Activating the poetic spirit as friendship

Reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.

Shelley, A Defence of Poetry


Do we rely on having—or expect to ‘have’—a spirit even if we don’t believe they exist? I think of Emperor Hadrian’s address to his spirit or soul just before death, and wonder if it was a case of self-denial or self-delusion or maybe absolute certainty for all the crimes of power in the world of the living? Hadrian might have been lauded by some in his time as a beacon of wisdom and justice—a builder of things—but power is power and an empire is an empire.

I’ve no doubt Hadrian emphatically believed he had a spirit—a soul, but maybe the poem is actually ultimate declaration of his earthly self, his power to make records. The poem becomes a marker of both the empirical and the ineffable, and in this, a bridge between life and afterlife.  Maybe it’s a way of staking a claim to life beyond death among those one has lived among or—in the case of a ruler—sought to control. And don’t we support this extension of power through ensuring the words ‘live on’ (via translation in this case), and, in a Euro-sense, in that antinomic post-early modern classical reclaiming way? The original poem as dictated by Hadrian (‘on his death bed’) goes:

Animula, vagula, blandula
Hospes comesque corporis
Quae nunc abibis in loca
Pallidula, rigida, nudula,
Nec, ut soles, dabis iocos.

which I version as:

Soul of delight, my body’s
traveller who will depart
into pale, rigid, bare
zones where your jokes
will have no place.

If a poem affirms the spirit, or denies the spirit, it wrestles with the spirit. The spirit is ineffable, of course, but it’s also constituent as expression. It’s about raw materials, consumables, and entities. A word as item, a soul as registerable. It’s about giving visibility to the anxiety-inducing invisible. An act of disturbance.

The spirit is presumably our closest friend, and yet it leaves us at death, takes part of us with it, or reinvents us. It becomes fully itself after it departs the body (or abandons the body). The poem is an embodiment of abstraction.


I have written many dialogues of soul and body-self, and they often wrestle with confusion of roles—the blurring between the empirical and abstract, between affect and effect, between body and soul. Okay, it’s a construct that suits the metaphysical and allows the (say) Renaissance poet to move between spiritual conviction and earthly irony, creating a binary device that ultimately shows the non-binary nature of our lives: our bodily acts affect the spirit, and the spirit affects our body. The modus operandi of this ‘conversation’-form almost becomes a way to get around the constraints and repressions of religious apparatus by blaming the flesh and elevating the spirit, while in fact doing neither. It’s a generalisation, but I’ve always had the aching feeling that—as a text to be shared among friends and maybe eventually ‘enemies’—the soul-body dialogue poem is a way of arguing towards spiritual certainty in the face of earthly corruption and doubt.

I am less interested in what happens to the spirit after we die than I am in how we enact the spirit in our engagement, avoidance or indifference to ‘causes’ we feel we should act over, or don’t. When we protest or speak out on behalf of a particular cause, we likely put some ‘spirit’ into it, even throw ourselves in completely (‘body and soul’), but we withhold a secretive, very personal essence from the communal struggle, and keep it private. This would imply that we are more than a binary of body and soul, as in that dialogue there are alternative voices not being heard or being obfuscated by the narrow bandwidth. A quintessence that is made up of ideas: doubt is the provenance of body and soul and is a ‘thing in itself’. Body, Soul, Mind?

Putting some ‘spirit’ into a cause might overlap with being ‘public-spirited’, but that’s an issue of nomenclature rather than spirituality. Either way, we are understood (and understand ourselves) to be giving more than is bodily required. We are committing more of ourselves than might be reasonably expected. The balance sheet of public largesse is upset—we act out of the norm. And if we throw our spirit into a fray, we might even be seen as being ‘possessed’ or involved in something in a ‘cult-like’ way. But that depends on the politics of the observer (and maybe recipient or ‘target’ of an action, which in my case would always be a pacifist one), and how offended, threatened or stimulated they feel by your having ‘put spirit into it’.

