Forms of Life: Poetry and Religion

J. N.
17 min readMar 22


Joos van Cleve, The Holy Family (detail), 1515–1535

In his essay “Pascoli and the Thought of the Voice” Giorgio Agamben treats a linguistic impulse in the poetry of Giovanni Pascoli toward what I will call archaism. Citing the critic Gianfranco Contini, Agamben positions Pascoli’s attempt to “recover” a dead language—Latin—in relief against the preceding impulse of European decadents who made it their mission, by contrast, to create new linguistic forms.

We should read in this creative historiography an attempt on the part of Contini via Agamben to distinguish Pascoli’s use of Latin from his mediaeval forebearers: while Renaissance and Early Modern poets like Marvell and John Milton also wrote in a reconstructed Latin, we are meant following Agamben to read this language as distinct from the Latin revived by Pascoli, an Italian of the twentieth century¹:

Critics are eager to find a trace of the ancients (Ovid, but especially Catullus) in these opening verses. The burden of influence seems heightened when working in proximity to ancient languages, a risk to which the poets of modern Hebrew and Greek can testify. Thus the kind of Bloomian, oedipal rage inherent to poetic creation seems to be particularly felt in the Latin verse of a modern like Pascoli. He is hardly able to get a word in edgewise without relying on an ancient precedent — be it verbal or formal — who was able to get there before him.

Some might refer to this excessive influence as an oversaturation of meaning, an experience of poetic creation where the dimensions of a poem’s unique insight, its overcoming of influence, are too narrow to contain the breadth of its reference points. Better instead to use a word like “haunted”; for Agamben, the most important feature of Pascoli’s Latin is something generally taken granted about the language: it is “dead.” It’s precisely in the prospect of a dead language that Agamben proposes Pascoli finds a “language of the poets.”² At the crescendo of this thesis:

Poetry speaks in a dead language; but dead language is what gives life to thought. … Pascoli counts on a reader who does not know all the words he uses. As the ‘poet of a dead language’ says, in a text that bears that name, poetry, like religion, needs ‘words that veil and darken their meaning, words, I mean, foreign to present use’ (and which are nevertheless used ‘to give greater life to thought’).³

We find in Agamben’s reading of Pascoli the revelation of a site of poetic meaning which names as its goal the concealment of said meaning. Effective poetic communication (effective poeticization) hinges for Pascoli on a departure from normative, “contemporary” forms of language in deference to archaisms which “darken” rather than illuminate meaning. The poet relies on outdated and forgotten signifiers, or altogether dead languages, for the ambiguous reason that such a practice “gives greater life to thought.” (We well might substitute here the more comfortable, British notion of Imagination.)

One wouldn’t need to browse long through the canon of grade school English verse to find examples of this veiling and darkening tendency. There’s a reason — is there not? — that Shelley defers to the Greek form “Ozymandias” over the pharaoh’s more familiar name (Ramesses II). Keats is packed with choices like these (“Sylvan historian,” “moss-lain Dryads”; “Vesper” in place of “Venus”), as are most of the the Romantics. But more maturely now: how would it change our reading of the Cantos if the name “Dionysus” populated its pages instead of Pound’s choice of “Zagreus”?

Experiences of poetic language like these are not limited to proper nouns. To borrow a striking example from beyond the boundaries of poetry, Yukio Mishima is known to be difficult to read in the original (and even more difficult to translate) because of his use of archaic and obscure Kanji characters, often borrowing from Old Japanese and occasionally directly from Chinese. The present concept of poetic archaism finds a succinct expression in the story of Mishima’s publishing house struggling to print his work because, so often, they would simply not have the Kanji characters necessary to do so. Occasionally a character wouldn’t exist at all in metal typeface and the publishers would have to commission a type foundry to cast it specifically. This is what it means for a word to “darken meaning.”

Notably, for my purposes, Agamben makes an original connection not yet revealed in Pascoli’s theory between the poet’s use of words “foreign to present use” and the vocabulary of “religion.” “Poetry, like religion” — one might read this pairing in a number of ways. Perhaps Agamben is here interested specifically in liturgical utterances and blessings, which often rely on outmoded forms of speech if not on “dead” languages outright. To this point, it’s true that organized religion has a remarkable tendency to create a space for the preservation of such languages; by way of example: the use ecclesiastical Latin preceded the teaching of classical Latin, Old Church Slavonic is the earliest extant language of its family, and the use of Hebrew in liturgical contexts long preceded the standardization of modern Hebrew in the nineteenth century. A worthy hypothesis would be that religion, by virtue of some inclination toward mystery, shares with poetry the strange preference toward archaic phrases and dead languages. Entry into the mythic holds speech in ancient tongues as a prerequisite.

