By Duane Toops

Poetry saved my life.

Even though that statement is true, there are two problems with it. The first is that it’s written in past tense. Written in this way it suggests that there was a point at which poetry did something to save me and then once the task was completed it stopped doing whatever it was that it had done. This simply isn’t true.

Poetry saved my life, yes, but it has not ceased doing so. Poetry has—and continues—to save my life. Poetry remains active in the process of salvaging the wreckage of my existence.

I discovered Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe during a period of adolescent crisis. The depression that would become my constant traveling companion was, at this time, a darkened appearance just beginning to become more compounded and recognizable in its overshadowing presence. Poetry helped me to give it a name, a focus, a point of concentration, and a means by which it could be expressed in what felt like the mother tongue of my soul.

This brings us to the second problem with saying that poetry saved my life; it may sound dramatic, perhaps even melodramatic, but it’s actually an understatement. Perhaps, that’s what makes deep truths identifiable as deep truths; they effortlessly reside between over-the-top and understated.

I don’t know for sure, I just write things. But, I know that as I write this, something about it feels right to me. There are countless experiences that test, push, and cross the limits of our language. Language, despite its innumerable merits and possibilities, will always pale in comparison to that which it points to. Buddhists talk about ideas like Enlightenment and awakening. Christians talk about grace, mercy, and redemption. Both discuss their respective notions with dramatic profundity, and rightfully so.

To be awake is to achieve a degree of profound, illusion-shattering, awareness that we never fully knew was possible, and it changes the way we see everything.

To be touched by the tenderness of grace and the compassionate caress of mercy, to experience the absolution of redemption and recovery, when we feel so profoundly undeserving of them changes us in an expected way.  In the face of such  experiential vastness, we quickly discover that our words are always underwhelming, and that’s precisely why we need poetry.

Poetry bends language into an Ouroboros; a violent and virile circle of consumption and regeneration. Poetry twists our words in upon themselves; it turns language against itself, until it starts to tell the truth. Poetry is the control burn of language. It sets fire to our words, incinerating the dead brush and undergrowth of all our claustrophobic classifications and categories, and then, amidst the smoldering ash something is revived and reborn.

Poetry creates a breach, a disruption. It creates space; a space for awareness and observation, a space to see and listen, a space for silence to creep into our speech, a space in which the quiet can, itself, begin to speak.

Every poem is an invitation to meditate.

This is something that John Brehm makes abundantly clear in his book, The Dharma of Poetry, and it’s also why I leapt at the opportunity to read and review the book.

Brehm writes that although “We might think the purpose of poetry is to perform dazzling feats of language, or to express brilliant insights and powerful emotions, or to speak out against injustice,” it’s truest and most foundational function is something far more subtle, and yet, perhaps also something far more powerful. Brehm points out that, “Poems arise from, and invite us to participate in , acts of deliberate, careful attention.”

Poems originate in, and call us towards “moments of heightened awareness” and “states of deep listening.” Poetry, thus, presents us with a “powerful way” in which “to disrupt the habitual momentum” of our minds. Poetry may be a means of communication, but it is, first and foremost, a method of concentration and a practice of contemplation.

Each poem is a kind of spiritual teaching , and as a result poets, themselves, become our teachers. “A poet,” as Brehm explains, “must attune their ear both to the voice of their imagination, where the poem originates, and to the sounds of their material language, where the poem manifests.” A poet, Brehm surmises, is one who steps “out of the ongoing flow of experience” in order to “look at it” deeply, and thus, they “help us to do the same.”

Poets teach us about experience. They teach us about our own experience. They teach us about the way we experience what we experience. With great care and reverent luminosity, poets teach us to more fully experience our experience. They do this not by teaching us how to put our experience into poetry, nor by teaching us how to experience a poem, but by showing us that poetry is always-already present in experience, itself. Poetry is the experience of everything.

Everything we experience is poetry. Every experience is an experience of poetry.

In this regard, poetry represents an experiential totality. “We experience poems holistically,” as Brehm says, because “They speak to us… through our minds, our hearts, our imaginations, and our physical bodies.” Poems have an uncanny “ability to engage our whole being,” and therefore they have the “power to fundamentally alter both our behavior and our awareness because they appeal not just to our intellects but to our emotions and imaginations and physical presence as well.”

In poetry’s totalizing experience of experience, we are induced into “states of self-forgetfulness,” momentary lapses into ego-annihilation. This is, perhaps, the most fundamental purpose of poetry; “to open a secret passageway to freedom and refreshment that lies just beyond our self-centeredness.”

In this way, poetry is the living embodiment of the three jewels. It is Buddha and Dharma; teacher and teachings, but it is also the birthplace of the sangha.

Poetry invites us to lose ourselves in the sacred fellowship of all that is. It is an invitation into the community of all beings and all things, because “As Dogen said: ‘To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.'”


Every poem is an invitation to meditate. ~ Duane Toops Click To Tweet


Photo: Publisher

Editor: Dana Gornall


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