Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1516
Duncan’s essay begins with a definition of the poet which appears to play into the hands of those who privilege the modern, demythologized mind, those who see the poet as deluded and irrational:When a man’s life becomes totally so informed that every bird and leaf speaks to him and every...
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Duncan’s essay begins with a definition of the poet which appears to play into the hands of those who privilege the modern, demythologized mind, those who see the poet as deluded and irrational:When a man’s life becomes totally so informed that every bird and leaf speaks to him and every happening has meaning, he is considered to be psychotic. The shaman and the inspired poet, who take the universe to be alive, are brothers germane of the mystic and the paranoiac.
Madness has been the traditional accusation leveled at poets, but Duncan intends psychosis as an analogy for, not a judgment of, the poetic mind which seeks meaning from the universe. Revelation, says Duncan, always comes into the world through myth, which is to say that a human consciousness mediates a message given to its apprehension. Though the demythologizer might like to run away from the myths of Scripture, he cannot run away from the apparatus of his consciousness which is attuned to meaning. By running away, like Jonah from the voice of God, the demythologizer must treat a part of himself as if it did not exist. The poet is willing if wary: “We at once seek a meaningful life and dread psychosis, ‘the principle of life.’”
The demythologist’s attitude is much discussed in this essay. According to Duncan, the demythologist assumes arrogantly to know the most—simply because he has a modern attitude. Duncan finds the ignorance of this attitude worse than the arrogance, for demythologists ignore the greatest insights of very modern thinkers, such as Ernst Cassirer and Claude Levi-Strauss, for whom myth is man’s way of knowing reality. Yet more than showing the errors of modern doubters, Duncan is concerned to establish the reality of the message which comes to the poet. His title emphasizes that myth is both truth and life. The truth that stirs the poet is not a reality of ideas or images, but a reality of presences. When the subject of one of Duncan’s poems was Cupid and Psyche, he was not writing about the ancient Cupid and Psyche but inspired by their presence in his consciousness: “I cannot make it happen or want it to happen; it wells up in me as if I were a point of break-thru for an ‘I’ . . . that may like the angel speaking to Caedmon command ‘Sing me some thing.’”
Duncan counters the modern objection that this experience is simply a fantasy cooked up by an overactive imagination by illustrating the poet’s connection in a community existing since the beginning of human time. The myth of Cupid and Psyche has stirred many others before Duncan. He did not invent it. It is an old story, a bedtime story, and the humbleness, the familiarity, of the myth allows the poet to approach it, and, dependent on his gifts, release its deeper contents which Duncan finds no less than “perilous.” The poet finds the truth and life within his consciousness, as something inherited in the process of being a man. The contact between the natural and supernatural, the transfer of communication between the poet’s working self and his soul, is awe-ful. The rational demythologizer, who knows nothing of the experience, can easily reject the contents of such contact. A poet might turn away as well, but only because the contents are too much to bear.
For Duncan, what is reaching out to the poet from the supernatural part of himself is the presence of “Love”:Our sexual pleasure is a protective appetite that distracts us or blinds the psyche to the primal Eros, as all the preoccupations of our poetic craft preserve a skin of consciousness in which we are not overtaken in fear of the Form that works there.
For Duncan, this Eros (the Cupid of the “Cupid and Psyche”) is a transcendent reality, a living presence he senses while writing the poem. Again and again in Duncan’s essay the poet is described as someone barely adequate to comprehend the mystery which he confronts. Describing the composition of the poem, Duncan says, “I was hard pressed to keep up with the formulations as they came.” Poetry, the craft and techniques of writing, Duncan calls a defensive operation, a “skin of consciousness” which protects the poet from that “Form” he fears.
No poetic could be more religious than Duncan’s. It is diametrically opposed to the trend of modern thought summed up in Rene Descartes’ familiar proposition, “I think, therefore I am.” Duncan brings the arrogance of the writer into question with his depiction of forces which overshadow human consciousness. Yet it is at the point where the poet openly admits his weakness and dependency that the modern critic finds him most aggressive and proud, as the poet is aspiring to a world of supernatural knowledge which the modern mind knows cannot be known. This struggle between the mystical poet’s apprehension of reality and the modern critic’s denial of this apprehension is at the core of Duncan’s essay. Yet Duncan’s purpose is not to argue with unbelievers but to depict the craft of poetry as a deeply serious endeavor, much different from the fancy saying of things everyone knows already, a view of poetry which developed in the eighteenth century.
Duncan’s essay works as an invitation as well as a caution to poets, who in the twentieth century have less and less contact with an audience beyond their fellow poets. Poets, Duncan says, must take the risk of believing in the profundity of their contact with myth. Since the essence of poetry is vision, the cult of personality is diminished: “Wherever we open ourselves to myth it works to convert us and to enact itself anew in our lives. Every sympathy is the admission of a power over us, a line in which sympathetic magic is at play.” Contrary to what the modern critic thinks about the visionary poet, that he pretends to know more than can be known, Duncan’s ideal poet works primarily from a sense of not knowing, and, especially, a sense of waiting for the voice of the poem—“the voice comes from a will that strives to waken us from our own personal will or to put that will to sleep.” Still, since the poet does not know the voice which inspires his poem, he must be wary of, or certainly uneasy in, its presence. Duncan’s image of the poetic process is therefore a wrestling, like Jacob with the angel, and, ultimately, a crucifixion and passion, like that Jesus Christ experienced; the poet loses his identity so a new identity can be created: “The poet understands the truth of the anguish of Christ’s passion as a truth of poetic form,” and “in every true poet’s voice . . . you will hear also a counterpart of the Son’s sorrow and pain of utter undergoing.”
The struggle the writer undergoes is felt by the reader following Duncan’s thinking through the essay. A sentence will break off, a line of discussion will be interrupted. As well, Duncan frankly admits where he is affected by the modern distrust of myth. He questions his own tears, his own capacity to be affected by “fairy stories.” The modern voice cautions him that his visions are only imaginary. Yet another voice, nothing less than a commanding voice coming from the poem, orders him to hold the vision steady, to receive it, and “to admit, beyond my sense of contemporary proprieties, that it was not ’sentimental’ to come upon weeping as one came upon seeing.”
While emphasizing the poet’s dependence on the presence of myth, Duncan’s poetics is not simply a passive apprehension: “The poet who thunders with the voice of God speaks from a reality that is not only inspired but has to be realized in terms in which the craft and wishes of the man are thoroughly complicit.” The poet, for Duncan, is both empathizer and creator. Like William Shakespeare, he can become myriad human forms, but it is his power to give these forms presence in the words they speak that is his and his alone. In this sense, the myth needs the poet for its existence. The “truth” of all religion, philosophy, and science—as well as the material of literature—is, Duncan says, made up by the human mind through the imagination. The picture of the universe Charles Darwin imagined from his “data,” while creating the modern sense of unbelief in myth, can inspire a poet like Duncan to see the reproduction of myth through history as an evolution of the myth’s form. Ancient myth, a transcendent presence for Duncan, can assimilate all new knowledge the modern mind has about the universe. As Duncan shows, Darwin’s scientific perceptions were a confirmation of the myth of metamorphosis and “shape-shifting” with which ancient poets found themselves occupied. That individual minds in science and poetry, two seemingly opposite activities, have analogous perceptions of what the world is confirms the existence of myth for Duncan.