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Is poetry still a spiritual vocation?

I just read an interview with poet Dana Gioia in America Magazine. The article title asks the question, "Is poetry still a spiritual vocation," to which Dana replies:

"The problem is that when people discover a vocation as a poet, they think that necessarily means becoming a creative writing teacher. Poetry has become increasingly disconnected from a spiritual vocation and become too connected to academic institutional careers. We should have poets who come from every walk of life."

I agree with Dana's assessment. As both a Secular Carmelite and poet, I view the spiritual vocation coming first, followed by poetry, which is a fruit of the vocation. To say that "poetry is a spiritual vocation" leads one to believe that all poetry (and thus all poets) have an active spiritual vocation, and that is not the case. Poetry is more like a charism of the Holy Spirit, such as prophecy or speaking in tongues. Both of these come from our spiritual vocation but are not our vocation. They are signs of our vocation.

In chapter 16 of The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, vol. 1 (which includes The Book of Her Life, Spiritual Testimonies and the Soliloquies), St. Teresa "tells explicitly how the mystic sometimes feels the impulse to express in poetry a deep spiritual experience, even though talent as a poet may be lacking: 'Oh, help me God! What is the soul like when it is in this state! It would want to be all tongues so as to praise the Lord. It speaks folly in a thousand holy ways, ever trying to find means of pleasing the one who thus possesses it. I know a person who though not a poet suddenly composed some deeply felt verses well expressing her pain.'"

Poetry is a fruit of prayer and a gift of the Spirit. Certainly, like all forms of art, it's possible to use techniques of craft without a spiritual foundation or prayer. But, in my experience, true beauty is achieved when there is a combination of the two. That's why we have so many saints who were also poets.

I recently received my copy of Dana's new book, The Catholic Writer Today, in the mail and look forward to reading it. I'll review it in a future post.

The Catholic Writer Today
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