The Poetry of Becoming Human

Tuesday 6th September, 2016

I read an interesting article in The Guardian by Jeanette Winterson on poetry and particularly on the poetry of Carol Anne Duffy, who says that poetry is the music of being human. But, I rather think it is the music of becoming human, because life is an ongoing attenuated process of metamorphoses.

Coleridge said that ‘poetry is the best words, in the best order’. That is correct, but poetry is also those best words in the best order, which describe the human condition most accurately, that is, in the process of becoming and indeed of unbecoming a human animal. 

Goethe describes metamorphoses as the celebration of the infinite variety of organisms and the elaborate modification of an organ in his book The Metamorphoses of Plants. He seeks to penetrate the ‘secret law’ of metamorphoses through what he terms the ‘genetic method,’ by which he closely examines the minutiae development of a plant organism, in order to comprehend the complete cycle of life. Goethe advocated intuitive observation of phenomena in order to gain a better comprehension of metamorphoses in organisms. He said, “…our spirit stands in harmony with those simpler powers that lie deep within nature; and it is able to represent them to itself just as purely as the objects of the visible world are formed in a clear eye.” (Miller, G.L, 2009, p.111). But, this is surely the poet’s work. Goethe after all was a poet, as well as a scientist, which he considered himself to be first and foremost. 

Goethe borrows some levity from Spinoza and his account of ‘creative power’ and the ‘creative product,’ as the process of observing ‘nature naturing’ (Miller, G.L, 2009, p.110). Goethe documented this process in his wonderful poem on the secret law of metamorphoses at work in the flower with such meticulous attention so as to arouse a profound celebration of the sacred at work in the natural world.

This is ultimately what Ted Hughes does as well. Nature and the animal realm is his deity and he sets about undertaking a careful attenuated observation of its manifest transformations. In fact, he had an elaborate hypothesis about his methodology and his role as a poet. He’s been criticised for his poetic mediations on the ‘predatory’ and ‘destructive’ aspects of nature, which are of interest to me (T. Gifford and N. Roberts, 1981, p.14).

But, what I find most fascinating is how he invoked an old shamanic world law in his approach to the poet’s role and mode of working. He believed in a law of energetic forces. Ultimately, it’s a very masculine shamanic world view that he held, a first world third world view of the shamanic, nevertheless interesting. Hughes seems to put forward this mythological figure of primeval man; a warrior who must undergo a primeval conflict between lightness and darkness in his work. 

Hughes was apparently also consistently inspired by Robert Graves The White Goddess, in which he explores the three phases of the goddess: the maiden, the mother and the crone. Even though Hughes clearly reveres the Goddess in his work he seems to cast her as the feminine aspect of man, which bothers me. She is ascribed man’s unconscious aspect. There is a sexism active in Hughes work. As such, his work can hardly account for women adequately, although he does account for men very powerfully and at times quite terrifically. He certainly apprehends the vitality of becoming human both with and against society.

I identify with the shamanic view of the poet who is in a sense called up by the divine and must choose to ‘shamanize or die,’ which is albeit an extremely romantic view of the poet’s role (T. Gifford and N. Roberts, 1981, p.22). Still, it is through opening up this doorway into the dark within ourselves, by touching on a source of imaginary power, and articulating our own psychic migrations that we come to adequately account for ourselves in the world. Of course, Hughes studied anthropology, and as such had a fascination for the evolution of human beings. He was interested in Jung’s Alchemical Studies. He was also interested in Mercea Eliade’s work on the shamanic.

When a poet opens that imaginary door in me, that is, through reading her/his work, it is gold and then I need to work out their poetry recipe. As I used Sharon Olds’ recipe in my first poetry collection, I intend to apply more of Hughes recipe in my second poetry collection.

Hughes recipe:  1. He uses what he terms a ‘utility general-purpose style’ language, or a ‘colloquial prose readiness’ in language, to do with a concept of deep language (Gifford and Roberts, 1981, p.27). In their critical study of Hughes’ writers Terry Gifford and Neil Roberts describe the concept of deep language:

The deeper into language one goes, the less visual/conceptual its imagery, and the more audial/visceral/muscular its system of tensions. This accords with the biological fact that the visual nerves connect with the modern human brain, while the audial nerves connect with the cerebellum, the primal animal brain and nervous system, direct. In other words, the deeper into language one goes, the more dominated it becomes by purely musical modes, and the more dramatic it becomes – the more unified with total states of being [or indeed becoming] and with the expressiveness of physical action (Gifford and Roberts, 1981, p.33-34).

Hughes attempted to capture the reality of things and states in a muscular language that draws on the primal brain, in order to get at the root of being, which he deemed a simple world speak. 

2. He applies a ritual intensity, repeats images, goes over them from different perspectives, or reiterates, in order to create a chant like or magical musical quality. His poetry is also dense with alliteration and assonance, which enhances the chant like musicality.

3. He always tries to apprehend the direct feeling attached to the subject under scrutiny/ similar to Old’s ‘felt truth’ concept. Also, similar to Heaney’s notion of getting something true. 

4. He captures the reality of things in words. The poem must be infused with life. Or put simply, the poem must live itself. So, the poet must be up to the task of the subject.

Additionally, Hughes advocates ‘letting the fruit come quietly,’ that is, focusing on a point with quiet attentive apprehension, concentrating on it while allowing the imagination to work freely, to glean everything related to that ‘still point’ (Gifford and Roberts, 1981, p.37). To learn to hold the stillness central to the image. Hughes talks about this as casting a light on the ‘elusive or shadowy thoughts.’

Seamus Heaney called it ‘Raiding the inarticulate’ in his wonderful essay Feeling into Words. In Lupercal Hughes ‘raids the inarticulate’ throughout the entire volume and demonstrates a ‘clairvoyant engagement’ with the natural world, as he does in subsequent poetry collections. It is as if Hughes is preoccupied with attesting to the metaphysical drama of being and/or becoming through tying it to the materiality of our human animal experience. Well, it certainly floats my boat!