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Poetry from a humble perspective

by Fethullah Gülen on . Posted in Speech and Power of Expression

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Poetry is the voice, wording, and expression of the truth and essence of humankind, their love, excitement, trouble, grief, and joys, the expression of their sensing and evaluation of existence and the beyond, through the tongue of feelings and emotions in an open or hidden way. From another point of view, we can see it as the heart’s feeling of things and events in its own way, feelings’ making their own interpretation; a specific evaluation of humankind and the universe with respect to the outward realm and what is behind it by means of the conscience; and the interpreting and sounding out by consciousness and cognition—in spite of their essential functions—of these senses, feelings, and considerations sometimes more or less in conformity with reality, and sometimes in the tow of dreams and imaginings.

Since everyone has their own breadth of conscience, immensity of heart, and richness of feelings, then the depth of their feelings and thoughts, their perspective on things and events, how they interpret what they sense and feel, individual styles, words, and tunes will naturally be different.

Given that some people are unaware of the realms behind visible existence and unable to understand the language of the conscience, some see nothing but material things; since their reasoning is reduced to what they see, and some are ignorant of their own inner worlds, it is obvious that such people will utter lots of sounds and words, whether meaningful or meaningless. Because individuals in any of these groups will voice their inner perceptions, they will reflect the inner picture and plans which form in their conscience, spread in their mind and imagination and then influence their feelings—different beliefs, opinions, and cultures play an important role in this issue—and this means a single object, a single meaning, a single image pictured in various different forms.

Every time a poet is about to write, every time they open their mouth to say something, they express their inner world and tell of their own feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and opinions, unless they are deliberately pursuing fantasies which contrast with their beliefs, opinions, thoughts, and point of view. As a matter of fact, it is possible to make the same remark about all other branches of art.

In this respect, we can say that the essence of poetry is based on one’s inner voice and when performed in its proper tone, a poem purely reflects the poet’s heart and feelings; therefore, it is revealed in different ways.

This act of revealing occurs sometimes as lines of words, sometimes as a few drops of wisdom, sometimes as an overflowing joy or a pitch-dark grief, sometimes as a bouquet of ardor, sometimes as heroics at full gallop, sometimes as homesickness, sometimes as the joy of reunion, or sometimes as multicolored pieces expressing a few of these notions together. No matter how, what essentially happens in poetry is the evaporation of metaphors, meanings and notions in wisps and their becoming “dew” within the poet’s inner depths, and then their pouring into the bosom of pages like pure drops of rain.

True poetry is composed of metaphors and symbols which are born in the heart, rise like clouds, and assume a celestial form; verses formed otherwise are not poetry, but only artificial words, each of which contradicts the feelings inside. The utterances and words that have not been formed in a person’s soul as the voice of conscience are all hollow, no matter how embellished they are or how dazzling they seem to be. A perfect poem owes its perfection to sounding the voice of the heart and the melodies of the conscience, as well as its ability to reflect the considerations, beliefs, opinions, and horizons of thought of the poet, but not due to its formal or mental aspects. The words of a great poet occur as an expression of the poet’s inner feelings and senses, their love, enthusiasm, and interpretations, not as a linguistic effort. Reflecting the poet’s own inner depths— overtly or covertly — is the touchstone for the sincerity of a poem and its being free from pretense. A true poet, whose considerations and imagery have their source in the inquiries and examinations of the conscience, always has a consistent style—with the exception of partial divergences at times—thus, voicing personal feelings, thoughts, and senses. Almost always the poet moves within the notes of a certain mode, both low and high, keeping within the same key. In fact, poetry is a word born of the appreciations, drafts, and preoccupations of the conscience, not a language; however, it constitutes an important ground for language to flourish. Sometimes, poetry can assume an equivocal, inexplicit form in terms of its wording; however, as a discourse it is always very clear and is timeless with respect to the richness of its content.

