I remember a lecture in graduate school where the professor said that the Poet (capital P) had taken the role of God in modern life. I dismissed this as complete nonsense (not aloud, just in my mind), and actually couldn't even imagine what such a statement might mean. Today, while I still dismiss equating God with a human Poet, capitalized or not, I understand the concept a bit better. Poetry goes beyond the mundane; it expresses thoughts and emotions that go deeper than a typical conversation on a typical day. It's clear that for many people there is a connection between poetry and spirituality; perhaps we could say that the poet takes the role of a priest or holy person (not God), ushering our thoughts past the ordinary and into something more ineffable.
This idea of poets (or artists in general) goes along with the idea C.S. Lewis expresses in The Great Divorce. A visitor from Hell to Heaven (The Ghost) is gaping at the surroundings and wishing to paint them. He falls into conversation with a resident of Heaven (The Spirit).
"'I should like to paint this.'
'I shouldn't bother about that just at present if I were you.'
'Look here; isn't one going to be allowed to go on painting?'
'Looking comes first.'
'But I've had my look. I've seen just what I want to do. ... I wish I'd thought of bringing my things with me!'
The Spirit shook his head, scattering light from his hair as he did so. 'That sort of thing's no good here,' he said.
'What do you mean?' said the Ghost.
'When you painted on earth - at least in your earlier days - it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too. But here you are having the thing itself. It is from here that the messages came. There is no good telling us about this country, for we see it already. In fact we see it better than you do.'
'Then there's never going to be any point in painting here?'
'I don't say that. When you've grown into a Person (it's all right, we all had to do it) there'll be some things which you'll see better than anyone else. One of the things you'll want to do will be to tell us about them. But not yet. At present your business is to see. Come and see. He is endless. Come and be freed.'"
(Look at the copy I found on my shelf! It was published in 1969 and it is dusty and missing its back cover, and I love it.)
I appreciate Lewis' musings on art here - both that it can be a way to finding God, and that it is much less than God. That is how I think of poetry and its role in my spiritual journey. It can fill me with love for Creation, but it can't replace the Creator. In the Bible, poetry is used as worship, and as expression of emotions positive and negative. But neither the poetry nor the poet is the point; the point is God's splendor and majesty.
As long as poetry maintains its proper place, it can absolutely be a part of my spiritual practice. And it is; both reading it and writing it. Here's a poem I've loved since high school, a poem which helps me think about the beauty of the world.
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, world, I cannot get thee close enough!
Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart. Lord I do fear
Thou'st made the world too beautiful this year.
My soul is all but out of me, - let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.
I felt that way yesterday as I took this picture. Obviously my world is very different from the autumn day Millay describes, but just look at that sky! "Lord, I do fear thou'st made the world too beautiful this year."