Poetry and the Muses Part 3


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 needs 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.


Poetry and the Muses Part 2

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The Muses we understand from Part 1 of this article are the daughters of the future and the past, and more specifically of memory, light, truth and beauty; they are essential for the ‘good life’, and we understand as well that because they are goddesses, they cannot be summoned by human will, but they can be invoked by supplications, by readiness, by the human spirit or soul that is aligned with their purpose.

This takes us to a new and key observation: that everyone can be a poet if - IF - they can speak from their own true, authentic self, or what we used to call their soul; their core being. In her book ‘Poetry and Story Therapy’, Geri Giebel Chavis writes, “This experience left me with the strong belief that we are all poets when the true self finds its voice”. It is not easy to do this, and goes way beyond understanding or using the skills and techniques of poetry that poets so typically deploy. The reason it is so difficult is because, sadly, for most of us, most of the time, we speak as our false self-dictates. ‘Persona’ is a word meaning ‘mask’; it was used in Greek drama and from it we derive our concept of ‘personality’. But personality is too simple a word really, for we all seem to have, more accurately, personalities: multiple ‘persona’ or masks that we exhibit – or hide behind – to present our false or ego selves to the world.

We see this clearly when we consider how differently we act and behave in the different environments in which we find ourselves: as a son or daughter, as a sibling, as a parent, as a friend, as a co-worker, as a subordinate, as a boss, or down at the ‘club’, or in a sport’s situation, and so on. The mature personality can manage some consistency of being, but even in the best of us there is a mask – we project who we are rather than allowing our essential self, or soul, to manifest its own unique properties – unique, and thus original.


And this contaminates our language; nowhere more so than in writing poetry itself. Every generation seems to produce a ‘top fifty’ list of poets whom the media raves about, but which the next generation comes to realise are no poets at all, just clever versifiers, free versifiers, who tapped into the zeitgeist of contemporary values and ideas, and so were popular and seemed important. Occasionally 1 or 2 of that 50 get read 100 years hence, and often too, alarmingly often, 1 or 2 who nobody heard of at the time – e.g. Emily Dickinson or Gerard Manley Hopkins – get the recognition they were denied in their life time. Because – why? Because they spoke from the Muse and their poetry lives.


For the Muse - the poet’s Muse – if she can be invoked – in that timeless and abnormal present moment – transforms the soul of the poet so that he or she can speak directly from their soul, bypassing the masks, the ego. And here is the truth of the matter: the human soul itself is inherently pure, beautiful, truthful and eternal. Whatever the subject matter – no matter, as with Dante, if one is in the very pit of hell, or with Shakespeare in Macbeth’s castle – yet the soul speaking will render it beautiful and true (and we know post-modern poetry is not poetry since it confronts ‘reality’ and renders it uglier still – then pats itself on the back for being ‘realistic’!).


Such words as these, then, live forever; for they are inspired – breathed in – by a goddess. And I need a word here from Jung, lest I be thought to be some half-baked literalist in discussing these gods and goddesses: “We think we can congratulate ourselves on having already reached such a pinnacle of clarity, imagining that we have left all these phantasmal gods far behind. But what we have left behind are only verbal spectres, not the psychic facts that were responsible for the birth of the gods. We are still as much possessed today by autonomous psychic contents as if they were Olympians. Today they are called phobias, obsessions, and so forth; in a word, neurotic symptoms. The gods have become diseases; Zeus no longer rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus, and produces curious specimens for the doctor’s consulting room, or disorders the brains of politicians and journalists who unwittingly let loose psychic epidemics on the world.” So, how different this is in every way from the negative, structure-less, formless, ego-centric ideologies that inform poetry now – and have done so for about the last 100 years. But the results of these various ideologies are what is most notable: contemporary poetry which is not only mostly ugly, formless, ego-centric, self-referential, but critically, and most of all, mendacious. Mendacious in the sense that it wholly misrepresents the cosmos and creation; it relishes evil, absurdity, nihilism and pointlessness, and promotes these ideas and attitudes as sophisticated and good; and when stuck, facing all the massive evidence to the contrary, retreats into a total subjectivism, which shrugs its shoulders with as much as to say, ‘Well, that’s just your opinion’. They, of course, know better, and cannot see that such a position equally undermines their opinion. But the simplest anonymous folk song or some lyrics by Bob Dylan have more poetry in them than the combined weight of all the post-modernist poems of the last 30 years. How do we know? Because we’ll all go on reading and enjoying the former as long as our culture lasts; whereas the post-modern poetry is largely unread even now by the post-moderns – it contributes nothing to the ‘good life’.

