Sunday, May 22, 2011

Poet and Priest

It would be a realization of that which as yet we glimpse from afar, if a priest were also to be a poet, if a poet were allowed to be a priest, if the life of a priest and that of a poet were to intermingle and be woven one into another. . . .

It is time that we asked: what has become of the times when great theologians also wrote hymns? When they could write like Ignatius of Antioch, compose poems like Methodius of Olympus, be carried in hymnody like Adam of St. Victor, Bonaventure, and Thomas Aquinas? What has become of those times? Has theology become more perfect because theologians have become prosaic?

—Karl Rahner, "Priest and Poet," essay from his collection Theological Investigations

There's a long tradition—bardic, skaldic, shamanic—of the priest being a poet, of the poet being a priest. It's tied directly to the ancient Paleolithic conception of spirituality as animist, nature-connected, mystical: the world is divine, and the Divine is the world. Not "in the world," but "is the world." The ancient figures of the Green Man, of the Great God Pan, of the Piper at the Gates of Dawn: all masculine images of the fecund and fertile cycles of the living world, which dies every autumn in the harvest, and is reborn every spring with the return of the Greening. A truly agrarian cycle. Lived in miniatures in the house gardens we keep in our window-boxes in our apartment windows overlooking the streets of our cities that we imagine are somehow divorced from nature. "Pan" means "everything," after all, which by implication means all of nature itself, all of the cosmos, all of the Universe.

We live in a very left-brain, rationalistic, materialistic, Apollonian culture. The solar god Apollo symbolizes light and consciousness, reason and commerce and rationality. The agrarian, fecund, earthy god Dionysus welcomes spontaneity and irrationality, the wildly creative and the sensual, somatic, sexual body. The sun god is in the sky, detached and rational, giving light to the world but removed from it. The earthy god is the Earth itself, its cycles of seasons, climate, violent and benign weather alike, tethered by gut-level emotion, feeling, and (right-brain) intuition to the physical and dark: the darkness of shadows, soil, and the grave. No wonder the priests of Apollo fear the revels of Dionysus: the celebrations of life that no do not ignore the reality of death, of the limitations of life, of the body. The detached mind prefers to believe it's immortal and unchanging, and events rational religions with philosophical theology to explain and affirm its immortality. Theology, however, is talking about God, rather than being a direct experience of God. When theology becomes too rational, too prosaic, the direct experience of God, which is often a disruptive experience, is given to the poets, the artists, the mystics, and the drunken (unmanageable) ecstatics who follow Dionysus.

Apollo fears Dionysus—but both are necessary, two halves of a whole that must be integrated, to become fully human. Organized, institutional religion prefers Apollo—a god who manages, and can be managed—while spirituality, individual, anarchic, based on experience rather than theory, prefers Dionysus.

We manage our art: we turn it into entertainment, thereby denature its potency, and then pat ourselves on the backs for being meaningless, for making poetry that has no impact on the world, that is in fact completely divorced from the world. But entertainment is death, precisely to the extent that it is not life-affirming. So much of popular music presented to us as entertainment is narcissistically anthropocentric to the point of nihilism. Where is its social consciousness? Where is its connection to the function of prophecy? of being the words of the priest?

I don't really believe in "American Idol." First of all, you would never find Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan on "American Idol." They would never have won.
—k.d. lang

Poet-priest k.d. lang once again speaking the truth no-one else has bothered to mention. And she's absolutely right. She articulates my own feelings, which I'd never put so clearly into words: why I don't watch "American Idol," and never have. The model of the music business that "American Idol" portrays is bitterly accurate in its fickleness, harshness, and supportive moments alike—both good and bad. There's a lot of that in real life, off course, but when you take bards and turn them into entertainers and then do your best to make a profit off them, it brings out the shadow something fierce. Many of the more independent-minded bards get out, or fight through on their own terms, and refuse to be broken. (Which is the theme of Tom Petty's song "I Won't Back Down.")

