A Poem by Heart: A Soul Practice

Gazing out over the lush green ravine in the early light, barefoot on the earth, I repeated the poem aloud as a prayer, a new way to greet the morning.

Back inside the house, I opened my blue notebook on the coffee table and quietly read the lines again. Noting that I had misspoken one of the words in the middle of the poem, I repeated the correct word a few times, invisibly turning it over in my palm like a smooth stone, and tucked it away inside my heart.

For some years now, I have carried and cherished a soft-sided blue folder stuffed full of meaningful, soul-centered poems by notable poets. I obtained it in my early days with Animas Valley Institute, when I was apprenticing to be a rites of passage/ ‘Underworld guide’—one who leads others into the depths of soul for personal transformation. Soulful poetry read or spoken to the group is a hallmark of any AVI program, for the imagery of good poetry speaks directly to the soul; it bypasses the logical, rational brain, speaks directly to our feelings, and transports us to the mysterious depths.

Though I had dabbled with writing poems in my early adulthood, I had been mostly estranged from poetry for many years. Certainly I had never encountered it read aloud in a meaningful way, even though I had attended one or two “open mic” poetry readings in my youthful Seattle days, but mostly I felt I didn’t quite “get it,” perhaps because the poems being read didn’t necessarily speak to me. It wasn’t until my apprenticeship with AVI—often seated on the earth in a circle of bravely seeking souls in some wilderness location, enfolded by the alluring forms and forces of nature—that my heart opened to the power of poetry. The time and place were right, so too were the poems. I finally ‘got it’.

The cover of my dear blue notebook is slightly ripped, stained, and spotted, the pages within folded over at corners to mark favorites, or adorned with little ribbons of yellow sticky notes as markers. Many journeys it has traveled in my rucksack or carry bag. I am familiar with all the poems in this battered folder and many of them feel like good friends—ones whose lines or stanzas I know intimately from reading them and hearing them over and over. I have added to the collection over the years, typing up and printing out poems that I resonate with, tucking them into the front or rear pocket of the tattered folder.

Often times I will simply open the collection to a page at random and read the poem there, speaking it aloud to the silence. Occasionally to friends or loved ones. When I was leading men’s groups, I always began each session with a soul-infused poem to help participants drop into their bodies in a conscious, feeling way.

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After the Redwood Men’s Conference near Mendocino in May, in writing about my experience (“A Gathering of Men”; click the title to read, opens in a new window), I shared that one of my favorite things about the weekend was the way a number of men stepped forward and spoke poems aloud by memory. Some of these offered gems I knew but many were new to me. I was humbled and inspired, for not even the poems I knew could I offer up without reading them on a page.

There is something powerful in a poem spoken aloud. Like hearing a well-told story, a timeless quality enfolds the listener. We pause. Our breath shifts. We open slightly in a different way. In an age of digital media, where we have become almost entirely focused upon our dominant, visual sense, listening to the spoken word cultivates a different channel among our main ‘windows of knowing’. It invites us to pay attention, welcoming the words into our bodysoul, where they speak directly to our feeling sense and heart. A spoken poem also reveals something about the speaker, that he or she cared enough, was affected deeply enough by that poem to take the time to commit it to memory—thus we glimpse a bit of their soul.

In the Yahoo group thread/discussion after the Redwood Men’s Conference, a man whose deep affinity for poetry—both others’ and his own—deeply moved me, shared the poems he had spoken aloud. He wrote:

After my first conference in the year 2000, it took me a number of years before I began to commit poems to memory but now it has become a part of who I am. I am not the fastest memorizer. In fact, I don’t think of learning a poem as memorizing. I think of it in two ways––taking the words I love into myself, and taking myself into the words. It’s a relationship. It is active Eros. Sometimes it takes me months to inhabit the words and to take them in and make them my own. Some poems seem to take up permanent residence in my heart, like old trusted friends, and can be called upon at any time, while others seem to be more difficult to hold on to, more elusive and demanding, and those need my regular attention to stay accessible to me and thus to others through me.”

