I have just taken, from the shelf beside my morning chair, a book that has been there a while but that I haven't looked at properly till now: Tongues of Fire: an anthology of religious and poetic experience (Penguin, 1985), introduced and edited by Karen Armstrong. It was published in association with Channel 4 to accompany their television series of the same name, which I'd love to have seen. Craig Raine was consultant and other poets who participated were Seamus Heaney, Peter Levi, Czeslaw Milosz, D.M. Thomas, and Derek Walcott. Karen Armstrong dedicates the book to them "in gratitude for all they have taught me."
What is it about the writing of Karen Armstrong? Reading anything of hers, I feel illuminated, excited, my mind somehow expanded, as if I understand in a fresh way, for the first time. I've felt the same while listening to her speak. She has an extraordinary gift for communicating ideas, and making them somehow ignite with personal meaning for the reader or listener. Her chosen subject, as is well-known, is religion, although she lost the fervent Roman Catholic faith that drew her into a convent when very young. In 1985 she describes herself as an unbeliever; currently she's promoting the practice of compassion, key tenet of all faiths, and has founded the Charter for Compassion, now an international movement.
In the introduction to Tongues of Fire, she speaks of the religious paths of the Mystic and the Sectarian. The mystic's way is not for everyone, she says; we're not all capable of that dedication to meditation, that ego-denying journey into the "cloud of unknowing." The Sectarian follows a particular religious tradition and takes comfort from its rituals and community. Being Karen Armstrong, she illustrates the possible pitfalls and illusions of both paths, as well as the benefits.
The true mystic's path is an agnostic one; the deeper the contemplative goes, the more he or she realises that nothing can be known about the divine. This book's brilliant and wide-ranging introduction, with quotations from mystics, Einstein, William James, and the Buddha, homes in on the connection between mysticism and that other realm of unknowing, poetry. "Frequently," she says, "poets feel themselves possessed by something outside themselves just as the Apostles [at Pentecost] were 'filled with the Holy Spirit.' It is interesting, too, that this 'Spirit' manifested itself in terms of inspired language. The 'something' that appeared 'seemed like tongues of fire.' "
There are other links between poets and mystics, illustrated In the anthology with poems by seekers of various faiths as well as "poems that are not specifically religious, but which show how closely the experience of the poet mirrors experiences that we usually label religious." And what wonderful poems, ranging across centuries, cultures, many faiths, and none. Keats, Yeats, Hafiz; Moses Ibn Ezra, Emily Dickinson, Rumi; John of the Cross, Larkin, D.H. Lawrence.
I should have looked at this marvellous book (which you can still find second-hand, as I did) long before. But then, some books are waiting for the right moment.
Here's something I have discovered in its pages this morning:
My friend, my friend, I was born
doing reference work in sin, and born
confessing it. This is what poems are
for the greedy
they are the tongue's wrangle
the world's potage, the rat's star.
That's the final stanza of Anne Sexton's poem 'With Mercy for the Greedy [for my friend Ruth who urges me to make an appointment for the Sacrament of Confession].