It is, then, relatively easy to write such poetry and to fool oneself into thinking it is poetry. But it is much more difficult to speak from one’s authentic self. Most people at some point in their lives have tried to write poetry (and even still secretly do) but finally give up (or hide it in a desk or on a computer somewhere) because they realise or think that it’s no good. What they fail to realise (or wantonly don’t want to realise if they have gone over to the post-modernistic modes of writing) is that one doesn’t have to try to write poetry if one is speaking authentically – that is, from one’s self or soul. As GK Chesterton expressed it: “For I am one of those who think that the poet stands separate and supreme among men, in that simple fact that the poet can say exactly what he means, and that most men cannot”.

This is a paradox because, of course, the poet does say exactly what he or she means, but what that is he or she may not know in advance of saying it; for poetry is like ‘being’ – mysterious, wonderful, unlimited. Aldous Huxley noted: “The world is poetical intrinsically and what it means is simply itself. Its significance is the enormous mystery of its existence and of our awareness of its existence.” To speak, then, authentically requires submission, openness, and capacity – qualities which allow the Muse to enter, to generate the abnormal ‘present’ in which the words dance and a new cosmos of consciousness is created. Yes, a new cosmos of consciousness is created; the intrinsic likeness of mankind to God is in their creativity. The poet continues the creative act of God that began at the beginning; all humans do – or should – of course, and not only in the discipline of words; but that is the tragedy of humanity – the failure to be creative and to resort to destruction instead.

The theologian H.A. Williams expressed it thus: “There can be no Joy where there is no creativity because the absence of creativity is a denial of Joy at its source, that is, a denial of God the Creator. That means that we must all be poets if we are to be what God intends us to be – not, of course, poets as we now understand the word (very few of us can be that), but in its original sense of makers.”

In part 3 we will look at how poetry balances the mind, helps us heal, and leads to the magic of words. What is the most magical word in the English language? And why? Find out in Part 3. Learn, too, about the holy state we must enter to be poets.

Poetry and the Muses Part 1


We live in a post-modernist world and its values are everywhere around us; and everywhere these values are almost largely unexamined, and because we have little to contrast our present state with we fail to see how lamentable and poor we are. There is a deep materialism running through society which deprives people of the hope, the creativity and the deep mystery of life. Indeed, on this latter point, we see this being hammered home all the time on the news; for when it is not going on about the latest wars, plagues and famines, is always emphasising how the frontiers of science are expanding, and how soon – someday, one day – all our problems, especially diseases and even mortality, will be solved as the next medical advance is posited as something we all might confidently place our faith in. If ‘making progress’ actually made progress, then there might be some grounds for optimism; but as, after nearly two centuries of science and technology, we seem to be on the verge of world destruction, this seems fanciful at best.

Of course, this phenomenon of materialism/progress is ubiquitous, but also encompasses that tiny domain which we call poetry. I say ‘tiny’ because that is what materialism, and associated atheism, has reduced the mighty empire of the poets to.  Compared with, say, science or technology, or even medicine, poetry has become largely irrelevant to most people’s lives. The best it can possible muster is either verse on a Valentine’s card or insincere worship at the shrine of William Shakespeare, one indisputably great poet. Naturally, we have to worship Shakespeare in England because he generates so much revenue for the UK economy – but, hush, no, don’t say it like that!

There is an important sense, then, that we have to return to basics and once more see the object for what it truly is. “The decline of literature indicates the decline of a nation”, said Goethe, which is a serious matter; and we need to address it because as he also said, "Reality is that which is effective". Whatever else, we need to be effective, which is to be real.

What, then, is the starting point? The starting point is the Muse, the source of all sublime inspiration, and a living reality, as well as a potent metaphor and symbol of divinity. We need to understand from the myths of the past where the Muse comes from and how she operates. The Greek myths give various accounts of this, so I am not wedded to one literal interpretation of this phenomenon, but here is my best shot so far at it. 

In the beginning the sky god Zeus, the thunderbolt, the male principle of living and active energy, the yang, and the one who shapes the future, for by the will of Zeus all things are allowed – or not – and who defeated the Titans and the forces of chaos, this great god in some present moment coupled with Mnemosyne, the undefeated Titaness, the female principle, the yin, and goddess memory, who in her vast and capacious mind conserves all things, for in her womb nothing is lost, for the past is remembered, which is re-membered. This coupling  (effectively of the male principle of strength and the female principle of beauty) gives birth to the nine Muses, who are the key to the good life: prosperity, friendship and beauty. Notice of course that they are female, and thus incarnations of  beauty and so desirability, and this seduces us or we surrender to them. And we see, regarding the good life, this even etymologically in our language when we refer to various aspects of the ‘good life’: we love muse-ums, which are shrines to the Muse; we love friends who a-muse us, because laughter makes us glad; and we love mus-ic, because it speaks to our souls.

