Sometimes difficult concepts can be illuminated through storytelling. These excerpts from my recent book “ALICE HICKEY: Between Worlds” and the On-Line Appendix associated with it, may help some to understand many critical aspects of preliterate poetry and the culture that gave birth to it.
The myth referred to in some of these excerpts is The Witnesses Log , a long, enigmatic poem that came to me in 2001. I have included it as well. For those interested in the book and appendix, a free PDF is available as well as Kindle: http://justinspringbooks.blogspot.com/
EXCERPTS FROM ALICE HICKEY
Chapter 4: The Myth
December 2000-January 2001, Santa Monica, California
A Brief Summary of the Myth:
The myth’s primary contention is that we became human not when our skeletal structure changed, or we began to use fire, or tools, or logic, but when we began to
createstories. When we becamewitnessesto creation.
The myth implies that all the things we have come to see as particularly human: tool-making, belief in God, knowledge of good and evil, logic, language, came out of this inexplicable and unprecedented change in our previously animal consciousness.
This change has never occurred again in any of the thousands of animal species we are aware of. We are the only animals that can say:
This happened, or more spectacularly,Once upon a time.
Although we hold stories in small regard today, preferring the logic of science, the myth is very clear that it is our ability to
witness—toobserve,and toreport—that distinguishes us from the animals, indeed from the very animals we evolved from. This change from animal to human consciousness, according to the myth, occurred when we became aware of theListeners,an invisible, unapproachable, feltpresence we sensed as having an unknowable interestin our feelings.
The myth is very elusive, as a good myth should be, about the exact nature of our relationship with the
Listeners.But it is very clear that it was our awareness of theListeners’existence that brought about our sudden change in consciousness, a change that has absolutely no counterpart in all of evolutionary history. Everything else, including the change from fins to fingers, is small potatoes.
The myth goes on to say that once we became
Witnesses,we also became aware of a second metaphysical presence: theVisitors.Unlike the passive, unknowableListeners, whom we might think of as the truly unknowable, or the Gods before there were Gods, or perhaps our previous animal consciousness, the myth portrays theVisitorsas continually coming into time: think of spirits, visions, angels, demons, aliens, poems, prophecies, intuitions.
The myth then goes on to say that the appearance of the
Visitorscaused a further development in the consciousness of some of theWitnesses:they becameDreamers, which is the myth’s term for those capable of directly witnessing the psychic world. Think of Black Elk, Buddha.
Early human consciousness was one in which all of these
intelligenceswere in free interplay within our conscious and unconscious minds, if we can use Jungian terminology for a moment. You might say if you took off the top of the head of very early man, these are the players that would be inside. Essentially, theseintelligenceswere in free float, constantly influencing one another.
That free-float was what allowed us to know the world by
feelingit rather than logically explainingit. That ability is no longer with us, at least in the ancient sense. Rather it is buried beneath our current modern consciousness, where it has been receding since the advent of writing and all of its stepchildren.
The Witnesses Log
In the beginning,
there was nothing.
Only the sound
We were like moss
to the mountainside.
We were waiting
to be remembered.
for the sun.
When the Listeners came,
We became Witnesses.
We heard the Listeners
entering the darkness
in the valley
far beneath us.
We could feel them
the dark folds of light.
When the Visitors appeared,
some of us
No one knows why.
the Other World.
When we asked them
why they had come,
they looked down
at the darkness
in the valley
far beneath us
and then they went
to the top of the mountain
like dark stars,
The Dreamers travel
to the Other World.
They are sent
to places of darkness
and places of light.
When they come back,
they bring back pieces
of the Other World.
The pieces comfort us
when we are lost.
They speak to us.
One of the pieces
spoke to us
in a language
no one understood.
it sounded like blood,
The Dreamers said
that is what The Listeners
when they speak:
Like blood, or water.
No one knows how
to speak like that,
the Dreamers said.
No one knows how
like blood, or water.
has ever seen
The Visitors say
in the valley
far beneath us
is too dark to see.
But we know
they are there,
the dark folds of light.
We can feel them,
The Visitors say
they sound like water
moving into darkness
They hear us
when we’re crying
in the silence of our minds.
They hear us
just before we die.
The Visitors say
we are bound
to the Listeners
No one knows that,
Not even us.
Some of the Visitors
have large flat eyes
like the tails of comets.
We can see them
in the corners
and the byways
of our minds,
The Dreamers say
the Visitors with large flat eyes
are useless to us,
that they have come
to kill us.
The other Visitors
If you ask them,
they will let you hold their eyes.
If you do,
you’ll see things
you can’t describe.
Not to anyone.
know many things.
And so do we.
have been here
But they are wrong.
We were here
before the Listeners came.
When they came,
We became Witnesses.
entering the darkness
in the valley
far beneath us,
we could feel them
the dark folds of light.
This we know.
And this as well:
When we leave,
the Listeners leave.
The Visitors tell us
they will fade away
and then, in time,
come back again.
When will you come back,
When we are like
dark stars like fires
When will that be,
No one knows that,
The Visitors are fading now.
They are like memories
pressed against the glass.
Only the Dreamers
can hear them.
The Dreamers say
they sound like
soft, distant thunder
that is what
the Dreamers say:
they sound like
soft distant thunder
Chapter 49: Alice and the First Mother
March 2007, Sarasota
Alice had been particularly helpful in unwinding the labyrinth of
The White Goddessand relating it to the myth.We were sitting in Starbucks one day when she said to me, “It’s a shame that Graves didn’t look at the Mother Goddess in Jungian terms, because it would have given him a useful structuring tool. God knows he could have used it.
“Archetypes form the way we see and know and act. We have no control over them. From Jung’s point of view, the Mother archetype is one of the most powerful archetypes in the collective unconscious. Under the right conditions, its effect upon our behavior and perceptions can be staggering. You have a mother, don’t you?”
“What kind of questions is that? Of course I have a mother. She’s been dead for some time though.”
“She may be dead, but she’s still with you. And so is
hermother. And so is every other mother. Jung saw the Motherarchetypeas embodying all of our collective perceptions of the mother since time began.”
“You mean back to the First Mother—the one in Africa that everyone’s DNA points to?”
“That’s as good a starting point as any. It may go back to our animal mothers. But let’s not quibble. It’s our collective perceptions of the First Mother. Now add in the thousands and thousands of other mothers who came into being over the millennia. While you’re at it, add in the Mother Goddess, Graves’
“But that’s a psychic mother, not a physical mother.”
“Since when are you so picky? The psychic entity we call the Mother Goddess developed out of the physical mothers. That’s what an archetype is: a psychic entity that creates itself around our perceptions. It may even exist
beforeour perceptions. The Mother Goddess, theWhite Goddess, is one aspect of the Mother archetype,but a very large aspect. In preliterate times, you could say they were one and the same.
“Archetypes are nothing more than psychic representations of collective memories. Why and when they are formed and how they are formed is a mystery, yet they play a critical role in how we see and act in the world. You can think of them as “human” instincts that developed to supplement our basic animal instincts, such as those associated with hunger and sex.
