Joined by an Award and Much More! – Luci Shaw, Denise Levertov and Reflections on Faith and Spirit in Poetry

Luci Shaw

Luci Shaw


The sun is a slow gong
in a brass bowl, the moon also

rings her bell against
the indigo steel of the night sky.

By painting, Emily Carr
decoded heaven as a coastline

vast bays of ripped blue
and Vincent drew his circles

tighter than the tattered orbits
of his own life.

Art like that
irrational and entire

is all perception
the surreal turning real:

how poets sift what they see
into what they feel,

pulling new pieces of heaven
into view.

Luci Shaw (1928 – ), from Harvesting Fog, Pinyon Publishing, 2010

Of Being

I know this happiness
Is provisional:

The looming presences-
Great suffering, great fear-

Withdraw only
Into peripheral vision:

But ineluctable this shimmering
Of wind in the blue leaves:

This flood of stillness
Widening the lake of sky:

This need to dance
This need to kneel:

This mystery:

Denise Levertov (1923 – 1997), from The Stream & the Sapphire,
New Directions Books, New  York, 1997


Denise Levertov

Denise Levertov

I confess! This blog has had me tied up in knots for days. It started easily enough. To be a tribute to Luci Shaw whom I saw a few weeks ago, ebullient as ever at age eighty four, as she accepted the Denise Levertov Award in Seattle. (Sponsored by Image Journal and Seatle Pacific University The Levertov Award is presented annually in the spring to an artist or creative writer whose work exemplifies a serious and sustained engagement with the Judeo-Christian tradition.)

Luci Shaw hales from Bellingham, Washington but was born in the UK and has lived in many parts of the US and has a special Canadian connection as the long-time writer in residence at Regent College, the theological school of Graduate studies located at University of British Columbia, in Vancouver. Her Canadian influence comes through in her wholly unexpected reference to Emily Carr, the pioneering Canadian artist, in her poem above. Yes! (I love the way she connects Carr to Van Gogh. It makes sense but I had not seen it before.) Levertov was also born in England but spent most of her life in the U.S. and in her later years, in Seattle.

Well, that’s the easy part. But how to describe Luci, labeled by many as “Christian poet” and how to describe Levertov, considered one of the giants of Twentieth century poetry and also described by some as a Christian poet because of her devotional poems, especially the ones written after her conversion to Christianity later in life through the writing of a poem? How to describe these poets so that so-called believers and non-believers alike will still read them!

And, yes, I said Levertov’s own poetic words converted her! Now that strikes at the heart of something in poetry that transcends any labels. Imagine this: a celebrated poet, self-confessed agnostic, political activist (imprisoned numerous times in protests), writes over a period of months what she calls an “Agnostic Mass” called Mass for the Day of St Thomas Didymus. Then shockingly, unexpectedly, as she writes the last part titled Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) she is converted into devout Christian faith and belief. (In the Christian faith Jesus Christ is referred to as The Lamb of God.) The story of that astonishing experience is from her essay Work that Enfaiths in New & Selected Essays. Here are the first stanzas:

from vi   Agnus Dei

Given that lambs
are infant sheep, that sheep
are afraid and foolish, and lack
the means of self-protection, having
neither rage nor claws, venom nor cunning, what then is this “Lamb of God”?

This pretty creature, vigorous
to nuzzle at milky dugs,
woolbearer, bleater,
leaper in air for delight of being, who finds in astonishment
four legs to land on, the grass
all it knows of the world?
                With whom we would like to play,
-whom we’d lead with ribbons, but may not bring—
into our houses because
it would soil the floor with its droppings?

What terror lies concealed
in strangest words, O Lamb
 of God that taketh away
the sins of the world: an innocence
                                     smelling of ignorance,
                                     born in bloody snowdrifts.
                                     licked by forebearing

dogs more intelligent than its entire flock put together?

