“Tell me, Muse”
—The Odyssey, Homer
“Yet must we… respond to increasingly exacting mechanical devices; some fascinating and compelling, others sinister in the extreme; all requiring a new and strange direction of the mind, a new sensitivity certainly, but at a considerable cost.”
—In Parenthesis, David Jones
“When they talk about poetry, they talk about mimesis as the action that the poem has, in reality, on the reader. Some people think that means the poet takes a snapshot of an event and on the page you have a perfect record. But I don’t think that’s right; I think a poem, when it works, is an action of the mind captured on a page, and the reader, when he engages it, has to enter into that action. And so his mind repeats that action and travels again through the action, but it is a movement of yourself through a thought, through an activity of thinking, so by the time you get to the end you’re different than you were at the beginning and you feel that difference.”
–Anne Carson, The Paris Review
I remember: the priest walking into a darkened church while my father sung in undertone “stay with me, remain here with me. Watch and pray. Watch and pray.” Priest lies face down on the floor before the sanctuary, altar stripped of cloth and candle, flowers gone, gold gone. Everyone kneels. I stand on the kneeler in order to watch. A minute of silence sits like a half hour. My knees lock and unlock. Priest stands, priest steps into sanctuary, the celebration of the mass becomes strange again, even in all its familiar practices.
The firmly Catholic practice of ritual–symbol making, singing, repeated prayers, movement, the central breaking of bread–is reflected in why poetry remains so intoxicating to me today. Like hearing my father reading me a bedtime story, the rocking lilt of a poem lulls me away into a soft trance, some blissfully aware space above sleep. I often have to read a poem two or three times just to follow its scene, so caught up am I in the way the words move, a “shape in words,” according to Jones. There is a certain recognition in the reader of poetry that something different will happen, something more abstract and altering than what is allowed from typical prose.
What I believe most poets are seeking in their work is one or both of two things: first, to discover (intellectually, textually, emotionally, romantically) what it is that makes us react in such a way to poetry, and second to incite that reaction in a baffled reader. I have never been satisfied by standard arguments for why a work is good or not. But I have understood immediately the innate specialness of particular poems, poems built with language, but with an attraction that steps above its own structure, like a shooting star leaving a tail of light behind it.
To speak at all of poetry, one should always turn first to Homer. Quite like his contemporaries, Homer’s Odyssey begins with the Invocation of the Muse. I sometimes wish all books of poetry would begin this way. It is a recognition that, regardless of the poet’s spiritual perspective, he or she is partaking in a ritual spiritual by nature; an act of faith. Faith in language, faith in the movement of words, faith in the powers of rhythm and song. The Muse informs Homer not just of this story, from which we might learn and be entertained, but also the manner in which that story must be told. This is not a depiction of the world, and of reality, Homer is offering us. The story is words, and the words find themselves in a different space in the brain, that muscle of the imagination, so close and involved with the brain’s experience of divinity.
Of course, we do not worship the Greek gods any longer (at least, it is not a widespread belief). But the muse still exists. She’s right there, in the opening line of the Odyssey. She’s right there, any time her name is called. Why? Because, as Sarah Ruhl points out, “the words makes it so.”
The unimaginable and previously unparalleled devastation of World War I shifted the plates on which ritual and faith had been founded. Suddenly, pageantry seemed trivial, its power could not match the ferocity of man-made weaponry. Jones witnessed tank warfare, trench destitution, chemical weaponry, an entirely human-made bastardization of man-made in God’s image. What remained after Europe diminished into a wreck was what Jones called “the sharp contours and unformed voids of that mysterious existence,” and this “profoundly affected the imaginations of those who suffered it.” The impacted imagination no longer looked to God, in a direct fashion, for satisfaction. Christian man’s perception of God, as it had been experienced for the previous half a millennia, was dead (though their faith was not). For how could such a god coexist in a world of such violence? Perhaps the Greek gods were easier to hold in the imagination. These gods would’ve chosen sides in the war, and were more than capable of their own evil.
