The Three Ms: Mammoth, Minerva, and Merkin

Mark Doty, Deep Lane (Cape); Frances Leviston, Disinformation (Picador); Christopher Reid, The Curiosities (Faber).
(Three collections reviewed for the June issue of Literary Review, here with – slightly – critical notes restored.)
Mark Doty’s ninth collection displays his customary gifts of empathic observation, collapsing the distance between poet and subject to establish an observance of both secular and sexual mysteries. This is accomplished by an intensity of sensual imagery, and through an ecstatic syntax, as in this passage about Jackson Pollock: ‘Forget supplication,

beseechment, praise. Look down

into it, the smash-up swirl, oil and pigment and tree-shatter:

tumult in equilibrium.

His focus on the redemptive act of gardening, in the titular series of poems called ‘Deep Lane’, and the fit between this and the animalistic, exemplified by masterful descriptions of, among other creatures, his dog, a fish, a mole, a mammoth, and a goat, is driven by a Yeatsian dread of our self-inhibiting self-awareness:

…I have believed

if the scales fell from our eyes we’d see the world

as it is, that the core-light never flags…

There are also echoes of Blake here – perhaps George Herbert, in the address to an ambiguous, God-like ‘Sir’ – and of the addressee of a key poem from Source, Walt Whitman. In ‘What is The Grass?’ he brings together word and world in a crisis at the heart of the book: can language capture, if not the world, then at least our experience of it? ‘…he who’d written his book over and over, nearly ruining it,/…for him the word settled nothing at all.’

A fracture runs between (and within) poems which find communion, and those which state it. The fine poem about the body of a baby mammoth, forever bereft of its mother, is followed by ‘Apparition’ in which, returning from the garden’s depths, he hears the voice of his own dead mother. Another poem places a little goat’s actions in similar contrast to language: ‘I can see the smallish squared seeds of her teeth, and the bristle-whiskers,//and then she kisses me, though I know it doesn’t mean “kiss”‘.

But in poems focussed on social contacts and contracts, a larger divide opens up between, say, the first half of ‘This Your Home Now’ with its funny, tender account of the rituals of going to the barber, and the mythopoeic second half, in which the underworld of dead friends and lovers is accessed through the same establishment. As in the switch in ‘The Lesson’, from a description of a wall on 25th Street to an account of the fall of the Berlin Wall, something is being stressed here that is brilliantly implicit elsewhere.


Frances Leviston’s book is similarly poised on the cusp between private and public utterance. As in her first book, Public Dream, she asks what aspect of the private self can survive in the poem. The speaker in her first poem, ‘making jelly/for my nephew’s fourth birthday party’ while the radio ‘intimates…certain unpopular/facts…’, is positioned just outside the role of mother, and just within that of citizen. Similarly, two titles in this section juxtapose acronyms of the exterior and interior – ‘GPS’ and ‘IUD’ – both serving and inhibiting autonomy: ‘something big is about to make sense/if we just keep going in the opposite direction…’; ‘This gadget intrudes so nothing else can…’.

Her most immediate poems are in the first and final sections, trusting the middle to reveal its different approach on re-reading. Here her impressive control of imagery and stanza is seen to quieter effect in the parallel sequences, ‘Sulis’ and ‘Athenaeum’, exploring the feminine through the merging of the ancient British goddess Sulis into Roman Minerva, herself identified with Greek Athena. Images of sleep and immersion replay earlier concerns about control over meaning:

If you fall asleep in a temple, be prepared

To wake with your ear licked clean as a conch

And the statements of the gods

Suddenly cold and clear to you…

Her most powerful poems are saved for last. ‘The Historical Voice’, both critiquing and embodying its subject, is an Audenesque triumph: ‘The syntax it likes is clean, perhaps translated’; ‘Knowing the worst, it speaks from that shadow.’ In ‘A Shrunken Head’, an artefact being returned to its origins, ‘a birdy ounce in the undercarriage’, reflects on its time in the museum, ‘I miss being part of the known//quantifiable index…’ – returning us to a mediated being, pitched between loss and belonging.


Christopher Reid’s latest collection responds to amplitude not with anxiety, but with a witty constraint. Seventy three poems beginning with the letter C amount to a Wunderkammerer of words. Recognising the alphabet simultaneously collects and randomises, Reid has found a neat way of announcing his approach to his materials, one mostly poised on the disquieting side of the comic. ‘The Coin’ for instance, is an obol placed on the tongue of a dead speaker:

The taste, which would have made me

Wince and scowl before,

And spit the nasty thing out,

Was neither here nor there.

Taste is a recurrent trope throughout, and, as ‘The Chocolate’ indicates, often eroticised: 

…why don’t you close your eyes,

Part your lips, and let me pop a square

That’s already starting to melt between my fingers,

Onto your moist and acquiescent tongue?

This poem opens with a mock-scholarly flourish, and part of the entertainment here is in the play with tones, including bursts of signature Martianisms (‘The cyclists took the corner/in italics’). The Elizabethan parody, ‘The Conceit’, ends with a ‘nether adornment,/…termed, wantonlie, Merkyn, or Mynge, or Merrie-thovght.’

However, Reid’s conceit compels him to act as the dictionary does, and it, of course, lists words because of the letter they begin with, rather than their inherent merit. Many poems depict the British obsession with sex, but not all are as sharp as the Byronic rhyme in ‘The Centaur’, concluding, of a bit of mythological bestiality: ‘[it] could only, the chorus agreed,/ end messily. Which it did. Yet for a while/they were the happiest couple in all Thessaly.’ 

One, ‘The Craving’, steps over the mark of healthy vulgarity – the craver may well crave ‘a schoolgirl’, but the conclusion, that ‘the itch/is still there, which he’ll have to satisfy some day’, has an unpleasant aftertaste.

