rbarenblat: (Default)
[personal profile] rbarenblat posting in [community profile] poetree
A bit more than ten years ago I took my MFA at Bennington. It was an amazing experience. I still miss the ways in which being a poetry grad student gave me "permission" to focus on poetry. (It's a little bit analagous to how being a rabbinic student, later on, gave me permission to focus on Judaism and Torah.) But back when I was a Benningtonian, I did not think I would go to rabbinic school. On the contrary, I felt that Judaism and I were on the outs. And yet I found myself somehow irresistably drawn to reading Jewish literature, and to writing poems which had Judaic content.

One of my poetry teachers noted that my best poems were frequently the Jewish ones, and urged me to try writing psalms and prayers. At the time, I didn't know the psalms well enough to really engage with that task, and I wasn't entirely comfortable with my own prayer life (or lack thereof) so writing prayers seemed implausible. So I filed the suggestion away for another day. But I couldn't seem to shake the idea -- or the growing desire to figure out how and whether I could use poetry to engage with Judaism in my own way.

I've been blogging at Velveteen Rabbi since 2003. During the first several years of the blog's existence, I didn't post poetry there. The blog was my space for cultivating conversations about Judaism; I assumed, not entirely consciously, that anyone who gravitated toward those conversations wouldn't be interested in poems. At some point in the last several years, that policy shifted. (I think it was around the time when I committed myself to writing a d'var Torah -- a short commentary -- on the Torah portion each week, and in week two of that new discipline, the d'var emerged as a poem instead of prose.)

In recent years I've posted a fair bit of poetry at VR: weekly Torah poems for a few years, then weekly "mother poems" during my first year of motherhood, and now periodic poems which emerge from wherever it is poems come from. Perhaps because Judaism is the stuff of my professional life these days -- I work halftime as a rabbi, and the other half of my time is dedicated to writing, with parenting of course woven in to all of the above -- many of the poems I write these days have Jewish subject matter, Jewish references, Jewish ideas.

So does all of this make me a "religious poet"? I quail a bit at the term, because it so immediately suggests to me someone who writes the kind of saccharine devotional verse one might find on a cheesy greeting card. And yet there's no arguing with the fact that I am both religious (by my own lights, anyway) and a poet, and that my poetry often arises out of or wrestles with my experience of religious life.

Sometimes this takes the form of poems which double explicitly as prayers -- for instance, my poem Without Ceasing, published in the online journal Qarrtsiluni. Sometimes it takes the form of poems which arise out of praying the psalms -- for instance, my poem series Six poems of praise: Hallel, which is a variation on the themes and language of the psalms which Jews recite on festival days.

And sometimes this takes the form of poems about a religious experience -- which I hope are evocative enough to speak even to people who don't share my tradition or my experiences. I'll share one of those below -- brand-new, so this is a world premiere of sorts! This is a poem about the religious practice of wearing tefillin (and it's actually the second poem of this sort that I've written -- a while back I posted Ode to my tefillin in response to a prompt from the now-defunct Big Tent Poetry.) Anyway, I hope you enjoy.


When I turn my head
the rigging creaks

faint scent of tack shop
as though I wore new boots

competing sensations clamor,
wool sleeve versus bare skin

and even when I unwind
the faint spiral will remain

a reminder that I overcame
the presence on my shoulder

who ruefully reminds me
how long my to-do list looms --

she missed the item
I reinscribe on my hand

and between my eyes,
my leather headlamp

lighting the morning
with its supernal beam

Date: 2012-02-01 02:29 pm (UTC)
lomedet: voluptuous winged fairy with curly dark hair (Default)
From: [personal profile] lomedet
Oh, lovely. That poem really speaks to me this morning.

