselves and our world.

As the poet Charles Upton explains, “Poetry… is not entertainment. It is not self-expression. It is not propaganda…. Poetry is a way of knowing based on the cultivation of symbolic, or anagogic, consciousness, expressed through the medium of human language. The games it plays are not sporting events but serious hunting expeditions carried out in the face of collective mass starvation.”7 Or in the words of Audre Lorde, “Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.… Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.”8 But what is this poetic knowledge behind the meters and rhymes? Why is it so important? Why is it that so many of the best poets of most languages are so-called mystics? And what does it mean that some of us have lost touch with this poetic knowledge?

The Qur’an, Poetry, Ineffability, and Wonder

Although the Qur’an explicitly declares itself not to be poetry, it is exceptionally poetic, as are most sacred texts and orature. If the Qur’an seems to take a dim view of poets and poetry in certain passages, it is precisely because of the remarkable power of poetry and poets in pre-Islamic Arabia, a power that could either compete with or support the new dispensation, which needed to differentiate itself from this poetic context. As in neighboring cultures, Arab poets were believed to be inspired by spirits, or jinn,9 and their poetry was considered oracular—defining, embodying, and reproducing cultural ideals and structures—thereby making and breaking reputations and fortunes. Like the staff of Moses that swallowed those of the Pharaoh’s magicians, the Qur’an had to “clear the ground” and differentiate its divine revelation through the Holy Spirit/archangel from the poetic inspiration of the jinn.10 Parts of Plato’s infamous attack on poetry in the Republic can be understood in a similar way, as an attempt to carve out space for a distinct worldview and conception of humanity, in a cultural context dominated by powerful poetic traditions whose relationship to the truth and virtue could be precarious.

In its critique of poetry, the Qur’an proclaims, “Shall I inform you upon whom the satans descend? They descend upon every sinful liar, they listen eagerly, but most of them are liars. And as for the poets, the errant follow them. Have you not seen that they wander in every valley and that they say what they do not do? Except those who believe and perform righteous deeds and remember God much, and help one another after having been wronged” (26:221–227). The Qur’an castigates the Arab poets for being “all over the place,” for listening to lying spirits, for not living up to their speech, for not “being as good as their words”—for abusing the power of poetry. Instead of their craft bringing together truth, action, goodness, and people, their words separate them. But the last verse defines good poets inversely, as those who bring together11 truth, action, people, and good speech, implicitly connecting poetry to invocation (dhikr), another spiritually efficacious use of rhythmic speech. Dhikr also names the recitation of the Qur’an, which Seyyed Hossein Nasr insightfully describes as “the spiritual force behind the poetry and music of all Islamic peoples.”12

In these Islamic contexts,13 the art of poetry is often referred to by the Qur’anic term “the language of the birds” (manţiq al-ţayr) from verse 27:16, in which Solomon says, “O people, we have been taught the language of the birds, and we have been given of all things. Truly, this is the clear (mubīn) bounty!” As Muslim scholars and poets throughout the ages have noted, the word manţiq in this verse, commonly translated as “speech” or “language,”14 also means “logic,” expressing the close relationship between logic and poetry,15 while the second half of the verse conveys the all-encompassing nature of the latter as a bounty of clarifying exposition (another meaning of the term mubīn) and wisdom, uniting all things. As sura Śād describes the poetry of the Psalms of David: “We compelled the mountains to hymn with him at nightfall and sunrise, and the birds gathered, each oft-turning to Him. And We strengthened his kingdom and gave him wisdom and decisive speech” (38:18–20). Here, the fixed and the earthly (the mountains, the pillars of the macrocosm) and the flying and heavenly (the birds, symbolizing the angelic pillars of the metacosm) are united in the poetic act of the khalīfa (38:26), the vicegerent David (the microcosm), at the liminal times of nightfall and sunrise, uniting the day (manifestation) and the night (the unseen). This triad of meta-macro-microcosm or heaven-earth-human plays an important role in framing the understanding of poetry and poetic knowledge in many contexts.

From this perspective, many Islamic poets, particularly Sufi poets, advanced the idea of this “language” or “logic” of the birds as a kind of all-comprehensive mode of expression capable of communicating and synthesizing forms of knowledge that other media cannot. The famous poet-scholar Amīr Khusrau of Delhi wrote, “Science is like water in a cask: draw ten sound conclusions, and its volume decreases. Poetry, however, is an ever-flowing spring—and should you delve into it even a hundred times, it cannot diminish.”16 One reason for this dynamic is that poetry cultivates wonder and awe. As Lara Harb writes,

The evocation of wonder was the main goal of classical Arabic poetry according to classical Arabic literary theorists, such as al-Jurjani. Wonder is this unique experience that is located on the cusp between ignorance and knowledge. It is a response to the unknown, unexpected and unfamiliar that spurs one into a search for and discovery of knowledge. In this sense, wonder is the foundation of philosophical, scientific and metaphysical enquiry. It is due to wonder that human beings began to philosophise, as Aristotle declared in his Metaphysics.17

Al-Jurjānī explained how, through its linguistic and aesthetic techniques, poetry stops the train of ordinary thought and “defamiliarizes” the familiar, causing us to discover it afresh, to see it in a new light and savor the joy of discovery. He wrote, “The pleasure of the soul is based on being lifted from the hidden to the visible, being presented with the plain after the enigmatic, being moved from the known to the better and more intimately known.”18 In a similar vein, Charles Baudelaire defined poetic genius as the “capacity to recover childhood” and perceive a given thing “in all of its freshness, as the very symbol of reality.”19 Or as the English poet William Blake writes, both describing and illustrating this poetic perception:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour.20

In more prosaic terms, the same poet writes, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”21 True poetry participates in this “cleansing” of the perceptual faculties by sweeping aside the cobwebs occluding the hidden passages connecting all things, polishing phenomena to reflective translucence, granting us an experience of the One in everything and everything in each one—the universality of things in their particularity, and their particularity in their universality.22 As James C. Taylor writes in Poetic Knowledge, “Poetic experience indicates an encounter with reality that is nonanalytical, something that is perceived as beautiful, awful (awe-full), spontaneous, mysterious. It is true that poetic experience has the surprise of metaphor found in poetry, but also found in common experience, when the mind, through the senses and emotions, sees in delight, or even in terror, the significance of what is really there.”23

Moreover, this poetic wonder or awe is the response to that which cannot be fully encompassed or tied down by conceptual definition or analysis—it can be expressed and alluded to but exceeds explanation. As the great Egyptian Sufi poet Ibn al-Fāriđ wrote, “In allusion, there is meaning not contained in plain expression.”24 This notion of “suggestion” or “resonance” (dhvani) was central to the influential poetics of the Kashmiri Shaivite philosopher Abhinavagupta, who argued that the indirect suggestion of aesthetic experience (rasadhvani, literally “the resonance of taste/flavor or juice/essence”) is the “soul of poetry.” Prefiguring Amīr Khusrau, he writes:

Aesthetical experience takes place, as everyone can notice, by virtue, as it were, of the squeezing out of the poetical word. Persons aesthetically sensitive, indeed, read and taste many times over the same poem. In contradiction to practical means of perception, that, their task being accomplished, are no more of any use and must then be abandoned, a poem, indeed, does not lose its value after it has been comprehended. The words, in poetry, must therefore have an additional power, that of suggestion, and for this very reason the transition from the conventional meaning to the poetic one is unnoticeable.25

Using the example of the phrase “a village in/on the Ganges” (gagāyā ghośaĥ), Abhinavagupta explains that given that the literal sense is impossible (the villagers would drown), the phrase evokes a different mode of cognition, in which the artistic expression itself, its connotations and affective resonances, and not its denotation, become the primary object of an elevated aesthetic experience and enjoyment, in addition to the “decoded,” more literal meaning of “a village on the banks of the Ganges river”:

“A village on the Ganges” suggests the beauty, peacefulness, and holiness of the village. These suggestions spring from the primary sense of the word “Ganges,” not from the secondary, or shifted, sense of “bank,” which we need in order to make sense of the expression. It is logic that demands the secondary sense. The suggestion, the poetry, springs directly from the primary.26

Thus, the faint or imperceptible suggestion (dhvani) of poetry subtly resonates with the memories of experiences and feelings in the mind of the reader the way certain smells or locations or half-heard songs can evoke memories and feelings without our being directly aware of them (e.g., the smell of a particular kind of cloth brings back memories of my childhood in Nigeria and my grandfather, and the word teeth can subtly evoke memories and feelings about particular smiles, barking dogs, or the dentist’s office—but usually at the edges of my awareness). Once aesthetically evoked, these ordinary feelings or states of mind (bhāva) can saturate the consciousness of the listener and are transformed into the heightened aesthetic experience of rasa, the feeling or quality evoked and transfigured by artistic craft and aesthetic delight.27 Abhinavagupta describes this experience of rasa as a kind of refinement or distillation of particular, everyday feelings and states by removing their limiting and individualizing barriers, producing an aesthetic experience that opens up onto universal consciousness of the divine Self.28 For example, he argues that unlike ordinary pleasures—which are inevitably combined with self-interest (such as the desire for the continuance of the pleasure, or various other desires)—at its rapturous peak, the aesthetic “savoring” of rasa is its own goal, virtually escaping the individual self-interests and desires of the listener, whose particular memories and feelings are abstracted or elevated to the more universal level of rasa. As he writes, “A poem’s having the efficacy (bhāvakatva) to create rasas is nothing more than a poem’s power of making the vibhāvas [feelings], etc., universal.”29

1024Px Drawing Butterfly Over Water Ca 1865 Ch 18195235

Butterfly over Water, Frederic Edwin Church, ca. 1865

Like al-Jurjānī, Abhinavagupta describes in great detail the various linguistic and poetic features that produce this kind of heightened aesthetic experience, which he also associates with wonder, surprise, awe, and astonishment;30 he places greater emphasis on the psychological processes that create this elevated aesthetic experience through the unique power of evocative suggestion (dhvani), whose addition to the ordinary denotative functioning of language allows us to “squeeze the juice” out of words, savoring their expressions of the ineffable evoked in our consciousness. As one scholar summarizes Abhinavagupta’s theory: “When language serves art, it neither negates nor dispenses with linguistic apprehension. Rather, it delivers more than language can: the ineffable essence of the subject who experiences love, compassion, grief, the comic, and more, including quietude.”31

Similarly, the Arabic verb sha¢ara—from which the word for poetry (shi¢r) is derived—names a kind of indirect, subtle perception, awareness, feeling, or intuition (shu¢ūr). It also has the same root as sha¢r, which means “hair,” and poets and etymologists have linked this to their shared qualities of fineness and subtlety—the indirect perception we have of things, such as the wind through the hairs on our body and the feeling of our “hair standing on end”—that can accompany this kind of obscure awareness and moving poetry.32 The following verses of Emily Dickinson beautifully convey and portray this dynamic of wonder, surprise, pleasure, ineffability, and the necessity of allusion:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant — 
Success in Circuit lies 
Too bright for our infirm Delight 
The Truth’s superb surprise 
As Lightning to the Children eased 
With explanation kind 
The Truth must dazzle gradually 
Or every man be blind—33

Thus the inexhaustibility of the ineffable finds a home in the allusions, aporias, ambiguities, epistrophes, paradoxes, and coincidence of opposites that characterize poetic speech34 and prevent it from being frozen into a static set of definitions and referents; these subtleties, the indefiniteness of poetic suggestion, and its capacity to inspire awe are what make poetry an “ever-flowing spring” leading to the ocean and not a “cask of water.” As Abhinavagupta writes, “By this road of dhvani (resonance) and of subordinated suggestion, which has been shown, the imagination of poets can be indefinitely extended… a further result is an infinite extension of the poet’s imagination!”35 As opposed to a simple picture or photograph, a true poem is more like an open window through which we can contemplate the ever-changing internal and external worlds, and through which these worlds meet, mingle, and transform each other.36 In short, poetry leads beyond itself. Like music, poetry is perpetually vanishing into the silence that is its origin and destination. As the influential Song dynasty poetry critic, Yan Yu wrote, “Like an echo in the void, and colour in a form, the moon reflected in water, and an image in a mirror, the words come to an end, but the meaning is inexhaustible.”37 Similarly, Tu Wei-Ming wrote of Chinese poetry in the Wei-Chin (ca. fourth-century) period, “What the poet evokes, in the Wei-Chin sense of lyricism, far from being an unrestrained enthusiasm for a passing phenomenon, is a penetrating insight into the enduring pattern of things. The words, so long as they are pointers to the poetic vision of such a pattern, are a necessary instrument for disclosing the Tao. As soon as the Tao is revealed and the meaning understood, they must fade away so that the ineffable Tao can be experienced directly.”38 Or as Bashō wrote, both illustrating and expressing this dynamic:

A cicada shell; 
it sang itself 
utterly away.39

Similarly, Abhinavagupta posits that the ninth rasa of “tranquil quietude” (śanta rasa) is a kind of “rasa of rasas,” running through them all like the thread of a necklace, or like the white light within all colors, and he argues that all successful art should resolve itself into this rasa, which is the end goal of all poetry, of all aesthetic and human experience, as it is the fulfillment and thus the end of all desires; in this regard, he cites the following verses of the Mahābhārata: 

The joy of pleasure in the world 
and the greater joy of pleasures found in heaven 
are not worth a sixteenth of the joy 
that comes from the dying of desire.40

