Loving the questions: Religion and poetry with Jennifer Michael Hecht
For most people, for most of history, religion organized society, gave meaning to milestones, offered hope and consolation, and measured out the rhythms of daily life. For many of us, it still does. But for the unaffiliated, the questioning, the doubtful and the unbelieving, those for whom religion has lost its imperative and meaning, the desire to commune may still remain, or the need to say a few potent words to mark an occasion. Where then can a person turn for the power of a prayer or invocation, for ritual or connection to a deeper meaning? The answer, says Jennifer Michael Hecht, lies in poetry.
The Wonder Paradox: Embracing the Weirdness of Existence and the Poetry of Our Lives is a handbook of sorts, and a sacred text for the Interfaithless, a term Hecht invented to refer to the nonreligious who feel positively connected to others through that identity. In this expansive and deeply-felt book, Hecht asserts that religion surfaced from a human need for celebration, inspiration, and comfort, and that nonbelievers still crave something to give context to experiences of inexpressible joy and sadness. And what is religion, she says, but a combination of poetry and ritual?
Author of several collections of poetry as well as Doubt: A History, Hecht is no stranger to religious inquiry, nor to finding the divine in the ordinary. In sections devoted to practices (eating, for instance, or gratitude), holidays, life celebrations, and emergencies (speaking to children about heavenlessness or choosing a code to live by), Hecht pairs poetry with practice, along with beautiful passages detailing exactly why she has chosen the particular poem for the particular occasion. In the section on eating, in lieu of grace, she offers “From Blossoms” by Li-Young Lee:
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.
Along with mini lessons on interpreting poetry, which alone would make this an outstanding text, Hecht offers her hard-won musings on the sacredness of daily life, the miracle of slowing down and noticing, and the nourishment of communal experience. We spoke over email about community, meditation, and loving the questions.
The Rumpus: You say in the preface that you didn’t intend to write this book. What changed your mind? Why this book and why now?
Jennifer Michael Hecht: My first idea for the book that became The Wonder Paradox was a longer version of what became the book’s Introduction. I was going to say, Look, a lot of society isn’t religious anymore, but we still fall in love, we still have babies, we still get overwhelmed by feelings, and we need some of the help religion provides. My suggestion was to allow ourselves whatever remnants of religion we enjoy (or end up doing for whatever reason), and to enjoy that ritual for its poetry. And why not add a poem to the ceremony? After all, there is already a tradition of poetry at weddings and funerals.
That was my message because after writing Doubt, I heard from many nonreligious people about conflicts over ritual – holiday or life-cycle – within their families, or in their own feelings. But when I’d talk about the book, people wanted to know how poetry and poetic ideas could practically be used this way, that is, they wanted me to really map out my ideas. So I took a shot at it. I’ve got twenty chapters each about a pressing concern that I heard from people.
Rumpus: You share a story about how a particular Rilke quote came into your life. In it Rilke encourages us to “love the questions.” How would you suggest someone go about this? How can we “love the questions”?
Hecht: Yes, reading the phrase “you can love the questions” worked magic on my youthful self that was pretty immediate. It was an idea and it changed my perspective. I’d seen my big existential questions as bad, and what Rilke was saying, among other things, was, Oh that bad-looking path in front of you, that’s what we are here for, that’s the fun.
We can also hear something in the love for questions that is close to what I express as a love of paradox. One way to love the questions themselves, and to love paradox, is to spend time with the unanswerable and the contradictory. And one way to do that is to read poetry. In particular, I think people should try rereading poetry, by choosing a few poems and coming back to them over time.
Rumpus: I love the idea of coming back to poems over time. There is something magical about encountering a poem, or even a line from a poem, again and again throughout one’s life and seeing how that poem or that line means more, or means something different on each reading. It reminds me of the way that Jews read the Torah each year, cycling through it again and again, and parse each chapter, each phrase, for deeper and deeper meaning.
In the book you coined the term, “interfaithless.” Can you say a little bit about how you arrived at this word and what it means?
Hecht: Right exactly, the repetitions of religion follow the cycles of the year, and often have particular prayers or written meditations or songs which you encounter again and again. And when you have a powerful and enigmatic text to start with, as with the Torah, you can get a lot out of it. There are many poems that would repay a lifetime of reading for just the reason you say, time changes what you see. Over time, too, the poem becomes a companion.
