Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Interview with poet and writer Erynn Rowan Laurie

 Erynn Rowan Laurie is a writer, poet and professional madwoman inspired by the early Irish poetic tradition and the place of the geilt, the mad poet in Irish myth and literature. In an interview with Jory Mickelson  she explains why for her the creation of a poem is a sacred act; why she has chosen not to follow the usual grammatical structures; how landscape and art influence her poetry and why birds appear frequently in her poems - all worth reading about.

Here's an excerpt:

"If we consider poetry a form of sorcery, then sound sets the mood and pattern for the spells being woven and the realities being created. Some poems have a feeling of breathlessness and rush to them, while others build slowly, layering on their power with repetition and emphasis. In these poems [in her book Fireflies at Absolute Zero], capitalization can signal a shift in the power being touched and directed, the choice of a line or stanza break might place a breath as effectively as any comma or period.

In translations of the Greek magical papyri, there are words capitalized as voces magicae, as words of power, that stand out from the text in an emphasis of their potency, and these words or strings of sounds might be recited or chanted in ways distinct from the rest of the text, lending them a particular sense of uncanniness. My poem on Abraxas borrows a couple of these words - ARAI, LAILAM - and in the recitation of that poem those sounds seem to come out of an abyss of magical vibration.

Sometimes, when the sounds and the words are just right, I can feel the hair on my arms rise when I recite them aloud. For me there is a liquidity in non-traditional structures that's very appealing, and I find it easier to tap into that electricity, that potency, when I use those techniques."

You can read the full interview here on The Literary Magpie blog.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Where Does Poetry Come From?

The Inspiration of the Poet by
Nicolas Poussin

In the past, where did people think poetry came from?

For the Greeks, inspiration came from the Muses, the goddesses of literature, science and the arts, or from the gods Apollo and Dionysus. Poetry was given to the poet while he was in a state of divine frenzy. Because of this the philosopher Plato believed that, as the poet didn’t invent anything himself but was simply inspired to utter what the Muse gave him, he was dangerous,  an imitator rather than someone who used the faculty of reason to arrive at the truth.

In the Bible God is the source of inspiration and from Anglo-Saxon England we have the story of Caedmon, who looked after the animals at the monastery of Whitby. Although he was unable to compose songs, one night he dreamt of a figure (later identified with Jesus) who asked him to sing about the beginning of creation. The next day he remembered the poem and found that miraculously he was also able to compose more of it. He was taken to see the abbess, Hilda, who believed that the vision had been a gift from God. Caedmon became a monk and retained the ability to turn the scriptures into beautiful verse.

The 17th century poet John Milton, echoing the prophet Isaiah who describes how he is inspired to speak when his unclean lips have been purified by a seraphim with a live coal, announced that he wrote ‘by devout prayer to the Eternal Spirit, who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his seraphim with the hallowed fire of his altar to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases’. [Quoted in Press 1955, p 2]

In the Norse sagas, the Mead of Inspiration and Poetry was stolen from the giants by the god of the Æsir, Odin who then gave it to those he thought worthy. In the pre-Christian Celtic world, there is evidence that poetic inspiration was thought to be derived from a cauldron, or from a liquid in a cauldron brewed by a supernatural being. A rather late medieval source, thought to be based on a much earlier version, tells the story of Taliesin, the supreme native poet, receiving awen or poetic inspiration, from a potion that the witch Ceridwen had been brewing for a year and a day in her cauldron.

However, in one of the poems attributed to Taliesin, he follows the Christian belief saying: ‘He [God] with his miracle bestowed immeasurable inspiration’.  In another poem there is a reconciliation of the native tradition with current Christian beliefs when Taliesin uses the magic of words, whereby one thing may miraculously be something else at the same time. In Kadeir Teyrnon, the word for cauldron, ‘peir’, can also mean ‘sovereign’ which is often used to mean God. So there is a double meaning: ‘there emanated from the cauldron or Sovereign/the ogyrwen of triune inspiration’.   [Haycock 2007, page 296, see also p 293 and p 304, note 35]

A parallel development came about in Ireland. There, an Irish poet in the persona of the renowned father of all poets, Amergin, singing of the Cauldron of Poesy, the source of poetic ability, also reconciled the two beliefs although in a more straightforward manner:  ‘warmly God has given it [the cauldron] to me out of the mysteries of the elements’.

