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PRINCE CHARLES AND THE POETS: A CONUNDRUM

 A CONUNDRUM

charlespoet

Thinking outside the box, being or just seeming eccentric has its uses. It has had the latter In the case of Britain’s Prince Charles in everything from useful experiments in architecture and the environment to the training of unemployed youth. When it comes to literature and despite Charles being a patron of the arts (and known for a highly traditional Shakespeare fan), the picture is more complex, peculiarly so and with what looks like subjectivity to the point of self-contradiction.It does so not least in relation to poetry as the expression of beliefs, an area in which Charles once famously declared he wishes one day to be “defender of faith” rather than “a defender of the faith”.

Yet if Charles’ major predilections when it comes to poets and poetry was anything to go by, it might be more accurate to describe him as defender of unfaith. His personal relations with especially two notable poets presents nothing short of a conundrum, though I have begun to see the conundrum entails a form of understanding that makes his position almost inevitable.

As described later, I have had dealings with at any rate one of the two poets considered here. They were two very different individuals who were rivals for the position of poet laureate – Ted Hughes (1930-1998) narrowly beat Kathleen Raine (1908-2003) to the position in 1984. Hughes, easily Britain’s most controversial poet since Lord Byron, despite all the scandals became almost family to the royals. A great natural storyteller he often read bed time stories to Princes William and Harry and since his death in 1998 Charles has erected a shrine (with stained glass!) to the poet at his Highgrove home and given permission to a hidden memorial on crown land in Dartmoor. Charles used to fish in the wilds and dine at home with the poet and his grandmother was, the poet alleged, almost flirtatious with him.

THE WILDEST POET SINCE BYRON 

by Rollie McKenna, bromide print, 1959

Women tended to find Hughes irresistible and were the problem of his life starting with the brilliant but difficult poet Sylvia Plath whom to this day many feminists choose to regard as virtual murder victim because Hughes’ infidelity drove her to suicide. The claim gained weight because death seemed to cling to Hughes like a leech. Assia Wevill, the married woman for whom Hughes left his wife, duplicated the gas oven suicide taking her daughter by Hughes along with her; another lover, Susan Alliston, died young of cancer, and Hughes’ son by Plath suicided in a fit of depression  – in this some saw genetics, some saw a curse, some said Hughes had been a domestic tyrant in a way to affect his son’s mind.

Bad though his record was, I feel it is possible to overdo the scandal of Hughes with women and similarly his reputation as virtual black magician due to his (rather Jungian) interest in the occult, alchemy, Cabbala, astrology, and shamanism – he deemed poetry a form of magic. If Hughes’s sexuality could, like his poetry, be volcanic and even sadistic, it’s a fact that when he first kissed Plath (who wanted to be a Cathy to this Yorkshireman’s Heathcliff) she drew blood from him like a vampire. But the faithless Hughes did love and respect Plath deeply (his last major work Birthday Letters is testimony enough to that) and arguably lifelong there would have been fewer flings and infidelities if the romantic pair had reconciled as intended and Plath survived. As it was, an irresistible man left rudderless and confused by his fate, followed the line of least resistance. Hughes may never have been the ogre many believed, but in one less obvious sense he was one.

As modern and especially British poets go, Hughes can be considered spiritual but not healthily so. Indeed, especially if poetry has anything like the magical function the poet assumed, then Hughes has purveyed little short of spiritual pollution itself. The early poems which brought fame in such collections as The Hawk in the Rain and Lupercal represent his Tarka the Otter or Kiplingesque line in verse. They project unusually forceful feeling onto the life of fauna and are healthy enough. After Plath’s suicide a new more shamanistic, less coherent, incomplete but highly dramatic and mythic form of verse takes over in the collections Crow and Cave Birds and this colours Hughes’ work across the next two decades.

THE TED HUGHES MASTERPIECE

The genesis of the cryptic Crow – Hughes’ masterpiece in his estimation  and that of at least some critics – arose from more than one impulse, but coming to terms with the death of Plath definitely had something to do with it.It’s a protest against common existence and notions of fate and God, to which it supplies alternative answers of a sort, even if because for Hughes poetry is “magic”, an act, resolution is like a shamanic dismemberment and reconstitution of self.  If the answers are personal they are perhaps perhaps indirectly also for England whose national psychology fascinated Hughes (author of the difficult but important Shakespeare and The Goddess of Complete Wisdom which  addresses this). And Britain for Hughes was symbolized less by its heraldic lion than the enterprising crow, the Celtic god Bran’s totem.

In the beginning was Scream

Who begat Blood…..
Who begat Adam
Who begat Mary
Who begat God
Who begat Nothing
Who begat Never
Never, Never, Never

Who begat Crow…..

hughescrow

It is hard to summarize Crow or even adequately excerpt from it; one can at best supply something of its flavour, relentlessly negative, profane, grotesque with its essential protest against creation.

“A final try’ said God. Now LOVE’
Crow convulsed, gaped, retched….
….And woman’s vulva dropped over man’s neck and tightened

The two struggled together on the grass
God struggled to part them, cursed, wept….”

Adam and Eve along with God regularly diverge from all canonical portrayals.

God ran and told Adam
Who in a drunken rage tried to hang himself in the orchard

The Serpent tried to explain, crying “Stop”….
And Eve started screeching: “Rape, Rape!”
And stamping on his head”

After creation God had been called upon to take it back and he suffers a nightmare which tells him to do better. Crow, a trickster figure, emerges to help correct things in the course of which he invents the chaos of sexuality and goes in quest of his female half.

At this level of story some might take Hughes’ picture to be almost humorous in a Monty Pythonesque fashion. But there’s enough of it and it becomes clear the inversions and negations of the canonical are a launch pad for the development of statements that cannot be taken as other than abusive and profane as Crow becomes some kind of image or shadow imitation of a Christ figure as in The Risen

When he soars his shape
Is a cross, eaten by light
On the Creator’s face…..

…In the wind-fondled crucible of his splendour
The dirt becomes God

And though the particular words aren’t within Crow itself but Cave Birds, one could guess that essentially the poet’s beliefs and attitudes as in A God, amounted to the following insulting grotesquery directed upon crucifixion and notions of salvation.

Pain was pulled down over his eyes like a fool’s hat…
He was helpless as a lamb
Which cannot be born
Whose head hangs down under its mother’s anus….

His patience had meaning only for him
Like the sanguine upside-down grin
Of a hanging half-pig…

He could not understand what had happened
Or what he had become

Though the verse is complicated, I doubt that the attitude that gives rise to them is. It may be almost too easy to make diagnosis of Hughes’ spiritual condition. Around the time of Plath’s funeral, Hughes had said he did not seek to be forgiven and if there was an eternity he would be damned (1). Did Hughes mean he would suffer his own guilt forever in refusal of all grace and redemption, or, since refusal of forgiveness can entail refusal of repentance, at some level there was nothing to repent of anyway? Either way the attitude seems singularly harsh and negative and it duly gives rise to negative effects. Almost everyone would agree there was something for Hughes to be sorry for. An attitude of ongoing self-criticism that tries to learn from failure, is almost fundamental to the Christianity that married and buried Hughes but did little else for him. Whether psychologically or spiritually, the guilt or unrepentance envisaged could automatically cut the individual off from God leaving them in precisely the death-dominated nay saying dark in which Crow operates.

CONSEQUENCES OF A SINGLE CHOICE

If Hughes had reflected more upon even just the symbolism of his beloved occult sources, he might have learned something. The images of alchemy include the mutilation of the screaming lion’s paws, an image of the lion (Hughes was astrologically a Leo) needing to be cured of his defiant pride if the process is to continue. Arguably Hughes represents only the latest among notable Leos engaged upon some theatrical collision course with deity. One thinks of Jack Miles God: A Biography, which aims to cut God down to size. Among poets there is Robert Graves who invented the White Goddess and more famously Shelley who waged a long war against a half believed in deity. Some critics have seen revolt against God in the both the fiction (Pierre) and poetry (Clarel) of Hermann Melville. Leo philosopher, Feuerbach, reduces God to nothing but a reflection of the human mind. Jung’s The Answer to Job does much the same. Leo simply does not readily admit to faults minor or major, is not humble…..like the devil one might say – in my always correct data for Christ, Lucifer (the asteroid) appears in the sign of Leo. (2).

So much of Hughes poetry is insalubrious and gratuitously violent (persons fainting outright at readings was not uncommon), one is inclined to think Prince Charles didn’t absorb too strongly what was written or said beyond the earliest offerings. Or perhaps core messages were passed over as being akin to merely Monty Python entertainments to which, like the Goon show before it, Charles was partial. (Eric Idle’s popular but distinctly godless song, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life from the Python team’s The Life of Brian, was performed for Charles’ sixtieth birthday).

KATHLEEN RAINE, UNEXPECTED ROYAL GURU

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Though the intrepid Kathleen Raine who died at ninety five after being hit by a car didn’t qualify for a Highgrove shrine, a personally commissioned  bust of her stands in Charles home among others representing a special influence. Some have called the pair soul mates. Exceptionally for royal custom, Charles attended the poet’s anachronistic funeral in Westminster Cathedral (anachronistic because Raine considered her brief conversion to Catholicism a mistake out of harmony with her beliefs and life work), and with the Queen’s permission he arranged a memorial service at the St James’ palace chapel. At that service it was mentioned how Raine regarded her connection with Charles as a fated part of her life mission. So this was a poet who had become another of those almost but not quite family figures. Prince and poet engaged a lively correspondence and Charles used to call in at the writer’s Chelsea home in Paultons Square for tea and cakes and pep talks where he was distinctly encouraged to pursue paths less travelled, was assured his position was the hardest and loneliest in the world but that he must  not to surrender one inch “to the riff raff”.

In contrast to the relation with Hughes, Charles had to have been very certain about what Kathleen Raine represented as chief co-founding editor of the magazine Temenos (founded 1984). It began as a review “devoted to the arts of the Imagination” with the understanding that most meaningful  expressions of art are related to the sacred). Suitably impressed, Charles became its patron and later gave room space and lecture time in his new Academy of Architecture to those engaged on Raine’s project. He was so impressed by it the magazine became the Temenos Academy Review effectively the review of a school Charles sponsored devoted to promotion of the Platonic Good, True and Beautiful across cultures. Charles himself contributed an article, A Sense of the Sacred – Building Bridges between Islam and the West. The magazine had been originally inspired by the work of Henry Corbin in France, an Islamic scholar who taught the fundamental unity of the Abrahamic faiths, though I think that emphasis minimally reflected any beliefs or interests of Raine who was drawn more to the faiths of Asia.

IN PARENTHESIS: BELIEFS OF PRINCE CHARLES

charlesmus

Charles’ Temenos contribution is the sort of thing which especially early in the century fostered rumours about a private conversion to or profound affinity for Islam, a point on which I shall briefly digress though I can’t possibly know truth in this matter. Undeniably there were visits to Muslim shrines, a donning of Muslim garb, controversial words uttered about the possible integration of Sharia Law to Britain and at least one Sheik (Mohammed Naim al Haqqani, Mufti of Turkish Cyprus and a Sufi Grand Mufti) would affirm that Charles was unofficially Sufi, a Muslim in his heart as Allah accepted. (3) It could however be that HRH’s enthusiasm (he has spoken of “the perfection and beauty of original Islam”) was the expression of an earlier era when few knew the finer or any details of Sharia, when Islamism had not emerged and appreciation of world faiths had a stronger aesthetic emphasis (If Charles is enamoured of Islamic art he fancies Greek icons too in harmony with Raine’s connection of the aesthetic with the sacred).

It belongs with Charles “out of the box” treatment of themes that recently he has bemoaned the relative silence of media in the face of the genocide of Middle Eastern Christians. This is not like a convert’s talk. What is known and certain is that Charles has been strongly influenced by the universalist religious ideas of Swiss writer Frithjof Schuon, who regarded at any rate mystical Islam as a potential unifying force in the world and converted to Sufism, though also being associated with Amerindian tribal religion and other systems in his quest for primordial faith and perennial wisdom.. Mark Sedgwick in Against the Modern World probably gives the best description of Charles’ belief and I cite this in note. (4)

RAINE: LINKING THE AESTHETIC AND THE SACRED

As said, Raine founded Temenos to promote precisely   “imagination” and a sense of the sacred. This was to be furthered amid modern deserts of materialism and ultra-rationalism. She considered all true poetry a form of Platonism and genuine poets Platonists at heart, though perhaps like Hughes she believed verse could be “magic” too. At one time and in imitation of Yeats, Golden Dawn ceremonies got performed in her home. At least a couple of poems seem to indicate she saw or was visited by spirits (The Elementals, In Paralda’s Kingdom).

A major, ground breaking  authority on William Blake, and a noted admirer of Yeats, (both figures seen as representing “imagination”), Raine was a distinguished critic and significant advocate of neo-romanticism in especially poetry. She was herself by general consent an accomplished poet if unevenly so as she half admits in her final Collected Poems. This  excised some pieces, the sort of soppy, sentimental, rather confused personal stuff you feel shouldn’t be there – KR’s love life had always been troubled and in the case of gay author Gavin Maxwell, guilt-ridden as she had (some said successfully) cursed him in a fit of rage when he couldn’t reciprocate her desires.

When not about love or urban and rural scenes, the more mystical or philosophical of Raine’s verse tends to oscillate between awareness of being isolated as perhaps a fragment of a larger whole and awareness of somehow being or warmly included in that whole.

Thus:

I am a wave
That will never reach the shore

I am an empty shell
Cast up upon the sand   (The Unloved)

……It is enough now I am old
That everywhere above, beneath
About, within me is the one
Presence…     (In my Seventieth Year)

I am old and alone but boundless
All is everywhere
Once is forever (A Love remembered)

This emphasis early on and continuously supplied KR a kind of spontaneous affinity for Hindu identity mysticism, though she did not realize this till late and the last two decades of her long life. Before that and as the daughter of a rather repressive Methodist preacher, she had been in flight from Christianity, unclear even what the word “God” meant. Earth’s great cry of joy and woe that KR hears and a consubstantiality with the earth she feels is perhaps…..

….What men called God
Before the word lost meaning. This
That needs no doctrine to make plain,
No cult to offer or withhold
A union more intimate
Than breath of life…….  

Sometimes rejection of or by God (however described), strikes a strange note.

God in me beats my head upon a stone   (Storm)

Stranger still are statements as from Judas Tree to the effect that if it was remarkable Judas was a betrayer, it was almost more remarkable the other disciples, “So stupidly, so tentatively faithful” were stayers. The poet realizes she has more often been a betrayer (of Christ?) than Judas, but sorrowed less for it and isn’t like Judas hanging on a tree.

While Raine could hardly claim to have betrayed anyone to death, it seems plain enough between her critical and poetic work that for much of her life she was a nay saying neo-pagan. It was the combination of a belated discovery of India and then the discovery of herself by Charles, that gave Raine more purpose in life and something approaching specific direction of faith. It then took the form of hymns to Shiva (Prayer to the Lord Shiva, Nataraja, Millennial Hymn to the Lord Shiva) and even addresses to the sun

Sun, great giver of all that is……
How address you greatest of givers,
God, angel, these words served once, but no longer…
But no myth, as before our eyes you are or seem…
Am I in you or you in me….?                          (To the Sun)

In some sense and in a poem dedicated to Charles, she could see how by tradition kings were sun identified. (Legendary Kings).

The Millennial Hymn to Shiva, asks who else can we pray to with the days of praising the Creator over and so much of the world being destroyed, than the Lord of destruction, a destruction that purifies. In the violence of Shiva, Raine seems to find some resolution of the passive and aggressive elements of her divided self.

MEETING KATHLEEN RAINE

raine        rollan-1

                         Kathleen Raine                                               McCleary in 1987

Back in 1987 I knew Ms Raine chiefly for her well informed, insightful critical work, but I knew she had founded Temenos and was generally a promoter of the neo-romantic. I was hopeful she might perceive myself as a neo-romantic, more especially in poetry where I had produced material working towards a loosely tantric, East-West aesthetic. Earlier in the decade I had enjoyed an international critical success (in prose) on East-West cultural and religious issues as a result of living many years in Asia, but poetry was a sudden new arrival in my life. Even today I remain surprised at just how proficient some of the work like the Anuradhapura I offered to Raine, actually was given that it came without any real precedent. The poems now in Puer Poems (the title influenced by Jung’s theory of the Puer archetype I somewhat celebrate) (5), had nonetheless hit a brick wall. There wasn’t a magazine or publisher would give it the time of day for almost any reason. It’s wasn’t the writing itself was bad, it would have been hard to maintain that. It was always something else. You must go through magazines first, magazines objected the poems were too long or exotic. It was quite clear anything neo-romantic,  East-West or “occult” (one of the poems evoked theatre in terms of kabbalistic concepts) was simply not to be considered. You need to be Yeats or Ted Hughes before you are tolerated for such interests.

Since I lived in Chelsea when I wasn’t overseas, I decided to wander down the Embankment and call at Paultons Square and ask for a poem or excerpts of some to be included in Ms Raine’s esteemed magazine so that I might have the recommendation of it to wave at recalcitrant publishers. As I thought it might appeal to her, I was even bold enough to present myself as having some affinities for the world of Yeats. This was not as foolish or presumptuous as it might sound. Even a department head for my first degree on meeting me years later, remarked he wasn’t surprised at my development as he had always registered me as a type of young Yeats and within a year or two of meeting Ms Raine, a rara avis, a poetic drama based on a Celtic mythic theme, had been accepted by the ABC in Australia. Contemporary Irish verse which has largely followed the British modernism Raine abominated,  contains little or no romantic, mythic or religious content. I can state unequivocally I am closer to Yeats than any of Irish nationality writing today. (I could also claim to have been continuously discriminated against because of it too!).

So…. theoretically there was no special reason for Ms Raine to refuse me the favour of a page or two of print in a sizeable review. I knew I ticked most of the boxes or seemed to.

Having described Ms Raine and meeting her in my memoir, I won’t say much more than this. When she got round to checking me out more particularly CV wise, and I mentioned that my internationally well-reviewed The Expansion of God had been published in Britain by SCM (a respected publisher of theology and philosophy), she almost choked with horror gasping “Oh, so you’re a Kistian!”. And while I sat (quite likely where Charles would sit in full view of her dancing Shiva bronze), she launched into a lecture, almost a tirade, about the superiority of India over the West, the nonsense of Europeans trying to bring any religious wisdom to it, etc etc.

