Random Notes on the Unconscious in Poetry
However one conceives of it, or works to understand it, the unconscious is bound to be part of a poet wrestling with language. In Jung's depth psychology, the unconscious is separated into the personal, and the impersonal or collective. In the realm of the collective unconscious live archetypes, or organizing principles that recur as patterns that shape our perceptions and responses. Archetypes are not images as much as they are constellations of situations and energetic patterns. Archetypes have also been called "poemagogic images," placing the creative response at their center.
One way that we connect with our personal and collective unconscious is via dreams, the underworld, and numinous and liminal experiences. james Hillman wrote in The Dream and the Underworld:
I and my shadow are born together and act together always. It is just as valid to convert our usual way of thinking, "I cast a shadow," into the proposition, "my shadow casts me." Consequently, the shadow may be reconceived. Let us now say it creates the heroic endeavors of the day—ego as a sort of expiatory function for its psychic torment "below." Rather thatn viewing the soul as expiating in a nightworld for our shady actions in the dayworld, we may imagine dayworld actions to be expiations for shadows we have not seen.
Are we moved by the stars, by our daimon, our other self within reflected from without? Jung once wrote: When an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside as fate. Much of what we see coming at us from the outside, that seems beyond our control, is in fact a reflection or projection of part of ourself that we do not know about, the Shadow, that is not fully realized or integrated into the larger self. The old saying about standing beside myself might be literally true, at least psychologically. When we write, we are beside ourselves; our shadows stand behind us, breathing quietly.
I think that many of the post-Jungians would postulate that the only real way to track the Shadow is by looking at the trail of actions it leaves behind. Sometimes those are poems; there is probably overlap with the territories of visionary and mystical poetry. But the Shadow is by definition unconscious, at least when we first set to explore it. One can bring it up into the light, and work with it—and sometimes all it wants is to be noticed, be developed. By definition, looking into the Shadow is a process of discovering what the Shadow was doing while we weren't paying attention: the trail of its behaviors, left behind. It's like tracking: reading the evidence and signs, in order to find the beast. We hunt the Shadow, not to tame it, but to feed on it, and also to incorporate its life-force into our own. I think of the shamanic practice of soul-retrieval, practiced in some but not all shamanic cultures, as a paradigm of integrating different parts of the self into a larger whole: much like the Jungian practice of the opus, the work of a life in which all aspects of the self are integrated into a greater, synergistic whole. Soul-retrieval and the quest to the otherworlds can lead directly to visionary, prophetic poetry. You go into the dark, and come back with poems running out of both hands.
Images do arise out of the Shadow, the unconscious, as archetypes, not only in dreams, but in many semi-trance states such as the hypnagogic state between waking and sleep, or the shamanic trance-state. What does a shaman do but meet the archetypes, and have dealings with them? It can be impossible to tell the difference between the archetypes that arise within, and the gods that appear to act from without; that is the rather the basis of Julian Jaynes' theory of the development of consciousness, as presented in his The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. (Which BTW is one of the best-written books on psychology ever, if we consider psychological writing as literature. In fact, storytelling is an art Jung approved of, and practiced himself.)
Having had the experience myself of poems just being "given" to me, and feeling like all I was really doing was taking dictation—it's sometimes hard to claim "ownership" of such poems, while noting that they might be quite good poems—I think that "poemagogic imagery" is quite a nice way to put it. I am reminded once more of Conrad Aiken's assessment of Surrealism in Lorca's poetry: To call him a surrealist is a mistake, for to be a surrealist is to be something else than a poet, something less than a poet: surrealism is perhaps one of many names, merely, for the substratum out of which poetry is made. That last line I think also refers to the unconscious, both in its collective and personal elements: one of the many names, merely, for the substratum out of which poetry is made.
Self-monitoring is one way to track the Shadow: looking back at what I just did, or what I just wrote, to see if something of it was Other than what I intended: how did that get in there? This is also how one sometimes discovers that one has written something with layers of meaning in it beyond those one was conscious of during the writing process. It's tempting to say that poetry that has depth, and resonance, and layered meanings arises from spelunking in the Shadow.
In the same way, the work of depth psychology is a process of removing the filters of protective self-delusion from our perceptions of our own actions: to get at some sort of truth, by removing the layers of self-deceit, mediation, etc. Self-analysis can be an excruciating enterprise, in that one becomes very naked and vulnerable, and all one's darkest aspects are revealed. It can be harrowing; it can also be ecstatic.
The classic mistake is to assume that the Shadow contains only darkness, evil (yes, use that word), and bad things. In fact, the Shadow contains all those things that we have not yet developed in ourselves, good or bad, socially-acceptable or not. In the Shadow can also dwell your undeveloped inner strength, and encountering and incorporating that into your daylight self can mean you won't ever suffer from writer's block or stage-fright again.
Just bringing it up into the light is not enough: we also have to incorporate it into our solar, waking, daylight consciousness. This is the work of integrating the Shadow. We bring some of its dark Dionysian wildness into our Apollonian daylight selves. The next mistake many people make is to assume that, once some personal quirk is brought into the light, it will dissipate. Not at all: even now, the Dragons must be fed. (In my case, the Dragon isn't an archetype, it's an identity: an expression of other, higher Self; there's a long story behind why I use that name, and the visions that led up to it, and all the many synchronicities surrounding it; a long story for another time.)
I think most of the creative arts, not just poetry, are rooted in the poemagogic imagery of the unconscious. I think that's where most of what we label as "inspiration" or "the muse" comes from. I think that's the home of the Daemon. That substratum out of which poetry is made.
Rudyard Kipling wrote an essay about the daemon as source of creativity, in which he advised: When your Daemon is in charge, do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait, and obey.
Federico Garcia Lorca was getting at this, all throughout his long essay on the duende.
