Thursday, June 29, 2006

Visionary Poetry 5: the Bardic tradition

A poet-critic states: "All the other art forms draw on poetry for the visionary." This comes back to the argument that poetry is the highest artform, which I have already stated my opinion on.

Nonetheless, it's an interesting idea: the shaman-poet, the bard, the teller of tales, the skald, inspiring the other arts.

I think it probably does happen, but no more than any of the other arts inspire poetry back, on this visionary, shamanic level. I'm thinking of some great ekphrastic poems over the centuries. The track of visionary poetry, music, and artwork through the centuries has several threads, which sometimes separate for awhile, before weaving together again. There are threads that go back to the Paleolithic era.

I think you might make a case for some of these inspiring, visionary shaman-poets of the past being Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Coleridge, Longfellow, possibly Browning. Each of these has inspired other artists. it's a short list, though.

In the modern era, I think the direction of influence is harder to support. Pollack, brilliant as he was as a painter who innovated, was pretty much an illiterate lout. van Gogh wasn't much better, and despite the record of his letters, he was remarkably inarticulate at times. Gaugain you might be able to make a case for; he was a reader of literature, and a writer, too; his diaries of Tahiti are interesting reading. I'm a big fan of Andy Goldsworthy, he's influenced my own art directly, but in all the books of his I've read, seen, or interviews and videos I've seen of him working, poetry doesn't seem to be in there anywhere, except for when Goldsworthy puts in his own pithy aphorisms.

If anything, Rilke was more influenced by artists, such as Cezanne and Rodin, and the Picasso of the "Saltimbanques" era, for the Fifth Duino Elegy, then he ever influenced visual artists in return.

I think one might be able to make a case for the visionary modern lyric to be present in pop music writing, which has been suggested; but even there, I think it's a limited case. I do not place Bob Dylan in as high esteem as many others do; nor do I think he's a visionary poet, in any realm other than the political/social. Granted, there's a bardic/skaldic thing going on with Dylan, and some real smarts, which he often seems to want to hide, but visionary poetry is only rarely social or political. (Neruda is occasionally visionary; but mostly late in life, and not so much in the political poems.) Except that they are both engaged with social justice, Dylan and Eckhart and Merton are all very, very far apart, poetically. Neither do I place Leonard Cohen in this category. I can see putting in Joni Mitchell there, and Bruce Cockburn. I might nominate Johnny Cash, for fulfilling a bardic function in society. But this might all be personal taste, on everyone's parts.

As for rock & roll, there's ekstasis and eros there aplenty, but a lot of it never rises above the level of the crotch, and a lot never achieves the sublime level that includes the crotch and more than the crotch. R&R is usually content to "be bad," to act out, and rebel, and very little of it ever achieves genuine emotional depth and maturity. Like atheism, rebelling against something only affirms the thing one is rebelling against, and rather than tearing it down, it serves to entrench it deeper. The rock artists who do get there, on occasion, all seem to come from the singer/songwriter direction, such as Cockburn or Paul Simon, or Robbie Robertson. Within "pure" rock, if there is such a thing, I might nominate Jimi Hendrix.

Frankly, I think there's a much stronger bardic/skaldic thread running through contemporary folk music, now and 50 years ago, then there ever was running through crotch-oriented R&R. But again, all that folkie protest music is mostly limited, and by its own choice, to the social justice arena. The genuinely visionary needs to be about more than social justice, although it includes it. It also needs to include the via negativa, the dark night of the soul, and the via positiva, the exaltation of all Creation, what Rilke means when he says that "A poet muct praise."

I know of a folk musician who's a genuine visionary: Gordon Bok. His "tellings" are directly in the bardic lineage, and each and every one of them is compelling, mysterious, visionary, even downright otherworldly.  

Now, some people say they remember the songs of their rebellious youths as the anthems of their lives. I do remember the music of my youth. But, because I am who I am, I admit it's usually the tune I can recall, not the lyrics. Perhaps that's why I remain a musician first, and poet third.  Actually, that's not accurate. More accurate to say would be that a song is music-and-lyrics; in a great song, you can't divorce the two into separate arenas. (Many a great song lyric doesn't hold up as a poem on the page, and is not as alive in that presentation as it is sung.) When pop or folk songs appear in my memory, they indelibly appear as words-and-music combined.

i think you might make a case for all the other arts being influenced by poetry, with poetry as the paramount visionary art, but it's a case that's limited to the far distant past. If you're talking the Paleolithic dawn of civilization, or even ancient Egypt and Greece, I think a case can be made for it; even more so for pre-Christian Europe, the Celtic shamanic ancestry which became subsumed into, for example, Irish religious practices, as Christianity spread across Europe after the 4th century A.D. But even in those ancient cultures, poetry was never divorced from music: lyrics were sung, songs were chanted, poetry was a living vehicle of expression, not words on a page. Even some of the Pharoahs were themselves illiterate; after all, they had as many scribes as they needed.

I don't think you can limit intuition to just the poets. Intuition is a universal, human birthright. It's a trainable skill; this is a pragmatic truth that has become quite evident in the past few decades, with the release of formerly-hidden threads of mysticism into the wider mainstream, a process which began in the 1950s. There are plenty of artists and musicians whose intuition is directly tied to the source, so to speak, without the mediation of poetry.

So, it's a very interesting idea, but I think it has many limits in application. I'm more likely to subscribe to a multi-valent, multi-dimensional schema, in which everybody influences everybody, everyone is influenced and influences in return. Both/and rather than either/or, as has been said, is a key paradigm for mysticism, visioary work, and shamanism.

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