Poetry and the Muses III
It has long been observed that whilst the ego is useful in making daily and ordinary decisions in our life, it is less effective when it comes to more important issues; it is by nature competitive, and it tends to subordinate the greater good for more immediate gains and self-gratification. We know as well that the ego is largely driven by the left hemisphere of the brain, which is rational and analytic; again, rationality and analysis are good, but taken to extremes, have unfortunate side-effects: namely, a craving for certainty, a rejection of ambiguity, a need to be right, a lack of openness, and a foreclosure of intuition and the mystical dimension of being human.
We learn from research in this that techniques like meditation, for example, have a profoundly positive effect on the human psyche and even life span, and that one aspect of meditating is the re-balancing of the left and right brain hemispheres. So, as the left hemisphere is correlated with reason, logic, numbers and more practical applications, the right brain is more concerned with images, feelings, intuitions and the mystical. Indeed, as Lee Pulos puts it: “the right hemisphere is the decompression chamber into the subconscious”. It is important to say, however, that both are vital to healthy functioning of the human being; but it is equally true to say that in the West especially there has developed an over-reliance on left brain activity and dominance.
What has this to do with poetry? Everything! For it was Maggie Ross who said: “The importance of poetry in restoring the balance of the mind cannot be overestimated as it draws on both aspects of knowing simultaneously”. In other words, being in the ‘poetic’ state, that is the condition in which one can write poetry – hear the Muse – means that the left and right brains are becoming more balanced – more coherent. We could almost say – but probably wouldn’t – that writing poetry can be an alternative to practising meditation! I wouldn’t say it myself, but I do observe people for whom I think this is very true.
But, whatever, the benefits are clear. Meditation and poetry (and certain other disciplines too) balance and co-ordinate the two brains, gets them in sync, and so provide a kind of harmony in which a deeper level of awareness, understanding and expression is possible. In fact, if we consider some elementary examples of how writing helps us, we might then begin to guess at just how powerful poetry is.
Most of us write shopping lists, for example; and it is remarkable when we think about it, just how powerful a simple shopping list is: it means we stop worrying about whether we are going to remember everything, it enables us to do the shopping in the most efficient way possible, and the act of writing also stimulates us to take a wider overview – not just what do we need now, but what might we need in the next few days. More powerful still is when we start writing down our plans for the future: this ‘authoring’ means we start manipulating our own futures, and exercising a kind of control that is usually impossible without the act of writing. But clearly, shopping lists and life or business plans are invariably left brain activities. But when we step up to write poetry, then we get that extra benefit that comes from the right brain being activated: how much more powerful when the words are not lists or just aide-memoires but active interpretations of our experiences and the meanings inherent in them? Moreover, these meanings may be ones you are fully aware of, or alternatively of which the process of writing may uncover or discover.
And this balance requires that we enter a peculiar mind-set: one of relaxation, yet total clarity and focus at the same time; and as I said before the right hemisphere is the decompression chamber into our subconscious where we can access images and dreams – all that propels all our desires, which are, of course, the issues of the heart with which poetry is and should be most concerned.
Once, then, the hemispheres are balanced the magic begins. The magic of words. The God-given power to Adam and Eve of naming the animals – all the beasts we encounter, real and metaphorical. The magic? Ah, the magic of poetry – when poetry truly intoxicates. Here is a question: what is the most magical word in the English language? Think about it before you answer! We will all have our own views, and for some of us it will be about personal association, and there is nothing wrong with that. Perhaps the word ‘rose’ is magical for you; or perhaps the word ‘love’, or maybe even someone’s name: Linda my wife’s name is magical for me, or perhaps a son or daughter’s name always makes you light up as you hear that sound.
But here perhaps is the most purely magical word in the English language: abracadabra! Truly a magical word, and truly magical too in that it invokes the whole naming process of Adam via the letters (originally Hebrew) of the alphabet: A B C D. There is one point to understand about alphabets (notice, too, the A and B even in the word alphabet): and this is that in magical words the internal sound reflects external reality: there is a consistency, and no jarring. In poetical jargon, this is onomatopoeia, or what we might call mimesis. The words are ‘true’ – which is why children love them, why they love nursery rhymes and all forms of word play, and when we are uncorrupted, we love them too as adults. The sheer fun of it; the sheer truth of it.
For me the greatest example in the English language of a ‘magical’ poem, and one which perfectly exemplifies the whole condition I have outlined of how poetry comes to be written (though with one important caveat I must mention shortly) is Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’. The final part of this poem reads:
A damsel with a dulcimer In a vision once I saw: It was an Abyssinian maid, And on her dulcimer she played, Singing of Mount Abora. Could I revive within me Her symphony and song, To such a deep delight ‘twould win me, That with music loud and long, I would build that dome in air, That sunny dome! those caves of ice! And all who heard should see them there, And all should cry, Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair! Weave a circle round him thrice, And close your eyes with holy dread, For he on honey-dew hath fed, And drunk the milk of Paradise.