He seems at his liveliest when least English – or at least that middle-aged, middle class, metropolitan version of Englishness seen to better effect in The Song of Lunch – allowing his imagistic gift free sway, or letting other influences in, as in the version of a Welsh medieval poem, in which the lover’s detachable genitalia are addressed: ‘Go Gogolesque member!’

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From Mere Bellies to the Bad Shaman, 4

(This concluding section tries to have its cake or perhaps pie and eat it, resisting conclusiveness by suggesting Keats’s Negative Capability describes the relationship between the two parts of a metaphor, and tying that back into the comparison between discourses made a good few posts back now.)

In summation, any naïve definition of poet as shaman no longer seems critically viable: most attempts to define a particular writer or group of writers as such are open to alternative interpretations, to say the least. With this comes the observation that an equally simplistic opposition between concepts such as Apollonian and Dionysian, mainstream and experimental, practitioner and theoretician, will not suffice either. The reason for this is not that these terms don’t have meaning, but that by approaching them as thesis and antithesis, we are inevitably tempted to accede to logic’s requirement for synthesis, to enact the narrative of rational thought.

As Nietzsche later concluded in Will to Power, ‘I am convinced of the phenomenalism of the inner world also…’:

‘Causality evades us; to assume the existence of an immediate causal relation between thoughts, as Logic does, is the result of the coarsest and most clumsy observation. There are all sorts of passions that may intervene between two thoughts: but the interaction is too rapid – that is why we fail to recognise them, that is why we actually deny their existence…

“Thinking,” as the epistemologists understand it, never takes place at all: it is an absolutely gratuitous fabrication, arrived at by selecting one element from the process and by eliminating all the rest – an artificial adjustment for the purpose of the understanding…’ 

I would argue how poets operate in relation to inspiration, is conceptually distinct from what Nietzsche dismisses as the understanding of ‘the epistemologists’. By focussing on the interrelations implied by metaphor, they resist synthesis, accessing a condition Keats famously described as ‘when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.’ This, it seems to me, relates to the imaginal world accessed by shamanism, and the realm I explored under hypnosis, only, as a particularly bad shaman, to find myself troubled by exactly this class of ‘irritable reaching.’ I would like to conclude by suggesting this conflicted position itself may bear some relation to the threatened, multiple self we encounter as far back in Hesiod.

I’ve found in my own practice that, the more I am drawn into the role of teacher of Creative Writing, the more I feel compromised, positioned between the private sphere of composition – in which I don’t want to know everything about my creative processes – and a public sphere of instruction and assumed expertise, where my role is not only expected to encompass theory, but can easily blur into that of untrained therapist. This sometimes seems like a sham shamanism.

I’ve had to accept that the act of combining and contrasting discourses, as I do in my professional life, and as I’m doing in this essay, implies a lack of fixity in any one discourse. Just as in my teaching I have tended to shy away from assembling a governing theory, an ideology of creativity, so too I’ve shied away in terms of my poetic influences towards less central figures, while the types of poems I’ve attempted to write seem to elude easy categorisation as either mainstream or experimental. Given the emphatic self-identification practised by each group in their often mutually-exclusive anthologies, however, attempts at holistic models might themselves be decentering.

Nonetheless, as in my flirtation with hypnosis, an attempt is definitely being made here and elsewhere to gather the limbs of Osiris (to echo the title of Pound’s column in The New Age), and to consider what kind of pattern these elements of a writing life make. 

Central to this endeavour is the idea that metaphor is a structural principle in theoretical discourse, as well as a creative device. My thinking about writing returns continually to dyads and the relations between them: how pairs of things which appear dissimilar are linked by the transformations of the imagination; how this extends to a consideration of their underlying structures – how forms interact. What I advocate, then, is dialogue either within the psyche or within the university faculty, through the medium of metaphor.

Metaphor translates like into unlike and vice versa, or at least tests the degree to which such translation is possible. Metaphor is about how systems communicate and interact, rather than how they distinguish themselves or assimilate one part into the other. Metaphor may well be the wand handed by the muses to the poet, the token brought back by the shaman – however problematised his or her role or constituency has become, however stumbling, inept, and downright bad he or she may be at the task. In a context where, in both the academy and the realm of contemporary poetry, the rift between theory and practice, between experiment and mainstream, requires narrowing if not closure, metaphor resists easy syntheses, and allows a type of healing to begin.

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From Mere Bellies to the Bad Shaman, 3

(If you felt the previous section jumped around a bit, you’ll love this, which tries to get from Nietzsche to Carol Ann Duffy in as few paragraphs as possible. Again the argument is trying to favour metaphor’s capacity for comparison and juxtaposition over the dialectic urge to compartmentalise in order to move on: what if the clear depiction of a complex tangle is more expressive than a simplification -and similification – that tells a good story?)

Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, takes as his starting premiss Aristotle’s position in The Poetics that the tragic poet plays a pivotal role in ancient Greek society by providing his audience with catharsis, a solution to the repressive insistence on public consciousness Plato puts in Socrates’ mouth in The Republic. For Nietzsche, this implies that there must be a dualism within Greek society along the lines sketched out above, between the controlling, rational philosophic mind, and the uncontrollable, disruptive forces Plato sought to ban. These he famously envisaged as Apollonian and Dionysian. He comments:

‘The effects of the Dionysiac spirit struck the Apollonian Greeks as titanic and barbaric; yet they could not disguise from themselves the fact that they were essentially akin to those deposed Titans and heroes. They felt more than that: their whole existence, with its temperate beauty, rested upon a base of suffering and knowledge which had been hidden from them until the reinstatement of Dionysos uncovered it once more. And lo and behold! Apollo found it impossible to live without Dionysos. The elements of titanism and barbarism turned out to be quite as fundamental as the Apollonian element.’