Raine’s biography states that some considered her an autocrat. Sensing as much myself, I felt virtually certain in light of her shock that I would not be accepted whatever I said or did and that I would be sentenced without trial. Unsurprisingly, the details of the later refusal proved not just mean in the context of my thankless task of being published for the kind of material Raine should support, but suitably absurd. How could someone admitting I had something of Wordsworth, object I exceeded his expression of the egotistical sublime by entering the purely private to my verse. Here was an objection (surely a Jungian projection!) from someone herself embarrassingly personal in her own verse to the point of complaining (since Raine was once celebrated for beauty) of her thin hair and old breasts and whose revelations include how she managed her cat, “Is Pussy coming to bed?”  (I see my little Cat). My own work would seem downright impersonal by comparison. And any religious prejudice was ironic since, however Christian I might be personally or in the published book I’d mentioned to her, the reality was that the material that would constitute Puer Poems unlike more recent work such as Raphael and Lucifer and Other Visionary Poems, (6) had nothing Christian to it at all. Conservative Christians might even have objections to the content, and given the way I’d employed religious and mythic imagery I didn’t believe in, I could almost have been taken for a Buddhist or Yeatsian theosophist.

POSSIBILITIES AND LIMITATIONS OF POETRY

Poetry can be and do many things. At its higher reaches it can function to change perspectives, further unity through new thought syntheses, grant vision to people. Accordingly it can be all of Ted Hughes “magic” and national definitions and likewise Kathleen Raine’s “transcendence” and evocation of the Beautiful. However, even Raine’s devotion to the Platonic Beautiful cannot avoid the Good and True.

The greatest originality can never entirely circumvent basic psychological and spiritual principles. If, like Hughes, one refuses anything like “repentance”, one will be left raging in the dark, and if like Raine one dismisses all issues of truth-in-belief in favour of the claims of tradition, love, inclusion or whatever, one will merely finish in self-contradiction…. not to say the discrimination that officially one’s position may claim to be opposed to.

Raine may establish Temenos to unite cultures, beliefs and creativity across the board, but practically she would be strongly opposed to and exclusive of all Christianity (outside possibly the Meister Eckhart ultra-mystical “heretical” kind) and caught in the branches of her own Judas Tree. The position exemplifies the biblical statement “Whoever is not for me is against me and whoever does not gather with me, scatters” (Luk 11:23).

THE UNIVERSALIST PIPE DREAM

Prince Charles has never been notably fortunate in his gurus – the “Jungian” adviser the late, Laurens van der Post (another Chelsea resident and a friend of Raine) has been shown to be such a lying fraud, he is today best forgotten and unmentioned – but I suggest that where poetic gurus are concerned, the complication repeats itself if more mildly. More mildly, but not with less potential significance for the Prince’s credo, and perhaps increasingly that of many who incline to the same would-be universalist views.

One sets out to include everyone, to defend “faith”, to love the world over its component national or whatever parts, but one finishes with discrimination in fact. At its worst, it is precisely tolerance, acceptance and inclusion of all people, races and faiths that in Britain has allowed the Trojan horse scandal in education and the sexual exploitation of minors through police fears of “racist” charges if they point to crimes and values protected within specific cultural and religious groups. In this way the moral ideal breeds the immoral one and the religious ideal fosters spiritual pollution.

Arguably the truest., most appropriate poetry for our times would be prophetic satire, nothing more, nothing less. I could envisage a sort of update of Pro 7 with this time a lost, aimless Europa and her unruly offspring wandering “in the twilight, in the evening, in the time of night and darkness”. But I sense it is already too late to tackle the momentous subject of rapid western decline in all its daunting complexity. Albeit from a different perspective, I share some of the pessimism of Raine’s Millennial Hymn to Shiva. in which already there is something less to warn against or correct than to resign to and mourn. It is has become apparent to me that writing well and relevantly today only raises insecurities and resentments in those who determine the face of literature. I mentioned last article the case of a leading Australian poet who while giving me the back-handed praise rather like Raine’s Wordsworth compliment that I had the musicality of Virgil (not a bad hit – tell the Dartmoor shades of classics translator and astrologer  Ted Hughes that asteroid Virgil conjuncted my sun at birth!), the fact I had include such “hopelessly archaic words” as “conduct” and “bestow” meant I could not be published with Penguins.

The rapidly increasing decline of the West is due not just to its materialism and PCness but among other things its artistic decadence, pundits like Raine invoking light but too often fostering darkness. As said, this decline is a theme already almost too large, too late for any one person or artist to tackle and after much striving to be allowed any kind of voice, finally I refuse to attempt such tasks, though my Beyond Dover Beach is a gesture in the direction (7). As the Taoists have it, “to retire is best”. In my own case I am satisfied that retiral and silence are the appropriate response. “Where there is no vision the people perish”. But if help is not wanted, often it is not right to insist upon giving it either; casting pearls never helped anyone or anything.

As to Prince Charles and because he does enjoy influence, one can only hope he is more fortunate in future with his gurus of art, avoiding the contradictions into which they could lead him and others.

NOTES

1) Jonathan Bate, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life, p.219
2) Testament of the Magi: Mysteries of the Birth and Life of Christ, goo.gl/I28aCm
3 ) Alleged Sufi conversion https://goo.gl/MF2qYF and  for continuous updates over the years on Charles’ statements and gestures vis-à-vis Islam see https://goo.gl/YnNndW
4) “…..Charles’ own position might be described as anti-modernist Jungian and Emersonian universalism. At the opening of his Institute of Architecture he defined “spirit” as that overwhelming experience of awareness of a oneness with the Natural World, and beyond that with the creative force we call God which lies at the central point of all….It is both ‘pagan’ and Christian and in this sense is surely the fundamental expression of what we call religion”. In the same speech Prince Charles spoke against “scientific rationalism:” as “destroying the traditional foundations on which so many of our human values had been based for thousands of years” Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History. Mark Sedgwick. Oxford University Press 2004. n. 45 p 328.
5) Puer Poems  (2011) goo.gl/HKbS9O
6) Raphael and Lucifer and Other Visionary Poems (2016)  goo.gl/Xqd5BF
7) Beyond Dover Beach: A Poem of our Times http://wp.me/p2v96G-gY

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2017 in aesthetics, Poetry, religion

 

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ELIZABETH GILBERT’S MAGIC: RIGHT BUT MOSTLY WRONG

gilbert1   gilbert2

FEELING AND BEING CREATIVE AT ALL COSTS

Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest easy read bestseller is a strange offering and not quite what it seems. It starts out in true American positive thought style as an encouragement to creative self-expression or actualization, specifically it’s an invitation in the style of fame-avoiding poet Jack Gilbert (no relation)  to find our inner treasures and cultivate “curiosity over fear”. Fear doesn’t like the uncertain boundaries and outcomes of inspiration, so to oppose it is key.

With this the reader is launched upon a sort of everyone’s how-to guide to living creatively and achieving fulfilment citing especially the example of the self-isolating Jack and  a middle aged woman who returns to her youthful love of just skating. But soon the book is morphing into more by way of a guide to inspiration and creativity as exemplified by work and inspiration as it affects writers and artists and Gilbert herself. This is something one feels the book shouldn’t quite do insofar as the ever democratic author would deny that the artist and art is anybody or anything special unless for the sort of committed work involved. So little is what’s special or any big C creativity involved that Gilbert, who says she “cannot even be bothered to think about the difference between high art and low art” (p.120), advises that if you feel like painting a penis on a wall, go ahead and do it (p 88).

Art’s essential normality will even become Gilbert’s pretext to berate writers less successful than herself as complainers or masochists with attitudes that poison the very wells of inspiration they seek to draw upon. Gilbert herself believes true inspiration has a lot to do with just pleasure or fun. While this will always be partly true (the artist needs both to take and convey some pleasure in their work to communicate well) such wild generalizations ignore even the science of recent years. This indicates that beyond any simple self-gratification, artists are differently wired from scientists and have more grey matter (literally not metaphorically) than the average person. It might be wise to allow that artists could have their own purpose and role in nature and life.

In harmony with its title, Gilbert’s pep talk book is also almost a theory of magic and so it is soon maintaining we are visited by ideas with independent consciousness like so many spirits. At one point Gilbert even admits, “I have invisible spirit benefactors who believe in me” (p. 96).  You need to entertain these sources of inspiration or one day they will just wander away from you and, as though offended, won’t return. Practically, the book revives and popularizes something like ancient theories of the daemon and Platonic ideas and archetypes.

In the course of Big Magic there is plenty of sensible advice for creative people like an insistence the artist usually doesn’t need much that passes for higher education today and pursuing which can leave a student with half a lifetime’s debt. The artist needs to live and learn from life except that modern life too often prevents this. Since there are a variety of helpful tips for artists plus Gilbert’s work ethic and history of stubborn persistence are exemplary in their way, I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from reading the book. But they do need to do so critically and with caution. Amid interesting anecdotes and advice there’s much that is  misleading, even seriously so as regards what art is or needs to be and I’ll address especially that…..

GILBERT’S “BIG MAGIC” SURPRISE THAT’S NEITHER SURPRISE NOR SECRET

…. However,  let’s get what the author regards as her crucial magical notion of inspiration out of the way first. What Gilbert has learned is that, as in science which talks of a “multiple discovery” phenomenon, it is possible to find oneself pursuing the same project and even writing virtually the same novel as another writer and at the same time. Gilbert and Ann Pratchett did so on events in the Amazon region. This it seems is part of something larger and terribly occult that we ought to embrace though we can never hope to understand it.

As it happens, what Gilbert describes will not be any surprise to anyone aware of the principle of cycles in astrology. These oversee entire cultural trends and will produce the same styles and motifs that another generation may consider of no interest at all. Thought (and art) is indeed archetypally determined to a great extent. Revivals of interest in certain periods and trends are the marks of a return of a cycle from perhaps hundreds of years ago. This  phenomenon is and isn’t “magical” (you can read about it in detail in culture historian Richard Tarnas’ ground breaking study Cosmos and Psyche, 2006)) and the sub cycles of planetary transits then relate the larger cycles to the development of individuals giving artists their creative and fallow periods; so if Gilbert embraced some principles of astrology she would have clearer understanding in relation to the art and self-expression  that concern her. And then she wouldn’t think of what occurs across time as like “jokes” and tricks of a trickster universe but instead a more ordered programme or fate.

But even subject to the effects of cycles, people pursuing creativity are not necessarily influenced by active spirits or angels as Gilbert so radically has it. In extreme cases this may happen, or at least be thought to happen – we find it in William Blake who claimed to see angels on a regular basis and film director Ingmar Bergman who supposedly had  contact with spirits and demons. At the extreme end of the influence scale it can even be that a generation is inspired or misled by prophets possessed by whatever forces for good or evil. To that extent it is just possible that having opened herself up to everything from yogas to gurus and a fortune telling Bali medicine man, Gilbert herself has finished susceptible to the influence of actual spirits keen to impose on the collective at this time. At least some readers would regard Eat, Pray, Love less as a true guide to self-fulfiment than a siren call to promiscuous spiritual dabbling and unhelpful forms of romanticism. Since I don’t want to get into gossip it’s perhaps as well I forget what feature article I read a  year or more ago (and as I recall from an Australian Buddhist woman rather than an irate American Christian) who considered herself seriously hurt by and disillusioned with Gilbert as person and spiritual guide. Regardless, I think readers should just ignore Gilbert’s theory of inspiration.

ART IS MORE THAN FICTION WRITING

Beyond the whispering spirits one can’t help feeling that Elizabeth Gilbert’s notion of creative activity is considerably shaped by her undoubted talent for fiction and personal memoir. These are nonetheless in some respects the easiest forms of art – sometimes it’s like sitting down and tossing off a vivid, newsy letter or keeping a diary. It’s not identical to the struggles including with special techniques the dramatist or poet may have to wrestle with. Recently I was reading the biography of poet Ted Hughes, husband of poet Sylvia Plath. It soon becomes evident that for both of them capturing and retaining poetic inspiration (an aspect of the ecstatic function) requires rather specific conditions (often in isolation) that are marred or denied by everyday life. It is the rarest of rare poets like Shakespeare who could write poetry almost anywhere and quickly (without blotting a line according to Ben Jonson); but then Gilbert isn’t into special cases, still less genius.

Gilbert  is however an almost addictive writer or note taker in a way many writers aren’t necessarily. It seems that like De Beauvoir her day is dust and ashes when she has not written anything. Fair enough that’s just how she is, but it also the case such writing is effectively therapeutic, for self-expression and pleasure  rather than work or larger purpose, the reason she has no truck with complaining artists. She assumes artists do what they do because they have chosen that path – but if they are differently wired is that quite the case? – so the activity should give them pleasure just as it is without expectation of acceptance, reward or whatever.  If this sounds almost ascetical (and Gilbert even portrays herself as dedicating herself to writing during adolescence like a nun), in fact Gilbert’s outlook can also be almost breathtakingly selfish or self-regarding. “Whenever anybody tells me they want to write a book in order to help other people , I always think please don’t….I would so much rather you wrote a book in order to entertain yourself than to help me” (pp 98,99). For Gilbert there is no such thing as a vocation to write or do art; you don’t write for society, for individuals or a cause; and according to her ultra-American credo, providing you are willing and able financially to support yourself and will be bothering nobody unduly, you are at complete liberty to do whatever you please (including it seems those penis graffiti).

Again this is misleading. A great slice of significant art has been produced in service of some great idea and one can’t begin to imagine the likes of Dante, Milton, Victor Hugo, Dickens unless propelled by a sense of dedicated purpose to inspire, instruct or reform –Milton described the poet’s work as his life blood and did concede that the fame, which Gilbert doesn’t think should count, was some spur to the labour.

It is because there can be this element of vocation or at least sense of inborn necessity among artists, that something like their complaints which Gilbert so radically dismisses, is legitimate. She regards the emphasis on suffering and/or complaints arising from it, to be a legacy of especially Christian and German Romantic values that have allowed artists to carry on as though sentenced to harsh conditions under a cruel dictator (p.117). We can agree with her that there is a kind of artist who imagines if they are not in (or just acting the part of being in) pain, poverty or some dire bohemian situation half starved or their minds half addled by drink or drugs, they are not the real thing – we might call this the Kurt Cobain syndrome – but that’s not the whole situation by far.

MUCH ARTISTIC COMPLAINT IS JUSTIFIED.

It is quite possible, and especially so if you belong to the more vocational type of artist for whom ideas count more than immersion in life’s endless details,  that you may suffer the pain of non-connection and non-communication, feel truly blocked and half destroyed by publishers, critics, society and conditions in general. Shelley protested, “I have suffered the tyranny of neglect” and in the light of history and his biography that seems a fair enough, valid claim. The celebrated Ode to the West Wind was both a protest against and an imaginative effort to oppose what prevents the necessary role of bardic vision going out into the world.

Many artists anyway have plenty of reason for complaint because their conditions and permitted expectations are today often demonstrably worse than the average worker in ways that should not be tolerated in a civilized society. In the very age of grievance culture and stress upon victimhood, Gilbert wants none of it from the artists who might have more than usual reason to voice it. A century ago. Bernard Shaw helped found the Society of Authors to do at least something to improve the artist’s lot. The history of rejected and cheated authors is a long one (even the super-successful JK Rowling was rejected for Harry Potter twelve times). To this day the author will usually receive only a fraction of a book’s takings (somewhere between two and a half and twelve and a half per cent while the often necessary agent of which there are not enough to go round, may take up to 25 per cent). A huge slice of English literature would not exist if it had had to wait upon social acceptance and financial remuneration in the modern way. The likes of Milton, Thomas Gray, Shelley and Wordsworth in poetry had private means. Jane Austen’s prose wasn’t held up on financial problems. The Latin poets from Catullus to Martial were either comfortably off or had helpful wealthy patrons – the perfectionist, slow working Virgil had both advantages.

With or without means, by contrast the modern writer will often have to suffer unacceptably cavalier, dismissive behaviour from those who stand to affect their career and status.  Promises are easily broken, lies are often told, needless delays can be endless, payments not delivered, editors never available to discuss anything,  rules of contract not observed. Any old thing goes. (It’s true nowadays indie publishing is some help and a real alternative but a lot is involved and if only for publicity it is definitely still preferable to be published in the standard way). Much publishing and promotion can be a shark’s pool in which many are destroyed and devoured, feelings, health, the artist’s organization and planning of their life are simply not considered. Therapy itself might be required to cope. I have seen the problem for others, I have known it for myself – the life-destroying, soul-destroying, almost degrading experience of dealing with publishing and agency, is partially recorded in my Reflections of an Only Child. goo.gl/37dUUK

What the conditions of the artist argues for is less the mostly absent virtues of some American, egalitarian, competitive, over worked free-for-all that Gilbert seems to favour, but almost its opposite, a degree of almost elite privilege which would allow more scope to the observation of and experiment with life which art is about. The role of artist beyond the (self) entertainment level has some affinity with that of priesthood. Traditionally and certainly biblically, the priest, supported by the tithes which placed him above mundane concerns, was an individual expected not to compete but rather transcend, to live above ordinary conditions the better to study, observe and pronounce upon life. It was the same Bernard Shaw who helped found the Society of Authors who criticized the American Declaration of Independence declaring its doctrine of equality untrue and misleading. People are born with different and unequal levels of talent and ability  and one should organize society with that in mind.

PRACTICAL ADVICE: AVOID THE ARTS

Knowing what I know, I would never today lend encouragement to anyone keen to pursue a life in writing or the arts – or not unless I had perhaps first read their horoscopes to indicate their chance of fulfilment and success. And what would that entail? Gilbert denies there are any guarantees for success in the arts, but on especially a temporary basis there very definitely are  – with or without major talent and obvious relevance because sometimes, on a temporary basis, even the worst persons and ideas can get away with a few things given helpful celestial indications.

For success in many areas including authorship, one needs to have a strong Jupiter (it bespeaks fortune in general but not least in the realm of publishing and ideas) and something strong to Pluto to empower and relate to the masses. (Who’s Who has been found to be full of Jupiter/Pluto people). Thus in the chart of Alain de Botton who has made hay in the unlikely field of popularized, applied philosophy, we find fortunate Jupiter fortunately trine Mars and the moon fortunately trine Pluto for outreach to the masses. To make it big in fiction, it helps that George RR Martin of Game of Thrones has writer’s Mercury opportunity sextile publishing Jupiter and surprising, original Uranus on a world point (O Cancer). JK Rowling has publishing Jupiter in communicating Gemini, with Mercury spectacularly conjunct fixed star Regulus in Leo (potential mega fame) and Moon conjunct Uranus and Pluto for massive popular outreach. Elizabeth Gilbert herself could hardly go wrong with publishing Jupiter conjunct surprising Uranus on another of the 6 world points at 0 Libra (itself the marriages and relationships sign which is why she has done herself best on that subject).

