Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Thoughts on Mythology

These are notes from my recent talk on mythology at the Seligmann Center. I pass on my ideas in this raw form, without any attempt to work up an essay, in the belief that some of the ideas may be useful.

The Greek word muthos in Homer has a broad meaning, fundamentally, anything delivered by word of mouth. The term came later to indicate conversation, counsel, the subject of speech, the matter, a purpose, a saying, a rumor; then a fiction or legend.

In contemporary literary use, it is a story not tied to an individual text. Mythology arises as a sort of collective narrative: a body of linked and particularly significant stories that express in symbolic order the world-view of a community. Myth is deeply involved not only with the earliest poetry, but also science, philosophy, religion, and history, in fact all the intellectual disciplines. The definitive authority myths claim is evident in the fact that they often concern the gods or other spiritual beings. Myths are often taken as literal history, though they are also used by writers in self-consciously symbolic ways. Myth fades into legend and other cultural material.

Not every collective narrative is mythic. Historical events are shared by large numbers of people. They may resonate in mythic ways, but the presumptive loyalty is to real events. Jokes lack the vast implications of myths.

I continue to find Northrup Frye’s classification useful.
1) superior in kind to people and to their environment: mythic
2) superior in degree to people and environment: romance
3) superior in degree to people but not to environment: high mimetic (a hero of epic or tragedy, Aristotle’s hero)
4) inferior to the reader or equal: low-mimetic, ironic (realism, comedy)

Frye notes, “Looking over this table, we see that European fiction, over the last fifteen centuries has moved steadily down this list . . . Something of the same progression can be traced in Classical literature, too.”

In The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art David Lewis-Williams analyzes cave paintings and posits a simultaneous birth of language, art, and religion. With the birth of signs came the ability to lie.

Mythic references may be traditional (Homeric hymns, Elder Edda, anthropological texts), literary (Ovid, Shakespeare, Rothenburg), modern (Superman, cowboy hero, Jewish blood guilt, Lincoln), or idiosyncratic (Blake, Yeats, outsider art).

In poetry mythological references may serve to
to universalize or create group identity (as in the many medieval romances which wither begin or end by invoking the blessing of Christ),
to compress (as in Raleigh’s reference to Philomel implying a world of violence in a word),
to ironize, (as in Joyce’s Ulysses or the Coens’ O Brother Where Art Thou)
or to decorate (as in Herrick’s “Parcae” where Atropos charms rather than frightens)

Approaches to the understanding of myth include:

1) Euhemerism regards myths as distorted accounts of real historical events. Herodotus in his reasonable way, has recourse to this explanation. (On the other hand some ritual theorists would agree with Frye (above), and hold the opposite view: that gods degenerate over the years into myth, then legend (with supernatural apparatus), appearing next as history and finally as comedy.

2) Mythology has often been viewed as a sort of allegory with the gods representing either natural phenomena or concepts. The 19th century Sanskritist Max Müller supported an allegorical theory of myth. Modern variations of this theme include Freudian, Jungian, or other psychological theories.

3) Myths have been viewed as solely functional, often a form of social control. A simple form of this approach would be the vulgar Marxist analyst to whom every myth comments on class relations, but Malinowski took much the same approach.

4) The structural theory states that myths are patterned after the human mind as well as human nature. Claude Levi-Strauss, makes the claim that “myth is language,” and stresses formal play with meaning arising only from contrasts within a pattern, not from individual elements.

5) According to the myth-ritual theory, the existence of myth is tied to ritual. In its most extreme form, this theory claims that myths arose to explain rituals. I am myself fond on the work of James Frazer and the Cambridge School.

6) Myth has been considered the human language for investigating the metaphysical. In this sense myth is much like religion, providing human’s most profound analysis of the cosmos.

7) Myth is a symbolic statement about reality. Each culture defines and defends its assumptions with myth. Myth tends toward the encyclopedic, offering seamless explanations and prescriptions for the significant passages of life.

