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Poetry as Spiritual Practice: The Poetics of Adonis and Yves Bonnefoy


My dissertation examines the work of two major poets who wrote in the second half of the twentieth century, Yves Bonnefoy of France and the Syrian-born Adonis (born Ali Ahmed Saïd). In conducting close readings of key moments from their respective poetry, I illustrate how both of these writers, in their own unique ways, construct poetry as a form of spiritual practice, i.e., as a way of transforming both the poet’s and the implied reader’s ontological, perceptual, and creative relationships with their internal and external worlds.

This work is divided into four chapters, plus an introduction. In the substantial introduction, I invoke writers from various traditions (Buddhism, Vedanta, Christian mysticism, modern nonduality) to explore the notion of spiritual experience as a whole, in particular as it relates to conceptual language, and invoke the writing of Pierre Hadot to propose poetry as a possible means of spiritual practice.

My first and second chapters focus on the work of Yves Bonnefoy. In the first chapter, I trace, in very broad strokes, a spiritual arc across Bonnefoy’s first three collections of poetry, from his Surrealist beginnings to his figurations (and idealization) of death in the 1953 collection Du mouvement et de l’immobilité de Douve, and on to his own “Dark Night of the Soul” as it is poetically expressed in Hier régnant désert. In this chapter, I also examine his views on language and his notion of “poetic presence,” considering it in relation to Heidegger’s own views on “presence” and “Being.” In my second chapter, I provide an in-depth and sustained reading of Bonnefoy’s subsequent collection, Pierre écrite, demonstrating how it represents the turning point of Bonnefoy’s poetry and the inauguration of a certain apophatic spiritual practice through lengthy intratextual work on the concept.

In the second half of the dissertation, I turn to the work of Adonis. In the third chapter, I examine some of Adonis’ most important critical writings as a backdrop to his poetry and as a means of introducing several key themes, including that of creativity/innovation, which I link explicitly to the spiritual process of this poetry. This examination entails a critique of Adonis’ often reductionist critical writings, as well as an examination of the spiritually expansive role Sufism plays for Adonis. I also begin my analysis of Adonis’ 1961 collection Songs of Mihyar the Damascene as an intratextual spiritual practice that is intended to enact certain transformations in the implied reader. Here, the more didactic aspect of Adonis’ poetry as spiritual practice is contrasted with the more subjective spiritual practice of Bonnefoy’s poetry. In the fourth and final chapter of this dissertation, I shift my focus of attention from the intratextual to the intertextual and continue my analysis of Adonis’ poetry, focusing on a single poem from this collection to demonstrate how Adonis uses intertextual mechanisms to operate a Nietzschean revaluation on certain key Islamic concepts, thereby opening up a new field for spirituality. I show the ways in which Adonis, through subtle and sustained work on key terms and concepts, attempts to bring about a certain spiritual revolution in his poetry.

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