Lyric, Ecstasy, and the Mystical Tradition (Part 1) (Panel)


Comparative Literature / Interdisciplinary Humanities

Christopher Yates (Brown University)

Mysticism and poetry share a long and intimate history. Crossing the lines of both historical periodization and nation, the roll call of poets who have given voice to mystical vision is illustrious, ranging from the 13th century Persian mystic Rumi to the surrealist poets of the early 20th century. In English alone, a mystical-poetic canon might include among its ranks Donne, Vaughan, Crashaw, Traherne, William Blake, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Derived from the Greek μυω meaning "I conceal,” the term “mysticism” has been mobilized in scholarship to bring together a set of related interests and preoccupations with, for example, altered states of consciousness, heightened affect, self-evacuating ecstasy, the dissolution of essential differences, a faith in hidden or occult truths, a skepticism of rational epistemologies, and a particular attentiveness to presence. These investments, shared by the various historical and cultural manifestations that fall under the “mystical” umbrella, also mark several enduring themes and concerns within the practice and study of poetics. This is perhaps particularly the case with lyric poetry, which has been understood by such thinkers as Jonathan Culler and Susan Stewart to eschew the subject-centered, causal, narrative logic of the novel and forms of poetry following from the model of the novel such as the dramatic monologue. This panel would consider such questions as: what is the relationship between lyric poetry and the mystical stance? In what ways and to what ends might a poet be regarded as a mystic, and how has poetry engaged with the mystical tradition? How might scholarly work on mysticism within the fields of philosophy, theology, and cultural studies be put into closer conversation with poetics and lyric theory?

Derived from the Greek μυω meaning "I conceal,” the term “mysticism” has been mobilized in scholarship to bring together a set of closely related investment and characteristics: altered states of consciousness, heightened affect, self-evacuating ecstasy, the dissolution of essential differences, a faith in hidden or occult truths, a skepticism of rational epistemologies, and a particular attentiveness to presence. These investments also mark several enduring concerns within the practice and study of poetics, and indeed no small number of poets have also been regarded as “mystics,” ranging from Rumi to St. Teresa of Avila to Walt Whitman. Lyric poetry, understood by such thinkers as Jonathan Culler and Susan Stewart to eschew the subject-centered, physically causal, narrative logic of the novel, might bear particular sympathies with the mystical stance. This panel seeks papers that consider such questions as: What is the relationship between lyric poetry and mysticism? In what ways and to what ends might a poet be regarded as a mystic, and how has poetry engaged with the mystical tradition? How might scholarly work on mysticism within the fields of philosophy, theology, and cultural studies be put into closer conversation with poetics and lyric theory?