Journaling Workshop using Poetry
by Peter Anderson, Intermountain Yearly Meeting
There are ways I think that reading poetry helps us to slow down. Helps us to savor word and image. Helps us get a taste of what it means to read with an openness to the movements of the Spirit. With that in mind, I’ve gathered the following poems which I hoped might supplement readings for spiritual formation groups. The readings are
those which have been selected for the IMYM / Boulder Retreat spiritual formation program.
A Way to Listen and Write Together
One way to experience these poems as a group is to do the following.
¾Read the poem aloud, Invite participants to share a word that stayed with them, moved them, or had resonance with them for whatever reason. As in worship sharing, people share as they are led with generous silence in between speakers.
¾Read the poem aloud again. Invite participants to share a phrase or image that stayed with them.
¾Read the poem a third time and invite participants to write freely. Remember what William Stafford said; “No need to worry about writer’s block, just lower your standards”. In other words, write what comes: thoughts, associations, images. Begin if you like with a word or phrase from the poem and write it down again and again. Writing the same word or phrase again and again is fine. It’s a good contemplative practice. Keep in mind though that our brains hate repetition. Their natural inclination is to wander off. All we have to do as writers in this practice is to wander along with them, pen in hand. If you can, allow at least 20 minutes for this period of writing.
¾Read the poem aloud again. Then invite participants to read as they feel led (as in worship sharing). Allow for generous periods of silence in between readings. Allow twenty minutes for this part of the exercise. Periods of silence in between readings allows for deep listening and for the words to settle.
¾Read the poem one last time. End of exercise.
You may find your own ways of enjoying a poem together. The writing practice described is only meant as a suggestion (but it has been effective in a variety of group settings over the years). Also, you may find a poem that works better than those selected for the work you’re doing as a group and that’s fine too. I’ve found that poems which are accessible, which have a wealth of imagery, which have the potential to lead us into deeper reflections work best. As I mentioned at the workshop poets like Mary Oliver, Galway Kinnel, Rainer Maria Rilke, Rumi, Denise Levertov, William Stafford are especially helpful. Some helpful anthologies are News from the Universe (Robert Bly), Women in Praise of the Sacred (Jane Hirschfield), The Enlightened Heart (Steven Mitchell).
Poems Along the Way
1. In Preparation for the Retreat:
giving life to all life,
moving all creatures,
root of all things,
washing them clean,
wiping out their mistakes,
healing their wounds,
you are our true life,
awakening the heart
from its ancient sleep.
Hildegard of Bingen
2. At the Retreat:
The Day Millicent Found the World
By William Stafford
Every morning Millicent ventured farther
into the woods. At first she stayed
near light, the edge where bushes grew, where
her way back appeared in glimpses among
dark trunks behind her. Then by farther paths
or openings where giant pines had fallen,
she explored ever deeper into
the interior, till one day she stood under a great
dome among columns, the heart of the forest, and knew:
Lost. She had achieved a mysterious world
where any directions would yield only surprise.
And now not only the giant trees were strange
but the ground at her feet had a velvet nearness;
intricate lines on bark wove messages all
around her. Long strokes of golden sunlight
shifted over her feet and hands. She felt
caught up and breathing in a great powerful embrace.
A birdcall wandered forth at leisurely intervals
from an opening on her right: “Come away, Come away.”
Never before had she let herself realize
that she was part of the world and that it would follow
wherever she went. She was part of its breath.
Aunt Dolbee called her back that time, a high
voice tapering faintly among the farthest trees,
“Milli-cent! Milli-cent!” And that time she returned,
but slowly, her dress fluttering along pressing
back branches, her feet stirring up the dark smell
of moss, and her face floating forward, a stranger’s
face now, with a new depth in it, into the light.
3. November: Discipline/Listening
By Denise Levertov
Lord, not you,
it is I who am absent.
At first belief was a joy I kept in secret,
stealing alone into sacred places:
a quick glance, and away¾and back,
I have long since uttered your name
but now I elude your presence.
to think about you, and my mind
like a minnow darts away,
into the shadows, into gleams that fret
the river’s purling and passing.