The body’s deployment of the spirit is relative, especially when directed by that political litmus, ‘the mind’. Spirit and ideology might blur. This brings to mind a couple of points in Shelley’s ’A Defence of Poetry’:

Reason respects the differences, and Imagination the similitudes of things. Reason is to Imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.


Poetry thus makes immortal all that is best and most beautiful in the world; it arrests the vanishing apparitions which haunt the interluminations of life, and veiling them or in language or in form sends them forth among mankind, bearing sweet news of kindred joy to those with whom their sisters abide—abide, because there is no portal of expression from the caverns of the spirit which they inhabit into the universe of things. Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of divinity on man.

I wonder if Hadrian was intimating that there is in fact a ‘portal of expression’ between the place of the spirit and the ‘universe of things’, but that it’s a grim reality that lacks the vibrancy of the body-soul relationship. In other words, that both body and spirit will be less for the absence of the other. That a spiritual life of the body is the ultimate.

By extension, and in an anti-imperial way, I would say exactly this: and that is why the good health of the biosphere is both essential in its own terms, in itself, and for the well-being of our own body-soul configurations. This seems to me to elevate beyond a particular set of beliefs into a universal well-being. Hadrian clearly felt that poetry was a kind of immortality to dictate on his death bed, but the record is also a lament and one of loss: the poem is also a marker of a breaking of bond of body and spirit, and the poem a disembodied form because of it. For me, a poem lives in its activist moment, and then it is a residue of its life. I don’t believe poetry is immortal, but the act of composition might well be even if its architecture is lost to time: mutability as purpose.


What I am interested in is the restructuring or reconstructing of the idea of ‘spirit’ within an activism so that activism becomes an extension of the abstract notion of a spirit. In a sense, this might be secular version of ‘spirituality’. Or, it might mean that spirit exists entirely independently of religious conviction (and therefore coincide with religious conviction). Spirit is a quality of being implicit to all life. Spirit is a way of describing an aspect of being as much as body. In this, the idea of spirit is as material as the idea of body. Spirit as mutable.

Spirit is a mutual aid between the reified/the ineffable and the sustaining of the body organism. By extension, inequality, injustice and unfair distribution of wealth is a mutual crime against the collective body. Those of us who eat when others can’t are corrupting that mutuality, and destroying the collective body and its spirit. Our ideas are out of synch with body and soul (and whatever else is involved in the interior conversation).

The idea of temporal spatial divisibility and relativity as expressed in Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ doesn’t create a material abundance, does not feed people, does not provide shelter, does not bring good health (in any form)—but it does contest the body-soul binary by showing how metaphor might bring more accurate perceptions through disjunction.

A wrong has consequences but a positive can be beautiful. Blake yokes these in a way that suggests we might address causality despite the axiomatic nature of fate. The relationship between body and soul is abstract and constantly being tested, but Blake creates a slant cosmology of cause and effect. We read:

We are led to Believe a Lie
When we see not Thro the Eye
Which was Born in a Night to perish in a Night
When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day

If we write to create a simulacrum of spiritual abundance to address grievous material wrongs, we must also realise that the infinite nature of the spirit is surely not about profit— ascending (or descending)—but rather moving sideways, countering loss. The spirit has to face up to the anguish of those who bodily suffer, and among other spirits it will also dwell among home-truths.

This suggests an eternal accountability, which is always troubling. But maybe that’s a reification of the bodily/earthly conscience we should never lose sight of? A constant reminder that we can never abrogate responsibility. In the ambiguities and liminalities of poetry, we often have acts of responsibility segued with eruptions through language we can’t trace, can’t second guess. We might go to writing a poem as an act of responsibility, but it will inevitably escape our intentions once it goes public. A poem will do what a poem will do. It escapes body and soul. It escapes the idea. The poem is mutable.

