Poetry:The Siege Perilous

by Charles Upton

Once upon a time, poetry was a sacred art. It was immensely more “liturgical” than we can easily imagine nowadays, and dedicated to a double purpose: Memory and Theurgy. As Memory (the Muses being “the daughters of Memory”) it carried not only the chronicles and legends of the great deeds of the kings and heroes of former ages, but also the history of the creation of the universe, its unfolding from the Night of the Unseen—its history, and therefore its structure, since the “history” of universal manifestation is that of a descent along the Great Chain of Being, the story of the “motion” from Time to Eternity—just as the apocatastasis, the restoration of all things in God, is the story of the re-ascent of that same Chain. (This is why, for example, we call our ancestors “Grandfather, Great-Grandfather” etc.: in traditional cultures, earlier times were considered to reside on an ontologically higher plane than later ones; whatever preceded us in time was seen as having precedence over us in being.) Any competent poet would carry with him a vast body of lore, representing the whole spiritual inheritance and much of the technical inheritance of his entire culture, stored in his naked memory.

As Theurgy, poetry called upon the Powers resident on the Great Chain of Being, in the name of the High God Himself, to accomplish both the will of the Deity and to fulfill the needs of human life, in terms of mating, food-getting, war, healing, and knowing. Theurgy combined in one skill what later became split into the two poles of magic and prayer. (This theurgic quality is still clearly discernable, for example, in the prayers of St. Patrick.) It was prayer in the sense that it called upon God, to praise Him, contemplate Him, and pray Him to fulfill legitimate human petitions; it was magic in that it called up the deepest psycho-physical Powers of the Human Form, as well as those Powers residing in the surrounding world considered as the Shakti of that Form, (or in Blake’s terminology his Emanation), in order to shape and release those petitions, often at great psychic and physical risk to the poet himself. (According to Sir Thomas Malory, there was one seat at Arthur’s round table—empty at the beginning, but destined in the end for Galahad—called the Siege Perilous, the “perilous seat”; no-one who was not absolutely pure of heart could sit upon it without injury or death. This legend led me at one point to define poetry itself as the Siege Perilous, and to characterize it further, paraphrasing William James, as “the moral equivalent of human sacrifice.” The literary conceit of the Siege Perilous may in fact be derived from the Welsh legend of the stone seat on the mountain Cader Idris where a person, if he were foolhardy enough to sit in that chair over-night, would stand up the next morning either dead, mad, or a poet.) But nowadays we have magic without piety, and (all too often) prayer without power. When poetic Theurgy broke down, the magical aspect became Promethean, if not Satanic, while the prayerful aspect moved in the direction of ineffectual sentimentality. And somewhere between these extremes fell the art of poetry, which—though it sometimes pretends to magic and is often infected with sentimentality—seems no longer to possess the virtues of either prayer or magic; it has become purely “recreational.”

So poetry used to be a sacred art; but when a sacred art degenerates, it begets monsters. That’s why it is probably safer to practice the art of poetry without any spiritual pretensions. But I did not avail myself of that precaution; consequently I was forced to process the toxic psychic residues of forms of the Sacred based on archaic revelations whose informing spiritual essences had long since departed from this earth. René Guénon, in The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, wrote that “persistent psychic influences, when deprived of the ‘spirit’ which formerly directed them, are reduced to a sort of ‘larval’ state, and can easily by themselves react to a particular provocation, however involuntary it may be….the influences in question can be quite pernicious enough, even when they are simply left to themselves.” Seeking lyric inspiration through psychic explorations of the “collective unconscious” is just such a provocation; I can attest to the truth of this from my own experience.

Central to the traditional practice of poetry in the west is the concept of the poet’s “muse.” This presupposes a male poet who draws his inspiration from a subtle feminine presence, somewhat on the order of a Tibetan yogi’s dakini; some of the troubadours, for example—like Dante—composed their songs and poems in honor of the Virgin Mary (at least after the Albigensian Crusade “re-Catholicized” Southern France). As is well known, the Greeks had nine muses, of which three—Calliope (epic poetry), Erato (love poetry) and Euterpe (music and lyric poetry)—relate to the art of poetry as we understand it. And given that the archaic Great Goddess overshadowed the entire Celtic world, it is clear that the Bards composed and sang by Her power and for Her ears before all others (a theme echoed in the traditional Scottish ballad Thomas Rymer)—perhaps in Her aspect as Brigit, Goddess of Eloquence, Mother of the High God Ogma Sun-face—Brigit being analogous to the Hindu Sarasvati, patroness of knowledge, culture and the arts, shakti to Brahma the Creator: the Goddess of Creativity. For the lyric poet, the arrival of the Muse or Goddess produces a peculiar psycho-physical reaction, a spontaneous and uncontrollable hyperventilation designed to raise his subtle nervous system to the vibrational pitch where the words of his Muse may be heard and understood—inspiration precisely: the poet’s Muse breathes his poem into him.

