In the class I'm teaching this semester we're talking about Whitman, and I asked each of my students to choose a section of Song of Myself that interested them, and then to make something -- a poem, remarks, commentary, whatever -- and to take five minutes to present what they'd made to the group. It's been amazing, their adventurous plunging-in to the text. One man spoke about works of art as engines of transformation; he was most interested, he said, in art that could provoke in its audience a sense of their own connection to the world, something larger than the ego or limited self. How does art wake us up to a broader sense of who we are? I asked the students if they had ever had such an experience, and they began to talk about examples: of standing for an hour in front of Michelangelo's David in Florence, of having their awareness taken over by a painting, or being lifted out of themselves in the theater. It was a moving conversation.
And it led me to think about this extraordinary poem by Marie Howe, from THE KINGDOM OF ORDINARY TIME. It's part of a series of poems based on the life of Mary, but you can just as easily read it as a text of any sort of experience of the transcendent.
Even if I don't see it again -- nor ever feel it
I know it is -- and that if once it hailed me
it ever does --
And so it is myself I want to turn in that direction
not as towards a place, but it was a tilting
as one turns a mirror to flash the light to where
it isn't -- I was blinded like that -- and swam
in what shone at me
only able to endure it by being no one and so
specifically myself I thought I'd die
from being loved like that.