I will not discuss here my own horoscope and chequered experiences – as said, anyone can refer to my memoir for at least some of the stories,but I will say against some of Gilbert’s claims that fate plays a considerable role in the life of the artist who is perhaps more on the wheel of fortune than most so that the idea one chooses to be an artist or chances to get successful  is controversial. In my own case unusual circumstances  of overseas residence where I was forbidden to take employment, kept me at writing when I would not  otherwise have got so involved. While that is perhaps exceptional and  this isn’t the place for my story, it is the right place to sound warning signals against anything to do with a career in the arts in today’s circumstances. My advice is simply don’t touch it, don’t go near it, but if for whatever reason you must, then feel free to protest your lot and complain loudly. It’s not to be “boring” as Gilbert maintains. If sufficiently organized (but authors and artists fear the black balling which does go on and the effect on media connections too) it might produce some needed reform.

I seriously mean it that the “creative” life usually isn’t worth it in any form today. It can finish like imprisonment or a stay in the mad house, frustrating, exasperating, unprofitable, time wasting and degrading. After years of effort I finally seriously admitted as much  to myself when despite high recommendations  I was meanly refused for Penguin New Poets by one of Australia’s leading poets because I had unpublishably  included “such hopelessly archaic words as ‘conduct’ and ‘bestow’ “. That was the last straw and for more than twenty years I had not the slightest desire to write any more poetry. If that was wasted talent and in my case there is real reason to think so, so be it. Health and sanity are more important.

Paradoxically and ironically, my distinctly negative feelings do in their way, I suppose, lend support to Elizabeth  Gilbert’s notion of creative work today as best thought of as personal entertainment and in effect the therapy she doesn’t call it. However, against Big Magic theories I will always believe creativity involves a higher, more “sacred” function than the play-around materialism of modern life allows it to be. Almost certainly real art and its acceptance now awaits the inspirations of the coming era. For now the arts could be considered in their death rattle.

 

 
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Posted by on January 11, 2017 in creativity

 

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NETI NETI : A POEM ABOVE GANGOTRI (For World Poetry Day 2015)

 Gangotri2

Neti, Neti means “Not this, Not this”. It belongs to celebrated claims of the Hindu Upanishads (with affinities for Negative Mysticism in some medieval Christianity) which describes God/Ultimacy not as Creator or Person but what God isn’t. The mystic realizes there is only the being/essence, or “Suchness” like a substance into which by concentration one may yogically hope to merge. This wwareness of Suchness can however co-exist with a world of myth or even created this-worldly forms which have the status of a sort of dream/illusion (Maya) in which the gods are capricious and divided because ultimately they are not real or at least secondary to the higher realm of Brahman and Suchness.

NETI, NETI: A POEM ABOVE GANGOTRI [1]

Warm images of ancient ones rise up,
Delay and play and circle here, a dazzle
For the inner eyes. There pass the crowds,
The many thousand sons of King Sagara,
And then from him seven generations on
The greater son for whom Mount Bhagirath
Ahead not far is named.[2] Among the spirit
Train appear ascetics who it’s said
Could swallow seas or scatter wide
Whole multitudes and pulverize with breath
Or fire. Their eyes are alien wild; see
The unearthly stare amid the smiles and play
Of Ganesh and of Hanuman, one plump, one spry
And family icon gods of hearth all coloured
Friendly as a bright bazaar their shapes,
Now firm, now fragile as the eternal
Womb of myth itself which presently
Lies in this would-be yuga age at rest
Upon these valleys,”the abode of gods”.[3]

The moving arc of jostled forms,
That juggernaut of sculpted images
Tight pressed but cheerful as a noisy nursery
To ride the skies and range through earth
(For there are heavens, worlds and realms beneath)
Glows bright and lively as a sun.
Yet Sol’s own rays beam down
Less warmly on what towers ahead,
That bare reality of solemn heights
The granite eminence and glacier wall
Through which the only silence-breaking
Sound that stirs the few and ancient trees
Above the pilgrim’s path is chill,
Crisp gustings from the thin air’s winds.

Even so it’s light alone, and then fast drifted
Strands of cloud that whisper to and brush
The peaks, bring near, as though for merely
Human touch, what’s still remote from here below:
Those heights that partly hide and shelter
This wide cow’s mouth of sacred rock. [4]
From there, much like a frothing, freezing snow
Pours out the worshipped hoped for one,
The playful She that once gushed forth
From out the highest heavens and deepest earth
To fill dried ocean and to purify
Sagara’s murderous sons and resurrect
Their ashes from the ancient pyres. No will
Of gods or men could halt the impulse
Or her play nor even by Shiva’s locks
Could plunging Ganga be detained. Yet she,
By Brahma sent to purify, even shape lives
And redeem from endless circles of rebirth,
Was too soon stained, (and is those icy heights
Once left behind), dragged, drawn and tossed into
The filth and mire of earth, choked and polluted
In her deepest self, her role scarce more
Than mourner to a universe of pyres.

11

Now they are gone, as sudden gone as glimpsed,
Shades that imagination feeds who suck
In turn at spirit’s life for nourishment,
Ghosts of this valley, objects of desire half feared
If here adored by those few hardy pilgrim souls
Washed, frozen in the churn of rushing
Ceaseless Ganga flow. Motionless, astare
Eyes fixed or closed, what do they see?
Those Hades shades, an outer or
An inner light, a combination of all these?
What breeze from what Beyond would blow
Through mind as surely as those flags
Staked here and there to mark devotion?
What might minds feel of primal unity
Or plenum emptiness? If reaching there
Could even the devotee avoid and nowise
Sense through nature on the steep ascent
The solemn radiance that won’t reveal,
The weight of melancholic solitude
Which voiceless owns the valleys and the air?
“The gods came later than creation,
Who knows from where this world arose?” Thus
Pondered and in vain would poetize
The Vedic sage. [5] Indeed! For can those
Peaks be left to soar and mountain purity
Look down except as though to bar
From earthly Edens all remaining paths and
Every sacred conversation?

Before they enter on their final truths
It’s hearing is the last sense dying
Persons know; and surely rightly so
For what is first in the creative urge
Is sound and word, not images which
Hand may draw or mind’s eye see.
From all decay creation’s Lord withdraws
And dwells beyond, where never hand
Has touched nor fixity of concentrated
Thought has merged or can.

Go where you will, dream, chant
Or meditate, pursue the path of intellect,
Seek wisdom at a guru’s feet,
Bathe in the frozen Ganges’ waves
To claim redemption through the pores.
It’s all in vain since soul and spirit
Have not “heard”. God is not “this” or “that”,
Not “here” nor “there” unless you’ve left
The substance for the sound from where
Faith’s fountain flows into all levels
Of the holy worlds. When this is missed
So at the door of “suchness” mind remains,
Soul stays confused and nature mourns
Even though, within all things, near and
Beyond, the deity you did not know
Or long forgot, still waits.

NOTES

[1] Gangotri is in India’s northern Uttarakhand province the nearest village below the source of the Ganges. Though I have visited the Himalayas I have not visited specifically Gangotri but with only the slightest help from photos I feel I can sufficiently imagine it. I would also assume that like pilgrims mentioned in Nick Fleming’s photographic record (http://goo.gl/Md1JAQ) I would sense the melancholy (which I associate with many Asian mountain regions and sacred sites) and which for me raises metaphysical questions. So much so that what began aesthetically here as a lyrical evocation of India finished closer to a personal statement somewhat redolent of ideas expressed in my writings such as The Great Circle: Asia, David and God Consciousness with its claims about Asia’s lost, unknown God.(see http://amzn.to/128eGOQ)
[2] Mount Bagiratha. Bagirathi was the descendant of Sagara whose labour of extreme penitence atonement for earlier family crimes attracted Brahman’s attention.
[3] Existence for Hinduism runs through repeated cycles of four vast yugas (epochs) of which the supposed current Kali Yuga is the worst. The whole area around Gangotri is dubbed Devi Bhoomi, or “abode of the gods”.
[4] Gomuck means Cow’s mouth and is the point at the end of the glacier from which the Ganges or one of its chief sources of the Ganges emerges above Gangotri.
[5] Rig Veda 129: 6-7.

ascetic    hindgods

 
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Posted by on March 20, 2015 in Poetry, religion

 

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OVID FOR EVER and PAUL JANKA FOR SOMETIMES

Ovid         OVMETA       Janka    Pickup

OVID FOR EVER AND PAUL JANKA FOR SOMETIMES

A POET MADE FOR FAME

Ovid can well be considered one of the most important poets of all time, along with Shakespeare for whom Ovidius was his favourite classical writer. An entire line in romance, courtly love and even typical western portrayal of love as a battle of the sexes, is hugely indebted to an Ovidian legacy.

The bard of Stratford owed rather more to the bard of Sulmo than is acknowledged and not simply because of references to myths preserved in Ovid’s celebrated Metamorphoses which for Shakespeare as for many poets (and musicians, painters and sculptors, supremely Bernini) has been a treasure house to plunder. One thinks rather of the influence of such as Heroides in which women soliloquize about their fate and experiences with men (mostly in modification or contradiction of the existing accounts of their stories from Homer and others). This anticipates the role of females in Shakespeare’s plays (or even just the poetry of confession in the likes of Richard 11  meditating on his life). Ovid’s work is, scintillating, witty, critical, dramatic and unusually psychological for his era. He wrote drama as well as poetry – we know of his Medea which is lost to posterity.

Ovid (March 20th 43 BC Julian/-42 Greg – 17/18 AD) was prolific and his memory for the myths, ancient sources and customs he refers to was prodigious too. He claimed, as was surely necessarily the case, that he wrote in poetry almost as naturally as prose. His natural facility must have given him the confidence from his only middle class origins to leave the legal career expected of him by his father and social background for a purely literary career which seems to have been launched as early as eighteen.

Despite the obvious delight in myth as in the Metamorphoses and in traditions as in the Fasti, Ovid can sometimes be sceptical and cynical about both and in a way that adds to our impression almost nobody in the ancient world was quite so modern as Ovid. He is the Italian artist and cinematographer before the time. He is very much the western individualist in preparation on the cusp of the new age (of Pisces), the age which would propel western humanity to the forefront in historical/cultural terms. All the ancient writers and poets, no matter how insightful and enduringly relevant can still seem somehow archaic in comparison. Arguably Thucydides is rather modern, but on the whole, especially the Greeks, almost plod in comparison with Ovid whose only possible rival for a contemporary feel among the Latins is Catullus.

Ovid has been so influential it can well be asked whatever does anyone have to do to become  a famous, prolific writer of major verse like Ovid and Shakespeare who dashed off the work that almost all other poets worldwide have had to labour over because poetry is an art of excellence and often compression akin to the work of sculpture or mosaics?

Here the astrologer can affirm something others can’t. Both Ovid and Shakespeare have their writer’s Mercury at 16 of cardinal, (action orientated) Aries. Things just flow out of them, the energy is boundless and it’s likely most of the time that, like Shakespeare according to Ben Jonson, Ovid never blotted a line…albeit he is on record as wishing to have polished the Metamorphoses except that exile and disgrace got in his way. (The astrological effect may extend to a degree or two either side. A lesser but still major prolific poet for all occasions, Wordsworth, had his sun at 18 Aries).

But if we can observe this, are there other things the birth pattern can help us perceive? I believe that crucially we can do so but I shall say a little more about the poet and his life first.

OVID MYSTERIES

There are all sorts of mysteries around Ovid, his motivation, his themes, his exile but they might be said to begin and end with an overwhelming conviction that his fame would endure for ever, or at least, as he declared at the end of the Metamorphoses, for as long as anyone uttered the name of Rome. Metamorphoses is not however the only place he forecasts a uniquely privileged future. Where did this obsessive, insistent conviction and its self-confidence derive from? I will come to this presently.

Particular mystery attaches to the poets banishment from Rome in 8 BC to the miserable outpost of Tomis (modern Constantia) on the Black Sea on the order of the Emperor Augustus.

Two reasons are given for this most celebrated of literary experiences of exile. The first was that the poet was a corrupter of Roman morals (through his Amores and Ars Amoris, the Loves and the Art of Love) which Ovid would later claim represented fantasies and follies not reflective of his personal life. He will also protest that there was little cause for blame given the already well-established “wanton verse” of such as Catullus, Propertius and Tibullus in the generation before him. And it is undeniably strange given that legacy, that any strongly felt charges of corruption weren’t brought earlier. On the love theme Ovid had been published and known for years before perhaps jealous rivals of the successful poet influenced the Emperor whose reform of the marriage laws in 18 BC was challenged by Ovid’s permissive oeuvre. (It is of course a popular myth that Roman society was engaged in almost continuous orgy before Christianity came along – one has for example only to read the atheist poet Lucretius’ negative account of sex and love to recognize Ovid was far from expressing or catering to some unquestioned norm. Ovid himself describes concern with adultery as “provincial” which is to affirm it existed). Even if we allow that Augustus in seeking to reform morals could begin with punishing a living writer rather than just speaking against dead ones, the emperor may have had more private reasons.

The second cause of banishment was involved with the fact the poet had witnessed or been involved in something of which we aren’t clearly told by either Augustus or the poet. Ovid’s poems of exile admit only to some folly, (perhaps witnessing or speaking of something he shouldn’t have), but he insists there was nothing criminal or of criminal intent behind it. Since however the order occurred the same year as the Emperor’s daughter, Julia, was also sent into banishment for (persistent) adultery, it is not inconceivable that the well-connected Ovid had been some witness to, or an influence behind events which ran counter to Augustus’ new moral laws aimed to reform the ultra-permissive lifestyles of the Rome’s wealthy new upper classes. They certainly didn’t serve the militaristic values of the Roman empire. Ovid effectively turns away from this offering not an expansionist epic but a comedy of the wars of the sexes.

OVID AND MORALITY

Before looking further into this I will say something about Ovid and morals.

Endearing, charming, amusing and often kindly though Ovid can be – he abhorred mistresses being cruel to servants, he was appalled at easy abortion – and though his 26 year long sufferings till death in the wilds of Tomis are heartbreaking, I think one is bound to agree that few have argued more blatantly and strongly for adultery. He tells his readers how to go about it and to treat it all as a love game, chiefly but not wholly to a man’s advantage. Ovid is not obscene, but he is frankly, boastfully immoral and in a way that argues against his own comparison with the Latin poets before him.

Love poets of the previous generation like Catullus, Propertius and Tibullus represent a unique experiment and moment in history. Comparable in some respects to the medieval troubadours, they were born to be upper class men of leisure in a way Ovid wasn’t. They had sought love and an exploration of female character in a very individual, independent way against the strictures of the old Republican and very patriarchal world. There weren’t many places for adventuring poets to go except prostitutes or other men’s wives – Catullus famously pursued “Lesbia”, the wife of the absent Metellus Celer and Propertius pursued the high class prostitute Cynthia. Quite whom dreaming Tibullus and his Delia and other women represent is less clear. But in the case of Catullus and Propertius not only was there some genuine and memorable even painfully memorable love involved, but when it didn’t work out there was frank recognition of the fact. Moreover some of Catullus’ poems celebrate marriage and more traditional values. Propertius too admires the faithful traditional wife. One may be left with the sense of some lessons learned, an evolution of ideas and character.

Though Heroides does sympathize with abandoned lovers and ill treated wives and is almost feminist, nothing like this attaches to Ovid’s erotic verse which is full of glittering, throw away cynicism. Its tricks to further seduction, chiefly of the wives of other men whom one is delighted to deceive, would leave a legacy in the rituals of elegant but decadent courtly and aristocratic lifestyles across the centuries. Augustus surely had a point about writing that corrupts, though we might need to consider if the emperor didn’t have motives apart from the moral ones and associated rather with his developing religious policies that he didn’t openly declare in this particular case.

But in turn did Ovid have a point in protesting that his erotic verse did not represent the facts of his life and experience? There could have been some truth in that claim even if it was made with some exaggeration in order to plead the case for release from exile.

The Heroides does in fact suggest an author with as strong a feeling for virtue and loyalty as anything opposite. It is therefore possible – just – that the love poetry could be thought of as largely a satire of nouveau riche Roman morals but voiced through the mask of a Casanova. The claim to private innocence amid public folly would even be consistent with Ovid’s birth sign, Pisces, which imagines much.

One need only read the adultery filled fiction of the devout, church going John Updike to see  the Piscean comparison and ( because people are rarely too honest about sex and love and whatever his precise birth date) the poetry of the cavalier clergyman Robert Herrick. Herrick even writes as though he had a variety of mistresses he never had. He even uses the name of Ovid’s supposed chief mistress, Corinna. But just who was the original Corinna whose name Herrick borrows? For fame, influence and scandal in some respects an even closer comparison to Ovid, though a non poetic one, would be with Piscean Erika Leonard/ E.L.James (7.3.1963) author of Fifty Shades of Grey. Again like Ovid we have a Piscean with a moon in Leo, and though apparently long term happily married, Mrs Leonard takes the world by storm with her unbridled sexual fantasies.

Ovid had three wives. He was married off to the first very young and he described her as “useless” and divorced from her as from a second wife divorced before he was thirty for reasons unknown. His third well connected wife was left in Rome guarding the family home when he went into exile. (By imperial favour the poet’s home and goods weren’t taken from him. Perhaps Augustus realized the Tomis would be prison and purgatory enough as proved to be the case). Ovid declared he had been faithful to his (third) wife. He may have exaggerated or lied, yet he had a case to make for his release and he had been well known in sometimes critical Roman circles. Could he have professed the innocence he maintained and not had it all easily denied if it was all manifestly untrue?

Some critics detecting that Ovid must be describing his own home in the Amores, have suspected that Corinna was not the mistress but a record of the ultimately detested first wife. It is my own suspicion that it was from this rather extravagant, free living Lady Gaga style character that Ovid discovered what the tricks of seduction were (in addition to what he would have easily enough learned from earlier poets). I suggest a way to read The Art of Love is a virtual satire on existing Roman mores while the tricks of seduction constitute a revenge upon the first wife. Why? Because at one level there is an Ovid who is genuinely sympathetic and romantic towards women – he could never have written whole tracts of his work and the Heroides if that were not the case – but there is another Ovid who wants to be revenged upon women. He despises them and offers the love game and seduction as the way to be revenged. 1: 646 et seq of Ars Amoris might well be the key to the whole work and its author’s psychology when he declares against women:

They’re cheats, so cheat them; most are dumb and
Unscrupulous: let them
Fall into the traps they’ve set themselves…
So let perjuries gull the perjured
Let woman smart from the wounds she first dealt out!  (tr Peter Green)

I suggest a long suffering cuckold is talking, one saving face by pretending to strings of conquests he never had. After all, he does declare in the Corinna centred Amores, “your morals turn me off, your body on” and he pleads she will at least pretend to be faithful so he won’t be too hurt.

