Thursday, 18 December 2014

Mythology — part five: inspiration

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1769
Being married to a poet for twenty years can teach you a lot about inspiration. The first thing I noticed was that my wife included a number of archetypal and mythological images in her poems without ever having studied Jungian psychology or mythology. Although I already knew that writing poetry often presented such images to the poet and there was something about poetic forms that could contact the unconscious, watching the actual practice of poetry gave me a number of ideas about how and why this happens. My wife used both formal and free verse but the latter was frequently obsessive verse. She would spend most of her time editing her poetry and sometimes she would work on a poem for many years to get it just right: she would repeat the lines over and over to hear and note how they scanned. The rhythm was almost everything.

I saw that there was little difference between the shaman beating a drum and the poet reciting the work in progress. Both would experience the rhythm presenting an idea, most often as a single word, which would be imbued with feelings of numinosity. In transcendental meditation, the order is different: It starts with a highly charged word or sound given as the mantra and the repetition of that word delivers the formerly unconscious material surrounding it. Maslow called such incidents "peak experiences". After many years of writing poetry, my wife gained an ability to detect such peak experiences in what others wrote or spoke about and was thus able to translate other people's experiences into poetic forms. She describes this process in her account of what inspired her poem Anne. A friend of Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote to her after its publication to say that she had read the poem to Anne while its subject was on her death bed, further confirming that she "had got it right".

What inspiration provides is maintained by evolution: the story teller keeps to mnemonic rhythms and sounds and the repetition delivers the suitably imbued material which will then resonate with the same material in the collective unconsciousness of the listener. The poem survives by delivering its numinosity and being remembered and repeated, thus. It becomes a meme. I don't think that the stories came out of religious beliefs, I think that the religious beliefs evolved from the stories and they gained their power from that numinosity that surrounds, and makes significant, certain parts of the unconscious.

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