To test these ideas with texts, I followed with this brief anthology of poem’s mentioning Aphrodite.

from Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite (my translation)

She went to Paphos -- Cyprus -- where her
aromatic altar and her temple stood,
and she went in and shut the shining doors. 60
The graces then anointed her with oil
such as blooms on bodies of the gods.
(The oil was sweet, ambrosial, smelled so fine!)
Then laughter-loving Aphrodite donned
fine clothes of golden fabric on her flesh. 65
She left sweet-smelling Cyprus then for Troy
(fast she flew and high, the clouds her road),
to spring-rich Ida, beast-land, came she then,
she went through hills right to his home and after her
came bright-eyed lions, fawning grey-furred wolves 70
and bears, fast leopards ravenous for deer,
and then her heart rejoiced at seeing them
and to their hearts she tossed hot lust; they paired
in twos and mated in the shade,

Thomas Wyatt (the first stanza of an untitled poem)

Though this port : and I thy servaunt true,
And thou thy self doist cast thy bemes from hye
From thy chieff howse, promising to renew
Both Joye and eke delite, behold yet how that I,
Bannisshed from my blisse, carefully do crye,
"Helpe now, Citherea, my lady dere,
"My ferefull trust," en vogant la galere.

from Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis

Over one arm the lusty courser's rein
Under her other was the tender boy, 32
Who blush'd and pouted in a dull disdain,
With leaden appetite, unapt to toy;
She red and hot as coals of glowing fire
He red for shame, but frosty in desire. 36

The studded bridle on a ragged bough
Nimbly she fastens;—O! how quick is love:—
The steed is stalled up, and even now
To tie the rider she begins to prove: 40
Backward she push'd him, as she would be thrust,
And govern'd him in strength, though not in lust . . .

'Fondling,' she saith, 'since I have hemm'd thee here
Within the circuit of this ivory pale,
I'll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer;
Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale: 232
Graze on my lips, and if those hills be dry,
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.

'Within this limit is relief enough,
Sweet bottom-grass and high delightful plain, 236
Round rising hillocks, brakes obscure and rough,
To shelter thee from tempest and from rain:
Then be my deer, since I am such a park; 239
No dog shall rouse thee, though a thousand bark.'

A Hymn to Venus and Cupid (Herrick)

SEA-BORN goddess, let me be
By thy son thus grac'd and thee;
That whene'er I woo, I find
Virgins coy but not unkind.
Let me when I kiss a maid
Taste her lips so overlaid
With love's syrup, that I may,
In your temple when I pray,
Kiss the altar and confess
There's in love no bitterness.

Final stanza from Un Voyage à Cythère (Baudelaire)
On your isle, O Venus! I found upright only
A symbolic gallows from which hung my image...
O! Lord! give me the strength and the courage
To contemplate my body and soul without loathing!
Dans ton île, ô Vénus! je n'ai trouvé debout
Qu'un gibet symbolique où pendait mon image...
— Ah! Seigneur! donnez-moi la force et le courage
De contempler mon coeur et mon corps sans dégoût!

Venus Anadyomène (Rimbaud)

As from a green zinc coffin, a woman’s
Head with brown hair heavily pomaded
Emerges slowly and stupidly from an old bathtub,
With bald patches rather badly hidden;

Then the fat gray neck, broad shoulder-blades
Sticking out; a short back which curves in and bulges;
Then the roundness of the buttocks seems to take off;
The fat under the skin appears in slabs:

The spine is a bit red; and the whole thing has a smell
Strangely horrible; you notice especially
Odd details you’d have to see with a magnifying glass…

The buttocks bear two engraved words: CLARA VENUS;
—And that whole body moves and extends its broad rump
Hideously beautiful with an ulcer on the anus.

Comme d’un cercueil vert en fer blanc, une tête
De femme à cheveux bruns fortement pommadés
D’une vieille baignoire émerge, lente et bête,
Avec des déficits assez mal ravaudés;

Puis le col gras et gris, les larges omoplates
Qui saillent; le dos court qui rentre et qui ressort;
Puis les rondeurs des reins semblent prendre l’essor;
La graisse sous la peau paraît en feuilles plates:

L’échine est un peu rouge, et le tout sent un goût
Horrible étrangement; on remarque surtout
Des singularités qu’il faut voir à la loupe…

Les reins portent deux mots gravés: CLARA VENUS;
—Et tout ce corps remue et tend sa large croupe
Belle hideusement d’un ulcère à l’anus.