Elsewhere, in the medieval Irish tale Scél na Fír Flatha ('The Tale of the True Lord'), Cormac comes across a shining fountain with five streams flowing out of it. Nine purple hazels hang above the well and drop their nuts into the water where they are then cracked open by five salmon and the husks sent floating down the stream. We are told that ‘… the sound of the falling of those streams was more melodious than any music that men could sing...’ Manannán tells Cormac that the fountain is the Fountain of Knowledge and that the five streams are, ‘…the five senses through which knowledge is obtained. And no one will have knowledge who drinks not a draught out of the fountain itself and out of the streams. The folk of many arts are those who drink of them both.’ [Cross and Slover 1936, p 507]

Inspiration then could be in the form of a liquid, drunk from the cauldron of poesy, or as Odin’s mead, or the waters from the Greek fountain of Hippocrene, sacred to the muses. But there was also a strong belief that poetry is blown into the poet. Awen, the old Welsh word for poetic inspiration, is derived from the Indo-European root meaning 'to blow', which is also the source of the Welsh awel meaning 'breeze'. In Irish the word, , also meaning ‘poetic inspiration’, comes from the same root. Our word inspiration itself is derived from the Latin inspirare meaning ‘to breathe into’.

Afflatus is a Latin word coined by the Roman Cicero to describe the sudden rush of an idea that appeared like a breath, a powerful force whose origin would be unknown to the poet. The word meant ‘to blow upon’ and in the 18th/19th century, English poets used it to mean the mysterious poetic inspiration that was a divine wind blown into the poet making him sing, in the same way that the wind would play on the strings of a harp producing sound.

The poet Edward Young  (1681 – 1765), author of the then acclaimed Night Thoughts, was influential in setting out his ideas about inspiration which gave it a mystical status but didn’t locate it so precisely outside the poet. He wrote in his Conjectures on Original Composition that genius was the god within. Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 –1822) and S. T. Coleridge (1772–1834) believed that the poet had a special disposition or genius which meant that he was attuned to the mystical winds and could receive visions and inspiration. (Although Shelley professed himself an atheist, he wrote in The Necessity of Atheism that although there was no God in the sense of a creative Deity, the ‘hypothesis of a pervading Spirit co-eternal with the universe remains unshaken.’)

The Experience of Modern and Contemporary Poets

But what about in our own time? Surely any concept of poetry arriving from a divine or supernatural source is well past its sell by date? Maybe - but it seems that many poets still have the experience of being inspired by something that seems to be outside themselves. Often it is a question of hearing the poem. Let’s have a look at what modern and contemporary poets have said about the origins of some of their poems:

The Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 –1926) wrote: ‘In a few utterly gripping days when I had actually intended to take up other work, these sonnets have been given to me.’  ‘…it is late and I can scarcely hold the pen any more after some days of tremendous obedience to spirit.’  ‘All in a few days, it was an unspeakable storm, a hurricane of the spirit… I never even thought of eating, God knows who fed me.’ [Rilke 1972, quoted in the Introduction]

Similarly, the Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva (1892 – 1941 ) described: ‘It is as if the whole piece is given to me from the very beginning – a kind of melodic or rhythmic picture of it; it is as if the work being written at this moment (I never know if it will be finished) is already written somewhere, very exactly and completely. And I am only restoring it. Hence this constant alertness: am I getting it right? am I not diverging? am I not allowing myself - self-will? To hear correctly is my concern. I have no other.’ [Tsvetaeva 2010, p 51]