If true this of course still can’t automatically and fully exonerate Ovid. His sins may not be of commission but they could be of the imagination. To the extent he is blasé about rape (by the gods in Metamorphoses) and teaches heartless cynical infidelity in a big way that will influence society for generations to come, he can’t be deemed only an innocent and thus only the victim his nightmare banishment made him. One could even argue that here is the culture hero who acts as one of Satan’s little helpers. Whether he was or not we must surely see something remarkably symbolic in the moment of cultural and ethical conflict that marks his life.

OVID AND THE NEW AGE

I said that Ovid was born under Pisces, the age that was dawning in his lifetime. Christ was born in 7 BC the year following Ovid’s banishment and (as maintained on various blog article on this site) Christ was born, as we know the Emperor Augustus was, under the sign of Virgo – in late Virgo with his sun opposing Ovid’s late Pisces sun and exactly so: 27 Virgo to 27 Pisces which didn’t help Ovid.

Everything Virgo as being both opposition and complement of Pisces would represent the ideal or better half of the new age; and while that “feminine” era would advance such themes as romance, compassion, tolerance and the status of women to some degree, it would necessarily do so through the filter and mode of its Virgoan ideal. That  would mean it would oppose any mere confusion and permissiveness, just as the end of that same era (now) things would tend to sink back into permissiveness and the confusion of values that in its negative expression Pisces too often represents. The parables of Jesus are almost built on a Pisces/Virgo axis of imagery, his hearers are even counseled not to be drunk with the servants (Pisces is a servant sign, a sign of inebriation and addiction). Something in Ovid even adumbrates the Christian feeling of the coming era. Hypermestra to Lynceus in the Heroides is already giving us the martyr’s sacrifice, the suffering, the higher love, the forgiveness, attachment to the ideals of virtue, even a virtue that will be its own reward.

Ironically it may have been the more spiritual side of Ovid which contributed as much as anything else to his mystery-ridden downfall. In harmony of sorts with the incoming era the Virgo born Augustus Caesar, himself in power when Jesus was born, sought to direct his own and Roman authority towards a new imperial cult. The emperor would be increasingly viewed as divi filius, son of God. Arguably Ovid could be seen as undermining the trend. He had always been rather sceptical about the gods but in his incomplete Fasti, a record of the various cults and festivals of Rome he is at once independent doubter and believer through the way in which he has interviews with or visions of deities to sort out mythic/theological issues with them. There are vague intimations here of a Protestant independence, reliance upon the personal belief or revelations.

This individualistic approach could end as unhelpful to Augustus as the Ars Amoris to his reformist marriage laws and perhaps more so. I am even inclined to think those critics who emphasize this point are on the right track. There is a strong hint from the birth pattern that Ovid was a victim to religious policy.

OVID’S HOROSCOPE

OVIDCHART

Even without a birth time to help us (the above chart is set for midday) the day of Ovid’s birth is striking enough for his fate and character and because it is it isn’t too difficult to guess at an approximate birth time. (see below)

The obsession with and conviction about fame is strikingly staked out by the rare way in which five planets planets can be considered as being on world points (it is usual to allow 1.30 by way of conjunction). There is little to compare in other writers, not even in Shakespeare (who suitably for his pattern took his role as dramatist rather lightly and half despised it as not quite respectable).

Pluto at 0.43 Cancer

Mars at 1.03 Cancer

Saturn at 0.24 Capricorn

Uranus at 1.26 Libra (just within the 1.30 limit)

Neptune at 14.11 Leo (WP is 15 Leo)

The fact that shocking, revolutionary Uranus is in the marriage/unions sign, Libra, just by itself bespeaks the destabilizing of marriage ideals.

This is then backed up by Venus in separative and different Aquarius at 13 Aquarius opposed to romantic Neptune in the Leo sign of passion and big loves. The moon has to be somewhere in Leo that day presumably within conjunction of Neptune which is the poet’s romantic/mythic imagination directed upon the life of the gods in Metamorphoses. Albeit Leo is a fixed sign, the metamorphosis theme is linked to the mutability of the natal Pisces sign which Neptune rules. Also in Aquarius is Jupiter which reflects the modernity of Ovid’s outlook on and treatment of almost any theme. The fact that 15 Leo is deemed the most unfortunate of the six world points and Venus is basically opposed to it is an invitation for the things of Venus to be in trouble.

However, far and away the most distinctive feature is the world points involved in a tight, difficult, tension-giving T square of the malefic planets or even, if one includes the position of the sun which is not closely conjunct the Aries world point, that frustrating signature, the Grand Cross, thus:

                         SUN

MARS/PLUTO           SATURN

                       URANUS

Somewhere along the line Ovid was going to run into big trouble, even big political trouble because Saturn on a world point in the sign it rules points to such problems and they could be exacerbated by the in itself very difficult and frustrating close Mars/Pluto conjunction. (The latter conjunction incidentally renders it doubtful Ovid would be too easily successful in love and sex; and with the opposition from Saturn any embittered cuckold theory gains some weight). Shakespeare had Mars in Cancer (but not on the same degree) but for Ovid Mars placed here with Pluto and in the sign of homes and hearths, this has also to be the aspect of the long and frustrating exile from the home base.

Given Ovid’s various interests, his modes of seduction and a great loquaciousness to which he admitted, it is fairly clear he was probably born between 11 am and 12 pm with late Gemini or early Cancer rising this then making the difficult T square or Grand Cross central to the pattern and Saturn (political authority, the emperor), opposed to the rising from the house of open enemies.

But what is then interesting is that if we run the chart for Augustus (there is an asteroid Augusta which since asteroids were originally registered in feminine form is the appropriate asteroid for Augustus, we don’t find it conjunct Saturn…. or not closely. Instead at nearly 26 Sagittarius it is in difficulty square to Ovid’s identity-giving sun at 27 Pisces. Sagittarius is the sign of philosophy and (organized) religions. The hint is surely that Ovid offended the political authority of Augustus most nearly through what material like the Fasti represented for the emperor’s emerging state religion. The morals come into it, but not necessarily as the prime consideration.

PAUL JANKA AND PICK-UP ARTISTRY

At the end of the Piscean era which from its outset the Piscean Ovid was able after a fashion to haunt and dominate culturally, comes Paul Janka author of How to Get Laid in New York City (2004). He is not a poet and, on 1st June 1975, he was not born under Pisces but rather Gemini. However certain links with Ovid are interesting.

First of all, that sensitive degree again. Where is Janka’s Jupiter (his beliefs, his religion almost)? Sure enough it’s on that fatal 16 Aries from which Ovid was able to write so much (including about pick-ups and seduction in a big way) and again Uranus is destabilizing notions of unions but now at 28 degrees and thus the end rather than the beginning of marriage signs Libra as for Ovid.

Janka was propelled into his search for formulae by what he originally considered to be the great difficulty for him and for men, even good looking males, to attract women or to attract them in the way desired – especially for exciting quickies. (Ovid is more interested in landing a suitable mistress). This block is reflected in the exact square of restricting Saturn at 16 Cancer to that sensitive 16 Aries which carries Janka’s Jupiter. Even on top of his game Janka will speak Saturnian style of “the discipline” of working his technique.

As Janka’s sun is at 9 Gemini and his Mercury at 23 Gemini, one wonders if either of those two degrees wouldn’t correspond to Ovid’s unknown birth time and ascendant. (In favour of a Gemini ascendant for style and appearance Ovid was, beside his loquaciousness, slim and reedy as is Janka who corresponds in many ways to the text book version of Gemini-in one of his interviews it is even admitted he is not too concerned with erotica, it is conversation turns him on. Ovid is more concerned with women’s appearance and advises them in some detail how to enhance beauty and present themselves to advantage). If he is telling the truth about his past he nonetheless seems to have begun much like Janka.

………I’m the poor man’s poet,
Was poor myself as a lover, couldn’t afford
Gifts so spun words. Poor suitors must woo with caution,
Watch their tongues, bear much that the rich
Would never put up with

I haven’t analyzed Ovid’s theory of seduction and I haven’t read up on Janka’s theories of same which are the subject of whole courses and seminars in especially New York. In both cases however there is an unwavering belief in the power and ability of simply “technique” (a Geminian theme – Janka has spreadsheets and detailed records) and technique has a lot to do with saying the right things on cue and time (another Geminian theme) and at the right place. Both have a sense of place, the proper sites of opportunity, though one wonders if it doesn’t betray elements of Ovidian fantasy when the poet suggests the ardent lover could hover around Rome’s Jewish synagogue. Did Ovid harbour desires for a Jewish mistress, indeed had he read Genesis, a point of scholarly debate given oddly biblical elements in the creation story with which the Metamorphoses opens?

Ovid insists upon agreeing with almost anything a woman says and thinks provided one has her attention. Likewise promise anything. Janka is also very verbal but concerned  American style with a quick kill, the bang. In effect though, he agrees with Ovid in not wasting time pursuing uncertain, elusive cases. Grasping a woman’s interest and attention fast and insuring it’s strong enough to be worked upon later can be certified through the simple expedient of just obtaining her phone number. Janka  wants as many numbers as possible as then one is always assured of a certain percentage however small. Ovid more interested in mistresses and affairs, is both the eternal Latin and natural Piscean (sign of service) in insisting on being at woman’s service. Promise a woman anything, flatter her, pick up whatever she drops, give her whatever she wants, solicitously follow her. “Don’t jib at a slavish task like holding/her mirror; slavish or not such attentions please…”

Both evidently believe that woman’s vanity and/or curiosity can carry things along if only once the foot is in the door. This incidentally allows at least Ovid to stray in non PC, Christian Grey directions which may have some kernel of truth, especially for the less verbal when he declares:

It’s all right to use force……
What in fact they love to yield…
They’d rather have stolen. Rough seduction
Delights them. The audacity of near rape
Is a compliment – so the girl who could have been forced, yet somehow
Got away unscathed, may feign delight, but in fact
Feels sadly let down. Hilairia and Phoebe, both ravished
Both fell for their ravishers

In the case of both Ovid and Janka all such statements rest upon a certain understanding of the sexes which, whether true or false and they do seem exaggerated (and they are fascinatingly different from anything one might say about authentic same sex relations), are nonetheless promoted to boost male confidence to go on the attack. Essentially both assume and assure their audiences that women want it badly if only the right note can be struck.

Like men, girls love stolen passion,
But are better at camouflaging their desires.
If masculine custom precluded courtship of women
You’d find each besotted girl
Taking the lead herself. A heifer amid lush pastures
Lows to the bull, a mare
Whinnies at stallions, but our male libido’s milder,
Less rabid….

Really? To the extent the animal and human kingdoms can be compared and there is truth here, it is a half truth and linked to something Asia and the Bible better grasp as stressed in my Solomon’s Tantric Song  (amzn.to/14aa5Qe). The woman leads sexually as at the beginning of the Song of Solomon once some kind of relation is established. (The mystery of just what has been established with whom in the case of the elusive Song is something I attempt to establish in the book).

Janka has had both a lot of praise and criticism for his techniques, but his most recent shock delivered to his followers has been settling into monogamy and even getting married to his latest girlfriend.  I suppose this possibility was always present given the fact that not just Uranus but transformative Pluto is also in the unions sign Libra and opposite his sun. He would be challenged, even compelled, at some stage to rethink and change direction somewhat.

So, despite all critics and enemies calling him a creep and worse, the half Czech Janke has not gone into any exiles unless voluntary to Europe and he might even end up happily ever after. Since however he is not a poet and belongs most essentially to the ephemeral world of New York rather than the more eternal one of Rome and was born with no links to any world points, it is likely his eventual fate is to be disappear and be forgotten in a way it is unlikely Ovid who foresaw his destiny ever will be. And curiously readers might feel it is Ovid who is more alive and real. It is sometimes hard to think he isn’t with us still and that we didn’t meet him last week.

 
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COMING TO SYRACUSE (A Poem: Epyllion not Epic, Urblogues not Eclogues, in Six Parts)

COMING TO SYRACUSE (A Poem: Epyllion not Epic, Urblogues not Eclogues, in Six Parts)

COMING TO SYRACUSE

(You Tube film versions of parts and eventually the whole of this poem available at
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vv3fmsaxDBU and
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lIV1JtM0Bp8 )

After three months we sailed in an Alexandrian ship whose
figurehead was the Twin Brothers…And landing at Syracuse
we stayed three days
” Acts 28:11

PART ONE: A CITY, ITS ISLAND AND ITS MUSE

Sing of arms and of the man no more
The human person can suffice, and then
A city and its island’s life. [1]  While wars
Still rage and rumours of the same escape,
Instead relate the struggle of cultures and
The soul with which as lengthy ages pass
Each day and century are filled, driven
Onwards by strong forces little grasped
And rarely seen, whose impulse shapes
The mystery and course of fate, their truths
Concealed within an implicate order.

Syracuse, great Syracuse, arisen besides
Ionian waves that anciently Tenians and
Corinthians braved, like Athens born anew
You shone, for wealth, trade, theatre, science and law
And all as if to rival a later Rome
While yet the glory of a larger Greece.
As though Athena’s second child you thrived
And from afar, some said, were joined to fields
Of blest Arcadia from which a river
Flowed beneath the ocean’s depths. Still others
Then devoutly claimed you housed the spring
Of Arethusa by a legend famed which tells
How on Ortygia’s isle that nymph poured forth.

A victim of the river god’s lust
She’d tried to flee; yet even hidden
By Artemis, first in a cloud then
 

Fountain

Caverns of the sea, she learned that haven
And safe place from Alphaeus there was none
Unless as water. And even with that
The cruel pursuer found a way
All suddenly to merge with her until
The earth itself was opened up, when
Artemis had given means so that
The nymph in freshest salt free jet
Emerged in new found freedom, all alone.

Oh light of Sicily whose sainted patron
Too was light [2], where went the freedom and
Your knowledge with its widespread beaconing,
And then the wealth of fields beyond
Whose grain fed Rome and Italy itself?
Since Alphaeus forced illicit claim
And Verres stole from land and shrine, what street
And parcel of your earth has not known loss
And fear through Carthage, Rome, Byzantium,
From Norman lord and Saracen and violent
Clan, all this bound fast by a colonial curse
So multiplied, so like the sea nymph’s mergence
Much renewed, each person’s left to wonder
“Who am I?” and “Who are you?”. Thus all
Become like characters without, yet striving
Still, to find the pattern and their author [3] ,
Step children of Pythagoras round whom
Biography dissolves in myth, though history
Receives his theories and his numbers.
Yet theirs remains the blessed ground of
Idyll and the elegy whose being rests
With inner landscapes of the mind, bucolic
Scenes lit by the eternal and ideal
In which through fancy and through reverie,
Hopes of the soul and its regrets speak quietly
As you of Syracuse, Theocritus [4] ,
First did and with such art that even as male
Some hailed in you another muse. Though
In our times main streams of inspiration
Fail, be now if not a muse, a guide
To help our tales and teachings flow through
Lands and pastures rich as Arcady’s.

PART TWO: A SICILIAN CURSE

CERES

Begin with Ceres and her loss and how
From out the earth all of a sudden evil rose
And Etna had its part in this. Enkelades was
The titan’s name or some said Typhon;
Either way, amid the struggles of
The gods Athena caught and pressed
Him down beneath the weight of
Etna’s heights. Desiring still to rise to
Heaven, the demon struggled in his bonds [5]
And raged and screamed so fire and smoke
And tremblings deep beneath the earth
In what was also Vulcan’s forge, at
Unexpected times broke forth. Within
Tartarian depths and far remote
From sunlight and the fields above,
Upon his throne of darkness now and then
Even Hades took offence and felt alarm [6]
Enough to draw him up to inspect
The pillars and balance of the earth.

It was at Enna in the spring that
Earth being shaken, opened up
And steeds of wrathful Hades galloped
Forth, nor did they stop until the god
Who drove his dusky chariot alone,
Glimpsed from afar a radiant maiden,
Proserpine, carefree, at play and
Gathering violets in a grove. She,
Although herself divine as Ceres’ child,
Was not yet strong against the will
Of Venus and her son who bore
His arrows and, as ordered, shot the girl
To leave her victim to those powers
Of love till then it seemed she might reject
Or else she was too young to know.
And so it was that Hades snatched the
Maiden’s innocence and thought it love.
His victim screamed in terror and she called
Repeatedly for Ceres’ aid and yet,
Though she resisted, due to Cupid’s dart
She somewhat loved her rapist too
And passed below where soon she would
Be honoured as the hell king’s queen.

proserpine2

But not before the Underworld’s mad steeds
As though enraptured by the violence
Still rushed across and round the trembling
Isle and by a pool where Sicily’s nymph,
Cyane, in vain protested at the crime,
And wept. So great was Hades’s wrath at that
He threw his sceptre in her pool returning
To his home from there, while she dissolved
Into her tears and her no longer sacred place
Until she was but silent water. Meanwhile and
Soon, Ceres to whom no child returned
Began to fear, to grow in anger and to mourn
And, tossed like waves at sea in her distress,
Set out to search the whole wide world, first
Sicily then that island last. And at the pool
Where now Cyane was only voiceless water
She saw, just as the sorry nymph intended,
The maiden’s girdle floating free. Here
Was the proof the island held her daughter still.
But Ceres while she quested on grew more enraged
And bitter at the Sicilian earth. With no child found
And seeking vengeance ever more, in grief
And comfortless this Mother caused all
Natural gifts of fruit and grain to be
Withheld so round about whole deserts spread
As fields were wilted, blackened and a
Blighted earth fell barren of its previous life.

At Arethusa’s fountain, there alone
It was that earth gained some reprieve.
The nymph, who now loved Sicily as her home,
Made plea to set harsh punishment aside,
Assured the troubled mother that the
Very land opposed the crime to which it was
The sad reluctant witness, and, from what
She’s glimpsed beneath the earth where Hades
Bore his bride away, there was no doubt
It was the dark Lord surely did the deed.
At first struck dumb, the anguished mother soon
Resolved to take her outrage to the courts
Of Zeus, rose there in haste and stood upon
Olympus’ heights. But Zeus was torn between
The claims on him of his own sister and
A brother too; and what his sister called vile theft,
To him seemed more like love gone half astray.
But witness to so great distress with consequences
For the world, his will allowed his niece could
Be returned to the maternal home. Except
This boon was now impossible. Within
The realms of hell its king had given his spouse
To eat; and once a soul, even one divine,
Had taken of food outside the world,
There they must stay and there belong. So
Zeus decreed a compromise that half the year
The girl might spend some time on earth
And every spring she could return.