In the context of a living religion that allows for poetic inspiration and understands it, the poet’s relation to his Muse is a conscious craft, hedged about with many traditional safeguards. In our time, however, the realm of poetic inspiration has fallen into the underworld of the “collective unconscious” where those safeguards are no longer available; consequently Brigit or Sarasvati has been transformed into Kali. In other words, to the degree that clear spiritual knowledge, emanating from the pneumatic plane, has become delusive spiritual glamour, residing on the psychic plane, the poet’s Muse must increasingly appear in the guise of the Goddess of Death. The poet susceptible to infernal glamours is under the power of illusion—the central core of that illusion being his own poetic ego—and the function of the Goddess Kali is precisely to destroy illusion; this is why so many poets, who have been left with nothing to worship in modern secular society but their own egos, are led to self-destruction: alcoholism, drug-addiction, suicide.

Originally poetry was both an art and a craft, two words that were once nearly synonymous. When the meanings of these words diverged, however, craft carried most of the original burden, denoting the acquisition and practice of a technical skill which, if a sufficiently high degree of proficiency were attained, might flower into true inspiration, after the technical aspect of the craft had become “second nature”. (Any true musician will understand what I mean, most likely because poetry in its original practice was inseparable from music, just as both poetry and music were closely related to dance—as, for example, with the tribal Africans or Native Americans. The prosodic unit of a poetic line is still called a “foot”, recalling the time when poems were danced as well as sung.) But when poetry began to be considered more an art than a craft, the word art degenerated until it came to denote a work produced primarily through inspiration rather than craft competence, an inspiration that the poet could only hope would somehow bring its own crafted verse forms with it, directly out of his or her sensitive poetic soul, through which the “cultural collective unconscious” might, on rare occasions, find a way to speak. (How like the Protestant Reformation is this passage from poetry as a craft to poetry as an “art”, a change that’s strictly analogous to the breakdown of the sacramental order—a true spiritual craft tradition—and its replacement with charismatic preaching—an entirely hit-or-miss proposition.)

Poetry was taught as a true craft in the Bardic Academies of Celtic Europe. While the apprentice poet was learning prosody, the science of poetic forms, he was at the same time stocking his capacious, pre-literate memory with lore—myths, legends, histories, technical knowledge of many different crafts (astronomy, meteorology, medicine, herb lore, gem lore, divination etc., and at least the symbolic aspects of metallurgy, agriculture, hunting, fishing, navigation, pottery-making, carpentry, masonry…. poetry is built on metaphor, and every craft has a metaphorical aspect), as well as an encyclopedic knowledge of traditional symbols expressed, mythopoetically, in terms of images. He might also, in shamanic mode, become master of the subtle technical craft that would allow him to attain various states of ecstasy or “altered states of consciousness.” Other cultures, of course, had analogous institutions. Persian poetry, for example—like that of Jalaluddin Rumi—also possessed many bardic elements in that it relied upon a vast stock of known and memorized traditional symbols, as well as drawing part of its inspiration, at least in Islamic times, from the ecstatogenic techniques of the Sufis. (For insight into the bardic aspect of Persian poetry, see the 15-volume encyclopedia Sufi Symbolism by Javad Nurbakhsh, particularly volumes One and Four, dealing respectively with the symbolism of wine and of the parts of the Beloved’s body, and with that of the natural world.)

Strangely enough, if any group in contemporary North America still practices what might be legitimately called a “bardic” craft, it is the Old Regular Baptists. Since they have the whole Bible nearly memorized, they possess a large stock of traditional symbols ready-to-hand (or tongue). Couple that with the ecstatogenic technique of hyperventilation-while-preaching, and a deep and pious faith in the inspirational and wisdom-giving power of the Holy Spirit, and you have, in the form of a traditional ex tempore sermon given by the hardshell Baptist preacher, or other preachers of similar denominations, many of the elements of the traditional practice of bardic poetry. (Allen Ginsberg claimed to have developed the idea of the “breath unit” as his version of the poetic line, a line whose length is determined by the poet’s lung-capacity, like the musical line of a jazz trumpeter or saxophone-player—but without a doubt the Baptists got there first. And those Black jazz musicians probably got it from their Black Baptist preachers in the first place.)

Under the bardic system, every poet was both the member of a school and the inheritor, practitioner and transmitter of a body of traditional knowledge—or rather traditional wisdom, a word that denotes theoretical knowledge become practical, information transformed into skill. But when the bardic academies of northern and western Europe fell apart, or were shut down, poetry was forced, by passive cultural decay and/or active persecution, to become an individual art. The broken academies released waves of wandering, out-of-work poets—jugglers, mounte-banks and jongleurs—proto-bohemians precisely, who carried with them (like the Gypsies?) all the marks of a disinherited priesthood. (Who was Allen Ginsberg, after all, but a fallen rabbi, an unemployed prophet? And who is Jack Hirschman, past poet laureate of San Francisco, but a freelance Hasidic kabbalist turned poet, because he could find no place in his formerly-Jewish tradition to be anything else? The Hebrew prophets themselves were often the products of prophetic “schools”, like the one on Mount Carmel—but as Simon and Garfunkel sang, back in the 1960’s, in these days “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls.”)

