Risking the Sacred – an essay by Tim Miller


Many years ago now, while living in California, I was sitting in a mostly-empty university library, surprised to find a literary manifesto in a fairly prominent US magazine. Seeing almost immediately that it was just a lot of posturing and attitude, I gave up. Turning, I saw that behind me on a shelf was a set of books, Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, an area of history whose religion and mythology—from Egypt to Mesopotamia and early Judaism—had always held my interest. I gladly pulled the first volume off the shelf, and put the magazine aside.

Up until now, hindsight always made this the moment when I chose an interest in “the sacred in literature” over the much larger net of “literature” itself. But just as the order and meaning derived from religion is often used to oppose the random cruelty of everyday life, I’ve spent more than a decade writing a short book that seeks to deny this characterization and unite the religion and everyday life. I’ve also never bought the argument that science and religion are necessarily opposed to one another. So why would I have continued so long loving the rift (for lack of a better phrase) between sacred and secular literature?

The first answer is because it was helpful. Any bold attempt to carve out an identity or a boundary for oneself, even if it is not technically real, can provide a focus that wouldn’t otherwise exist. This focus certainly assisted in the twelve years it took to write my book-length poem, To the House of the Sun, which is built on mythology and religious literature; and it’s still there in a forthcoming book of smaller poems, Bone Antler Stone, which tries to imagine religious life in prehistoric Europe. The second answer is because that rift is real. Just as it’s not hard to find people (admittedly, people like me) who dismiss much of the academic study of literature perhaps a bit too easily, it’s not hard to find people who have found their equivalent of religion in a constellation of authors and favorite books disparaging religious belief of any kind.

This is when I am reminded of a letter W. B. Yeats wrote on July of 1892, where he defends his interest in magic and the occult. Twenty-seven by this time, and writing to a fellow Irish nationalist more than twice his age, he still pulls no punches:

It is surely absurd to hold me “week” [sic] or otherwise because I chose to persist in a study which I decided deliberately four or five years ago to make next to my poetry the most important pursuit of my life. Whether it be, or be not, bad for my health can only be decided by one who knows what magic is & not at all by any amateur…. If I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written my [William] Blake book nor would “The Countess Kathleen” have ever come to exist. The mystical life is the centre of all that I do & all that I think & all that I write.[1]

Later on in that letter, Yeats goes on to call himself a voice in “the revolt of the soul against the intellect.”[2] Meanwhile, during a 2015 BBC radio documentary on Yeats’s one hundred and fiftieth birthday, the Irish poet Aidan Murphy dismissed Yeats’s interest in the occult as “all that spiritual bullshit”; although later he admitted that the real problem was that it “totally freaked me out.”

All of these positions are understandable, including Yeats making it a battle between the sacred/soul/anti-intellect against a secular/intellectual/literary world. But Yeats’s example itself shows that he was more annoyed than honest, just as Murphy’s admission of discomfort sounds more right than his first remark. To put it almost too obviously: by admitting that his occult and magical interests were central to him, he was also admitting that there were peripheral interests in his life as well. Unless prompted to defend it, Yeats saw no reason to “explain” how an interest in politics could possibly exist alongside an interest in contacting the spirits of the dead. They simply did. In the same way, and in a way that I’m surprised I never saw before, even that set of books on the ancient Near East that I found by chance (and which my wife bought me two years later for my birthday) contain as much writing on early technology and architecture and science, as well as agriculture and warfare, as it does deep studies of religious belief.

And so, even as I have tried from the beginning to only see the sacred center of my creative life, and not the secular outer edge, there has always been overlap. As a teenager, it was both no accident that George Harrison was my favorite Beatle from the start, or that when T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land grabbed me around the same time it was because of its sacred content. I owe to Eliot my first real exposure to Frazer’s Golden Bough, the Upanishads, the Arthurian Romances, and even—although I was raised Catholic—St. Augustine. Since then, I have come to rely on Four Quartets so much that its status as a “poem” is almost irrelevant—and the same goes for Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish: they have both become parts of a kind of personal scripture.