What rose from the shamble of both the first and second wars was a drastic trajectory towards godlessness. Religion was studied as much in seminary as in history classrooms, not as a source of truth, but rather as a single perspective among many. Allowing religious belief as a great source of imaginative process, we must also recognize the great strictures religious entities have put on imagination. Without these stricture, new paradigms of sexuality, femininity, the body, the source of meaning, the limits of the universe, were contrived. Humans began to see the possibilities of the living imagination, of applying imagination and possibility to every aspect of existence: we reimagined what borders between countries mean, we reimagined what moving images could be, we reimagined what the source of morality and ethics should be. God had been questioned largely since the Enlightenment, but it wasn’t until the early 20th century what a true division of religion and intellectual progress was made.
However, when one rejects the organization that surrounds a God belief (even as one maintains a sense of “spiritualism,” a popular term today), one also rejects this human instinct for ritual. This, perhaps more than anything else, has become a plague on my generation. We rightfully reject the blatantly immoral traditional thought that has been unnecessarily preserved by fundamental religious institutions for too long. We rightfully accept the Scientific Method as a functional tool for cognitive discovery and exploration of our known world. But we assume that these two things necessitate a full-scale rejection of all things religious. Why is a bible story worthless if it is made up? Why is God not real if the idea of God is intrinsically a form which rises from the imagination? As we formulate new ways of living and being in this definitively modern, sense-oriented, base-human world, we reject the ritual-making endeavors of the imagination–God, the poem, the song sung as a group, the candle lit for a loved one, even the waving of a flag–as unnecessary.
This anxiety, of a human starved of its ritual, manifests itself in micro-cultures, in other everyday practices outside the context of religious worship. Food is considered a new space for ritual and solemn worship. Trans-sexuality is perhaps the modern system of transubstantiation. But our artistic mediums are purposefully sacrificing ritual and symbolic gesture for the sake of realism, and a fundamental rooting in the context. We do not see a movie to allow a magical event to occur any more, we go to see DiCaprio’s new Oscar bid, or to ogle at new advances in computer animation, advances made interesting not because we believe them, but because we know they’re not real. Magic was never simple an invented concept, though it may have never manifested physically in the world. It existed in all its complexity because we believed in it, not the other way around. Rituals are not meaningful because of what they’re ritualizing, they’re meaningful because we’ve ritualized them. This is a fundamental disagreement between past and future artistic culture.
There are murmurs of the former importance of ritual to art, in a few tentative places. Aaron Sorkin’s sweeping speeches throughout the TV show The West Wing, clearly designed for the purpose of dramatic, lyric dialogue, and not necessarily to reflect the natural patterns of real conversation, is an example of art made meaningful by attending to ancient lyric rituals. Modern dance remains an avenue for the expression of ritual, turning the human body into an unimaginable wonder (unimaginable in its reality, in an interesting paradox of my whole argument). Wooden boat culture has maintained a fundamental culture for centuries, and still ritually believes in the symbolic power of the ocean. Surprisingly, the brief popularity of flash mobs betrayed the general public’s unsated desire to observe and participate in a communal action, ritualized through their spontaneity and synchronization.
So what does this new paradigm of ritual mean for poetry? Enter Anne Carson. Anne Carson, with roots in Catholic tradition, who still goes to church to observe the vast pageantry. Anne Carson, who “translates” classical texts while including modern pop culture references. Anne Carson, who created Nox, a multimedia book in a box created to mourn her brother. Anne Carson has recognized what the previous three sections of this post speak of: the roots of poetry in ritual, the loss of faith in the turn of the century, the desire for and lacking of ritual in contemporary culture. Her poetry speaks to this desire. She recognizes, as Jones did, that ritual is more than just the mind’s desire to make connections with an invisible god. It is a sensuous need, a need rooted in our biological make-up. This is the idea of “activity” Carson speaks about in her interview, the way a poem is a space for “the movement of yourself through a thought.” The poem, in more than just its word choice, in more than just its story and scenery and symbolism, is a rhythmic act of ritual-making. By its mythic roots, ancient form, and physicality, a poem can reflect ritual in the modern world in a way that this world so desperately needs.
Go to a religious service. Sit and listen. Listen to the language, not for meaning, not for morality, not for godliness, but for the ritual experience. Bring Carson’s poetry with you. Read it aloud on hallowed ground. Our generation, for better or for worse, has more options than any before it: options of schooling, of travel, of ingredients, of romance, of liberty. But this should not be an excuse to ignore all that is past. We can experience ritual without necessarily experiencing God. Anne Carson offers us that chance.