I'm starting this topic with the intention of collecting some notes and reflections about using poetry (or a literary/artistic medium) as a vessel for individuation or what I have at times called the Work. The goal for me here is to see if I can form these thoughts into the skeleton of an article in response to a call for papers on art/aesthetics and analytical psychology. The CFP suggests that submissions are not entirely limited to scholars, and the guest editor of this edition thought I might have something to contribute.
I probably do, but I haven't actually written specifically on this topic before, even though it underlies my experience of individuation and my approach to analytical psychology and a progressive Jungianism.
Of course, conversation is entirely welcomed. I will try to sketch out some (no doubt incoherent) points that will hopefully come together and "self-organize". There will probably be some notes to self throughout, as well.Shamanic PoetryRevisit Eliade on Shamanism
My approach to poetry was shamanic in nature. I didn't realize this until after I had finished my book, What the Road Can Afford
, and stopped writing poetry. One of the primary reasons I stopped writing poetry was that I recognized shamanic poetry, although a traditional form of poetry and one still at times practiced today, was no longer where contemporary American poetry "lived". Shamanic poetry had become esoteric as American poetry itself became absorbed into the university.
Although I didn't use the word "shamanic" when I was writing poetry, I did often think of myself as a "Jungian poet" . . . and I saw this as one of my major problems in reaching a contemporary poetry reading audience. Jung has not been absorbed into the university for some of the same reasons shamanic poetry has fallen out of vogue. Namely, they both emphasize individuation and a particular kind of exploration of and relationship with the autonomous psyche.
The fundamental problem is that, although one can teach a psychological theory in a university setting, one cannot really teach the more experiential individuation, which cannot be broken down into academic terms. That is not to fault the university. I don't think individuation should be taught there. But with the university's absorption of poetry writing education, a conflict emerges. Becoming a poet was an individuating process traditionally. We might more commonly talk about this as "finding a voice" or figuring out how to actualize an artistic vision. We understand that artists often go through stages of growth in their art as they process influences and inner experiences.
But with poetry writing taught in the university, these individuating aspects of poetry writing are ignored, if not repressed. They are left to fate and/or they are reduced to artificial and abbreviated learning or initiation experiences. For example, it is conventionally held that poetry writing can be taught in workshops that are based on college classrooms. In these poetry workshops, student poets read their work to their peers and received feedback and criticism. They are supposed to learn both how to write (to an audience) and how to criticize in this environment. To make this feasible, poetic styles are often greatly conformed and limited. "Write what you know" is a common mantra. And of course, undergraduate students rarely know very much. More philosophical, ambitious, and introspective writing is often discouraged, because it can be extremely "painful" for professors (and often other students) to endure half-baked youthful philosophies.
There is a fear of naiveté in these workshops. But this also becomes a fear of risk taking. The impetus in the university poetry workshop is to make poems as "small" and innocuous as possible. Craft is emphasized under the theory that craft is concrete and can be taught. Psychology of the artist and the artistic process is verboten. As a result, the scope of the craft taught is increasingly reduced and conformed.
Breaking the rules can be a very punishing gamble. There is a large, dark wilderness surrounding university poetry that university poets often find frightening and avoid as much as possible. But before the academicization of poetry, that wilderness, that fringe was where poets lived and where they went to become poets.
Of course, the initiation of tribal shamans is very much the same, taking place beyond the daylight realm of the tribe, out in the wilderness.What is Shamanic Poetry?
Shamanic poetry deals directly or indirectly with experiences of initiation and transformation. It involves a dialog with the Other or some kind of profound otherness. It may be "ecstatic" in the sense that the shamanic poet transcends her egoic identity in the creative process, journeying out into unknown parts of selfhood and the psyche in the hope of bringing something back to the "daylight" of the poem. The shamanic poetic process has a heroic aspect to it. It is embarking on a dangerous endeavor where the risk of injury or total loss of self is wholly possible. And the poet is faced with ethical tests during this journey: temptations, resistances, and numerous crossroads and thresholds where something dear must be sacrificed for the sake of going farther or retaining some kind of integrity or as an exchange for something more precious and less personal.