Subsequent versions of this dualism have continued to haunt both poets and theoreticians. To focus on one area of relevance to both poetry and Creative Writing, the poet and essayist, Richard Hugo, attempted a division of poets into public and private figures along similar lines:

‘The distinction lies in the relation of the poet to the language. With the public poet the intellectual and emotional contents of the words are the same for the reader as for the writer. With the private poet, and most good poets of the last century or so have been private poets, the words, at least certain key words, mean something to the poet they don’t mean to the reader. A sensitive reader perceives this relation of poet to word and in a way that relation – the strange way the poet emotionally possesses his vocabulary – is one of the mysteries and preservative forces of the art. With Hopkins this is evident in words like “dappled,” “stippled,” and “pied.” In Yeats, “gyre.” In Auden, no word is more his than yours.’

Here Hugo is thinking metaphorically: the ‘relation of poet to word’ is like the relationship between poet and muse, by examining it we learn a very particular type of truth about both parties.

For Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus, the interplay described above is played out between the schizophrenic as a type of the revolutionary, and the paranoid as a model of the fascist. Oedipalization, the process by which we buy into the very values that degrade, subject and commodify us, may be resisted by the ‘radically immanent nomadic-schizophrenic subject’, though the processes such a subject is resisting are as intimately caught up with each other as Nietzsche’s Apollonians discovering their own inner Dionysus: ‘it is impossible to separate deterritorialization and reterritorialization from one another, they are involved, one within the other, and are like the two sides of the same process.’

Through Deleuze’s highly-particularised (I am tempted to say ‘private’) terminology, we can still detect Hesiod’s muses, ‘veiled in thick mist,’ as forces which act on us: Jaynes’ admonitory voices of the gods. In his and Guattari’s account of de- and reterritorialisation we again note the two elements are bound in a metaphoric relation, ‘they are involved, one within the other’, which is then described using simile, ‘like the two sides of the same process’. 

By contrast, in Hugo’s assertion about Auden’s language – no more his than ours – we can catch an echo of Plato’s depiction of literary language as mere container. But Auden brings more than this to the discussion.

As the son of a doctor, he often played the role of healer to his friends, and alluded to it in his poetry. In this assumption of a type of public authority, we see a significant adaptation of the shamanic role. Humphrey Carpenter refers to Stephen Spender’s description of Auden preferring to see his friends ‘one at a time, rather in the manner of an inquisitor or an analyst,’ and mentions how, when he introduced Spender to Isherwood, he was wearing a green eyeshade, ‘like an amateur chemist.’

This is an intriguing triad of metaphorical comparisons. The reference to an inquisitor echoes the Socratic method of The Republic; while the analyst was, for the twentieth century at least, the closest Western society could get to a shaman. The chemist resonates as a type of the scientist (post-philosopher, pre-theorist) the Romantics found themselves confronted with. They responded variously – Keats bewailing the ‘unweaving’ of the rainbow, and Wordsworth eager to ‘carry sensation into the midst of the objects of Science…’ Coleridge throws the whole argument back on its origins in Plato by declaring ‘A poem is that species of composition which is opposed to works of science by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth…’

Auden therefore embodies several of the oppositions alluded to throughout this essay. Interestingly, he does so by assuming the authority of other professions, and subsuming them into a poetry which, it can be argued, is ‘public’ at least in its language, and therefore potentially continues to address the coherent constituency of the shaman. Of course it is possible to argue both Auden’s imagery – and especially his self-image – was at least as ‘private’ as Hopkins’ use of ‘pied.’

He himself happily combined Apollonian and Dionysian characteristics, diagnosing Freud’s cancer of the jaw with typically dogmatic eccentricity, ‘Who’d have thought he was a liar,’ whilst ascribing to the unconscious mind forces not dissimilar to the directing muses, ‘We are lived by powers we pretend to understand.’

His work embodies, then, a concession through metaphor to the authority of rational discourse – the poet is presented as though he were inquisitor, analyst, chemist, journalist, politician, theologian – while reserving to itself the equivocatory capacity to absorb and subvert the discourses of all such figures. In this he prefigures in many ways the writer in the academy, whose engagement with the totalising discourses of literary theory must be filtered through the more idiosyncratic practices of the creative mind, often more engaged by analogy than by logic.

Elsewhere, however, we see writers apparently anxious to be ranked on one side or the other of the Dionysian-Apollonian dialectic. Rimbaud’s insistence ‘…the Poet makes himself a seer by a long, immense and systematic derangement of all the senses’ would seem easily opposed to Mallarmé’s attempt merely to give ‘…un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu…’ But however much Rimbaud becomes the seer, Mallarmé is still addressing an idea of society as a single tribal unit, and declaring himself to be its spokesperson. While Rimbaud is unequivocally shaman, the purifier Mallarmé arguably finds it ‘impossible to live without Dionysos.’

Then there is the opposition in American poetry alluded to in Lowell’s metaphor ‘The raw and the cooked.’ Surely Ginsberg, more or less identified by Lowell as ‘some bearded but vegetarian Castro,’ should be the chanting shaman, and Lowell the controlled, Apollonian figure. But at the time, Ginsberg was moving into a more authoritative, publicly-acknowledged position in American letters, while Lowell was devising Confessionalism, a poetic mode that engages with the key issues of shame and mental instability.

Contemporary poetry in the United Kingdom, as in the US, and indeed in Russia and across Western Europe, is often somewhat facilely divided into the mainstream and the experimental, and it might seem understandable if we were to attempt to characterise the former as Apollonian and the latter as Dionysian.