On Interfaithless, I was trying to find a shorthand for a community that doesn’t always remember that it is a community. There are a lot of people showing up for religious celebrations of many kinds who are there for essentially poetic reasons. We are there for family, love, friendship, for the prettiness of the lights, for tradition, and to feel the year as it goes by. But because of the nature of this community, we define ourselves in the negative. We’re nonbelievers. But of course we believe in a lot. For instance, a lot of us believe in transformative art, in the great saga of science, and the wonders of nature. We may believe in trying to believe in each other. So when I was clicking around my brain looking for a shorthand for such co-nonbelievers, I thought of Interfaithless and laughed. I wanted to discard it because the last thing I wanted was another moniker in the negative. But it stuck. The important part is the inter.
Rumpus: I’m glad you brought up community. One of organized religion’s functions, and one of its benefits I believe is the community created through common worship. How do you see someone being able to find community through poetry?
Hecht: Well one way has been expressed by poetry readers through history, the feeling one gets that poets are in the room with you, and they are talking to one another, so that they do become a sort of historically unspecific community. In poems someone in the history of humanity is trying to say something true. Maybe that’s all art, but poems are brief, speak in words, don’t have to make perfect sense but can, and the great ones repay endless revisiting. They are words as near to music as words can be. Words as close to wordless co-knowing as can be. When other art is perfectly balanced to an unbearable sweetness they say it is a poem. I’m talking about the great poems of world poetry, which of course are talking to each other all the time. They can’t help it, but also they say “hi” to each other pretty directly. It’s a party. Still that’s being friends with ghosts and has its limitations.
The Wonder Paradox grew a bit because of the pandemic. At first I meant only that seeing life in a poetic way can make us enjoy gatherings which might otherwise sting or ring hollow. What I mean is that with a shift in perspective we can see all the things we do to keep our hearts and minds thriving as one poetic whole. And we can make this stronger of course by the way we pay attention to the love and art and nature in our lives. And sure, if we want to be more keyed into the paradox of life, I’d say go to the gatherings, know that the Interfaithless are out there with you, and read a poem.
I’m always promoting going out and being with people because that’s the advice I need to hear—I’m more of an indoor cat. Then here comes the pandemic and people are stuck indoors, but they are sharing poems and signing up for poems of the day. And again the adjustment I’m suggesting is small. If a poem moves you, print it out, or save it some way that you will most easily return to it, and try to do so. If we all have our own clutch of twelve to twenty poems that we return to at pertinent times, we could end up with poems in common with who-knows-who.
Rumpus: Can you describe your process for deciding which topics to cover—for instance, coming-of-age, depression, grace—and can you speak about your process for choosing which poems to include? Did you have definite ideas based on your own reading, or did you have to go looking for the perfect poems for each occasion?
Hecht: At first I was answering the questions that kept arising at the talks I’d give for my book Doubt. They were about negotiating holidays and life-cycle rituals. Families can be torn up in fights over baptism, for instance, and individuals can be torn up inside when, on days of fasting, they eat but feel guilty, or fast without belief and feel foolish. In all these cases, my own experience of learning the history of religions and talking to people about their practices made me see how ritual works for people in a way that started to feel really powerful to me. So I had real life questions and answers I was eager to share. So that was ‘What did nonreligious people tell me they missed about being part of a religion, and what have I learned about how that can be replaced or rethought?’ But then at some point I started to backsolve the question. I’d ask myself, When do the religious pray? And I thought of the advantages of having a nighttime poem, whether or not one says it nightly.
Choosing the poems was difficult, because there are so many I wanted to use. But one of my points in the book is that we fall in love with poems partly because we read and re-read them. We don’t need poems to be an exact fit with our circumstance for them to provide a moment of reflection and perspective shift. I often thought I had the perfect poem for an occasion/chapter but I’d find myself also talking about another poem and after edits it turned out to be the second poem that felt key.
The Rumpus: Were there any topics that didn’t make the cut?
