TENTH DEFENCE OF POETRY LECTURE
Because I am growing bald, I shall greet you all with my laurel on. Clio, the muse of history, has smiled on me, and continues to smile, I hope till I have delivered this Tenth Defence of Poetry Lecture. For that, I am grateful to Clio, and promise to slaughter a fatted ram in her honour the moment the task is done. So Clio, please maintain me your vessel till the task is done
Rotterdam, this poetic city, all the muses and patrons of creativity, please make it your residence for the duration of this festival. Calliope, your sister and muse of epic poetry, we are sure is hovering nearby, ready to give me the wings with which to soar to epic level. Erato, your sister, the one who has kept company with most of the lyricists and writers of love poetry, we pray should not desert them. We need love too as much as before. And fit lyrics, otherwise our ears will turn rock deaf. Euterpe too, should restore music into poetry. The music that was there till the wild Americans, following some French poetasters who had misunderstood the poetry of African wooden sculptures, had mangled it. Your empire would have been better off without the vandalisation by Ezra Pound. Terpsichore, your sister, the muse of choral dance and song is still holding her own. Especially in our idyllic climes. Polyhymnia is in trouble. The sense of the sacred is lost or getting lost. Without any idea of the sacred – the one sacred, sacredness – how can poetry be written extolling the vitues of the sacred nature of Gods and men? Melpomene – the muse of tragedy, also is in trouble. Without a definition, an agreed upon definition of the sacred, of the honoured deed and thing, that which can be done or not done, used or not used, under certain circumstances, how can we have tragedy. The ‘tragic’ can only be defined in their truly religious sense. Without universal norms, without an agreement on what is good and bad, holy and evil, you get the functionaries’ or cut-throats’ ideas of the ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ way of executing a deed. No more ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, left-handed (pardon me, left-handed people) , and the ‘normal’ deed. It is the ambidextrous people who cut up Julius Caesar ‘correctly’ or ‘incorrectly’ according to the manuals written or unwritten. Debasement of the scientific method. Perhaps that is the tragedy of our time: the absence of an agreed upon definition of the tragic. The sense of the poetically tragic, according to me, is more important now, than the sense of the religiously saintly. The life of Oedipus teaches: Job’s life revolts. As for Thalia, we are in the city of her greatest son: Erasmus. He who looked at life as a series of follies, and extolled the virtues of Folly! Nothing is more comic then a father of the church writing a volume telling his countrymen and the world not to take life too seriously: for all is folly, a comedy. That stance, I take it, is more preferable to self-conscious Dante Alighieri and his imperfect Divine Comedy, full of spleen. If one’s love of God entitles one to put one’s foes into purgatory, then one goes there to gloat at their suffering, the meaning of comedy is overstretched. But, most certainly, when the tragic is not identified, then one swims in the world of moral uncertainty. So perhaps there should have been a make-shift muse for the tragi-comic. For, when each one of us strives for the tragic, the individually tragic, but his efforts are received or interpreted as comic then surely, between the intention and its production, and resultant reception, a new beast is born: the tragi-comic! If he is lucky.
Perhaps Urania, the muse of astronomy should inspire us to understand the nature of creation: the coming into being of the elements: air, water, light, earth; sky; stars, moons, suns. The seasons. In short, cosmology, the cosmic – with all that is astronomical included – and the environment. And man’s puny place in it: man who elevates himself to such a height now that he prides himself on the products of his mind. The saltiness in his blood comes from the sea. He has a navel. But the midwives do not show him his umbilicus and its interconnections with the universe. Now that he has unmasked the Gods and found them the clever contraptions of wise men, creatures of poets of the past. Minds that had realized that the unblinkered mind, the unhampered intellect, is dangerous, even unto itself! So, as they say: the sacred was consciously created with God placed at the centre, precisely to keep man sane, and in his place. Straying from that conception constitutes the tragic.
My dear lovers of poetry, the ancient Greeks in their mental period of cosmic exploration reached astronomical heights. They knew that man’s intellect could be his eventual undoing. So it was better to tell man, pre-arranged, that on his own, he could not achieve much. Up in the air, on mountain tops, in ocean depths, etcetera, places far, high, deep, there live super-forces that would deign to help those who had creative ability, and whom they loved, to achieve and bring out in their names, under their control and protection exceptional products. In our department of creativity, I have already introduced the nine goddesses, or muses, who presided over the nine identified areas of creativity.
