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. 


About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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