Can you imagine a recorded music industry if it was run not by non-creative business managers (who can be correctly perceived as parasites living off the creative gifts of others) but by poet-priests?

In fact, I can: it's what happened in the 1970s, when practically anyone who could put out a self-produced vinyl LP of their own, idiosyncratic music; and it is what is happening right now, when composers and songwriters can connect directly with their listeners via Internet downloads and direct album sales that do not pass through the gatekeepers and managers of the music industry. (Something which greatly upsets the managers, who fear losing their parasitical profits.) The managers are also no longer the gatekeepers of taste, deciding what gets released to the public and what does not. When artists can sell directly to their public, without going through the middle-managers, it's direct democracy in action: one person, one vote. (Which is theme of the song by Johnny Clegg & Savuka, "One (Hu)'Man, One Vote.")

So, what's wrong with self-publishing a chapbook of your own poems? Nothing. The big publishers would like us to believe that unless they retain their status as gatekeepers of taste, a lot of bad poetry will get published. The truth is, though, that a lot of bad poetry was published even when they were the de facto gatekeepers. Their track record on publishing quality is random at best, fouled at worst.

There will soon be no more priests. Their work is done. They may wait awhile..perhaps a generation or two..dropping off by degrees. A superior breed shall take their place....the gangs of kosmos and prophets en masse shall take their place. A new order shall arise and they shall be the priests of man, and every man shall be his own priest. The churches built under their umbrage shall be the churches of men and women. Through the divinity of themselves shall the kosmos and the new breed of poets be interpreters of men and women and of all events and things. They shall find their inspiration in real objects today, symptoms of the past and future....They shall not deign to defend immortality or God or the perfection of things or liberty or the exquisite beauty and reality of the soul. They shall arise in America and be responded to from the remainder of the earth.
—Walt Whitman, "Preface" to Leaves of Grass (1855 edition)

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

The book-buying public are the gatekeepers of taste. Publishers only serve up the stuff. We’re the ones who sniff at it and reject it. I think more and more people are starting to realise that things are not like they used to be in the good ol’ days, not when it comes to films, or TV programmes or books. I despair at how many great TV shows get cancelled after one or two seasons because they’re only getting audiences of, oh I don’t know, 5 million viewers. “No, you can’t watch that anymore, it’s not what you should be watching. Here, watch this tripe instead.” Books are no different. Be wary of anyone selling anything that he didn’t make with his own two hands, that’s what I say.

I have seriously consider trying to get a publishing deal – I’ve just done a final edit on Milligan and Murphy which I’ll be bring out in the Fall and it’s bloody good – but I just can’t face the system besides I like having creative control. Okay, it means I’ll sell dozens as opposed to hundreds but I think I can live with that.

9:49 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I'm very pro-artisan, as you know. I'm all for authors self-publishing because these days the stigma on "vanity" publishing is no longer relevant, because it means that some great stuff is getting out there, and the big publishers had no say in it (and no profits on it). It's a whole new world, with new paradigms. And buyers have even more say than they used to.

2:26 PM  
Blogger Glenn Ingersoll said...

I think of poetry partly as a spiritual practice - it's not like it matters in the world in a material way.

Priests are no closer to God than the rest of us, unless that just means the God of their particular text(s), which they can cover with their sweating, writhing bodies for all I care.

7:43 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Actually, if one takes the post-structuralist definition of "text" (Foucault et al.), which can be any sort of storytelling thing, then there are certain "texts" I'd be happy to cover with my sweating, writhing body. After all, sacred sex, Tantra, etc., are all texts, too. :)

Ahem. More seriously, though, I do agree that I practice poetry as a partly spiritual practice: which is what Basho said it was ("the way of poetry"), and practiced himself, and urged his followers to follow, as a way. I've always felt that way about it. Which of course is minority opinion these days, as already discussed.

Thanks for the input. Good thoughts.

10:54 PM  

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