And likewise, the final stanza of San Juan de la Cruz’s beautiful “Noche oscura del alma” (Dark night of the soul) reads: 

I abandoned and forgot myself,
Laying my face on my Beloved; All things ceased;
I went out from myself,
Leaving my cares
Forgotten among the lilies.41

Or consider the testimonies of Rumi’s pen: “Love has come and covered my mouth: ‘Throw away your poetry and come to the stars’”42 and

I think of poetic rhyme while my Beloved 
Tells me to think of Him and nothing else 
What are words that thou shouldst think about them 
What are words but thorns of the wall of the vineyard? 
I shall put aside expressions, words and sounds, 
So that without all three I shall carry out an intimate discourse with thee.43

And

Whatever description or explanation I give of love
when I reach love, I am ashamed of it 
Although the description of the tongue clarifies, 
love that is tongueless is of greater clarity 
As the pen hastened to write 
when it came to love, it split on itself. 
In describing love, reason becomes mired like an ass in mud. 
It is love alone, it is love alone 
which has explained love and being in love.44

Or in one of my own poems:

Words are just folds in
 the bedsheets, un-tight
Reminding us of
 what we did last night
Calling us back to
 our silent delights

But instead of passing over the ineffable in silence, Sufi and other traditional, spiritual poets have gone a different way than the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus and seem to have adopted the motto “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must sing.”

The Madrasa Jurist Painting by Muḥammad Riżā ca 1611

Page from painting by Muḥammad Riżā, ca. 1611

Poetry: The Pattern of the Words and Worlds 

As alluded to above, poetry is particularly effective at leading us beyond itself, transforming us and the world, due to its embodiment of the resonant harmonies between the realms of the cosmos, the human soul, and the transcendent Real, in the realm of human language. As Tu Wei-Ming explains, “The paradox that the Tao is ineffable but can be experienced directly is predicated on the belief that there is always an internal resonance between human beings and the natural order of things.”45 In Qur’anic terms, this can be seen in the symbolic ambiguity of the Qur’anic term āyāt—which means both the symbols of God “on the horizons and in our souls” (41:53) and the verses of the Qur’an—illustrating the doctrine of “the three books” of the human soul, the cosmos, and revelation/scripture that reflect and illuminate each other, conveying the divine message of the nature of the Real. Ibn al-¢Arabī states, “We emerged from speech. That is His word, ‘Be!,’ so we came to be. Silence is a state of nonexistence, and speech is a state of existence.” Commenting on this, William Chittick writes, “Created things are the speech of God, and the words they speak are spoken through them, not by them.”46 If the entire cosmos is speech, and speech ordered by meter and rhyme is poetry,47 then the ordered speech of the cosmos and our souls is a kind of existential poetry, and the poetry we recite is an echo of this creative act. As Ibn al-¢Arabī writes, “All of the world is endowed with rhythm, fastened by rhyme, on the Straight Path.”48 Synthesizing these perspectives, Seyyed Hossein Nasr explains:

According to the traditional doctrine, the inner reality of the cosmos, which unveils itself to the inner eye or to intellectual vision—for which the inner eye is the instrument of perception—is based upon a harmony which imposes itself even upon the corporeal domain. This harmony is, moreover, reflected in the world of language, which is itself a reflection of both the soul of man and of the cosmos…. Harmony is always present, but as its imprint upon the word or substance of language becomes more marked and profound, poetry comes into being, poetry which through its re-echoing of the fundamental Harmony of things is able to aid man to return to the higher states of being and consciousness.49

A similar perspective is found in Liu Xie’s influential work on Chinese poetics, The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons, in which he posits pattern/order (wen) as the unifying constitutive principle underlying the various phenomena of the classic Chinese cosmological triad of heaven, earth, and humanity. Rafal Stepien explains:

Wen is the manifestation of the Way in the world of appearances; it is thus not external decoration (waishi) but the externalization of an internal necessity….

Having thus proposed
wen as the ordering principle of heaven and earth in the very first sentences of his treatise, Liu Xie immediately goes on to position humanity as the third member of this cosmic triad. Humanity is nothing less than “the mind of heaven and earth” (tiandi zhi xin). How so? Because humanity is endowed with consciousness (xingling): the ability to discern the constitutive pattern or wen of things… and, crucially, to give it expressive voice.50

After describing the emergence of wen from the undifferentiation of the supreme ultimate (taiji) and its appearance in the patterns of heaven (e.g., tianwen, astronomy, astrology) and earth (diwen, geography), Liu Xie turns to the emergence of the patterns of humanity: renwen, meaning culture, cultivation, learning, and literature. Starting from the legendary origins of the Chinese writing system from the observation of bird tracks—another account of the “language of the birds” that symbolically unites heaven, earth, and humanity in a natural process—Liu Xie explains, “When mind arises, language abides. When language abides, literature enlightens.”51 That is, just as mind naturally emerges from the process of manifestation as that which must recognize and be aware of wen, the pattern or nature of reality, language naturally emerges from mind, as the medium through which wen can be expressed. Stephen Owen explains, “Language is the fulfillment of the process, the knowing that makes known, and that fulfillment will be human wen [cultivation/literature].”52

Hafezbirds

A page from an illustrated manuscript of The Diwan of Hafiz, Abd al-Samad Shirin-Qalam, ca. 1582

Connecting this process to spiritual enlightenment, Liu Xie writes, “Therefore we know that through the sages the way transmits wen, and that the sages rely on wen to manifest the way,” and Stepien comments, “This means that, by authoring works of wen, those engaged in literary craft embody, manifest, enlighten (ming) the way inherently at work in all nature.”53 That is, properly patterned literature, such as good poetry, both reflects and emerges from the very nature of reality. It is the full flowering of the “mind of heaven and earth,” the fruit containing the seed from which the entire cosmic tree emerged.54 Liu Xie contrasts this true literature of the titular “carving dragons” (dioalong), which naturally expresses and completes the very pattern of the fabric of reality, with the pejorative “carving insects” (diaochong), the shallow artifice of “frippery poetastery,”55 concluding his classic work with the following verse: 

If literature conveys the mind
My mind has been delivered.56

Birds are also central to the mythical origin of Sanskrit poetry, according to which the first verse (shloka) was composed as the sage Vālmīki was happily watching a pair of mating cranes in the river, when suddenly, a hunter’s arrow killed one of the birds, and thereupon its mate gave a piercing, mournful cry and died of grief. Moved by this tragic scene and spotting the hunter, Vālmīki extemporaneously proclaimed the first verse of Sanskrit poetry, which became the model for the structure of the Rāmāyaṇa: 

You will find no rest for the long years of Eternity
For you killed a bird in love and unsuspecting.57