Which is what many have believed. And
It is true that every spring the sun
Gives light and heat and violets blow
First and more early in Europa’s fields
In Sicily than anywhere. But even so
Some curse still lurked and whispered to the land
And that same sun that spreads on Enna’s walls
Would see the challenge to that city’s rule,
Conflict repeated and oppression too
Where it now stands athwart the island’s centre.
And to the north still Etna groaned and
Spat and had no mercy on a man
Except its slopes at rest gave honey [7].
It swallowed up even Empedocles who,
The last philosopher to write in verse,
Defined the fundamental elements
And thought all change results alone from
Strife and love in their perpetual motion.
Strife with gods and elements he met
When, seeking proof for his divinity,
Into a fiery crater of the mountain’s side
Himself he flung and was consumed. It is
As though in Etna’s shadow lie heaven
And hell, there sky and earth cannot agree
And from their violent colours, violent ways
Like poisoned flowers; and out of Vulcan’s
Forge and from the Titan’s jail arise
The retribution that lays waste…. But
To the south rose Syracuse whose bays
Face eastwards to the sea and Greece and
Do not look to, nor are overseen, by
Any mountain or dread Typhon’s place.
There, even if a tyrant ruled, the light
Of day could still be hailed like so much
Radiance of Reason’s rule, the blessing
Of Athena’s aid on every thinking citizen.
But darkness hides in many forms,
Sometimes even most and longest in the light.
And always there is love and strife.

PART THREE: TOURISTS AND VISITORS TO SIRACUSA

Arethusa

Alex:  From Dionysius’ Ear to Arethusa’s fount
And other places in between I have a feeling
That you’re following me. What’s on? You’ll
Make me think you want, I’ll not say what.

Cori:  Mi dispiace Sir, Signor, Mein Herr,
You make me feel confused, the route we take
Is all coincidence; but what you sense
Is that I’m looking rather hard at you
Because I’d say we’ve met before,
Somehow, somewhere…Could that be true?

Alex:  If not met seen, that is the likelier thing,
I’ve been so many places near and far
Where were you last? Half choked in Beijing’s fog?
To rest and breathe try Taormina or Tahiti’s shores.
Today all travel’s much like work.

Cori:  I’ve been in Europe, not much past Italy, I find
It’s good enough for me, from Mantua’s plains
To Etna’s height all’s fine, even Rome and all
The crowds – I’ve just come here from there
But Taormina, that I like, it’s heaven,
So even Goethe said when he could stop
Examining varieties of Sicily’s soil.

Alex:  You sound like Verdi who declared
The universe is yours if Italy’s for me.

Cori:  Well, I’m not Verdi but wherever I go
I write some songs or poems for each place .

Alex: You have them here? I’ll listen to them
If you wish. We should sit down,
It’s rather hot to keep on walking in this sun.
Let’s find the nearest tree – beech, oak
Or cypress, willow or plane. [8] Let poets
Find them different meanings, what’s certain
Is trees offer shade.

Cori:  Just there is fine, things aren’t so certain with
My words. On Syracuse they’re very new
With some of them I must admit, still rough,
They’re all a bit impromptu. More than
Description of a place I write of people
Native here or those who visited and stayed.

Alex:  I’ll listen anyway when you begin.
.
Cori:  Born in Eleusis where in Greece the cult
Of Ceres flourished most, the father of
Stage Tragedy was raised. He was familiar
With the Maiden’s fate, indeed according to
The Stagirite [9] the plays of Aesychlus – most
Now are lost – betrayed some secrets of
Initiate rites. Save but for bravery at war
At Salamis and at Marathon in which
The playwright lost a hand, he would have forfeit
Life itself. Even so he was attacked with
Such degree of violence by a crowd
It’s likely why before too long he took
To sea and Syracuse. At Demacopus’
Theatre there his tragedies could be
Performed (first The Persians which had won
A prize), but though among all ninety plays
We’re ignorant what depth his Women of Etna
Plumbed, in Reason’s cause the playwright wrote
What sounds like homage to Athena’s power
And then the benefits of rule by men.
Which would not have been clear to all – the
Play which most affirmed it was the same
At which a pregnant woman died in shock
At sounds too supernatural. Even so
It must be said that though in youth it was
The vine god told the dramatist to write,
With age and Syracuse he grew more like
Apollo’s devotee, a lover of the local light.

Dramatist

At Gela not at Enna Aeschylus died,
His end, alas, was all too tragi-comic.
Due to a forecast he had heard he feared
To stay too long indoors, but outdoors
Proved no safer. An eagle thought his head
A rock and on it dropped a tortoise.

Alex:  That must be myth. I’d guess the last act of the
Playwright’s life got written by his enemies.

Cori:  I think…. I’ll let you read the next piece
If you choose. Philosophy’s more serious.

Alex:  As though for life’s experiments Sicilia
Was the Promised Land, Pythagoras once
Settled there, in Croton where disciples
Learned new simple ways and diet too –
None caught or ate an animal. Perhaps
Recalling the example shone, great
Plato sailed to Syracuse three times.

Plato

With politics corrupt in Greece then
Hearing how across the sea within
The largest colony that gluttony
And debauch were rife, the best solution
Seemed to be to educate some leaders.
Indeed he would feel honour bound
And working for the good of all.
With sober Dion, an admirer, he began,
(He was the local tyrant’s brother in law)
But fears of too great influence at court
Had Dion placed beneath a ban and
Plato flee the hostile shores. And later
Visits ended much the same. Once come
To power the tyrant’s son, at Dion’s urge,
At first submitted to the Sage’s way, but
Wearied soon and once again intrigue
And violence arose. Dion, long cheerfully
Exiled abroad and pupil at the Academy
At last returned and being Reason’s child
And thus an enemy to mere anarchy,
Placed rule and order on his home
But by recourse to sword and force.
The island slid towards new chaos.
And thus with age and grave experience
The visitor from Athens learned that
Teaching can’t alone suffice; the maybe
Necessary second best is rule by Law,
So what he’d deemed the Good might need
Assistance from strict rules and greater
Limitation. And so, O Syracuse, alas,
Your world and history helped to shape
Ideas for later generations of
A state less democratic than policed,
All poetry suspect or simply banned
And gays – the sage now changed his mind
And allowed for laws against them.

Cori:  Now me again. Next in my line is
Someone born in Syracuse….

archimedes

Archimedes found out many things in
Physics, maths, in pumps and screws, and managed
Too to map the heavens. But even so
His fame lies chiefly with his bath,
Where inspiration in a trice revealed
How he, beyond whatever science knew,
Could judge the buoyancy of water.
Up from his seat within the tub he
Jumped, screamed but one word, “Eureka”
And then while still a-drip ran out
Stark naked through the streets
To share the thrill of his discovery.

Alex: How fortunate police weren’t there,
The type to think him criminal!

Cori:  No, it was a Roman called him criminal
And killed him with a sword for studying
Maths with Carthage at the city gates…
But clothed or nude he was so little
Loved and lost to public memory soon,
It was alone the brave and gold mouthed
Cicero, when not attacking Verres’
Crimes, discovered and restored his tomb.

At this point there’s an interval, a tuning
Of the instruments let’s say, in which
We introduce some other themes that follow.

When, because he would look back
Sad Orpheus lost a wife to Hades’ realm
His interests turned, and, so it’s said
He taught and loved young men instead.
But his own magic lyre, the legend goes,
Had floated down from Thrace to Greece
And stopped at where fair Sappho dwelled….

Alex:  With that did someone wish to imply
That love and lyric verse are gay
And maybe even music too?

Cori:  Perhaps, or possibly they thought bisexual,
For some say Sappho had a child. Consider too
King David loved to play a harp and he had
Wives and sons; but then, as scriptures tell,
He loved and entered – sort of – marriage
With a man – the word they used was berith.
In Sicily no doubt things were more free
As long before Von Gloeden had a camera
Trained on charms of local naked youth,
Greek Diocles who admired just such, once
Dead was honoured and at his own grave
With competitions in the spring for boys
To meet and greet and in the grandest style
To kiss in harmony with vernal gusto[9].
(Just what they did in Syracuse remains unsure
We only know Theocritus approved).

Gloeden Faun

Things weren’t so easy
For the other sex, but nonetheless…
Your turn. Pull the stops out for a great Poet

Alex:  To Siracuse from Lesbos Sappho came
In flight from Pittacus, a tyrant and intrigues
Back home. The citizens were so agog
That she whom Plato called tenth muse
Inventor of new music and poetic forms
Should seek to make her home with them, that
Even before they saw her face, as welcome
To their refugee, Silanion was engaged to carve
A statue in her honour. Before the town hall
It was raised but then, like Archimedes tomb,
This too was doomed to disappear
– only the pedestal was left – another of
Those victims to gross Verres’ thefts.
And yet, how like the symbol of a fate
That was. One poem from nine volumes
Is what now remains, and for the rest, like
Marble chips, we own but scattered fragments
And they’re unclear – the dialect in which
The Lesbian wrote itself died out –
And like her image fades away as when
It’s said this poetess was fair and tall while
Others think her dark and low, so in the end
It is the name and fame alone endure.

Sappho2

Such was the fate of one who wrote, alas,
As she herself would once admit, despite
Her social and erotic themes, chiefly
To be recalled when she passed on and not
Be lost to night within the Underworld.

Cori:  I’ll come back again, I represent Italia…
The centuries passed but then, as though
He had to pursue the Lesbian (as surely
Later fathers would to hell), the apostle Paul
Sailed into harbour with a companion Luke –
A doctor, (though there’s legend claims a painter).
An unlikely pair they might appear
One strict, the other generous, the
Apocalypse of one, some deem indeed,
Half gay with two men sleeping in a bed [11] ;
But anyway, even twins affined can be
At odds and disagree and of the
Heavenly twins beneath whose sign
The two embarked at Syracuse, we know
That Pollux was a boxer as was Castor too
Though he was more disposed to sleep.
As to St Paul, (I cannot speak for Luke)
He maybe liked to box, but not the air….. [12].

PAUL

Alex:  I’ll interrupt you there…I want to say…
With no church founded nor epistle
Written and just three days Paul was
Ashore, could time here be significant?
A small church only, not a cathedral
Or cathedral square exists in town
To commemorate his stay, and that stands
Close beside some ruins of Apollo’s shrine.
Which some might feel was almost right
Because if mildly, quietly in its way
This place is somewhat pagan still.
It’s transformation is its style and not
I think conversion. In centre town,
With little change, the Virgin’s cult
Now owns Athena’s temple.

Cori:  No, once again I think this is symbolic.
Three days Christ lay within the tomb and
On the third day he was raised. Recall Paul’s
Company was tossed about and nearly died
Devoured by fiercely angry waves until
They ran aground in Malta. A pattern of
Pure woe indeed, one much akin to storms
And tempests of our lives. When three months later
They could leave, safe harbour lay in Syracuse
As well as calm and brief serenity
Three days before the apostle sailed to Rome,
To judgement on his life and work,
His final days and execution. Thus say
That Syracuse is the sacred pause,
The moment of vision and of rest,
Maybe a fork within the traveller’s road,
Almost a place of heaven’s door, as
Have not others said before, this island
Stands a portal to heaven as to hell?…..

Escaped from out a prison cell above the bay
Of Malta, that artist Caravaggio,

Caravaggio

The same who claimed – he was no Paul – that
All his sins were mortal, found home awhile
In Syracuse. His goal was Rome and
Pardon there, though he met death along the way.
But in this harbour city he still gained
Some favour with its leaders. These all were keen
He turn a hand to make fine image
Of their patron saint – he showed her dead
And ready for her burial. Her story goes
She had been dragged towards a brothel where
Her throat was cut because she’d wished to
Sacrifice both life and chastity to God. The image
Shows….

Alex:  Oh, something morbid I dare say
But then that was that painter’s way
He loved the shadows more than light
But Lucy stands for all that’s bright
So white is doubtless in the picture…
Enough of history and the town
Let’s follow sunlight to the beach
I’ll put the sunscreen on your back

PART FOUR: THE COMING AGE

ROMAN

Now for a higher theme, its flight ascends [13]
Above all trees and forests that give shade
And beats strong wings to fly beyond firm
Harbour walls of ancient Syracuse,
Its aim to reach into our larger world
Beyond even noble monuments of Rome.
As to its seeing, may that be with vision
Like the eagle’s eye which looks upon both
Heaven’s sun and earth beneath as though
Those two could be the same.

Sicilian muse, soon is again the time
For which now dreamers dare to yearn
When through the circle of celestial signs
There dawns a new age for humanity.
Yet can it savour of that Golden Age
And be the crowning era of all prophecy
Once sung so hopefully but only spied
Through darkness of a glass where rose those
Images combining true and false amid
A too great trust of Caesar as a god
And reverence for Pan in every field?
For prophecy indeed is hard and harder
Than all poetry (even though those two
Are much allied), for in it farthest futures
Show as though a virtual present, and this
Because main words of prophecy derive
From outside time, their usual frame and
Speech being symbol and their working out
All bounded by the round of stars,

For no, throughout the world wars have not
Ceased, nor fear, nor is wild nature purified
So that a fertile land grows to support
Itself with no fields harrowed, no vines pruned
And even the ox  and lion reconciled [14].
But though you grasped how for redemption and
The age the sign of Jupiter was core [15]
And though from heaven the First Born came so that
Past evils could erase, most that was forecast
And desired did not occur and that
Because true alteration knows two kinds,
One gradual, the other born of crisis.
Within the time that cycles and their symbols
Shape, freewill exists to choose a higher
Above a lower way of the same thing,
And thus to learn and change as persons
And societies. When that’s refused
So evil thrives, it’s God and Nature bring
An end and introduce the new by force.
For when the Good is little taught or learned
How could your Golden Age be realized
Or Nature form new harmonies when amity,
Forgiveness, love are rarely settled in
The heart? Relentless hatred must be
Swept away, and will, with all confusion
Of the names of God lest poison through belief
That’s false and misnamed vision keep its
Hold, prolonging strife with every wrong.

Then only does the monarch of this world,
No more a mother’s child, but even now
Awaiting and prepared within the light
Bring near the justice of a longed for reign.
For this come soon, the world is impatient
To rejoice, the gate of welcome is unbarred,
None may resist the sceptre of your rule…..
And yet, before the new age can begin
And when within the heavens the Water Bearer’s
Sign lets freely flow the healing springs of
Spirit beyond the lightning flash and sudden
Fear and wakening towards new dawn [16],
Some years a weary earth must suffer still.
Whole multitudes, alas, must die as seas
Will rise and mountains fall and many
Cities be destroyed and even Rome itself
Fall once again beneath barbarians.
And all these things shall be because the world
Must be renewed and those who cannot
Live aright must learn instead how well
To lose what’s theirs, and even maybe
How to die, to perceive that life alone
On earth is not the sum of all that is.

It’s only then and following the years
Of strife and loss, of false beliefs and none
Another world, one wholly new, can rise,
All history and life such as was known
No longer there except as records read,
Or told as tales, by which fresh offspring of
The age will be amazed, sometimes amused.
Though travelling less, within their lands
And in their minds they’ll travel more
As with all cities rare, villages and groups
Combine, communication being total,
While on its mountain Zion rules above
All peoples and beyond all memory of
Terrors past, the division and confusion.
Each person shall be free, at last more free
Than all before and their own leaders,
Who’ll be few, will – much as once in Plato’s
Dream – be guardians of a single Law with
Wisdom and philosophy empowered and
Knowledge of most things divine, an absolute.

Then, what remains of Italy in which
No more a pontiff reigns to speak of deity
Or take its place, the beasts of field and forest
The  hunters slew, and slew to desolation,
These now as nature soon revives, return
Not to devour but roam in greater harmony
As centuries long all life itself
Will lose much of it that was entropy –
Even age extends, a hundred years like
Infancy as time grows closer to eternity.
And then, those fortunate of the coming age
Beneath the shade of beech and elm
Again in midday idleness they’ll sing
And speak of love that’s everywhere and everything
And under clusters of the vine, breathe in
Deep peace and view all Being as benign.

PART FIVE: OVERHEARD AT THE THEATRE

GKTHEATRE

He:   It’s really quite a mystery. This theatre
With the largest stage this island holds, the
Birthplace of so many plays, and many
Now deemed classic, has least to show by way
Of natural vista. We’re even told that sites
Like these were chosen for their setting, it’s
Integral to the drama. Segesta shows
A pure sublime; there’s nothing here to rival it
Or Taormina’s majesty. See… just a tiny
Sliver of the bay, its distant blue half lost
To clumps of cypress – the tree of death
So Virgil wrote. But then I’d say these plays
Are guilt and death-filled first to last.

She:  So deaths are all we’ve come to see?

He:  It must be said the action is quite minimal
It’s mostly chorus plus much commentary,
On serious actions little seen whose outcomes
You evaluate.

She:  If this is Greek and philosophical I’d think
We might need help with that.

He: ……Well, rather as Plato once dismissed
The Homeric gods so as to affirm
Some higher principles of good or God
Beyond those poor Olympian morals,
So Aesychlus evokes a holier Zeus.
He tries to make existence seem more
Sane and tangled fates more rational
By teaching Zeus one time decreed man learns
Through suffering alone. While things this poet
Does with myth can be ingenious and
Original, the messages may not convince.

She:  What messages are those? I’m sure to miss
Them for the spectacle and sound!