In the past I have called upon examples like these to show what a great distance there is between the uses of the sacred and the secular in literature. But of course Ginsberg had a political and sexual dimension that was wholly intermixed with his sacred concerns; the same is obviously true for George Harrison and the Beatles and even for Eliot, since alongside his references to Hinduism and St. John of the Cross are just as many “merely” secular ones. I used to also say that I preferred poems by the older Wallace Stevens, who could remark, “We say God and the imagination are one…/How high that highest candle lights the dark,” rather than the younger Stevens who could write the skeptical poem “Sunday Morning.” And yet until now it never seemed important to note that the same person wrote both poems.

Looking around, it’s not hard to find the same intersections in other people. Only last month I read the composer Philip Glass’s memoir, Music Without Words. While I was most thrilled when he described his trips to India and the kind of Tibetan Buddhist practice he has lived with for most of his life, just as essential were those endearing chapters which describe his life as a working-class composer in New York City, driving a cab or doing plumbing work on the side. One writer I know, who you’d guess from the essays on his blog is a good contemporary poet with a standard theoretical bent at times, nevertheless told me he can’t go long without rereading the Upanishads. At least in my own life, I’m surrounded by writers and artists (not to mention the anonymous authors of so much scripture) who, even if they sometimes get defensive and try to claim otherwise, actually get on with sacred and secular pursuits quite easily.

Another place where religion and literature meet is that I become annoyed with both in almost identical ways: when the former becomes too theological and the latter becomes too theoretical. Each have a tendency to codify and dogmatize what to me are essential to both literature and religion: the deeply personal and unclassifiable experiences of them. In the interest of being a communal institution, or simply of teaching students, religion and literature are both liable to become weighed down with interpretation and explanation. The extreme is Carl Jung, who supposedly said that “religion” itself is a defense against the religious experience, since by the time it has become institutionalized it has also become flattened and merely “explained.” In that vein I might say that the furthest corners of literary studies are probably a defense against the literary experience as well.

At the same time, this tendency is unavoidable, and it’s actually one of my great joys to enter into a tradition decades or centuries or millennia old, making a Talmud not just of the Old Testament but also of Homer or Dante or James Joyce, commentaries all swirling around a central text. But it becomes a problem when one gets stuck to a single interpretation or school, or when interpretation supersedes that primal and primary experience, whether of God or a poem. Ezra Pound’s reaction to Finnegans Wake, namely that, “nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clapp [sic] can possibly be worth all the circumambient peripherization,”[3] pretty much sums up how I feel about whole swathes of Modernism, Postmodernism, and any insular and overly opaque form of religion.

That essential experience—that divine vision—has been lost, at least to me. In a recent biography of Picasso, John Richardson warns of a similar tendency when he describes how a 1988 exhibition of the painter’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which also included hundreds of preparatory drawings and related items, “proved too much of a good thing: it encouraged scholars to focus on the sketches at the expense of the painting itself.”[4] And so I constantly remind myself that no matter the thousands of pages that have been devoted to something like the book of Ezekiel, that journey still begins with its first stunning sentence: “Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.”

This is where I become self-conscious, since I know the reputation religion has. I have noted elsewhere that when someone obsessively takes up anything political or cultural, the religious metaphors immediately come out: whatever it is “has become like a religion to them.” Our unhealthy attachment to any idea is best compared to a fanatical attachment to religion.

This fact may illustrate the danger of the sacred, but it also grants to the sacred an undeniable power which we is given to hardly anything else in our world. One need not be religious to appreciate the paintings of van Gogh, but I understand him even more—his desperation and his manias and his ecstatic attachment to an endless series of artistic philosophies and famous painters—when I know he was a failed preacher. I also understand the impulse that led him from religion to art, since in the end both of them, when stripped of their theological or theoretical costumes, strike me as attempts to express experiences that are essentially irrational, and beyond words—and here I included everything, whether in witnessing a landscape, falling in love, going to war, or just the stress of the daily grind.

In order to write this essay, I went looking for the literary manifesto I mentioned at the beginning. It was called, “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It,” by the novelist Ben Marcus, apparently in reaction to another essay by another novelist, Jonathan Franzen. The idea of such an essay was dated even before Marcus wrote it, and a “feud” between two prominent New York City authors about who is or isn’t killing literature seems almost staged now. If I tried to read the essay again I’m sure I would find within it the kind of tiresome anxieties and worries that artists sometimes actually say out loud, and which are nowhere to be found in writing like Ezekiel, or in van Gogh’s huge and volatile output on canvas. The limitations of language or representation are a given, but the prophet still pushes on, just as van Gogh continues to paint. There’s a crazy kind of fearlessness here that I don’t get from any other kind of art or literature, and that suggests something of the sacred to me.

