Scott Cairns teaches modern and contemporary literature and creative writing at the University of Missouri. He’s also an accomplished poet, whose work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Paris Review, New Republic, and Books & Culture. And he’s a Guggenheim fellow.
In Short Trip to the Edge, Cairns writes about four pilgrimages he makes to spiritual centers of the Eastern Orthodox Church – three to Mount Athos in Greece and one to a center in Arizona. His pilgrimage is about prayer – to find a spiritual father who can lead him and develop his life as a prayer to God.
And during his pilgrimages, he also writes about poetry, because, as he says, “Poetry itself is a pilgrim’s journey”:
“My sense of actual poetry writing is that, before it can so much as begin, it must be recognized as a way by which we concurrently construct and discern experience; it is not a means by which we transmit ideas or narrative events we think we already understand. But a way we might discover more sustaining versions of them.”
During one journey to Mount Athos, he talks with a professor on leave from Harvard who’s likely to become a monastery novice (and he eventually does). Cairns doesn’t press him for more information. Instead,
“We left it at that, though I was very keen to hear more about his decision. Something about his candor actually made me careful not to press him; it was coupled, even so, with a curious quality of uncertainty, as if he didn’t see where this path would lead him, or even what he should say about it. Our conversation reminded me of how a poem comes into being: one begins to speak, then trusts the words to lead the way.”
I like the concept of poetry as a pilgrim’s journey, a journey where the destination is not precisely known.