An autumn morning in Shokoku-ji (Snyder)

Last night watching the Pleiades,
Breath smoking in the moonlight,
Bitter memory like vomit
Choked my throat.
I unrolled a sleeping bag
On mats on the porch
Under thick autumn stars.
In dream you appeared
(Three times in nine years)
Wild, cold, and accusing.
I woke shamed and angry:
The pointless wars of the heart.
Almost dawn. Venus and Jupiter.
The first time I have
Ever seen them close.

Birth of Eventually Venus (MacLeish)

Cast up by the sea
By the seventh wave
Beyond the sea reach
In the rubble of weed and
Wet twig
The not yet amphibious
Gasps and wiggles on the beach
Gathering her long gold hair about her
And gazing with pure eyes
Upon the unknown world.

Venus Over the Desert (Williams)

If I do not sin, she said, you shall not
walk in long gowns down stone corridors.
There is no reprieve where there is no fall-
ing off. I lie in your beds all night, from
me you wake and go about your tasks. My flesh
clings to your bones. What use is holiness
unless it affirms my perfections, my breasts,
my thighs which you part, shaking, and my lips
the door to my pleasures? Sin, you call it,
but there cannot be cold unless the heat
has bred it, how can you know otherwise? Love
comfort me in the face of my defeats! Poor
monks, you think you are gentle but I tell you
you kill as sure as shot kills a bird flying.

The Death of Venus (also titled the Birth of Venus) (Creeley)

I dreamt her sensual proportions
had suffered sea-change,

that she was a porpoise
a sea-beast rising lucid from the mist.

The sound of waves killed speech
But there were gestures –

of my own, it was to call her closer,
of hers, she snorted and filled her lungs with water,

then sank, to the bottom,
and, looking down, clear it was, like crystal,

there I saw her.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Tim West

I recently heard of the death of Tim West, an outsider (though educated) artist I had known in the late sixties. Toward the end of his life, West and his work found partisans, and he had a few shows; some comment, as well as samples of his paintings, is available online. In my experience, though, West was primarily a real-life performance artist, and his few late videos indicate that the show lasted as long as its star. West had an authentic Ozarks accent, and he was taped shortly before his death discussing his work in a shirtless crouch with what looks like a large piece of bark stuffed into his pants. In the video he ascribes the motive for art to “the hunting instinct.” saying, “The artist don’t want to kill it, he wants to record it, and that feels better, because he hasn’t had to kill anything. Like if I make a picture of a woman, I possess that woman, or at least her image.”

When Patricia and I moved to Carbondale in southern Illinois in the spring of 1968, we brought a few references, names and telephone numbers to connect with the local hip scene. One of these, given to us by a gifted young writer, a paranoid bisexual redneck with a fondness for chains and painted china who had once quietly reclined on his Chicago sofa after setting his apartment on fire, provided contact information for Tim West. Eager to enter a new scene, I gave West a call and was answered by a rhythmic, swinging Southern voice, speaking sometimes in rhyme. “Come on over . . . you got nothing to lose, nothing to lose, ‘cept maybe your shoes.”

He lived with his mother who taught English at Southern Illinois University in an odd courtyard of identical twenties bungalows that looked like it had somehow strayed from southern California. The West place, though, was easily distinguished from its neighbors. It was filled with junk, though among the heaps useful objects could be discerned here and there. West himself was unwashed and unshaven and completely at home. He had to swing over to his high hammock with the aid of a rope fixed to the ceiling. His mother’s territory was scarcely tidier and she spoke in the same hermetic coded rhythms. Cold winds entered through holes in the walls. West had been considered something of an artistic prodigy in his youth – the Museum of Modern Art purchased a piece of his when he was eighteen -- but after graduating from university he found he had neither aptitude nor interest in making a living.

I recall his muttering a good deal about his relationship with his mother, lamenting his capture by “petticoat government,” in his phrase. He escaped what might sometimes have felt like her sporadic supervision and ran with a group of Harley-driving amphetamine aficionados with a weakness for a variety of other mostly petty crimes. Their coterie had a strong homoerotic element that struck me then as incongruous but now seems altogether natural. A number of these guys worked at a small fireworks factory where few other locals would work. Many were sure it would blow up at any minute. The odds of an explosion were certainly increased by the employees.

West consistently produced art – often representational, sometimes almost conventional – while becoming known as a local character, a danger in the eyes of some, a no-good at best, occasionally being arrested for one thing or another. He always looked as though he had just emerged from one of the area’s long-defunct coal mines. I recall that he had been banned from the local doughnut shop, doubtless for being generally disreputable. He turned up the next day and stood for hours in front of the store’s doorway, holding a lactating cat and sucking her tits, letting cat milk stream down his filthy beard. Had I been the proprietor, I would have been glad to give him a doughnut or two to leave.

In the video he notes that, after a few second chances and a further scrape with the law, he was told to simply get out of town. He had always spoken of property his father owned in the Arkansas Ozarks, and he decided now was the time to make his move, to leave his circle of “outlaw bikers,” and “pillheads.” “Down here [in Arkansas] I behaved myself, because I knew I’d have to live here the rest of my life.” West became a recluse, probably a lifestyle to which he was well suited. He continued to make art.

Tim West persisted in following his genius and somehow made it to a ripe age and had some sympathetic attention and even admiration toward the end. He never tried to be practical or prudent. In 1968 I had invited him to our place, a few miles from Carbondale, in the neighboring town of Murphysboro, the county seat of Jackson County, a town with a fine African-American hickory pit ribs place, but where in the year of our Lord 1968, the local tavern continued to keep barrels out back to accommodate its black patrons. After West had left, I realized that he had swiped a cloth cap to which I was more attached than I was to most of my clothes. I knew I would never wear it again, but I am timid enough to be satisfied to contribute the cap and to maintain some distance from the wild imaginative turbulence of Tim West.

Hermes and the Art of Poetry

Having quoted Greek on these pages in characters that do not transfer to the blog and in distracting transliterations, I have decided this time to simply quote from the close if old-fashioned Loeb’s Library version by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. My references to line numbers are, of course, to the Greek. I would have preferred to use my own translation, but my version of the poem is as yet incomplete.

Along with Homer and Hesiod, the so-called Homeric Hymns provide the earliest information about the literary theory of ancient Greece. These poems exemplify the role of poetry in providing access to the astonishingly efficient mythic system by which the Greeks understood the world. The Hymn to Hermes is the primary source for an aetiological myth of the origin of lyric poetry, a sort of back-story to the shining Olympian, Apollo who is commonly associated with the art. With the attribution of the lyre to Hermes comes a more dialectic complex picture of artistic signification, portrayed prior to the unadulterated Apollonian light, as a necessary duality of lie and truth.

Most will recall the charming Hymn to Hermes an infant trickster story, something like Krishna the butter thief. The baby’s cheeky mendacity and his comically ingenious stratagems are undeniably entertaining, but in the hymn’s plot-line, they serve in the end simply to bring Hermes together with Apollo to allow the gift of the tortoise-shell lyre. Hermes had invented the instrument that very morning, but he gives it up to resolve strife he has himself created, a peace offering to the god who is to govern poetry for the next thousand years and more. [1]

Hermes’ very first act is to seize the tortoise in his courtyard. With a lie, using his characteristic wile, he tells the animal it is dangerous outside (37), and a moment later, he kills it and fashions the lyre. His emphasis is wholly upon pleasure, for him it is a “comrade of the feast” (31), inspirer of joy (32). In a rush of invention, he conceives the instrument “as a swift thought darts through the heart of man when thronging cares haunt him, or as bright glances flash from the eye.” (43-45) He sang on it “sweet random snatches, even as youths bandy taunts at festivals,” (55-56) sliding into a celebration of his own birth and of the muses. The creative process is described as a delight in itself, the exercise of the forebrain damping pain and providing pleasure in itself, as well as enabling future art. After this mental work in done, the god’s attention turns to his belly. Motivated by a desire for meat (unsatisfied apparently with the prospect of nectar and ambrosia), his mind turns then to his larcenous plot, a design of “sheer trickery” such as “knavish folk pursue.” (66-67).

Poetry appears then at first as a pure party pastime, whether it is casual improvisation or theogonies. It seems in this way on a par with other desires, such as a wish for a satisfying meal. Yet its unique characteristic is the unpredictable glancing energy of creative human thought which, through its potent symbolic manipulation, can design a new and useful object or compose a song.