Later writers, such as Abhinavagupta, explain the process by which this first verse of the first poet came into being as the transmutation of the bird’s grief and cry, in the clear heart of the sage through “a melting of his thought” into the universal form of rasa, which “then like the spilling over of a jar filled with liquid, like the pouring forth of one’s emotion into a cry of lament, this [grief now transformed into the rasa of compassion] found its final form in a verse cast into fixed form of meter and into appropriate words.”58 That is, it took a visionary sage to perceive the universal, underlying structure of reality revealed in the particular event and transform it in the “clear mirror” of his own heart (which was already structured according to the same universal pattern of reality) into the generalized rasa. This state could then be expressed in appropriate speech of poetry, whose patterns of suggestion or resonance (dhvani) evoke the same universal consciousness of aesthetic perception, of rasa. As Abhinavagupta’s teacher wrote:

It has been said that no non-seer can be deservingly called a poet, and one is a seer only by virtue of his vision. Vision is the power of disclosing intuitively the reality underlying the manifold materials in the world and their aspects. To be termed a “poet” in the authoritative texts it is enough to be possessed of this vision of reality. But in everyday speech the world accords that title to him alone who possesses vision as well as expression. Thus, though the first poet (Vālmīki) was highly gifted with enduring and clear vision, he was not hailed as a poet by people until he embodied it in a descriptive work.59

A similar understanding based on the Platonic and Aristotelian notion of mimesis (imitation/representation) of the forms of nature is echoed in Taylor’s aforementioned Poetic Knowledge, where he writes, “Poetry, and poetic knowledge, discovers the invisible principles in real things without destroying the thing itself.”60 Similarly, one scholar describes Gerard Manley Hopkins’s central notion of “an inscape,” based on the Neoplatonic philosophy of Duns Scotus: “To Hopkins, an inscape was something more than a delightful sensory impression: it was an insight, by divine grace, into the ultimate spiritual reality, seeing the pattern, air, melody, in things from, as it were, God’s side.”61

Hopkins’s poetry has always strongly reminded me of traditional Yoruba poetry, whose general poetics (in the broad sense of the term, including all forms of art)62 is most clearly encapsulated in the concept and genre of oríkì, which are “collections or strings of name-like attributive epithets, ‘praises’ which are neither narrative nor descriptive, but vocative. They are addressed to their subject or ‘owner,’ and are felt to encapsulate, and evoke in some way, that subject’s essential powers and qualities.”63 Oríkì literally means to “call,” “evoke,” or even “provoke” the orí of a thing, which is at once its “head,” “inner reality,” “guardian spirit,” and “destiny,” chosen in heaven before it comes down to earth.64 The numerous myths about orí describe it as a kind of nexus where each individual thing meets the supreme Being and Creator (Olódùmàrè/Ọlọ́run); one priestess describes orí as “that part of one’s complex identity which is an imperishable part of God,” and another sage characterizes it as “the act of the self [ẹmi] when it is with the supreme deity (Ọlọ́run).”65 Thus, the poetry of oríkì functions to call forth the universal, spiritual essence (orí) of a particular thing, which is also a particular power or quality of the universal sacred (Olódùmàrè/Ọlọ́run), manifested through the descent of the divine word (ọ̀rọ̀).66

In these anthropocosmic conceptions of poetry, the poet imitates, or extends, and ultimately participates in the creative act of the Creator, patterning human language so as to sympathetically resonate with the related underlying patterns of the world and consciousness. Aimé Césaire describes this process: 

But one man… puts humanity back in the universal concert, one man unites the human flowering with universal flowering; that man is the poet…. In other words, poetry is full bloom. The blossoming of mankind to the dimensions of the world; giddy dilation. And it can be said that all true poetry, without ever abandoning its humanity, at the moment of the greatest mystery ceases to be strictly human so as to be truly cosmic. There we see resolved, and by the poetic state, two of the most anguishing antinomies that exist: the antinomy of one and other, the antinomy of Self and World…. He speaks and returns language to its purity. By purity I mean not subject to habit or thought but only to the cosmic thrust. The poet’s word, the primal word: rupestral design in the stuff of sound. The poet’s utterance, primal utterance, the universe played with and copied.67

Thus, in true poetry, the walls that separate subject and object, self and other, nature and culture, language and reality, the Real (al-Ĥaqq) / ultimate reality / Self and creation (al-khalq) / conventional reality / self are porous (if they can be said to exist at all), leading to a distinct form of “poetic knowledge” that is clearly described by Bashō: 

Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one—when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well-phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural—if the object and yourself are separate—then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.68

Or, as Wallace Stevens writes in “The Snow Man”:

One must have a mind of winter 
To regard the frost and the boughs 
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;69

Poetic Knowledge 

As Jacques Maritain argues, this kind of poetic, unitive knowledge is closely related to the notion of “connatural knowledge” in the Thomist tradition, which he defines as “knowledge through affective union.”70 St. Thomas Aquinas used this term to refer to direct mystical knowledge born of contemplation, not study, and the knowledge of virtue that comes from being virtuous, not from studying moral philosophy.71 Similarly, al-Ghazālī contrasted the existential, direct knowledge of the Sufis from merely conceptual knowledge, writing, “How great a difference there is between your knowing the definitions and causes and conditions of health and satiety and your being healthy and sated! And how great a difference there is between your knowing the definition of drunkenness… and your actually being drunk!”72 In the terminology of Sufism, this kind of direct, existential knowledge is known as ma¢rifah (“gnosis” or “recognition”) or more poetically as dhawq (“tasting”), due to its directness and the fact that it is what accompanies the existential incorporation of a thing by eating or drinking. 

Maritain characterizes this poetic knowledge: “In this knowledge through union or inclination, connaturality or congeniality, the intellect is at play not alone, but together with affective inclinations and the dispositions of the will, and as guided and shaped by them. It is not rational knowledge, knowledge through the conceptual, logical, and discursive exercise of reason. But it is really and genuinely knowledge, though obscure and perhaps incapable of giving account of itself.”73

However, clear accounts of this and related forms of knowledge are found in the Islamic philosophical tradition, particularly that of the Ishrāqī tradition inaugurated by Suhrawardī and its later development in the works of Mullā Śadrā and others, where this kind of knowledge is described as knowledge by presence (al-¢ilm al-ĥuđūrī)—the presence of the known in the consciousness/soul of the knower, who thus knows it through direct self-knowledge, in contrast to knowledge by representation (al-¢ilm al-rasmī), in which the object of knowledge is known indirectly, as through a definition.74 Poetic knowledge is thus a knowledge born of love, intimacy, and union, the knowledge of a seemingly other as self. As the poet said: 

If not for You, we would not know Love 
If not for Love, we would not know You.75 