But if we approach that argument from the perspective presented here, in which the authority of the shamanic, Dionysian poet has been successively critiqued or assessed by the rational Apollonian mind in the various forms of philosopher, scientist and theorist, usually in order to supplant his or her apparent authority, then it might equally be argued that the avant-garde in poetry has tended to shy away from what it sees as both formal and ideological atavism in favour of the reforming perspectives of philosophy, science and literary theory. 

It may rather be the case that everyone prefers to think of themselves as Dionysian, and therefore to simplify the opposition as Apollonian; or, even more simply, as we see in Auden’s case, our habit of opposing thesis with antithesis doesn’t quite describe any given case.

That hasn’t stopped successive generations of figures being characterised in precisely these terms in the only acknowledged public role of the poet in contemporary British society, the Laureateship. A little like the Russians’ mocking analysis of their leaders as good or bad depending on their baldness, which sees an alternation from Lenin (good) to Stalin (bad) and on to Gorbachov and Yeltsin (Putin, depressingly, is regarded as bald for the purposes of the exercise), so too our laureates have appeared to alternate between Apollo and Dionysus.

Betjeman in this context is very much the bourgeois, good citizen, however subtly subversive, while Hughes is so much the shaman he more or less echoes Nietzsche’s comments on the lyrical poet: ‘his “I” is not that of the actual waking man, but the “I” dwelling, truly and eternally in the ground of being.’ Or, as he puts it in ‘The Poetic Self,’ in reaction to the poetry of the 40s and 50s:

‘An ordinary ego still has to sleep and wake with some other more or less articulate personality hidden inside it, or behind it or beneath it, who carries on, just as before, living its own outlandish life, and who turns out, in fact, to be very like the old poetic self: secularized, privatized, maybe only rarely poetic, but recognizably the same autonomous, mostly incommunicado, keeper of the dreams.’

However one would describe Andrew Motion, it would not be as an outlandish keeper of the dreams. His approach to the post was admirably Apollonian in its sense of social responsibility and balance between acknowledging the role and distancing himself from its more manifest absurdities. His reward was an unpleasant level of none too subtle media scrutiny, plus the added benefit of being damned with faint praise, as in the TLS’s remark on a piece he wrote to be displayed on the side of a building in Sheffield: ‘No exception will be taken to the content of Motion’s poem, which combines gratifying local reference with a sure sense of its place as public or “hard-poster” art…’

His own comments on his successor turned out to be, ironically, rather prophetic of the role Carol Ann Duffy has gone on to fulfil, while implicitly acknowledging the contrast between himself and Hughes: 

It’s true there would be an opportunity to appoint someone who is remote, shamanistic and lives on the top of a mountain. There would be the chance to appoint someone who cranks the handle regularly and turns out poems that are more closely aligned to ditties than perhaps they have been in the past, but my hunch is, and my support would go to, the choice of someone who is able to move fairly fluently between the high ground and more populist things.

(Current occupiers of the shamanistic role might also include performance poets, who can in some cases be seen as representing a minority, or at least a minority within the publishing world, of race, gender or sexuality, and whose appeal to an audience made restive by the pace of the page might encourage us to examine the role of catharsis in Slam.) 

Both Wordsworth and Auden’s approach, of the poet as explicator or explorer of science and medicine’s particular authority within our society, is still evident in poets like Fiona Sampson, who engages with writing’s therapeutic possibilities, as well as writing with great sensitivity about illness, and in Edwin Morgan who, as a grand old man of Scottish letters, scarcely ceased from mental fight until his death, taking his great gift for voices into the territory of one of our last taboos, the cancer cell, and finding an utterance as terrifying in its way as the muses’ dismissive response to our vulnerable corporeality, ‘mere bellies’:

You may not even think I am a tempter,

But I am the insidious one, hissing Listen listen.

Every tumour begins with a single cell

Which divides and divides and is its own boss.

The joy of kicking decent cells away,

sucking their precious nutrients, piercing

Membranes that try to keep you from the waves

Of lymph and blood you long to navigate –

Through unimaginable dangers, be robust! –

Until you reach those Islands of the Blest –

The distant organs where you plant your flag

and start a colony. Those cells are heroes,

Homer would hymn them, but I do my best!

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From Mere Bellies to the Bad Shaman, 2

(This second section juxtaposes in a somewhat speculative manner two key texts in the Western canon by Hesiod and Plato, using a favourite but hardly authoritative text by Julian Jaynes to get a handle on the argument, which is based in an observation about metaphor: that it simply presents two images as having a dynamic relationship with each other, and leaves you as the reader to work out what that relationship, that dynamism, might be. The logician, the theoretician, the philosopher, can never be content with the openness, the lack of argumentative progression in that, and therefore turns to the simpler declaration of the simile. Or something like that.)

We can trace connections between the role of the poet and the role of the shaman through several periods of literary history. The two roles seem to coincide most directly in the idea of inspiration, the concept that a person can access the resources of something beyond their standard waking consciousness, and that the product of such access is valuable to more than the individual. The shaman fulfils the role of ambassador to the gods or spirits associated strongly with a particular social group, one who negotiates with a society’s otherworld (what Jung tried to depict as the Collective Unconscious), and can bring back the results of that negotiation: a speaker, in short, whose speeches concern healing, whether at a collective or individual level. The poet, it could be argued, occupies something of a similar position.

The first account in ancient Greek letters of the phenomenon of inspiration, Hesiod’s ‘Theogony’, explicitly concerns itself with the role of the speaker or singer, and the authority of their utterance:

‘…one day they taught Hesiod glorious song while he was shepherding his lambs under holy Helicon, and this word first the goddesses said to me – the Muses of Olympus, daughters of Zeus who holds the aegis: 

“Shepherds of the wilderness, wretched things of shame, mere bellies, we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things.”

