Sunday, July 02, 2006

Visionary Poetry 8: Keeping room for Mystery

Perhaps the cultures that still allow visionary poetry are the ones still closest to vision, still open to magic, the unexplained, the Mysteries. Those cultures that can still point to a rock or tree or building or mountain, and say, "The Divine lives there." Perhaps these cultures are indeed primitve, and undeveloped, and unenlightened—if only because they are not yet made self-conscious and self-aware in the way of Modern and post-modern Western civilization.

But perhaps the judgment of so-called "primitivism" is, after all, a parochial and misinformed judgment made by the "developed" countries for largely superficial reasons. Perhaps it says more about those who make such judgments, than it does about those being judged.

Even in our enlightened, developed, rational culture, there is room for the sacred and the visionary. Children lead magical lives, full of fantasy and wonder, till we train it out of them, and teach them to disbelieve in the fantasies of childhood. At a certain age, you're expected to stop believing in Santa Claus, and the rest—and grow up. But in our pursuit of rational adulthood, perhaps it would be wise to retain some of the magic of childhood, to keep life in balance.

This is not sentimentalism—I am thoroughly and permanently opposed to all forms of sentimentalism and nostalgia. I am not speaking of cheap and easy sentiment, or cuteness, or childishness. I am speaking of childlikeness—like unto a child one must become, to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Many of the mystics, in their poetry and other writings, say that the Kingdom of Heaven is right here, right now. If only we'd wake up to the fact that is already present, within us, and all around us. It is only a short step to enlightenment. We are already there, if only we'd realize it.

Perhaps one of the functions of visionary poetry, ridiculed as it often is within our rational-scientific, technical, non-magical culture, is to remind us of what we lost, when we gave up magic (one of the original meanings of eros) in favor of logos and technos. There is no doubting the great achievements made in technical and mercantile culture by the Western cultures since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. But even today, many scientists question the wisdom of advancing technology without also advancing a moral compass, an ethic; witness the testimonies of the physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project, and Einstein's own reservations about the technology his physical theories helped to create.

Perhaps the function, and purpose, of visionary poetry is to remind us that there other ways of constructing reality, and other windows through which to see the Universe. Not to discard what has been won, through long years of research and development—not to discard it, but to complete it, to give a human soul to the Golem's manufactured flesh, to breathe life and peace into the made-things that all-too-often have brought us only death.

A quote from poet Robert Duncan:

Myth, for Dante, for Shakespeare, for Milton, was the poet-lore handed down in the tradition from poet to poet. It was the very matter of Poetry, the nature of the divine world as poets had testified to it; the poetic piety of each poet, his acknowledgment of what he had found true Poetry, worked to conserve that matter. And, for each, there was in the form of their work—the literary vision, the play of actors upon the stage, and the didactic epic—a kind of magic, for back of these forms we surmise distant origins in the rituals toward ecstasy of earliest Man. Once the operations of their art began they were transported from their sense of myth as literary element into the immediacy of the poem where reality was mythological.  —from The Truth and Life of Myth, p.39

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