Visionary Poetry 4: some tactics
Some traditional religious would have us maintain the split between mind and body, soul and flesh, spirit and matter. I think this is a mistake, because if you exalt the enlightened parts of the Self without also exalting the darker Shadow parts of the Self, you risk great danger, for what is suppressed or ignored will re-appear in a different form. The Shadow will continue to trip you up until you face it directly, and work with it. If a poet can only write about the light, and never embrace their own darknesses, they cannot become a mature poet, but will stay trapped in a superficial realm with no resonance in their poems. Similarly, if a poet dwells only on the dark aspects of life and existence, and does not praise, they will remain similaryl incomplete.
So, I feel that visionary poetry must also be somatic, bodily, enfleshed, not only transcendant and ecstatic. I do not exclude love-making or death from the mystical or visionary experience. I submit that they are both fundamentally human (mystical) experiences, at their best, and that is how I set out to practice them in my own life. There is a long literature about both subjects, eros and thanatos, that reinforces my inclusion of them in this discussion.
I think evocation is a better tactic for the artist, than description. This goes even beyond the common critical position about poetry, "showing vs. telling," which we've all talked about in poetry at one time or another. Evocation is beyond showing, or describing: it is embodying, it is making it actual, an avatar of the experience. It is immanent experience, both personal and transcendant.
In many of the world's shamanic traditions, the Bard, the poet, the musician, the artist, the creative person, is the dweller on the threshold. The shaman is able to pass back and forth between worlds, seeking inspiration and healing (for self and others) in the other worlds, and return mentally unscathed. Art can be shamanic art, and serve this function as well, evoking and awakening its audience to new realms and ways of beings.
Many do not come back unscathed. Some do not come back at all; the asylums are, in my opinion, filled with diagnosed schizophrenics who are failed visionaries, failed mystics, shaman who didn't make it. (cf. Arhnold Mindell, City Shadows) These are all terms, along with mythopoetic, and archetypal, that people have used to describe my visual artwork, my music, and my poetry—which is why I am interested in looking into this topic.
If a poet makes the shamanic journey, like anyone who makes the journey and returns, they can come back forever changed. Yet, there are also little visions, ordinary satori. Not every vision is a Red-Sea-parting-vision in scale. I personally know a couple of really gifted visionaries who never have Big Visions, they're just incredibly, accurately intuitive. Those who make it back bring with them gifts. And those gifts can be visions. And those visions can become poems, or paintings, or music, or tellings. Often enough, the artwork is marked by a sense of ecstatic linging for Union, once felt, now sought again.
With practice and experience—which are the roots of spiritual technology—those doors of perception become easier to open, again. In fact, according to some mystics, such as Meister Eckhart, they open at the touch of a mere breath: it is we who keep them locked tight, because they so disturb our everyday reality, and upset our notion of what is real. There is an element of grace in this process, too, of course, when a visionary experience just simply happens, as a gift, without preparation, and without formal training. It is not exactly "involuntary," that is too strong a word; but it often happens in its own time, by its own will.
And to return briefly to the interconnectedness of the arts, I don't tend to view one art medium as superior to another (although, again, I have other poet friends who would claim that poetry is the ultimate artform), but rather as complementary. Some of the most interesting effects, to me, are when different artforms are combined. This is why certain kinds of performance art and music theatre work well, and take you places that just listening, or just viewing, alone, cannot by themselves.
Which leads me to consider another aspect of visionary poetry: synaesthesia.
1. A condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another, as when the hearing of a sound produces the visualization of a color.
2. A sensation felt in one part of the body as a result of stimulus applied to another, as in referred pain.
3. The description of one kind of sense impression by using words that normally describe another.
Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud and Artaud talked about "the derangement of the senses," and they were influenced to some extent in this by Poe. Now, whether one uses a chemical intoxicant, such as alcohol or drugs, to achieve that derangement, or not, the poetry that results can be beyond metaphor and cross over into synaesthesia. It's not a question so much of the confusion of the senses, as in their simultaneous extreme activation, in a way where everything blends together. The neurobiologists reductionistically consider this to be neurological short-circuiting, but I find a pathological explanation to be less than satisfactory in the face of the evidence that many great visionary artists experienced synaesthesia. (It can, in fact, according to Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks, be actively cultivated and developed, and he sets out a program for doing so.)
Much of the mystical literature, and much visionary writing, can be viewed as depicting synaesthesia, or evoking it. We use sense descriptors from one sensory realm to evoke experiences in another. The blue taste of the sun. That yellow color smells just like parked cars.
One of the things that occurs in visionary poetry is an experience of the Oneness of things: and so, senses cross over and it all happens at the same time. Timelessness is another characteristic of visionary states. The challenge is to get a non-linear, timeless experience into linear, timebound writing. Odysseas Elytis' long poem The Little Mariner contains a section where sense-words are laid out in a grid or matrix on the page, and one can move through the matrix in any direction. This has the effect of both layering simultaneous expressions, and breaking up linear, singular readings of the poem. Acoustically, it's as though several voices were all saying the same and different things all at the same time, a cluster of voices in a space filled with light. I've worked with this principal in text-sound poetry musical pieces; t's also reminiscent of collage, or Rauschenberg's assemblages.
So, the visionary moment often contains the simultaneity experience of, everything all happening at once, at the same time, in unity. How we depict that in poetry, well, that's the challenge.