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!


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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