These nine muses, when they are not attending to urgent missions, like the current Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam, reside upon Mount Parnassus. They share it with Lord Apollo, a patron of creativity, especially prophecy. If he is pleased with you he will make your prophecies believed in like those of Tiresias. If not, you can prophecy your heart out and nobody will believe you, like Cassandra. Apollo is also the patron benefactor of creativity in music, poetry, the sun (as part of astronomy) and medicine. The God that inspired creativity had better also come up with medicine, to care for, or cure, the victims of the ensuing sickness.
I also think the Greek mythical poets believed that imaginative creativity is too important to be left to Apollo alone, or the muses alone. Besides, the sun and prophecy are so be-wilting they should really belong to the man’s sphere of action. See what it did to poor Cassandra!
There were also arenas – I do not know which were more beastly: gladiators facing hungry lions, or fellow humans? Perhaps the most ruinous were inspired humans battling it out mentally in the arena or gymnasia before taking to the field of Are. If you think the man with words is less lethal than the boxers, then reflect on these Roman generals: Pompey, Ceaser, Brutus, Cassius, Antony, Caesar! Or Cleopatra.
If you regard the above as poeto-genic, then you may credit the muse of tragic poetry with their conception. But since they are historical, I would claim them for Clio. The muse who gives the general’s heart to pump extraordinary blood when he seizes the opportunity to decide and executive the historical deed. As to whether Clio’s horse should be hampered or not, I leave it to those who have suffered under historical deeds to decide. The historical hero rides roughshod over the vanquished. In the eyes of the victims, the ‘hero’ should be sent to The Hague!
Now that we realize with or through the Greeks that our powers are not our own: What is there to be defended? What poetry have we produced which is worth defending? If I am wearing a laurel, because I am under the aegis of Clio, muse of history, history that ravages with the sword on the right hand, but on the left assists science in scientific creation of articles of war and advancement, should I not make a statement that will make sense historically? And what would that sentence be? Should it not be: Let us revisit the idea of poetic creativity as well as all inspired creativity according to the Greeks? And relate our predicaments with the Greeks to them or differ consciously because we have found different, and hopefully, better or more satisfying, rationales for artistry and creativity? If I did not trust your intellectual ability, I would have repeated the last sentence. Does this not call for an archeological digging down the ages to the stratum three thousand years back when the Greeks consciously constructed their ideological world; ideologically mythical, mythically religious, world? And then we will have, for the duration of our search, to believe in what the Greeks believed? Including what Christianity, Islam and Rationalism now dub ‘superstition’. Otherwise we make William Shakespeare a laughing stock. If you do not believe in Othello’s magical handkerchief that his mother gave him, does Othello make sense? If you do not believe in walking ghosts, do Hamlet’s ratings and killings make sense? We need to preserve some ‘superstition’ in order to understand the creatures brought into life by Mnemosyne’s daughter, through fellow human beings. Precisely because we are still superstitious that is why the Catholic Church burns incense to keep the devil away. That is also why on the last day, Muslims go to stone the devil. So, we cannot dismiss Hamlet, whatever we may think about present day Danes, or Oedipus, whatever we think about present day Greeks.
Sometimes I sympathize with deeply religious people in the South of the United States, who dismiss evolutionism. For, unless you have a prophet to update creation according to the book of ‘Genesis’, how can you believe in both divine creation and evolution by Charles Darwin? Sometimes too, I sympathize with Indian Hindus who are told that man has landed on the moon. “Which moon? ” they ask. “And what do those men want there, they who have not done much to us on this planet? ” Perhaps we had ignored the departments of important Goddesses? Polyhymnia, for example, so that she has found no vessel to inspire updaters of ‘sacred poetry’ to update ‘Genesis’.
Without a religious attitude, or belief there can never be a great creation. A creation that is alive, that has life that shelters life. That has an aura. As one of the sacred poets put it, if you have no faith, all you will make is noses; like a tin. And, as another moral poet had put it: the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. Mind you – just the beginning.
I had led you down the archeological path. We went excavating in the mind, layer after layer, into the depth, of mental artifacts as constructed by the human mind in Greece. I want us to stop at the strata where the master of masters, laureate of laureates, the all-seeing poet Homer worked, leaving us with two magical artifacts: The Iliad and The Odyssey.