But I would maintain that Agamben — a medieval philologist at his heart, let’s not forget — is inviting us into a more complex understanding this relationship: poetry with religion. I propose to treat these two categories not merely as modes of expression or experience but also, following Agamben via Wittgenstein, as “forms of life” in the most expansive sense. Just as there is a religious mode of living so too can the poetic be described as a form of life: a way of perceiving and expressing phenomenal reality, and what exceeds it, in a manner that is never limited to one’s own creative activity. The boundaries of these two “forms” is a blurry one — a person might never be totally sure where the poetry of their life ends and where religion begins. As such, I contend that these forms never exist in isolation but are instead enmeshed, codependent and coterminous, sharing and transgresses the boundaries of one’s psyche.

Poetic expression as an activity and object of experience is inextricably religious. The experience of religion is inextricably poetic. I seek presently to discern the nature of this relationship of forms according to three shared characteristics:

§1 Archaism

“Archaic” is a word used by Allen Grossman in his essay “Figuring the Real” to refer to an ambiguous kind of expression. Often, as in Milton, archaism is invoked in reference to a kind of ur-discourse — “the ground of utterance.”⁴ On Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper” Grossman writes of a moment wherein “mimesis of a conscious social language … produces access to an absorbed discourse, a ‘language strange’ that functions as poetry’s principle.” The Highlander’s indiscernible tongue thus serves as both the poem’s object and its “principle”; the fact of the song’s foreignness to Wordsworth’s ear is itself generative of a poetic discourse.

Grossman connects the Highlander’s archaism (better: archaic indigeneity) to the “language strange” of Keats’ “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” whom as he notes speaks in an “unreliably translated dialect of the archaic language.” This invites comparison the archaic invocation of aristocratic pasts that characterize Homer and the Pentateuch: a mode of discourse Grossman connects to the poetic as distinct from “mortal secular language”; this is “a discourse of another kind — sacred in the Derridean sense.”⁵ Earlier in the essay Grossman offers a definition of archaic language, while ostensibly proposing to define said “poetic interest.” He writes:

‘The poetic interest’ is therefore the virtual, non-formal (unrepresentational) principle that grounds representation, often signified by strange or indigenous or untranslatable languages, to which the actual poem supplies access by formal representational means. … It is this ‘interest’ that is hidden inside the philosopher’s fear of and also dependence on the poetic (cf. Plato, Heidegger), and it is also this interest that produces the sacred war between the poetic and religious institutions.⁶

That which is the “principle” of Wordsworth’s and Keats’ poems must thus be read retrospectively as that strange mode of utterance which, per Grossman, provides the pre-formal, pre-linguistic structure for the possibility of poetic discourse.

It is this negotiation of the representable in tension with the non-representable (more specifically: poetic discourse in tension with strange, foreign languages) which for Grossman casts poetry in intimate opposition with systems of philosophy and religion. We are reminded of the Rg Veda’s description of the poets as those who have discovered “the kinship of the existent [read here expressible] to the non-existent [inexpressible]” (10.129). What Grossman reads as an implied “sacred war” with religious institutions I would reread as the wrestling match (or is it dance?) of Jacob and the angel, where it’s unclear whether or not the person you’re wrestling isn’t merely a projection of yourself.

Crucially, according to my reading, Grossman is insistent on the relationship between these archaic modes of language (described alternatively in terms of “strangeness” and “indigeneity”) and the domain of sanctity—that which exceeds secular or mundane modes of speech and writing. In “The Eyes of Language” Jacques Derrida’s addresses the problem of “sacred language” as a discourse inexclusive to religion.⁷ Here Derrida uses the research of Gershom Scholem to formulate a theory of sacred language contingent on its capacity for signification — specifically, it seems, the signification of proper nouns. Sacred language is a language of names and naming.⁸ When I tell my mother that I’m writing about poetry and religion she says, verbatim, “they’re both ways of naming.”