So said the ready-voiced daughters of great Zeus, and they plucked and gave me a rod, a shoot of sturdy laurel, a marvellous thing, and breathed into me a divine voice to celebrate things that shall be and things there were aforetime; and they bade me sing of the race of the blessed gods… 

Several elements of this translation (by Hugh G. Evelyn-White) are noteworthy: firstly the use of plurals: both the muses and the subject of their address – a single shepherd, who is treated as a category – are depicted as multiples. Then there is the emphasis on the corporeality of the poet, who is seen as a very inferior creature, filled with shame. Finally there is the equivocation of the muses’ speech – they announce that they both lie and tell the truth, which would seem to undermine the validity of what they go on to dictate.

These three aspects of the relationship between poet and inspiration continue to reverberate through subsequent examples, but note there is an underlying emphasis here on opposed dualities: supernatural/natural leads to a series of implicit comparisons: the base corporeality and emotional inferiority of the poet is set against the muses, who are able to manifest themselves and to vanish, and are above or beyond shame. The opposition between falsehood and truth is of enormous significance: in what way can what poets say be trusted?

The underlying mode of thought in all this is metaphor: there is a relationship between muse and poet which is dependent on what Aristotle, in his description of metaphor, calls ‘an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.’ The barrier between the supernatural and the natural is crossed by the trope of multiplicity; the confusion between truth and truthful-sounding falsehood is, momentarily, resolved by the trope of the ‘divine voice’.

Underlying both these rhetorical moves is the relationship between their elements, as a switch to simile makes explicit: muse is like poet, falsehood is like truth. What metaphor allows here is presentation without resolution: we observe what appears to be thesis and antithesis, but we do not move on, as philosophers and theoreticians might, to synthesis. What is being depicted is a relationship outside the narrative of logic.

The starting position of the Western tradition of poetry, then, is an attack on an idea of the rational individual: the poet as shaman is made multiple, divided between interior attentiveness and an exterior source of inspiration, he or she is pluralised and demeaned, a passive recipient of messages which may be true or false. The world is depicted as a metaphoric realm, where only inspiration can resolve value.

This corresponds to the analysis of the Greek mind put forward by Julian Jaynes in his stimulating but controversial study, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes’s thesis is that consciousness is a late development of human psychology, and that until relatively recently the mind was divided into two centres, one issuing commands, and the other responding to those commands. He finds evidence for this in, among other sources, the depiction of decision-making in The Iliad:

‘The denouement of the whole epic comes when…Athene…after telling Achilles to kill Hector, then comes to Hector as his dearest brother, Deiphobus. Trusting him as his second, Hector challenges Achilles, demands of Deiphobus another spear, and turns to find nothing is there. We would say he has had a hallucination. So has Achilles. The Trojan War was directed by hallucinations. And the soldiers who were so directed were not at all like us. They were noble automatons who knew not what they did…The picture then is one of strangeness and heartlessness and emptiness.’

Whether we can arrive at a full understanding of the psychology implied by Hesiod’s understanding of inspiration, and regardless of whether we would go so far as to accept Jaynes’s depiction of the ‘noble automaton,’ what these two accounts share is an attempt to account for and process thoughts which appear to be ‘other’, to have an origin not considered part of ordinary cognitive process. (Notice the role played by metaphoric act of substitution in Jaynes’ account of hallucination: Athene does not merely resemble Hector’s brother, she is not just ‘like’ him, rather she appears ‘as’ Deiphobus.)

Both this otherness and the equivocating power of metaphor appear to influence Socrates’ famous objections to the inclusion of poets in The Republic. There he engages with the consequences of the muses’ questionable verifiability. The artist, he asserts, is a copyist, at two removes from the truth. Truth, in the Platonic sense of the Forms, is already only being copied by the things of this world: therefore the artist, basing his or her work on a copy of a copy, is guilty of partiality and superficiality.

‘…must we not infer that all these poetical individuals, beginning with Homer, are only imitators; they copy images of virtue and the like, but the truth they never reach? The poet is like a painter who, as we have already observed, will make a likeness of a cobbler though he understands nothing of cobbling; and his picture is good enough for those who know no more than he does, and judge only by colours and figures…

‘In like manner the poet with his words and phrases may be said to lay on the colours of the several arts, himself understanding their nature only enough to imitate them; and other people, who are as ignorant as he is, and judge only from his words, imagine that if he speaks of cobbling, or of military tactics, or of anything else, in metre and harmony and rhythm, he speaks very well -such is the sweet influence which melody and rhythm by nature have. And I think that you must have observed again and again what a poor appearance the tales of poets make when stripped of the colours which music puts upon them, and recited in simple prose.’

The philosopher deals throughout in similitude – he gives the example of a bed, stressing it can only be like the Idea of Bed – and assesses the poet accordingly: his bed is merely like a likeness of Bed. But what is being judged is more likely a type of metaphor, metonym, in which an element can stand for the concept or concepts associated with it (a bed may relate to rest, to sleep, or dream, or procreation, among other things, as well or as much as to the Platonic ‘Bed’). Simile allows precision, the creation of a specific set of relations; metaphor, whether as metaphor or in metonymy or its near-cousin, synecdoche, allows association, the creation of relations between sets, possibly even many sets.

The philosophic argument is based on two acts of separation: of the poet from the ‘truth’ spoken of by the muses, and of content from form. One of these involves an act of displacement in order for the philosopher to usurp the poet’s authority, while the other is a supposition dependent on the very belief system it purports to justify, thereby undermining itself.