The Welsh poet Vernon Watkins (1906 – 1967) tells us, speaking about his poem Yeats in Dublin: ‘… It [began with] a musical cadence, almost out of earshot, to which I gradually gave substance.’  ‘I have never heard a poem – not even ‘Griefs of the Sea’ which I heard coming out of the grass of the cliffs of Pennard and Hunt’s Bay – in quite that way. What Yeats called “an articulation in the air”.  It was momentary and extraordinary. The whole poem took place in less than a second.’ [Watkins 2006, page xvii]

Contemporary poet, Alice Oswald (1966 - ), reports something similar: ‘I like the body to take part in writing a poem… a whole poem which I just can’t quite hear. It’s a question of trying to take down by dictation what’s already there. I’m not making something, I’m trying to hear it.’  [Mslexia Writer’s Diary 2012, page December 31-6 January]
And Ruth Padel (1946 - ): ‘It helps to think and speak of poems as having an urgency and purpose of their own; as if they come from somewhere not yourself. I don’t want to know whyThe first stage of a poem is when a phrase or rhythm, a feeling or thought or image turns up and says: drop everything, work at me now… if you lose that moment you lose the poem.’ [Padel 2000, p 12-13]

All forms of creative writing have their mysteries I believe. Novels’ mysteries include the way that events and characters suddenly appear in the writer’s mind and seem to have a life of their own. But although some prose writers will say that rhythm in their writing is important and that they read their work out loud to see if it sounds right and to make the flow consistent, what seems almost unique and is certainly widely reported by poets though not by novelists (but see below for an exception!) is the way that inspiration is intimately connected with rhythm.

The American poet, Gary Snyder, writing about how a poem emerges for him, says: ‘The first step is the rhythmic measure, the second step is the set of pre-verbal images which move to the rhythmic measure, and the third step is embodying it in words… ’ [Quoted in Elder 1996, p ?]

Selima Hill: ‘I think I start with a rhythm. Once I’ve got that, it begins to take shape, like water. I’m not one of those A-B sort of poets. I’ve no idea where I’m off to. Poetry is a big space and I see if I can launch myself into it with as little baggage as possible… You get to a place where nothing can hurt you. Time stops… You have to… implicate your whole being - but not impose yourself on it either’.  [Hill 2000, p 26-27]

Anne Stevenson says that rhythm is ‘the unconscious engine of poetry, the pulse or muscle that governs it and has a physical source in walking, breathing and heartbeat. For although rhythm is more kinaesthetic than aesthetic, it is felt and shared like an emotion. Rhythms also matter in prose. But where in prose the controlling unit is the thought-phrase, the lift and fall of the language in sentences and paragraphs, the energy that drives poetry is the beat; as in the drum beat (heart beat) of primitive ritual and dance.’  [Stevenson 2000, p 4]

 T. S.Eliot touches on this idea of rhythm coming from a primitive part of ourselves:  ‘What I call the “auditory imagination” is the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back, seeking the beginning and the end. It works through meanings, certainly, or not without meanings in the ordinary sense, and fuses the old and obliterated and the trite, the current and the new and surprising, the most ancient and the most civilized mentality.’ [Eliot 1933, pp 118-19]

‘For other poets – at least, for some other poets -  the poem may begin to shape itself in fragments of musical rhythm, and its structure will first appear in terms of something analogous to musical form; and such poets find it expedient to occupy their conscious mind with the craftsman’s problems, leaving the deeper meaning to emerge from a lower level. It is a question then of what one chooses to be conscious of, and of how much of the meaning, in a poem, is conveyed directly to the intelligence and how much is conveyed indirectly by the musical impression upon the sensibility – always remembering that the use of the word ‘musical’ and of musical analogies, in discussing poetry, has its dangers if we do not constantly check its limitations: for the music of verse is inseparable from the meanings and associations of words.’ [Eliot 1941, p 18]

Although novelists don’t seem to report these visitations of rhythm as being of major importance in the genesis of their work, a notable exception is this from the prose writer Virginia Woolf describing beautifully the role that rhythm played for her in formulating thought and putting it into language:

‘Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can't use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can't dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it.’
[Woolf 1977. Letter to Vita Sackville-West, March 1926]

This seems close to the poet’s experience, although a possible difference might be that for the poet, as for Gary Snyder, the rhythm often comes first before the image or emotion and it is only after the rhythm has made words to fit it that the idea or emotion is perceived and identified.