Put another way: the greatest experiences of life and art and literature, as well of religion, seem to involve risk, of taking the risk that anything might happen. I find very little risk in the theological or theoretical bents mentioned above, but I do find risk in the works those theologies and theories are trying to explain. Sacred literature just happens to express the nature of this risk best for me; so that when Bruce Springsteen calls Elvis a “a Saturday night jukebox Dionysus,”[5] I remember my that salvation isn’t in rock n roll—as much as I do love it—but in the Bacchae of Euripides. Yet at the same time, Springsteen’s hymns to the wandering and restless impulse (“Something in the Night” or “Streets of Fire”) are powerful to me because they approach something transcendent, something more than just a fun rock song. By this point, my definition of the “sacred” might as well be “stuff that I like,” which would convince no one who doesn’t intuitively understand it, but at least admits that I can only go so far in trying to articulate it. I would rather be experiencing the works themselves, or trying to write another poem, rather than clarifying why I do either. I am, thankfully, not writing a manifesto.

A mostly solitary person, I’ve also always taken it as instructive that the most powerful spiritual experience I’ve ever had occurred in a crowded New York City subway car. Risk, and the intersection of the sacred and the secular, as well as the isolated and the public—they were all there. It came while reading the great vision of the Oglala Lakota holy man, Black Elk, and while listening to one of Henryk Górecki’s pieces to commemorate the Polish Pope John Paul II. Put into a novel or film, combining the subway and Black Elk and the Pope would seem perhaps contrived. But usually the greatest hint that the sacred has arrived is amid such juxtaposition and surprise.

The combination of the words of Black Elk, the music, and the crowd of rush-hour New Yorkers produced an overflow of feeling and perception—both of unity and dislocation, as people continued to leave and come on at every stop, their every gesture and detail heightened and highlighted and even appearing embossed somehow—that I have been trying to understand ever since. In a photo taken of me an hour later, I look exhausted but am still beaming a weird, hidden smile. It’s hard for me to say what that experience was, but the vocabulary of the sacred is where I’ve always reached when I’ve tried.

[1] Quoted in Roy Foster, W. B. Yeats: A Life, I: The Apprentice Mage, 120-121.

[2] The Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats, Volume 1: 1865-1895, edited by John Kelly and Eric Domville, 303.

[3] Quoted in Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, Revised Edition, 634.

[4] John Richardson, A Life of Picasso: The Cubist Rebel, 1907-1916, 11.

[5] Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run, 40.

Tim Miller is a widely published poet. He writes about religion, history and poetry at www.wordandsilence.com.


Look at Me, Here – a poem by Elisabeth Horan

Look at Me, Here

Must get up
Get out of bed
Eat the food
Do the things
Be… Here.

See one yellow banded
Amethyst skyline
Twilight, her heavenly skylight
Does twinkle, diamond-eyed

In a powder keg
In a January dusky
Musical – intermission bell

Icicle eyelashes coyly suggest
Transparent underthings
Flapping – look at me –
Over here, don’t worry

I’m not Lucifer
I’m extremely pretty
Poised over dirty, naked trees
Long suffering snowbanks
Cut, halved at the knees.

I’m pretending.
To be from a postcard
To those places I never
Went in my youth

But in my head and
On this day
I am there
But I am here

Look at me
Out of bed
And, here. Here. Here.

Elisabeth Horan enjoys talking with animals and listening in the woods. Her poetry aspires to give a voice to Mother Earth and her children, as well those kindred souls who may be suffering alone and in pain – especially those suffering with mental illness. She has recently been featured at TERSE. Journal, Anti-Heroin Chic, Quail Bell Magazine and Milk & Beans.  Elisabeth teaches English at River Valley Community College in New Hampshire.

ejfhoran@weebly.com follow @ehoranpoet.


Sky News – a poem by Helen Moore

Sky News

After Tim Williams

Today’s report is of a soft yet piercing
quality of light, Earth tilting on her axis,
& us in this Northern Hemisphere
near where land meets the sea.
In woods the up & up of all living Beings –
finials of birdsong refining the air;
pale buds pushing out of stems;
plump pinky-grey nubs of Willow,
& the eager, praying hands of leaves.
Chittering Coal Tits amongst Larch cones;
Hazel’s trembling catkins & green
shoots pointing through layered mulch
beneath. Dampness, delicious cool,
though the Sun draws attention
to each & every detail. Today,
there’s mass awakening – the sky
announcing this, & an earthly chorus
with the clearest song. May love prevail!
Stand in this ground & grow!


