The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse Review: Nothing is for sure

The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verses: 110 Poets on the Divine
Ed., Kaveh Akbar
penguin, $35

The introduction alone is worth spending time with this book. The editor, Kaveh Akbar, is Iranian in his early 30s. He is also a recovering alcoholic whose addiction nearly claimed his life. “When I sobered up, I couldn’t find any easy prayers, no poems to sing myself well,” he says. Despite this, he read a lot of poetry during this period because poetry was a safe place where he wouldn’t hurt himself. It was kind of a gift. Poetry freed him from the burden of selfhood. He explains that wonderfully.

Akbar says that “my active addiction was a time of absolute certainty.” He was sure the universe somehow owed him something, sure of his victimhood, sure he was right. His certainty was destructive. Faith is not like certainty, although some people are comfortable with saying so. I never understood that, and neither did Akbar. When he sobered up, he was drawn to poems that were “sure of nothing”. This is the mother vein of both religious and spiritual poetry. “Sacred poetry teaches us to be comfortable with complexity and to be skeptical of absolute certainty.”

Oodgeroo Noonuccal is the only Australian to be included in The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse.

Oodgeroo Noonuccal is the only Australian to be included in The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse.Credit:

As a result, here we have a collection of shimmering subtlety. It is not easy to put into words an experience that is beyond language and even beyond thought. But for eons poets have made a fist of it as well as anyone else. The earliest play here is by the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna, written in the 23rd century before the common era. “The brightness is hidden around me,” she writes. “My beautiful mouth knows only confusion.”



Akbar describes this type of writing as “the hunger of God.” It uses a paradox that seekers of ultimate wisdom keep coming back to: the dark light, the beauty that is a window not a mirror, the mystery that defies solution. The Japanese poet Basho wrote shortly before his death: “Deathly ill on my journey/ My dreams run out before me/ Across the empty field.”

While it’s unfair to represent such a rich collection by counting numbers, they tell part of the story of what the publisher was able to achieve. The 110 poets included here come from 52 different countries. A scant handful wrote or writes in English. The most represented countries are England, India, China and Japan. There is a notable emphasis on Indigenous writers from many localities.

The only Australian poet included is Oodgeroo Noonuccal. your poem, God’s only mistake, is about God’s regret for giving reason and free will to the human family because they have become so unhappy. “All things wild and simple have fulfilled life,” she writes. But not us. Akbar is drawn to poetry that combines the spiritual quest with a pilgrimage to righteousness. He doesn’t draw a hard line between this world and the hereafter.

There is little in this book that can be called devotional work, let alone preaching or exhortation. The personal pieces represent more of an existential struggle, a soul caught in the glorious twilight between clarity and confusion. Take Rilkes The Second Duino Elegywhich begins with his famous line, “Every angel is terrible.” The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse Review: Nothing is for sure

Jaclyn Diaz

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