I have been leafing through countless books but have never been rewarded with any intelligence concerning what happens after a poet has invoked the muses. Does he sit there, paper on the table, quilt in hand, and stare on the wall for the muse to come and inspire him? I know of Kukuruku head-hunters on the River Fly in Papua New Guinea who row their boats at night, holding a lighted lantern, and then call – or mesmerize – crocodiles to come for the killing. Is that what the would-be poet does to attract the muse’s aid?
I know that Alexander Pope boasts that when he scarcely could button his trousers he was already babbling in numbers. But Alex was a child genius. And in music – as well as rhyming poetry – you can have geniuses, child geniuses. Like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In mathematics too, you can have precocious geniuses. Especially from the Indian sub-continent. For the majority of us, we have to give the muse an assistance. First, the Theban sphinx – like all sphinxes – posed the simplest question to all who thought they were clever. And it was death for the defeated. Oedipus came and found the riddle so easy, he answered it. The sphinx jumped into the sea and he was left to entangle himself in more complicated riddles. The creature that walks on four feet in the morning, two at midday, and three in the evening is man. It was not supposed to be a difficult question, but it was self-reflective: for he who had been introspective: man know thyself!
Then let Aristotle come on the stage to tell us the qualities the suitable personages for a tragic drama: Royal houses, high personalities, and all that. If he had not included ‘tragic flaw’, and ‘overbearing nature’ I would have thrown his notebook away.
I had invited you to go down to the strata when and where Homer composed The Iliad and The Odyssey. Both Homer, in his epics, and Sophocles in his tragic poems, were masters of character study. Since plays, and novels and epics have to move, events in them have to progress, there must be those whose natures and acts cause other or counter actions, or reactions. And the Greeks knew it. It was easier to start the ball rolling than to stop it. Sometimes you will require divine intervention, though, to bring the play to a halt.
Since I expect you to know your Iliad and Odyssey I will proceed by the seminar method. I shall take it but you will join me in this revision.
King Menelaus of Sparta, an ally of Agamemnon and his kingdom of Archaia, has a beautiful wife Helen. They both enjoyed entertaining their visitors. Then let a younger, more handsome visitor, Paris, come home, from the opposite hamlet. And the unsuspecting husband, who had no guile in his heart, leaves the two alone. Their chemistry begins to interact.
Helen, daughter of Zeus, in the guise of a swan, had conceived her with a mortal, was beautiful beyond compare. Does she operate by man’s laws, or God’s or swan’s? Do you judge her by man’s law? Anyway she agreed to flee with their guest. And this is
6. the first poetic act that started everything: Helen agreeing to leave her husband and run away with their guest Paris.
Paris is beautiful, young and capricious. Welcomed as a guest, he breaks the rules of hospitality and runs away with host’s wife. Whose sin is worse: Paris for breaking hospitality’s rule? Helen for breaking her marriage vows with a guest? Make your judgments as we go along.
King Agamemnon, of the Athenian state is Menelaus’s ally. A king well-versed in state-craft. A ruler who was in firm control of his people, and their allies. The honor of the royal Achaian house was at stake. The wrong thing had been done. The right action had to follow: Menelaus’s wife, Helen, had to be restored to him. Perhaps he was inspired by Clio, the goddess in charge. And he was conscious of the place of this act in future Greek history. He puts together an army for war.
For ten years they stay on their side of the sea. No wind came to take their soldiers across, towards Troy. When everybody was getting tired, something had to be done. The soothsayer reported that the God that controls wind needs appeasing for some wrongs done: The third major poetic act was done. Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter. The wind comes, and they cross over to Troy.
In earlier battles the Greeks are successful. They capture slaves, get booties, and distribute these amongst themselves. Achilles, Greek’s master of the spear, slaughtered the most. A beautiful girl captive, Cassandra, belonged to him by right. But King Agamemnon appropriates her for himself.
He is king and gets the first of everything. Achilles says no. The conquest came through the strength of my arms.