Date: 2012-02-01 11:27 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] jubilo
Ah, beautiful. It really speaks to the experience of wrapping tefillin.
From: (Anonymous)
RAbbi Rachael,
Shalom and Todah mother i love your poems and prayers because it is very helpful to me and the jews.mother please don't stop, keep it up.

yours sincerely
victor fatherheart consoler

Date: 2012-02-02 03:24 pm (UTC)
syntaxofthings: Splashes of yellow and red. ([hand-drawn] Phoenix)
From: [personal profile] syntaxofthings
I'm rather new to "religious" poetry (or maybe I'm not, if I consider my favorite author, Madeleine L'Engle, whose works are to me a combination of prose and poetry and always speak to spirituality), so just finding it, and people who are attempting to express their spiritual experiences through poetry instead of spouting do's and do not's, is like a light bulb going off. "Oh. This is what it's like to be religious?" It's pretty wonderful.

Thank you.

Try this...

Date: 2012-03-11 09:06 pm (UTC)
ysabetwordsmith: Cartoon of me in Wordsmith persona (Default)
From: [personal profile] ysabetwordsmith
If you haven't discovered Rumi yet, that's some of the best spiritual poetry ever written.

Re: Try this...

Date: 2012-03-16 08:29 pm (UTC)
syntaxofthings: Death Fae from the Fey Tarot (Default)
From: [personal profile] syntaxofthings
I've vaguely heard of Rumi. I'll look it up sometime! Thanks!


Date: 2012-03-11 09:19 pm (UTC)
ysabetwordsmith: Cartoon of me in Wordsmith persona (Default)
From: [personal profile] ysabetwordsmith
>>I've been blogging at Velveteen Rabbi since 2003. <<

I just love your blog title.

>>Perhaps because Judaism is the stuff of my professional life these days -- I work halftime as a rabbi<<

May I ask ... do you include an orange on your seder plate? I've read that some women rabbis do that.

>>So does all of this make me a "religious poet"?<<

Would you feel better about "spiritual poet" or "poet of the numinous" or some other version?

In my observation, there are several overlapping aspects:

1) Poetry that explicitly tackles motifs of divinity and the soul is spiritual poetry. Poets who regularly write about those topics are spiritual poets. A smaller subset may deal with specific religions, for religious poetry, etc.

2) For someone serious about their spirituality, who is more than a "Sunday Christian" (or equivalent of whatever faith), their beliefs and experiences of the numinous tend to permeate their worldview. So even when not writing about spirituality per se, it is likely to color their verse in subtler ways.

3) Poetry is exceptionally good at saying slant what is difficult or impossible to say straight. This makes it better for handling spirituality than other types of writing.

I think of myself as a spiritual poet. I'm eclectic Pagan, and poetry about various Pagan traditions is one of my main categories. But I've also written poetry that touches on other faiths. I have some fans who are Jewish, so there are several Jewish-themed poems (about wildly unrelated topics) posted to my website ...

"These Jews, Like Sand"
"The Mullah Goes to Chelm"
"The Wrong House"
"The Tales of the Righteous"

Re: Thoughts

Date: 2014-01-07 11:46 pm (UTC)
ysabetwordsmith: Cartoon of me in Wordsmith persona (Default)
From: [personal profile] ysabetwordsmith
>>I am so embarrassed that it took me so long to respond to this comment.<<

That's okay, life gets in the way sometimes.

>> I do include an orange on my seder plate. <<

Yay! I want to look at the haggadah link when I have more time.

>> I like "poet of the numinous," though I suspect "numinous" is a word not everyone knows. <<

Depends on your audience, I think. It's one of my favorite words, and I tend to attract readers with a large vocabulary. Beyond that, I figure people can just ask or look it up, and it could be useful for starting conversations.

>> That's a great point -- I absolutely agree with you. <<

Thanks. I like finding ways to put ideas into words that don't usually fit language very well.

>> Thanks for the links to your poems -- I'm psyched to read them! <<

I'm happy to hear that. By the way, I'm running my Poetry Fishbowl today with a theme of "it seemed like a good idea at the time." Feel free to drop by and give me prompts or just watch the fun.


poetree: Paper sculpture of bulbuous tree made from strips of book pages (Default)

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