Inspiration in Modern Poetry: Eight Suggestions

I have noted some difficulties with Modernism, which were largely evident to contemporaries, and which can be accommodated only by accepting that the poet’s world (with the surrounding critical apparatus)  is the sole arbiter of truth. That accommodation is so commonly made in poetry today that the resulting autism is only apparent from wider perspectives, when art, truth and meaning are seen in the closely-argued generalities of philosophy.  As Eliot indicated, poetry is the reorganisation of pre-existing material — attitudes, artworks, tacit beliefs and understandings. The poet assembles and shapes the material to effect a certain response. Or he did once. In Modernism, the poet has to create his own material, and his own response. If, further, the poet cannot employ the beliefs and habits of the common reader, which Modernism, by its stress on the new, has outlawed, then the poet will be cultivating ever less hospitable terrain. The poetry grows thinner, more arbitrary and fragmented.

Other Art Forms

A similar trend is apparent in other art forms, of course: perhaps less so in the modern novel but markedly so in the visual and performing arts. Each has its fiercely loyal partisans, but is generally dependent on specialist reviewing and the public purse. The unpopularity points to real difficulties, real flaws in the product, I am suggesting, and suggest further that these flaws have to be faced, and alternatives found.

Poetry need not be inspirational, but its great periods in world history do generally coincide with periods of political freedom, material prosperity and abounding faith in the future. So is the poetry of the Greek playwrights, the gold and silver ages of Roman poetry, the poetry of the T’ang Dynasty, the Elizabethan and Romantic schools in England, the gold and silver ages of Russian poetry, and early twentieth-century poetry of Spain. Many of those hopes were misplaced, of course. Wars and political repression followed in Greece, Rome, Russia and Spain. But poets do need the conviction that they are doing something worthwhile, and they are voicing more than personal interests, a situation which is not so apparent today, in poetry’s tone or its accomplishments.

Happily, the scene grows much more encouraging if we look a deeper. Since the new vistas can be found in the free Ocaso Press publication Literary Theory, generally in more detail and with supporting references, I simply note the relevant section here — as (B 6) etc. — and just source the new material.  As the Background stresses, these alternative vistas will only come alive and make sense if readers make their own intellectual journeys.  What is ingrained in our current literary sensibility is not easily detected, questioned or enlarged

Ameliorate our World View

The first suggestion is that we ameliorate our pessimistic view of modern life which finds its expression in Baudelaire, and the poètes maudits, draws on Eliot and the horror and despair general after W:W.I., turns darker after W.W.II, and now gloomily stares  at environmental degradation {1}, climate change {2}, looming shortages of land and water {3}, corporate takeover of government {4}, rising levels of global debt {5}, debt peonage {6}, surveillance and erosion of civil liberties {7}, and the threat of world war as Russia and China challenge American hegemony {8}.

All are real and pressing, with nuclear annihilation the greatest threat to the planet, yet warfare is not written into our genes but only a legacy of social attitudes. Organized conflicts go back some 6,000 years, well before the creation of literature and modern societies but not 300,000 years to the origin of Homo sapiens. For 98% of his time on earth, mankind has lived happily and cooperatively without the need for wholesale butchery, and of the three animal species known to engage in warfare — ants, some species of chimpanzees and man — man is by far the least aggressive. {9}

Indeed, Matt Ridley’s {10} superficial, selective but persuasive defence of free enterprise suggests that the world will go on getting better for everyone. Climate change can be accommodated. Poorer countries have made great strides towards material prosperity in recent decades, and will continue to do so, even in Africa. Much remains to be done — a truly enormous amount — but there is no cause for the pessimism so prevalent today.

