Last spring we launched a series with poets whose work we love and want to feature and will continue it moving forward.
Our next poet is Paul Quenon whose work is inspired by his monastic community, the natural environment, and most recently, personal experiences in meditation.Read his poetry and discover more about the connections he makes between poetry and the sacred.
This rather recent poem is based on my meditation practice which is mainly a matter of being present to the moment. God is in the actual and much else too.
Seashell of Time
This moment, cast up on your shoreline,
is from the sea of time.
Hold it to your ear and listen.
The whole ocean is inside sounding.
Within each moment
tides of hours are surging.
Within each hour fathoms of years.
Do not discard this present moment.
It curls inward to resounding canyons.
Hold the precious conch shell awhile and listen.
It’s awash with centuries beneath centuries awash.
As a child you could not understand how the whole ocean could be inside a conch shell. As one adult in meditation, you know of totality within the particular.
Recent Developments in His Writing
Until now most of my poetry has been about my monastic environment and about natural life surrounding us in this Kentucky countryside. One of my books: Bells of the Hours (Fons Vitae, Louisville) had to do with the liturgical day and the frequent sound of tower bells. My latest book: Amounting to Nothing (Paraclete Press) ventures into a more metaphysical terrain at times, but still mostly abides among “a community of creatures”.
Recently, since that book was completed, I am focusing on personal experiences in meditation. I have avoided this in the past since it can lead to bad poetry. Perhaps the time is ripe to cross that barrier and to speak of what the present moment of awareness is telling me. It may either speak of my awareness of God or bespeak the awareness God is speaking in me.
Some of this has been influenced by Meister Eckhart’s Book of the Heart by Jon M. Sweeney and Mark S. Burrows. It comes from my desire to be true to the actual experience of prayer with no glamorizing or pretense. It sometimes leads me to express belief in things I didn’t know I believed, and sometimes to say what I have long believed but never had words of my own to express.
I drift bare footed in dew drenched grass
wandering a crop of crosses
where monks who preceded
await my reception
outside of time.
I sense kind acquaintance
as each step presses in grass
soles to souls
outside of space.
The wash of dew is
cleansing, peace, and pleasure.
This brief moment waits
that blink upon time and space
of eternity’s all encompassing
That blink of eternity’s eye
Space and time.
That blink of eternity’s
Upon time and space.
Poetry and the Sacred
Poetry, when it is real poetry, will take me beyond myself. It may or may not bring me to an awareness of the sacred, but at least it leads to an enlargement of my mind. To that extent it is a preparation for the divine. It may go no further than preparation. If I get an inkling it is going towards something transcendent I like to take it there without forcing it. At times it is better to leave higher things implicit, assuming that will speak for itself—leave the reader with an attuned ear to get the overtones.
Poetry is a discipline of its own, and prayer and meditation is another discipline of its own. You must respect the nature of each one. They stand in relationship with one another as analogies and can be of mutual assistance. But they can cause mutual interference as well. In practice, I suspend the urge to write during my period of meditation, so as to keep the integrity of that focus and that intention. Words are set aside to keep the single pointed mind.
Occasionally something in this simple and open-minded awareness might call for words. The words might be complaint about the evident barrenness of that experience or might as easily turn to comfort and gratitude that such is the way things are. It all pivots on how faith is responding.
There are times when the sacred may lead you to poetry, and there are other times when poetry leads you to the sacred. The crucial thing is to let that come spontaneously. Let it unfold itself as time unfolds which cannot be hurried or slowed. If I set out to make a poem sacred it will likely be a dud, forced, over-religious, a posture. A poem should be what it wants to be and will be implicitly holy if it is good.
The old farmers say you can hear corn growing in the night, and I borrow the expression for snowmelt and sun light. This is in my book: Afternoons with Emily – i.e. Dickenson, with Black Moss Press, Ontario.
The enclosure wall runs the field,
ducks behind some pines
skirts the forest, dips and rises,
gently drops, then disappears.
Beyond, I can hear snow
melting in the woods.
What am I waiting for?
What enlightenment is in the sun
reflecting off the icy lake,
wearing it to a thin slick?
Dry grass in the wet field
is dusty with sunlight.
What is the grass waiting for?
A pigeon leaves a tree for another tree.
I can hear the sun
grazing the dusty grass,
until a breeze interrupts briefly
then settles for . . . a something . . .
Was it here already and gone?
Or was it only here
so I would come and wait?
Why this sadness when,
yielding to restlessness,
I rise and abandon what
never knows abandonment?
I must confess the urge to go write all this down is what made me restless.
About Paul Quenon
Paul Quenon has been a monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky since 1958. He received some encouragement in writing from his Novice Master Thomas Merton, and began publishing in 1995. His earlier poetry was with Black Moss Press in Ontario. Fons Vitae in Louisville has published Monkswear and Bells of the Hours. His memoir In Praise of the Useless Life is with Ave Maria Press.
Dreaming of Stones
Christine Valters Paintner's new collection of poems Dreaming of Stones has just been published by Paraclete Press.
The poems in Dreaming of Stones are about what endures: hope and desire, changing seasons, wild places, love, and the wisdom of mystics. Inspired by the poet’s time living in Ireland these readings invite you into deeper ways of seeing the world. They have an incantational quality. Drawing on her commitment as a Benedictine oblate, the poems arise out of a practice of sitting in silence and lectio divina, in which life becomes the holy text.