And the last stanzas:

                                      is it implied that we
                                      must protect this perversely weak
                                      animal, whose muzzle’s nudgings
                                      suppose there is milk to be found in us?
                                      Must hold to our icy hearts
                                     a shivering God?


So be it.

              Come, rag of pungent
                                dim star.
                                               Let’s try
                           if something human still
               can shield you,
               of remote light.

from Selected Poems, New Directions Books, 2002

And after this story and this poem how can I avoid writing a blog on Levertov as well as Luci? Levertov, one of my favorite poets and deeply influenced by William Carlos Williams; Levertov, who was featured in the award presentation introduction by Greg Wolfe, editor and founder of Image Journal the so-called journal of art, faith and mystery; and by Luci, in her acceptance speech which I hope Greg Wolfe will publish somewhere. (And it was in Luci’s speech that I was reminded once again of Levertov’s conversion experience.)

And how can I not try to describe poetry, especially so-called spiritual poetry and even more challenging, when the spiritual is given a specific religious context in religious or devotional poetry, without being damned or judged in the process? Is not all poetry spiritual? a friend asked this morning as I described my struggle with this blog. Yes and no, I replied.

Yes, all poetry is spiritual, in the sense that I believe poetry starts in the same mysterious place of unknowing as does the spiritual longing for the transcendent, for a sense of a numinous world just at the edge of this one; that “unsayable” place every poet tries to say into being and in the failure, sometimes succeeds past words. Stanley Kunitz, poet Laureate of the U.S. twice and last time in his nineties, says it this way:

“The poem, by its very nature, holds the possibility of revelation, and revelation doesn’t come easy. You have to fight for it. There is that moment when you open a door and enter the room of the unspeakable. Then you know you’re really perking. After you’ve written a poem and you’ve felt you’ve said something that was previously unspeakable, there’s a tremendous sense of being blessed.” Stanley Kunitz, The Wild Braid, Norton, New York, 2005.

And Edward Hirsch, a master American poet and author of a number of wonderful books on poetry, especially his book, How To Read a Poem, adds this:

Listen to how Whitman testifies to a pagan holiness:’ Divine I am inside and out ‘ he writes ’“and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from.’ Whitman summons up for himself the prophetic powers of a lost poetic priesthood. He enters the new world with the authority of the most ancient poetic practice, reminding us that at its dramatic and spiritual peak the poem itself becomes a break through into the divine. Edward Hirsch in
How To Read a Poem.

But no, not all poetry is spiritual in the sense that some poetry stays rooted in the everyday without the scent of something of a mysterious other hovering just above the printed page. There is no sense of revelation, of the presence even of the divine. We could call the process of writing a poem like this spiritual but the result might not seem to show it.

Stephen Dunn, a marvelous American poet takes a couple of tries to describe spiritual poetry in his book of essays on poetry, Walking Light:

Here is a possible definition of spirituality in poetry: what exists in the intimations we (as readers) feel as the poet finds language and music for what he leans toward but doesn’t know.

Spirituality in poetry. Here’s another attempt at a definition: A journey through travail toward an understanding that leads back to mystery.

So here I am trying to focus on the marvelous poems of Shaw and Levertov and I seem stuck in explanations and quotes. So let’s first take labels away. Shaw and Levertov are poets, first and foremost. But yes, some of their poems break into the mysterious under the surface of the “everyday”, and yes, some of their poems reference specific Christian religious images and events and at times cry out their faith in a Christian God. But as a measure of any good poem, a reader who is not familiar with those images or Christianity, or a faith that cries out from a heart of doubt, still should be able to enter in and relate to the longing at the heart of the poetry.

Here is an excerpt from a poem of Luci’s born out of doubt:

from Holy Ghost

Flying home , bemused, through rafts of clouds,
I watch a rag of mist drift past the plane window.
Are you that – a wraith? Invisibility feeds my agnosticism,
yet an answer seems to come out of the blue:
“Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, believe in me.”