The displacement is of the poet’s privileged access to supernatural truth – their access to otherness – which is usurped by the philosopher’s privileged access to rational truth: intellect replaces inspiration, use replaces delight.

The supposition is that meaning – ‘Bed-ness’ – is an unproblematic content which can be separated from form – ‘bed’ – as an equally unproblematic container. But this idea is already dependent on the premiss that a Form in the Platonic sense can be real. By asserting that the Idea of Bed has a reality, the philosopher insists on (thereby creating) the possibility that an idea can exist separately from the words that frame it, as well as the hierarchy in which such ideas have pre-eminence. This assertion becomes especially important if the poet can write more engagingly and entertainingly about beds than the philosopher can:

‘…we shall be right in refusing to admit him into a well-ordered State, because he awakens and nourishes and strengthens the feelings and impairs the reason. As in a city when the evil are permitted to have authority and the good are put out of the way, so in the soul of man, as we maintain, the imitative poet implants an evil constitution, for he indulges the irrational nature which has no discernment of greater and less, but thinks the same thing at one time great and at another small – he is a manufacturer of images and is very far removed from the truth.’

What Socrates means by ‘the irrational nature’ here is, strictly, to do with the ranking of significant and insignificant matters within the public arena. What the poet brings to this arena which destabilises order is the imaginal, interior, metaphorical realm in which we cannot think of beds, say, without thinking of what happens in them – dreams and passions. These modes of being interfere with the running of the Republic, and, as such, must be categorised as both lesser and evil.

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From Mere Bellies to the Bad Shaman, 1

 (This began as a talk/reading given at a one-day symposium held at the University of Glasgow on November 24, 2007. It was then revised as an essay for The Apothecary’s Chest: Magic, Art and Medication, edited by that symposium’s organisers, Konstantina Georganta, Fabienne Collignon and Anne-Marie Millim, and published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in 2009. 

But somehow it still wasn’t done, or clear enough, and I’ve been tinkering with it since because I see it as a key part of the series of talks and intros I’ve been writing about poetry, poetics, Creative Writing, and translation. I’ll reproduce it here in the four part format I’ve used for recent postings.)

This essay, billed as a plenary paper, in fact began as a combination of a poetry reading and a few observations on the relationship between the poet and the shaman arising from my collection, Bad Shaman Blues. It would be inappropriate to reproduce that format here, but I would like to recap those thoughts, and try to contextualise why that hybrid format, part-reading, part-essay, was not only germane to the subject, but of its essence. To that end, this essay will admit aspects of the personal, if not the poetic, at a particular angle to those elements which more nearly approach the scholarly.

As poet and academic, I have parallel vocations which, although they are constantly informed by each other, are not necessarily always in full dialogue – I am grateful for the opportunity to extend that conversation here. My role involves the playing of roles, and certain of these do not see themselves as equals. It seems to me that the relationship between the writer who teaches writing and the academic who teaches literature and literary theory is sometimes regarded by one or the other party as resembling the relationship between that modern shaman, the alternative practitioner, and the medical doctor: two adjacent sets of methodologies and ideologies which only coincide, for the healers, in the patient, and, for the writers, in a pentad of concerns — critics, students, texts, readers, writers.

I’ve occasionally wondered in this context whether a literary genre might correspond with a particular alternative therapy according to its relative popularity, and to assumptions about its teachability (for ‘teachability’ read ‘credibility’). If the literary novelist and dramatist would then fight it out for the not entirely-despised roles of chiropractor or acupuncturist, then the poet must be content with a profession requiring the greatest leap of faith on the part of its appreciators – say homeopathy. In other words, I fear the principles behind what poets do, and the principles they bring into the university when they teach, like the worlds in which the shaman believes himself or herself to move, can sometimes be regarded either as unquantifiable, self-deluding or erroneous.

Recently I lost a small notebook – not a major event, you would think, except this particular small notebook contained eighteen months of scribbled entries. In it were the embryonic drafts and titles of dozens of poems, quotes from books and newspapers, observations of the world about me and notations from the world within. It was a cross between a library and a playpark, a dream and the internet, and it was of such value to me that, once I had turned the house upside down and phoned all the relevant lost property offices to no avail, I decided to follow the advice of a friend of mine and visit a hypnotist. I thought of this as, already, a new writing project in itself – poet visits hypnotist appealing to my sense of the absurd – but I was heartened by my friend’s tale of a composer who had retrieved an entire lost manuscript by this method, and I had a similar goal in mind.

I didn’t only want to know where and when I might have lost the notebook, I wanted to recover a certain twenty page passage from it, concerning a trip I, my friend, and another writer pal, had taken to Moscow, where we had researched the Metro system for a possible book. Here were the closely-detailed descriptions of stations and passengers and beginnings of drafts I particularly needed to recover if my portion of the book was to go ahead according to my usual compositional method.

So I duly visited the hypnotist, who specialised in past life regression, to regress to two periods – one a week before and the other six months earlier – in the hope that some details would re-emerge. I was first relaxed, then encouraged to visualise a secure place, then taken back in what I supposed was a shallow trance (it was no doubt much deeper than I realised), attempting to access memories of first the more distant, and second the more proximate time. In each case I was surprised, firstly by how vivid the sense of inhabiting the memory was, and secondly by how much an act of will this was, by how clearly it was a fabrication I was riffling through as one riffles through papers, and not a reliving of a preserved experience. 