I have wondered if this substratum is where all genuine music comes from: to the head-oriented music of craft-perfect composers such as Milton Babbitt or Arnold Schoenberg, or the heart-oriented music of emotive expression such as most of the late Romantics (Brahms' symphonies); but rather that ever-sought-after third stream in music: the music of something Other than the merely human, that appears sometimes in human-made music: Scriabin's synaesthesiac music, some of Hovhaness, some of Bartok, Debussy's late works such as the Cello Sonata, and Brahms' dark and intimate late chamber works. (I cite here only some well-known composers of the past 150 years, to make this point; obviously, many other older and newer composers could be included.) These Other musics, these musics that also arise from the deep unconsious, are very close to the poemagogic imagery of shamanic, visionary, vatic, and mystical poetry: layered, resonant, deep, rich with allusion, and dense with life.
Perhaps to locate this inner music one must go snark-hunting in the unconscious. Which means hunting in the dark, often fearfully, often without a map, and very often without those familiar and well-trodden paths that make up the formalist poetic Tradition. There may be no other option.
Baudelaire hunted in these realms, with his prose-poems, while many of his contemporaries still played in sunlit fields. Rilke spent his life and career mining these darker, terrifying realms; and his advice, in so many letters, was to risk everything and dive deep.
The archetype of Leviathan is all about this poemagogic journey, appearing across many cultures and in many tales, from the Biblical books of Jonah and Job, through Moby Dick, to William Blake and others. Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark contains not only madness but danger, the frisson of the unknown, the fearful, the dangerous: For the snark was a boojum, you see.
Diving into the dark is part of the journey of finding out what's in the Shadow, and there's already been a lot of poetry and art and music about what has been found there.
An old Celtic/Norse bit of wisdom, associated with the Rune lore, can be paraphrased as: When in deep water, become a diver. That is, when you find yourself drowning in dark waters, turn over and dive deeper. I wrote a poem to myself many years ago: To get through each Garden to the other side, Eden to Gethsemane to Golgotha, the only way out is through.
We said earlier that we agreed with Aiken's assessment that Lorca was not a Surrealist. Let's look at Surrealism a little more closely, both its strengths and weaknesses:
The Surrealists' best ideas and inventions were when they sought material and inspiration from the unconscious, via dream work, automatic writing, hypnosis, and other "irrational" and/or aleatoric (chance-determined) games such as Exquisite Corpses. Their intentions were to use what they found in those non-rational realms as raw material for art-making.
However, they viewed this as material to be mined, used, sampled, i.e. dominated and controlled, ultimately, since the daytime waking mind was still considered to be The Artist. (Remnants of the Romantic ideas of The Artist being the heroic outsider.) They never gave over complete control to the unconscious processes; they needed to remain in charge. André Breton, for all his own artistic gifts, allowed himself to become Surrealism's gatekeeper and enforcer, constantly rewriting the Manifesto of Surrealism, and deciding who was a genuine Surrealist and who wasn't. This degree of autocratic control seems antithetical to the very mission of going into the chaotic unconscious, where inherently there are no rudders. So, the dictatorial control of the Surrealist product became the very autocratic tendency that the Surrealists had originally been rebelling against, in their pursuit of the irrational: they became their own enemies. (They were neither the first nor the last to fall into this trap.) Ultimately, this led to Surrealism being just another historical -ism in the history of art and literature, just another movement; they had intended to radicalize the very processes of art-making, but ended up just developing another method of art-making, available among many other methods.
Marcel Duchamp remained radical, however, not only with DaDa, but also with his continued ability to think sideways, to think outside the box, and let the genuinely unpredictable into his work. His influence on John Cage and others, in terms of chance-determined processes, was enormous. Duchamp's work to this day contains that extra level of resonance that much Surrealist art does not.
Similarly, René Magritte, who very separated himself from Surrealism as a movement, continued to pursue the dreamscapes and altered states of consciousness in which the unconscious can be accessed. Magritte sometimes referred to himself as an explorer and student of consciousness, more a philosopher than a painter. He once stated: My painting is visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question "What does that mean?" It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable. Magritte's art remains vital and alive, as does Duchamp's, when you encounter it face to face.
Returning to Lorca again, while he was friend and collaborator with some of the Surrealists briefly, that was never his entire working method. Even at the height of his friendships with Dali and Bunuel, Lorca was already exploring his ideas of the duende and cante jondo, or deep song.
My own theory has been for some time—time in which I've been crafting a long essay, yet to be completed, on this topic—that Surrealism actually reached its full flowering in the literature of Central and South America; that while it began as a movement in Europe, it was elsewhere that it reached maturity. There is ample evidence for this theory in the poetry (and essays on poetry) or Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Xavier Villaruttia, and several others. The European group who reached a higher level of Surrealist intensity in Europe was not the founders of the -ism, but those who were influenced by them, such as modern Greek poet Odysseas Elytis, or Italian poet Eugenio Montale. I'll get back to this set of ideas eventually.
There's a point at which, in poetry, perhaps when we genuinely approach that substratum, that conventional syntax and structure break down completely, just as conventional time-binding and narrative dissolve in the unconscious. In the Shadow, synchronicity replaces coincidence; simultaneity can occur in place of linear sequentiality; and everything happens all at once. Getting this into words is often difficult, because grammatical language is normally structured precisely to bind time into narrative. Occasionally radical forms and syntactical experiment can serve to open the ears and mind to experiencing the substratum's possibilities. It remains always a challenge, a struggle uphill against gravity.
What's interesting is when poetry itself breaks down and away from language. When the word-based medium becomes something other than purely words. That is perhaps another trail of clues by which we might track the action of the unconscious in our poetry. Experience abounds. We have but to follow it to its end.