He:  To understand and two millennia on
I’d need to give the Oresteia storyline …
Be patient if you can, it’s this:

Oresteia

The Trojan war being at its end, King
Agamemnon now heads home. However
There’s some guilt on him. To appease a goddess
And to help the Greeks he’s sacrificed a daughter.
Clytemnestra who’s his wife and queen
Resents this death and, having suffered a
Ten year absence of her spouse has taken
A lover, though of course she hides the fact
Declaring strict fidelity. So guilt’s on her
(as on Helen who began the war). The king
Himself has not been faithful (what king is?)
And guilt of sorts is on his mistress too
Cassandra a prophetess and true
But whom a god, Apollo, cursed to
Never be believed for any oracle made.
– he took offence at her because she
Was unwilling to return his love.
The unfortunate girl foresees that if she
Enters in her lover’s house she will be
Murdered as he will be too. She prays the sun
In vain to be delivered. At palace entrance
King and queen might just be reconciled
Again except – it’s maybe fate –
There’s something makes them disagree.
The queen plans welcome on a tapestry
All purple where she utters praise that’s
So extreme – more suited to the very gods
Her husband feels – that he recoils, in both
Humility and fear. But then, reluctant still
He gives consent and enters in though later
Resting in his bath he’s murdered by the
Ambitious queen abetted by her lover.
This spouse, condemned by Chorus members
On the stage, rejoices in her evil deed
Whose fatal blow she offers to the god
Of Earth. She feels no guilt; it helps her lover’s
Party to the crime and he, Aegisthus,
Can declare it’s just and even proof the gods
Are good because he now sees vengeance on
The death the father of the murdered king
Had put upon his brothers. Thus retribution
Vengeance, guilt seem all combined and likely
To continue, the Chorus left with little choice
But to concede whoever acts must suffer.

She:  Yes, that’s exactly how it seems,
Should gods and men do nothing? So far, so bad
What is the next part of the Trilogy?

He:  It’s all the worst fears of the queen come true.
Fate intervenes when out of exile in disguise
Orestes, the king’s son, makes his return
He with a cousin, Pylades, goes to the tomb
And there, both for his father and a nurse
Sets down two locks of his own hair. Elektra
His mourning sister soon appears with bearers
Of libation, themselves arrived because
The queen now seeks to appease the dead
Due to her suffering from dreams by night.
To Hermes, god of dead souls in the underworld
Elektra prays for vengeance and on seeing
Both the locks of hair and certain footprints
In the ground suspects at last her brother’s
Near. This he can prove when he presents
A robe his sister helped to stitch. Rejoicing
At reunion the pair invoke high Zeus
For vengeance which Orestes now reveals
Is highest duty and a need since in an oracle
Even Apollo told him blood needs blood
And that ignored more curse and sickness
Follows. At which the Chorus calls
On Zeus for justice and is free to reveal
What dream it is haunts Clytemnestra in
The night, though not before declaring (at some
Length) the madness of all women’s passion.
The queen dreamt that a snake would suckle
At her breasts but then draw blood, and this
Orestes feels assured is forecast of
The matricide he must pursue once he
Has entered in his home and readied it
For vengeance. Requesting shelter but disguised,
Orestes meets his mother telling her
That he himself is dead abroad. Distress
Is feigned but he’s admitted and Aegisthus told,
Then with the Chorus’ aid, Orestes’ nurse
Will lead the lover of the queen to
Where he’s all alone so that Orestes
Is left free to strike. He does this and the
Dying screams bring Clytemnestra to
Aegisthus’ side. Now all is clear, mother and
Son are face to face and against the queen’s
So desperate pleas the son is deaf
Refusing mercy to fulfil quite other laws
As he sees fit. Although the deed once done
Both Chorus and the prince rejoice,
No sooner has the matricide declared his right
Than he falls victim to gross torments,
Visions and pain avenging ancient Furies
Place on him. In agony he flees the scene.
The Chorus is now left to ask, can deliverance
Exist or must there be another death?

She:  I must agree it’s getting worse and what
The Chorus asks makes sense.

Orestes

He:  Now comes the final episode, Part Three
Of this most dire Trilogy.

No longer Argos now the scene is Delphi
At Apollo’s shrine. Its prophetess appears
And terrified. She flees at sight of hag-like
Furies fast asleep sprawled in a circle round
Orestes, still a hunted, haunted man.
But soon Apollo, newly lord of earth
Appears with soul guide Hermes at his side.
Apollo’s promise is the curse must end
But not before Orestes makes appeal to
Athena in the city that she rules.
As Hermes leads the matricide away
The ghost of the dead queen appears and
Rouses the vile Furies to pursue their prey
And they, enraged to see their quarry gone,
Renew their curse and rail against all
New gods on the earth and Apollo who
Is firm to order them away. In Athens
Its own goddess will appear to declare
Orestes and the Furies, both, must be
Submitted to her rule which will include
Trial by a citizen’s jury. Still vehement
And unsubdued, the Furies rage against
All thought of any process and the law
Which might curb warning terrors and
All retribution of their kind which is
True justice, so they claim, which once denied
Expose even parents to all crime. But
Athena and Apollo too know that
The Furies rise from earth and hell and
Speak for earlier ages and for women.
Apollo who is witness and an advocate
For the victim now his protégé,
Maintains Orestes did a deed once
Forecast by his oracle itself made
With the authority of Zeus. He also
Rules true parenthood belongs not to
Mothers whose wombs can only nurture seed
But rather to Fathers from the first.
The court holds session and the count
Is equal save that Athena casts her vote
Through which the haunted prince is freed
And it’s agreed henceforth the city
Will have trials and be a seat of justice.
Again the Furies rage but seeking peace
Athena promises them a noble home
Within the city’s bounds to which
At last with hesitation they agree.

She:  And so, despite the misery and gore
The story isn’t quite a tragedy.

He:  How much of misery and gore could
Any audience hope to stand, even if, as
Aristotle held, such drama gives catharsis?
But for myself I’d say there’s tragedy of
Another kind and hidden on another plain.

She:  What’s that I’ve missed?

He:  In essence there’s no formula for good
Nor any real redemption

She: Not even with Orestes freed?

He:  Well, think of it. The Furies may be loathsome
But they have a point, or almost so, because
What flame is it the new gods bring to justice?
Apollo was cruel to Cassandra
And to Marsyas too, his rival in music
Whom he skinned alive. Compassion never was
His style. Orestes is quite right to plead
Compassion of him, and though we hear his
Father Zeus stands closer to true mercy,
Why would that Father then endorse
The crime of matricide Apollo gives
To Orestes as an oracle?
And why does that same god of prophecy
And truth maintain that blood needs blood
In what, if taken as a rule, which
In the dramas it can be, might run to
Unending tolls of sacrifice and vengeance?

She:  It doesn’t make much sense I must agree.

He:  The friendlier Athena will declare
For practice of a noble mean and peace
But only for her city. All war that’s
Made abroad to garner fame or win
More land she can approve. Her stated “mean”
Is scarcely something rational, more like
A shaman’s trick in primitive societies
Which holds the forces of the night at bay
By admitting just sufficient light. It’s

Athens

Much the same for what’s approved for life
Within society, its rule by men, a point
On which even gods can be agreed
But it’s the poor name for or an alternative
Form of Hellenistic Reason. Hence,
Practically, and faced with problems that
The Furies pose, it’s change is the redeemer
Its cure a lie akin to how – although
Apollo claims he could not lie – The Furies,
Pacified, will be renamed the Kind Ones.
In sum, there’s never exorcism nor
Is there banishment or blood of final
Sacrifice. Like Lucifer as angelic light
The new gods, greatly idealized, could hide
New rule by demons. But what is plain –
The gods themselves admit it – is how
Even cutting bonds and granting boons
It’s life they do not and they cannot give
In either this world or the next; no years
Once lost, as lost they were beneath Troy’s walls,
Can find their recompense and be restored.
Those few in fields of bright Elysium
Are wraiths who have no body and no home
And thus the only prospect for mankind is
Endless night in Hades. From Acheron’s
River none return because the family of Zeus
Though worshipped widely and still more appeased
Don’t deal in life as resurrection. And
Reason as a path to Truth and peace is
What the sages offer for this life
And then Gods utter versions of the same;
But it’s the fact that purest Reason
Never is entirely of the intellect,
Nor is it wholly male or something men
Alone may guard. Its thought is for this
Middle earth and really, truest Knowledge
Has a span encompassing the heaven above
And hell below, the visible with
The invisible. When that’s ignored
The human mind Is too divided, vision split
And, never reaching true control, our thoughts
Fall prey to forces not quite understood,
Misnamed, misused and so we walk to death
Alone  in blindfolds and in ignorance.

She: Well, something I now understand is why
The natural scenery as a setting counts.
It’s like a counsel to enjoy this life
As being your nearest to the world of
Gods before your brief hour of existence
Ends. In which case I’m inclined to say
I’d rather sit and contemplate this world
From Taormina than from here.

He:  But here the stage is sacred for its drama.
In Taormina Romans changed the theme,
No longer tragedy but combats of the
Gladiatorial kind, fights to the death
As entertainment. With such the memory
Of its stage is stained. Recall that
Syracuse rose faced away from Etna’s
Height. Maybe it has more light, less curse,
There’s just less past to exorcise.

She:  No curtain rises but the play begins
All light and sound, I’m ready for this tragedy.

PART SIX: EVENING, NIGHT AND GOING HOME

EVENING

 Alex:  You should finish our journeys with a song.

Cori:  I’m not so sure I really can. It might be
That the problem’s you.

Alex:  What’s wrong with me? What words or tunes
Do I prevent?

Cori:  I thought I knew, but now I feel less sure
Just who you are, from where or why?

Alex:  You must think I am secretive!

Cori:  More like just strange. You sometimes visit
In my dreams and always it’s so long ago
Though vivid as true memory; but often too
You disappear and manage to escape me.

Alex:  Oh such imagination! What ages past
Did we call home?

Cori:  It was whole centuries ago and then
At times we talked of poetry and Rome
Of distant futures and of love.

Alex:  So long ago and serious? Well, certain is
We never had a life before. If we made
Poetry and talk then think when
Certain stars are in the skies
That people much like us return
And say things that are similar
Which some repeat and may recall.
It’s really nothing more than that…
Well, as it seems you won’t perform
Now maybe I should be the poet.
But since I don’t profess to own your
Kind of special talent, I may be left
To work with scarcely more than what
Are merely borrowings from others…
“Now I am wearied with the day”
My longing happily receives the starry night [17]
(That fits, the sky tonight is clear enough
And I’ll admit I’m rather tired)

Cori:  I know the verse, what follows is..”And then
My unfettered soul desires to soar,
Freely into night’s magic sphere to
Live there deeply and a thousand fold”
Don’t say you’re trying to escape again! [18]
It’s very “north” and sounds too like those
Hymns to Night Novalis wrote in hope
That night’s eternal. I never understand it.

Alex: No need to try. It has a lot to do
With mood and time or simply place…..
Another poet of the sunset wrote
“Soon it will be the time to sleep…
Let’s not lose our way within this solitude
O vast and tranquil peace,
so deep within the evening’s glow!
How weary we are of wandering..”. [19]
(And don’t you think by now we are?)….

Cori:  Weary of wandering here and now
Or wandering simply everywhere?
Well you, I know, have seen the world,
And yes we’ve gone quite far today
But that’s not how the poem ends…
Don’t repeat it, you might trouble me.

Alex:  No, nor is there need to ask what’s next,
Or where. The sun’s gone down.
I feel, and so may you, a special radiance
As much from earth as from the sky
The peace, that glow; they are enough;
They join what has been and will be
With or without our journeys or our songs
Think we are here and we have paused.
Right now there’s nothing to complete
Say only that we came to Syracuse.

[This poem is now available in a second edition of New Poems and Two Celtic Dramas, http://amzn.to/1tKdkJr ]

NOTES

[1]  Arma virumque cano….”Arms and the Man I sing” opens Virgil’s Aeneid , the epic of Rome’s conquest by survivors of the Trojan war.
[2}  St Lucia, a saint associated with light and vision, is patron saint of Syracuse (Siracusa)
[3] Six Character in Search of an Author is a classic play by Sicilian dramatist, Luigi Pirandello
[4} Theocritus ( d.260 BC ) was a Greek poet born in Syracuse whose original Idylls and Elegies influenced the work of especially the Roman Virgil
[5} The Demon…….Here the Titan sent to Tartarus and effectively all titans are identified with fallen angels of biblical account. This somewhat influences the theory and theology of this account of spiritual influences.
[6} Hades. Strictly speaking, if one keeps to Roman names and myth it was Pluto, not the identical Greek Hades who raped Proserpine (Gk Persephone),
but Hades is not just a name but a place and concept. It thus  works better and more widely for meaning in the poem, but any reading could substitute the Pluto name since both names have two vowels and similarly Zeus could be substituted with Jove..
[7]  During Etna’s dormancy its slopes can be very fertile and the best honey in Sicily derives from there.
[8] The mentioned trees feature extensively in the poetry and symbolism of Virgil’s Eclogues.
[9] The Stagirite was a title for Aristotle who defined the aesthetic rules of Greek drama.
[10] Baron Von Gloeden (1856 -1931) settled in Taormina for health reasons and became famous for some early homoerotic art photography. It’s hard to tell whether in Idlyll 12 Democritus means that the spring male kissing competition took place in Sicily or not – he refers to Diocles as the Athenian “stranger” (visitor in this case?). We know he was born in Megara on the Greek mainland and went to Athens where the competition was celebrated by his tomb, but whether also he went to Democritus’s Sicily is not clear. He may just have influenced it.
[11] Two Men in a bed. See Luk 17:34. Although their sleeping together in not condemned and probably only refers to the fairly common ancient custom of shared beds (albeit Luke’s gospel does include the story of the centurion and his boy), what is implicitly condemned is the spiritual  unpreparedness of one of the men who is not taken  at the end of age Rapture.
[12] 1 Cor 9:26. “So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air”
[13] “A higher theme”. Eclogue 4 concerning the Golden Age, describes its theme as more important than tamarinds and shrubs and hopes it will be worthy of forests.
[14] Virgil’s Eclogue 4 speaks of lion and ox being reconciled. It is like a echo of Isaiah’s prophecy of the Millennium from earlier centuries and is one of several features that makes one wonder how much the classical world was aware of biblical prophecies.
[15]. Jupiter is core because Jupiter is traditional ruler (Neptune is modern co-ruler) of Pisces on the cusp of whose era Virgil was writing, but also because Jupiter would be the Bethlehem Star that stands at the entry of the New Age with the messianic birth Virgil, I think, dimly foresees. Virgil’s coming child of the gods is the representative of Jupiter. Modern criticism in its easy sceptical rationalism dismisses the Eclogue as any kind of prophecy such as by tradition the churches regarded it as paganly being. I feel however that despite its misses and confusion it was intended to be prophecy and mixes current events with future developments dimly seen.
[16] The Water Bearer is Aquarius. As Aquarius is the sign of any Utopias and idealistic group work, it is closest to the idea of any Golden Age and Millennium of harmony, freedom and new Law.. The New Age is inaugurated in, or its inauguration is like, lightning which is a symbol of Aquarius (Matt 24:27).
[17] “Now I am wearied with the day….” from Hermann Hesse’s Beim Schlafengehen
[18]  In Eclogue 2 the shepherd  Corydon suffers frustrated passion feeling that Alexis is ignoring and avoiding him.
[19]  From Eichendorff  Im Abendrot   Both this poem and Hesse’s are set to music in Richard Strauss’s Vier Letzten Lieder, Four Last Songs 

 

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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REMEMBERING SEAMUS HEANEY : A POEM

REMEMBERING SEAMUS HEANEY : A POEM

[Seamus Heaney was born the same year Yeats  died (1939) but arguably, nationality and the reputation of poet apart, that is the only real link between them. Five weeks after Yeats’ death the poet Auden published his ironic In Memory of W. B. Yeats. Five weeks after Heaney’s death, in similar spirit or perhaps the spirit of the Irish wake, one offers Remembering Seamus Heaney followed by a short essay, Beyond the Cult of Seamus the Famous, on poetic reputation].

REMEMBERING SEAMUS HEANEY

You have returned to the place of your muses, the earth.
There you rest after having your naturalist’s death
And naturalist’s life of digging with pen where even
A spade might not usually go in cow dung and
Spawn slop. You have now reached the ‘something more’ of
‘Somewhere’ which you felt that the faith you had
(Or you hadn’t) but wouldn’t discuss, is about.

Should one mourn or make the jolly of wake for you who,
Breath sometimes fragrant with whiskey, were ever
Present to Ireland, itself ever conscious of you,
Alert to your most distinct person out walking, offering
Always a smile as though to bless every inch of the turf
And splinter of shale from Arklow to Aran’s wild shores?
“Top of the Morning to Seamus the Famous!”,
T’was a great day to sow seed or mow. You
Might have been as you looked, a master of Tao,
But heat never reached the retort, so
No alchemist’s flower, no part of the tincture
That wasn’t manure could enrich barren fields.

In your garden the rat lurked like half poisoned fruit,(1)
Your verses were thick with the shock of the ugly
Oysters you fancied like talk for its own sake (2)
Touching and squeezing anything soft was your love.
The world and endeavour of heroes you
Judged by farm labour, men busy at work,
Its image, the ‘straining rump’ of your da,
That aisling sky maidens would not have observed (3).

You had virtues of which, shining forth above all,
Was how humble you were, admitting yourself
To be valley to mountains like Goethe and Yeats.
Which was true, for you had not clearly the vision
Of any that’s easy to name – if your chief guide
Was Wordsworth could anyone tell? – but few
Could deny the exchange of AE and Earth Breath
For the farting of frogs. Even so, you left
The wide world in thrall, not least great lands
Of the North as though to pure magic or Ibsen.
They felt assured you conveyed them mysteries
Untold for which they were morally bound to
Award you “the” prize. In the north it seems
Harder to see what’s body and clothes and
You dealt with a conjuror’s skill in the
Naked delight of imperial robes.

The confusion of death-bed once over,
Will you be sent beneath a cold heaven
Onto streets all unclothed as Sligo’s poet
Would say? (4) Certain is you do not await
What you readily deemed a Protestant fate –
A last Trump arising to factory horn….(5)

Shout, wail, mourn, crack the wake jokes. In the
Drizzle of morning and mists of the evening,
Treading through swamps of the Earth Mother’s sow
To a naturalist’s vision your nation will bow.(6)

Copyright: Rollan McCleary 2013

NOTES

1) “Outside the kitchen a black rat/sways on the briar like infected fruit” Heaney, Glanmore Sonnets, Sonnet 9.
2) The poem Oysters in Field Work is word rich but largely barren of meaning. The poet’s mouth is less a vehicle to convey messages than  an “estuary” for sea food.
3) “My father digging, I look down/ Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds/Bends low….” Heaney, Digging.…. This contrasts with the inspiration of the Aisling”, a form of vision. Irish bards regularly pictured an archetypal, muse-like figure as a sky maiden supplying their vocation or themes. Even Yeats had Maud Gonne, AE Susan Mitchell and McCleary’s East-West Puer Poems incorporates the symbolism of the Vedic goddess of dawn as muse. In Digging, which is Heaney’s declaration of vocation and poetic intent, there is no connection to vision or even just a concept of muse. Unless it would be the devouring earth mother herself, Joyce’s “sow which eats its own farrow”, an earth muse or muses can hardly be said to exist; they are psychologically counter-intuitive for poetry generally.
4) “Confusion of the death-bed over/Is it [the spirit] sent out naked on the roads…” Yeats, The Cold Heaven.
5) “A factory horn will blare the Resurrection”, Heaney Docker, (his rather negative portrait of a Protestant worker).
6) If anything cravenly bow. Enda Kenny’s tribute is impossibly excessive. “Across the world Seamus Heaney was and is seen not alone as Ireland’s better self but I believe its best-self possible”. This best-self possible is one “open to the potency of myth”, something if not undermined (except in his translation work) at bare minimum in Heaney.  North can look at the ocean and write of “the secular powers of the Atlantic”. And what mythic mind could refer to “the unmagical invitations of Iceland” ?! One cannot escape the suspicion that in a rapidly secularizing Ireland with traditional reverence for the priest much eroded, the substitute becomes the poet as voice of a hoped for spiritual truth.