Taylor describes it as “knowledge from the inside out, radically different in this regard from a knowledge about things.”76 It is one thing to read about the dimensions of the Grand Canyon in a textbook; it is quite another thing to be awestruck as the rising sun illuminates its grandeur. Modern science can give biological facts about why moths dance around a flame, but it takes poetic knowledge to see this as a symbol or sign (āyah), to delight in the gleams of the reality of love that shine through this event, to know what it means and discloses about the nature of the Real. It is one thing to know the genome of a horse or dissect its cadaver, and quite another to grow up tending to and being tended to by one, or to have the horse as one’s totem or animal guide. Such connaturality, or having the same nature, yields co-naissaince, a knowledge that is a “co-birthing” of the reality of the object of knowledge within us. The poet’s capturing of this inner reality in the creation or birthing of language adequate to it sets it free in the listener/reader. As I have written:

To Read a Poem Is to Free a Bird

Within bold rhythm's bars and rhymes 
wait wingèd words, like souls, to fly 
in through your eyes, one at a time 
and lift your body from inside 
pupils dilate, locks melt like ice 
and birds in murmuration rise 
like swarms of smoke into the sky 
they rise and dip and float and dive 
as free as light, wild as the wise

Such knowledge both requires and is the fruit of the profound, existential, spiritual transformation of love, of becoming “connatural,” having the same nature as that which is known. As ¢Aţţār wrote:

We are all really three butterflies 
In the world of love, we are a legend 
The first came near the candle and said 
“I have found the meaning of love” 
The second fluttered its wing near the flame and said, 
“I’ve been burned by the fire of love” 
The third threw himself into the fire 
Yes, yes, this is the meaning love.77

And in the words of Rūmī:

This becoming is necessary condition for seeing
the real nature of anything
Until you become it, you will not know it completely, whether it be light or darkness
If you become Reason, You will know Reason perfectly
If you become Love, You will know Love’s flaming wick78

And

The Sufi’s book is not composed of ink and letters, 
It is naught but a heart white as snow 
The scholars’ provisions are the marks of the pen. 
What are the Sufi’s provisions? The footprints of the saints 

My knowledge is substance not accident. This precious thing is not to be used for every aim 
I am a mine of candy, a plantation of sugar cane—it grows up within me and I eat of it myself.79

And 

“Whatever mate you desire, go! Become obliterated in your Beloved! Assume the same shape and attributes!”80

And 

From the first I heard the story of love 
I wore out soul, heart, and eyes on its path 
I said, “perhaps lover and beloved are two” 
But both were one, and I was only cross-eyed.81

Such a knowledge involves not just the intellect but also the imagination, emotions, senses, and body, as Maritain notes:  

And because poetry is born in this root life where the powers of the soul are active in common, poetry implies an essential requirement of totality or integrity. Poetry is the fruit neither of the intellect alone, nor of imagination alone. Nay more, it proceeds from the totality of man, sense, imagination, intellect, love, desire, instinct, blood and spirit together. And the first obligation imposed on the poet is to consent to be brought back to the hidden place, near the center of the soul, where this totality exists in the state of a creative source.82

This totality can be seen in the form of poetry itself, which moves us from the depths of our heart to the tips of our hairs, in the case of the greatest poetry, speaking to us at all levels of our being. As former US poet-laureate Robert Pinsky explains: 

Poetry is a vocal, which is to say bodily, art. The medium of poetry is the human body.... In this sense, poetry is just as physical or bodily an art as dancing. Moreover, there is a special intimacy to poetry because, in this idea of the art, the medium is not an expert’s body, as when one goes to the ballet: in poetry, the medium is the audience’s body…. The artist’s medium is my breath.83

Poetry is able to synthesize and unite these different aspects of the human being, and being itself, due to its quality as a barzakh, a liminal reality that both unites and separates opposites. Breath, or language, the medium of poetry, is a barzakh between the inside and outside of a human being, and between the body and the spirit/intellect—this is why it plays such an important role in so many spiritual exercises from various traditions. Poetry is a barzakh between the silence of the ineffable and speech, between music and prose, between feeling and thought, between adhwāq (“tastings,” direct experience) and awrāq (“papers,” discursive expression). This quality can be discerned in the form of poetic language itself; the rhythms and meters of poetry are a barzakh between eternity and time, stillness and motion; rhyme is a barzakh between one sound and many; figurative language is a barzakh between the thing signified and its signifier; the wonder evoked by poetry is a barzakh between ignorance and knowledge. Poetry itself is a barzakh between everyday thoughts and feelings and the realization of ultimate reality. In the Sufi tradition, the human being is itself a barzakh between Being and nothingness, and as God’s khalīfa (vicegerent), a barzakh between the Real (al-Ĥaqq) and Its creation (al-khalq). 

This is why, in traditions such as Sufism, poetry is a privileged means of conveying spiritual realization, the fulfillment of the human potential,84 the direct, existential knowledge of and conformity to the Real. While not all who attain this realization compose poetry, and not all poets attain this realization, both the foundation and highest pitch of this poetic knowledge are none other than the direct knowledge of spiritual realization (ma¢rifah). As Rūmī writes: 

Between the realized saint and the imitator are great differences,
for the former sings like David, while the latter is but an echo. 
The saint’s words rise up out of burning passion, 
but the imitator has memorized some old sayings.85

To give an example from the world of Arabic poetry, the following famous verses of Abū Firās al-Ĥamadānī were written to his cousin, the Emir Sayf al-Dawlah, imploring him to ransom him from prison: 

As long as you’re sweet, let life be bitter 
As long as you’re pleased, let people be mad 
As long as there’s a bond between me and you 
Let all between me and the worlds be in ruins 
If truly you love me, then all things are easy 
And let all that’s over the dust, be dust.86 

Because of the universal chord they struck, these verses have become a favorite among lovers and Sufis in particular, who, rather than separating human and divine love, understand all loves and longings as delimited forms of Love itself, and all beauties as delimited forms of divine beauty. So in the particular, practical, plaintive cry of Abū Firās to escape captivity, they hear the cry of every sincere soul longing for deliverance from delimitation into the arms of the Absolute Beloved. For most Sufi poets, there is no beauty and no meaning but God, but this is an inclusive, and not an exclusive, unity (or rather, an inclusivity that includes both inclusion and exclusion). Ibn al-Fāriđ writes: 

If I say, I have each and every passion for you 
He says, all beauty is mine, and every loveliness is in me.87

And 

That I could hear my acts with a seeing ear 
And witness my words with a hearing eye 
So when the nightingale mourns in the tangled bush 
And the birds in the trees warble in reply 
Or when the flutist’s notes quiver in accord 
With the strings plucked by a singing girl’s hand 
As she sings poetry whose every note 
Moves hearts to fly to their lote tree 
Then I delight in the traces of my art declaring my union 
And company free from the idolatry of difference 
By me the invoker’s assembly is the ear of one who reads with care 
For me, the open tavern is the eye of the soldiers on patrol.88 