If one spirit declines, all spirits decline. Eternity is mutual and never exclusive. Are we talking of the same spirit that Hadrian was conversing with (still alive and still an amalgamation of body and spirit—which part of him is actually speaking to his spirit, and is the spirit part of a conversation with the spirit?), that holds the elite ground in dialogues of soul and body while claiming the mutuality of the spirit? Do the rich and powerful accept the same end for their beings as the rest of humanity? The timeline of cryogenics and other ‘scientific’ enterprises to extend a single (wealthy) life-span suggest otherwise. These are part of a capital of immortality that would seek to make the material self-immutable.

Maybe it’s the spirit of a cause and a spirit of commitment in which we gain little personal benefit (beyond the knowledge that we did something ethically right) that joins us, and sadly divides us. Maybe this is the essence of ideas, and how we use and choose to comprehend them? To look for no deliverance, no reward on a personal level, but rather to act for a just relationship between body and soul in all its myriad manifestations. To see the spirit as inseparable from our physical actions. Earth and afterlife being one and the same. Trash earth and we trash any afterlife. So the dialogue becomes between one’s body and all other souls—or the spirit working for the well-being of someone else’s body, or all bodies.


Mapping the spirit might well be an act of colonial imposition or a justification of a fixed world—really, a denial that all is mutable.

I do not believe that we can map the spirit any more than I believe the world is fixed. I am a pantheist and believe spirit is in all things. However, many obligations and rights are in fact fixed in the world, though many try to deny this to suit their own purposes.

A conservatism that seeks to keep things in their spiritual and material place while denying universal truths of justice is anathema to me. Capitalism insists on the rights of the market while in reality denying the absolute rights of any individual to live a life of the same quality as anyone else. The ‘individual’ is the excuse for inequality. Inequality is too often justified by a pseudo-equality of the soul/spirit. Capitalism purports a conceptual equality that is differentiated from material equality because of an implied universal right to the ineffable.

The material is measurable and therefore it is given as inevitable that not everyone can measure the same (or be measured in the same way), but the ‘spirit’ even as abstract notion is not measurable—so the poor can have a much as the rich. Of course, few of the rich can actually believe this—they essentially must believe they have more spirit, more quiddity, to justify their benefiting from other people’s impoverishment and bodily suffering. The cold empiricism of capitalism loves spirituality—it’s the great placation. Many world religions segue well with capitalism because of this.

But maybe a remapping of ‘spirit’ doesn’t presuppose the existence of a map of exploration and claim in the first place. Maybe the maps are collusions of body and soul to find a way through the binary, to show many places existing at once that are linked in so many arterial and capillary ways: streams, rivers, outcrops, hills, mountains, plains, forests, lakes—a spiritual guidance system that claims nothing. I can be an optimist, I guess. Optimism is mutable.

I don’t align ‘spirit’ with ‘warrior’, which might at first glance seem contrary to the impassioned forms of non-violent direct action that I am willing to commit (and give up) my spirit to. But ‘warrior’ can only ever be about violence for me, even if others reconstitute its meaning within their own cultural spaces (which I respect). My partner says that as a yoga practitioner she is unwilling to do the ‘warrior’ pose because she doesn’t wish to connect ‘spirit’ and ‘body’ in that way. I feel the same, within my creative and activist ambit. As an idea of body and spirit/soul. Often at protests, I have to work out how I situate alongside ‘warrior’ postures (and posturing by some) even when one is trying to resist a war or save a forest, because warrior is associated with action and a refusal to back down.

I am not a warrior and I don’t have a warrior spirit. I try to understand others’ positions, especially in specific cultural contexts. I am sure I have something within me that is beyond the material to give, and in giving it I take a firm and decisive action and make a non-compliant choice. This is personal, of course, but it’s also a comment on how collectives might form, and how the ‘public spirit’ entwines or is undone.


Each act of giving spirit to a cause is a deconstructive one in which the language of sharing becomes part of the issue, part of what is given. This involves a complex array of symbols and, ironically, materiality of participation: how we label our collective spirit, and how we define what we are giving from ourselves. It’s easy to become protective. But to also expose ourselves is part of the giving and part of the potential success of an action. A tree is saved by the manner of our spiritual engagement with it specifically ‘as tree’ and all it is connected with. A poem ‘defending’ a tree has to respect the body, spirit, and idea of a tree—to envisage the notion that a tree thinks, forms ideas, and maybe has an ideology. A poem is a shape of all that it discusses and might seek to protect—a conversation in the shape of an idea, body and spirit.

