by B.E. Wanamaker
If “poetry is the art of the mind” according to George Lakoff and Mark Turner, authors of More than Cool Reason : a Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor, then this belief leaves the poet to rely on the craft of her art. All writers are artists, but the poet is the writer with a scalpel, excising exacting images in words. As all artists discover, their creativity comes from within, from the spiritual place all humans are born with, the place some nurture and cultivate, some just live with, and others ignore and disavow. This spirit inspires who we are and how we live and ultimately, guides us to our place in the world.
A poet, knowingly and unknowingly, during the process of creating poetry, uses devices such as metaphor and simile, syntax, word choice, tone, repetition and punctuation to design and color her lines. These are only a few of her options. The choices a poet makes are as personal and original as the poet; made up of all the novel attributes and experiences each human being possesses. In poetry as in art, the spiritual core of the person is critical, as each genre is ethereal in its own right. Creativity leans heavily on that unnamed spark within the gifted–the spiritualness that is as necessary as breathing and a heart beat to sustain life.
Poets Baron Wormser and David Cappella describe the poets and poetry in the introduction to their craft book, Teaching the Art of Poetry: The Moves as “…a representative of a community of speech who sometimes recovers a knowledge others repress in order to live.” Wormser and Cappella unmask poetry as “…an art of essences and essences are unnerving” and go on to explain, “What a poem is is essentially what it does.” They profess “…the words in poems are two-faced, looking both toward the everyday world and that which is art and exists on its own terms.” Finally, they ask the reader to consider that a poem is an “animate body. Its constituent actions are its being.” Therefore, the poet has the noble responsibility to choose each word carefully. Every word down to its syllables, its sound, sometimes even its appearance, impacts the meaning in a poem.
The anthology Women in Praise of the Sacred gives prime examples of poetry written by women from 2300 B.C.E. through to the end of the 20th century. The selections blend the poets’ unique spiritual stirrings and their poetry and express their feelings in comparable ways although a diverse group culturally, intellectually and in their spiritual practices. Many similar threads run through each piece, such as likening a deity to a lover and the comparisons of deity to nature. Reading these works reveals how each author uses devices to create beautiful lines. In the earlier works, devices and craft were not named, not recognized formally. This is when craft and writing are brought together viscerally, how they succeed in delivering unforgettable images through their spiritual spark.
Jane Hirshfield, editor of Women in Praise of the Sacred explains in her preface, that the tradition of recording sacred experiences of “the self meeting the Self” was primarily conducted by men, not women. She goes on to explain the purpose of the anthology “…is not an exploration into questions of gender—it is rather to let these women speak for themselves of the experiences and issues of their spiritual lives, and to compensate for the all too frequent omission of women’s voices from the wide chorus of the world’s sacred singing.” Each year that passes, more and more women’s voices join this chorus. They sing for themselves, and they sing for those whose voices have yet to be free.
Enheduanna, a Sumerian who lived c. 2300 B.C.E, was the daughter of King Sargon. She was a high priestess in the service of the god and goddess Nanna and Inanna. Enheduanna is the oldest author listed in the anthology and is also believed to be the “earliest identified author of either sex in world literature,” according to Hirshfield. This claim is further corroborated by Roberta Binkley, assistant professor of English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, in her 1998 article, “Biography of Enheduanna, Priestess of Inanna”. In the article, Binkley states, “She is the world’s oldest known author whose works were written in cuneiform approximately 4300 years ago.” The following portion of Enheduanna’s “The Hymn to Inanna” contains particularly beautiful metaphor and simile as she thanks her Goddess Inanna for rescuing her kingdom from its enemies:
In the forefront
Of the battle,
All is struck down by you—
O winged Lady,
Like a bird
You scavenge the land.
Like a charging storm
Like a roaring storm
You thunder in thunder,
Snort in rampaging winds.
Your feet are continually restless.
Carrying your harp of sighs,
You breathe out the music of mourning.