Similarly, Abhinavagupta’s teacher, Bhaţţa Totta, defines poetic intuition/imagination (pratibhā) as “a form of intuitive consciousness, prajnā, which is an inexhaustible source of new forms. It is by virtue of this intuition alone that one deserves the title of ‘poet,’ of one, that is, who is ‘skillful to express.’” To his teacher’s definition, Abhinavagupta adds that “pratibhā does not exhaust itself in the poetical intuition, but is, in a broader sense, the same consciousness, the same Self [as the Creator]. In the majority of men, it does not succeed in liberating itself from the chain of relationships and practical interests which condition and constrict it, but, in the poet, it burns with a purified light—to shine out finally in all its fullness in the intuition of the saints.”89 As a translator of Abhinavagupta’s works concludes, “Artistic intuition is a particular hypostasis of universal or total intuition, that is to say, of consciousness as a force which creates and continually renews the Universe.”90

Likewise, contrasting the poet and the sage, Tu Wei-Ming insightfully observes: 

It is true that the poet, unlike the sage, cannot embody the Tao in its all-embracing fullness. However, even though he cannot experience the Tao in the same profundity as the sage can, he articulates the subtlety of the Tao holistically through concrete symbolization. The ability of the poet to do so, like the sage in this case, emanates from a penetrating insight into the inner structure of a thing, be it natural scenery, social condition, or human feeling. The procedure, comparable to the idea of hitting the target on mark, mentioned above, is to embrace the whole by first grasping what the heart of the matter is. To emerge from the core, as it were, involves total immersion radically different from detached observation. The detached observer may choose to move cautiously from the periphery to the center, whereas the lyric poet of the Wei-Chin style must live through the center before he can make sense out of the whole thing, for the relevance and the meaningfulness of the periphery depends on the experiential encounter.… [which] is not out there in the sky, but, like the “music of Heaven,” exists here and now at the center of our lived experience.91

This bears a strong resemblance to Goethe’s poetic/scientific “tender empiricism” (zarte Empirie): “There is a tender empiricism that intimately merges with its object and through this very identification becomes the actual theory. This heightening of intellectual faculties, however, belongs to a highly cultivated age.”92

The Decline of Poetic Knowledge and Poetry in the Modern West

However, Goethe’s “highly cultivated age” hardly describes the climate in which most of us now live, which is characterized by an opposition between the poetic and the scientific, with the former viewed as fundamentally subjective, expressive, and emotive, and the latter as objective, analytic, intellectual, and true. As Nasr writes, “As a result of the continuous parting of ways between art and thought, intellectuality and sensuality, and logic and poetry which has taken place in the West since the Renaissance, the traditional doctrine according to which poetry and logic refer to a single Reality that binds and yet transcends them has been almost completely forgotten.”93 This eclipsing and denial of the possibility and/or significance of mystical and poetic knowledge in the modern West, coinciding with the closing off or flattening of the human subject in Cartesian and Kantian formulations, led to the rampant reductionism that emphasizes quantitative models over the qualitative realities of things, rendering even human consciousness itself an “object”—an epiphenomenon of brain chemistry.94 As can be expected, this decline of poetic knowledge has had a profound effect on poetry and its readers, and poets, as the singing canaries in the mineshaft, have long sounded the alarm. 

One of the most eloquent and profound of these poetic jeremiads can be found in Aimé Césaire’s speech “Poetry and Knowledge,” which begins, “Poetic knowledge is born in the great silence of scientific knowledge…. Science affords a view of the world, but a summary and superficial view…. It is poor and half-starved…. To acquire the impersonality of scientific knowledge mankind depersonalized itself, deindividualized itself. An impoverished knowledge, I submit, for at its inception—whatever other wealth it may have—there stands an impoverished humanity.”95 The Senegalese poetic novelist Cheikh Hamidou Kane similarly wrote, “[Modern science] makes you the masters of the external, but at the same time it exiles you there, more and more.”96 In response to this crisis, Césaire proposed a “new” (but actually old) “science of the Word,” wedding the precision of scientific natural laws with the richness and profundity of myth and poetry, which he described as “that process which through word, image, myth, love and humor establishes me at the living heart of myself and of the world.”97 This sentiment is echoed in the penultimate verses of William Carlos Williams’s “Asphodel”: 

It is difficult 
to get the news from poems 
Yet men die miserably every day 
For lack
of what is found there.98

James Baldwin declaimed a similarly insightful diagnosis: “The poets are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union leaders don’t. Only poets.... [This is] a time… when something awful is happening to a civilization, when it ceases to produce poets, and, what is even more crucial, when it ceases in any way whatever to believe in the report that only the poets can make.”99 The desensitization to poetry and poetic knowledge, what Abhinavagupta called a “hardening of the heart,” was achieved largely through initiation into modern forms of education, labor, life, and leisure, and alienated people not only from nature and the Creator but also from each other and themselves. 

Poets and poetry played a central role in the reactions against many of these trends, such as the Anglo-German Romantic movement of the nineteenth century; however, like most reactionary movements, the Romantic and other reactions and counter-reactions against the rationalist and reductionist tendencies of secular modernity were profoundly shaped by that against which they rebelled. As Talal Asad has demonstrated, the emergence of a secular self assumed by rationalists, romantics, and other modern intellectual-aesthetic movements had a profound effect on the conception, composition, and form of poetry.100 Poetry was increasingly conceived of as a work of individual genius, the subjective mending of a shattered world or the creation of a new world, in the mind of the poet. Due to this individualization and cutting off of the human subject from the Divine and creation, from heaven and earth, the divine or angelic inspiration of the muse or jinn and the literal magic of poetry to change the world and transform the soul was reduced to a matter of subjective metaphor and psychology. With some notable exceptions, in this new secular climate, cut off from the spiritual root of poetic knowledge and experience, the flower of poetry (like religion) wilted and withered—either into the empty artifice of mannerism that sought to preserve the form without the inner content to which it corresponded or, as a reaction against this decadence, the intentional breaking of classical forms in search of sincerity and profundity of feeling and truth. Relatedly, with the closing off of the human subject, modern poetry became less universal and more individual and subjective, fracturing into a “high-art” poetry for the elite, educated classes, read silently or quietly off a page individually or in small groups, and the “folk” poetry of songs, which retained the traditional structures that facilitated its public and communal performance with music and dance. This divide did not fully occur in cultures where traditional poetry still thrives; for example, musically reciting Ibn al-Fāriđ’s “Nażm al-sulūk” or al-Būśīrī’s “Qaśīdat al-burdah” in a group is a very different experience from reading Eliot’s “The Waste Land” in a library or armchair, and is in many ways more akin to singing along to Aretha Franklin at a church concert.101

The following poem by Herman Hesse strikingly illustrates both the alienated modern poet’s nostalgia for and subjective, metaphorical, romantic re-appropriation of the traditional poetics of a Bashō or Abhinavagupta: 