I should not have been surprised by the latter observation, having done a collaborative project on the nature of memory with the eminent neuropsychologist Martin Conway, and having had conversations on this subject with the novelist and neuropsychologist Charles Ferneyhough, I thought I was aware that each memory is a construct, rebuilt each time according to the viewpoint of the self you are at the point of recall, rather than a distinct object, perfectly preserved in the brain. I was even aware that this concept of the memory was likely to interfere with a process of hypnosis which assumed the possibility of perfect recall.

I was also aware that the carefully-assembled visualisation I was attempting was a mild version of the sort of inner journeying I had embarked on during my more chemically-stimulated twenties, and that a vivid interior life, borrowing from the eidetic states between sleeping and waking, was already very much part of my creative processes. But I was heartened by the hypnotist’s advice that this was a process strengthened by practice, and to a certain extent this has proven to be the case. I can now strongly imagine the notebook and roughly ‘read’ its contents, even though this does not amount to a process of dictation from some inner muse, and this in turn stimulates more detailed memories of the Moscow trip than I would otherwise experience.

Of course the reason I am recounting this tale of misfortune and partial recovery is because it strongly resembles several aspects of what we think of as the shamanic role and includes some of our reactions to it, and in doing so, it establishes a tentative link between that role and the perceived role of the contemporary poet which I would like to explore in this essay. Richard Noll defines the relation between the shaman and, in Henri Corbin’s phrase, the ‘imaginal world’, as follows:

‘The shaman intentionally induces these altered states called “ecstasies,” “trances,” or “visions” in order to contact and manipulate spirits for distinct purposes. Shamans are therefore known as “masters of trance” and “masters of spirits.” Spirits are employed to effect changes in the shaman himself or in others (as in healing), or to make changes in or receive information about the outer physical world.’

To elaborate on the parallels, firstly there is the notion of healing a wound or illness – here a creative loss which, for me, felt pretty traumatic – by means of a negotiation with the psyche of the sufferer. Secondly the manner of addressing that healing process involves a shamanic flight or, in my case, a katabasis, the descent into a realm where negotiation must take place with forces we can think of as sub- or unconscious, or chthonic in origin, depending on the belief system brought to bear on the experience. Finally, the shaman himself or herself must invest in the process through personal experience rather than through detached knowledge: initiation often follows illness cured by precisely the process the shaman then leads their patients through – they can lead only because they have been there before. In my case, the hypnotist acted as a catalyst, refining and directing experiences I had already undergone towards a specific goal.

But the thing that impressed me most, the discovery I was most intrigued to make, was theoretical rather than experiential. I realised, despite having experienced hallucinogenic trips in the past that were neither coherent hallucinations nor, exactly, journeys, that I was still thinking of hypnotism in a rather literal manner. I had anticipated that my will would be taken out of the equation, that I would experience in an involuntary manner exactly the type of concrete experience I had earlier assumed would follow from taking LSD or psylocybin mushrooms. In other words, I had decided to regard the process from a dialectic perspective, in which one was either definitively conscious and rational, or definitely rendered subconscious and subject to a model of perception that had to be directed by another rational intelligence rather than one’s own.

It struck me then that this model applies equally to the way poets have been regarded as either a subspecies of the shaman (as Plato would have them), or as exemplars of the rational, expositors of philosophical or theological world-views, as Dante or Milton might regard themselves (and as Plato would wish them to be). It seemed to me that our analysis of the social dimension of the poetic role, as well as our understanding of the compositional process, might have been muddied rather than clarified by applying such a dualist model whether to the experience of writing or the role of being a writer. I began to wonder what theoretical form an alternative way of looking at this might take.

It also occurred to me that this issue had a further application to the role of the writer as teacher of writing – here again there was a focus on the experiential over the theoretical: an expectation – certainly among students, and also among many writers, but not necessarily among our fellow academics – that the teacher must write if he or she is to impart meaningfully the principles of writing. 

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New Boots and Pantisocracies: Are We Nearly Where Yet?

For the past 84 days I’ve been co-editing with Andy Jackson a post-election blog called ‘New Boots and Pantisocracies’, publishing each day a new poem by a different poet exploring the different political landscape we seem to have entered. Perhaps it’s time now to review where we’ve got to. 

By way of proper introduction, the blog’s name is a portmanteau term combining the title of Ian Dury’s marvellous debut 1977 album with the name given in the 1790s by the young Romantic poets, Samuel Coleridge and Robert Southey, to their utopian scheme to set up what we would think of as a socialist society in America, a project reimagined by Paul Muldoon in his 1990 poem, Madoc: A Mystery. The intro to ‘New Boots’ is as follows:

‘The 2015 General Election has made manifest the great sea-change that has been occurring in UK politics over the last fifteen to twenty years. Previous certainties, like Labour’s Scottish hegemony, are no more. Older patterns, like Conservative dominance of England, have reasserted themselves. The idea of the UK as a single country has been replaced by a plurality of identities, some long known to the ‘other’ countries and regions, others formulating themselves as we reflect on the election results. For that reason, we thought it might be an interesting experiment to chart the responses of those unacknowledged legislators, the poets, over the first 100 days of the new dispensation.’

The idea for the blog sprang from an online exchange between myself and my publisher Andy Ching. The phrase just arose, and the way it bounced Dury’s ripe knowingness off Southey and Coleridge’s early idealism suddenly seemed to make sense of our current bewilderment. It was, we realised, one of those rare spontaneous puns you look again at and think, ‘What can I do with that?’

But here it was evident that it would be more of a case of what other poets could do with it. Key to that was a simpatico co-editor who would have lots of their own ideas, and lots of energy if not necessarily time (who is allowed to have time?), so, having worked with him on Whaleback City, and having seen what he did with Double Bill and other anthologies for Red Squirrel, Andy Jackson was the obvious choice. Many other writers have taken the project to heart not just as contributors and distributors – sharers and retweeters – but also volunteering suggestions and help: Harry Giles and Rachael Boast have been particularly generous in this regard.