“One more thing—those archetypes sometimes take form and enter our consciousness to assist us. Why this happens and how and why they take a particular form is also a mystery, but they always come in a form that is comprehensible to us —a figure, a luminous presence, a voice. Got it?”
“Got it. You know, Alice, Graves says the Muse—the Poetry archetype—is another, later name for the
White Goddess.Something tells me he’s right about that, but I can’t put my finger on why.”
“Why shouldn’t it be true? There’s no reason why the Poetry archetype—the Muse—wouldn’t be associated with the Mother archetype
.It was the First Mother who told the first stories—who was the firstwitness.Right?”
“Right. But how does she get to be the Muse?”
“The Muse is an archetype that must have developed very early, right along with the Mother Goddess archetype. I think you’re right in saying that the Muse began as an internal modification of the directive voices early humans heard. Those early directive voices, by the way, were most probably those of the Mother Goddess.
“I also can’t help but think that the ‘
more human, storytelling’ voices we experienced in that internal modification also incorporated the essential nature of a mother’s stories to her children, because our memories of those stories would have been such an essential part of the Mother Goddess archetype. After all, there is nothing more critical to human development than a mother telling stories to her children—and then encouraging them to tell those storiesback—and listening to those stories to make sure the children understood what was said.”
“You know, Alice, it just occurred to me that at some later stage of our development, a division occurred, and the Muse part of the Mother Goddess archetype became a distinct archetype. You know what else just came to me?”
“I can only imagine.”
“I think that the feeling you had when you wrote the six poems you showed me—the ones where the energy of prophecy merged with the energy of the poem—was probably very close to what those early humans felt before the Muse and Mother Goddess became distinct archetypes.”
“Franklin, your mother must have loved you—you can be one bright boy at times; did I ever tell you that? And you know what? It says to me that those particular poems were also prophetic in nature—just like mine were. Our memory of that is probably the reason why we continued to associate prophecy with poetry right up to the times of the Greeks and Romans.”
“Your mother must have loved you too, Alice. Anything else?”
“That’s about it on archetypes. What I really wanted to knock around with you was the First Mother’s first story. Any ideas?”
“Not really,” I replied.
“It’s a toughie, isn’t it? I suspect it was about something of immense importance to her—perhaps the day she discovered she was different. Not smarter than her animal companions, or a better hunter, or a stronger fighter, but different in a whole new way. So here’s the question—what happened that made her realize she was different?”
“I have no idea.”
“Come on Franklin. Live a little.”
“Well, she’d look the same as everybody else, so she wouldn’t know she was different until something happened that made it evident, but I have no idea what.”
“Franklin, I’m embarrassed at how thick you can be. Wake up and listen to your mother Alice—it happened when she tried to tell the others her first story and they didn’t understand a thing she was saying. I’ve had that experience with you several times by the way.”
“Keep rubbing it in Alice.”
“Oh, stop being so dramatic—you’re a regular Streisand, you know that? Listen to me—imagine the First Mother is 12 years old—old enough to mate and hunt. But what she doesn’t know is that she’s feeling something the others don’t.”
“And what is that?” I shot back.
“A mysterious—and extraordinary—longing for
something, but she doesn’t know what that something is. Nor can she tell those around her what she’s feeling, can she now?”
“No. She can’t.”
“And why is that, Justin?”
“OK, OK, knock it off, will you Alice? It’s because she doesn’t know how to describe that entirely new feeling, let alone
whyshe’s feeling it. She doesn’t know yet that the mysterious longing she is feeling is pulling her towards a momentous step—reaching back into memory and creating a story.
“She doesn’t know yet that she is capable of creating a story, or even what a story is. Nor does she have any way of knowing that she will be released from that longing as soon as she opens her mouth. She doesn’t yet know that unlike her animal brothers and sisters—who can only howl and bark and yelp—that she can step out of time and create a story—a little world describing what is happening to her.
“But she’s not completely lost. She does know
something.She intuitively senses that the mysterious longing she’s feeling is related to the mysterious, invisible interest in her she’s been feeling for years.
“It’s a very different kind of interest, though. It’s not the killing interest of an animal stalking her, or the rising sexual interest of a male in the group. It’s
something likethe interest of her mother, and she finds herself drawn to it, but she doesn’t know how to get to the source of that interest. It’s invisible. Do I have to go any further?”
“No, of course not; she’s become aware of
the Listeners,”Alice replied, “but she has no name for them yet, only a sense of something invisible that is interested in her feelingsin and of themselves. I think you were right when you told me theListenersrepresent the animal consciousness we left behind when we acquired human consciousness. How did you put it? When we became conscious, our animal consciousness became our unconscious. We could feel its presence, its interest in us, but we couldn’t see it or touch it.”
“I don’t know why,” I replied, “but I’ve always imagined the creation of human consciousness as a split, a tearing apart, something like the internal cell modification and division you see in cancer, with some part of our animal consciousness becoming human consciousness, and the other part becoming what we call our unconscious.
“I see the split as happening very quickly. Our first consciousness may have been very weak compared to our unconscious, but what keeps coming to me is that all the basic mechanics were there, and by that I mean the ability to witness, to observe and report, to make stories. I don’t see that evolutionary jump as a gradual biological process over millennia.
“I have no way of proving this of course—it’s simply a very strong intuition. While it’s very likely that our early consciousness with its ability to witness was extremely tentative and fragile—most probably we were continually slipping back into our old animal consciousness and then re-emerging from it—I see our basic ability to create stories as coming into existence with all the elements intact. Partial
witnessingdoesn’t make any sense—at least to me.
“Our ability to
witness—to create narrative worlds out of memory—is such an unprecedented evolutionary jump that all our evolutionary theories pale before it.Howit occurred—andwhyit occurred—is simply a mystery. Seeing it as a series of accidental, partial leaps over millennia doesn’t necessarily make it any less mysterious. If anything, it makes itmoremysterious because witnessing is made up of such a complex continuum of reflexive interactions.”
“I hate to tell you this Justin, but if a scientist heard us talking like this, picturing the first human coming into being fully intact and suddenly telling stories, they’d go ape, if you’ll excuse the pun. Things don’t happen like that, they’d tell you, they happen gradually, step by step.”
“That’s because they’re prejudiced towards a tedious kind of truth, whereas we’re prejudiced towards a miraculous kind of truth. Besides, we’re talking about a simple conceptual model. We’re not trying to rewrite evolutionary theory. Einstein used the same simplified, conceptual thinking to help him get a gut feel for the nature and effects of relativity.
“He used to imagine there was nothing in the universe except him riding on a broomstick next to a beam of light. Then he’d let his mind wander as to what would happen to him (and the broomstick) as he approached, maybe exceeded, the speed of light. His was not a “real” picture of the world anymore than ours is, but it helped him to get to the essence of the situation. If that kind of thinking was good enough for Einstein, it should be good enough for us.
“Yet no matter how
witnessingactually did evolve, just how mysterious and unique it was can be seen in the fact that it has never been duplicated in any way whatsoever by any other biological form. There’s nothing that even remotely approaches it. Some people will tell you that animals can tell stories—such as the so-called “stories” the buzzing, wiggling bees tell each other regarding the location of new pollen.