This verse is intoxicating; almost childish – the almost over-emphatic alliteration of damsel/dulcimer – yet sublime. Of what is she singing? Mount Abora – A and B again, the alphabet – and she is ‘Abyssinian’ (A and B again!) and she is the Muse of course, because Mount Helikon was sacred to the Muses, and one proposed etymology of ‘muse’ is from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning either to ‘think’ or ‘tower/mountain’. All the important cult centres of the Muses were on mountains or hills: in other words, a height, somewhere above, celestial, where the gods – the Muses – abide.
But she is elusive. ‘Could I revive within me …’ How in those simple words one feels the agony of wanting to get back to her – to the good life – to ‘such a deep delight’ (those delicious Ds again, picked up like a refrain) – and how difficult it is. But – hey – no good repining; immediately Coleridge suddenly conjures up the methodology to get there, and the verb has the force of an imperative:
‘Weave a circle round him thrice, And close your eyes in holy dread’
The poet is a prophet (honeydew) – the external eyes are closed (as often in prayer or meditation) so that the inner faculty can be harnessed, and there is deep reverence – ‘holy’ – which allows the magic to overwhelm the poet. And in that state we experience the ‘milk of paradise’. The word ‘drunk’ here has a double connotation – meaning in the first instance that one has literally drunk milk, but with the added suggestion that one is ‘drunk’ on this milk. In other words, that the mind itself is changed, is transformed. We are truly in another place.
Now my caveat about Coleridge’s experience derives from the fact that he was on opium when he wrote the poem, and that opium did for him creatively (picking up my note about debauchery made in Part 1 of this article). There is with nearly all the Romantics the danger of ‘excess’, but conceding that point and the danger, the wider one is still true: that the Romantics explored more fully than before the sources of inspiration and creativity.
A poem I like to set alongside ‘Kubla Khan’ is the first few lines of John Keats’s revised Hyperion poem: ‘The Fall of Hyperion.’
Fanatics have their dreams, wherewith they weave A paradise for a sect; the savage too From forth the loftiest fashion of his sleep Guesses at Heaven; pity these have not Trac’d upon vellum or wild Indian leaf The shadows of melodious utterance. But bare of laurel they live, dream, and die; For Poesy alone can tell her dreams, With the fine spell of words alone can save Imagination from the sable charm And dumb enchantment. Who alive can say, ‘Thou art no Poet may’st not tell thy dreams?’ Since every man whose soul is not a clod Hath visions, and would speak, if he had loved And been well nurtured in his mother tongue. Whether the dream now purpos’d to rehearse Be poet’s or fanatic’s will be known When this warm scribe my hand is in the grave.
The genius of this unfinished epic – and epic it is – is inexhaustible, but for now simply notice four words in this short extract: dreams, weave, paradise and enchantment. Ring a bell? Coleridge talks of ‘vision’ but here Keats has ‘dreams’; but then the ‘weaving’ – the profound metaphor I see as combining the left and write sides of the brain – lead to ‘paradise’. It is a false paradise in the opening of Keats, but nonetheless the imagery is instructive – for poesy alone can make the real jump that crosses the chasm that is ‘dumb enchantment’ – our speechlessness in the face of existence, or our stupefaction as we freeze before the hollow of time.
Poetry, then, comes from the Muses, and is a form of enchantment; we must be in a ‘holy’ state of mind to receive and process it. If we do, the result is transformational; we find our way back (and forward), albeit briefly, to paradise – a living harmony of the mind where the ‘milk’ of living nurtures us. We can get into that state artificially via narcotics and other means, but these approaches ultimately desecrate the Muses’ temple (and incidentally, temple refers to their sacred building, which is also the two sides of our brain), and there are consequences, as Coleridge discovered.
In Part 4 of this series of articles we will consider the language of poetry and enchantment, language before the Fall of Mankind or in the Golden Age, what being a ‘living soul’ means and how this is related to writing poetry. Finally, I will explore what this means for our contemporary poetry scene.
Originally published by The Society for Classical Poets
James Sale is a leading expert on motivation, and the creator and licensor of Motivational Maps worldwide. James has been writing poetry for over 50 years and has eight collections of poems published, including most recently, The Lyre Speaks True, his metaphor for the paradoxes of being a poet. He can be found at www.jamessale.co.uk and contacted at james@motivational maps.com. He is the winner of First Prize in the Society’s 2017 Competition and regularly writes reviews for the Society