Many of the views are contentious — that labourers left the land willingly to escape rural poverty, that threats to species and the environment are exaggerated, that fossil fuels and nuclear power are still the best if not the only power options, that British cotton goods undercut Indian supplies by fair competition, that economic divides are deepening only in the US, that GM crops are beneficial — but the central message is clear. Successful societies exchange products and ideas, learning from each other and mutually improving themselves if not prevented from doing so by church and state (i.e. excessive regulation, patents, etc.) Need is the mother of invention throughout, and innovation comes more from shop-floor pressures than fundamental scientific research. High debt levels, contracting world trade and financial instability will be overcome by ad hoc adjustments just the same, though asset markets, i.e. banks and currency flows, do need to be regulated. In the last 50 years, more people (practically everywhere but not in North Korea, or presumably in the Middle East) have come to enjoy greater choice, greater material prosperity and freedom to go their own way. The world is not about to run out of water, oil or food. There were food shortages that created the unrest of the Arab Spring, certainly, but a contributory factor was foodstuff farming diverted to create biofuels. Again in the last 50 years, GDP per capita has become lower only in Afghanistan, Haiti, Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Somalia. Life expectancy is lower only in Russia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

Child mortality has declined. People live longer, and enjoy better health. Living standards fell only in China (1960s) Cambodia (1970s) Ethiopia (1980s) Rwanda (1990s), Congo (2000s) and North Korea throughout. The rich got richer, but the poor did even better (except in the UK and USA). Even those designated poor in the USA generally have electricity, running water, flush toilets, refrigerator, TV, telephone and even a car and air conditioning (the last two in 70% of cases.) Absolute world poverty may well disappear around 2035. Declining inequality stalled in the UK and USA in the 70s, and increased in China and India, but only because the really rich got even more so. Measured in terms of labour needed to produce the item, everything has got cheaper. Competition creates millionaires but also affordable products. Housing is an exception — because of government policies: restricting supply, tax relief on mortgages and preventing property busts. People richer materially are also happier, on balance, but more important is social and political freedom. Of course there are black spots: war, disease, corruption and the continuing post-2008 recession. Debt levels are high, but increased productivity will see them brought down to manageable proportions. The curse of resource-rich countries is not the resources themselves but rule by rent-seeking autocrats. GM crops bring better productivity. 

Large companies are commonly inefficient, self-perpetuating and anti-competitive, but not do generally survive for long. Trust, cooperation and specialization (not self-sufficiency) are the key. Agrarian societies spent much of their income on food (e.g. 35% in modern Malawi), which today takes only 14% of the average consumer’s take-home pay. And life for modern hunter-gatherers around the world is not idyllic: two thirds of their time is spent under the threat of tribal warfare. 87% experience war annually. Disease, starvation, murder and enslavement are never far away. Homicide rates in Europe fell from a medieval 35% to 3% in 1750 to under 1% in 1950. World population is increasing, but at declining rates: it will probably stabilize at 9.2 billion in 2075, allowing all to be fed, housed and given worthwhile lives. 

Rome’s energy source was slaves, supplemented by water-power, animals and simple machines. Windmills became important in Europe, and peat fuelled Holland’s success. Britain’s industrial revolution was made possible by coal and America. The country got sugar from the East Indies, timber from Canada, cotton from the southern American states, and power equivalent of 15 million acres of forest from her coal. However unpleasant the life in industrial cities, it was far worse in the countryside. Birmingham began as a centre of metalworking trade in the early 1600s, helped by being free of a civic charter and restrictive guilds. Success bred success. A disposable income enabled a consumerist society to begin here in the 18th century, well in advance of France and other European countries. American land open to settlers prevented the division of holdings between multiple heirs — the problem in Japan, Ireland, Denmark and later in India and China. Planned parenthood is counter-productive and unnecessary. Mothers automatically limit their families when the child mortality rate declines. They turn to education, improve the lives of their families, follow individual inclinations and take a paying job. Over half the world now has a fertility rate below 2.1, which in some countries now places a strain on loan repayments and pensions.

Ridley’s views are not Pollyanna hopes. Mankind now has the technologies to purify saline and contaminated water for US 0.2 cent/litre, to generate biofuels from algae, to make alternative energy sources competitive with oil, gas and nuclear energy, to grow food more cheaply in ‘vertical farms’, to replace meat sources by artificial protein growth, and to bring health care to the poorest by mobile phone technology.  {11} All that is missing is the political will to abandon ruinous resource wars, and engage in more equitable and fruitful dialogue.