“Unfortunately, it’s always the same story, told the same way except for the wiggled direction to the pollen. There is no variation in structure or tone, no imagined world, no sense of triumph or sorrow. It’s not a story—it’s instinctive, specialized communication as to the location of prey. Let me put it this way—no animal ever wiggled or barked or squeaked,
‘Once upon a time,’or anything close to it.
“I know I’m ranting, but I hate the way human evolution is treated nowadays. To put
witnessingin the same basket as fins becoming fingers is to be blind to the true magnificence of what it means to be human. I know most people think my suggestion that ourwitnessingcame into existence full-blown likeTopsyis crazy, but we have to remember our firstwitnessingsweren’t John Updike stories. They were probably something like:‘I saw him I was sad,’and eventhatmight be stretching it. But theywerestories, no matter how crude they might seem by our standards.
“The myth suggests the same thing about
witnessing, but it is very slippery as to how, or why, our ability to witness evolved. The myth simply tells us—without giving any of the details—that our becoming aware of theListenerswas coterminouswith the emergence of our human consciousness:‘When the Listeners came / we changed. / We became Witnesses.’
“From that point in time we were able to express ourselves in a startling new way—not by simply declaiming our immediate emotions, which is what animals do, but by stopping time: by reflexively reaching into memory and creating a story—a little world—that reflected how we feel.”
“You know, Franklin, what keeps coming to me is that our two minds must have worked together from the very beginning—almost as if in the process of tearing away, they spread tendrils into each other to stop the splitting from going all the way. That way, the two minds could feed each other. If they hadn’t, human evolution might have stopped dead in its tracks. The conscious mind by itself isn’t much. It’s just the surface of a very deep lake. We would have been easy prey for just about anything.”
The Witnesses Logsays something about that, Alice. It says our conscious and unconscious minds—theWitnessesand theListeners—are bound to each other by unknowable promises. I can’t help thinking the promises involved some kind of agreement between the two that they would never leave each other. The tendrils you sensed may represent that.”
“I’m sure of it, Franklin, I also keep getting that if those tendrils are ever completely sundered, if the promises are ever broken, it would be the end of the human race as we know it. The villain would most likely be the conscious mind, wouldn’t it? After all, human consciousness is a
veryingenious baby. If we ever found a way of completely isolating ourselves from the unconscious, we’d find ourselves in the worst nightmare imaginable. We’d be completely lost. The unconscious is the gateway that allows us to know what is true, or beautiful, or honorable, or hateful. We’d be paper figures blown about by uncontrollable winds. We’d have no anchor. We’d be worse than animals.”
She looked at me for a moment like she was momentarily lost. “You know, I forgot what we were talking about.”
“It was about the First Mother’s first story.”
“Oh, right. What do you think it was?” she asked.
“It was about her being different from her brothers and sisters, remember?”
“But how do we really know that was her
“Alice, we’re making this up, remember? Historical accuracy isn’t the point.”
knowwe’re making it up, Mr. Fine Hairs—Oh was Jane right about that—but the fact of the matter is the first story could have been about something else entirely.”
“Relax, Franklin—I’m still feeling my way. You know, despite your merciless crushing of those poor bees, there are some very credible people who wouldn’t agree with you. They’re sure animals can tell stories because of that gorilla in Atlanta who can link together sounds or symbols to say things like,
‘Kinko hungry for banana.’”
“I know—but Kinko’s not making stories Alice. Kinko is simply expressing her present hungry state. A story is much different. A story begins—
This happened, orOnce upon a time. It means stepping out of the present and reaching back into memory to create a little world—a story—a miraculous narrative linking of symbols that expresses our feelings about something.
“You might say Kinko is something like we were when the myth says ‘
We were like moss on the mountainside/ waiting for the sun.’ I bet if Kinko had her way—and not her trainer’s way—she’d ratherpointto the banana—or grab it.”
“Wait a minute, Franklin—I have it. The First Mother’s first story had to do with hunting!”
“I’d have given anything to have heard it!”
“Alice, for Christ sake, what is it with you? Calm down.”
“I am calm. But you’re right—we really don’t have any way of knowing what the first story was. So let’s just say it was about her awareness she was different. She must havelifted out of herself—
Heaven blazing into her headas you like to say—in creating that story.”
“No doubt about it; and you know, Alice, it may have been done entirely with her existing animal vocabulary. But who knows, maybe entirely new sounds and gestures came to her, because we’re in the midst of such a mysterious act that
anythingcould have happened. Right?”
“But that’s not the important thing, is it Alice?”
“Oh you’re are a sly one, you are. You almost got me there, using my own words to knock me.”
“Alice, have you been drinking again?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“OK, OK, you’re right. It isn’t. What I was trying to say was that the really important thing was no one understood her. Her story would have been completely unintelligible to her animal siblings. It would be like me talking to Jane’s dog. What she had done was beyond her understanding—the sounds and gestures she had always known had somehow allied themselves with memory and arranged themselves to create something entirely new: a
story—a little world with a beginning, middle and end.
“It just happened. She wouldn’t have been aware of any of this, only that she had done something entirely new, something that had released her from that intense longing and moved her to an ecstatic state. If she understood anything, it was that the she had somehow created that ‘little world’
withinherself. And here’s the other important thing: she sensed she could recreate it, add to it, anytime she wanted to, because it washers.
“She must have been as terrified and ecstatic as she had been in her first mating—and completely confused as to why the others had walked away. After a number of tries, she would have given up, completely baffled, almost crazy that what made sense to her and lifted her into ecstasy was incomprehensible to the others. You know, I sometimes get that feeling when I read my poetry at bookstores.”
“Of course you do, you little darling. But it’s really the same thing isn’t it? You said so yourself—that our very first stories, our very first words, were poems— that they rose unbidden out of the unconscious in a moment of ecstasy.”
“I can’t see it happening any other way. In a way, Emerson thought so too. He sensed that the act of poetry begot language. ‘
Language is fossilized poetry,’ is the way he put it.
“You know what, Alice? I was just picturing the First Mother retelling her story over and over about her knowing she was different—and getting absolutely nowhere—and then one day looking out of the corner of her eye and seeing some younger male, maybe a brother, looking back at her with a gleam of recognition. Isn’t that eerie?”
“It would have been one glorious day, Franklin, because what you’d be looking at is Eve and Adam, in that order, don’t you think? In time, there would be more and more gleams. Is there any doubt that story would have been told over and over to other humans as they were born? And is there any doubt that eventually that same story—that first genesis story—would be repeated over thousands of ensuing generations?
“Think of it: because of
heryou were a human being, a storyteller, a witness, and not an animal. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that these stories would eventually give rise to a much richer Mother Goddessarchetype—one that would also include her asstoryteller—as Muse.”
“You know, Alice, what I hadn’t realized—until you put it all together for me just now—is that those first stories about the First Mother knowing she was different—that she was the creator of the human race—was also the soil out of which the Mother Goddess archetype and the Muse archetype eventually grew. It also explains why the Muse has always been intuitively sensed as a female, don’t you think? It verifies Graves’ thesis that the Mother Goddess and the Muse were once one and the same.”
