Real poetry is alchemical, a transmutation of base material into gold. But that is no easy thing. Hillman goes on to say that these twists and turns of the “tortuous labyrinth of soul” are experienced as perversion and pathology, through the realm of the Underworld where the keys to initiatory mysteries remain hidden. Of course, Hillman is speaking of the dream world, but he also is speaking of the imaginal realm where the image itself remains fluid, not static, not stuck in literalism.
Thursday, May 26, 2005
I’ve been thinking for awhile that I wanted to do a blog on poets and poetry, but until this point I resisted. The truth is, I have written a few poems in my life, but I really am no poet. There is a tremendous sense of difference in that sentence. I suppose many of us, from time to time have sat down and written out a few verses in the attempt to express something that felt inexpressible. We play with rhyme and meter and attempt to craft an image that seems sophisticated and deep. Sometimes the results work and a real poem is crafted. Sometimes the results do not work. But in any regard, writing a poem does not make one a poet.
See, I have come up with some special ideas regarding true poets and their role in culture. Part of that contemplation comes from my study of myth and part of it comes from a close association with my friend and colleague, Stephanie Pope. To those who know us, there is no surprise in saying that we have lunch nearly ever day. Our topic of conversation is rarely mundane as the two of us discuss our individual workings of material. Over the years, my admiration of her gifts has grown.
I am in awe of the way Stephanie puts a poem together. She delves into myth and her personal material with a deep need to penetrate the skin of something, to poke beneath the rational levels of life. In doing so, her twists and turns of thought and language, astound and confound me. I frankly often times cannot keep up with her mythopoetic movement. I don’t pretend to try. In my relationship to Stephanie, I have come to believe that poetry is not so much about defining meaning, as it is about breaking apart meanings.
Yes, I see the true role of a poet in culture as the person who breaks apart the myths and containers that become literalism. It is, like alchemy, an opus contra naturam, which Hillman defines as a work against nature by yet in the service of a wider nature that is animated or ensouled. He writes in The Dream And the Underworld:
Alchemical work had to deform nature in order to serve nature. It had to hurt (boil, sever, skin, desiccate, putrefy, suffocate, drown, etc.) natural nature in order to free animated nature. (129)
Stuck in literalism gives me (a non-poet), the image of being stuck in the mud. For portion of my adult life, I did a lot of off-roading in a 79 Jeep CJ7 in the mud of Maine. Getting stuck in the mud means there is no movement, no momentum at all, just a spinning of wheels that seems to go deeper, but actually spins the surface matter, over and over again.
I think when cultures become stuck in the mud, static in their literalism, there has to be some kind of necessary breaking to get away from the repetitive spinning of wheels. It is here that the poet steps in to smash the cultural icon, disassemble the myth and find within the pieces, the making of something new. This Myth-O-Poesis is mythmaking itself. It is what allows a myth to continue to have vitality for a culture. Myth-making, mythopoesis is the vitality of the imaginal in a culture.
Poets, like great visual artists allow the images to fall apart into their multiple forms, showing the multiplicity of forms. Like the dream, poems show us that the world is polytheistic, that there are always multiple ideas, multiple figures, multiple experiences when one cracks the shell of an image. Hillman writes, “Only by falling apart into the multiple figures do we extend consciousness to embrace and contain its psychopathic potentials (41).
The best poems are the ones that we really don’t understand. We walk away from them dejected, upset that we can’t seem to crack their mysteries. Even still, their images compel us and if we allow the ego to let go, a poem allows us to also fall part into our own multiplicity. We see the meaning here and then discover a different meaning there. At times, a good poem leaves us confused and overwhelmed, exhausted in our attempt to pin it down into something literal. But it is the “not understanding” that draws us back in to the imaginal. It is the true mystery of an underworld experience. Mystery comes from the word “mystes” in Greek, meaning to close the mouth in secrecy. It refers to ancient initiation rituals. The mystery of poetry initiates.
Of course the life of a poet or any true artist is typically filled with its own darkness. When one is iconoclastic, a person who insists on breaking apart cultural icons to reveal their multiplicity and their pathological undertones, that it is easy to label that person “dark” or “depressive” or “suicidal”. That’s where all the rumors about poets dying young originate from. There is some truth in that idea. Poetry, or any real great work of art, contains within it the darkness of the Underworld and often holds the keys to the pathology of a culture. An individual involved in such an experience can themselves literalize the experience so it is no longer about the art, but about themselves. They cannot endure the experience of falling apart imaginally and so they fall apart literally.
I think this is because culture has such disregard for the imaginal that we punish and denigrate rather than aid and support the real artists in the culture. We have a compulsion to fix the problem, cure the pathology and erase the art. Or, we commoditize the artist and the art, ensuring that the only piece of work that has value is the one that has commercial value attached to it. In doing so, we make an icon out of the iconoclast and they cannot endure.
I am in awe of Stephanie Pope, in awe of the breathe and depth of her talent and her intense determination to break through the images of popular culture, classical mythology, and her own story. In a culture where the poetic is dismissed and literally pathologized, she holds onto the integrity of her poetic vision in a remarkable expression that often takes my breath away. Shallow people look at her work and whine, “what does it mean?” or “I don’t understand!” I just allow myself to get lost in her vision.
From time to time, I publish poetry (including Stephanie’s) on this site. But today, I’d rather just link you into one of Stephanie’s works that is astonishing to me. You have to read it on her site because the combination of language and image makes it unique and disturbing. Exactly what a true poet needs to accomplish and what culture desperately needs in a time when the imaginal is so devalued.
The link I want to share is to one of her more recent poems entitled Farewell to Madness.
posted by Maggie at 8:26 AM
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