To Soul or Not to Soul – Poems on Soul!

American Poet Charles Simic

American Poet Charles Simic

Oh, I Said
       My subject is the soul
       Difficult to talk about,
       Since it is invisible,
       Silent and often absent.

       Even when it shows itself
       In the eyes of a child
       Or a dog without a home,
       I'm at a loss for words.

Charles Simic (1938 – )  from THE LUNATIC, HarperCollins Publishers, 2015

Earlier this year at the Spring launch in Toronto of McClelland & Stewart’s poetry titles, one of the younger poets talked about the no no of using “soul” in a poem. How a mentor or teacher had given her that proscription. That set me thinking about all the fine poems  on the “soul” by master poets  including the much-lauded  naturalized American poet Charles Simic, who has, among many honours, won the Pulitzer Prize and the Griffin Poetry Prize.

There is no doubt the wrong use of soul in a poem can torpedo both poem and poet. Too easy to become a flabby cliche like I was devestated to the bottom of my s..l. But done well it can sing inside a poem. As it does in Simic small poem above.  In such a deft way  Simic deals with this abstraction by saying its difficult to talk about and then does. A wonderful poetic device.

Canadian Poet Lorna Crozier

Canadian Poet Lorna Crozier

Ironically another master poet whose poem on the soul comes to mind was at the M & S event in the Spring and from  what I remember, no one mentioned or realized that Lorna Crozier, there for the launch of her book, The Wrong Cat, had a poem busting out with soul! Here it is:

I like to think of my soul
taking on the shape of a beetle,
that is, the many shapes of what it means
to be a beetle since there are over
360,000 species of its kind.
There's the Japanese, silver and flat
as a dime so it can slip under
the thinnest detritus on the ground.
And the clicking beetle. Like someone cool
from the '50's snapping his fingers to Miles,
it flips into the air without twitching a wing.
As a beetle, the soul will do
what I can't do now
excrete wax to keep in moisture,
turn its legs into stilts to raise itself
above burning tar or sand,
drum its belly on the ground
so it's called the abdomen-talking beetle.
Imagine the abdomen-talking soul!

Lorna Crozier (1948 - ) from The Wrong Cat, McClelland & Stewart, 2015

What a textbook example of how to handle an abstraction and especially one as galaxy-sized as soul. Crozier turns that abstraction into something so real. She puts the ache in it to echo this great line from Stephen Dunn’s poem, Tenderness: Oh abstractions are just abstract/ until they have an ache in them. Indeed: Imagine the abdomen-talking soul.

American poet Walt Whitman, wrote a great erotic poem to his soul in his poem Song of Myself. Here is an excerpt from Section Five of that poem describing his body making love to his soul:

I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself
                     to you
And you must not be abased to the other.

One of my favorite metaphors for the soul comes from the late American poet Jack Gilbert:

from The Spirit and the Soul
                    It is not about the spirit.
The spirit dances, comes and goes. But the soul
is nailed to us like lentils and fatty bacon lodged
under the ribs. What lasted is what the soul ate.
The way a child knows the world by putting it
part by part into his mouth. As I tried to gnaw
my way in the Lord, working to put my heart
against that heart. Lying in the wheat at night,
Letting the rain after all the dry months have me.
Gilbert, Jack (1925 – 2012) from The Great Fires, Alfred A. Knoff, Inc., New York,

Mary Oliver, the revered American poet, captures a now-you-see-it now you
don't quality of what the soul might be so vividly in this poem:
From Maybe
        Nobody knows what the soul is.

It comes and goes 
   like the wind over the water -- 
      sometimes, for days, 
        you don't think of it.

 Maybe, after the sermon, 
   after the multitude was fed, 
     one or two of them felt 
       the soul slip forth

like a tremor of pure sunlight 
   before exhaustion, 
      that wants to swallow everything, 
         gripped their bones and left them

miserable and sleepy, 
    as they are now, forgetting 
       how the wind tore at the sails 
          before he rose and talked to it --

tender and luminous and demanding 
   as he always was -- 
      a thousand times more frightening 
         than the killer storm

Mary Oliver from The Soul Is Here For Its Own  Joy, ed. Robert Bly, Harper Collins, 

Last words to American poet, Linda Gregg, once the wife of Jack Gilbert and also a life- long friend. Here are two poems of hers that make the soul as real as the ochre-coloured mug beside me on my desk:

Paul On The Road To Damascus

The soul is an emblem so bright
you close your eyes. As when the sun
here comes up out of the sea and blazes
on the white of a village called Lefkes.
The soul is dark in its nature, but shines.
A rooster crows. The tall grass
stirs on the ruined ancient terraces.
The shadow of a wafting crocheted curtain
runs in a slant down the wall of a house
as the Albanians paving the street below
are banging pieces of marble
against a metal wheelbarrow.

Linda Gregg from All Of It Singing New and Selected Poems, Graywolf Press,2008
God’s Places

Does the soul care about the mightiness
of this love? No. The soul is a place
and love must find its way there.
A fisherman on his boat swung a string
of fish around his head and threw it
across the water where it landed at my feet.
That was a place. One day I walked into
a village that was all ruins. It was noon.
Nobody was there, the roofs were gone,
the silence was heavy. A man came out,
gradually other people, but no one spoke.
Then somebody gave me a glass of water
with a lump of jam on a spoon in it.
It was a place, one of God’s places,
but love was not with me. I breathed
the way grape vines live and give in
to the whole dream of being and not being.
The soul must be experienced to be achieved.
If you love me as much as you say you
love me, stay. Let us make a place
of that ripeness the soul speaks about.

Linda Gregg (1942 – ) from All of it Singing – New and Selected Poems, Graywolf Press, 2008


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