When Apollo first hears the lyre, his reaction is upwelling laughter. (420) Hermes sings again the story of the gods, first among them Mnemosyne “for the son of Maia was among her following,” (430) inspiring in Apollo a “longing” (eros) ”not to be allayed.” (434) He finds it in particular a “path” to remedy “desperate (or “irremediable”) “cares” (or “suffering”). (447) In his speech (436-463) Apollo praises the invention as a “marvel,” “noble,” “heavenly,” “wonderful, “sweet,” and “glorious,” while calling Hermes a “trickster” and “thievish.” He concludes by promising not to “deceive” Hermes, the habitual deceiver who does not shrink from bald-faced lies even before all-knowing Zeus.

Instructing Apollo, Hermes advises him to give himself to “merriment” (or “triumphal display”[2]) The emphasis remains solidly on convivial dinners, “rich feast and lovely dance and glorious revel.” (480-481) According to Hermes, the lyre rewards the listener who is susceptible to “delight” (484) while bringing “the ignorant” only “vanity and foolishness.” (488) He proceeds to consider his theft repaid, though he asks to be caretaker for the herd, prophesying abundant offspring and assuming co-ownership. Apollo is so taken with the music he accepts with pleasure. (493-494)

Through the hymn poetry, the lyric art, is consistently identified with pleasure, whether on the occasion of casual party verses or solemn hymns to the divine. Both offer necessary relief: the symbolic manipulations of art are essential to both passing the time with friends and reflecting on first principles and final things. The disquiet that awakes in the reader when the tortoise is tricked into death, by nature, one might say, at the outset can be salved only by verbal art. Redemptive song compensates for the distressing void of mortality, providing both “entertainment” and supernatural explanations in a pre-Horatian version of “teach and delight.”

Little, however, in the character of Apollo matches the subversive, all-too-human character of Hermes. He is a con man because of his own selfish interests. He cancels out his own assertions by declaring his undependability. In this poem Hermes provides Apollo with a gift beyond the lyre: dissimulation.

After the settlement between the Olympians, all seems harmonious, but Apollo’s nervousness about being again tricked leads him to elicit from Hermes a solemn vow not to steal from him. With this renewed settlement comes the acid test of the value of poetry: prophecy. Apollo says that only he can be confidant of Zeus with reference to the future, yet he prevaricates about the value of omens, claiming sometimes to tell the truth through signs and sometimes to deceive. This ambiguity is very broadly true, as he says also that he bedevils men as well as blessing them. He illustrates this very contradictory revelation – the truth that is untrue – by telling Hermes of the mysterious bee-like Thriae whose oracular reputation for speaking the truth (561) is tempered by the fact that they also lie (563). (We might all make the same claim for our prophecies.) Another analogue concludes the poem when Hermes is said to “profit” some and “cozen” others. (577-578)

One would then have to qualify the marvelous image Nietzsche imagined, doubtless aware that he had heightened the contrast: “In an eccentric way one might say of Apollo what Schopenhauer says, in the first part of The World as Will and Representation [I:1, 3], of man caught in the veil of Maya: ‘Even as on an immense, raging sea, assailed by huge wave crests, a man sits in a little rowboat trusting his frail craft, so, amidst the furious torments of this world, the individual sits tranquilly, supported by the principium individuationis [principle of individuation] and relying on it.’ [The World as Will and Representation, I:4, 63] One might say that the unshakable confidence in that principium has received its most magnificent expression in Apollo, and that Apollo himself may be regarded as the marvelous divine image of the principium individuationis, whose looks and gestures radiate the full delight, wisdom, and beauty of ‘illusion.’” [3]

The author of the Hymn to Hermes would have agreed with Nietzsche when he said, “Much will have been gained for aesthetics once we have succeeded in apprehending directly-rather than merely ascertaining-that art owes its continuous evolution to the Apollinian-Dionysian [sic] duality, even as the propagation of the species depends on the duality of the sexes, their constant conflicts and periodic acts of reconciliation.” He surely had in mind just such a conflict and reconciliation as that narrated in the Hymn to Hermes.

1. Since writing this piece I have been told of an admirable treatment along similar lines in Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art.

2. Aglaia is also one of the Graces according to Hesiod.

3. Both quotations are from The Birth of Tragedy in Francis Golfing’s translation.