The shamanic poetry writing process is a test of character. The value and validity of the poem depends on passing these tests. Equally, the poetic process requires numerous failures, both those of overreaching before we have sufficient integrity and those of under reaching by sticking to the safe and known.
In addition to the initiatory and ecstatic aspects of shamanic poetry, two other prominent features should be mentioned. They are the relationship with the muse and/or Other and the quest for restoration of the "world", tribe, or "soul".
The shamanic poet not only recognizes a muse or muses, she is deeply invested in conducting those relationships with intimacy and integrity. The muse is not merely some force or personage that gives "inspiration" and grace on which the poet feeds. The muse is the object and representation of ethical relationality. The shamanic poet is not alone creating poetry ex nihilo
. Rather, shamanic poems emerge from a process of communication and dialog with an other. That other may be critical or may be something like Socrates' daimon or at times even an intimate partner. The otherness of the muse pushes the poet out of himself, forces him to look at his habits and conscious thoughts as if they are not absolute or settled. This otherness makes creation an ethical endeavor, because the poet strives not to usurp, dominate, or dismiss the other. The poet asks, "How are the ways I unconsciously and unquestioningly go about being myself and thinking as I think impacting You?" The poet envisions an audience . . . and is on the hook for envisioning an audience that is truly other and not a group of adoring fans or lackeys.
There is a parallel between the creation of shamanic poetry and the "soul retrieval" of tribal shamans. The scope of every individual poem is defined by a project of restoration. Some move toward the other is made, some kind of sacrifice is given, some kind of boon is won through courage or wit or ethical integrity. The poem moves out into the wilderness and then back to the known world, but something has changed, something has returned with the poet. It could be a revelation. It could be a small reorientation. It might be a new attitude or a new readiness or a new silence.
Whatever the case, and even in shamanic poems that seem fairly dark or pessimistic, something is restored in the daylight world. The world has become somehow "more sacred" due to the poet's act. That is, "soul" has been retrieved. The world is richer, more functionally oriented. Even when something dark is brought back from the wilderness, that dark thing makes the daylight world richer, more robust, potentially more functional.
Most serious and/or accomplished poets would recognize these creative motifs I'm describing in shamanic terms even if they would never have thought of them as shamanic. Not all poetry is distinctly shamanic, nor must it be. But the shamanic ecstasy or initiation experience serves as the core archetype of the poetic process. In a modern world that makes no place for shamans, poets (and other artists) are about as close to the core archetype as we allow . . . even as we (inadvertently) discourage poets from acting or being employed in shamanic roles.
There are other similarities worth noting. For instance, the parallel between the relatively low cultural position of poets (who are more often ridiculed than honored) and tribal shamans who were also frequently tabooed and devalued. The often "abnormal" mental health or identity and everyday, worldly (e.g., occupation) functionality of poets and shamans contributes significantly to this devaluation.
There is also a heightened danger of inflation in both poets and shamans that simultaneously compensates for/defends against the common devaluation of their role or personhood and marks the ecstatic dissolution of identity during which ego identity can become blended with archetypal or divine/demonic identities.
Another similarity not often noted but quite telling is the very tribal nature of poets (and of course, shamans). We tend to have a modern bias in which we imagine great art and literature "speaks to an age" and has widespread appeal across tribes. We often overlook the very tribal nature of even modern art. The idea that poets are so grandiose that they write for "the world" is a misappropriation (if not a projection). As I mentioned above, the shamanic poet is quite concerned with the ethical imagination of an audience. A poet might bitterly struggle with a desire to "assault" others with her poetry, to "awaken" them, even to scorn them (perhaps for devaluing poets like her), but this leads to an unethical construction of the poet's audience. The audience may be imagined as stupid or backward. No functional relationship an develop between a self-righteous poet and an equally but oppositely self-righteous audience.
The poems that work best, that have the most impact, are often the ones that construct a more sophisticated and potentially positive relationship to their audience. They are generous. That doesn't meant they might not also be demanding or even a little caustic. Maybe (as above) they have something dark or unwelcome to convey and restore. But they still must present it generously (maybe like a cat is inclined to present disemboweled rodents or birds to its human keepers).