It might be assumed that religious activism immediately means spiritual giving. Violent religious activism is very often tied-in with handing over the body to suffering so the spirit is rewarded—And sometimes handing over other people’s bodies to suffering in order to reap spiritual rewards for the self. Religious leaders who promote violence operate precisely in this way. But reward is not liberation, it is material gain.

I am not talking about the ‘reward’ that comes via a knowledge that one is non-violently giving to assist or benefit the vulnerable (environment, person, people …), but rather the ‘gain’ in body and spirit that is purely about the self (ie ‘material’ gain). As the saying goes within Hollywood discourse: ‘pennies from heaven’—chance being a material gain in our worldly life through intervention from the spiritual realm. The metaphor is the paradox of the body-soul binary.

As counter to this material spirituality, consider the integrity of many Indigenous spiritual knowledges and totemic relationships with land and all that live on it necessarily connecting resistance with the spirit, collective and personal. So often, Indigenous peoples are forced to embody themselves in protest to protect sacred places, to protect the land itself (and I speak specifically about ‘Australia’, and generically about so many other places of the world).

All people have a ‘spirit’ if they choose to qualify it (or deny it), but cultural relationships with notions of spirit and spirituality necessarily differ, and often on fundamental levels. A community of people, a particular tribal skin connection, a familial or ancestral belonging, evoke complex spiritual connections that are drawn-on in protest actions. In a ‘western’ monadic subjective participation in protest, the connection between the material world and the spiritual is aligned in such a way that so often one can return to one life from the protest life, in a way that is not possible for many cultures that belong to country, to the very land itself. ‘Choice’ works in very different ways for such kinships and totemism, and obligation is likely implicated in complex spatial-temporal-familial-communal ways outside broader public discourse.

I can only personally speak of giving spirit as an ‘activist poet’, and note that poems written for such purposes are given away to the moment, even if I collect them later and reinvent them as strange kind of ‘artefacts’. Their essence is in their moment, and I can’t get them back nor do I want to. Each contains spirit, or bits of spirit, which is the same thing. Each is an idea of set of ideas in the body-shape of ‘a poem’. The process is not a fungible token or a credit that can be called on in the future.

In the same way that renewable energy is often not truly renewable (the mining of ‘green metals’ is a finite and destructive process), the poem given in/to a cause as an amalgam of body, spirit and idea, can only live in that moment. Words and lines might be recycled, but a poem of activism has to live decisively in its moment. Which is not to suggest that some poems don’t reach through time and space to remain ‘truisms’ and activist tools, of course they do. But Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘Binsey Poplars’—which I so often teach as a radical pro-tree environmental poem—is still bound to its time, place and circumstances. New poems need to be written to protect the trees of now, of tomorrow. Spirit persists but needs to be re-energised and re-embodied in every moment. Poetry must be constantly made to meet the need.

There is a pragmatics of protest, and that pragmatism is disturbing—the body is so overtly temporally limited. But the same might be said of the spirit—if it is not reinvigorated, applied according to the conditions, it will break down and be lost to self-absorption and egotism. It will take from the earth and give nothing back. The spirit has a social responsibility—it is part of the giving/exchanging of mutual aid. Because the spirit is mutable, it needs to be renewed. Because the poem is mutable, it needs to be renewed.

Ideally, I would imagine the poem as an act of non-violence. Non-violence is peace as embodiment of spirit. A poem can be a bodily act of peace.

