Over on the HappenStance blog, Helena Nelson, in a piece mainly on this year’s StAnza festival, discusses Moniza Alvi’s poems about souls (at a reading which I also thoroughly enjoyed), and touches on her unease at the overuse of the term spiritual when used to describe poetry. I have to confess my mind works the opposite way. I’m uncomfortable with the word soul, because it’s a concept I don’t understand, but I’m happy with the word spiritual, because I think I know that quality when I see it exposed, in poetry and elsewhere. Around a sticky table in the foyer of the Byre, Helena, Rob, myself and others chewed over the word, and I defended my occasional use of it in blurbs, specifically morgan downie’s stone and sea (which Helena also mentions in her blog).
Chambers Dictionary, which I would not be without, defines spiritual as (with some omissions): of the nature of, relating to: spirit, the mind, the higher faculties; highly refined in thought and feeling, incorporeal, religious.
Now, Morgan and I have never discussed religion, so I’ve no idea if he would describe himself as religious or not, but I do see in some of his poetry a focus on the incorporeal, and when he’s describing Columba, or life in the Western Isles, the words definitely have a spiritual dimension, as defined above. And to an old Zen bumpkin like me, he brings out the spirit, the essence, from the corporeal, from the hard rocks and mountains, the soft rivers and seas. Spirit of place is something I feel deeply, and he captures this quite beautifully.
The place where I felt this quality most strongly was at the Great Kasuga Shrine, a Shinto temple in the city of Nara, Japan. As we knelt under the eaves at the side of the temple, we watched the monks perform their rituals, heard their chants, saw a woman dance as the personification of Dance, and all the time the rain dripped steadily and quietly onto the rocks, the trees, the bamboos and ourselves. Magical, mystical, and oh so certainly spiritual.