Poetry is one of the most contemplative art forms in the world, largely because of the fact that all words have set meanings; when a poet writes something down, they mean it exactly as they wrote it. This isn’t to say that there is no room for interpretation in poetry, of course — there’s a lot! — but it does mean that poetry is a good form of writing for contemplation, for free thought, and for meaningful discussion. Alice Walker’s Blessed are the Poor in Spirit is a powerful example of this idea; throughout the verse of poetry, Walker speculates on and discusses a question of her own, a thought that many others have contemplated throughout history, though never in quite this way before.
Typically, the historic context of a poem makes more sense when it follows the text of the poem, but it is important to understand it before really examining the text. The title of the poem, “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit,” is a reference to something that Jesus Christ once famously said, recorded in the Book of Matthew, 5:3 — “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus said this as part of what are now remembered as the beatitudes, eight blessings that involved themes and lessons that Jesus preached, today being associated with biblical significance. What Jesus meant by “the poor in spirit” is a widely debated theme amongst theologians. Some have argued that it is a parallel for literal poverty, suggesting a person that does not need or desire wealth or luxury, or one who does not allow wealth and poverty to become the centre for their love, as opposed to God. Others might say that to be poor in spirit means having nothing of value that could be offered to God, that it means being a sinner who recognizes that their spirit is a poor one, but who wants to be clean before God anyway.
Blessed are the Poor in Spirit was published in Walker’s collection, The World Will Follow Joy: Turning Madness into Flowers, on April 2nd, 2013, following a long adulthood on Walker’s part of activism and advocation of human rights and equality.
Blessed are the Poor in Spirit Analysis
Immediately, it can be seen that this poem, which can be read in full here, isn’t going to follow any kind of traditional structure with regards to syllable count or rhyme. The first few lines of the poem are just thoughts, and questions designed to make the reader think and to explain the narrator’s position and mode of thought. Assuming the poem begins with the title being read, each question follows the last, and the first question follows Jesus’s statement.
For the narrator of this poem, being poor in spirit implies that the person’s spirit is not as fulfilled as other’s, that something was missing in their lives, similar to the way depression leaves people feeling unfulfilled. For the narrator, the idea that the poor in spirit are blessed with the kingdom of heaven is one that contradicts itself.
This brief lesson in grammar makes an interesting point, particularly in the field of poetry — the inclusion or removal of a single comma, they say, can actually change the entire meaning of a statement, and this is true. It is worth pointing out that this is also true of translation — a field in which grammatical points are often moved around to suit the purposes (intentional or otherwise) of the translator.
The narrator, inspired by their earlier musings, recalls a time when they were in Tunisia (in Northern Africa), where they witnessed a young man set himself on fire, and remembers feeling the pain emanating not from the man himself, but from his spirit, his shame — and it is as if the shame of this man who has given up entirely on everything is burning her in the same way it is burning him, and driving him to such a desperate, suicidal moment.
The man was a poor vegetable salesman who felt as though every opportunity they’d had in life had been taken away from them. Perhaps they are victims of apartheid, or perhaps they are simply unfortunate; either way, the narrator is unable to connect with him on these levels. The narrator of Blessed are the Poor in Spirit makes a better living than this man ever did, and is not worried about the state of their opportunities and freedoms. In that way, the two are nothing alike. Despite this, there is a connection between the two, a similarity; something that brings them together and creates a sense of understanding.
Referring back to the earlier point, the narrator refines the beatitude by adding a single comma before and after the phrase “in spirit,” which does change the meaning of the phrase. As it is written here, it can be interpreted as meaning that the poor are blessed, not materially, but in a spiritual sense, because their poverty will allow them to inherit the kingdom of heaven. There is far less room for ambiguity in this interpretation, as the narrator continues to explain:
Jesus was as usual talking about solidarity: about how we join with others
and, in spirit, feel the world, and suffering, the same as them.
This is the kingdom of owning the other as self, the self as other;
that transforms grief into
peace and delight.
This part of the poem explains itself very nicely. It breaks from the already shaky structure from earlier and feels more like a paragraph (relative to the last several lines) has been inserted to explain the rest of the text. The narrator is explaining that to be “poor in spirit” is to express solidarity with others, because all are poor in some way — all are suffering in some capacity, and the ability to own up to that pain and to share it with others and let it go through solidarity is the ability to make peace with suffering.
This solidarity with others, it is written, can be a kind of heaven in itself; but here the poem takes on an ambiguous turn, because the nature of heaven is arguably as vague as the notion of being poor in spirit. And yet the one theme that transcends the poem is one of solidarity. The meanings is clear — with disconnect, there is suffering, but that suffering can be transcended through solidarity and compassion. To be poor in spirit, then, is to understand pain, but also to reach out to others who are poor in spirit and to help them through, just as they are doing the same.
What is especially interesting about this poem is the connection it attempts to establish with the reader. From the very first line, the narrator asks what the reader thinks, and then shares a personal story with them. Blessed are the Poor in Spirit itself feels like its own attempt at solidarity — so it can be said, in a way, that Alice Walker’s Blessed are the Poor in Spirit is a poem that is, in fact, poor, in spirit.