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.

About W N 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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