I fell in love at my first evening party.
You were tall and fair, just seventeen perhaps
Talking to my two sisters. I kept silent
And never since have loved a tall fair girl,
Until last night in the small windy hours
When, floating up an unfamiliar staircase
And into someone’s bedroom, there I found her
Posted beside the window in half-light
Wearing that same white dress with lacy sleeves.
She beckoned. I came closer. We embraced
Inseparably until the dream faded.
Her eyes shone clear and blue…
Who was it, though, impersonated you?
Excerpt from The White Goddess by Robert Graves.
‘What is the use or function of poetry nowadays?’ is a question not the less poignant for being defiantly asked by so many stupid people or apologetically answered by so many silly people. The function of poetry is religious invocation of the Muse; its use is the experience of mixed exaltation and horror that her presence excites. But ‘nowadays?’ Function and use remain the same: only the application has changed. This was once a warning to man that he must keep in harmony with the family of living creatures among which he was born, by obedience to the wishes of the lady of the house; it is now a reminder that he has disregarded the warning, turned the house upside down by capricious experiments in philosophy, science and industry, and brought ruin on himself and his family.
‘Nowadays’ is a civilization in which the prime emblems of poetry are dishonoured. In which serpent, lion and eagle belong to the circus-tent; ox, salmon and boar to the cannery; racehorse and greyhound to the betting ring; and the sacred grove to the saw-mill. In which the Moon is despised as a burned-out satellite of the Earth and woman reckoned as ‘auxiliary State personnel’. In which money will buy almost anything but truth, and almost anyone but the truth-possessed poet.
Call me, if you like, the fox who has lost his brush. I am nobody’s servant and have chosen to live on the outskirts of a Majorcan mountain-village, Catholic but anti-ecclesiastical, where life is still ruled by the old agricultural cycle. Without my brush, namely my contact with urban civilization, all that I write must read perversely and irrelevantly to such of you as are still geared to the industrial machine, whether directly as workers, managers, traders or advertisers or indirectly as civil servants,
publishers, journalists, schoolmasters or employees of a radio corporation. If you are poets, you will realize that acceptance of my historical thesis commits you to a confession of disloyalty which you will be loth to make; you chose your jobs because they promised to provide you with a steady income and leisure to render the Goddess whom you adore valuable part-time service. Who am I, you will ask, to warn you that she commands either whole-time service or none at all? And do I suggest that you should resign your jobs for want of sufficient capital to set up as small-holders, turn romantic shepherds – as Don Quixote did after his failure to come to terms with the modern world – in remote unmechanized farms? No, my brushlessness debars me from offering any practical suggestion. I dare attempt only a historical statement of the problem; how you come to terms with the Goddess is no concern of mine. I do not even know that you are serious in your poetic profession.
When the whole substance of a poem is vouchsafed to one in a dream, which brings with it the several iconic evocations of the Muse, one can be sure that it can be trusted to have an uncanny origin. Robert Graves refers to such rare artifacts as ‘True Poems.” There is no doubt that this beautiful haunting poem was a visitation – a gift of the Muse, conveyed by her to the receptive mind of the poet, which stays awake even as it dreams.
The dictionary defines ‘uncanny’ as “having or seeming to have a supernatural or inexplicable basis; beyond the ordinary or normal; extraordinary; mysterious; arousing superstitious fear or dread; uncomfortably strange.”
The object of Grave’s first love-at-a-distance, the lovely Frances Speedwell, visits him in a dream years after the moment of his early entrancement. Has she appeared in the guise of the Muse – or is it the other way about – ? It is a question without an answer, and we suspect that even were the answer to be found, it would leave us none the wiser.
All true poems, which is to say those which are inspired by the Muse, invoking and evoking her, have this haunting, uneasy-making quality. They persist in the mind long after the pen has been set down, the page turned and the book closed. They have a life of their own, and they weave this life into ours, and remain with us even when we think we have forgotten them. If we are receptive to the parts of ourselves that are alive with intuition and thereby maintain the link into our ancient selves, they become a part of us, of our imaginations and our ways of thinking. They shape us and change us, and place our feet on a path which sets us apart from ordinary people – which is to say, people who are unaware of the Muse’s hidden world.
I have always tried – and failed – to satisfactorily characterise – or explain to myself – this kind of writing, and I say ‘writing’ and not just poetry, because it sometimes makes its rare appearance in the world of prose as well.
I recognise it instantly because it sweeps me out of my ordinary mind into that almost dream state which I think of as the territory of my right-brain, which is intuitive, trance-like and transportive. The ‘catching’ quality in the ‘real thing’ is so strong that it brings me as a reader immediately into the flow of subtle experience. This is one of my ‘tests’ for true poetry. When I manage to write prose in this way, I feel I must make my intellect passive: not passive in the sense of doing nothing, but as not intruding, not interfering.
I try to not struggle with the current but get drawn along with it and I make my writer-self become the skilled but humble servant of that emerging voice which does not communicate in words. I think this is the place where our real selves live, and we usually drown that being out with all our useless mental vociferating.
This self – this writer – does not seem to come from one’s familiar mental territory, and its writing itself, after a passage of time, when some weeks or months have elapsed, is frequently unrecognisable as one’s own. The realisation then becomes unavoidable, that the journey to be oneself is one which does not have a destination, since the destination recedes in ever widening expanses – like a sea voyage when landfall never arrives.
One moves along the surface, catching glimpses of the ever deepening depths, sensing yet never being able to grasp the extra dimension. This of course is intolerable to the brain which wishes to conquer reality by means of its cognitive faculties and so it fights the inevitable surrender by asserting its cleverness and skill. But if one is aware, one feels the imperative to give in to the delicious helplessness of being carried away – of giving up its active volition and letting the wind and the water have its way.
The feeling of being caught between endless space and endless depth while being transfixed by this spell of thought – the inner space and the inner depth reflecting each other and mingling in a way that is intoxicating and transportive and ineffable can be a disorienting one. And yet, one knows oneself to be somehow fixed and poised on a pin-head of space and time. These contradictions coexist in a magical way, until ordinariness returns as it always does and the magic reluctantly gives way, and the process reverses itself, except when the impulse to resist does not intrude.
The non-locality of objects – in this case ones inner-self – unveils itself. that’s why we are sometimes simultaneously recognisable and unrecognisable to ourselves. Its because at the level of our inner realities we are unrecognisable and strange and exotic. The perverse tyranny of our ordinariness momentarily slides back like a secret panel, revealing a hidden passage to a universe where the laws of ‘reality’ are determined by intuition and we cannot for long sustain that view of ourselves as unlimited beings.
Being enveloped in a vast physical sensation which can find no body with which to connect – then abruptly ejected into smallness: that is original sin: the condition which follows when one has been expelled from the zone.