A Brief Look at the Avant-Garde and “Western” Spirituality

I’ve often been asked how many “religious” poems are experimental. My answer is that most experimental poems are at least concerned with the question of existence and/or are ontological in nature. First and foremost, the primacy of language is questioned; second, the space in which language is being presented comes up for scrutiny. The relationship between words and people, between language as thought, and language as written, is highlighted. A binary is developed. These are issues of spiritual presence, for me at least. For students, I always use John Donne and George Herbert, Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins as examples of “historical” poets whose concern was both language and spirituality. In the case of Herbert it may be argued that as language was purely a gift from God the question of innovation as a “thing-in-itself” was entirely redundant. Still, I think of the altar, I think of the use of conceit and many other metaphysical devices in general, and I’m left feeling at least suspicious that on occasions the inherent wonder and beauty of words, on their own, got the better of him!

So, into the twentieth century – the presence or absence of not only a Godhead but a space for at least the possibility of faith has been at the core of poetry. The question of presence and absence is central to modernism. The colonising forces of modernity (that the enemies of Baudelaire so often touted) aside, it was the historic drive towards the mechanisation of cultural spaces that obsessed the popular imagination. When I read Apollinaire’s “Zone” I read a poem of “religious” wonder – the signifiers have shifted from icons of the church to icons of modernity but the process is the same. When I read Eliot’s “The Wasteland” or “The Hollow Men” I read of the despair that the shifting signifiers of faith have brought with them. War, war on a massive scale, is only relative. The desolation of the Napoleonic Wars, of the Punic Wars, of the Persian Wars in the Eurocentric world just for starters, was on a massive scale given the parameters of an individual’s, or indeed an empire’s frontiers during these times.

When faced with apocalypse, poetry that seeks to become more than merely a “lyrical I” rendition (and indeed repetition) of what is comfortably absorbed by a complacent society makes of language a device for self-examination, self-questioning, and deliverance. That’s why innovative verse may always ask, at the very least, spiritual questions. The avant-garde acts as a warning, much in the same way as it acted as the vanguard, the shock troops of the Napoleonic army. Irony aside, the mixed metaphors of religion and the military have much to do with the power of language. Language is the gift from God. Prayer is our gift back to the Godhead. Poetry is a type of prayer, a type of prayer that works individually and collectively.

The renaming, the recoding, and reinvention of spiritual signifiers in language arise out of the need to stay one step ahead of the State, capitalism, or any other (commercially or spiritually) profit-orientated system of control. The most nihilistic works of the Dadaists are in fact playing with the potential absence of God. And the stronger such a belief is, the more a process of self-questioning, of considering the “isness” (as Veronica Brady calls it) of existence, is stimulated. The avant-garde and spirituality are never far apart.

Recently I heard that a colleague of mine was being treated in Paris for a serious illness. I knew him only slightly as a man of broad tastes with a strong wit and wry sense of humour. I wasn’t sure of his religious beliefs but felt the need to write a spiritual poem – a poem that reflected a faith in an existence beyond the immediate and physical, a poem with a sense of a Godhead, and ultimately a poem of hope. But I couldn’t bring myself to do this in a prescriptive way as faith for me is only valid in that it is qualified by doubt, and one’s certainty should constantly be questioned. The avant-garde is always an interesting combination of enthusiasm and rebarbativeness. The fact that poetry is a vehicle for prayer and a vehicle for questioning makes it the perfect medium for a “gift” to the vulnerable.

The chapel here at Churchill is interesting in that its architecture (by Sheppard) is overtly “modern” and is in a style that might be termed “inverted gothic”. It encourages us to aspire to the God within, rather than to a-spire (vertically). It also has an unusual history, having been built on land leased by the college for a peppercorn payment to a trust formed by a committee of Churchill Fellows and others. This came about from the opposition of Francis Crick (of DNA fame) to the presence of a chapel in the College. The Master at the time Sir John Cockcroft (a religious man who had much to do with the nuclear bomb!) was a supporter of the chapel project. Its simple lines but complex use of light make it a calm and contemplative space.

Given its unusual position of being both inside and outside the College community, its interesting blend of the modern and traditionally “contemplative”, and its non-denominational status (the avant-garde as belonging to no camp?), it seemed to me the perfect vehicle for a poem that explored the ontological potential of language in itself, how form might or might not limit spiritual expression, and a “place” from which a figurative gift might configure itself, be configured, exchanged, or sent. The “kneeling” referred to is an evocation of an exact moment in time – saying a prayer in an otherwise empty chapel for someone suffering , transposed to the occasion of writing. The prayer and the poem become interconnected, universal, and interactive in terms of subject and object:


It’s a sultry afternoon and the inverted gothic
of the chapel draws all to its ecumenical centre,
as if prayer might help reduce your troubles,
or take you far away, or make you cooler –
air-conditioning for the soul – a guilty conscience
like an attack of Legionnaire’s disease.
So the hazy reddish light is doubly altered
through the coloured glass and you tell yourself
nothing is to be trusted. And yet here you are –
tacky icon from the bedroom wall – kneeling
as if the air’s so heavy you can barely hold
it up, as if the tricks of the light are too much,
as if you’re being watched and won’t look up.

Of course, it’s a wry and ironic poem. But a dark humour and spiritual questioning go hand in hand for me. I do and don’t believe in the Godhead in the same way as I do and don’t believe in the potential of the avant-garde to liberate. The processes of the avant-garde are like those of religion – they are a framework for collective self-realisation. But ultimately one has to separate oneself off and ask the question: do or don’t I believe? In giving a “linguistically innovative” poem as a gift, the imagined exclusiveness of the experimental is undermined. The process of receiving it, especially if the receiver is not familiar with the codes of the avant-garde, demystifies and renders it “sacred”. Spirituality is a floating signifier. In a sense one can only really interact with it in a progressive way – that is, in a language that is capable of growth and acceptance. Spiritual language, like the “experimental”, must be flexible and fluid. If this is not the case we find ourselves worshipping objects, converting prayer into the icons through which prayer is normally focussed. And icons – or chapels – are like form in poetry: they are only points of focus for meanings whose terms of reference are infinite and constantly open to interpretation. What we are left with is a belief in process.

A magnificently simple innovative poem by George Oppen (1908-1984) captures something of the exchange between language and the dynamic of spiritual certainty and uncertainty:


Veritas sequitur…

In the small beauty of the forest
The wild deer bedding down-
That they are there!

Their eyes
Effortless, the soft lips
Nuzzle and the alien small teeth
Rear at the grass

The roots of it
Dangle from their mouths
Scattering earth in the strange woods.
They who are there.

Their paths
Nibbled thru the fields, the leaves that shade them
Hang in the distances
Of sun

The small nouns
Crying faith
In this in which the wild deer
Startle, and stare out.