I absolutely love this man’s description of learning a poem as “active Eros.” Indeed, when a poem touches you, when it stirs something in your soul as surely or deftly as a lover, is that not Eros? Absolutely. And his experience also illuminates that there is something more than mere memorization going on. Really, he is speaking about inviting the words into conscious relationship with body, mind, spirit, soul and heart—embodiment. Or ensoulment, if you prefer. Either way, his words are brilliant and beautiful.

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Lately, I have been musing on the concept of ‘soul practice’—a personal path of practice that deepens one into the realms of soul—considering and reinventing my own approach. As part of that reexamining, I decided that I would begin committing favorite poems to memory, with a dozen top contenders in the battered blue notebook springing immediately to mind. Learning a poem by heart feels like a rich vein of soul practice, and I like that it helps exercise our mostly flabby muscles of memory and retention, too.

The essence of a soulful life is bringing our awareness to our daily existence. Breath and somatic awareness are unsurpassed tools for this, but anything that shifts our awareness into a mindful, observant state—such as a poem—can also be effective. The more frequently that we descend from our heads into the body, and the more that we recognize our patterns and responses as they play out (there is always a somatic component to these responses), and to the extent that we open our senses and heart to the relationships around us (physical environment, included), the more deeply we are ‘embodied’ in a meaningful way. The more fully we are embodied, the more we are ensouled.

Soul loves the body. Indeed, as I have written in my book’s chapter, ‘Ensouling the Body’, the body is the soul’s prayer.  More than simply through transcendent or deep stillness, it is through our expanded senses that we perceive the Holy and our place in the interwoven relationship of creation.

A poem in the heart can effortlessly open and guide us, as well.

With a piece of music, a listener can feel the difference between someone who is simply playing the notes as marked, and one who has taken those notes deep inside and allows the music to emerge through them. The first is mechanical; the latter is artistic and truly musical. Listening to someone who has deeply embodied a poem’s wisdom is similarly moving. Beyond mere memorization, there is a fluency of cadence and a sensitivity to silence—for the spaces and silences in between words of a poem are surely as important as the words themselves.

Thus for my own soul practice, I decided that I want to do more than simply memorize poems; I will welcome them into my heart and embody them to the best of my ability. Considering which poem I might first enter into deep, ongoing relationship with, the choice was relatively easy. Although a lion’s share of my favorite poems have flowed from the pen of Pulitzer prize-winning Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day” immediately stood forward, inviting me to dance.

Walking outside into the grass, I sat cross-legged beneath the shade of the venerable mango tree, opened the battered blue folder to the appropriate page, and settled into my breath to welcome the words into me.

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean––

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and

down––

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

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This past month, I’ve been learning a new poem by heart each week. At odd moments of the day—driving in the car, chopping vegetables in the kitchen, standing in queue at the grocery store, walking the dogs at night—I find myself repeating them to myself like a mantra or prayer. The act quietly centers me and invites me deeper into bones and breath, allowing me to drop my shoulders and breathe more fully into my belly, to waltz or tango with the images, getting to know their contours in a richer, more intimate way.

The next dozen poems are already earmarked in my folder, awaiting me to sit with them, walk with them, breathe, twirl, and dream with them.

Soul Artists know that one of the primary languages of soul is image, as in the power of imagining. Beyond nature, little combines image and feeling as poetry does. It speaks to something essential, subterranean, and uncharted within us—something that when it rises up, offers an expanded and authentic sense of our true self, and we realize, yes, this is who I am.

Ideally, we make a conscious commitment to nourishing body, mind, soul and heart each day. This is the way of the Soul Artist.

Gentle reader, even if poetry is not something that speaks to you on a heart or soul level, here’s hoping that you find something that feels like a worthy soul practice—a conscious, deliberate action you take on a regular basis to move you closer to the very core of your authentic being—something that nourishes you. I wonder, what will you choose?

Knowing her entire poem now by heart, once again I borrow Ms. Oliver’s eloquent and evocative words: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Perhaps it begins with something as seemingly simple as a poem that speaks to you.

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