Sometimes when a bird cries out,
Or the wind sweeps through a tree,
Or a dog howls in a far-off farm,
I hold still and listen a long time. 
My world turns and goes back to the place
Where a thousand forgotten years ago,
The bird and the blowing wind
Were like me, and were my brothers. 
My soul turns into a tree,
And an animal and a cloudbank.
Then changed and odd it comes home
And asks me questions.
What should I reply?102
22 The Concourse Of The Birds22 Folio 11R From A Mantiq Al Tair Language Of The Birds Met Dt227737

A folio from an illustrated manuscript of The Conference of the Birds, Habiballah of Sava, ca. 1600

But among traditional, nonsecular poets, as Tu Wei-Ming points out, “the idea of an ontological alienation of humanity from the Creator, on the one hand, and the rest of the world, on the other, is totally absent; indeed, it is not even a rejected possibility.”103 Or as Rūmī writes, illustrating the futility of the attempt to achieve poetic knowledge through reason and sentiment alone, 

Even if you are able to discern the language of the birds, 
how can you discern what they want to say? 
If you learn the call of a nightingale, 
what will you know of his love for the Rose? 
And if you try to understand through reasoning and surmise, 
that will be like a deaf man’s conjectures concerning the movements of a person’s lips.104

The same uncanny contrast can be seen between the description of the poet as a sage-seer (rishi) put forward by Abhinavagupta’s teacher and the following account by Rimbaud, perhaps the greatest modern French poet: 

I say that one must be a seer, make oneself a seer. The poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, and keeps only their quintessences. This is an unspeakable torture during which he needs all his faith and superhuman strength, and during which he becomes the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed—and the great learned one!—among men.—For he arrives at the unknown! Because he has cultivated his own soul—which was rich to begin with—more than any other man! He reaches the unknown; and even if, crazed, he ends up by losing the understanding of his visions, at least he has seen them! Let him die charging through those unutterable, unnameable things: other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where he has succumbed!105

As the Arabic proverb says, “What a difference there is between the two Yazīds!” To paraphrase Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the traditional poet and poetry are “pontifical,” a brilliant bridge between heaven and earth, God and creation, ultimate and conventional reality, the universal and the particular, the objective and the subjective, while the secular or modern poet tends toward the “promethean,” attempting to storm and eavesdrop at the gates of heaven like the jinn described in the Qur’an (15:17–19), or toward the “imprisoned,” struggling to escape the limited and limiting confines of modern subjectivity and alienation by any means possible.106 Every poet is a bit of a magician and a would-be sage—hence the tragic fates of so many poets trapped in these climates dominated by hard hearts, technology without truth, and wizards without wisdom.

Nevertheless, even in such hostile climes, poetry continues to wield immense, although typically invisible, influence. As the explorers of human experience, poets and poetry function as the advance scouts for modern science, whose bulldozer-like methods tend to follow in their wake, bringing usefulness and mathematical precision to these vistas. As Césaire wrote, “On the whole, modern science is perhaps only the pedantic verification of some mad images spewed out by poets.”107 Even among scientists and mathematicians, the process of discovery typically begins with and by a kind of poetic knowledge—through deep intuition, dreams, flashes of insight that are only later confirmed through more deductive methods. As the great French mathematician Henri Poincaré wrote, “It is by logic that we prove, but by intuition that we discover,”108 and Einstein proclaimed, “There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition resting on sympathetic understanding of experience can reach them.”109

Similarly, in his “A Defense of Poetry,” Percy Shelley called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” due to the fact that they make the categories, metaphors, idioms, and proverbs through which we both experience and interpret reality. In what is, perhaps, an example of such pedantic verification, recent scientific work across a number of fields has echoed Shelley’s thesis of the power of language to shape our experience of ourselves and our worlds,110 and since poets are among the most influential masters of language, they make the words through which we sense and know and change the world. As Rūmī wrote, “Hurry! Speak fresh words, so that the two worlds may be refreshed.”111

However, for Hafez, the prophet of poets, it is not necessarily the poets but rather the masters of the poetic knowledge of ma¢rifah, the dervishes, who are the “unacknowledged legislators” of the world, as he sings: 

The garden of eternity is in the retreat of the dervishes
 the very essence of grandeur is the service of the dervishes
The treasury of glory that is sealed by the talisman of wonders
 opens at the merciful glance of the dervishes
The castle of paradise for which Rizwan is the doorkeeper
 is but a view from the lawn of the dervishes
That which by its radiance turns black hearts to gold
 is the alchemy that is the company of the dervishes
That before which the sun lays down its crown of glory
 is the greatness that comes from the grandeur of the dervishes
The empire (dawlat) whose decline need never be feared
 without exaggeration, is the power/state of the dervishes
The kings are the qibla to which we direct our needs
 and this is because they are the slaves of the dervishes
That which kings seek to achieve in their prayers
 is manifested in the mirror of the countenance of the dervishes
From shore to shore is the army of tyranny,
 but from beginningless eternity to eternity without end is the time of the dervishes
O rich man, don’t sell us so much vanity
 for your health and wealth are in the hands of the resolve (himmat) of the dervishes
Korah’s treasure, which still is still sinking from heaven’s severity
 is an effect of the wrath of the dervishes
Hafez, if you’re seeking the eternal water of life
 its spring is the dust of the retreat of the dervishes
I am the slave of the Asaf of my time
 because he has the looks of a nobleman and the character of the dervishes.112

Conclusion 

Poetry is a precious treasure. Like all art, poetry can express what resists explanation and analysis, but poetry is perhaps unique among the arts for its distinctive synthetic quality113 that allows it to combine seeming opposites—such as passion and intellect, ambiguity and precision, body and soul—into a totality that mirrors that of our own being. Whereas movies and theater surround and engulf us, poetry subtly impregnates and saturates our whole being from within, producing effects all the more powerful due to their subtlety. As Sa¢dī wrote, “With a sweet tongue and kindness and silence, can you catch an elephant by a hair.”114 Like lullabies that put us to sleep, poetry more generally has the power to profoundly shift our consciousness, our bodies, our entire being. However, in traditional poetics, whether that of Yoruba oríkì, Abhinavagupta’s rasa theory, Ibn al-¢Arabī's cosmopoetics, or Liu Xie’s carving dragons, true poetry functions to awaken us to or awaken within us a heightened consciousness of reality and reality of consciousness. As such, poetry both emerges from and embodies a “poetic knowledge,” which, while not being limited to poetry, is, as Maritain writes, “the kind of inherent knowledge that is immanent in and consubstantial with poetry, one with its very essence.”115 Although Plato spoke of (and perhaps even helped inaugurate) an “ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy,”116 poetic knowledge is not opposed to philosophical or logical knowledge but rather complements or even integrates their universal and abstract perspectives into one in which the universal and particular, the inner/subjective and the outer/objective, the spiritual/intellectual and the sensual are united in their common root.117 Indeed, since philosophy arises from wonder, and poetry is the language of wonder par excellence, poetry can be said to be the mother of philosophy.118 Islamic folklore holds that after God “taught Adam all the names” (2:31), the first humans spoke poetry—a speech whose patterns mirrored and resonated with those of the inner and outer worlds made up of the words of divine speech. Or as Ibn al-¢Arabī says, poetically employing technical Aristotelian terminology, “Poetry is the substance, and prose is the accident.”119