Just as that cat imagines its audience (the human keeper) as particularly appreciative, so the poet is also constructing a more limited audience of those who are capable of participating in the poetic-shamanic journey with him. In no legitimate sense is a poets poem "for everyone". Not only do modern poets typically have very national scopes, they tend to imagine their affected nations in very tribal ways.
Take arguably the most shamanic poet in American literature: Walt Whitman. Whitman used the poetic medium to construct a very enchanted modern American, one in which the soul was ever present (as in the grass), one in which the civil war was a traumatic intra-tribal conflict to be treated as a unified whole, one in which the president of the United States (Abraham Lincoln) was an intimate tribal elder and slain father ("O Captain! My Captain"), the captain of a singular ship on which all of Whitman's American sails as crew. Even Whitman's poetic work, Leaves of Grass, is a singular creation that was always in flux, always growing and reforming, always alive . . . as his dialog with the "tribal soul" and with the tribe of America continued.
The poet lives in the world in which her posting matters, in which she is "employed", and in which her shamanic ecstasies have meaning and value in the act of tribal restoration and/or revision.
Years later, profoundly inspired by Whitman, the American Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg sought to find a voice and restore soul for their divergent, wandering generation or tribe. My suspicion is that it was always so: the poet belongs to a specific tribe or identity group. Why? Because soul is a function of tribe, and the two can never be genuinely separated. Where the restoration and maintenance of the soul is approached, we are in the realm of shamanic poetry.
Psychotherapy, at its richest and deepest, is another form of poetic soul restoration. The "talking cure". The psychotherapist helped weave a story of restored selfhood along with the patient/"audience" in the medium of language. My working theory is that this restoration must always include a sense of tribe. Sometimes this is the "world" the patient hopes to rejoin, one where there may be family or friends or a partner or children, one in which the patient's role is validated and has "good enough" social significance. That is, instead of living in a cold, vast, strange world without connections, the patient requires a smaller, more interconnected world in which to have some kind of personal meaning. Only a tribal world offers these kinds of more intimate interconnections and can function as a matrix for identity.
The tribe, in fact, is the conventional and traditional vessel and representation of the Self. I have come to feel increasingly certain about this and worry that the more abstract, God-based (as in patriarchal, distant, sky god) vision of Self is fundamentally flawed. That representation of Self is very distorted and often misleading. It distracts individuals from their communities as identity matrices, which means that either individuals participate in these communities more unconsciously than a traditional monotribes members might or they become focused too much on a singular divine personality or intelligence that mirrors a kind of inflated, super-powered human intelligence.
The former problem (unconsciousness of sociality) tends to contribute to the emptying or depleting of tribal rituals. Loss of soul, in other words. Also, a loss of the shamanic element, which is meant to dynamically restore soul to tribe, ritual, and individual tribe member identity. The rituals are like vessels, but the shamanic element is the living water that files them and gives them purpose.
The latter problem (personification of Self) can delude individuals into imagining Self as more of an intelligence than a collective matrix and perhaps to idealize or emulate this personality instead of relating to and within the matrix. This emulation models identity on a twisted mirror image of the aggrandized ego and casts a large shadow. Jung himself wrestled endlessly with that shadow of the God personality from the Red Book all the way through to Answer to Job and Aion.
In the God-like portrayal of the Self, we also lose the "animal" or instinctual nature of the Self system as well as the Self as huge machine or complex, dynamic but non-intelligent or non-intentioning system. We tend to fail to understand that the "mind" we are so familiar with and project so readily is a reductive faculty, an as-if constructed largely (if not entirely) as a language, a representing or encoding system "designed" to allow consciousness to process encoded information quickly and with limited resources in a limited focus of attention and time. "Mind" is not vast and interpersonal. It is identity that links us to others, not consciousness or mind, per se. Identity is constructed around instinctual shared principles and in the environment of a highly social species. We become so identified with mind that we imagine it exceeds our personal boundaries. Shared thoughts, shared ideas, etc. But it is the socially constructed nature of identity that allows those ideas and thoughts to be shared. Their bonding ability is an aspect of identity as their vehicle, not an aspect of mind itself. Perhaps similar thoughts grown on the same tree of identity as separate but similar blossoms. But these blossoms are not literally the same, occupying the same space. They are connected by the framework they grow out of.