Understand Science and Contemporary Affairs

I suggest, secondly, that poets become interested in such themes, and so come to terms with science, just as philosophy and organized religion were compelled to do. Two great streams of thought run through the nineteenth century: idealism and materialism. (B 12.5) The first argued that we can understand the ultimate nature of reality only through and within natural human experience, especially through those traits which distinguish man as a spiritual being. It is thought that provides the categories to experience sensations.

In contrast, the materialists held that there is an independently existing world, that human beings are material entities like everything else, that the human mind does not exist independently of the human body, that there is no God or other non-material being, and that all forms and behaviours are ultimately reducible to general physical laws. Science opposed theology but not religion, and many felt they were freeing faith for a nobler and more adequate conception. Others regarded theology as reflections on knowledge and experience of religion in history, and so undergoing change of necessity. There were many schools of thought, but religion had to renounce its claim to literal truth and content itself with shaping feeling.

But perhaps the most significant development of century was historicism, the belief that something could only be understood, and its significance assessed, by seeing it within the stream of history. Historicism drew strength from notions of an organic unfolding, and from nineteenth century hopes of a science assisting social change.

The themes are still important in current aesthetics and literary theory. Central today are the questions of knowledge, of grounding and of authority. On what do our judgements ultimately rest? On sense data and logic, say the materialists. On the principles and presuppositions that we acquire through living in society, say the idealists. Structuralism (B 6) and Post-structuralism (B 7-9) crossed the divides. Structuralism sought a conceptual structure as comprehensive as Hegel's, but derived it from anthropology and linguistics, disregarding the assumptions inherent in these disciplines. Post-structuralism is a stance against tradition, authority and measurement. Stressing the individual and spontaneous response, it returns to the early thinkers of the nineteenth century who reacted against the shallow conformism of the Enlightenment. But its view of the world is darker. Wars, genocide and economic exploitation have destroyed any comforting faith in God, in man's inherent goodness, or in the healthy outcome of his passions

Abandon the Obsession with Language and its Deceits

My third suggestion is that poetry give up its obsession with the limitations and deceptions of language, which are not as Modernist poetry supposes. In every profession and walk of life a sensible multi-purpose compromise enables us, every hour of the day, to go about our business in modest security. Nothing in our contemporary world would last a week if the assertions of deconstruction (B 8) were true, and making poetry from misapprehensions only compounds the difficulties. If language is indeed unsatisfactory, even more so will be the poetry that highlights that unsatisfactory nature. Such poetry cannot be revelatory or thought-provoking, moreover, because it is necessarily preaching to the converted, to the shrinking and largely academic world of Modernist poetry, critical theory and literary criticism.

In practice, as I've tried to show, the difficulties arise because Modernist poets take liberties with language. Their usage is oblique to normal usage, exploits ambiguities of their own making, and continually prefers closing the circle of their own thoughts to making any communal sense. That policy is their privilege, the licence they have given themselves in making their creations, but it is not a feature inherent in language as such, and not therefore a feature of the larger world viewed with and through language as normally used.    

Respect a Transcendental Eros

A fourth suggestion is that poets investigate love and the erotic passions in a more thorough-going and transcendental way, perhaps looking at Eros through depth psychology (B 42.4), of which more later. The Greeks had many words for love and they didn't confuse Eros with maternal love or sexual pleasure. Today many aspects of Eros are debased or impoverished, especially in the commercialisation of 'explicit' films and novels, where sex appears squalid, banal and vulgar.

Man has constantly tried to understand the secret and essence of sex in divinity itself. Through sacred prostitution, possession by incubus and succubus, and by secret societies, the gods of sex were manifest on earth. The male appears as logos or principal or form, the female as the life force, each with different attitudes and objectives. And if the sex drive is not to be repressed, it must be asserted — in profane or sacred love — or transformed by tantric practices, by the Cabbala or Eleusinian mysteries. Eros is not an instinct for reproduction, nor a pursuit of pleasure, but a deep attraction that causes fundamental changes in the partners. Erotic experience transforms the habitual boundaries of the ego, a dis-individualizing exaltation by which one temporarily escapes the human condition.

