Perfect Tense – review of 13 Ways of Making Poetry a Spiritual Practice

Perfect tense

Is poetry a spiritual practice?  Well, if you’re ordained in the Triratna Order and hold multiple awards for your poems, pamphlets and books, it would seem as though this is a reasonable claim to make.  For the rest of us, it’s fortuitous that Maitreyabandhu has taken some time to point us in the right direction.


13 Ways of Making Poetry a Spiritual Practice first appeared in Magma 51, and has now been published by Playspace Publications with beautiful illustrations by Jo Davidson, evoking the blackbird of Wallace Stevens’ poem, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, cited at the opening of the text –


O thin men of Haddam,

Why do you imagine golden birds?

Do you not see how the blackbird

Walks around the feet

Of the women about you?


Spiritual seekers and poetic form often do go hand in hand – think of RS Thomas, the disgruntled Welsh priest who wrote stark and beautiful poetry about the daily challenges faced and presented by his parishioners; or of Basho, the great Zen monk and Haikist of the 17th centuries whose depictions of inner life and oneness with creation continue to inspire and surprise readers today.  They can often arise from similair aspects of the human condition – a desire to understand pain and suffering, to address our mortality and also an instinct to marvel at the world we live in.


But it does not necessarily follow that poetry is a spiritual practice.  13 Ways offers poets the opportunity to measure their work and their path against these markers on the way.  Like any good spiritual text, and indeed the best poetry, 13 Ways does not offer quick fixes.  On reading Maitreyabandhu’s text, I was pleased to see a few things that I could relate to, however these are counterbalanced by quite a few things that I could be much better at.  And, having that awareness, I can  take care not to be fancy, I can take my reading life as seriously if not more seriously than my writing life, I can embrace disappointment and I can attempt to cultivate uselessness.


So, resisting the urge to regurgitate all Maitreyabandhu’s points, I can say this – reading 13 Ways will not take you long.  It is written with clarity and precision, and the volume will fit neatly in most jacket pockets.  Putting some of the points he makes into your practice may well happen quite quickly.  But the pursuit of excellence which the text helps us open our eyes to is not something which will be completed overnight, nor by taking a Masters or getting up half an hour earlier.  This is not to say such things will not be part of some people’s paths, but to always remain open to criticism.  As we are reminded in the third point –


‘If you are serious about writing, assume with Rilke that “everything is yet to be done: everything”.’

Christie Williamson