“To tell you the truth,” Alice replied, “I’ve always felt Graves hit the nail right on the head. I could feel it. Then one day, after you spoke to me about the Muse’s
‘more human’voice, I imagined I was at the very beginning of the human race, before there were any Gods, and there was only the First Mother and her young offspring. Some would have been human, some not. In the very beginning, it would have been like that because she would have had to mate with an animal.
“I realized then that one of the ways the First Mother would have been perceived by her offspring would be as the One who toldher children stories, who knew the truthand, most especially, who always
listenedto their responses to see if theyunderstood—to see if they werehuman or animal.”
“Jesus, Alice, that’s goddamn eerie.”
“Isn’t it though? You know what else?”
“I’m tempted to make one of those equations you’re so crazy about.”
“Like the one you showed me to explain Jung’s statement that
God, the unconscious, andthe soulare terms describing essentially the same thing. I remember you showing it to me one day. It was quite impressive. You wrote it out like this,” and here she scribbled out on a piece of paper:
God <=> Soul <=> Unknowable <=> Unconscious
“It’s the mathematician in me. I can’t help it.”
“I must be losing my mind to even do this,” Alice quipped, “but I had a dream I should be communicating with you in ways you’d understand more easily. You know, the way a mother will break down complicated things like sex, so her kids will understand it without freaking out about daddy’s big one?”
With this she started cackling so wildly tears came to her eyes. When she finally came back down to earth, I asked, “Alice, are you OK?”
“Sure, I’m fine. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, nothing, really; I just thought you were having a nervous breakdown, that’s all.”
lastweek. I’m fine now. Anyway I know you really liked that diagram I drew for you aboutGODand the Other World. Remember? It was the one with the two lines? It really cleared things up, didn’t it?”
“It was extremely helpful, if that’s what you mean.”
“Of course that’s what I mean, you little darling. Well, here’s another one, but more the way you like it.”
She scribbled out a long equation:
the First Mother = the Mother Goddess = the Muse = the Perfect Listener = the White Goddess = the Way of the Mother
“Sometimes you amaze me Alice.”
“Thanks.” “By the way Alice, whatever you’re on, I’d like some. Will fifty cover it?”
I thought she’d never stop cackling. Starbucks all but cleared out. I could still hear her as I drove away.
EXCERPTS FROM THE ONLINE APPENDIX TO ALICE HICKEY
Excerpt 2. Pre-literate Consciousness and Poetry
Although the myth is a creation myth, it never attempts to touch on the physical creation of the world. The myth seems to concern itself with only one thing: the nature of primal human consciousness—the consciousness that occurred when we changed from animal to man.
The rough Biblical counterpart to this would be the first book of Genesis, when God creates man and has him name the animals. We sometimes ignore the import of that naming act. By having Adam name the animals, God acknowledges that man is God’s witness to creation. That is, early Genesis implies what this myth states directly: the nature of early consciousness was to witness. We might imagine Adam calling out: elephant, lion, snake, etc, but that is because we are out of touch with the nature of that witnessing. We only have to look at preliterate cultures, to see that the names of animals, and men as well, were little stories. In other words, to witness was to imitate. Thus “snake” might be: the one who swims on land; “elephant”: mountain that walks and sounds like thunder.
Compare this if you will with, say, Darwin’s rational, categorizing description of each animal and I think you’ll see more clearly the difference between our current explaining consciousness and our early, imitative, artistic consciousness.
Poetry held a special place in the life of preliterate man. It was the way in which the Gods spoke not only to him but also through him, and in doing so allowed him to create his own little worlds in imitation of the Gods’ larger world. When Homer says, “Sing Muse and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending…” he is acknowledging the role of the Gods in creating his epic songs. Homer is acknowledging that he is merely responding, singing out, the story the Gods are singing through him.
True poems are essentially felt messages, i.e., non-verbal emotional messages, from some unknowable, uncontrollable source. Whether that unknowable source is within us or outside us is not really important for the purposes of this commentary. What we can agree on is that those moments are transcendent events. When they occur, something deep within us reflexively transforms those felt messages into rhythmic stories, and sometimes, even today, those events are so powerful we actually do have a sense of hearing them. Pre-literate man had the same experience, but it was overwhelming.
We must also remember that for preliterate man, poems were not written out in silence, but spoken out spontaneously and communally. He not only knew that his poems were different from his everyday stories but I will go one step further and say that preliterate man instinctively understood that poetry was prayer was prophecy. By that I mean preliterate poetry was not only the instinctive language for prayer but also for prophecy.
Let me make an extremely delicate self-correction here, and say that the word “language” is perhaps misleading. It is putting the cart before the horse, especially if we are to understand this myth correctly. The horse that drives poetry is not “language”. Our common gossip stories also use “language”. “Language” cannot account for the truth of my proposition that, for preliterate man, poetry was prayer was prophecy.
Because what drives poetry is not “language” but an emotional attitude, a surrendering to a specific intelligence within the soul, a surrendering that allows us to use language in a special way. That specific surrendering is the horse that drives poetry and prophecy and prayer. The cart is the finished, assembled language.
I might also add, and this is important to understanding this myth, and that “language” of poetry can take many forms, not just the solitary, written form we have today, a form that is a relatively late arrival as compared to oral poetry, which I believe has unique psychic characteristics and which existed for tens if not hundreds of thousands of years before the invention of writing some 4000 years ago.
Now that we have a tentative understanding of the fact that poetry, for preliterate man, was the way the Gods spoke to him, and through him to other men, let me add, as a corollary, that it also was the way he spoke back to the Gods, the way he responded to the Gods. That is to say, the praise act, the act of poetry constituted a complete, instinctive cycle: the Gods speak to man, man responds by speaking to the Gods (and to men). After all, oral poetry was a communal event: both men and the Gods were present.
Excerpt 12. The Storyteller
Despite what the myth suggests about the place Witnesses occupy in the scheme of things, some may object to such a paltry definition of what it means to be human: someone who observes and reports: a witness. After all, storytelling seems so inconsequential—like a stack of rubbish. But that is because some of us have so little regard for the mystery of who we really are.
By that I mean they are blind to the miraculous way the storyteller creates the world for us. The storyteller is a conceptual term I use to describe the reflexive narrative intelligence within the mind that creates stories out of our memories whether we are awake or asleep, it makes no difference. It is at the heart of human consciousness. It is as reflexive as breathing or making blood cells. It simply happens. Dreams. Gossip. Prayers. Jokes. Poems. They simply appear in our minds or on our lips.
These seemingly gossamer narrations support and feed not only our physical, intellectual and spiritual lives but entire cultures for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. Let me quote the beginning of such a story for you: Blessed are the meek….