Each of the nine Muses has a special function, but the queen of them is Kalliope, she of the epic poem and ‘lovely voice’; she it is who inspires such undertakings. And there is my favourite, Erato, meaning ‘loveliness, who inspires lyric poetry; and let’s not forget Polyhymnia – she of many songs, especially of a spiritual nature. The other six are well worth exploring too.

But it should be clear from this that the Muse operates in some special place positioned exactly midway between the future that is to be and the past that was; we call this place the present. And it is why true creativity, true poetry, is always written in a semi-tranced out state, for one is abnormally in the present moment. What this means is that – as with deep meditators and hypnogogic states – time either stops or is slowed down and we enter another reality. Hence, too, why prophets and poets are often seen as synonymous: because time has slowed to a crawl it is possible to anticipate the future and redefine the past. It is not that poets are seeking to be prophets or historians (incidentally, Kleio is the  Muse of history or ‘Renown”) but that it is entirely possible and even probable for the future or the past to leak into their work.

This state we enter is so powerful, so desirable, so creative that we all long to be able to switch it on at will, but in this world that is not possible. Because it is not possible, we have a history of poets (and other artists) who try to short-circuit the process and get there illegitimately through substance abuse. The most famous collective example in English literature were probably a handful of the Romantics; but this view that, basically debauching the mind, is necessary for creativity is unfortunately still with us in the lives of so many Twentieth century poets: for example, Dylan Thomas, who the New York coroner recorded as dying of ‘a severe insult to the brain’ (alcohol). The point is that it is not by and through the will that creativity – poetry – comes to be written, which is as much as to say that it is not through the ego. Socrates put it this way: “I soon realised that poets do not compose their poems with real knowledge, but by inborn talent and inspiration, like seers and prophets who also say many things without any understanding of what they say”. And his last point here, too, is important: creativity involves not knowing necessarily what one is going to say. We have intentions to write – and that is good – and we have skills, knowledge and experience – and that is good too, but how will the Muse, if we allow her, inform the work? Poets often record their astonishment at what the final draft of the poem turned out to be; there is in true creativity a certain unpredictability (if ‘certain unpredictability’ isn’t an oxymoron!).  As Natalie Rogers says, "Creativity is not a tool. It is a mystery that you enter; an unfolding; an opening process".

But the myth does not end here. Yes, the Muses are the embodiments and sponsors of metrical speech and verse; and also Kalliope, their queen, is the mother of Orpheus, the greatest poet. And the father? Various legends here, but my preferred one is that the god Apollo fathered Orpheus. Indeed, it needs to be said that Apollo, the son of Zeus, increasingly became the surrogate god who often replaced him. So that many claim that it was he who fathered the Muses, and so would be father and grandfather both to Orpheus; but this is a small technicality and even if true does not affect the power of the lineage, since gods do not experience the genetic weakness of humans. What’s important to understand is that Apollo was the god of the sun, of light, of prophecy –and so of truth (as in his Oracle at Pythia or Delphi) – and of beauty. All the statues of Apollo show him young and perfectly proportioned. He also fathered Aesculapius whose powers of healing were so effective that even the dead could be resurrected by him; and so, after Hades complained, was struck dead by a thunderbolt from Zeus to prevent the undoing of the triple structure of the cosmos (the bargain the three brothers, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades had struck when they defeated their father, Kronos).

But here’s the thing: Orpheus the poet demonstrated what poetry can do. His poetry, his music, made even the rocks – who obviously have stony hearts! – weep. Two incidents especially spring to mind. First, his visit to hell and Hades in order to reclaim his love, Eurydice. This ended in failure in that he did not manage to obtain her; but poetry and music charmed all of hell, and even the damned were relieved from their suffering as he sang his poem. It is said that Hades himself shed, for the first and only time, tears as he listened to Orpheus sing: tears that seemed like liquid tar. And then, of course, he was one of the Argonauts who sailed with Jason.  There, where even the strength of the greatest hero of Greek mythology, Herakles, could not prevail – against the Sirens’ song, which no force in the universe could break – there he sang in direct combat against them and drowned out their false addictive charm. What we have here is the beauty of poetry that can heal and save, even from the worst and most intense addictions; for that is what the Sirens’ song represents – that dreadful, yet beguiling sound, that so draws us on to our own destruction, though we know it is false, yet still we crave it. This, then, is the healing power of beauty, of poetry, when poetry is beautiful, as once it was, and as it will be, for it cannot long be other than it is.

Thus we come to the present moment and its learning for us. Part 2 of this article will continue this narrative.