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Invoking the Muse

By Neal Whitman, Poetry Prof

As I got to work on what to profess this month, I invoked the muses who sprung from a slash made in a sacred spring by the winged horse, Pegasus –– these muses are goddesses who rule over the arts and we poets are lucky: we get three. One for epic poetry, one for love poetry, and one for sacred poetry. The sacred poetry muse, Polyhymnia answered! First, she pointed me to a poem by Fanny Howe in the January issue of Poetry, the magazine of the Poetry Foundation, “Three Persons.” There I was struck by these lines:

I could see the genius
of institutional religion.
Examine your conscience,
Confession in darkness
and take away a task.

In 2009, Fanny Howe won the Poetry Foundation’s Pegasus Award. The announcement said, “Fanny Howe is a religious writer whose work makes you more alert and alive to the earth.” “Hmmm,” I thought (dare I say, mused?), “could poetry be a part of your religion? Could it make you more alert and alive? Could poetry help you find spiritual truth in your daily life, regardless, of whether institutional religion is or is not part of your life?”

As I think about poetry, in general, and sacred poetry, in particular, I wonder if it can offer sacred space wherever we take a breath to read poetry – in silence or spoken. Let me share one space, sacred to me: Tor House in Carmel. This is the stone house poet Robinson and Una Jeffers built overlooking Carmel Bay in 1919. On December 28, I gave my last tour– you see, after 7 years of giving tours two Fridays a month, I am taking a sabbatical as a tour docent. [I am not taking full retirement from Tor House – they have asked me to train new tour docents.]

For the past 7 years, I made it a habit to arrive there early on my tour days. Why? Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in Self Reliance, “I like the silent church before the service begins.” Well, when I arrived at Tor House, I would stand in the driveway, take a deep breath, and in a low voice recite my own little poem:

Unlock the iron gate
Una’s garden is mine alone
until guests arrive

Now, I invite you to unlock your iron gate.

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