Helen Moore is an acclaimed ecopoet based in NE Scotland. She has published two poetry collections, Hedge Fund, And Other Living Margins (Shearsman Books, 2012) and ECOZOA (Permanent Publications, 2015), described by John Kinsella as “a milestone in the journey of ecopoetics”. Her poems, essays and reviews have been published widely, and her work has been translated into Italian. A pamphlet, The Disinherited, was published in 2017 and Helen’s third collection, The Mother Country, is due in 2019. FFI: http://www.helenmoorepoet.com

Pseudacris crucifer – a poem by Sheila Wellehan

Pseudacris crucifer (Peepers)

Near Easter, when ponds promise to unfreeze,
you begin to hear their plaintive pleas.
Come be with me, chorus frogs sing each evening.
Please breed with me,
I’m the Peeper King.

Their cheeps grow in strength like a stampede
until you can’t escape their melody.
From dusk until they fall asleep,
they dream they’re the first amphibians
crawling out of the sea.

Every brown back is marked with a small dark X
that reminds devout Christians of their beliefs.
The frogs’ name crucifer means bear a cross,
but peepers do not share that creed.
Their gospel is

Sing loudly.
Scream freely.
Lead the chorus from your pool or creek.
Sing for what you need.
Sing for what you seek.

Sing because you’re alive
and it’s spring.

Sheila Wellehan‘s poetry has recently been featured in The American Journal of Poetry, Menacing Hedge, San Pedro River Review, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Whale Road Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Visit her online at www.sheilawellehan.com .

Puck – a poem by T J Barnum


You stand inside my skin
to play a game
of Blind Man’s Bluff.
Who makes the silly rules,
that I must always be “It”
stumbling? Reaching out,
never quite connecting with
laughter I cannot hear
and glittering light I cannot see?

You whisper songs in my dreams,
dance on flying feet around my bed.
I feel cool angel breath,
vibrations bouncing off walls.

Penetrating eyes.

I think you are a plague
of forgotten dreams and
promised joy. I think
you are early morning mist
that settles on skin and half
hides blemished fields.

Sometimes I look for the
gnarled bone of a problem,
months in the making, only
to find it flying away as if
carried on mischievous wings.

It’s in the listening that I see you
drawing close. Watching,
measuring your endless responses
to my shifts of mood and intent,
planning tricks to catch my
wandering purpose.

to bring me home again.

T J Barnum writes extensively about life, family, politics and spirituality. Her work has been accepted by Rivet: The Journal That Risks, Better Than Starbucks, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, The Dirty Pool, The Moon Magazine, and other literary journals. For more  poetry, short stories, essays, and occasional rants, visit: tjbarnum.com.

Dragonfly – a poem by Alan Rycroft


Over petals
Opening slowly –
Mute god
In the ocean
Of the mystery,
By a sea
Of lotus flowers.

(written Wuhan, China)


Alan Rycroft was born in London in 1957, though long based in Bristol with his family. His life has often taken him on a planetary odyssey being a qualified Lecturer with an MA in Applied Linguistics, he has been engaged in teaching English across universities and companies in the Middle East and Far East. He has been much privileged and enriched to imbibe and interact with so many faith traditions and cultural influences globally.  All the while he says poetry has been a constant comfort, companion and mentor, has quietly distilled a profound and rich internal dialogue of self understanding and realization, at once a form of therapy and illumination, as well as exacting taskmaster and craft. Simultaneously, the  poetic venture has been a conversing with inner Spirit, trying to catch that ever elusive resonance and the multidimensional voices of the heart, by turns, colloquial human and every day, mythic, shamanistic, high philosophical and spiritually enlightening striving for a universal authentic explication. His Collection At the Steep Face of Your Heart is forthcoming; he can be contacted on : arycroft@yahoo.com

Can You Find God in Your Poetry? – a poem by Maribel C. Pagán

Can You Find God in Your Poetry?

