Sentinel Poetry (Online) #38 The International Journal of Poetry &
Graphics Monthly ISSN 1479-425X
Sentinel Poetry (Online) #38
The International Journal of Poetry & Graphics Monthly
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Poet
In deference to readers’ past comments both on - and offline, in listserves and by email, it becomes necessary to revisit the idea of truth in poetry. Here the intention is to address a seeming programmatic call for the poet to be the embodiment of truth, the flawless creature, a powerhouse of vision, forever dissecting a corrupt objective world through his poetry. In such a formulaic reception of the editorial, ‘Truth and Poetry’, the poet would be above all the vagaries of human ‘nature’ to which all other mortals are susceptible; he would be beaten out of gold within his “tenement of clay”; far from the reality!
As a matter of fact, the poet is more likely than others to war with competing passions in his or her character since he or she is a sensualist mostly; he or she is ruled more than other people by the senses – of sight, hearing or touch and so on; the seat of his or her being is the imagination. In his or her demeanour he or she can be master of that imagination or slave to it. This depends on how much his or her moral rather than aesthetic vision has moved beyond and above Plato’s allegorical cave, inside which shadows present themselves as the very limit and semblance of objective truth or values; depends on if he or she has risen with the sun’s harsh re-ordering of things to see clearly into his or her own- and thus- his or her society’s character, intellect and soul.
Intellect is indeed a necessary corollary to imagination – in the poet’s work, and especially with respect to how both faculties shape his or her personality, which in turn might shape his or her work to a largely edifying extent or not. Both qualities – intellect and imagination, may be corrupted by the very world the poet is supposed to hold brief for in the court of the conscience. Again to use Plato’s allegorical example in The Republic, as the dialogue progresses, he paints the picture of the clever rogue, whose intellect is rotten from abuse and serves evil ends. In the same way the poet’s intelligence and imagination, if not disciplined or if it is warped by nature and wrong nurture, might actually depart from truth in the ‘idealistic’ sense of “Truth and Poetry” or simply hover around it publicly, giving in to private excesses.
Sometimes the poet might simply be plagued by the weaknesses common to general humanity – greed, lust, pettiness, gluttony, jealousy arrogance, inordinate ambition or such abstracter as ‘happiness’ or ‘freedom’. Happiness is necessarily illusory, where, in its place, contentment is the measure of wisdom; and man is always a slave to the senses in most cases – the poet who is undisciplined as a man or woman even more so due to his or her wayward dependence on the senses in his or her personality rather than in the work itself, even if this faculty does emotively inform the work. Many a poet does, indeed, ‘cave’ in, in this matter of the sensuous, to whims, caprices, habits, weaknesses, in short, to human frailty, under the guise of ‘eccentricity’ or a poetic ‘licentiousness’ of behaviour rather than ‘poetic licence’ in his work; and he expects the society to overlook or forgive his or her indulgences; he or she is, after all, ‘The Poet’!, the artistic genius. Dryden opines, “Great wits are sure to madness near allied, and thin partitions do their bounds divide.”
It is this madness, loosely speaking, and that divide, which the poet who will celebrate the spirit of truth and beauty need to consciously negotiate by reigning in the senses, such that his or her intellect and imagination shines through his or her work without its excess or corruption fragmenting his or her person or vision; otherwise the mirror cracks. A degeneration of the poet’s sight might cause society- gazing on his or her supposedly redemptive figure- and the poet to see a monster in the social mirror, which the poet is supposed to reflect and burnish. The metaphor of the mirror is apt. The poet is a mirror reflecting the society, the society in turn is a mirror reflecting the poet since he or she is a measure of the best comportment; furthermore, the poet is a self-reflecting mirror since he is also a member of society. In this world of mirrors then, monsters can proliferate if the poet is a monster. What moral authority would a Rimbaud have had to chastise a fellow slave trader? His words would have met derision and large guffaws! Which would not necessarily make him a bad poet as far as craft goes. It is just that moral conviction departs his work at the point and beyond the moment when human frailty took over his personality and besides, the moral authority of his oeuvre is compromised by that one derailment of intellect, imagination and good judgment. He is the only one very large and visible negative example we know of in the history of poetics. But monsters do abound, whom, if we have missed, have only managed simply to hide away just like Mr Hyde, who hides away-pun intended- in the genteel, civil façade of Dr. Jekyll.