Although some of us would prefer to think we make up our own stories, it is an illusion. This should be evident to even the densest among us in the case of our dream stories. But it is equally true about our waking stories. The fact of the matter is we have no idea how we construct the thousands of stories we tell ourselves and others every day. All we know for sure is that when we think of something we want to tell others, a story with a beginning, middle and end will form all by itself. It is an instinctive intelligence unique to humans and as powerful in its own way as hunger or sex. It creates the world for us. Without it, we would have no stories. Our minds would collapse; we would be animals.
Excerpt 17. Witnessing: Time and Memory
Most of us would like to think that some of the stories we are telling have been plucked right out of the present, especially if we’ve had a drink or two. However, by the time our conscious mind has decided to create it, , something within us is already searching memory for the essential matter required by the
storytellerto spin out a complete story. We like to think we createfromthe present, but the only reservoir we can truly drink from is the past. The present, whatever that mystery is, cannot be touched in any way. It is a river that moves past us too quickly.
But it does play one significant role in storytelling: it is the bait that brings our memories up to the surface so the storyteller can get his hands on them. All we have are our memories: some of them happened a moment ago, some twenty years ago, and some of them happened before we were born. The present and future exist only as empty baskets. Only the past is full. It is there that we feed. We’d like to think that our memory is an infinite number of postal boxes each containing unrelated objects or concepts: airplane, apple, love, a wedding etc, all solid representations of our past, but it’s just not so.
Every memory is nothing more than a weaker version of the present, the strongest version being the world in front of us right now. As unstable as all this seems, these gossamer versions of the present, the storyteller has no problem with them. They’re his meat. From his point of view, the present, though infinitely attractive, is too crowded and too changeable to be really usable. For the storyteller, the present is what attracts the past, our memories, and pulls them into the storyteller’s lair. We’d like to think that every story we tell is a true representation of what happened, but it’s important to realize that the stories we create as history or art or gossip or humor are nothing but fabrications, and more reflexively, that is, more unconsciously created, than we’d care to think about.
We like to think of them as consciously-created, true representations of our memories, which we also consider solid representations of the past, but we are sorely mistaken on both counts. The force of those reflexive fabrications is such that, along with the reflexive directive force of the
daimonserpent guiding them, we are lucky if two people can agree as to what happened a few moments ago let alone a few years ago. It’s not that our memories are especially faulty, or that we’re sloppy storytellers, although those things may influence the cut of the final story.
(I have coined daimon serpent here as another term for the serpent of interest that guides our individual witnessing and shall use it interchangeably with individual serpent of interest. Daimon is a widely recognized term for our guiding internal voices. Socrates, for example, tells us he listened to his daimon about what he should do to prepare for his death.)
The problem is that the storyteller and the daimon serpent are determined to make a story of the event in question come hell or high water, and it’s almost impossible to tell if they’ve slipped you a fast one and patched over a blind spot with a fabrication that feels so true you can’t tell the difference. You might find this hard to believe, because it’s so hard to self-detect, but it happens all the time. Ask any trial lawyer.
A large part of wisdom is realizing how shaky the ground actually is when it comes to the truth of our stories. You might say when it comes to witnessing, as any trial lawyer will tell you, the devil is in the details. We would like to think that our memories of the present consist of neutral, all-encompassing snapshots of the world, like those produced by satellite cameras, but in fact they are highly selective. To observe is to select is the inescapable maxim. If our consciousness were not constituted in this manner, we would suffocate from the detail of the world. The world would simply come rushing in on us in the most horrific manner.
Our serpent of interest, our daimon, keeps it manageable, reflexively deciding what we see, and needless to say, what we create memories of. Think of a murder you are observing in a park: the goat-footed murderer, the overweight, balding victim, the semi-automatic
Ruger22 caliber handgun, the crescent-shaped trigger, the blue glint of light on the barrel, the blood, the garbled scream, the thousands upon thousands of leaves of grass spreading out like rippled water from the victim’s fallen body, the stunted sycamore tree to the left of the victim’s right hand, the blue jay screaming from the fifth branch, the dew drop on the yellowing leaf, the slow file of ants climbing up the trunk, your slow, spasmodic breathing of the victim, the beat of your heart in your ears, the large grub being carried by the fifth ant, I think you get the idea.
There is no end to it. If our observing weren’t selective, I could literally sit here and type in every observable detail (internal and external) related to our little murder scene until I drew my last breath. Yet I would still only be at the beginning of my description of the murder.
To observe is to select. Although some of that selection is consciously done, most of it is done reflexively, by the unconscious.
That same selection and ordering of detail occurs when we tell a story, be the story high art or a National Enquirer article. Some of that selection is done consciously, but most of it is decided by our unconscious. Oh, we may have some conscious criteria in mind that may help form the story; after all we’re not completely at the mercy of our unconscious. But the main player is the unconscious, and in particular, the
As an example, let’s take the conscious mindset of a reporter who has just observed our murder. Just the facts please (how, when, where, what) will be streaming through our reporter’s journalism-schooled consciousness, but what will ultimately order his story will be some feeling, or instinctual idea. Let’s say it is to be fair, to tell both sides of the story, both the murderer’s and the victim’s. The reporter will keep forming his story until his feelings of fairness are satisfied. Of course any two reporters will have slightly different senses of what is fair, but that is another topic. The important thing to recognize is the fact that our unconscious feelings determine the ultimate form of any story.
This is true, by the way, both for the reporter’s murder story and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the only difference being that what will guide Shakespeare is his own acutely held sense of tragedy. The play will be ready for the players when the story, the ordering of detail streaming up from his soul, correctly conveys that tragic sense. The fact that what he is furiously scribbling on foolscap had already been partially or wholly ordered by some mysterious and utterly unknowable part of him wouldn’t have bothered Shakespeare in the least. He would have been more than aware of it.
After all, that’s one definition of genius: the ability to make the self stand aside and let the soul have at its way. That’s the way to make the hasty pudding really interesting.
With all that said, the myth’s description of the essential nature of human consciousness as witnessing doesn’t seem that mundane anymore. In fact we can say that consciousness itself cannot be separated from the act of witnessing. When we witness the world we are in effect creating it. What’s more, that miraculous act, the creation of stories, of separate realities, is what distinguishes us from the animals. When we make stories, we are, in effect, creating another reality. It may be a very small reality compared to the reality of the world, but it is a reality that allows us to momentarily step outside of the river of time. To make this world disappear and another appear in its place.
When we make the other world disappear, we become little Gods. And that is why the absence of participatory art in our contemporary lives, art we create ourselves, is slowly killing us, making us dimmer and dimmer. At best, we have become feeders at the trough of corporate and academic art. We have forgone our chance to become little Gods. By the way, only by becoming little Gods can we know the terrifying beauty of the big Gods. Only by becoming little Gods can we experience that mystery. Think about it. The original Anglo Saxon root of Witness (
witan,to know), rings in my head as I write this. The root I thought so mundane and so far away from our essence is so on the money as to shame me. Here’s how the equation goes: To witness = To be conscious = To know. One more example of the wisdom of our “primitive” ancestors.
Excerpt 18. Animal Consciousness
I should say something about animal consciousness and its relation to what we call our conscious and unconscious minds. I’ve suggested elsewhere that part of our unconscious is the animal consciousness we left behind. That implies an animal consciousness exists. The myth implies there is by saying that before we became witnesses we were just below the event horizon of human conscious: we were like moss on the mountainside, waiting for the sun.
I take this to mean that before we became human, we could feel emotions, we could reason, we could remember, we could communicate the present, but we couldn’t tell stories. (This string of capabilities, by the way, is not that far from the truth when it comes to any higher order animal, as science is belatedly finding out.)
So I don’t think it’s that far-fetched to claim that in our earlier animal state, we had a
daimonserpent, an individual interest that determined our actions, but much of that interest took the form of what we call instinct. Indeed, anyone who really knows higher-order animals will tell you they have individual characters, or souls.
But what our animal ancestors didn’t have was the storyteller. In other words we were very smart animals, but we were in the same soup as all the other animals. Many scientists and thinkers continue to doubt that animals have the attributes of consciousness I have just outlined, but people who live with animals and truly know them will tell you exactly the opposite. So the real distinction between man and animal is man’s ability to create stories, verbally or non-verbally. Animals don’t have the ability to say,
This happened, or even more spectacularly,Once upon a time. So animals indeed have souls, they havedaimonserpents, but what they don’t have is the storyteller—the ability and desire to create stories. Little worlds.
Of course, our unconscious mind didn’t stay “animal” once our human consciousness started to grow. It is still there but has since grown because of the feelings our stories produce—because that is the function of stories: not just to communicate facts, because that ability is a relatively small part of it, but to communicate feelings. The myth implies, as does our everyday experience, that the unconscious mind understands feelings.
The feelings, however, that were communicated to it by the stories we created after we became human were undoubtedly a heady, high octane mix of emotions unlike any it had encountered before. When I say that our stories force God to keep in step with us, this is what I am talking about.
Excerpt 27. Poetry as an Archetype
I should say something about Poetry being an archetype, as it may be confusing to some. The term archetype is Jungian terminology for a psychic form of energy residing in the collective unconscious that informs and shapes our perceptions. Jung says, for example, that the Mother Archetype is a psychic form of energy residing in the collective unconscious that reflects our memories of our mothers back to the first mother and perhaps even back to our animal mothers. It is an energy that determines how we individually view our mothers: evil, loving, domineering, selfless.
Like Plato’s Ideal Forms, of which it is a modern psychological counterpart, archetypes can never be approached directly; we can only detect their existence from their effects upon our conscious lives. And one of those effects is unbidden, intuitive act called Poetry.
Poetry is normally thought of as a form of literature, a thing, and indeed it is, but what we are looking at there is a result of the Poetry archetype, not the cause. The cause is a more complex question, but we know this: a true poem can never be formed by the conscious mind alone. Bad poems can, but not true poems. The unconscious mind must be involved for a true poem to occur, and not only the personal unconscious, but the collective as well, because that is where the form or archetype called Poetry resides. That is how we know how to create a true poem, as well as know if something is, or is not, a true poem.
I have come to believe that true poems occur whenever we are able to open ourselves to the archetype of Poetry. How that actually happens is a mysterious business. For sure it can’t be consciously commanded. But I do know one thing: the art of speaking is such a primal, true poetry that once we detect it is on the way, all we have to do is surrender to the archetype and everything will take care of itself.
Excerpt 34. Preliterate Forms of Poetry
Poetry is a basic human urge that has remained with us through thousands and thousands of years of change—even the change in consciousness that brought us to where we are today.
To show you how primal an urge it is, I’m going to take Alice’s story about the Great Mother speaking to her children and lay it on top of the template of every form of poetry that we know. What we’ll see is a correspondence that is almost perfect.
I’ve already gone through the stages of contemporary poetic composition elsewhere and shown those correspondences, so there’s no need to repeat that here.
First, let me go through what I believe to be the stages of late preliterate poetic creation around the time of Homer, as it sets the stage for the poetry we know today. According to my interpretation of Julian Jaynes theory—and the historical evidence—late preliterate poets would hear the voices of the Muse speaking to them in rhythmic, metaphoric voices and they would respond by echoing them, knowing the Muse was listening to see if their song reflected the poem’s’ intentions. It’s very close to Alice’s scenario of the Great Mother speaking to her children, isn’t it?
Let me be very specific as to what I mean when I say preliterate poets echoed the voices they heard. Poets at any time in history (including tribal times) are always aware that their echoing of the Gods is not a mechanical, Xerox-like act. We have only to look back at Jane Washington’s insightful story about Smokey and the Miracles to see this.
She took pains to point out to me that the Miracles always riffed on Smokey’s song—that their song and moves were never identical to Smokey’s. Let’s just say it can’t be helped. It just happens. It’s the very nature of witnessing.
Let me step back a bit further now to hunter/gatherer humans, and say something about very early preliterate poetry, or what I prefer calling tribal poetry. I have some insights into this poetry (which is antiphonal, i.e., composed of speakers and responders) because it was the poetry that instinctively came to my SOULSPEAK partner Scylla Liscombe and me when we first began to speak. It just happened.
We were very confused at first because antiphonal poetry is very different from the single-voiced poetry we knew as writers of poetry. We soon learned not to fight it, however, because we sensed it was how the poems wanted to come.
It was an eye-opener. The poems came so naturally we were stunned. All we had to do was turn off our conscious, questioning minds, surrender to the Muse, and the poems would come out like a perfectly formed double helix. It changed all my ideas about poetry. I have written extensively about this elsewhere, so all I’m going to say at this juncture is that this form of poetry occurs as naturally as gossip.
What Scylla and I were also immediately aware of was that we were experiencing the same stages of poetic creation as we did in writing poems except that antiphonal speaking made the process effortless. It just kept happening until the poem closed. You might say that spontaneous, antiphonal speaking is a “no-brainer.”
This shouldn’t surprise us though because it is the very first form that poetry took. Despite the fact that the antiphonal form seems complicated, I can assure you it is a modern prejudice. I would even go so far as to say this earliest of forms is at the very core of the Poetry archetype.
Even though this double-voiced form is different from the later single-voice forms of Homer and our modern written poetry, the essential poetic process (the Gods speak and we respond) is identical. In the event this puzzles you (because of the two voices involved in responding to the Gods) I can tell you that in practice the second voice responds to the first one, that is, it intuitively amplifies the response of the first voice. There is absolutely no thinking involved in this.
I wanted to clarify this because it will help you understand why the template of the Great Mother as storyteller also fits perfectly on tribal antiphonal poetry. But first we must remember that we are talking about the tribal mind, an early form of preliterate consciousness that could coalesce to almost one mind under the right conditions. And one of those conditions undoubtedly occurred when the tribal members heard the Mother Goddess speak.
It is important to understand that this early, communal, antiphonal form had no formal poets, no audience, only participants. And although it was communal, there were no formal leaders, no directors. It happened when it happened. The only exception I would make to this description is that the tribal shaman might be the first to hear the voices of the Mother Goddess, and respond to Her by imitating Her voice. The one mind of the tribe, however, would soon pick that up and carry it forward, with the tribe creating an antiphonal response to what the shaman was saying..
