Poetry, Gardening, and “the Pulsing in the Universe”

The Pulsing in the Universe

The poet Stanley Kunitz said that if one listens in the night, beneath the rumble of traffic and wind and animals, one can hear the “pulsing in the universe.” [1] What is this pulsing? Is it something more true than what we perceive during the bustle of our day? What can it tell us? How do we learn to hear it? Why should we bother?

Along with being a poet, Kunitz was a gardener. For nearly all of his one hundred years on Earth, he touched and tended and shaped and loved the soil and the plants that grew there. Along with tending gardens, he also tended language, metaphor, and meaning.

For him, these two vocations – gardening and writing poetry – were connected. Both allow us to create order in the world. Whether we work with compost and seed or paper and word, we take raw material and shape it into something we hope will grow into a thing of beauty and sustenance.

a galaxy and stars - showing the pulsing in the universe

Gardening and poetry are intimate acts. They reveal our inner selves. In the process, they encourage us to forge relationships. They teach us to care.

Art, Gardening, and Making Connections

Out of these caring relationships, gardening and poetry bear fruit. They contain a web of connections without which we could not grow, or touch one another’s hearts, or develop a sense of meaning that grounds our life. This tending of fruit and flower, this linguistic manipulation, speak to our deepest joy and darkest hurt. They form the connections that hold us, heal us, and ease us toward wholeness. [2]

Thus it makes sense that by creating art and by gardening we would feel better, for without connections, we humans cannot survive.

Yet by gardening, by creating, we also connect with a deeper part of ourselves. Through art and nature, we come to know our inner being, to feel our suffering and our strength, to honor our hopes and dreams and unspoken needs. As we create landscapes from the material of our own soul, we often find ourselves in the presence of mystery. We touch the hearts of those around us and the very essence of the universe.

Poetry, Longing, and Desire

The book, The Wild Braid, contains both photographs and an extended dialogue between Stanley Kunitz and Genine Lentine that document two years of Kunitz’s later life. Here and there, examples of his poetry punctuate the prose.

After his statement about the “deep pulsing in the universe” we find his poem, “Touch Me.” It speaks about connection, about the passion and the aching of life, of our “longing for the dance,” and of our “desire, desire, desire.” [3]

Perhaps this desire is what motivates us to cultivate and weed, to paint and sculpt. Could this “deep pulsing” be the sound of that longing? Is it the ache that thrums in our blood and our bones? Or could it be the cry of the universe, of the stars and planets and rivers and clouds as they call to one another, to us?

We are made for relationship. When we create for and with one another, we bond. We commune. When we listen for that deep, pulsing sound, we not only learn to see and know that eternal and mysterious source of life, but we come to see and know, and to nurture, one another.

Art and Religion

Of course, Kunitz is speaking out of the world of metaphor, imagination, and creativity. Is there literally a sound behind all sound? Does the universe really long for us to listen to it? I doubt it.

Yet his phrase speaks to something missing within our separate skins, something that gardening and poetry help us find. Through these arts we become larger than our individual being. We become part of a transcendent whole.

This is the stuff of poetry; it is also the stuff of religion.

In The Soul in the Brain, Michael Trimble points out that metaphor “unites the languages of religion and poetry.” [4] The awe and mystery we experience when we engage with great art are akin to the spiritual feelings that rise up in us when we pray or worship or meditate. As humans evolved, art and religion developed in tandem. Sacred painting, music, and poetry abound in our history. [5]

Art, Religion, and Evolution

Ellen Dissanayake, in her book What Is Art For?, describes one way this merging of art and religion might have come about. Ritual, which is essential to religious practice, “is both a means and an end in expressing and reinforcing social cohesion.” [6] Those communities that bonded most effectively also tended to be more successful in raising children to adulthood, and thus passing on their genetic material. Evolution thus encouraged our religious rituals.

Yet of what use are these rituals without art? Imagine worship without music, poetry, movement, beauty. Where would be the awe, the magic, the bonding connection? Without passion, desire, love for one another, we would not make the sacrifices necessary to live in harmony, to temper our selfish natures, or to care for our young and our old.

Yes, we can use religion to justify the demonizing of others, for sometimes, we “mistake our conception of reality for reality,” as Trimble puts it. [7] Yet religion also helps us create order out of chaos, give meaning to lives destined to end in death, and to make sense of suffering.

For religion to have lasting power, it needed rules and rituals. It also needed stories and images that informed who we were and how we could best live together. “Language, music, and poetry must have been essential in the quest for some kind of harmony,” writes Trimble. [8] Indeed, Dissanayake believes we need them to survive at all. [9]

Connecting with the Universe

Of course, some individuals do survive without much trace of mystery within their hearts and minds. As a race, however, we humans find meaning even in that which is random. It’s how our brains function. Yet without that meaning, we would be lost. So we tell stories, we develop rituals, and we create art that connects us to something greater than ourselves.

That’s why we need that pulsing sound in the universe. That sound is the mystery that fuels our religious thought and the creativity that informs our art. It is magic, ecstasy, and an ache so intense it becomes awe. When we sing together, that sound is there. When we plant a seed and tend it, that sound is there. In that pulsing lie the unseen connections we cannot live without.

Our brains crave this. We can get pleasure from all manner of addictive things like coffee, sex, chocolate, gambling, alcohol, MDMA, and peyote. Sometimes through these substances and activities, we experience bliss. We feel a transcendence that takes us out of ourselves and connects us to that pulsing.

Listening to the Pulsing in the Universe

We don’t need drugs, however, to stir that place of joy that lies within our brains. In fact, if we depend on drugs or addictive behaviors to satisfy our desires, we will eventually lose everything, including our joy. Ritual, nature, art, and awe give us a similar rush, yet our ability to find bliss in these activities does not fade. Indeed, the more we practice our faith, the more likely we are to hear that pulsing resonate in our own hearts.

Something we do not understand permeates our universe. It throbs and hums. It holds us and keeps us and fills our souls with wonder. So touch the ground. Water a plant. Dance to a symphony. Write a poem. Sit down, be quiet, be still. Listen.

Then perhaps, like Stanley Kunitz, you will hear the pulsing in the universe.

In faith and fondness,



  1. Kunitz, Stanley, with Genine Lentine, The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden, New York: W. W. Norton, 2007, 2005, 106.
  2. Ibid 13-14.
  3. Ibid 107.
  4. Trimble, Michael R., The Soul in the Brain: The Cerebral Basis of Language, Art, and Belief, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009, 180.
  5. Ibid 181.
  6. Dissanayake, Ellen, What Is Art For?, Seattle: Washington University Press, 2015, 84.
  7. Trimble 204.
  8. Ibid 210.
  9. Dissanayake 62.
Photo by Bryan Goff on Unsplash
Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens