By John McCarthy
If you are familiar with Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, then you might be familiar with his idea that poetry is the only craft that can keep myth alive, alive in the present. Myth, as defined by him, is the potential within all of us to realize our intellectual and spiritual potential, finding harmony with ourselves and those around us to the highest degree. It is a total belief and faith in oneself. Without myth, culture is invaded with a pestiferous sense of apathy and a dangerous lack of engagement with human elements–compassion and understanding.
Faith in its traditional sense of rules, laws, and traditions is what we normally think of when it comes to creating a better self inwardly and outwardly. An acknowledgment of something larger than oneself is needed. Ostensibly, poetry is an acknowledgment of what can’t be outright articulated, so it explains it through metaphor. Poetry picks up where religion turns to extremism and where science turns to materialism in this regard. Good poetry acknowledges this impossibility of knowing, and then contents us with it.
Death is, ultimately, what art and poetry tries to explain, either through contentment with the unavoidable or avoidance by attempts at preservation. This ability to content us with death and our own insecurities with time are where a lot of contemporary poetry, and poetry in general, fails. It is great at recognizing death and time, but it never contents us with it; it never gives us a reason to be personally invested. Navel gazing introspection or fragmented ideas and images are an unfortunate pitfall. A lot of poetry acknowledges its own discomfort with the unknown, death and time, their idiosyncratic quirks; which is fine, but if the poet does not give us an emotional context in which to content ourselves with the poet’s discomfort, or with our own, then the poem fails to typify the objective of myth. And meaning charged to the utmost is what Ezra Pound called the goal of poetry.
Take these two stanzas in Natasha Trethewey’s poem Myth as an example:
I was asleep while you were dying.
It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow
I make between my slumber and my waking,
the Erebus I keep you in, still trying
not to let go. You’ll be dead again tomorrow,
but in dreams you live….
The death of someone personal is being held in a metaphorical place of darkness. Here is the unexplainable being cradled in the myth. The Erebus is representative of what is beyond us. Where there is loss, there is still life within a dream. The poem has succeeded in contenting us with the unexplainable. There is a lot of risk in writing but about something like this, but myth can be the comfort to that risk.
“Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end,” writes Carolyn Forché. A poem should take us to that end. It should bring us into a cohesion with uncertainty, then deliver us in that same moment. It cannot just tell us there is a myth. It cannot just provide a metaphor for a particular thing. The poem must content us with what is being addressed. It cannot leave us in the unknown without the tools to navigate the unknown. What most poems fail to realize is that these tools are not knowledge alone, but an ability to properly use emotion in right the context, creating an appropriate balance between heart and truth.
This is done through metaphor. The metaphor combines truth with the spirit, the universal with the personal. Through the description of something small comes the sense of something larger. The metaphor, when analyzed and understood, is contentment with the unknown, a realization that we are not alone in that which we do not know. The understanding comes through, as Forche said, the living through danger, or an event where myth is necessary to content oneself where the danger and its uncertain outcome was overwhelming.
Poet Matt Hart wrote, “We look to the past and future to understand the present.” In the past is the myth. In the future is the myth. The past is unknown, because our memory is illusion, unreliable. The future is unknown and something that cannot be known. We must somehow combine two ultimate uncertainties to content ourselves with the present. This is why we need myth; we need poetry. And we need to keep the myth alive, or we risk falling into a collective danger that cannot be waded through. Poets and their work need to be ever mindful of their emotional intent.
Poetry, in this sense then, is used to cultivate and understand what makes us happy, where bliss is waiting for us. Poetry will help you follow it. Poetry will allow you a depth and maturity to your own emotion so that following your bliss turns into something fruitful and productive rather than rebellious or self-destructive.
This duality of life and death, this fruitfulness out of what is barren is captured in the last lines of Dean Young’s The New Optimism:
You look an animal
in the eye before eating it and the gloomy
weather makes the lilacs grow. Hello,
oceans of air. Your dead cat loves you
forever and will welcome you forever home.
What is dead is still there if you content yourself with it. Sadness is an exterior. If we look past the sadness and into the interior of it–the myth–we will see the importance and profundity of all things, the contentment. On some level, this has to be an integral part of a poem’s direction.
It is so important that poetry be taught, not just as academic theory, but as a creator of myth. A poem is always emotional, but that emotion needs to content the reader with a larger unknown beyond the self, not just the selfish emotional moment of the poet. If poetry is used as a creator and supporter of myth, then the potential for poetry exists within us all. It is what Keats called Negative Capability. It is what Lorca called duende. Myth is another word for all of that. Poetry is a conduit for the potential in all of us to be content with that which we will never know, with the reason we will keep writing, and, most importantly, with each other.
John McCarthy’s work has appeared in, or is forthcoming in, The Pinch, Salamander, Oyez Review, Jabberwock Review, Midwestern Gothic, SPECS, and The Lindenwood Review, among others. He lives in Springfield IL where he is the assistant editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public-Radio Program. He has been a regional judge for the national Poetry Out Loud recitation contest and volunteers at the Vachel Lindsay Home. His website: johnmccarthylit.com