My imagination has always been a window for you
to open. Sometimes it’s like this: a drab day, and then
a little dance begins in the brain – bubbles rising like yeast,
a quickening spirit hovering over the waters. Dreams begin
to come in three or more dimensions, rhythms pulse in waves,

phrases nudge me like little fists, sounds begin to click
together, green turns real enough to be written as a word
on paper. Skeptic, and no scientist, I am being tuned to
the narrative of heaven. My own poems persuade me the way
an available womb, and labor, persuade a baby to be born.

from WaterLines, New and Selected Poems, W.B. Erdmans Publishing Co., 2003

What a line: My own poems persuade me the way/ an available womb, and labour, persuade a baby to be born. That is a truth I can hold as a writer regardless of my faith tradition.

What I so appreciate is that both poets are not afraid to be poets informed by their faith, a faith that reveals itself in service to the mystery at the heart of the creation of every poem, not a faith that imposes itself on the poem and the reader. I don’t feel they are ever trying to convert me and ironically that leaves me open to conversion as Levertov was inside her own poem!

A wonderful example of this kind of spiritual/religious poem comes from an American writer of another faith, Kasim Ali. Click here for my blog on his poetry. He is a treasure. Ali is a practicing Muslim but unlike Shaw or Levertov, I have never seen his poetry described through his religious affiliation.

Morning Prayer

The work of dark
a tremulous sound

Mount Beacon season to season
changes or is changed

what’s in us that reaches
to know what’s after

should I draw the spirit
as a lantern or a cup?

from The Fortieth Day, BOA Editions, 2008

Levertov, who was a dedicated social activist, deals indirectly with this issue of showing a living faith or spirituality rather than imposing it on the reader in reference to criticism of poets who write so-called political poems. I think this quote is equally valid if she was responding to criticism of spiritual poems with a specific religious reference, and if the words political and politics in the quote were replaced by religious and religion.

…good poets write bad political poems only if they let themselves write deliberate, opinionated rhetoric, misusing their art as propaganda. The poet does not use poetry, but is at the service of poetry. To use is to misuse it. A poet driven to speak to himself, to maintain a dialogue with himself, concerning politics can expect to write as well upon that theme as any other.
Denise Levertov from The Poet in the World, an essay in New & Selected Essays, New Directions Books, 1992

The poet is at the service of poetry. This gets to the crux of the mystery inside poetry. And it is why for many the act of poetry is a deeply spiritual pursuit. It is as if a poem pursues us not the other way around. This idea is further developed by Abram Von Engen. I found this quote of his many years ago in an issue 24 of the Mars Hill Review which I am sad to say ceased publication. Here is the first part.

The poet makes art ‘in order to find what she doesn’t yet know.’ The poem is an event, a process of discovery. ‘The new poem is not about a thing; it is a thing.

I love the paradox of “the poet makes art in order to find out what she doesn’t yet know.” If that is not a spiritual quest I don’t know what is.

A poetry that does not preach the known but a poetry that entertains doubt that opens to mystery, to possibility: that might be the signature of a truly spiritual poem. A poem that could lead its author to faith in something transcendent, or at least mysterious with a sense of something “other”, not a faith that merely conjures it. This is perhaps too simple and broad a definition of what makes a so-called “spiritual” poem.

And here is one  more poem from Luci. (Hildegard (1098 -1179) refers to the German Christian Saint famous for her holy visions.)


I’m merely a floater in the eye of God,
a flake of his winnowed chaff. A twig
from the tree at whose root his ax is laid,
if you believe Luke, and I do. I am a wisp
of the fog that blinds my world today. A drop
from a leaking tap. An odd button. A blot

I’m lerss than the smallest bone of St. Catherine’s
withered fore-finger; in Sienna it’s preserved
behind glass and I’m not. I’m a loose tooth.
A hesitation of wind. The lost coin never found.
A river wrinkle come and gone. An eyelash
found by an ant in the dust. A blink.

from Harvesting Fog