Certainly, Enheduanna did not refer to the linguistic tool she was using as simile when she called out to Inanna, likening her to a bird, to a charging storm and a roaring storm. Nor did she identify “thunder in thunder” and “snort in rampaging winds” as metaphorical phrases. When she imaged Inanna carrying her harp of sighs and breathing out the music of mourning, most assuredly she was writing from her heart, from her innermost self; she was inspired by her spiritualness. What a beautiful, wondrous spirit she must have possessed 4,300 years ago. This begs the question: Did Enheduanna consciously use the tools writers today commonly refer to as simile and metaphor, perhaps calling them by a different name? Or was her gift for poetry, her “art of the mind,” alone responsible for these inspiring words?
Another consideration is that Enheduanna’s words have been translated. Today’s reader must rely on the translator’s ability and instinct to trust that Enheduanna’s meaning and poetical lyric has remained intact through translation. Any writer must wonder what it would be like to read Enheduanna’s works in her own language, gleaning the subtleties and nuances that are lost in translation. All writers must mourn these same losses in any translated text, while at the same time stepping back to admire the talent and courage of the translator.
Some 2000 years later, c. 335 B.C.E., Aristotle wrote his Poetics, believed to be the first treatise on literary theory. In Teaching the Art of Poetry: The Moves, Wormser and Cappella refer to Aristotle’s observation on metaphor in Poetics. He writes:
This [metaphor-making] is one thing that cannot be learned from anyone else, and it is the mark of great natural ability, for the ability to use metaphor well implies a perception of resemblances.
Wormser and Cappella go on to explain: “To perceive resemblances is an instance of intellectual acuity: It is from metaphor that we can best get hold of some thing fresh” (Rhetoric). Using these observations further elaborates on Enheduanna’s talents for writing poetry; her natural gift and her intelligence prevail when fashioning words in praise of her Goddess. Her prosody is astonishing, considering that she is composing at a time when the act of writing was in its infancy.
Two other authors writing from very different backgrounds during the 12th century proclaim how it is to love their Gods. In the next examples, repetition, along with tone, word choice, syntax and punctuation are used as effective devices to enumerate the ardency of their feelings. One might speculate are they being used consciously or unconsciously?
Mahadeviyakka was born in India and lived her life devoted to Shiva and the path of Oneness. In her poetry, Mahadeviyakka referred to Shiva as her “White Jasmine Lord”. She spent her short life (she died while in her twenties) completely devoted to Shiva, giving up all conventions, including conventional dress, to travel the countryside alone in search of oneness with the divine. Referring to the last line of Mahadeviyakka’s poem, Hirschfield observes,” ‘What use for words at all?’—is echoed by other women throughout this book, including Ly Ngoc Kieu, Lakshminkara, and Mechtild of Magdburg. Again and again, these poets, teachers, and singers come to the point where they confess the inability of any language to hold the uncontainable, inexpressible core.” Hirschfield presents an oxymoron: women giving up words when words are the vehicle through which they express themselves. How powerful is their faith; how all-consuming their Gods. The following is the poem by Mahadeviyakka:
I do not call it his sign,
I do not call it becoming one with his sign.
I do not call it union,
I do not call it harmony with union.
I do not say something has happened,
I do not say nothing has happened.
I will not name it You,
I will not name it I.
Now that the White Jasmine Lord is myself,
What use for words at all?
Mechtild of Magdeburg is the second author. She was born to a wealthy German family in the early 1200’s. Like Mahadeviyakka, her devotion began at a young age “…when she saw ‘all things in God, and God in all things.’” Her devotion was similar to Mahadeviyakka in that it consumed her life, but her spiritual practice differed when she chose a life in a community and joined the Beguines, “…independent communities of laywomen devoted to leading a life of good works, poverty, chastity, and spiritual practice.” Later, Mechtild went on to take formal vows and entered the convent of Helfta. Mechtild received revelations over a period of 14 years. A voice instructed her to record these, and this text became known as “The Flowing Light of the Godhead.” This work was known to have influenced Dante and the famous trio of visionary nuns residing at the convent of Helfta. Mechtild’s poem, “God speaks to the soul” follows:
And God said to the soul:
I desired you before the world began.
