Oludamini Ogunnaike, University of Virginia

The Knowledge Poets Give Us

What is unique about the kind of knowledge that poetry cultivates and communicates?

How has and could poetry be used to unite the seemingly disparate perspectives of the affective and the rational?

Grant Title
The Logic of the Birds: Exploring Sufi Poetry and Poetics
Legal Organization
University of Virginia
Project Dates
Start Date: 01 June 2022
End Date: 31 May 2024
Grant Amount

Culture has long recognized poetry as a unique medium for expressing knowledge and beauty in profound ways. The poets themselves have articulated this in ways only they can. As William Carlos Williams said, “It is difficult to get the news from poems / Yet men die miserably every day / For lack of what is found there.” But how is truth expounded in one sense, while simultaneously obscured in another?

In the Islamic tradition, particularly among Sufis, poetry is believed to communicate, cultivate, and unlock knowledge that other forms of communication cannot.

Good poetry works like a magic spell.
Oludamini Ogunnaike

“You can recite these words, and they’re combined in a particular way, with a particular rhythm, with particular weights, and with a particular melody… It can change how people feel about something, arouse emotions, make people want to go fight or pray or fall in love, or all of these.”

Ogunnaike’s project seeks to delve into the nature of this phenomenon, exploring how Sufi poetry can bridge the gap between seemingly disparate realms of understanding, from the sensual to the spiritual, the rational to the mystical, and the aesthetic to the scientific.

The Sufi Tradition

Sufi poetry is a tradition rich in history and wisdom. Unlike Western Christianity, where the mystic tradition might be seen as more fringe, the mysticism of Islam’s Sufi branch is much more mainstream. Sufism’s unique emphasis is on perceiving the beauty of the divine nature, which is expressed through its poetry.

The research seeks to unravel how Sufi poetry accomplishes these tasks and the role played by its formal aesthetic features like meter, rhyme, and imagery. The project also hopes to assess how such poetic traditions could offer insights into addressing contemporary challenges in the humanities and sciences, crises of meaning-making as categories of knowledge are further siloed.

The Logic of Flying Animals

What is poetry? The song of the bird of the intellect. What is poetry? The similitude of the world of eternity.

In Islamic contexts, poetry is often called the “language of the birds,” a concept derived from the Quran. The term “manṭiq” (commonly translated “language”) also signifies “logic,” highlighting the close connection between logic and poetry. The “language of the birds” is viewed as an all-encompassing mode of inquiry capable of revealing and synthesizing knowledge, giving words to the ineffable.

Sufi poets have consistently emphasized the ability of poetic speech to convey meaning that conventional language cannot contain. By inducing feelings of longing, wonder, awe, and bewilderment, Sufi poetry serves as a path to understanding a deeper reality, according to notable Sufi leaders like Ibn al-‘Arabi, Rumi, and Jami.

The Marriage of Poetry and Knowledge

Unlike Western philosophies and theologies, which have largely focused on truth, Sufi poetry prioritizes beauty as a transcendental concept. This is where an alignment with aesthetic cognitivism comes into play, claiming that aesthetic engagement advances knowledge and understanding.

Sufi poetry is also thought to holistically engage both the body and the intellect. It unites acoustic elements like rhythm and rhyme with imaginative and intellectual features such as metaphor, aporia, and paradox. This synergy between the embodied and the intellectual contributes to what is referred to as the “licit magic” of Sufi poetry. This draws out another contrast with Western intellectual traditions, which tend to be mind- and thought-centric.

A Deep Dive

The Logic of the Birds: Exploring Sufi Poetry and Poetics is being carried out publicly through a podcast series, which features discussions on Sufi poetry, systematically discussing topics with the world’s top experts and practitioners. Topics covered include Sufi cosmology, Islamic philosophical theories of linguistics and poetics, contemporary research on the neuroscience of poetry, and conversations with contemporary Sufi poets and performers. A workshop was conducted ahead of time with world leaders in various forms of Sufi poetry to outline the research and the podcast.

The podcast is hosted on a dedicated website, which provides additional reading materials and resources, and is being adapted to a book series. In the future, a teaching guide for educators interested in incorporating Sufi poetry into their curricula is also planned.

Poetry as a Balm for Civilization

How is researching poetry relevant today? Dr. Ogunnaike has thoughts:

“Baldwin has this great quote, that only poets can tell us the truth about ourselves. Something terrible is happening to a civilization, when it no longer produces poets, or when it ceases to believe the report that poets bring.”

For Sufi poets, the best way to express the most important truths about ourselves–about our place in the world, about the meaning of life–and grappling with it, is poetry. Ogunnaike continues, “When we have a hard time accessing, understanding, grappling with poetry, that’s usually saying that we’re having a hard time grappling with accessing these big questions about who we are.”

Another reason Dr. Ogunnaike finds this work urgent, is its role in healing our relationship to nature amid a climate crisis. Poet William Blake noted that a certain tree might move one man to tears, and another person just sees its use as a commodity. “What engagement in poetry does really effectively,” Ogunnaike says, “is it helps recapture that state of wonder that most of us have when we’re kids and the natural world is just full of wonder. The poetic mode of perception, of paying attention, of relating to nature, is one that kind of re-sanctifies his nature and brings nature into focus. Not just as potential firewood, not just as potential chairs, not just as potential for our own consumption. But you find a real way of relating to nature, which you don’t get if you’re just relating it through ordinary science.”

You May Also Like