Poetic knowledge is knowledge not abstracted from but rather integrated with sensation, imagination, feeling, intuition, spirit, and awe. The Qur’anic prayer “My Lord, increase me in knowledge” (20:114) is echoed in the prayer for poetic knowledge attributed to the Prophet, “My Lord, increase me in bewilderment in you!”120 and the opening line of Ibn al-Fāriđ’s famous qasida, “Increase my share of love for you, bewildered.” It is characterized by the bewildering “shock of the Real,” the awe-inspiring encounter with the transcendent formless in immanent form that stops time and everyday thought and description, as the Qur’an says: “We hurl the truth against falsehood and it dashes its brains out, and behold, it vanishes. And woe to you for that which you describe!” (21:18). 

In the terms of Sufism, poetry is the language of baqā’ (subsistence), the annihilation of the annihilation in God (fanā’ al-fanā’ fī Allāh), which, like the descent of the Prophet’s mi¢rāj, returns the knower (¢ārif) to the world while bringing him paradoxically closer to God.121 Just as God transcends His transcendence to manifest His immanence in or as all things, and He silences the primordial silence to bring forth the worlds through divine speech, poetry similarly expresses the ineffable by “hearing” or “seeing” its manifestations in and through limited concrete forms, tracing these forms back to their origin and then remanifesting them in sounds and words crafted to tie it all together and take the listener on a similar journey of realization astride the steed of beauty. It is a journey of seeing and experiencing the ineffable Real on the horizons and in ourselves, and the horizons and ourselves in God. As Shakespeare wrote in A Midsommer Night’s Dream,“The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven; and as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet's pen turns them to shape, and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name; such tricks hath strong imagination.”122 Poetry echoes and participates in the divine act of creation, which is why so many of the best poets have been adepts of spiritual disciplines that mold and harmonize their consciousness and bodies according to sacred models, and why the composition and recitation of poetry is often practiced as an important spiritual discipline. As St. Gregory Nazianzus, one of the greatest of Greek-language and early Christian poets, wrote in his poem “On Matters of Measure”: 

First, with measured labor, I discipline my soul; 
For writing lines can measure my unmetered mind and keep my greedy pen in check. 
Instead I spend my sweat on metric form. 
Second, I write for youths and for whoever takes a deep delight in words. 
My verses read like sugar with elixir mixed; 
They can win men to virtue’s work and discipline 
By sweeting with art, the bitterness of law: 
Think how a pulled-back bowstring loves to be let loose.123

A few lines later, responding to critics of his verse, he retorts: 

You criticize the meter, understandably so, for you are without measure,
a writer of invective, creating malformed offspring. 
For who, being blind, could recognize one who can see?124 

That is, the harmony and discipline of poetic language both emerge from and help to cultivate the harmony and discipline of soul, which also characterize the fullness of poetic knowledge. 

Like us, poetry is a rainbow bridge of breath, sound, rhythm, feeling, thought, imagination, and spirit running between heaven and earth, the Real and creation, the Absolute and the relative, the eternal and the temporal, the inner (al-bāţin) and the outer (al-żāhir), the universal and the particular. Without reducing one side to the other, it permits us to go back and forth between the two shores and view each afresh. Its formal features of rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, allusion, paradox, and so on are not mere ornamentation but rather the very music of the “language of the birds”: that which makes the “licit magic” of poetry work, what opens it up onto that which is beyond form. 

While the upheavals of modernity have cut off some poetry from its traditional source of inspiration125 and hardened the hearts of its audiences, traditional poetry still survives, and in some places (typically wherever serious spirituality survives) even thrives.126 As Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes of traditional poetry, summarizing much of what has been discussed above,  

It is precisely because such poetry is the fruit of spiritual vision that it is able to convey an intellectual message as well as to cause what might be called an “alchemical transformation” in the human soul. Poetry, then, is similar to logic in that it is a means and vehicle for the expression of the Truth, and complements logic in that it deals with forms of knowledge which are inaccessible to the unaided logical faculties of “fallen man.” Also poetry brings about a transformation of the soul and its sensibilities in a manner which is not possible for a purely logical work. Such poetry has the effect of causing consent to the truth within the human soul, a consent that is related to certitude and complements the consent which results from the exercise of man’s logical faculties. It might be said that in logic words have the power of both denotation and connotation, while in poetry they also have the power of suggestion and awakening of an already existing possibility for intuitive knowledge in the soul, an awakening which corresponds to a transformation of the state of the soul.127

Good poetry feels like truth, true poetry sounds beautiful, beautiful poetry “tastes” good, and all decent poetry is perfumed by the scent of wonder and awe, making us see things anew. Poetry makes tangible and existentially realizable the union of the transcendentals of truth, beauty, and goodness; poetry allows us to experience the harmony of the very qualities of Being (and even sense the ineffable quality of no-qualities of Beyond Being) in ourselves and in every being. As Wallace Stevens concludes the “The Snow Man”: 

For the listener, who listens in the snow, 
And, nothing himself, beholds 
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.128

In a similar vein, Patrick Laude calls poetry “a form of the Formless,” and Keats wrote, 

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all. 
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. 

Similarly, Bashō advises, “What is important is to keep our mind high in the world of true understanding, and, returning to the world of our daily experience, to seek therein the truth of beauty. No matter what we may be doing at a given moment, we must not forget that it has a bearing upon our everlasting self which is poetry.”129

I wish to close with a few stanzas that suggested themselves to me while writing this essay—perhaps for the reasons mentioned above, they will serve as a better conclusion than the preceding prose of this essay: 

Beyond the din of screeching pens 
Between the lines’ definitions 
Lies what our words can’t quite pen in 
Truth without shore roars like oceans 
A bee seeds the flowers 
The birds sing the trees 
These words that you speak are 
What we are and breathe 
Not all who sing are poets 
and not all poets sing 
Truth is—beyond and yet within 
the wind stirred up by wings— 
Within all songs, silence is found— 
loud flower’s sky and quiet ground 
the black of night, the bright of day 
in your eyes’ vibrant depths are drowned— 
And so Love hides inside my poems 
to kiss your lips as you recite them 
falling into a place beyond time
beyond space where I am yours and you’re mine


This work was supported by a grant from the Templeton Religion Trust.

keyboard_arrow_up