Poetry does not talk about humankind, the universe, and the Creator as religious studies, Sufism, and philosophy do. Just as in the case of dreams, poetry depicts meanings and metaphors as abstract images and motifs. Then its meaning is unfolded by interpreters in as many dimensions as their capacity allows them to appreciate its value. Whether or not a poet’s conceptions, imaginings, and interpretations of a certain object accord with others’ thoughts about the same thing, the frame of reference is the poet’s own perception and the feelings that poets whisper to their tongue and pen are always related to this perception. The process of inner perception, evaluation, and expression that takes place in the poet also occurs in the person analyzing and interpreting the poem. The immensity and flexibility of the words can turn into a different voice and statement through the interpreter’s overextending them owing to a difference of thought, opinion, and culture. The fact that it is possible to give opposing and contradictory interpretations of various people and ideas that are treated as if they were holy sources is a clear example of this. In this respect, we can say that just as poets express their inner world in poems they write, so an important point of reference for readers or interpreters are their own thoughts, opinions and culture. Though there may be exceptions, there is no doubt that this is the way it usually happens.

As a matter of fact, there is nothing very strange about this. Far from strange, it can even be considered desirable and beneficial given that the purity, innocence, and honor of one’s words are in direct proportion to how well they voice the heart. Poetry is another name for a person’s telling of the self, existence and what is beyond, and one’s own perceptions. This is an important aspect of true poetry. Another aspect, which is no less important, is that these voices which spring from the heart and feelings should not tempt a person into carnal or material pitfalls, they should not pollute minds by describing falsehood, they should not try to lure readers or listeners by constructing fantasies or always pursuing weird things and exaggerating the subjects in question, they should not make every subject incomprehensible by trying to be obscure and ambiguous in an artificial attempt to seem thought-provoking, and so on. In a good poem, the wording should be exquisite, while love should reflect the longing for the essential source of all beauties. In addition, existence should be interpreted by seeing every object as a wonderful work of art and ascribing it to its True Owner. We can view all these features as the essentials of a poem’s purity, innocence, and excellence.

A poem is not a poem in the true sense of the word if its relation to language consists of lies, exaggeration, and promoting the wrong, if its relation to imagination is transgression, obscenity, and pictures stimulating lust, and if its relation to consciousness and cognition is confined to beating the drum for deviant ideologies. Sets of words in such a dirty style are sometimes presented to us as poetry. But no matter what kind of an understanding is adopted, whether associated with positivism, which asserts that the truth can only be reached by trial and error, or rationalism, which asserts that everything can be explained and grasped by reason, whether the perspective of romanticism, which overemphasizes imagination and sensitivity, or an approach based on ardent naturalism, whether based on realism, which aims to describe everything as it is including its shortcomings, or a curiosity-raising approach such as surrealism, whether idealism, which asserts that there is nothing real but ideas, or cubism, which takes a geometric approach to everything instead of direct descriptions, or some other such current or perspective, that is not true poetry. True poetry is the perception of human feelings, the voice of the heart, open or hidden. It is the lyrics, composition, and melody of the relation between humankind, the universe and God, a shadow pinpointing each of the truths we can discern everywhere (from the earth to the stars), a photograph of the creation’s projection cast in our feelings and thoughts and framed through words, a heartfelt tune of our loves and joys played on different strings, and it is a bouquet of our faith, hope, determination, beauty, love, reunion, and yearnings.

These are the characteristics of poetry with sound references and there is no exaggeration in them. The Qur’an describes poets who have not been able to find their true source and commit themselves to it: As for poets, only the misguided follow them. Do you not see that they roam confusedly through all the valleys (of falsehoods, thoughts, and currents)—the situation described may be that of poets who are stuck in the surface meaning of one of the different currents we have mentioned above; it is not of great importance that these currents had not appeared by the time this verse was revealed. The translation of the verse continues as follows: And they say what they themselves do not do. After that, the Qur’an emphasizes that such heedless poetry, which does not rest on an authentic basis, fires up carnal desires and fancies—or it is highly possible that they can do so. And then the Qur’an excepts the masters of poetry who base their words on an authentic reference, almost appreciating and praising them: Except those who believe and do good, righteous deeds, and remember God much… (Shuara 26:224–227).

Poetry in this sense of the word is such an atlas of expressions arranged from pearls of words and such a magical composition played on the most delicate strings of the heart that one who owns it can make everyone listen and influence them with it. When a poem like that finds the right tune and rings out, the most magnificent expressions stand saluting it in awe.

The foremost place in the dictionary of love belongs to poetry. The words that ascend the horizons of being heard by everyone on the wings of poetry can pass all boundaries and fly everywhere; they can speak to all nations and hand a flower to every soul. Up to now, such glorious floods of expression have overflowed from brilliant minds that over time they have discolored and turned into faint pictures or shallow streams; they have become the victims of familiarity so that no one pays attention to them anymore. As for a poem, which is true to its own origin and essentials, it always stays as fresh and vivid as a crown of words. And if this poem is also open to spirituality, then such words may ascend to be recited by heavenly beings.

