The Poet as Healer for a Mentally-Ill World

In a recent article, written for the UK’s Guardian newspaper, George Monbiot argued that the modern world is living through an epidemic of loneliness. The article proved so popular that it even inspired a BBC documentary called The Age of Loneliness. Unfortunately, this terrible isolation has combined with a widespread sense of disconnection and meaninglessness. Of course, many solutions have been offered. One of the more unusual is restoring the poet to his original role of magician and priest, someone who helps the members of his community discover meaning and re-connect with the world around them.

The Status of the Poet

When people wish to understand something, they generally turn to science. Of course, many are committed to a religious faith, but in most of the developed world science is the master. Even those who take a perverse pride in their scientific ignorance still accept the scientist as the real authority. Though scientists may speak a strange jargon, their theories work. No poet or priest ever built a computer or placed a man on the moon!

But the status and role of the poet was once sacred. For all its influence, science is a newcomer, originating in 17th century England, Holland, and France. This 17th century revolution culminated in the publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia in 1687, still one of the landmark works of physics. Twenty years earlier, however, another Englishman and Cambridge graduate, John Milton, had published his great epic poem Paradise Lost. But while Newton was doing something new, Milton was following in an ancient tradition: trying to explain the world through epic adventure and high poetic language. Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid and countless other works had done the same. Newton, in contrast, explained the world through mathematics. Nothing quite like it had been done before.

Sympathetic Magic

Poetry, and the arts in general, have their roots in what anthropologists call ‘sympathetic magic.’ Throughout the majority of human history, human beings lived in small, nomadic tribes, hunting game and gathering fruits and seeds. But the world in which they moved was frightening and strange, a place of drought, famine, vicious animals and hostile rivals. If only some control could be exerted over it. Out of this desire arose both sympathetic magic and poetry.

Gradually, an idea took shape: if we make a copy of something, we could reproduce its essence. And if we do that, we can capture the source of its power or being. We could then worship it and win its mercy, command it and dictate its actions, or simply destroy it and remove it altogether. The most famous modern example is the voodoo doll – still used in many African and Caribbean societies today.

The next question is how do you capture this essence? Some now believe that this was the true function of prehistoric cave paintings. Dance was another method. The dancers whirling through the firelight dressed in buffalo hides were trying to summon up the essence of their prey in order to understand it, worship it, maybe even share in its power. No doubt the dancing took place to the rhythm of a drum, to clapping hands and pounding feet. The poet recited not pretty words but magical, ritualised language. Over time, the language would have adapted to this beat, keeping time and leading eventually to meter and rhyme.

Poet as Shaman

The original poet was thus a kind of shaman who sought to escape ordinary, narrow consciousness and contact the mysterious essence that animated the plants and animals. This was known as the ‘shamanic flight’ and was closely related to what the poet Robert Graves called a “poetic trance,” meaning the inspired state of mind in which poetry was written. Again, the principle of sympathetic magic lay behind such attempts, only the shaman sought to do more than capture the essence of a reindeer or a waterfall. He sought to unite his spirit, or consciousness, with it. When he returned from this altered, transcendent state, he would then attempt to translate his discoveries into poetic language.

The Problem of Universals

Surprisingly perhaps, sympathetic magic still troubles philosophers – only they rename it “the problem of Universals.” In essence, the problem is this: how can someone know that, for example, a tree is a tree and not a flower, or a shrub, or even a boulder? How can they know a pebble is not a rock? Understanding the world only begins when you can perceive what philosophers call ‘sameness.’ You know that a pine tree and an oak tree are both trees because you relate them to the abstract concept ‘tree.’ Yet the material objects are not the same. In fact, no two trees are the exactly the same, not in shape, size, texture etc. So they must express the same concept or idea. The only alternative is to say that everything is unique. Thus, both primitive magic and scientific reason depend on this ability to relate individual objects to abstract concepts: those mysterious essences the shaman-poet sought to control!

Reviving Poetic Magic

Many poets naturally resent their lost status, and some have even tried to revive it. The late 20th century English poet Ted Hughes, for example, was inspired by the ancient Celtic bards. When the Romans invaded Britain in 43AD, they encountered a civilization already thousands of years old. The Celtic tribes each had an official bard who enjoyed a high status, acting as priest, shaman, magician, healer, and poet at the same time. And the training was arduous, often taking many years. Some even established Bardic colleges (Hughes later referred to these as the first colleges in the British Isles, pre-dating both Oxford and Cambridge).

Hughes wished to revive the idea of the poet as a Bardic shaman, and his poetry represents a sincere effort to somehow inhabit the animals and plants he wrote about. In other words, Hughes tried to revive sympathetic magic. Above all, he believed that the poet should be a kind of healer. The shaman healed those who were spiritually sick, so why shouldn’t the modern poet heal those driven mad by isolation and nihilistic despair? Throughout his writings, he is struggling to re-establish a lost connection with nature. As Hughes himself puts it, “the story of the mind exiled from nature is the story of western man.”

Hughes is not alone in this view of poetry’s healing power. Critics often bewail the trivial, shallow nature of contemporary poetry. Poetry should do more than simply entertain the reader.



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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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