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
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.