Worldwide, humanity has indeed recognized many aspects of Eros: The overpowering nature of the sexual experience. Its possession and abandonment. The ever-present danger of loss. The heart as the seat of consciousness. Its roots in love, pain and death. Its pleasure and its suffering. The ecstasy.  The incommunicable experience of coitus. Its modesty and associated fear of falling. Its cathartic and cleansing properties, and its part adulthood, initiation ceremonies and social behaviour. All are woefully unrepresented in today’s poetry

Importance of a Religious Dimension

Poets also need, it seems to me – a fifth suggestion – to explore the religious dimension (B 42). Poets require a vision of the world, and for long centuries the Christian church provided precisely that, not only in doctrine but in revelation, experience and inspiration. A poet's religious affiliations were not merely reflected in the semantic core of his work, but conditioned the vocabulary, the structure of his arguments and patterning of his Christian outlook. Religion so outlined applies to all religions, to Humanism, scientific neutrality, indeed to all types of human commitment. Commitment anchors the system of meaning in the emotions, and generates awe. Ritual maximizes order, reinforcing the sense of place or identity in society, especially after the important events of marriage, birth and death. Sacrifice is a form of commitment that clarifies priorities. Morals are what guarantees order in a society. Myths in the broader sense, including religion, are the emotion-laden assertion of a man's place in a meaningful world.

Explore Depth Psychology

Readers who are not adherents of a recognised religion, and/or who wish to sidestep the notoriously partisan nature of religion, may find depth psychology (B 42.3) helpful, a sixth suggestion. Depth psychology is not a new concept, nor an unusual activity: every day we are undertaking analysis and therapy of the soul, this being the psyche of the Greeks or anima of the Romans. The soul does not denote unusual activity: every day we are undertaking analysis and therapy of the soul, this being the psyche of the Greeks or anima of the Romans. The soul indeed is a perspective rather than a substance, a perspective mediating and reflecting on the events we are immersed in all the time. It forms a self-sustaining and imagining substrate to our lives. It deepens events into experiences, making meaning possible, communicating with love and religious concern. It includes dream, image and fantasy in its operation, recognizing that all realities are primarily symbolic and metaphorical.

Depth psychology does not begin with brain physiology (B 23) or with structures of language (B 37) and society (B 26), but with images, these being the basic givens of psychic life: self-originating, inventive, spontaneous and complete, organized in archetypes. It is archetypes, the deepest patterns of our psychic functioning, that are the roots of our souls, governing our perspective of ourselves and the world. Fundamentally, they are metaphors — God, life, health, art — which hold worlds together and which cannot be adequately circumscribed. Other examples can be found in literature, scientific thought, rituals and relationships. Archetypes are emotionally possessive. Organizing whole clusters of events in different areas of life, ascribing the individual his place in society, and controlling everything he sees, does and says, they naturally appear as gods.

By denying the gods we commit many crimes. By seeing ourselves as god, we commit to ideologies and commit atrocities in their name. We look to other people for our salvation, and are continually disappointed. Psychologising cannot be brought to rest in science or philosophy. It is satisfied only by its own movement of seeing through, during which it a) interiorises, moving from data to personification, b) justifies itself, even hinting at a deeper hidden god, c) provides a narrative, told in metaphors, d) uses ideas as eyes of the soul. Literalism or monotheism of meaning is the greatest enemy today, and we should remember that definitions outside science, mathematics and logic are elusive things. Enigma provokes understanding. Myths make concrete particulars into universals. Vico remarked that metaphors (B 24) 'give sense and passion to insensate things'. Archetypes are semantically metaphors and have a double existence, being a) full of internal opposites, b) unknowable and yet known through images, c) congenital but not inherited, d) instinctive and spiritual, e) purely formal structures and contents, f) psychic and extra-psychic.