These early poems were not verbally complex—they could be quite simple— consisting of a few refrains echoed back and forth, but they could go on for hours. And while the words might be simple, we have to remember these first antiphonal witnessings were not composed solely of words. These witnessings were created through an instinctive fusion of words and mime and mask and song and movement that could become very emotionally complex.
This is an important thing to recognize if we are to really understand tribal poetry, because it is the form used to create those first story poems about the First Mother. It is also such a primal, intuitive spiritual form that it still survives to day in the liturgy of most religions.
We might tend to think that such a form of poetry would suffer by comparison to our own sophisticated, single-voiced, written poetry. I believe, however, that tribal poetry was so instinctive, so unconsciously driven, that it produced a state of poetic ecstasy far beyond anything we could ever hope to approach today. And after all, that’s the name of the game, isn’t it, to produce a union of the conscious and unconscious mind that brings as Yeats says,
Heaven blazing into the head?
Let me say one more thing about this very early poetry that many poets dismiss out of hand as so much mumbo jumbo. Besides being multi-dimensional and emotionally complex, its very form (speaker/responder) instinctively imitated the central act of preliterate cultures: “the Gods speak and we respond.” (If I’m losing you, think of the first voice as representing “the Gods speak” and the second voice as representing “and we respond.”)
Thus, in the enactment of this poetry, when the tribe responded to the voice of the Mother Goddess imitated by the shaman, it did so in a form that honored that central act (“the Gods speak and we respond”) by mirroring it.
When we look at tribal poetry this way—as a communal, multi-dimensional, emotionally rich, and almost unconscious form— we can easily imagine the one mind of the tribe hearing the Mother Goddess speaking to them and then responding to Her. I don’t think I have to add that the tribe was continually aware the Mother Goddess was listening for their responses. Nor do I think I have to point out that it’s very close to Alice’s scenario of the First Mother speaking to her children.
Excerpt 35. Time and The Storyteller
One of the most bewildering internal voices I heard came during my early attempts to puzzle out the nature of the witnessing. In our evolution from animal to human, something absolutely monumental happened that no amount of evolutionary theory can ever explain: we gained the ability to witness (to observe and report). But that ability didn’t take the form of, say, a list of things observed. We didn’t report: tree, bug, leaf, sky, but created a story about those things. We didn’t have any choice in the matter. It just happened.
At the very heart of our witnessing is an ability to create stories without even thinking about it. It is as reflexive and as automatic an as breathing. I came to call that instinctive capability the storyteller.
We are powerless to stop the storyteller. We dream in stories; think in stories; speak in stories. Everything is stories. Everything.
One evening as I was bouncing the storyteller around in my head trying to understand its nature, a voice said: the storyteller is the timekeeper. I didn’t really know what that meant, but it felt so true, I immediately began to try and puzzle it out. And then it hit me: our storytelling, our incessant instinctive recreation of the world in stories, stories with beginnings, middles and ends, is the source of our sense of time; it creates our sense of the future, past and present. Let me put it to you this way: time appeared as soon as we opened our mouths, and its been with us ever since.
All our prehistoric recordings of the cycles of the sun and moon and stars and the plants and animals, all of that (right down to our atomic clocks and the prophesied Rapture) came about because we became witnesses, storytellers.
Otherwise we’d be like the animals, locked in the present, unable to escape it. Intelligence and memory have nothing to do with a sense of time. An elephant has good problem solving capabilities as well as a good memory, but they do not give the elephant a sense of time. An elephant dying of thirst may strike out towards the setting sun because he has a sense memory of water being in that direction and is intelligent enough to attempt to duplicate that path. But that is it.
He has no sense of how long it took last time and no sense of how long it will take this time. There is no past, present or future for the elephant, only what is. The elephant walks until he drops or finds water. There is no sorrow, nor sense of triumph. There is only the continuous desire for water and the eventual cessation of that desire one way or another.
I think this little side trip into time and the storyteller worth while because it hopefully allowed you to sense the true import of witnessing: that it is the stream that creates time and that feeds everything we call human: our philosophy, history, art, mathematics, the list is endless.
Excerpt 42. A Deeper Look at Poetry as a Psychic Event
It may help if I take you a bit deeper inside the act of witnessing one more time, because one of the things the myth says very clearly about witnessing—the essential human act—is that some part of it is transcendent, or psychic, and that those witnessings are created by a special group of Witnesses called Dreamers.
On the one hand, we can think of the Dreamers as symbolizing a psychic ability we all have to some degree, but we can also think of the Dreamers as great mystics and prophets like Jesus and Buddha, as well as truly great poets like Shakespeare and Homer.
I say this because the myth also intimates something we hold as being historically true, namely, we have never treated our stories as being of equal importance. As the saying goes, there are stories and then there are stories.
That is because we have always recognized some of our stories as being special, as having a superior authority. Down through the ages, we have called those special stories poems. Some of those early poems became the myths that ultimately guided the formation of Western civilization. Over time, however, some of those mythic poems lost their original poetic form. The Old Testament is an example of this. Some, however, like Homer’s great epics, maintained themselves as poems although in somewhat desiccated state.
What distinguishes those special stories we call poetry from our ordinary stories, the ones we call history, or gossip, has always been a matter of debate. There is perhaps no way to satisfactorily separate them. For right now, however, I would separate them this way: poems are stories rooted primarily in the unconscious, the unknowable— while our ordinary stories are rooted primarily in the conscious mind, the knowable world.
I have always been a bit unsure if the myth was intimating that poetry, as a form of witnessing, existed from the outset—as soon as we became Witnesses—or when some of us became Dreamers. I have generally sided with the latter interpretation, because poetry, at its root, is a psychic or transcendent act, as is Dreaming. Yet I could just as easily have gone the other way. While this may seem contradictory, we only have to go back to the theoretical first story to see that it was by its very nature a poem, a story rooted in the unconscious.
I say this because at that theoretical point in time we had no conscious words, no examples of stories, only the desire to create something entirely new—a story. And it didn’t have to be a long story. It could have consisted of only a few sounds and gestures—or an act of mimicry saying the same thing. That jump from desire to story is the mystery of mysteries.
It was every bit the equivalent of the Big Bang. Physicists assure us they will eventually be able to describe what took place after the first few milliseconds of the Big Bang, but as to what took place from time zero to those first few milliseconds—from nothing (which is unthinkable) to something (the first miniscule particle—we will never know. Never.
The same holds with the first story. That is why, to my mind, the first story was every bit a poem. It was a true psychic event, one rooted completely in the unconscious, the unknowable. I will even go so far as to say that first story was the real Big Bang. It shook heaven to its roots. You might say that God was never the same.
That tremendous event was most likely repeated over and over, so that for a very long time the stories of the very first humans were poems in every sense of the word. You might say it was a Big Bang that kept repeating itself, which I suspect was the way the other Big Bang really occurred.