In poems, ideas are ‘values’; but a poem is also a body (a body without organs in the Deleuze & Guattari sense but one we ‘embody’ with a life of ideas). And, as such, the poem becomes an enactment of spirit that no longer claims a rank or cumulative/hierarchical ‘value’. A poem is a giving, and a gift to the biosphere. A gifting of the spirit to ‘the cause’. Poems often resist such idealism just as body’s resist following the ideal health regime. Poems contradict the best intention, forming ideas of their own, corrupting body and spirit, but also prompting humility and awareness we won’t ever have body, soul, idea or anything else completely under control. Poems are also chaos.


I rely a great deal on friendship in poetry. I interact with communities of poet activists, and also communities of poets who are often surprised by the activist interpretations of their poems. There’s overlap, but not always. What really constitutes a ‘spirit of friendship’? Friends can have disagreements, can argue, but accommodate difference. All words are malleable, but is the idea of friendship an essential value? And whose value/s? An ethical agreement, an idea of connectivity that goes across family, community, ‘geography’ and ideology?

In poetry, friendship for me is so often about collaboration, and any differences poets might have are worked out in the poems. I have discovered that poems have bodies, spirits, ideas—even ideologies—and find their own ways.

Sometimes I write body and soul poems with other people. Interestingly, each of us always takes on both body and soul. I‘ve never written as body or soul to another’s body and soul. We all want the rights to configure ‘body’ and ‘soul’ as we will. We are and are not ourselves in the poetry we create together. Spirits remain as autonomous as bodies or ideas, but they overlap and share space. It’s that mutuality of body, spirit and idea I celebrate.

Apropos of spirit, poetry, and friendship, there’s an immediacy in the spirit of camaraderie that seems essential to longer-term poetic friendships. Each of our ‘personalities’ adjusts to the needs of our creative companions, which is co-determinate with considering each other’s social, class and cultural differences. And this might or might not be in flux between two people, or between a group of groups of people. Collaboration with an individual might also mean indirectly collaborating with a community of people. An understanding of all possible dynamics behind ideas of being needs to come into play. A friendship isn’t, in its essence, a set of rules, agreements or manners, it’s something intuitive on some level at least. Not an agreement, but maybe a familiarity? A poem becomes a space of familiarity. A dialogic space in which body speak to body, soul to soul, idea to body to soul, soul to—and so on. Dynamic, active, mutable.

In some ways, friendship does involve at least a partial melding of body and soul, a sharing of aspects of each with each—and this sharing further breaks the binary of ‘body and soul’. But this necessitates a series of rhetorical questions: is friendship always also a case of loyalty? Or are there ‘critical’ friendships, so to speak? What of the capacity to give and take stress? What of disagreement, of pushing a friendship to the conceptual/poetic edge and hoping it will be strengthened by ‘crisis’? Friendship is often a messy business. But I always feel a friendship is about resolving the ‘messiness’, and the poem is a space in which form and function create tension and/or harmony to resolve new shapes.  Friendship is not ideology, but friendship can involve acts of mutually-affirming protest. Friendships of the spirit and spiritual friendships. This is a broad spectrum.

I am not sure the spirit is ever far from the joke of its own existence. A conundrum is a joke, and a riddle is the basis of eternity. In the material-temporal realm of a biosphere under assault, I think there’s little room for joking. Maybe if the spirit can sustain the body, the body and spirit can evolve their friendship and take laughter into the forests, the clean waters, clean air, among the animals and plants and share space with humans living with the same material wealth as each other? The body, the spirit, justice, and the idea of a healthy biosphere. Souls and bodies working together for collective and specific purposes. A transformative laughter comes with the sheer relief of working outside and against the structures of power and greed, outside the binary of body and soul.

Soul of delight, my body’s
traveller who will depart
into many ecotones
sustaining each other,
which increase with laughter.


Image: Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli, Italy ()

John Kinsella

John Kinsella’s new work includes the story collection Pushing Back (Transit Lounge, 2021), Saussure's Kaleidoscope Graphology Drawing-Poems (Five Islands Press/Apothecary Archive, 2021) and The Ascension of Sheep: Collected Poems Volume 1 (UWAP, 2022).

More by John Kinsella ›

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