The gods are essential to our well-being, therefore, giving us faith and significance in our surroundings, but are rooted in society's understandings and tacit beliefs. They are not individual to the poet, therefore, who has to search for them through a shared response to what he writes, i.e. not simply tack them on à la Pound's Cantos.

Consider Metaphor Research

Metaphor research (B 24) is a seventh suggestion. Human beings create cognitive models that reflect concepts needed for interaction between themselves and their surroundings. Such concepts are made by bodily activities prior to language. The cognitive models proposed were very varied, with the most complex being radial with multiple schema linked to a common centre. Language was characterized by symbolic models (with generative grammar an overlying, subsequent addition) and operated by constructing models — propositional, image schematic, metaphoric and metonymic. Properties were matters of relationships and prototypes. Meaning arose through embodiment in schemas. Schemas could also be regarded as containers — part-whole, link, centre-periphery, source-path-goal, up-down, front-back. Objectivity was never absolute, and we could only look at a problem from as many aspects as possible.

Though schemas were hypothetical, and lacked the analytical power of other approaches, Lakoff and Turner have enlarged their potential. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought attempted to re-found philosophy on cognitive science. It employed three premises: that mind is inherently embodied, that thought is mostly unconscious, and that abstract concepts are largely metaphorical. Out went Platonic Idealism, Cartesian Dualism, and much of the Anglo-American analytical philosophy. As ever, the concepts were intriguing, indeed liberating, but the empirical evidence was not compelling, and the arguments advanced did not fully engage with those of different intellectual tribes (mathematicians, philosophers, scientists in general). Mark Johnson had independently extended the notion of metaphor to parables  — not a word standing for something else, but a whole story standing for a particular description of the world. Narrative imaginings allow us to understand and organize experience. We project one story onto another, language emerging to allow this process. Again, a useful top-down alternative to the bottom-up (and not over-successful) approach of traditional linguistics, but still only straws in the wind.  Then came Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being by Lakoff and Núñez, that did build rigorously on two decades of cognitive science.

Images are important to metaphor research and to Modernist poetry, but those images have important and complicated tasks to do, and so are not wholly under the poet's control. Race memories, important distinctions, types of argument, rhetoric and tacit beliefs — all have to play their part to make a poem's imagery significant and persuasive.

Vista of the Irreducible Mind

For those interested in the mind, but find scientific models based on the physiology of the brain, (B 23.1) and computer models (B 23.5) too mechanical, I recommend — an eighth suggestion — they explore the Theory of the Irreducible Mind (B 23.10) This approach by Edward F. Kelly and co-workers is built on the psychology of William James and the research of F.W.H. Meyers into the paranormal. On this evidence, the mind is not generated by brain activity, but is merely part of an exterior, pre-existing and all-pervading consciousness, a consciousness that is selected and shaped by the brain into an individual awareness — much as the radio set selects and makes audible some frequency in a broad spectrum of radio waves. Consciousness is therefore incorporeal, larger than individual brains, and may to some extent survive physical death. 

But how can mind and matter interact, non-physical with physical matter? Because mind and matter are connected on the quantum mechanics level, believes Henry Stapp, (B 23.10) essentially by ion channels, so narrow that quantum mechanics effects must operate at nerve terminals in the brain. Stapp's views have naturally been contested, but are based on a thorough understanding of quantum mechanics and Whitehead's Process and Reality. Indeed the emergence of complexity, consciousness and networks  has greatly changed our view of the universe,  and given back to human beings some control over their thoughts and actions, as common sense has always supposed, but behaviourism and recent literary theory have denied.

In short, poetry is language used in its larger dimension, and that dimension assumes the world itself has larger dimensions than the materialism of our late capitalist age. In profound ways, poetry is an exploration of our lives and their meanings to us.

References and Resources

References can now be found in a free pdf compilation of Ocaso Press's Modernism articles.