The Unconscious Mind and the Collective Unconscious

T S Eliot refutes any notion that an ‘efflux of poetry’ comes from outside ourselves, from the gods or a friendly daemon. He believed that it is rather the product of something that has been incubating in the mind of the poet which is released when the anxious and fearful concerns of the poet are lifted:

“I know, for instance, that some forms of ill-health, debility or anaemia, may (if other circumstances are favourable) produce an efflux of poetry in a way approaching the condition of automatic writing – though, in contrast to the claims sometimes made for the latter, the material has obviously been incubating in the poet, and cannot be suspected of being a present from a friendly or impertinent demon… to me it seems that at these moments, which are characterised by the sudden lifting of the burden of anxiety and fear which presses upon our daily life so steadily that we are unaware of it, what happens is something negative: that is to say, not ‘inspiration’ as we commonly think of it, but the breaking down of strong habitual barriers – which tend to re-form very quickly…”  [Eliot 1933, pp 144-8]

Coleridge was the first person to use the phrase ‘the unconscious mind’ in English (it had been coined by the 18th-century German romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling). By the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, psychologists were beginning to describe inspiration as coming from inside the poets themselves, from the realm of the unconscious. Sigmund Freud was influential in seeing the artist as a traumatised or wounded individual. He formulated the idea that repressed memories of events or thoughts and ideas deemed unacceptable to the conscious mind were stored in the unconscious. Inspiration coming from the unconscious would then appear to the poet as coming from elsewhere since his conscious mind had no knowledge of it.

Carl Gustav Jung has a more in depth and complex explanation of poetic inspiration. In his lecture ‘On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry’ (published in The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature) he identifies two types of works of art. In the first type the poet knows what he wants to express and his material is subordinate to this; he considers the form and style and chooses his words with complete freedom. He is ‘so identified with his work that his intentions and faculties are indistinguishable from the act of creation itself’.  [Jung 1984, pp 65-83]

The second type of work Jung describes is of more interest to our quest. Here the poem springs into the world ‘fully formed like Pallas Athene from the head of Zeus’. The work forces itself upon the artist so that ‘his hand is seized, his pen writes things that his mind contemplates with amazement… he is overwhelmed by a flood of thoughts and images he never intended to create and which his own will could never have brought into being… Yet in spite of himself he is forced to admit that it is his own self speaking, his own inner nature revealing itself and uttering things which he would never have entrusted to his tongue. He can only obey the apparently alien impulse within him and follow where it leads, sensing that his work is greater than himself, and wields a power which is not his and which he cannot command. Here the artist is not identical with the process of creation; he is aware that he is subordinate to his work or stands outside of it, as though he were a second person; or as though a person other than himself had fallen within the magic circle of an alien will.’

There may, however, only be a difference of perception between the two types. In the first instance it maybe that the poet, even though he thinks that he is in control of his material and producing what he consciously intends, is actually so carried away by the creative impulse that he is no longer aware of an “alien” will: as Jung puts it ‘… he fancies he is swimming but in reality an unseen current sweeps him along’. In the second type, the poet may not be aware of his own will speaking to him and so experiences it as alien.

Today I think most poets would acknowledge that although a few precious poems might arrive ‘as if fully formed from the head of Zeus’ and need little or no editing, even those poems which are, as it were, breathed into the poet, require what Graves has called the secondary process of composition when the conscious mind sets about editing what has been created in trance.: This is what the American poet Elizabeth Bishop is referring to when she says  ‘I really don’t know how poetry gets to be written. There is a mystery and a surprise, and after that a great deal of hard work’.