Hecht: Oh, yes. I thought about a number of life-cycle events that might have had a dedicated chapter, various graduations, anniversaries, retirements, and physiological changes like menopause. Hindus celebrate the firsts of childhood with many sweet religious rituals. I was able to touch on these themes, but a structure emerged along the way, of four sections each with five chapters, and that helped me make some decisions. So with only five life-cycle celebration chapters, I went with weddings, baby-welcoming parties, coming of age rituals, reading love poems, and finally, funerals and memorials. These are events that religions have had a big role in, so it fit my process.
I begin the chapters with a story of a problem that was presented to me, and then a quick survey of how religions help people with that problem. Then a look at how art and science help with it, and then how poetry can help. I went with topics where religion had a lot of interesting suggestions. Consider, for example, that many religions give their members something to do with their hands when in need of support or communion, specifically objects to play with, varying in sacredness from keychain saints to an altar icon. One can spin a prayer wheel, or count off rosary beads, to invoke the sacred. So I invented the sacraments of misery, as a response to depression. A young woman had told me about her little statues, playfully speaking of a Mary figurine and a wee plastic ninja. I’ve personally dealt with depression and anxiety and these ideas of the poetic sacred have helped me, and I’ve seen trying different ways of managing sadness really make a difference for people. All of which is to say I went with topics for which I had insistent questions and exciting answers.
Rumpus: Keeping the hands busy is really important, I think. I crochet and knit pretty much compulsively, which isn’t to say I’m not enjoying myself—I am, enormously. But there’s something that feels really vital about making little things constantly, having a project that needs me, and also keeping myself off my phone for as many hours as possible.
You say something in the section on meditation that I think is so profound, and that really captures a worry I’ve had at the back of my mind for a while: “The iconic modern person is sketched with a short attention span, but a long capacity for worry…We get hit with so much life to manage and yet can feel that the struggle is making us miss out on life.” Wow. This is me in a nutshell. Can you say a little more about this, and then tell us how poetry may be an antidote for the long worry and the feeling of missing out on life?
Hecht: That’s great, everything you say about the regular making of little things. There’s a deep poetry to knitting in a world so rapidly unraveling. Less metaphorically the focus required for knitting and crochet is a peaceful alternative to the emotion scattering internet. (Ha – another net. I guess we are the knot-tying ape.) And that beautiful notion of “a project that needs me.” I think that is part of what I like about my own doings, the way it feels similar to caretaking, simple and good. When I finally finished writing The Wonder Paradox, but before it came out, I had some time to try to relax a bit and I started making collages. I think actually I was trying to clean and I found one of the collections of print matter that I’d been saving for collages and I decided that would be more fun. I could get lost in the sense that the project needed me even when there was no actual intended use for the work.
The knitwork and collage are both models for the poem, a place of enhanced care, whereby threads can warm us. It’s an enchantment through attention. There’s a way in which we benefit from the mere idea that there is a poetic thread running through your life (yeah, I heard it) that connects a whole range of behaviors as taking care of your deepest self and tuning in to the wonder.
The thing is that life can be a grind, but it is also full of moments that can be read as “spiritual” or “soul building.” I find those two terms confusingly close to the supernatural, so I use “poetic” and find that this act of naming reminds me to think in terms of poetry. One way that poetry works is by referring to varieties of scale, to do with time and size. There’s a parallel with how what means one thing in the perspective of a day can read quite differently in the context of, say, your early twenties. Thinking in terms of the poetry of your life is about noticing that you are one of the sentient beings in a universe with billions of galaxies, and your experience is the universe knowing itself and it is weird and messy and painful but it matters. How you make sense of life, and enrich the sense of your life, matters. How we learn and know in poetry is by trying and weighing different ideas and images and making adjustments. Listening for what rings true. We have to keep trying in life too and bear the anxiety of not knowing.
All that is about the poetry of life, but I’m always also talking about actual poems. There are many kinds, but they tend to be intense encounters that recall us to our senses. There is so much beauty and shock that we may feel assaulted by without ever finding words for, so that the fact of them causes a kind of isolation, and when we hear such things spoken it can be all sorts of liberation. You can notice that you are living well, if you play the film at the right speed, and poetry can jiggle your adjustments.
Author photo by Max Hecht-Chaneski