In subsequent battles, the Trojans slaughter the Achaians. Achilles withdraws and sulks in his tent. Achilles stays in his camp nursing his grudge. Patroklos his friend, and perhaps homosexual lover, dons Achilles’s armour, takes his arms and enters the field. He meets with a lot of initial successes. But Achilles’ armour is too heavy for him. The Trojans discover who he is and kill him. Patroklos had made a poetic decision: “Ours is more important than mine”.
Because his friend had been killed, Achilles gets up, puts on his armour and goes to defeat the Trojans. Achilles knew that he was immortal, except for a portion of his heels. He also knew that he was destined to die early. (And like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.) But he was prepared to blaze the firmament like a meteor, and redden the sky. When he went to fight he was already sacrificing himself. For Achilles, me and mine are more important.
After he had killed Hector, he tied him on the back of his chariot and dragged his corpse through the battle field. This was sacrilege. Neither God, nor man likes it. Let its owners go and bury it with all rites due the dead. Greeks honoured this; many African peoples know this. You dishonor the dead, you are already mad. And your doom is near.
The Trojan citadel did not fall because Achilles had killed Hector or after Achilles had killed Hector. For Homer, or the Homeric composers there is something more than the King’s power: military might of his fighters. But the strong fighter is not the end of everything. Otherwise Achilles’ success in the field could have been enough. There is a third source of strength: stratagem, cunning. The walled city of Troy had to be breached. And how was this to be done?
Odysseus, the crafty soldier who had pretended madness in order not to go to this war, till they brought his baby son Telemachos and put him on the path of the plough. If Odysseus who sowed salt was truly mad he would plough his son into two. He did not do so.
The final fight in Troy now fell into the hands of the man full of tricks. Odysseus devised the making of the Horse. The Trojans, who throughout the epic are referred to as ‘breakers of horses’, ‘trainers of horses’ fell for this trick. They never even thought of opening the horse first outside their wall.
The war ends. Menelaus gets his wife back. Justice is done. Paris is compensated by getting the distinction of killing Achilles, the Greek hero. King Agamemnon returns home with his prophesying wife Cassandra. A prophetess who can see her death coming but is powerless to do anything about it. Then another poetic act takes place. Queen Clytaemnestra the mother of the sacrificed daughter had taken a lover. And the two of them await Agamemnon and Cassandra to kill.
After the sack of Troy, the remnants of that city sail away to Rome to found the Rome Empire. Aeneas, the Trojan version of Odysseus, carries his ancient father Anchises on his back, to become a founding father.
Odysseus, on the other hand took a tour of the Mediterranean islands and littorals. When he finally arrived at home, he found that his wife had also been very crafty putting off those men who do not go to war but stay at home enjoying comforts given by the wives whose husbands are away at war, or presumed dead. He and his son Telemachos, and their shepherds put to death all these men. Meting out a poetic justice. The Odyssey is the travelogue route every tour director in Greece should market.
Poetry: whether you are a born poet, a favoured child of the muses, or whether you aspired to writing poetry, trained yourself and were rewarded with a portion of poetic inspiration, I am sure you have to keep yourself in practice. Or the muse deserts you. It is said that African royal drums crave to be beaten, to be taken to the dance arena to be played. If they have waited for a long time unbeaten, they beat themselves! If that happens then one has to hold a ritual dance very quickly. Or somebody will die. So that the drum will be played. For a week, at least.
Perhaps compulsiveness is the nature of the muses and their charges? Perhaps the inspired poet cannot help being compulsive, headstrong, outspoken? Wrapped up in his madness!
There is the poet. And the poetry-laden action. Can you be a poet without the ability to recognize this opportunity? Could The Iliad have been composed if:
(a) Paris had not taken the opportunity to seduce his host’s wife? Turn it another way, had there not been a Helen who broke mores by making herself available to their host? In case she started it all? Because that moment, and the ensuing elopement, are the poetry-laden mothers of all the latter developments leading to the sack of Troy.
Did Menelaus have poetry in his heart? That important royal person suspected nothing because he was incapable of straying. Condemned to have a beautiful wife, was he not the perfect character to be cuckolded? King Agamemnon did his duty putting the army together.
(b) The poetry-laden moment had not come when he had to kill his daughter in order for the wind to blow. The leader of the nation had angered his wife so much so that on his return he was killed by her for having killed their only daughter. Isn’t it that every action that is anathema to Mother Earth, has to be paid for? Sooner or later? And the knife of Damocles hangs above the master bed? Ready to descend. Choosing whose hand to thrust it?