Sometimes, even the most delightful samples of poetry might not display their beauties thoroughly. This is unfortunate for those works of excellence. However, such unfortunate states never last long; tomorrow, if not today, certain masters of words will surely hear them, and recognize and reveal their true value. As is the case today, poetry has often been treated as an object of no value and ignored by the masses. However, this indifference has never lasted long and the appreciative masters of words always crowned it in a becoming fashion, almost as a recompense for the reverence of which it had been deprived. In fact, poetry has always been like archives that peoples have continually used to serve their feelings, thoughts, national identities and cultures, and it has served as a factor uniting different historical periods. Those who had lost contact with their past for a certain period found and experienced the expression of their own selves in poetry, and they were able to see their history as a whole in it.

Poetry can be more eloquent than the most eloquent sermons, and it becomes a weapon more formidable than the sharpest of swords; whenever such a poem—which finds its correct tune and conveys the excitement of the heart—rings out, all the miserable, heaped drifts of words fly for shelter and bury themselves in ashamed silence. Whenever such a sword of poetry is drawn from its scabbard, all the false princes of words, who have set their thrones on a void, are thwarted and retreat into seclusion.

As for powerful poetry with sound content and meaning, the Messenger of God always sees it and indicates it as a source of wisdom. He had a rostrum set up in the Prophet’s Mosque for Hassan ibn Thabit to recite poems; then he prayed for the poet, saying, “My God, support him with the Holy Spirit.” This can be seen as emphasizing the value of struggling with the diamond sword of poetry against the crude heathen mentality.

So far as a poem retains its own color, we cannot find a beauty which is as fresh, as vivid or as ageless. Though poetry does not have a color of its own, it is a reality that it carries some tints from every color. When letters and words become students in the school of poetry, when they become recruits in the ranks of poetry, words reach all levels of knowledge and they conquer all strongholds.

In fact, existence is arranged like a poem written into the framework of the laws of creation. As for poetry, which has become a strong voice and word through its own dynamics, it is another way of voicing the same poem of existence in a variety of forms by different strings of speech. In this respect, we can consider poets to be the nightingales of existence and the beyond. As stated in the verse: We have not taught him (the Messenger) poetry; further, it is not seemly for him. (Yasin 36:69), God’s Messenger is not a conveyor of feelings, emotions, and perceptions but of pure divine truths. Neither is he a poet, nor is the Qur’an poetry. However, the Prophet is a prince of exposition and the most glorious master of all people of words, while the Qur’an is one of the brightest and richest sources of poets who are “inspired.” The prophets explain the essence of the relation between humankind, the universe, and the Creator in a way understandable to everyone. They guide people on how to serve God Almighty, guidance that brings happiness in both worlds. As for poets, they express these truths or other subordinate matters in a new style in accord with their own perceptions, comprehension, horizons, characters, and temperaments in the language of their hearts, feelings and emotions.

True poetry is a fruit flourishing like a heavenly flower on the branches of inspiration such that similar fruits replace it depending on the thoughts and intentions of those who will pick the fruit. Then this wondrous crop is renewed unceasingly. So much so that the hands which reach to the tree of poetry find something to pluck every time; however, all that is plucked retains its uniqueness. Neither the senses and feelings, nor the new blossoms repeat themselves because feelings, thoughts, intentions, perspectives, and cultures are what bring the fruit its real hue, taste, and accent. Indeed, though poetry is a thought heated in the crucible of consciousness and cognition and a melody sounded through the instrument of language, what gains true depth and genuine hue are the horizons of the poet’s belief, opinion, culture, and thought. If the words which have found their true state by boiling in such a crucible rise up with belief, opinion, and culture, then they become transcendent and attain depth as lofty as in the heavenly beings’ exchange of words. They become a river of wisdom which has wondrous results everywhere it passes. When the poem catches the fine point to be expressed and speaks for it, it echoes within the souls of men and women of letters like the trumpet Sur blown by the Archangel Israfil. In our time when faint words devoid of purpose, spirit, and background blacken our horizons like a curtain black as pitch, we obviously thirst for true poetry. Nevertheless, neither am I capable of, nor is the length of a short essay enough for a true expression of this thirst.