Speculation on Poetry and the Sacred: A Notebook

by Eric Pankey

In this recent interview, Eric Pankey describes poems as “speculative spaces” in which he is “free to be full of questions, full of doubt.” We asked him to expand on this intriguing notion, which illuminates many of the recurring concerns in Trace, his latest collection of poems. Appropriately, Pankey’s response came in the form of more speculation.

Not a spark, but a splinter of God in each of us, inflamed, working its way to the surface.

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T. S. Eliot’s work offers three interesting voices for approaching the sacred via poetry:

a. The prophetic, apocalyptic, and eschatological voice (or voices) in The Waste Land, written when he was not a Christian, I know, but when he was using such texts as Luke’s Gospel and a good bit of Western, Christian-tinged literature, as well as holy Eastern texts for collage and sampling.

b. The mystical/visionary voice in “Ash Wednesday” and to some degree in “Marina” and “Journey of the Magi,” evocative in its mystery, intensity, and in its liturgical echoes.

c. The discursive, introspective, meditative voice in The Four Quartets, with its ruminations on timelessness, history, self, and the lapsed Edenic realm that is memory.

Engaging in an inquiry into the sacred, the contemporary poet’s task is to merge, to hybridize these voices into something individual in order to speak to an even more skeptical and pragmatic reader than Eliot faced.

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The Jesus Freaks I hung around with as a teen were anxious for the Second Coming to finally get around to coming. “The Edge of Things” in Trace, I see now, grows out of my memory of them and embodies the anticipation, sadness, and forlornness they felt in the waiting, never imagining that the Rapture might have come and they had been left behind.

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Is the poem the relic or the reliquary?

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Is the convention of figural arrangement in images of the Annunciation a depiction of decorum or violence, of a seduction or a breaking and entering?

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The given, often in these discussions, is that we live in an era after belief—the god’s death not as yet another myth about the god, but historical fact. I am not sure I begin at the given. After the death of god, the god goes on living as god, called forth as before by words.

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What if what we call matter is to God dark matter, which God cannot see and thus cannot attend?

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A life of faith requires a stamina acquired only by the practice of faith.

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My daughter at four-years-old describing her Sunday school drawing: It’s a picture of the Holy Spirit. It’s invisible so I gave it a face.

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It easier to have faith in the sound of a bit of language—a syllable, a rhyme, a metered foot—than it is to have faith in what I meant to say. Poems are what get said, not what I meant to say. Poems are compared often to prayer. I would argue that poems are more like a prayer’s answer—sometimes puzzling, indirect, askew, yet nonetheless bright with clarity.

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The poem “Prayer” in Trace is not so much an address to God, but to God’s absence.

This poem, I think, was originally a reaction to this from Emily Dickinson, in a letter from 1862, where she writes about her family: “They are religious, except me, and address an eclipse, every morning, whom they call their ‘Father.’”

I love the notion of an eclipse, of the there-but-not-there, a thing obscured by, shadowed by its own creation.

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One Response to Speculation on Poetry and the Sacred: A Notebook

  1. Curtis says:

    Thank you for this. I heard echos of Fredrick Buechner and Thomas Merton. In my book, good company to keep.


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