These first stories/poems were most likely created completely without words—only sounds and gestures. In time, however, as our consciousness became more stable, thereby allowing the first tendrils of language and story-telling memory to become a part of it, witnessing became a more conscious activity as well. Yet my sense of it is that even after that, and for a very long time, the range and depth of emotions brewing in early humans far out-stripped their linguistic abilities.
So that even in the everyday witnessing of events, early humans were often unable to actually say in words what was happening to them. How they coped, of course, was through employing instinctive sounds and mime and mimicry. You can see that even today among tribal people.
This also indicates why early tribal poetry consisted of music and mime and movement and mask as well as words. If you had very few words, which was the condition of early man, you could still speak to the Gods through movement and mime and rhythmic music. What was impossible to stop was the desire to witness—to create stories out of our feelings.
Today, we have plenty of words, yet a similar type of struggle exists whenever we create a poem. Sometimes I like to say that a poem says with words what can’t be said with words. What I mean by that is that there is something about the rhythm and structure and music of the words issuing from the unconscious that transforms them into poetry—that allows the words to go beyond their literal meanings and touch us on an unconscious level.
So perhaps the best way to talk about the stories we call poetry is to say that they have always been with us; and that our ability to create them widened, or deepened, when some of us became Dreamers. One thing we can definitely say about the stories we call poetry, however, is that from the outset human beings recognized them as having a special authority. In other words, they represented a special kind of knowing we saw as superior to that carried by our ordinary stories. We paid attention to them for millennia.
Those of us who have a divided or dual consciousness, who for some reason have continued to have easy access to that older form, still value that kind of knowing, even if our peers see it as useless. We recognize it as making us more complete—similarly, we see its absence making us less complete. I’m not talking here about an intellectual commitment to the idea that poetry—an older form of knowing—is the way to a more complete life. That won’t get anyone anywhere, because it will be just one more idea, and we have enough of those already.
Nor am I talking about observing the poetry of others, whether it be written or spoken or sung or mimed. At best, that is a secondhand experience, and while it can be powerful at times, it pales by comparison to what happens within us when we create poems ourselves. Observing the poetry of others does have one benefit however. If it’s a true poem, it can arouse our interest, because reading a poem or hearing a poem can touch something deep within us, something almost visceral—a kind of hunger.
We may even feel a slight tinge of fear. That is because our modern consciousness fears it will lose control. It senses an interest it can’t control—the interest of our older consciousness. That is why the creation of some form of poetry, some form of metaphoric narrative driven by the unconscious, is so important to developing and maintaining contact with that older form of consciousness.
In this light, a primal form of poetry like speaking can be extremely useful, as it happens quite naturally, like gossip. Unlike gossip, however,
speakingrequires a complete surrender of conscious control. Surrendering is not a parlor game you can put down when you want, and return to your old ways. You can treat it like that, but you’ll be wasting your time. You’ll go nowhere, because when you allow yourself to access that older consciousness, to enter its mysteries, it also means you’ll have to eventually allow whatever gathering wants to occur to have its head— because that is the only way this kind of knowing can flourish.
It cannot grow if we remain rooted solely in this world, the conscious, physical world of time and space. This older kind of knowing exists only at the border between this world and the psychic world, or to be more precise, at those particular border crossings where visions and prophecies and poetry occur, or to be even more precise, those border crossings where the unruly, mysterious inhabitants of both worlds have learned to cooperate. After all, that is what a gathering is. There is no need, however, to worry about how the gathering will form, or when. That will take care of itself. All you have to do is follow your instincts, or as Alice was fond of saying, lean with your unfolding fate.
Excerpt 53. The Psychic Roots of Poetry
These past eight years have utterly changed my ideas about the nature of poetry. I have always been somewhat dissatisfied viewing poetry as a form of literature, which is the way it is generally viewed today. Although it was the way I was introduced to poetry, my experience with forms other than the written convinced me it is a narrow view—and one that completely ignores not only the various forms poetry can take, but also its psychic essence.
I was never a stranger to that essence, yet like most poets I had never thought much about the transcendent feeling poetry bestowed. It was just something that happened when a poem came to me, a moment of ecstasy that simultaneously brought with it a feeling of being rooted, of deep spiritual
Poets don’t often talk about the psychic roots of poetry, at least not in the professional journals, because there is no reasonable answer, i.e., sooner or later the poet has to surrender to the fact that poetry has unknowable psychic roots, and that is not a very fashionable thing to talk about today. Another reason it’s not brought up much is that a great deal of our poetry is to some degree consciously fashioned, i.e. the birth and structure of a poem is often consciously initiated and directed, which can have very unpredictable outcomes. A poem
mayresult, but most often what we wind up with is good poetic writing, which is an entirely different beast.
Let me clarify that. I believe that poems exist, prior to their emergence into consciousness, in a nascent, wordless form, call it an intelligent complex of feelings for lack of a better description. What causes that complex to form in the first place, and then push itself into consciousness, is a mystery as far as I am concerned.
My sense of it is that while the complex of feelings resides largely in the unconscious, it also has tendrils that are rooted in the conscious mind. The tendrils seem to grow both ways as far as I can tell. After all, feelings, emotions, are the
lingua francabetween the two worlds, the two minds. They’re crossing the border all the time.
When the time is right, that same intelligent energy drives that nascent,
feelingcomplex into the world of words, which isourworld, the world of consciousness.
A true poem is, at its most essential level, a transcendent act. That is why it can never be a completely conscious construct. Of course there are those who would insist that poems are largely, if not exclusively, products of the conscious mind. To my way of thinking, they have missed the game entirely.
Yet many, if not most, poems today that are conscious constructs, indeed they fill our libraries and quarterlies. But they are simply imitations of the real thing. They are easy to spot: they never close properly. The test of a true poem is whether it closes properly, whether it makes us feel, to quote Emily Dickinson, “
zero at the bone.” Conscious poetic constructs may entertain us, instruct us, amuse us, dazzle us, but they can nevercomfortus. They can never bring us to that moment of “zero at the bone.” They can never bring to us what Yeats described as “heaven blazing into the head.”
ecstatic momentcan’t be fabricated. It is brought about by the instinctive and uniquely human response to the world we call poetry. No thinking is required; a poem’s intelligent energy knows exactly where it has to go and what it has to do in order to complete itself, just as the instincts of hunger and love know what to do in order to complete themselves. Nevertheless, it has been the practice of poets almost since the emergence of writing to pre-determine —or alter after the poem emerges—some or all of a poem’s elements. By elements I mean not only the subject matter and type of language, but also the kind of music, metrics, and line structure to be employed.
It is an iffy game. Sometimes the poet wins, but most times the poet loses and winds up with a mangled baby. A good example is the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. There are times I’d like to resurrect Hopkins and ask him if it was worth it—all those stillborns lying alongside the few brilliant ones.
Despite the inherent risk—the conscious management of a poem’s elements is something practiced, to one degree or another, by most contemporary poets. There are poets, however, who seem quite wary of it. One of them is the remarkable Sharon Olds. Her insistence on allowing her poems to find their own unique form, among other things, has allowed her to create some of the most stunning poems of our time.
If a poem is the way the soul
speaksto us, why not let it do what it knows how to do?