So now we poets are forced to be individual artists with no stable patronage, freelances who must hope somehow to access an inspiration that we have no formal method of relating to, and can’t even really define. And whatever our poorly-conceived “inspiration” or shapeless “craftiness” happen to turn up we must immediately pimp out to a public that increasingly doesn’t care, or (in the United States) to the National Endowment for the Arts and other funding sources, who will pay a tiny pittance to a miniscule percentage of us to act the role of poets in their nearly-meaningless pageant of “national high culture”.

San Francisco poet Jack Spicer once said, “I write for the dead”—they being his only stable and reliable audience. As for myself, I apparently write for an invisible “tribe” who has never assembled; or for the dead, the ancestors—though it was never my intent to beguile them with my own uncertain talent, but rather give them a living voice—and, finally, for God alone, remembering Jack Kerouac’s exquisitely pungent line: “God is the only critic who cares little for style.”

Ever since the French Symbolists, if not before—ever since poets began to turn to the lurid underworld of the “unconscious” as the source of their inspiration, as well as to the vision of the natural world as seen from the standpoint of that unconscious, sometimes via drug-use—poetry in Western Europe and America has increasingly become a vector for a kind of infernal glamour (Poe; Baudelaire; Rimbaud; Lautreamont; Georg Trakl; the stories/prose poems of Dylan Thomas; Galway Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares, etc. etc.)—a late modern phenomenon that is now in the process of being replaced by the infernal glamourlessness of post-modernism. In terms of Dante’s Inferno, our culture has sunk below the sodden or fiery upper circles of Hell, and come to rest in its frozen depths. And on its way—on the road from infernal glamour, which is actually a kind of inverted Beauty, to post-modern deadness—it embraced at one point the deliberate pursuit of the ugly, as has been practiced by so many poets since the 1970’s. And although this tendency is certainly still with us, it has begun to give away to a kind of post-modern, sub-factual nihilism, a barrenness of severed details unrelated to any deeper meaning whatsoever, whether archetypal, psychological, social, or natural. The “positive” quest for ugliness has turned into a totally negative flight from meaning, based on the very real fear that ugliness (since it is inseparable from Beauty, being Beauty’s corruption) might actually mean something from time to time.

Nonetheless, in its original theurgic-mnemonic function and stature, poetry can be numbered among the final reverberations within the soul of God’s creative act. The poetic art extends the Divine creativity far and wide within the human psyche, both individual and collective; it carries that Truth out of which, according to the Noble Qur‘an, all things are made, to its ultimate psychic limits—in other words, as far as the threshold of unreality, evil and non-existence. This is the great danger of poetry, to both the poet and the society around him, and the reason why the practice of it, outside of a traditional liturgical context, carries inevitable spiritual perils—as witness the alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide of so many poets in modern times. Poetry is the language of the gods. The poet, however, is not a god but a man—a man who has, as it were, stolen the Divine fire, the ability to create icons, living images of truth. If his skill is great enough, these icons will inevitably command belief—not in the form of assent to clear and true doctrine, but in terms of the kind of emotional and intuitive allegiance that only clear and true doctrine deserves. Consequently, if the iconic forms wrought by a poet are not objectively true as well as subjectively convincing, he has arrogated to himself the godlike power to determine what is true by saying it, and perverted that power. Only God can legitimately say what is to be true; if a poet attempts to do so outside of His inspiration and permission, he has become what Plato, in the Republic, calls a “liar.” And this is a form of demonic invocation. In the words of the Qur‘an, from the surah “The Poets”: Shall I inform you upon whom the devils descend? They descend on every sinful, false one. They listen eagerly, but most of them are liars. As for the poets, the erring follow them. Hast thou not seen how they stray in every valley, and how they say that which they do not? Save those who believe and do good works, and remember Allah much, and vindicate themselves after they have been wronged? To say something but not do it is to extend the name and image of Reality into imaginative forms that one has neither the power, the integrity, nor the right to realize. It is to create phantasms, to go into debt to Reality Itself, and thereby to wrong oneself, sometimes mortally. Poetry is boast, only action is proof; the poet who vindicates himself after having wronged himself is the one who has paid, with spiritual warfare and suffering, the debt he incurred when he arrogated to himself the Divine power of creative speech—and has thereby become an honest man: a man as good as his word.

A Specimen of the Beast Itself: Prologue to The Wars of Love

He who sings is a plucked string vibrating
Bound between two posts:
This perishing world
And the high walled garden of the King.

Only That One knows his real name,
And recalls it every day,
And in the canyons of the night
Breathes him as he swims,
Fighting upstream to the source of his
A flashing salmon in the black river
of dreams.
Searching earth and fire for your Name,
For your breast rising and falling in sleep    
He follows the wake of your Word
On the face of your Ocean:
She whose waves
Have never stopped moving him
In the paths of this house of dust.