Can you find God in your poetry?
Buried in the blade of your pen,
or in the skin of your soul?
In the sound of a whale,
or in the drop of a needle?

Can you hear the music
thrumming through your own?
Do you see the colors your eyes paint,
or the way you cry in the rain
when the clouds turn into broken songs?

Where do you see yourself in a year’s time?
Will your final words be encased in this poem,
in the wings you’ll need to find God?
Will your words weep when your breath dies?
Can you find God in this broken hymn, in this final prayer?

Can you find God in your poetry?


Maribel C. Pagán is a Latina writer. She has appeared in Gone Lawn, Foliate Oak, 7×20, Cuento, and others. Additionally, she is the Editor-in-Chief of Seshat, a Prose Reader for Apprehension and a Poetry Reader for Frontier Poetry. Visit Maribel at http://therollinghills.wordpress.com/.


The Book of What, The Book of Sin, The Book of Lips – poems by Katie Manning

 The Book of What

all that remains of Matthew

at dawn
like lightning

came down from heaven
and became like dead men

now I have told you



The Book of Sin

all that remains of Galatians

by the

my body

the flesh

the marks


The Book of Lips

all that remains of Philippians


have learned
the secret
well fed

I ask you
the same

at my side
will be


Katie Manning is the founding Editor-in-Chief of Whale Road Review and an Associate Professor of Writing at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. She is the author of Tasty Other, which won the 2016 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award, and four chapbooks, including The Gospel of the Bleeding Woman. Her poems have appeared in Fairy Tale Review, New Letters, Poet Lore, Verse Daily, and many journals and anthologies. Find her online at www.katiemanningpoet.com.

‘These poems are from a project-in-process that uses the last chapter of each book of the Bible as a word bank. I began this project in protest–I was tired of people taking language from the Bible out of context and using it against others as a weapon–but as I continued I realized that this process of creating poems also resembles the practice of Lectio Divina, divine reading’

After Heaven – a poem by David Chorlton

After Heaven

Bees fly out of the sun.
An evangelist has died.
The signposts to salvation have been covered
in mourning black
and every sinner now
must find the way alone.
…………………………………..Here come
sparrows to the grass and finches
to the ocotillo. There’s a religion
reserved for the time
no birds arrive and we’re left
to ask where Heaven disappeared,
…………………………………………………but look:
clouds at the end of the street
promise rain after nightfall
when the sky belongs to the owl.

David Chorlton is a transplanted European, who has lived in Phoenix since 1978. His poems have appeared in many publications online and in print, and reflect his affection for the natural world. His newest book publication is Shatter the Bell in my Ear, his translations of poems by Austrian poet Christine Lavant.

Worrom Doog – a poem by Elisabeth Horan

Worrom Doog

Morning will break, yes –
……………as forever it has donne before
………………………..and your pools will be my pools

We will be half alive or half dead
……………properly mixed; our chi –
………………………..poised for repositioning

Bleeding for how hard we stared at each other:
……………as if infrared goggles could spare a retina,
………………………..as if rain-filled clouds might cushion our fall –

Cheek to cheek, in the sleep cave (till now since 1631) –
……………go not about my grave (unless filled with your dirt)
………………………..go not at night with shovel (unless to dig my corpus up)

And if ye be my earthen-marriage blanket
……………I’ll wear you to dinner – my stole, my corset.
………………………..I’ll steal your heart to dine on said carcass –

Pursue us, Oh God! Allow the morrow –
……………with its flawed goodness, to fly in –
………………………..it’s maniacal mood swings – for war or for peace

Small miracles in the mean – wrapped up in blood-gauze,
……………two tongues in the buttercream; four eyes frozen in fear of forever
………………………..yet with you – forever is the one with whom I cannot compromise;

Such internal reticence; below this maternal birthing sky
……………of glass, of lies: wombs such as mine bear the wars of men –
………………………..same as any other day, or any other sunrise.


Elisabeth Horan enjoys talking with animals and listening in the woods. Her poetry aspires to give a voice to Mother Earth and her children, as well those kindred souls who may be suffering alone and in pain – especially those suffering with mental illness. She has recently been featured at TERSE. Journal, Anti-Heroin Chic, Quail Bell Magazine and Milk & Beans.  Elisabeth teaches English at River Valley Community College in New Hampshire.

ejfhoran@weebly.com follow @ehoranpoet