We all liked the idea of it being founded in a snap of verbal energy as much as a moment of political righteousness, and the results have borne that out, amounting to a poetic more than a polemic. There’s plenty of anger and bewilderment, but these are lines of poetry rather than unwavering expressions of a party line, and their energy comes from a collision of the verbal with the visceral, a recharging of language even as it is being emptied by our political masters and their envious opposites.

We anticipated the initial stages might be caught up in a necessary hangover of shock, anxiety, and disappointment, then were delighted by how that developed into a nuanced vision of the various social reconfigurations going on across not just these islands, but Europe and beyond. From the start we wanted a wide range of writing, by which we meant the throwaway as well as the weighty, the traditional as well as the radical, the deadly serious as well as the absurd and satirical. By the time of the first Tory budget, we knew that, unlike George Osborne, we had something to share that was genuinely imaginative.

A real concern was the usual rush of many white males to respond, countered by a slower but increasingly steady stream of material from women poets and poets of colour of both genders. Some people do just respond more spontaneously, while others prefer to consider things at length, but it is sobering to note that this tends to follow predictable lines. (The strong early response from Scottish writers might also have been because we have been considering things since before the Referendum.)

Here the decision to run for 100 days gradually bore fruit, as has the editorial habit of approaching people as and when throughout, rather than keeping to an inflexible ‘must have’ checklist. In fact, quite a few of the usual ‘must haves’ didn’t seem to be on any of our scribbled and frequently updated lists. No doubt some of them were unfortunate omissions, but it did seem like part of the ‘new’ rubric had to be about hearing new voices.

Open submissions have not, for once in the poetry world, been flooding in, despite our decision to give a fifth of the project over to them, but thankfully the work we’ve received has fulfilled that remit of delivering surprising and exciting new angles.

We’re pretty much signed up now for that 100 days, so the remaining issues are threefold: what do we do when we hit 100? Do we stop if promised poems keep coming in and the standard remains high? And what do we do with all this here poetry stuff afterwards, ie what about print publication?

The plan is, once we’ve reached 100 posts, to take New Boots into the live arena, organising readings of contributors as we’ve done with previous projects. Watch this virtual space for details. The other part of the plan is, we can now reveal, to continue past the 100 days as long as the political and poetical will is there on the part of contributors and until everyone interested in writing something has done so. We’ll decide nearer the time whether a daily posting is feasible under those circumstances.

The final part of the plan is still under debate: when we have everything we think amounts to a pantisocracy of poets (a slightly more optimistic collective noun than the usual ‘paranoia’), we’ll then start looking at the outcome and the practicalities of the task. If we don’t think we have a worthwhile book then it will remain as an archived blog. But if we are convinced that a high enough proportion of work is something more than ephemeral, in fact that it is both feisty and geisty in relation to der Zeit, then a new phase of editing and dialogue with contributors and publishers will begin.

Do please browse the site, and tell us what you think.

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Heroic/Homiletic (you choose) Addendum


(Following on from the previous post, I’d expanded slightly on the enigmatic reference at the end to my own writing, but realised in that context it was digressive. Here, however, it’s part of the estranged brew of published, unpublished, retro- and prospective thinking that makes blogs creative – and aligns them so strongly with the original understanding of the essai. As Montaigne says on all our behalfs, ‘I distrust my present thoughts hardly less than my past ones and my second or third thoughts hardly less than my first.’

These paragraphs are pointers to projects past and future – I wrote about a quarter of a verse novel called The Book of the Wedderburns over ten years ago, then set it aside for a few months… I have the intention of one day being good enough at Greek – or lucky enough to meet the right Cretan – to translate a few fragments from the Erotokritos. I have an idea for a tetrabiblio, four-books-in-one, that might hold the way I want to work on the ‘Monolog Recreatif’ chapter from the Complaynt – one of the overlooked masterpieces of Scottish prose – you know how it is, but sometimes it helps to set how it is down…)

I’ve been strongly engaged by two late medieval/early Renaissance texts, The Complaynt of Scotlande, probably written in Dundee in the 1540s by Robert Wedderburn, the vicar of Dundee, and the Erotokritos, an heroic verse romance written on Crete in the 1580s by Vitzentos Kornaros, a nobleman of Venetian descent.

In both cases, the texts represent a lost world: Wedderburn’s Catholic bishopric, not untouched by the traces of Lutheran reform which converted both his brothers, eventually sending them into exile, was about to swept away by Knox’s Reformation.

He lived through not only the occlusion of his faith, but the sack of the Dundee in 1548, in which his loyalties were tested by the demands of the invading forces of Henry the Eighth for ‘assurances’ from the local authorities to help maintain order. He therefore experienced a crisis of aesthetics and ideology that we associate with twentieth century figures like Shostakovich or Mandelshtam.

The Cretan Renaissance, exemplified by Kornaros’s work, and the work of the dramatist Giorgios Chortatzis, and latterly by icon painters like Emmanuel Tzanes, would be swept away by the Ottoman invasion of the island in the 1640s, and the eventual fall of Candia (modern day Iraklio/Heraklion) after the extraordinary phenomenon of a twenty year siege. Its exemplars, like Wedderburn’s brothers, went into exile in Venice and elsewhere.

In both cases, then, what intrigues me creatively is the impulse to construct alternative histories, to supplant fact with fable: the ‘what if’ scenario that characterises the defeated or secondary culture, be that the Hellenes of the late and post-Byzantine era, post-1204, post-1453, post-1669, or the Scots and indeed the Scottish language, post-1560, post-1603, post-1707, post-2014.

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