Picasso, Minotaure aveugle guidé par une petite fille au pigeon, 1934

Conversely, this time following a different German mystic, Derrida later in the essay identifies the sanctity of language with its negation: “according to a logic that is not fortuitously analogous to that of Heidegger’s Was ist Metaphysik and that concerns the whole of Being it is rapport to speech, nothingness, here the nothingness of the language, the non-language, announces the essence of what it threatens and causes to recoil in totality.”⁹ Earlier, Derrida anticipates Heidegger’s claim by noting the importance of negation in sacred rhetoric, mirroring his research in Christian apophatic theology from around this same time in works like Sauf le nom. He writes:

To comport oneself, to bring oneself to it, to carry oneself toward it — this is still to comport oneself in it, still to speak it, even if to deny it. One cannot avoid speaking the sacred language, one can at most avoid speaking it, which is to say still speak it in denial, avoidance, distraction, like sleepwalkers above the abyss.¹⁰

Following Heidegger, then, the task of Derrida’s “sacred language” hinges on a dual sense of necessity and futility, attraction and avoidance. This tension is the tension of antiquity (or in Grossman, of the archaic), an inscrutability that generates desire. Poetic expression in all its desperate attempts at meaning thus exists, we’ll affirm with Grossman, in constant relationship with the inscrutable tongue — be it “strange,” “indigenous,” but always “sacred.”

Friedrich Hölderlin’s insistence on the archaic in his hymn “The Ister” is crucial to Heidegger’s lecture on the poem, and on the latter’s interest in poetry writ large. As the philosopher points out, the hymn’s title resurrects a name for the Danube largely unused since antiquity. The insistence on the Roman name for the river is in its itself (as we have discussed in Keats) a poetic impulse, a poetic reliance on “words foreign to present use.” Likewise, I contend with Grossman, it is a religious impulse — an instinct that gives form to religious life through the use of sacred language.

Lashon kadosh, a paraphrase translation of “sacred language” (more literally: “holy tongue”), is a term used in Yiddish to describe instances of biblical Hebrew in a spoken, contemporary, secular discourse. In the present context one finds inversely that instances of Yiddish in anglophone (or Israeli) Jewish speech constitute in themselves the vengeance of what Grossman might describe as a kind of foreign indigeneity. The insistence on a Yiddish pronunciation like shabbos over shabbat (or, God forbid, sabbath) thus has an air of mythic, ancient revolt. Deference to archaism as such goes beyond a mere stubborn adherence to tradition, be it poetic or religious. Archaism exists in the linguistic sphere instead as a trans-temporal union of these forms — poetry with religion — within the eruption of sacred utterances into secular speech.

§2 Inutility

In her affecting series of poems Tribute to the Angels H.D. offers following verse:

Like all good modernists, H.D. reveals her talent here for simultaneously celebrating and diminishing her poetic vocation. During and immediately following the second World War (these lines happened to have been printed in 1945) questions of efficacy and utility were at the fore of every American mind. Poetry, go figure, is evaluated with caution and suspicion in times of war. Speaking from the perspective of military and industry, then, H.D. concedes that despite holding the secrets of traditions from antiquity — the guardians of the literary holy of holies, we might call them — poets nonetheless lack any sense of utility and are thus deemed “pathetic.”

“Useless,” from the view of commerce at least, we can easily understand. But we should pause on the description of poetry (with all its “Roman dignit,” “decorum” in the Georgean sense) as something characterized by pathos. Surely there is a degree of self-mockery implied in the description of oneself as a bearer of secret wisdom, one should assume; or else — and this is where the poem becomes most interesting for our purposes — this trifold description of the poet’s vocation (useless; guardian of sacred wisdom; pathetic) represents three mutually inclusive aspects of the poetic mode of life. This is especially true to the extent that we keep in mind the original meaning of pathetic: not merely “contemptible,” but instead (following the Greek) “subject to feeling; impassioned.”

This trifold description does a neat job, likewise, of characterizing religious life. We read in the Confessions of Augustine that such an experience of the world is defined primarily by the reception of sacred knowledge and, subsequently, by a sense of heartbreak. Augustine lends us a toolset for countering the importance of utility. In recent years — let’s say the past three or four centuries — there’s been an attempt to reframe the purpose of religious life and experience in terms of therapeutic value. Religious life is meaningful, these moderns argue, only to the extent that it provides one with a sense of consolation.

