Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Spirituality, poetry and anti-spirituality

I am an atheist. I don’t mean the aggressive, religion-bashing kind, I just don’t have faith in a higher power. That is fine; I’m not hedging my bets with agnosticism.

When someone asked me recently to write an article about spirituality in poetry, I didn’t mention this fact. I dressed it up, internally, as an interesting angle from which to write about spirituality. If you don’t have any, maybe you can be more analytical, I thought.

The first poet I started talking to about this immediately denied having any herself – a ‘spirituality by-pass’ was the phrase she used. She gets all her wonder, her sense of connectedness, her transcendent moments, from the natural world.

This struck a chord. I began to think about those moments when you rise out of yourself, when the world spins your head or brings something in your soul into sharp relief. Poetry can do this, as can encounters with nature. In a non-religious sense, these are spiritual experiences, and even for an atheist they are everywhere.

Wonderful, I thought! I loosened up my concept of spirituality, began trawling through contemporary poetry, and realised that even poems about the most mundane situations, the tiniest moments of clicking with a feeling or sensing the universality of it, can have spiritual content. And if you are open to them, the same moments can occur as you witness the world around you.

There seemed then to be so much potential spirituality about, that I began wondering how I would narrow the field for an article of finite, indeed modest, length. This problem was sloshing about in my head when I was rudely interrupted by the buzzer in my flat pulsing repeatedly, and then when I lifted the handset an even ruder postman barking at me. I’m not a morning person, this made me grizzle and I thought, maybe there is something interesting in the notion of the opposite of spirituality. What are those experiences that are the opposite of the transcendental, the soul-illuminating, the feeling of connectedness?

Having ruminated on this, apart from grumpy postmen I can fill this category largely with things that happen on cigarette breaks in King’s Cross, London. Getting called an ass-hole for no reason, being asked by an elderly gentleman to join him for an hour in a hotel room, someone you haven’t even noticed screeching “What you looking at?” in your face. These are very minor unpleasant experiences, but these moments seem to do some small, incremental damage to your sense of well-being. They very slightly squash the soul instead of very slightly expanding it.

So, if a poem can give a reader a spiritual, or at least transcendent, experience, can it also do something equivalent to an American calling you an ass-hole in the street?  I will investigate, but I rather hope I cannot find trace of any such poem.


  1. I agree - and internet trolling would be high contender for anti-spirituality in my book.

  2. when's the article coming out? sounds interesting. what poems create the most spiritual response for you? reading Empson's 7 types of Ambiguity now and he's crazy about shakespeare's sonnets.

  3. It should be out in March this year in Assent magazine - followed by a slightly more irreverent one on taxidermy and poetry in May! I'm finding poems about nature have the most spiritual content for me, probably because they let you read in meanings that suit what you need to see at the time.