In Indo-European Poetry and Myth, philologist M. L. West traces links between poets and priests in the Indo-European language family, from Old Irish, Welsh, and German, to Greek, Avestan, and Sanskrit. He begins with a simple thesis statement: ‘all peoples at all times have had poetry and song.’ Understanding poetry and poetic language as language that is set in contrast to ‘normal’ and ‘everyday speech’, West suggests a few commonalities between poetry in different languages and cultures: ‘composition constrained within some kind of metrical form’ and ‘elevated or archaic vocabulary, ornamental epithets, figures of speech, a contrived word order, or other artificial features.’ So far, so good; this summary of poetic features remains relevant, give or take a few ornaments.
He goes on to summarise the features of the poets themselves, which is where the question of relevance becomes more contentious. Firstly, he writes: ‘In traditional Indo-European societies poetry was not a diversion to be taken up by anyone who happened to be visited by the lyrical impulse. Knowledge of the poetic language and technical command of the verbal arts were the province of specialists.’ Composing poetry was not a form of creativity open to everyone; it implied a degree of training and expertise. Furthermore, poets were not solely experts in the art of poetry; rather, linguistic and metrical expertise went hand-in-hand with social, religious, and ceremonial responsibilities. Over the last 2000 years, in regions spanning what we now think of as Europe and central and southern Asia, the role of the poet was central to the community.
For example, in the first century BCE, continental Celts had bards singing of warriors’ ‘brave deeds’, wise druids ‘presiding over sacrifices’, and diviners telling the future. Poets, the lot of them. The words for poets in Sanskrit, Avestan, Armenian, Lithuanian, and German all loosely translate into ‘one who goes into a frenzy’. This ‘frenzy’ or trance might have accompanied spiritual exercises such as dancing, spinning, consuming intoxicating substances, and meditation. West concludes: ‘We can see that […] two specific roles in which poets appeared can be identified in both east and west. They functioned on the one hand as bestowers of praise, whether on men or gods, and on the other as prophets or seers, gifted with special knowledge, perhaps through an altered state of consciousness.’
The idea of the poet as priest or visionary is quite literally an ancient idea; for many people, it is altogether out-of-date. But whatever you think about the poet as conductor of a divine spirit or otherworldly message, the notion of the poet as bearing some sort of responsibility to the community holds good. We still read and listen to poetry in classrooms, in churches and temples, at protests and on picket lines; we turn to poetry for pleasure, comfort, and solidarity in times of struggle. Sometimes, when we experience pain and anger, we turn to the poets themselves to help us articulate and thus understand our own feelings and experiences; to perform their pain and anger on the page and in live events as a form of cathartic release for us.
Anne Waldman explains this tension between the poet’s responsibility and the audience’s needs in performance:
The poet/performer is an ‘open system’ in Prigogine’s sense and the vehicle or ‘scapegoat’ in the Greek ritual sense. These performers have a public appeal for obvious reasons: their work corresponds to a greater need and they dissipate and expel the energy on stage for the rest of us. We are able to participate in the situation vicariously. The resemblance to a sports event should not go unmentioned. Performance for me personally is about being on the spot and available to whatever arises in the environment. It can be a political act or a contest of sorts. Charles Olson spoke of the poet being on the battlefield of Mars. It is a necessary act for me. It is an aspect of the poet’s duty: her call to ‘enact’. It is what I know best, it’s also all I can do. ‘Let me try you with my magic power,’ I say in ‘Fast Speaking Woman.’
The word ‘scapegoat’ is defined as ‘one of two goats that was chosen by lot to be sent alive into the wilderness, the sins of the people having been symbolically laid upon it, while the other was appointed to be sacrificed’ (OED). According to Waldman’s construction, the poet is simultaneously the leader of the ritual and the scapegoat: it is the poet’s duty to perform the sacrifice and to offer herself as sacrificeable victim. As priest, she self-sacrifices to divert the violence that she would inflict on a victim; as victim, she self-sacrifices to divert the violence that the community would inflict on themselves.
In this class, we will think about the different ways in which writing and performing poetry can be understood as sacrifice. We will ask: what do we offer up when we write? What parts of ourselves do we offer to our audiences? How do we understand our responsibilities to our communities, and how does a ritual framework control and empower us as poets? What part do our bodies play in our writing processes, and how do we perform and/or protect our bodies in writing and in live events, taking into account our subject positions: race, class, gender, sexuality, and dis/ability? We will read and listen to a range of work by contemporary poets and then respond to a series of prompts and write (and, perhaps, perform!) in class.
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