Theokritikos: poem series
I cycle back around to poet and novelist Nikos Kazantzakis' strange little book, The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises (translated by Kimon Friar). This book is a poetic statement of the author's inner mystical vision, written at white heat during an unexplained and disfiguring illness that vanished as soon as the book was completed. It is one of the least known of Kazantzakis' several books—he is best known for having written the existential novel Zorba the Greek and a modern sequel of The Odyssey—yet Saviors contains in summation his entire cosmology, his motivations as a poet and mystic, the ideas that lie behind his entire corpus. Kazantzakis titled his little book, askitiki, or ascesis, connoting both "asceticism" and "aesthetics," given in translation as "spiritual exercises," which further evokes other series of spiritual exercises composed by other mystics. The spiritual and the artistic are one, a truth the poet lived as well as believed. It appears in one aspect or another in all of his writings. The Prologue states:
WE COME from a dark abyss, we end in a dark abyss, and we call the luminous interval life. As soon as we are born the return begins, at once the setting forth and the coming back; we die in every moment. Because of this many have cried out: The goal of life is death! But as soon as we are born we begin the struggle to create, to compose, to turn matter into life; we are born in every moment. Because of this many have cried out: The goal of ephemeral life is immortality! In the temporary living organism these two streams collide: (a) the ascent toward composition, toward life, toward immortality; (b) the descent toward decomposition, toward matter, toward death. Both streams well up from the depths of primordial essence. Life startles us at first; it seems somewhat beyond the law, somewhat contrary to nature, somewhat like a transitory counteraction to the dark eternal fountains; but deeper down we feel that Life is itself without beginning, an indestructible force of the Universe. Otherwise, from where did that superhuman strength come which hurls us from the unborn to the born and gives us - plants, animals, men - courage for the struggle? But both opposing forces are holy. It is our duty, therefore, to grasp that vision which can embrace and harmonize these two enormous, timeless, and indestructible forces, and with this vision to modulate our thinking and our action.
I think about Kazantsakis because it bears directly on this poem series I've been writing since 2007. I wrote the first poem in the series (before I knew it would become a series) when I was the live-in caregiver for my father, who was dying of colon cancer. I drove him to his medical appointments, I cared for him at home, I did all the errands and shopping when he wasn't able to, and more. I did much the same for my mother, who had Alzheimer's; although my mother didn't live at home, but in a care facility, I still needed to make decisions for her care, and more. About the same time that they died, I was diagnosed with my own chronic illness, which got worse, then I had surgery this past summer, and now I am in a state of ongoing recovery.
The poems in this series have titles in classical Greek, words that serve as titles and themes for each poem: specifically, ancient Greek terms used in both classical and contemporary theological writing. These Greek words are complex, nuanced, and layered in meaning; they all have long histories and many subtleties. There are associations of meaning that have accrued over centuries or millennia of theological writing, but there are also the original meanings of the words in their original ancient Greek contexts. I tend to weight my own interpretations towards the latter, but meaning is not dictated in a poem, and the reader is free to find meanings in my poetry that even I did not know were there. (I occasionally make such discoveries myself, implying that on a conscious level I didn't deliberately insert such meanings, but, on some super-conscious archetypal level, some greater part of me perhaps did.)
I admit that it does help to know what the titles mean, when reading the poems in this series. I've encouraged people to go look the words up, and discover for themselves. If I ever publish these poems as a group, I may have to provide an endnote or lexicon. Each poem reflects the title word in both content and form, and in some cases, represents the concept of the title as a process that happens during the poem. The poem therefore becomes an enactment of the title.
The poems in the series are for the most part written in new styles and forms that emerge organically as I write, spontaneously, without pre-planning. The poems were written in the wake of several powerful life-changing events (as mentioned above, the illness and death of my parents, my own chronic illness, surgery, and ongoing recovery). Many of these poems have surprised me in the process of their emergence. I find that I am not writing at all like I used to write, before all of these events happened in my life; in fact, I'm unable to write the way I did a decade and more ago. I am in transition, learning to read new maps, after having discarded all the old maps which had become worse than useless. When you go through a life-changing experience, it affects your art, even how you make your art.
So, the title for this poem series came to me rather late in the process, really just a few days ago, after most of these poems had already been written. The title is Theokritikos, derived from kritikos, defined in classical Greek as one who is capable of judging; and from theo-, or theos, classically defined as god-related, as involved with the gods. Adding theo- to kritikos changes the latter from a mostly literary or social-justice implication of analysis, judgment, and understanding, and brings in the transcendent, the mystical, and the theological. I do this deliberately. I am well aware that the poems in this series have always contained questions that are eternal, even theocritical, in implication.
Theokritikos is a complex formulation that I hope might have pleased Kazantzakis. Implied is both criticism of the gods, and criticism of life in service to the gods. I realize in retrospect that many of these poems are in the spirit of Saviors of God, which questions everything, even the abyss, and sets fire to the heart and mind.
Here are a few lines from Saviors of God, which I feel resonate strongly with what I am writing about here, and share tone and temperament with the poems in my Theocritikos series:
I have one longing only: to grasp what is hidden behind appearances, to ferret out that mystery which brings me to birth and then kills me, to discover if behind the visible and unceasing stream of the world an invisible and immutable presence is hiding. . . .
During those fearful moments when the Cry passes through our bodies, we feel a prehuman power driving us ruthlessly, Behind us a muddy torrent roars, full of blood, tears, and sweat, filled with squeals of joy, of lust, of death. . . .
PAIN IS NOT the only essence of our God, nor is hope in a future life or a life on this earth, neither joy nor victory. Every religion that holds up to worship one of these primordial aspects of God narrows our hearts and our minds. The essence of our God is STRUGGLE. Pain, joy, and hope unfold and labor within this struggle, world without end. . . .
In the smallest lightning flash of our lives, we feel all of God treading upon us, and suddenly we understand: if we all desire it intensely, if we organize all the visible and invisible powers of earth and fling them upward, if we all battle together like fellow combatants eternally vigilant - then the Universe might possibly be saved. . . .
Few poems in this series have been well-regarded. Some have generated intense controversy, most have been ignored, some labeled incomprehensible or baffling or worse. Well, you know, poets argue eternally about accessibility and difficulty in poetry; my opinion has always been that a poem should be what it is, in order to be true. If a poem is more difficult, that may only be because it's addressing complex, nuanced ideas, which the poems in this series do. I readily admit that they are "experiments" in the sense that we experiment with life till we get it right. All life is trial-and-error, experimenting with the tools we have to build what we can. Two or three of these poems have been officially published, placed in various journals and periodicals. Most have not, except here. They've so often been greeted with bafflement or dislike that I admit I haven't tried very hard. (I began the Letters series of poems during my own illness, begun when I almost died from anemia last year, and are ongoing—the Letters poems aren't really any more welcomed than the Theocritikos series.) But that's okay: I'm not writing them to be loved, I'm not writing them for you.
I foresee printing the Theokritikps series, someday, as a small-edition illustrated chapbook. Despite their unpopularity, I am moderately fond of these poems, for meeting several of my own artistic needs. They've been responses to darkness and light, and have helped me sort out my thinking. I've learned much from their making.