Who but the Maenads, repentant, clothed, and in their right minds.
(from Jane Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion)
For a long time I’ve been searching for a way to describe my own poetic process that also explains what takes place inside me when I read certain poems. As far as I know, no one has adequately explained the correspondence between the two seemingly distinct experiences. So I have been craving a theory that is versatile—one that goes both ways, plays both offence and defense. A scheme worthy of someone like my childhood hero, Chuck Bednarik, who played both offensive center and defensive linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1960s.
My first lead came from a seemingly throwaway remark by Robert Hass during one of his ecstatically meandering and leapfrogging talks. He might have been talking about metaphor as transport or he might have been discoursing on Pseudo-Dionysus and the language of angels. At one point, he presented us with a variation of Tevye’s quaint, faux-Talmudic, Fiddler on the Roof wisdom: “If you spit in the air, it lands on your face.” Hass’s version, which he said was from Vietnam, provided a twist:
Spit in the air / Learn something
He focused on that split-second of unknowing, confusion, disorientation, and darkness between the initial act of spitting and the equally disorienting peremptory lesson that follows. However, the lesson is not so clear. Yes, it could reveal the spitter’s stupidity, yet he could also learn a more substantive/expansive lesson, about wind currents, angles of trajectory, the turbulent motion of fluids….
It is this very instant of unknowing and darkness that excites me, both as reader and writer. Right at the line break, the heart of the poem. As if that momentary entrance or descent into darkness is an essential prerequisite to knowledge or wisdom—to poetic wisdom. The Dark Wood where Dante begins his journey, the Wasteland which strands Elliot, the Backwoods that lure Gary Snyder, the incessant bombings that besiege H.D. in London, the derangement of the senses that corrupts the young Rimbaud…
And then there’s this, from Robert Duncan’s The Life of Truth and Myth: “If it not have the imprimatur of priestly knowledge, the natural creative imagination of the story-teller was to be mistrusted.”
Both poet and reader must participate
While searching for a description of what takes place during the composition of the poem, as well as in the mind and heart of the reader who encounters that poem, I discovered the 1st century A.D. Greek travel writer, Pausanias, and his report on his visit to the Oracle of Trophonios at Lebadeia. He tells us that although Trophonios is a lesser oracle than Delphi, the quest is similar. First, as an initiate he has to spend several days in a sacred building, purifying himself by bathing in the local river and devouring plenty of meat from all the sacrifices. He has to listen to an endless stream of diviners reading entrails. When he’s finally ready for the descent, he’s taken by two pubescent lads to the river, anointed, made to drink Lethe-water (to forget) from one spring and Mnemosyne-water (for memory) from another. From there the same boys lead him to the temple where he gazes upon the heretofore hidden image of Trophonios. All this is mere preparation, he says impatiently. To reach the oracle he must climb partway up a mountain to an oven-like chamber that opens down about twelve feet. He’s handed a ladder which is removed as soon as he descends. Once inside the womb of the mountain, gripping “cakes kneaded with honey,” he has to lie down and thrust himself feet-first through a tiny opening. He describes this breech-birth in terms of rushing water and swift currents which carry him into the Adyton, the innermost, most secret sanctuary. Pausanias is, finally, face to face with the oracle. The oracle, however, has no face, in fact, no real presence. It’s not clear whether Pausanias is holding back on describing him or whether he’s sworn to secrecy. “Not all are instructed in the future in the same way,” he writes. “Some have heard, others have seen as well. The way back is through the same opening, feet foremost.”
Pausanias remains coyly silent about his most important part of his quest—the answer to his question, the knowledge gained. No one dies, he assures us, at least no one who makes the descent for the right reasons. And though the initiate returns “in the grip of fear and unaware of himself and those around him,” he eventually recovers his wits and his sense of humor.
Connecting the plots
I’m not completely sure how to connect Pausanias’ experience directly to reading or writing; however, I sense it’s more than allegorical. There is darkness, confusion, disorientation, a discomfiture in the middle of my most successful poems that is only partially mitigated by the poem’s closure. Ask my family, friends, colleagues, anyone who has seen me wandering the halls after writing, dazed and confused, “Alone and palely loitering,” like Keats’ hapless knight in “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.”
Look at Keats’ Odes as if they in some important ways recapitulate Pausanias’ descent, all descents. The stages are best set forth by the Victorian classicist, Jane Ellen Harrion, beginning with the search for the right subject, the right place, and the right approach:
- Rituals of purification
Sacrifice to underworld deities / Placation and revocation of ghosts /
The scapegoat / Preliminary oracles
- The Temple
The waters of Lethe / The waters of Mnemosyne/ The image of the deity
- Descent and birth:
Orphic silence / Dionysian ecstasy
- The Adyton—The Oracle)
Sacred marriage to the underworld Goddess / Participation or identification with the numen
- Return / withdrawal / disengagement
I assure you, the connection is uncanny. And it’s also present in Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” it’s there in “The Wasteland,” as well as in countless other poems, and, yes, contemporary poems too.