Not for one second
will my self hold still, but wanders
anywhere, everywhere it can turn. Not you,
it is I am absent. You are the stream, the fish, the light,
the pulsing shadow,
you the unchanging presence, in whom all
moves and changes.
How can I focus my flickering, perceive
at the fountain’s heart
the sapphire I know is there?
4. December: Christian Roots
From Book of Hours
By Rainer Maria Rilke
I read it here in your very word,
in the story of your gestures
with which your hands cupped themselves
around our becoming¾limiting, warm.
You said, live out loud, and die you said lightly,
and over and over again you said be.
But before the first death came murder.
A fracture broke across the rings you’d ripened.
A screaming shattered the voices
that had just come together to speak you,
to make of you a bridge
over the chasm of everything.
And what they have stammered ever since
of your ancient name.
5. January: Quaker Spirituality
By Gregory Orr
Silence. Does Silence
Make things vanish?
Or confirm their disappearance?
Is the beloved who has died
Buried more deeply
Than by earth.
And locked away
The Book whispers
About the beloved in dreams. Still
It’s a whispering,
Difficult to understand,
But if we find
The Book and open it,
If we find the poem
That is trying to find us,
The poem the beloved
Wrote and sent out
On the long journey
Toward our heart¾if
We find that poem,
It all makes sense
And the silence recedes
Before the beloved’s
Quiet voice speaking to us.
6. February : Prayer
The Healing Time
By Pesha Gertler
Finally on my way to yes
I bump into
all the places
where I said no
to my life
all the untended wounds
the red and purple scars
those hieroglyphs of pain
carved into my skin, my bones,
those coded messages
that send me down the wrong street
again and again
where I find them
the old wounds
the old misdirections
and I lift them
one by one
close to my heart
and I say holy
7. March: Community
By William Stafford
Next time what I’d do is look at
this earth before saying anything. I’d stop
just before going into a house
and be an emperor for a minute
and listen better to the wind
or to the air being still.
When anyone talked to me, whether
blame or praise or just passing time,
I’d watch the face, how the mouth
had to work, and see any strain, any
sign of what lifted the voice.
And for all, I’d know more¾the earth
bracing itself and soaring, the air
finding every leaf and feather over
forest and water, and for every person
the body glowing inside the clothes
like a light.
8. April: Meeting for Worship
In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being
By Denise Levertov
Bird’s Afloat in the air’s current,
sacred breath? No not breath of God,
it seems but God
the air enveloping the whole
globe of being.
It’s we who breathe, in, out, in, the sacred,
leaves astir, our wings
rising, ruffled¾but only the saints
take flight. We cower
in cliff-crevice or edge out gingerly
on branches close to the nest. The wind
marks the passage of holy ones riding
that ocean of air, Slowly their wake
reaches us, rocks us.
But storm or still,
numb or poised in attention,
we inhale, exhale, inhale,
May: Corporate Practice
Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks
By Jane Kenyon
I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years.,..
I am the maker, the lover, the keeper….
When the young girl who starves
sits down to a table
she will sit beside me….
I am food on a prisoner’s plate….
I am water rushing to the wellhead,
filling the pitcher until it spills
I am the patient gardener
of the dry and weedy garden….
I am the stone step,
the latch, and the working hinge….
I am the heart contracted by joy…
the longest hair, white
before the rest….
I am there in the basket of fruit
presented to the widow….
I am the musk rose opening,
the fern on the boggy summit….
I am the one whose love
overcomes you, already with you
when you think to call my name….
And finally a prayer poem
Wishing you all well
On the Way
By Peter Anderson
our voices ride in your Voice
as the rainbows swim this mountain stream…
they streak down cobbled shallows
they dodge the split wave stones
they glide in behind granite boulders
delving into the green pools
where light and shadow bend round one another,
where deeper yet, the current swirls still,
where, for a while, they will rest
then again rising
then again rising.
Let the clear water run.