I desire you now
As you desire me.
And where the desires of two come together
There love is perfected.
The voice of the narrator is critical to the meaning and tone in each poem. In Mahadeviyakka’s poem, Mahadeviyakka is speaking in first person to the White Jasmine Lord while Mechtild has God speaking in second person to the soul. Mahadeviyakka’s poem seems to suggest what happens when love is present between her and the White Jasmine Lord, the only lover she desires. She uses opposites in a list to describe what has and has not happened between her and her god; it is not one or the other. Fulfillment is reached once the two have become one in the same. Thus, the last line: “There is no more need for words.” Mechtild’s poem takes a different stance. God is her narrator and is explaining how and when love is perfected for all. In this situation, because God is all powerful, God’s love for the soul is described as more dominant – desiring “before the world began” means “God knows the soul forever and desire never wanes.” God doesn’t ask the soul if it desires, God knows it does and God also knows bringing these two desires together makes a perfect love, something only God can know. Where this place of joined desire is is where Mechtild longs to be.
Each author employs repetition which is effective in delineating and listing the ways to oneness with her god. The repetition of “I do not” and “I will not” at the beginning of the first five lines of Mahadeviyakka’s poem gives strength and determination to the lines. It is an example of anaphora, the best-known form of poetic repetition according to Wormser and Cappella. The repetition of such forceful language sets the tone of the poem, makes the voice strong and determined. The situations Mahadeviyakka lists in the poem suggest to the reader a combination of a deity and a human relationship. And, yes, more a relationship in the beginning of the poem than a coupling or a joining. It’s as if she’s defending her relationship with the White Jasmine Lord to the world, letting everyone know there’s no “sign,” perhaps referring to a spiritual sign from her Lord and then going on to speak of union. There is no union or a harmony with a union as might occur between a man and a woman. Then, straight out, she declares she will not admit whether or not anything happened. The next two lines stipulate that she will not place blame on herself or her Lord. Finally, the love conundrum resolves through the announcement that they are one in the same and there is no longer a use for words. The God narrator in Mechtild’s poem is much more direct. God is definitely in control, “calling the shots”. Mechtild’s repetition of declarative sentences and the repetition of the word “desire” implies strength but in a softer way. “Desire” is a gentler verb than “will” so the force is not as strong as in Mahadeviyakka’s lines. But then the way love is being spoken about is different, too. “Desiring” love is different than demanding two be joined. Mechtild’s God is speaking to the ‘soul’, not to Mechtild personally. His message is for all souls, not just for Mechtild.
Each poem is a lover’s song. Hirschfield notes, this is a common thread through many of the examples in this anthology. She writes, “In Mechtild’s poetry, as in that of many other women in this book from many different traditions, we find the encounter between self and Self depicted as a relationship of lovers.”
Mahadeviyakka, Mechtild and, especially, Enheduanna chose their words with care. In each example, every word is necessary. Wormser and Cappella are very definite in their feelings about words and the responsibility poets have concerning word usage. They write:
Words for the sheer sake of words become tiresome. Words have obligations in the sense that we do not use them idly. … We are responsible for our words. When we are not responsible for our words, all sorts of mischief occur. There are lies, evasions, confusions. There is glibness, abstraction, sloppiness, condescension, obfuscation. We stop believing in language and we stop believing in the people who are using the language.
The three authors exhibit writing that is concise and economic—the desirable result in modern poetry. Were these women, all from very different cultures, separated by millennia, crafting poetry? Were they contemplating, while holding a writing instrument, what word to choose to describe the way they love their gods, to describe how their god loves them? Perhaps they were not writing at all, but praying and allowing inspirational words to spill forth eventually finding their way into clay or onto paper. What was the process they employed to create the lines and then record the words that were so important to them?