Killing in war, was Achilles’s forte. But for the Greeks of that time, your strong arm is in the service of your king, of your country. The king picks first, of all the booties.
Patroklos, a mortal pretender to the throne of Achilles took to the field. Amongst us poets, who are the Achilles? – or the Mozarts? And who are the Patroklos? The Sallieris? Those who do what they can, but know that they do not belong to the first league? And have to search carefully for the most opportune poetry-laden moment for us to get a bit of that glory?
Achilles or Mozart, Keats or Shelley. They flower early. And die early too. Perhaps just as well. Or they become tedious Poloniuses like Alexander Pope, or Lord Alfred Tennyson. If one was not sure of one’s place, one sought death by going to fighting places like Greece then, or Iraq now. Lord George Gordon Byron, sought early death. After being crowned as the poet laureate of all philanderers.
He who had the fatal heel, or was it tendon? – when he went to fight to revenge his friend, already knew he would return in his shield. (Dead Greek soldiers were carried out of the field of war on their shields) . That, to be his last fight, made him drunk. Drunk with blood. And only the putting on of the armour was the shortest moment. The rest of the deed was a spectacle. To be sung. To be remembered. To be written poems about. The sulking of Achilles. The last war of Achilles.
The dragging of the corpse of Hector all over the war arena is testimony of his madness. And over – passing the mark of proprietary. Granted you were in a war field. Killing people. But there are some conventions, conventions enshrined in Conventions in our and other times, that you honoured. For the sake of humanity, if not the Gods. Even if you did not believe in Gods. By all means turn your back against the Gods if you what to. But turn your frontal attention fully to human beings. For that, the Gods will forgive you.
Then comes the novelist, master plot-maker. Between the English plot-maker Charles Dickens and the Russian, Fyodor Dostoevsky, I do not find it easy to who to liken Odysseus’s Trojan Horse plot to. Because it has comical moments, I yield it to Charles Dickens. Dostoyevsky’s plots are too dark.
Did it ever cross your mind that the Trojans could have inspected the horse before hauling it inside? And the soldiers inside would have been killed? There are proverbs against seeing a gift horse in the mouth. So let’s have the Trojans, ‘trainers of horses’ get their mammoth toy – the Wooden Horse. Left behind by their departed enemies. Trojan fascination with horses was their national Achilles’ heel.
Perhaps a good place for me to stop. And make some concluding observations.
The best poetry is the folk epic. And the folk epics of the world, especially The Iliad and The Odyssey (by Homer) : the Indian Mahabharata, the Finnish Kalevala, and the German Nibelungenlied stand out as needing study and response to by every human generation in every culture and every language. They are not the creations of one person, nor of one generation. They bear the weight of collective creativity of a people about the place of man in the world. So that it is no lie to say they are the mother – Mnemosyne – of all the other muses, all other or later creations. Beginning with Calliope, the champion of epic poetry.
I cast my eyes left and right, forward and backwards and do not see a new epic poem for our time. I, today’s favoured son of Clio, find it difficult to defend partial poetries. Where are the all-embracive poems? The poems that will put man in his place, between the Gods and his weaker nature? Between man and animals? Man that walks on fours, twos, and threes? Forgive me Desiderius Erasmus, if I am out of tune with my fellow singers, out of time in these fast-poem times. Excuse me, if I try to be serious, even I, cannot help seeing the comical character I am cutting. Excuse me if I end up Praising Folly in Rotterdam. Once more. But if humanism is my love, do I do wrong if I try to direct our gaze to caged humanity? And indicate to my compatriots of the world of poetry the value and importance of earlier higher attempts at characterizing man? Drawing attention to the achievements of our superlatively creative historical forebears so that perhaps we shall feel compelled to grace our times with products that emulate theirs? And create products that are relevant for our times and times to come?
August members of Poetry International Foundation,
Lovers of Poetry
Ladies and Gentlemen
Poetry must be defended. Even the uneven poetry that we now produce must be defended. So that poetry remains alive. So that we aspire to become better poets. Epic poets. Able to produce the poetry that demands to be defended.
Thank you Clio. For having kept company with me. I shall now go to look for the sacrificial sheep.
© Taban Lo Liyong
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