The Creative Impulse and the Unconscious

For Jung the creative impulse arises out of the unconscious. He calls it a living thing, describing it in parasitical terms as something which lives and grows in the poet like a tree in the earth or, elsewhere, like a baby in the womb. In the terminology of Analytical Psychology it is an autonomous complex: ‘… a split-off portion in the human psyche, which leads a life of its own outside the hierarchy of consciousness. Depending on its energy charge, it may appear either as a mere disturbance of conscious activities or as a supraordinate authority which can harness the ego to its purpose’. This autonomous complex is subliminal until the energy charge becomes strong enough to make it conscious. The poet has no control over it; it can’t be summoned or prevented by his will. ‘It appears and disappears in accordance with its own inherent tendencies, independently of the conscious will’. This is what makes it autonomous. I think many poets will recognise in this the way that the poetic process can’t be accessed at will but appears seemingly randomly - although there are perhaps ways that it can be wooed.

The autonomous complex arises when a part of the psyche which has been unconscious is awakened (by what Jung declines to say here) and grows by ‘activating the adjoining areas of association’. The energy needed to do this is, he says, naturally drawn from consciousness. This explains the way that the usual conscious awareness of the poet is diminished so that, for instance, Selima Hill experiences time stopping and being in a space where nothing can hurt her or Rilke forgets about eating and is unaware of who fed him during his ‘tremendous obedience to spirit’.

Jung does not identify this artistic process as necessarily pathological: ‘the divine frenzy of the artist comes perilously close to a full pathological state, though the two things are not identical’. Normal people may be subject to the domination of an autonomous complex (indeed instincts have more or less the same character) and in itself there is nothing morbid about it unless the manifestations are frequent and disturbing in which case it is a symptom of illness. This arises because the intensity of conscious awareness diminishes (drained, you could say, by the autonomous complex) which can lead to apathy or ‘a regressive development of the conscious functions, that is they [the artists] revert to an infantile and archaic level and undergo something like a degeneration… the instinctual side of the personality prevails over the ethical, the infantile over the mature and the unadapted over the adapted’. The lives of great artists show, Jung says, how the creative urge can be so overwhelming in its demands that it ‘battens on their humanity and yokes everything to the service of the work, even at the cost of health and ordinary happiness’.

What is the Unconscious?

Jung describes two layers to the unconscious - the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. The personal unconscious is close to Freud’s idea. As the name suggests, these are the contents and processes of the psyche that are personal to the individual and may have been conscious but have been suppressed. Works of art receive ‘tributaries’ from this sphere but they are what Jung calls ‘muddy’ and if there are too many of them the work becomes not art but a symptom. ‘We can leave this type of work… without regret to the purgative methods employed by Freud’, he says dismissively.

The collective unconscious is the deeper layer which has never been conscious and therefore isn’t suppressed. It is a potentiality handed down to us from primordial times in specific forms or inherited in the anatomical structure of the brain. ‘There are no inborn ideas’, Jung says, ‘but there are inborn possibilities of ideas’. The specific forms are described as archetypes - ‘a figure - be it a daemon, a human being or a process - that constantly recurs in the course of history and appears wherever creative fantasy is freely expressed..’. These figures are essentially the psychic residue of innumerable experiences of our ancestors. They represent the psychic life of human kind, manifest in the many figures of mythological pantheons. ‘In each of these images there is a little piece of human psychology and human fate, a remnant of the joys and sorrows that have been repeated countless times in our human history …’

Great art speaks through archetypes, Jung believed. ‘Whoever speaks in primordial images speaks with a thousand voices; he enthrals and empowers, while at the same time he lifts the idea he is seeking to express out of the occasional and the transitory into the realm of the ever-enduring. He transcends our personal destiny into the destiny of mankind, and evokes in us all those beneficent forces that ever and anon have enabled humanity to find a refuge from every peril and to outlive the longest night…The creative process… consists in the unconscious activation of an archetypal image, and in elaborating and shaping this image into the finished work. By giving it shape, the artist translates it into the language of the present, and so makes it possible for us to find our way back to the deepest springs of life.’ Every person shares the collective unconscious with the entire human race. [Jung 1984, pp 65-83]

But what about rhythm?