With the rise of therapy and psychoanalysis in the West, religion qua religion loses all meaning: “therapy has stripped religion of any remaining utility. Stop finding God and start finding a therapist.”¹¹ When faith is reduced to something that benefits me then something that fulfills that same function can easily usurp it. No wonder that the progressive (better: supersecessionist) model critiqued by Foucault posited the end of religion with the advent of therapy, a transition in forms of life symbolized by the transition from the confession booth to the analyst’s couch. As H.D. illustrates well, religion likewise only earns its staying power in modernity to the extent that it is useful.

As it happens, religion (like poetry and like love) is properly useless — any appeal to its utility is to the detriment of faith’s verity. Utility is the enemy of both nobility and the service of heaven. There is a degree of irony in this logic, given that many find their faith (or otherwise are presumed to find faith) in hope that it will grant their lives some comfort or respite. But one need only take a cursory glance at the Psalms to understand that the bulk of religious life is in fact punctuated principally by despair, persecution, hopelessness, and angst. Even its moments of ecstatic joy are dynamic and generally uncomfortable. Quite literally the only reason to accept religious life is not a reason at all but a super-reason, a reason that transcends rationality altogether: one finds oneself in love.

Poetry — its production and its reception — has since antiquity only superficially been celebrated in merit of its capacity for consolation. One’s pursuit of poetic expression, like the pursuit of God, is useless in the sense that it transcends the normative logic of commerce and logical reason. Like Bataille’s economy of sacrifice, like being in love, the logic of poetry is defined by pure generative excess. One who writes verse in hopes that it might be useful has entirely missed the point; namely: wholehearted, enamored expression.

Bernhard Dörries, Southern Fish, 1977

§3 Particularity

Jean-Luc Marion begins his book God Without Being with an “envoi” expressing the pleasure of theological writing:

One must admit that theology, of all writing, certainly causes the greatest pleasure. Precisely not the pleasure of the text, but the pleasure — unless it have to do with a joy — of transgressing it: from words to the Word, from the Word to words, incessantly and in theology alone, since there alone the Word finds in the words nothing less than a body. The body of the text does not belong to the text, but to the One who is embodied in it. Thus, theological writing always transgresses itself.¹²

The theological writing in question is of course Christian theology; the body in question is the body of Christ. The words one writes when writing theology become “saturated” with meaning (to borrow further from Marion) only by existing in relation to the fixed reference point of the revealed word of God, the Word made flesh.¹³ This speaks to what C. S. Lewis among others has described as a “scandal of the particular” — the notion that universal salvation could be contingent on a particular man (and his particular body) born at a certain time in a certain place. Christianity, it would seem, is allergic to abstraction. This is most true at the essence of its mysteries, and precisely what makes it incompatible with the deracinated norms of a global modernity.

As opposed to philosophy, which takes as its object abstraction in itself, theology is instead interested in the particular fact of this body. Marion here breaks from Derridean orthodoxy by noting, also contra Barthes, that the pleasure of theological writing is not limited to the writing itself but instead finds pleasure in its movement beyond and above the text, its ultimate rootedness in the body of Christ.

Certain chapters of the Song of Songs come to mind, those where the female speaker muses in a kind of fugue state on the details of her beloved’s body: “His hands are disks of gold set with emerald. His chest is a block of ivory covered with sapphires,” (5:14), “Thy navel is like a round bowl never wanting cups. Thy belly is like a heap of wheat, set about with lilies” (7:2). The Song’s precedent invites us deeper into this unity of forms — to have at the center of one’s faith a particular body (his body) opens the possibility of a poetic tradition.

One cannot spin successful verse, I contend, out of an abstraction. At risk of provocation or hyperbole I thus remain adamant that we should be skeptical about the possibility of poetry from those who were not raised in the boundaries of so-called “organized religion.” Poetry, which depends on particularity, wants nothing to do with spirituality. Spirituality and atheism alike are too universal to be aesthetically interesting. Rather: one needs to remember the particular smell of the pews in that Anglican church, the particular taste of the instant coffee served at that Hasidic cemetery in Queens.