BEYOND THE CULT OF SEAMUS THE FAMOUS

In its way my poem  – however coincidentally – parallels and suitably follows upon last month’s blog with its Mother  Teresa, Mother Confusion. The subject is similar and it’s the big con, and both poet and saint were trained within Ireland even if MT wasn’t born there. Obviously one doesn’t suggest Heaney lacked technical proficiency as a poet,  insight as a critic or skill as a translator (his Beowulf translation raised him to bestseller status), still less that he was other than the genial,considerate person he is widely reported as being. Arguably  however his popular success undermines and threatens something in poetry itself as Mother Teresa has subtly undermined modern Christianity with work not all that  it seemed to be.

Just as with Mother Teresa, the adulation of Heaney – “genius”, “giant”, “superstar of literature” – has been astonishing. The Independent’s obituary of 30th August observed, “the list of his honours is breathtaking….few available honours passed him by”. Quite so. Breathtaking is the only word. And meteoric  must describe the rise in public esteem  if one considers that nowadays schoolchildren study Death of a Naturalist  often as their introduction to verse itself, whereas back when it appeared in 1966 critic Eavan Boland could observe, “unless it conceals a profound allegory [it] is a lengthy, disappointing description of frogs”. . In all history, unless possibly Virgil taken under the wing of Caesar Augustus, no poet, not even a poet  laureate, has enjoyed anything like the accolades.  A father of poetry in the modernist mode, T.S. Eliot, an artist of  wider range and accomplishment, received nothing like it (though possibly in his case  he is to blame in that elements of anti-Semitism tainted his reputation).

Heaney is not and never can be the successor to Yeats he has often been called and as obituaries  have been repeating. For a start Yeats believed in the virtual identity of poetry with religion. And most essentially poetry is about a degree of transcendence – certainly it arose out of the ecstatic/religious function. Ignoring this dimension for only the familiar, for the brown bog of life one might say, poetry falls flat (or gets stuck). Even a perfectly modern poet like Adrienne Rich eventually came round to the view that poetry can never hope to stray too far from spirituality. Which it can’t.

If serious poetry is mostly out of fashion and lame today it is because it exists within a secular world in which its exponents feel obliged to observe things, mostly just objects, like a scientist in a laboratory while they work with and possess only disjointed words, scarcely a language  to express real ideas.  Moreover  contemporary poetry almost flees developed ideas and philosophies. It has certainly abdicated virtually any species of “prophetic” function and unlike Yeats Heaney, who thought of the poet as if anything a contemplative, tried as far as possible to avoid socio/political engagement. One response in the face of his native Ulster’s problems which otherwise he tended simply to regret, was an early retreat across the border to Wicklow’s countryside. It was however perhaps half intended as its own political statement.

Without usually expressing any very marked views, and even because he didn’t, Heaney slotted easily into the secularist role of detached artistic observer, the word spinner and wordsmith  (even if some were determined to read meanings and magic into his words that weren’t especially there). His observations were enlivened less by deep emotion than an intense quirkiness that easily led on, as realism easily does, to a gratuitous ugliness which further escapes the function of transcendence which it’s poetry’s role to cultivate. It is no objection to this point that Heaney was deemed so popular,  “the most widely read poet in English”, “the greatest living poet” and “irreplaceable”, “one of the greatest poets ever”. Beyond what owes here to some media/publishing hype and the impositions of academic curricula, the fact is that Heaney does appeal – to those today who don’t readily “get” poetry and don’t terribly wish to be challenged by it and its more ascensional, idealistic impulses.

Presented almost humbly and apologetically by him, Heaney’s opus undeniably  soothes and reassures a certain sector of the public that half craves mediocrity at the same time as it relishes admittance to the esoteric, elitist literary circle that employs unnecessary obscurities and technicalities by way of variation upon the otherwise  unbridled realism. The glum, rather deadpan, monotone muse, voice of the grey day making declarations about life and just anything in virtual prose rather than poetry, is one authentic expression of the modern. (Most modern poetry could even be defined as lesser Heaneyism or would-be haiku).  We scarcely hear anything else and maybe because it bolsters many people’s democratic aspirations  to – one fine day – assume the poetic mantle and write in similar mode. However….in the past and still today both  ordinary people and specialists like critics Harold Bloom (who can allow Heaney to be a good poet but not a Yeats) and the late Kathleen Raine, a proponent of neo-romanticism, have only devoted themselves to writing or appreciating poetry with the express purpose of transcending normal expression and perception, at least on occasions (there are none in Heaney) touching the sublime. This is something any national poet can usually be expected to do, rather than getting mired in the sordid, trivial  or just embarrassing….

But that is what Heaney too often does, including in relation to his unfortunate father whom he might have spared. If his earliest work in Death of a Naturalist, draws the readers attention to his father’s straining rump, his last work as in The Human Chains’ poem The Butts draws attention to the “tonic unfreshness” associated with memory of his father via his old suit and the need to attend to sticking a sponge into the  “meagre armpits” of the aged parent to wash away the smell of oxter sweat. (Should we call Heaney’s materialistic poetry a new form of body poetry with a trajectory from rump to armpit?). A second cousin who fell victim to the Troubles didn’t fare much better by way of memorial. His corpse is recorded as having “blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes.” (The Strand at Lough Beg). Other relatives in their coffins in Funeral Rites are  described with their “puffed knuckles” and “igloo brows”.  This is the poet the singer Bono calls always “elegant”. (No need to wax facetious about his claim that Heaney’s poetry has helped to keep him “afloat”).

Yet typical of the emperor’s clothes misreadings of Heaney’s recourse to  details of the sweaty oxter kind, there  has even been comparison of this to the paintings of Vermeer. Vermeer’s brand of tranquil, luminous realism is so special it has something of the mystical sublime about it. The comparison with Heaney’s delight in just the tasteless or coarse cannot and should not even begin to be made. Only a society which has lost all bearings where art is concerned could give it the time of day; and if it were really true as Ireland’s Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, had it upon announcement of Heaney’s passing that he was “the keeper of language, our codes, our essence as a people,” then it would have to be an Ireland in a down and lost phase. It belongs more to any Irish essence to boldly declare rather than like Heaney to camouflage the self and opinions with words.  Also as the above notes indicate, Heaney doesn’t assimilate the more usual  imagery and psychology of the Celtic (and almost archetypally universal) muse, opting psychologically instead to be swallowed by the sow/earth mother.

Some may dismiss all reflections of this  (effectively neo-romantic) variety  as expressive less of conviction than resentment.  Though there might be justification enough for precisely something in that vein given statements like those in Catullus Redux, (see August blog)resentment is not true as regards the spirit in which this particular blog was written, which was rather one of humour. Never having principally aspired to the rare career of poet, for this writer of mainly prose it’s not a case of an entire life having been highjacked through the direction upon it of  certain negative values where publishing and the arts community are concerned. In the face of the Heaney phenomenon and despite the unacceptable situations evoked by Catullus Redux  (even if for a quarter of a century they convinced me poetry must be deemed a defunct medium for the artistic expression and social communication of anything), only hilarity is possible.

Looking through Heaney’s verse with what Bloom kindly calls its “soil sense” and then at images of him to accompany this blog  – a pic with the appearance of  gesturing critics away seemed the most appropriate! – had the effect of bringing on irrepressible laughter. There truly is a dimension of Hans Christian Anderson and the emperor’s clothes about it all and in the long term this will be realized. It should already be apparent from how, privately, Heaney really thought of poetry and other poets (how he felt about Yeats was rather disgusting. See  http://dlvr.it/43p7NS  ….where of course automatic admiration describes it not as indecent but “surreal”).

Seamus Heaney, rest in peace! Without envy for your particular setting or career triumphs and without personal malice at your passing, it’s possible to say thanks, bro, for all the laughter you’ve provided. You really were rather dreadful, eccentrically so, but you meant no harm even while you managed to hoodwink society and devotees as surely and successfully as Mother Teresa. How clever you were and also how fortunate!  As regards your relation to the state and standards of contemporary Irish culture, perhaps one should think along the lines of your comment to Christina Davis, the winner of an Oxford poetry competition you oversaw:  “Well your poem wasn’t very good now was it, but it was better than everyone else’s.”

[I have belatedly seen that an article by Sean Thomas for The Telegraph in England is much in accordance with  my revisionist position on Heaney]

http://bit.ly/GHiVdc

 

 
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Posted by on October 5, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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SONGS OF PURITANIA ON A GAY THEME

JAZZThe following poetry influenced by the ongoing gays and religion debate, reflects my experience over the last decade in relation to especially America. Amid that nation’s culture wars one can and will hear just the sort of things echoed in the verse – I am not inventing. (There is more about the background to this poem in the prose feature following it and its not unimportant notes). It’s not suggested all Americans or Christians think this way, but those that do remain influential, and aggressively so now they feel more embattled. (The names of the voices recall a 1969 film about sex experiment).

SONGS OF PURITANIA ON A GAY THEME

ALTERNATIVE WASTELANDS PRELUDE

O O O O it’s that American rag
It’s so inelegant, so unintelligent [1]
Here a sin, there a sin, everywhere a bit of sin
Original or otherwise, talk it till you make a din
Sounding off like cymbals and a tinkling of brass [2]

O O O O it’s that American rag
It’s so inelegant so unintelligent….
And full of belief in a very special covenant,
It makes for good fortune and also what doesn’t
Like we was Abram’s sons when you know that we wusn’t.[3]

O O O O it’s that Athenian rag
It’s so elegant, so intelligent….
When the men were handsome and the youths looked pretty
They fell for one another, for philosophy and art
And if you didn’t know it, that’s how culture got a start.

BOB

Stop that jazz…!
It’s time to start and listen hard to me now
Are you man enough for what I’m gonna say?
‘Cos it’s lust and what’s unnatural is the kind of stuff you do
Paul said it’s all degrading, you know that must be true [4]
He knew so many things and he always got ‘em right
Like women being covered up and keeping mouths shut tight. [5]
And Paul was all a man’s man, so he wouldn’t tell a lie
He says hell’s ready waiting for your kind when you die;
But if you’re not a reprobate, deliverance is sure
God and Exodus can help you find the way to perfect cure.
Only doctors, shrinks and cynics – and they are simply liars –
Would tell you there’s no way to be healed of your desires.

CAROL

Just as God wants us with guns to protect us
So we need laws against gays to correct us
But people who don’t accept six day creation
Can’t see that gay means plague and destruction.
My child is at risk and even my nation
From lies and legalized toleration
Of what they should know – it’s really no mystery –
Left Greece, Rome and everywhere nothing but history.[6]
On Sodom fire rained and also Gomorrah,
I’m praying real hard, but allow paranoia.
It was Hitler and gays brought the ruin of days,
There’s a stock market crash, it’s the curse on pink cash,
There are problems with mortgage, it’s all the gay marriage,
There’s been a tsunami due to gays in the army
Our climate is changing, but fags keep parading.
If you fear a tornado, stop their pride and bravado.
Homophobia’s holy, it keeps a roof on the home…
There’s nothing more sure or more certain than that
If you haven’t read Paul, there’s the TV and Pat.[7]
But if you still care for a heavenly crown
Prayer warriors arise, strike the gay evil down!

ALICE

Don’t say you’re born gay, for gay equals sin
My own fourth husband could not let you in
To our house, his walk is too close with the Lord;
And though I’m anti-abortion I give you my word
If our son turned out queer we’d wish him unborn
And throw him outside like best clothes when torn.
Gay is nothing at all but an evil that’s chosen
Not a mind, not an outlook, not an orientation.
What gays have and they are is a sinful lifestyle
True Christians would shun it by more than a mile,
Gay love and desire have no function or meaning
Such could not define you, they’ve nothing redeeming.

Don’t give me those lies about Hebrew and Bible
David and Jonathan “married”, it’s nothing but libel. [8]
The King James may refer to a “covenant” made
But speaking the truth, calling a spade a spade
Is what the Bible’s about; that pair had an agreement
It wasn’t love, that’s sick, it was really quite different.
And “raca” never meant pervert, the KJ says “fool”,
If Christ helped gays like that he’d be Satan’s own tool.
Remember the Lord was a proper man’s man
Not some pale and limp hippy outside of God’s plan
Eunuch means castrate not someone who’s different [9]
(Why it’s said some are born it, I’ll think in a minute).

TED

Let’s get it clear, you’re an abomination, [10]
That’s the bible’s very own proclamation;
But we’ll help you to struggle and right to the end,
I can’t quite accept you, but you are my good friend.

I don’t have dealings with fornicators
Or for that matter adulterers and masturbators
And you’re not a whit better than any of them
So don’t give us gays are God’s gentlemen.

Don’t press me too far to state who you are
It’s not like I’m talking to some movie star,
If there’s no bible term defines “homo” just right
Then I’ll use one instead – the word’s “sodomite”.

I’ll love you for Jesus, that’s to say if I can
As it’s hard, since you are an odd kind of man,
And I don’t care for singles in church anyway, really,
But pay us your tithes and we’ll treat you sincerely,
Though I pray you meet a fine girl and right early
She could cure you for good or at any rate nearly.

For the rest remain silent, be inactive as death
That alone pleases God who has given you breath.
Whatever’s outside of straight marriage is wrong
Don’t imagine gay “marriage” could ever belong.

I fancy you knew there was Adam and Eve –
Plain as day no room intended for Steve.
Eden’s model is law, a solid foundation
God can’t understand the word variation.

You can talk of revision [11] and argue the toss,
I’m not standing down from the old rugged cross
And plain truth of the Word. Say I’m a bully you may
But resistance will give God more glory today.

You can make me a martyr, to prison I’ll go
But declaring gay sin will help the faith grow.
Meanwhile we need to support propaganda
In havens of light like Cameroon, Uganda.
They aim to imprison and execute gays.
Being nearer to heaven and holier ways.

I don’t say I agree with Balboa [12] who threw
Gays to wild dogs, as I’m sure that he knew
We must love gays for God; but if people will sin
They are bound to accept what fate they fall in.

It’s not quite the same with youth suicide
But there’s no cause to blame us we do not provide
Counsel to those naturally young and unstable
When declaring the truth the best we are able.

Any choices gays make are entirely their own
There was never a right to make protest and moan
It was hard to find places of work or of dwelling
Those defying God’s laws must find they’re compelling.

It was right to reject them so they’d leave us in peace
Migrating to ghettoes where sin would increase.
Like Calvin we strive for God’s kingdom on earth
Let sinners go live where they build for God’s wrath.

Our concern is not with exception and difference,
What isn’t of family makes unhappy nonsense.
A person alone is soon led astray;
If people talked less there’d be more time to pray.

WISDOM

And for what is your prayer when belief has supposed
That justice and sense can be freely opposed?
The fact is, believers, your straight mind’s too small
You speak for a God you scarce know at all
And cite from a Bible swung and hit like a bat
With your mind so pedantic you render it flat,
No poetry left or ambiguous sense
So literally real it can finish quite dense,
Not to say often monstrous and merely unjust.
You’re unable to grasp that the same God you trust
Is both Logos and Wisdom, two sexes in one, [13]
Whose bride is two genders when history is done.[14]
Christ was male in his body but female in soul
In short he was gay to incarnate whole; [15]
That way he could speak for more persons and life
And offer examples to silence mere strife.
It’s the reason Christ sent homophobia to hell [16]
And blessed the centurion and made his boy well [17].
But science can’t tell you, it will not reveal
The spiritual laws esoterics conceal
Why some are born gay and others are straight [18]
Knowledge needs wisdom, the full truth must wait.

It’s not prejudice only, not tradition or history
Obscure truth, but mindsets closed to all mystery.
Of such you know nothing for shouting too loud
And insisting your customs stand hetero proud
With translations distorted to fit your poor vision
Which everywhere make for hate and division.
The facts can be proved beyond reasonable doubt [19]
But truth is precisely what you would cast out;
And though of Christ’s nature the matter is proved
You need to repent so your hearts can be moved.
Having too long delivered all gays to perdition
Your churches are left torn apart in confusion
So that enemies choose the terms of revision.
God is refusing your prayers, first learn toleration;
Aquarius comes, know the times and the seasons [20]
What’s gay is of God,[21] try to discover the reasons.