Yes, after that rather heady paragraph, let’s get back to rhythm. Why is rhythm so important to the genesis of poetry? The answer seems to be that certain repetitive rhythms, perhaps because they reflect physical processes in the human body we are exposed to in the pre-verbal state before birth (heart beats, inhalation and exhalation, footsteps), are able to induce a trance-like state in which the usual everyday survival thought-processes are suspended and other areas of the brain, other ways of knowing, are accessed. As John Press has said: ‘One of the functions of rhythm in poetry is to lull asleep those obstinate mental habits in a reader which prevent him from accepting what the poem is trying to convey, and to awaken that imaginative sympathy without which a poem is bound to receive a stony reception from its readers. The poem can perform its work only when the minds of its readers are attuned to its mood. It is possible that a similar process take place in the mind of the poet before the poem can begin to ripen. The fret and fever of the alert questioning intellect need to be lulled and the clairvoyant faculty must, at the same time, be awakened.’ [Press  1955, p 80]

Robert Graves also linked rhythm and trance, saying that: ‘The nucleus of every poem worthy of the name is rhythmically formed in the poet’s mind during a trance-like suspension of his normal habit of thought… The reader too must fall into a complementary trance if he is to appreciate its full meaning’.  [Graves 1995, pp 3-4]

Richard Dawkins has some interesting things to say about the sound of words and their effect on the human brain. He takes the beginning of Keats’ famous poem, Ode to a Nightingale, and tells us that if read aloud ‘the images tumble into your brain, as if you were really drugged by a nightingale’s song in a leafy summer beechwood. At one level it is all done by a pattern of air pressure waves, a pattern whose richness is first woven into sine waves in the ear and then rewoven together in the brain to reconstruct images and emotions’. Try it for yourself: 
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
'Tis not through envy of they happy lot,
But being too happy in thy happiness -
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest in summer in full-throated ease. 
He continues to say that it’s not totally far-fetched to think of the nightingale’s song acting like a drug. Although some ornithologists have believed that the song of the male bird contains information about his territory and his mating status, Dawkins prefers to see it as a case of the female bird being manipulated by the song because it acts like a drug on her brain. He cites evidence for this from research done on female doves and canaries that shows that their sexual state is directly influenced by the songs of the males. ‘The sounds from a male canary flood through the female’s ears into her brain where they have an effect that is indistinguishable from one that that an experiment can reproduce with a hypodermic syringe. The male’s ‘drug’ enters the female through the portals of her ears rather than through a hypodermic, but this difference does not seem particularly telling.’ 

Because of this, Dawkins goes on to suggest that the nightingale’s song may have acted in a similar way on Keats’ brain. He states that most drugs that work on humans also work in a comparable way on other vertebrates (and presumably he’s inferring that this is possible vice versa).  [Dawkins 1999, pp 79-81]

Even reading the poem - and certain types of poetry in general  - silently, and hearing with the inner ear, can have the same effect I believe. How this might work physiologically I’m unable to say, since this process does not involve a pattern of air pressure waves entering the brain via the ear, but it doesn’t seem unlikely to me, admittedly as a non-biologist, that our brains might be predisposed to respond to sound experienced in the mind in the same way as it responds to external sound.  

Certainly this hypothesis creates interesting resonances with the traditional picture of male poets wooing females with their poems and songs. We’ve tended to see this as driven by the meaning of their words but this may point to another aspect. However, the fact that Dawkins himself is susceptible to the sound of Keats’ poem demonstrates that the effect is - happily - not gender specific.

This faculty of poets to manipulate their audience is precisely the reason that Plato was suspicious of poets and would have banished them from his Republic. The poet with his words and phrases is able to influence his listeners who believe he knows what he speaking about, 'such is the sweet influence that melody and rhythm by nature have'.