The author’s use of syntax and punctuation supports the tone of each poem. Wormser and Cappella contend that “…how a poet chooses to deploy syntax tells us a good deal about the poet’s attitudes about life and language.” Mahadeviyakka uses short, declarative sentences that end-stop giving a staccato feel to the reader. This combination reaffirms the strength in the verbs “do” and “will.” Mechtild’s line enjambments create more of a legato feeling for the reader which works better with the soft verb “desire.” Is this intentional on the part of the authors, or is it, as surmised in Enheduanna’s poetry, simply coming from their unique abilities of prosody combined with that inner sense of rhythm, of musicality, the gift that poets claim. Again, considering translation, are the syntax choices the author’s, or that of the translator to comply with standards of English? Would the syntax be the same in Cuneiform, Kannada dialect and Low German? Certainly not.
All three poems contain punctuation and the usage is linguistically correct. Wormser and Cappella state: “For poets, the common notion of grammar as a series of prescriptive don’ts—don’t split an infinitive, don’t end a sentence with a preposition, don’t join sentences with a comma, don’t use fragments—is irrelevant. The poet’s artistic aims determine the grammar.” So what is happening with our three authors? Did punctuation exist when they were writing their poetry? Or, once again, is the translator responsible for taking the liberty, or perhaps assuming the responsibility, of punctuating text to make it “correct?” In any case, the most striking and effective punctuation in Enheduanna’s poem is the dash after “All is struck down by you—.“ The emphatic caesura the dash creates helps the reader keep the urgent rhythm set in the beginning of the poem through the next three lines. Then, the rhythm increases with the words “scavenge” “charge” and “roar.” Finally, “snort” “rampaging” and “restless” continue the forward thrust of this poem reaching the climax. In the last two lines, the energy is spent and, finally, Inanna lets out a sigh as she is able to once again breathe. The correctly placed commas and periods are just that: correct. They neither add nor detract from the poem.
The punctuation in Mahadeviyakka and Mechtild’s poems plays more of a role. In Mahadeviyakka’s poem, the commas and periods at the ends of every line, except the last, aid in the force of the declarative statements and the line-ends. They act as the proverbial hammer falling at the end of each line, adding to the staccato rhythm and emphasis of the verbs. And then, the question mark at the very end impresses the meaning of the query on the reader – “What use for words at all?” In a similar way, the punctuation adds to the flowing feel, the other-worldliness of Mechtild’s poem. The colon makes the reader intake slightly, wondering what’s to come and the period at the end of line one stops the reader, allowing the meaning of the words to permeate. Then line two and three, unpunctuated except for the period at the end, seem to flow over the reader. This almost sensuous flow continues through the penultimate line, the longest line, extending that flow and finally ends with the sixth line, leaving the reader thirsting for that perfected love. All three poems employ the use of capitalization at the beginning of each line. The translator may well be showing his hand here in a default style.
While poets draw on their gifts of interpretation, word-play and internal rhythms, craft also plays an important part in creating a poem. Poets down through time have employed the use of devices. How and when they consciously came into use is lost to history. Examining these three poems and learning about their authors confirms that true poetry comes from within the poet; from the art in the mind and the spirit in the soul. As Enheduanna exemplifies, that spirit, that art has been a creative force present from the time humans first gave meaning to shapes etched in clay tablets. Craft helps create the pathway through which inspiration flows and aids the poet in clarifying her thoughts and images.
Barbara Wannamaker graduated from Fairfield University, Magna Cum Laude, in 2009 with a major in English. She has returned to Fairfield to pursue her dream of earning an MFA in creative writing. Barbara was assistant editor for the literary journal Dogwood and a poetry reader for Mason’s Road. She shares her 90-year old Connecticut home with her husband Greg and Cairn terrier Riley. They look forward to meeting grandchildren seven, eight and nine in 2012. Barbara loves life and is grateful for her family and friends. She enjoys sharing with others her many blessings.