Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Poetry Was Once Religion

I dreamed of Orchil, the dim goddess who is under the brown earth, in a vast cavern, where she weaves at two looms. With one hand she weaves life upward through the grass; with the other she weaves death downward through the mould; and the sound of the weaving is Eternity, and the name of it in the green world is Time. And, through all, Orchil weaves the weft of Eternal Beauty, that passeth not, though its soul is Change. This is my comfort, O Beauty that art of Time, who am faint and hopeless in the strong sound of that other weaving, where Orchil, the dim goddess, sits dreaming at her loom under the brown earth.

-Fiona Macleod, Orchil

The "slogan" that I have chosen for this blog-project, as well as for the religious orientation of my own life and hearth is "Poetry was once religion." These four words sum up so much that is (for me) emblematic of both the Old Religion and the quest for an authentic spirituality today. Most people today have grown used to "poetry" being nothing more than another writing exercise taught in English classes, or the content of literary reading assignments; most people don't understand what poetry is (or was) and conflate it with rhyming short sentences that may or may not have some cute point.

I don't think people today begin to comprehend the original sacred character of poetry. From the earliest appearances of what we in the west call "poetry", it had a sacred function- from the Vedas to the Gathas to Homer's Odyssey, words arranged in meter allowed for an easy marriage to human memory, thus allowing precious lore to be preserved from generation to generation- lore about the Gods, heroes, philosophy, history, and rites and rituals of various kinds. Homer and Hesiod- two of the West's first poets, made no secret of the source of their art: the Muses, Goddesses whose inspiration they channeled. Parmenides' great Muse, who inspired his sacred poem, was none other than the Queen of the Underworld herself, chief figure in the oldest Mysteries of Greece.

We know that the Druids of the North and West, as well as the Skalds and Poets of the Teutons, were given the authority of their positions largely through feats of memory- the memorization of kingly lineages, legends, stories, verse, and perhaps ritual requirements for things like sacrifices and the like: they were living vessels of the lore of the past as it trickled down the generations of life.

Those who study Irish and Welsh myths are treated to the finest poetry yet formed through the human mind and body: the inspired and sorcerously ecstatic utterances of Amarghin, the First Druid of Irish lore, and Taliesin, the Arch-Bard of the British tradition. Through their connection to the source of inspiration, they command the elemental forces of reality; they create words of power that win great victories for their people or (in Taliesin's case) his retainers. Their poems are spells of great power; their poems are pure magic, in the most ancient sense of the word.

The mystical poetry of these masters does more than add fire to a good tale; their words demonstrate for us so much about the inner nature of reality- these men/spiritually awakened beings were able to "be" so many different beasts and natural phenomena, able to self-identify with the land, precisely because there is already a connection there, waiting to be uncovered. But to uncover it and experience oneself as a full part of the wholeness of reality and all orders of sentient being is not something that happens upon command or because one intellectually accepts that their true condition must be so: it happens only when poetic inspiration is discovered.

Poetry is a power; it is not just an end product in the form of words and verse, but a "way of being"- it is an outlook, a "far outside of the box" outlook that helps people to see with great intensity and cleverness. It makes everything about perception and feeling "fall into place", and the source of this power is the source of all powers- the cauldron or well of life, contained mythically (and actually) in the Underworld, as well as actually in the hidden layer of the fabric of all realities. It is inside us; it is the grail-heart, the secret heart of human spiritual questing.

The Goddess of Sovereignty is connected to poetic inspiration, because true poetic inspiration cannot come apart from the majestic natural powers of the land, waters and sky, or the intensely complex natural realities of human nature. Whatever powers line up to create a path for poetry, the land, sea, and sky are all of the body of the Sovereign; and human nature is, too. So many sacred forces are able to speak through poetry, and what they say can be surprising to us.

A genuine poet will find him or herself surprised by what they produce; one cannot predict the vast and strange immensities of the Otherworld, nor can one predict the spontaneous nature of inspiration. One can only bask in it, for whatever time it chooses to flow. We hope it will flow forever, and for the greatest, perhaps it does- but we on the ground, still kindling fires in hearths, will wait for the passage of the divine inspiration and make ourselves open to it as we may.

And being open to it is the key; it is always there, at every moment- it is we who close our doors and windows and feel the isolation and despair that eventually accumulates. It takes courage to open ourselves as much as our hearts' deepest inclinations would have us; but eventually we all succumb to the ceaseless donation of sacredness that makes up our truest nature, and become poets ourselves.

There is no "ancient religion of Ireland or Britain" apart from understanding the sacred nature of poetry, just as there is no modern day religion based on the spirit of those old faiths, without understanding it. What we call "poetry" now was once the heart of "religion"- religion here meaning "that which brings together again"- that which the communities and families of old kept close and enacted to bring themselves together with the Gods, ancestors, and each other. All of these disparate forces- religion, sacrifice, community, nature, Sovereignty, awakening, memory, culture, history, and the human beings involved- all these things are bound together by poetry, somehow encapsulated in the great "outpouring" of the sacred that is passed down to us in the few precious words of verse given us in myths and recorded legends.

What poetry was lost? How much? I say much, but I say that it matters little- we have the examples we need, the start of a road that leads us to open the same doors inside that the ancestors opened, and for the same poetry to emerge through us, in forms suited to our present realities. Our present realities include different words and perspectives, but precisely the same spirits that have wandered the world since the dawn of time. The deathless powers are the same: the very essence of the sacred is the same. Nothing is ever truly lost or forgotten!

In my personal religious life, and that of my wife and children, poetry takes the center place at the hearth, next to the flame, and the three gifts of the Mother of the Land: fertility, generosity, and wisdom. I cannot feel the movements of the divine, either the spirit in me or the Gods of my ancestors, without the beauty of poetry being recited, with my outer voice or my inner; when the spirit expresses real poetry, it matters not how. What Fiona Macleod wrote about "Orchil" above is (in my opinion) one of the examples of "pure poetry"- a perfect and full invocation of the Goddess of the Underworld and Life's Fate.

In so few words, so many doors are opened by Fiona Macleod in the mind and heart! The "sacred emotion" roused by the words place a person in spiritual connection to the object of the poem- prayer at its finest. The way that concepts like "time" and "eternity" and this "green world" are situated in relation to Orchil is a "making sacred" of things we normally let slip by us unnoticed; she creates, with the magic of these words, a mandala of the sublime for things. Those of us who believe in the Fate-weaver, the Sovereign Goddess, can understand her through Orchil- even if Orchil is a powerful symbol existing for Fiona alone.

Sorcery too, is poetry-dependent, though many may not see it. Poetry gives us a rush of power from what seems to be a trans-personal source; relatively speaking, it certainly is transpersonal; ultimately speaking, poetry restores us to the wholeness that consumes relative perspectives. That is real power, and it is a power for religion no less than sorcery- and it seems an afterthought now to mention that once, religion and sorcery were not so separate.

I can do no more to explain poetry, and I know that this description has been woefully inadequate, at least for me. I know I cannot capture what I wanted to say- I know that poetry is something that lifts me out of my "ordinary" and into a better comprehension of wholeness and the mystical. In that state, I know why I believe what I believe; I know them and myself better- in conjunction with all things. I feel it; I feel in a way that leaves me at peace. Our religion- or should I say, our "life-way" (the term I prefer) is nothing without poetry, for it was originally poetry and will always be poetry.

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