Marion in the passage above locates why Christianity is so well suited for a poetic tradition in the notion that the God of the philosopher’s was given flesh—the person of Christ. But there is something about this particularity and particular humanity that rings true for all or most traditional faiths. When one is oriented in relation to a particular religious tradition (preferably, in the case of the aspiring poet, this orientation begins in childhood) one is positioned with an eye toward their precedents, their ancestors. I understand this to be a major distinction from the logic of “spirituality” in the abstract: organized religion is genealogical, succeeding from generation to generation. My God is the God of my fathers.

Persian dager, 18th century

It would seem indeed that the internal structure of Christianity rejects all attempts to deracinate the religious subject from his particular geographic and genealogical conditions. Is this not the secret of the Church of England’s divorce (excuse the choice of words) from Catholicism? What has Rome to do with the hills of Yorkshire, the English believer wanted to know. This island needed a faith particular to its people, its monarchy, its geography. And if this line of reasoning seems glib, or antithetical to the universalism of the Church —I haven’t forgotton the meaning of the Greek katholikos — I would counter that this paradox is exactly what makes Christianity in all of its iterations interesting and worthy of our critical attention: the logic of absolute universality within a particular body (the savior of all men in the body of one man) finds its parallel in the ability and tendency of a universal theology (Christianity) to instantiate itself in the most minutely particular of geographic circumstances, and adapt itself to the unique conditions implied therein.

It is precisely this paradoxical tension that is the merit of good poetry. The Irish poet sings a hymn to his particular country in his particular tongue which (through some miracle, some mysterious hypostatic union) lands resonant on the ears of a student in Ohio. In speaking of the universal within the particular we’re speaking of the saturation of earthly immanence with divine transcendence. Something unusual occurs in poetry which finds analogy only in the experience of religious life, wherein those who undertake this relation to the world find themselves bound to a uniquely vulnerable experience of themselves and a markedly involved experience of selfless exteriority. The paradox of religious experience in its most ecstatic and mystical iterations is synchronous with the experience of the poetic.


Hölderlin makes the following strange claim in his Fragments of Philosophical letters: “Thus, all Religion would be poetic in its essence.” This sentiment parallels those of other German Romantics in their approach to the value of religious life. See also the maxims of Friedrich Schlegel:

Thus, we find at the essence of Hölderlin’s tradition something of an equation or mutual dependency of these two (or is it three?) forms of experience.

The grammar of Hölderlin’s initial claim should give us pause, however: what does it mean to suggest that religion would be “poetic in essence”? It’s clear that these forms are not only intrinsically similar (a point elaborated in the preceding sections) but likewise intrinsic to a life well lived. We should read in this fragment a degree of conditionality implied in the relationship of these forms. To the extent that religion is done well, to put it crudely, its expression will necessarily be poetic in nature. Likewise, to the extent that poetry conforms to the definition of its success that I sketched above (“enamored expression”) it will necessarily read as religious. The connection of these forms is a critical one, but it is one that is earned.

This is the essential task of life: to make one’s existence as poetic as possible, to fall in love, and in doing so to serve God wholeheartedly.

  1. Trans. Anne Mahoney. Mahoney, Anne. “Giovanni Pascoli: Modern Latin Poet.” The Classical Outlook 87, no. 3 (2010): 94.
  2. Agamben, Giorgio, Daniel Heller-Roazen (trans.). The end of the poem: Studies in poetics. Stanford University Press, 1999: 35, 41.
  3. Ibid, 37. Emphasis mine.
  4. Grossman, Allen. True Love: Essays on Poetry and Valuing. University of Chicago Press, 2009: 131.
  5. Ibid, 132.
  6. Ibid, 131.
  7. Collected in Derrida, Jacques. Acts of Religion. Psychology Press, 2002: 189–227.
  8. Cf. ibid: 199.
  9. Ibid: 217.
  10. Ibid: 202.
  11. Here
  12. Marion, Jean-Luc. God Without Being. University of Chicago Press, 2012: 1. Emphasis mine.
  13. Marion, Jean-Luc. In Excess: Studies of Saturated Phenomena. Fordham University, Press, 2002.



J. N.

Theology, Hermeneutics, Jewish Mysticism | UChicago Divinity 2025