(Copyright Rollan McCleary, 2013.
The text of this poem has been added to a new edition of Puer Poems, See: amzn.to/11i5hkI )

NOTES

[1] The words echo T.S.Eliot’s “OOOO, That Shakespearean rag/ O so elegant, O so intelligent” in The Wasteland, but here the Wasteland is the one of confused American Puritan values.
[2] I Cor 13:1 If one speaks the truth without love “I am become as sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal” (KJ) though a modern version is: “I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (NRSV).
[3] The issue of homosexuality in American Christianity is often confused with controversial notions that America is a second Israel in special covenant with God, hence at special risk of divine judgement for even tolerating gays.
[4] Rom 1:24. To whatever and to whoever Paul precisely refers, and scholars dispute, it is thought he regards same sex behaviour as degrading. It is most likely his subject is Rome’s recreational bisexuality but his assessment of this and other sexual behaviour is coloured by not just moral but social values of his time that not even conservative Christians would accept if they understood them. Especially passive homosexuality was used as social humiliation. Thus masters had a right to use their male slaves sexually.
[5] 1 Tim 2:9, 1 Cor 13:44. Though much quoted on the silence of women, in fairness to the apostle he may not have meant much more than that in a typically gender segregated church women would not interrupt services shouting over to their husbands for explanations.
[6] William Lecky was the historian and eccentric tutor of Oscar Wilde who popularized a theory that homosexuality was the downfall of Rome and civilisation. Gays are only ever a minority and the fall of Rome was due to over extension of both wars and the system of slavery.
[7] Pat Robertson of The 700 Club, notorious for attributing hurricanes and disasters to toleration of gays in especially Florida.
[8] The word used for the covenant, b’rith, between David and Jonathan can be used for marriage in the bible. The pair were obviously what today would be thought bisexuals. Saul’s tirade against Jonathan (1 Sam 20:30) makes clear he thinks his son is a pervert bringing “shame” on the family for the love shared with David. On David’s bisexuality see my The Great Circle: Asia, David and God Consciousness.
[9] It is often said the Bible has no word for “homosexual”. In modern terms it doesn’t, but the nearest would be Christ’s word “eunuch” (Heb. Saris) in Matt 19:12. By his time the word no longer automatically designated castrate or even celibate, but could be anyone out of the family way. Raghnild Schanke, a Norwegian theologian, is one of those who have demonstrated the gay associations in ancient literature. The eunuch is the outsider and his outsider consciousness is something all believers “not of this world” somewhat need to be Christian to be at all. That’s one and surely a major way of understanding a difficult text.
[10 Many things are “abomination” (toevah) in the Bible, even proud eyes, but the primary meaning is ritual impurity and the prime reference in the Leviticus ban on male to male relations is to the ritual impurity of pagan sacred prostitution.
[11] Gay theology is deemed a branch of “revisionist” theology of which feminist theology is the main branch today.
[12] Balboa – Vasco Nunez de Balboa (1475-1519), a conquistador and notorious persecutor of Amerindian gays.
[13] Christ is referred to and represents the male as Logos (Word) and female as the Wisdom (Sophia).
[14] The fact that the Church as “Bride of Christ” is comprised of both sexes undermines and even denies the idea a marriage/union can only be between a man and a woman. Some medieval churches used to bless unions of brethren. What’s controversial about modern marriage equality movements, religiously anyway, is that it is based more on secularist demands for equality rather than rights accorded to difference as such. (It can also involve children adopted or acquired by IVF and notions of family beyond unions). St Aelred of Riveaulx considered Christ as though married to John the Beloved.
[15] The formula “a female soul in a male body” derives from earliest gay lib claims in nineteenth century Germany, but drawn as it first was from Jewish kabbalistic mysticism it has real meaning at a spiritual/”occult” level. It has importance for understanding Jesus’ identity and incarnation. Though my reasons and proofs are original, speculation on a gay Jesus is not original. It has even been espoused by Christian Jews like Bishop Hugh Montefiore and Canon Paul Ostreicher though neither they nor I, like some radicals, propose Jesus was other than celibate. Jesus cannot like the fallen angels cross orders to be involved with either female or male intimately, but that does not automatically imply as some maintain, that the imperatives of an exceptional role means the sole behavioural model for gays is lifelong celibacy on the basis Christians imitate Christ.
[16] Matt 5:21,22. The section of the Sermon on the Mount dealing with anger as a source of murder. It is never properly translated. The Peshitta version of the Eastern Churches realizes that Aramaic “Racah,(“thou fool”, KJ)’ is an insult like “faggot” or, “effeminate pervert”. Jesus opposes any rage of the homophobic, racist, anti-social kind against outsiders, here summarized and symbolized by the effeminate, which easily leads from exclusion to violence even the murder that damns. Since ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel to this day have practiced violence and attempted murder against gays, given a teaching that makes sex behaviour a capital offence (Lev 18:22) and which would thus sanctify rage and prejudice, Jesus’ attitude is tacitly undoing the law. The ruling looks originally to have been directed against Semitic sacred male prostitution with its cross dressing ( to lie “as with a woman”). It had never been consistently or literally applied and was perhaps symbolic law, since it’s clear from Deut 23:17 that Israel did not execute even its male prostitutes (Deut 23:17). The old law did however foster enduring prejudices in a society where fertility was a leading ideal with the result homosexuality in Israel works or looks more like bisexuality.
[17] Matt 8:5-13, Luk 7:1-10. Pais means boy or servant and the word frequent associations with “homosexuality” of the more aesthetic or “pederastic” kind. If the gospel’s boy was only a servant the master was unusually attached to him and centurions often had male lovers.
[18] The esoteric rather than biological factors behind homosexuality, which have a lot implications for spirituality and art and are a matter of soul before body, are considered in especially my Temple Mysteries and Spiritual Efficiency Chapter 10.
[19] Jesus’ “homosexuality” is suggested by the bible itself, especially notions contained in John’s gospel and then backed up by the eloquent birth data (see Testament of the Magi ) whose data people in and out of religion and publishing have never even wished to consider. Speculation about an essentially  gay Jesus is not new; it has even been espoused by Jewish Christians like Bishop  Hugh Montefiore and Canon Paul Oestreicher.
[20] Whether or not the coming or just dawning age of Aquarius is the apocalyptic Utopia of the Millennium itself, Aquarius is much associated with difference, the alternative, the utopian and the gay. It’s ruling planet is the gay associated planet Uranus. This age will accept homosexuality and more people are being born gay and feeling gay as it approaches whereas conservative Christians perceive only decadence of a declining era in the phenomenon.
[21] Meaning gay is not a result of the Fall, wholly contra naturam or an intrinsic imperfection. This is not to say all expressions of homosexuality are godly. One would say that a lot of, for example, S&M wasn’t, but then heterosexuals also practice it, it’s not gay specific.

GAY SPIRITUALITY, AMERICAN LIFE AND RELIGION

Having emerged from the heavy project of The Hell Passage Inferno Cantos (May Blog) and wanting a lighter theme, I originally imagined this poem as an ironic footnote or second part to a more high style (Miltonic?!) account of creation and the nature of God. The latter are themes I see as misunderstood or lost today amid secondary arguments, not least around gay issues. This aspect of the culture wars is getting resolved (if and when at all) by “rational”, political and PC standards rather than any religiously informed ones. My poetic aim was to give more reason to maintain, in harmony with the conclusion of Puritania with its “what’s gay is of God”, where the connection with gay consciousness is.

I may yet write the intended philosophical poem independently or as a separate Part One. Whether I do or not, I believe the key to resolving current gay issues – at least in religious terms, which is where the problem is most keenly felt – lies with certain theological, philosophical and even esoteric understandings hard to get any of the main parties to the debate to consider. And ironically, some so-called revisionist theologies may even impede rather than facilitate umderstanding, including by popularizing the false claim Jesus did not recognize or make reference to anything remotely like “homosexuality” as we understand it.

Gay Spirituality, which I once studied in depth and have written on and been published on in A Special Illumination, (2004), remains a chiefly American phenomenon. Its Christian branch is inevitably at variance with its nation’s widespread if embattled conservative Christian constituency which is not simply conservative but often strangely ungenerous and aggressive with it – I have sometimes experienced the full force of this myself for merely expressing a simple view. It can be very unpleasant, and as a non American I wonder how people stand it on a regular basis. In and out of religion America is full of the walking wounded, victims of the aggression of the opinionated.

To understand the American setting one needs to realize the extent to which much of its Christianity is godchild of the very political, rather overbearing, legalistic and vindictive Calvin, one of the meanest figures in the history of Protestantism. But amid its numerous variations, Calvin and Calvinism are still about the nearest that American Protestantism approximates to a historic/creedal Christianity. (Modern Episcopalianism, by contrast, is more like Unitarianism or American Transcendentalism than historic Christianity or British Anglicanism). It follows that marginalized persons, like gays when rejected by conservative churches, often have nowhere to go save the virtual neo-gnosticism or spiritual atheism of the religious rest of America as popularized by the likes of Bishop Spong.

QUEER INTERVENTIONS UPON RELIGION
Though even most Christians are unaware of it (and would take still more exception to gays if they were aware!), the image of God is getting seriously distorted or ignored in the branch of revisionist theology inspired by the atheist philosopher, Foucault, and called queer rather than gay.

Gay theology has usually tried to find some answers in the Bible and spiritual experience of the gay self, which it considers, as I do myself, in broadly essentialist terms. The now more academically trendy queer theology, which owes more to bisexual and radical feminist theory, has no real connection with historic Christianity. It locates spiritual answers in a neo-polytheism (Christ is Krishna or Kwan Yin, your favourite gay saint or just God as Sex) or else a morally indifferent neo-atheism. Swinging, experimental sexual identities are OK by its materialist “body theologies”. Works like Marcella Althaus-Reid’s Indecent Theology and The Queer God are notorious instances. A bisexual, Reid was a radical materialist who nevertheless used to enter the British Museum to revere an image of the Egyptian Cat goddess, Bast, although she was a minister of the gay MCC church. It’s an organization some feel has been unfairly, but I think not too unreasonably, described as more about humanism than religion in journalist Jeff Chu’s recent, Does Jesus Really Love Me: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America?

Despite my poem’s radical nature, even as a gay theologian I am not in total, uncritical agreement with the (mainly secularist) aims of the marriage equality lobby and the kind of often queer theory or just plain odd Christianity that supports it – sometimes insultingly in the style of the Rev Marcus Ramshaw who recently caused scandal in Britain’s House of Lords by calling the Archbishop of Canterbury “a wanker” for his traditional view of marriage.

As indicated in the notes, I can’t even regard the lobby as something wholly by or for gays, but embracing various people and aims including some who just want to be trendy. (Gay civil unions might have sufficed for the time being while church and society adjust). And I am even somewhat concerned that Christians are going to be bullied out of expressing honest convictions which, if they can express them decently, they should be allowed no matter how much one disagrees with them. Gays don’t have the right do become society’s censors merely because they feel offended which is something we all have to be sometimes. Warning signals for democracy are given by for example the way in Britain, and despite promises to protect dissent, amendments to the proposed gay marriage law such as would protect chaplains who dared to disagree with same sex marriage from being refused rights to minister in hospitals, have been swept away. This sort of thing may please secularists, but it’s not pro-gay legislation that comes with my gay blessing. Discrimination by any other name…

There is moreover something disquieting in the degree of obsession with gay rights by some Christians, whether for or against it, when even the most basic rights of Christians in Asia and Africa go insufficiently defended and scarcely mentioned. I have written on this Blog about “The Hell Hole of Laos” (Oct 2012) and one thinks of the case of Christians imprisoned in Iran where even after severe beatings they can be denied rights to medical care under international law because Muslim nurses decide Christians as being “unclean” infidels shouldn’t be touched. Let protesting gay organizations pressure such as gay sympathetic, Iranian born Reza Aslan to protest this – I doubt they or he would bother too much. Yet where Islam prevails strictly, non-Muslims regularly obtain dhimmi status with curtailed rights favouring further purely local discriminations to which a blind eye is turned. The West, from ignorance or fear insufficiently absorbs this though it’s the true dynamic of many controversies around minorities from Egypt to Pakistan).

Anyway, apart from gay bashing and even murder in especially Russia, most gays in the West suffer relative pinpricks in comparison with what Christians are suffering in much of the world – the Vatican recently reported up to 100,000 per year are being killed for their faith.

Everyone will interpret my poem differently – no one agrees about poems! – but I regard it as partly a warning in the face of the damage conservative attitudes can do not just to persons but to Christian religion and understanding of God at this point in time. Mismanagement of the gay question has already alienated many people from the churches. It has wrecked and divided churches over issues like the role of Christian doctors and adoption agencies, and it alienates the churches themselves from God. And God cannot be expected to answer prayers for everything from the moral health of society to maintenance of the rights of believers amid secularist/gay attacks upon those rights, when the terrible backlog of centuries of abuse and then modern youth suicide and depression, is swept under the carpet, dismissed and ignored only to be followed up by new, hollow and largely defensive talk about loving gays really….

Which I know from direct experience they often don’t. One still gets insulted or more commonly met with just walls of silence for merely being associated with gay issues and expressing opinions. As only one example, America’s Christian Post is a useful source of religious news, but a place where if you try to express a positive gay theological opinion you may have your head bitten off. One discussion moderator who knew nothing about me, earlier this year insulted me so severely, accusing me of a low lifestyle, pride against God, no hope of redemption from hell fire short of severe repentance, that I complained to the management which has never answered. St Paul speaks of imperfect believers who devour one another (Gal 5:15). That’s how things too often are among America’s Religious Right! (Granted Paul is often called in as support of OT laws that without him might be ignored. I believe to the extent the apostle referred to “homosexuality” as we understand it he was wrong and even disapproved, but this point is beyond present scope though see p.336 of my Temple Mysteries and Spiritual Efficiency) for some insights.

Those Christians dwelling in this toxic atmosphere, not least gay ones in the firing line, may not finish much better examples of Christianity themselves. I have long found it hard to deal with most of them. Truth to tell, despite being published in religion and having a doctorate in religion, during the last decade since my A Special Illumination on gay theologies and spiritualities was published, scarcely one American theologian or religion writer or journal, gay or straight, conservative or liberal has acknowledged, written about or replied to me in relation to my work despite (or just possibly because he’s the only divine cited in The Da Vinci Code!?) Canon Martyn Percy declaring on publication I had probably written the best work on gay theology.(I should mention that by chance just today before launching this feature the mentioned Jeff Chu has done so).

One suffers this no go situation at the same time as synods, committees, even archbishops ramble on complaining a wider theological debate and greater factual knowledge about homosexuality and gays is needed. It is, but do they really want to be informed? There is something false at the core here…it would hard to say how much. Indeed if one observes just what some people of supposed faith are actually listening to, one could well declare with Baudelaire in Au Lecteur, “It’s the devil holds the strings that make us dance”. A single relevant example can suffice.

I have mentioned the Bast revering queer theologian Althaus-Reid. If you go to The Queer God on Amazon you will see that The Expository Times, (one of the “Christian” outlets which has never had dealings with the present writer), praised her treatment of the Trinity in that book. But if you read it, you will discover that God is defined (and it is apparent Reid never believed in the biblical God) following profane principles mischievously derived from the Marquis de Sade? God will acquire such names and functions as “God the Orgy”, “God the Whore” and “God the Sodomite” amid suggesting it would be a good idea if the Queer community dethroned God and took the place of the Trinity recognizing the Antichrist as a viable principle. Clearly this was a person who had no communication problems where church, publishing, media and academe were concerned – she was appointed Professor of Contextual Theology at Edinburgh University. But then for much modern Christianity, truth scarcely matters and “C’est le Diable qui tient les ficelles qui nous remuent

GAY SPIRITUALITY AND A GREAT GATSBY SYNDROME
The poem opens with jazz and I did have The Great Gatsby film in mind. Heady Twenties jazz and dance have affinities for the more recent world of gay disco music and dance. But the Gatsby film entails certain ironies for Australia (“In a Flap over the Great Subsidy”, The Australian 22.5.13). Undeniably the theme at source is American, a novel by an American (if one wouldn’t say an Irish American transposing aspects of the Celtic dream upon an America innocent of it). But the film was directed by an Australian. It was shot in Australia. It was hugely subsidized by the Australian government. Two of its leading stars are Australian. However, it is premiered almost last in the western world in Australia. Leonardo Di Caprio who plays Gatsby has declined to attend it, and in America the film is promoted as an “American” film.

There’s something symbolic here about the way a parochial America imagines it either owns or simply is this whole world!

Accordingly, Australia and Australians don’t count for much. And they absolutely don’t count where gay theology and spirituality are concerned. They belong to America so much and their guardians are so busy guarding the territory one either does not exist, unless perhaps as a threat. The Pacific School of Religion at Berkeley which has run gay theology courses doesn’t mention me and others, and won’t be in touch, though in my case they could well have used my material in useful summary of masses of material they cover. It’s this total lack of cooperation and support helped insure that when I was freer for such things I never got to follow up the study of theologies with the badly needed post-doctoral research into gay ethics. Today I hardly study or follow gay issues further and have even half forgotten the subject, wasting years of study though hopefully writing meanwhile on other subjects of meaning and relevance and even re-discovering poetry after a very long absence (25 years). There’s nothing and no one to be helped, advised or worked with. The communication block is almost total.

The fact remains however there always was and still needs to be more examination of what gayness (not a migratory queerness) is, and hence what lifestyles and standards might best apply to it. Should gays be defined by straight standards, by marriage, should they be parents etc? Most gay don’t seem to want to be either married or parents and there are Christians and others who don’t want to be railroaded by law into having to counsel them intimately for sex and marriage just because true “acceptance” demands it). Why are some (most) gays fixed in their nature while others move about or supposedly “cure”? Though I don’t think gay marriage adequately defined is any bad thing, the big questions should have been more worked at first, not simply swept away in the rush to “equality” which can function as a new form of intolerance or at least word for the questionable American concern with “belonging” or “acceptance” at all costs. A lot of the value of gays for society has been precisely their non-conformity rather than their conformity, their role at the margins.

RETURN AND EVOLUTION OF THE GAY REPRESSED
It is this outsider status and outlook which I believed Christ pointed to in his parables and intended followers should have when he refers to being “eunuchs for the kingdom”. And it is only if one knows the data for Christ’s birth read in the most modern fashion and working for Christ issues  to this day  (see http://amzn.to/12eP5S8) that one can tell just how identified he was in this way. Impossibly we even find asteroids Saris (Eunuch) and Born closely conjunct what is called the “ruler” of his chart, in short highlighted. It is when theologians and others learn the humility, honesty and openness to look at the alternative evidence for an alternative subject instead of dismissing it as impossible and irrelevant, that we might begin to resolve more of the gay issue in religion for which it has so many surprises.

Christianity itself could be considered a form of gay theology but one which you don’t need to be gay to partake in any more than you need to be gay to appreciate the work of, say, Michelangelo – who, however, you will better understand if you can acknowledge that he was gay.

I don’t at all accept the theories of Michel Foucault that feed queer theology. I even believe he was the blind leading the post-modern blind, but I would agree with his emphasis on the return of the repressed. The gay subject is the return of the repressed. So too is poetry the lack of which in charismatic religion is one of the causes of its weakness which no amount of success with numbers can hide. Religion itself – consider the biblical prophets – depends upon the insights which poetry contains with its invention and/or renewal of images, symbols, dreams, and transcendence which haunt the mind.

Acceptance needn’t be uncritical but the churches must stop fearing change as it applies to society’s acceptance of homosexuality. It is, or can be an opportunity if they can learn how to work with it and don’t wait so long to change they finish in a world so dominated by bossy PC ideas they won’t be able to express religious opinions on homosexuality or anything much at all.

 
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Posted by on June 10, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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