Of course this doesn't throw any light on how the rhythm is formed in a poet's mind in the first place. What causes the 'trance-like suspension of his normal habit of thought' - apart from nightingales?  Graves said that for him a cloud descends and he realises that something of importance has to be solved. He realises that a poem is around and then, echoing other poet's whose testimony we've already seen (and to them we could add W. H. Auden according to John Carey in his book The Unexpected Professor), it's as if the poem is already there and he's trying to reconstitute it. [Graves 1965] The problem that Graves has to solve seems to be an emotional problem - and this may be what triggers Jung's 'autonomous complex' - but why this recurrent sense that the poem has already been written and that, in Blake's words, the poet is only the secretary, 'the Authors are in Eternity'? 

Perhaps we can assume that poetic inspiration simply comes from a part of our brains we’re unconscious of? From ourselves?

Well, it’s not as simple as that. Scientists still don’t know how the brain constructs consciousness let alone what the unconscious is. In fact the most they seem to be able to say with confidence about consciousness is that it is a state of awareness… something I think you and I already knew. In Jung’s day, research had indicated that ‘there are all sorts of ways in which the conscious mind is not only influenced by the unconscious but actually guided by it’. More recently the American scientist Benjamin Libet conducted experiments which suggest that the conscious will is an illusion. It appears that unconscious processes in the brain initiate action before we are aware of having decided to perform the action. Although the methods and conclusions of Libet's experiments are disputed by some scientists, if true they seem to mean that what we consciously experience is merely a recording of unconscious processes. To me, this calls into question not only free-will but also the nature of the self as we experience it.

Jung had already asked in 1930 in his essay “Psychology and Literature”: ‘Do we delude ourselves in thinking that we possess and control our own psyches and is what science calls the “psyche” not just a question-mark arbitrarily confined within the skull but rather a door that opens upon the human world from a world beyond, allowing unknown and mysterious powers to act upon man and carry him on the wings of the night to a more than personal destiny?’ [Jung. 1984. p 95]

It seems that there are no definite answers to the question I started with. If the nature of consciousness and the unconscious is still mysterious, maybe attributing poetry to a divine source - whether a god without or a god within - is as good a proposition as any. Perhaps the best thing I can do is leave you with the words of the Irish poet, Michael Longley: ‘If I knew where poems came from, I’d go there.’ Would you?


(Apologies for some formatting problems in this article. It appears to be caused by the use of accents in the Irish words which I've been unable to remedy.)


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Monday, 26 May 2014

Re-emerging and 'The Goddess and The Gardener' book launch

I've been away from the blog for quite a few weeks now. It's been a very challenging start to the year, one way and another. As the sun rises in the sky and graces us with its presence for longer, I'm very slowly coming back to life.

Apart from my health, one of the challenges has been publishing another small poetry book under my Brigit's Forge imprint - this time not my own book but the first step in publishing other poets. For various reasons the process has been fraught with difficulties but at long last it's come to fruition. The Goddess and The Gardener by Jane Whittle is a sequence of poems written after she moved to Wales and began transforming a wild space into a garden, working with the energies of the land and of nature and absorbing them to such an extent that she herself grows along with the landscape and the voice of the goddess begins to speak through her.

We had the book launch at the Penrallt Bookshop in Machynlleth and I'm pleased to say it was a great success. Many books were sold so it was a good night for us and for Penrallt Books while the audience appear to have genuinely enjoyed it - the feedback passed on to us by Diane at the bookshop after the event was lovely to hear: 'enjoyable and enlivening', ' a wonderful evening of words', 'inspiring', 'a special evening'. All I would want for Brigit's Forge!

The picture above shows the book on display, in very august company. As well as talking about how my very small press, Brigit's Forge, came about, I also read some poems from The Sea Road and  tested some new ones which led to selling more copies of The Sea Road. I promptly spent some of the proceeds on the book you can see in the picture, The Art of Robert Frost by Tim Kendall, an action I haven't regretted as it's a fascinating introduction to his poetry which includes 65 of the poems with commentary showing how Frost's poetry and its themes developed.

I'll be making a page or another blog for Brigit's Forge Press in due course and will say a bit more about the book and offer it for sale here. For now I'm taking things slowly and surely and just saying 'hello again'.

(Just in case you want to order a copy now, or have a closer look at it, it's on the Waterstones website - CLICK HERE)