Poetry in Esoterica and Spiritual Practice

by | January 15, 2013 | Articles, Writers and Poets

by Ruby Sara

April is National Poetry Month. It is therefore a delightfully auspicious time for the release of Datura: An Anthology of Esoteric Poesis, published by Scarlet Imprint! As we celebrate poetry in all its forms throughout the month of April, so too can we celebrate poetry as a tool for transformation. Poetry is, after all, the language of magick. The language of the gods. A fire in the veins, with the smokelight prism, jewel and thunder of religion as its fuel.

Poetry is magick given voice and form, and therefore its role in the devotional and magical life of the Pagan and the spiritual seeker is manifold. It can be used in magical practice both in riddling (i.e., grokking a text for its deeper meaning), and in inducing trance (alliteration, rhyme, evocative word choice – all can assist the individual in Diving Deep and Surfacing). It can be used to communicate the ineffable in ways that are inaccessible through prose or didactic speech. It can bring people together in worship and in prayer. It can act as a channel between a people and their god. It can illuminate what was previously hidden, and make opaque things that require occultation. Poetry works the mind and the heart – it infiltrates the bones. Poetry works.

Poetry works both in the writing and the reading of it. The writing of poetry is an excellent medium for communion with the Holy. Earlier this spring I had the privilege of attending the 2010 Milwaukee Ostara Festival in Wisconsin, where I presented a workshop on writing Pagan liturgical and devotional poetry. In answer to the question, “Why is poetry important in liturgical and devotional practice?” one participant commented that the writing of a poem is an act of deepest respect. To write poetry is to engage with the subject in intimate detail, to devote to it your complete and undivided attention – to make the act of observation an offering.

This is true also of poems with no ostensible spiritual element – to write an effective poem about a moment or an object requires Seeing it truly, with your whole body, via the lens with which you view the world. This is what makes poetry unique as well – the meeting of observer and the observed in the medium of language means that poems written about, say, plums by one poet will look very different than those written by another.

To engage in an act of spiritual scrutiny with what is Holy then is to engage in authentic relationship. It’s not unlike, in my limited experience, the act of translation. I’m thinking, for example, of Normandi Ellis’ Awakening Osiris – a translation of the Egyptian Book of Coming Forth By Day, not in its most literal expression, but in its spirit – Ellis’ deep grokking of the flower beneath the words and her transmission of its meaning via her unique perspective and the use of exquisite, embodied imagery has breathtaking results. “From the first cry to the last I chant the spell of living. In my belly I join the breath of life with the flame of becoming. I rise from the center of myself, fire on the wick, burning, tossing back shadows. Night drifts away like smoke.” (Ellis, p. 174). This kind of attention, this deepening, is inherent in the act of poetic expression.

Then, of course, there is the act of reading poetry, which is deeply important, especially for those who write themselves. Working with poems by others is critical. There is worth in a poem if it moves the reader – by which I mean literally moves…a shifting, a dancing happens. Words enter the body and move things around. Examining them in relationship to this movement – taking up the invitation to the dance – is beneficial to all pursuers of illumination. And reading poetry aloud is also probably one of the most important practices a poet can do with their work. Both publicly and privately. Penelope Shuttle, whose work I’m extremely excited to include in Datura, has said, “In my poetry I give primacy to the breath. For me it is the way a poem breathes that gives it form.”[i]

That emphasis on movement, breath, rhythm, and sound is absolutely fundamental. In the writing process, there is an enormous amount to gain in reading your work-in-progress out loud. But even for those who never endeavor to put pen to paper in pursuit of this medium, the reading of poetry is important because poetry is a communal art. Ultimately, it should be shared, to allow others the opportunity to touch the magick offered in the heart of the poet’s experience and to engage in relationship with them and learn from that encounter.

In working towards the continued cultivation of Pagan culture, I believe it is critical to support and share the work of poets and other literary artists who are dealing specifically with themes of devotion, esoterica, and magickal practice. Art is the fruit of religion and spirituality, and in the spirit of knowing things by their fruits, the arts of Paganism and occultism function as evidence of the deep and challenging paths we walk on as worshipers and practitioners.

My goal in creating Datura was to highlight a collection of poems that speak to the hidden and rapturous nature of our work as Pagans and occultists as well as essays that explore various aspects of poetry in our communities, and in doing so provide inspiration to those seeking an understanding of the paths we walk as practitioners, to those who practice themselves as they deepen their study, to other writers and poets in these communities as they undertake the Work inherent in the writing process, and to those who simply grok Beauty in its myriad forms.

Datura includes work by well-established and accomplished poets such as Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove as well as work by prominent voices in the Pagan community such as T. Thorn Coyle and Erynn Rowan Laurie. At the same time it includes work by emerging writers and poets for whom this is their first published work. Datura also includes six essays that are both informative and experiential, and it is my hope that the reader comes away not only with a richer vision of Pagan and occult literary art, but also a sense of profound inspiration.

Poetry, in addition to all its other varied gifts, offers the reader (who could also be said to be the imbiber) a cup filled with the wine of experience – a textured, multi-layered glimpse into the heart of the world. For the poems in Datura, the world being offered for examination is the hidden, unseen gem of the Real – the vein of the sun at midnight shot through with the color of the moon. It is intended to open doors, inspire other poets, celebrate the ecstatic, and lift up the history of the word.

Blessings for this National Poetry Month! May you hear a thousand poems that move and inspire you as you walk through the streets of spring!

Ruby Sara is the author of the blog Pagan Godspell, and the editor of the collection Datura: An Anthology of Estoteric Poesis, published by Scarlet Imprint. She is also a member of the Chicago Pagan performance collective Terra Mysterium. The U.S. book launch party for Datura will be held on April 24, 2010, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Life Force Arts Center. Please join us for this celebration in honor of the literary arts!


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