In as much as a work maybe appreciated and admired-for its craft or aesthetic conception – in isolation of the personality and life of the poet, there is a symbiotic relationship still in terms of moral examples since poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”, according to Percy Shelly (1792-1822) in his essay “In Defence of Poesy”. Perhaps the statement is slightly exaggerated and an epitome of the romantic idea but nevertheless true.
It is for this reason that poets get their grants and support from patronage structures within society; so that they can continue to tell it profound and untrammelled truths; this is why ‘writer-rights’ organisations like PEN International, the International Parliament of Writers or other affiliates like the International Freedom of Expression Exchange and Index on Censorship fight for them and other writers in defence of freedom of expression. Of course there is that kind of poetry which is supposed to entertain and tickle, say for example, a limerick or the merely ornamental. Nevertheless most poetry which survives the onset of time both entertains in its deployment of arresting language while being profound in the way it makes us pause and reflect. It is when such reflection is dulled by the antics of poet or poem that it becomes the source of blinding light to the reason and a blight to the conscience. Perhaps this is the kind of poet whom Plato wanted to expel from the republic because he or she becomes, through his or her emotive sway over the imagination, a plague to the senses and a corruption to the body-politic. Nevertheless we do need the poet – just as we need the priesthood, not for any immediately obvious material value to society’s well-being but rather for a more immeasurable moral and spiritual equilibrium; this by way of aiding the intellect and the imagination’s apprehension of self and thus bring clarity to vision. This is why Plato, despite his exclusionary edict concerning the poet, nevertheless behaves like one in deploying the language of poetics in his cave allegory, which sought to nudge the imagination and intellect of his society of students towards knowledge, light and wisdom. Paul Hamilton notes the irony in his New Historicism.
Plato made use of the image; he was sensuous!; even if in a noble manner. It is his resistance to the ‘image’ which confounds since this is the unit of dreams, and we do all dream – or have nightmares, depending on what those dreams consists of! The example of his helplessness in the grip of the image suggests that we cannot bind the imagination or intellect; it is the purpose to which we put them that needs mid-wifing. The poet who is successful in his calling is also a good midwife of images and thus of his intellect and imagination. But when the images are garish there remains a kaleidoscopic admixture of dreams and nightmares, of shifting lights and shadows as represented in the contradictions between brilliant work and dull personal character; then enter Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Poet!
The schizophrenic figure presented in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde can be apprehended in the poet as ‘schizophrene’. That clinical term is used loosely and does not necessarily suggest a mental warp or a necessarily neurotic condition. Nevertheless it does signify a fragmented imagination and a complex personality, which dissolves in a proliferation of the disciplined intellect, the corrupt imagination, the diseased worldview, all a sulphuric porridge eating away at the poet’s navel. Sometimes discipline might have the larger sway or other dross and impurities might posses, such that the result is a split between the character of poet and the example of his or her work. It happens to those who, on a good day, are the noblest of men or women. Does nobility not carry savagery in its being? Is this, perhaps, the message of Stevenson’s Novel as a warning to the roaming imagination? For it was Dr. Jekyll’s ceaseless chemical experiments which gave birth to his alter ego – the monster, Hyde. The poet is also human as we have noted before and susceptible to the psychosis that holds most of humanity in its grip – albeit unconsciously, sometimes.
Since the poet’s intellect and imagination is highly developed – presumable, then he or she might, even consciously, like Plato’s crafty rogue, create an alter ego that confounds in its antics. In this case the schizo-frenetic variance in his character in relation to his or her work is deliberate or due to a sly underlying tendency and is a hallmark of the contrived split between public appearance and private devilry. Like the cunning tortoise of Yoruba folktales, whose crafty exploits are a warning to the wayward child, he or she appears, in all intent, to be well-meaning and honourable. Or sometimes he or she might revel in mischief or moral turpitude in his or her personal life due to a perverted fascination for the dark part of the imagination. Sometimes the poet is, due to a heightened sense impression, frail or fragile a psyche and may be easily unhinged by certain deeply-buried lived experiences. Jean Genet comes easily to mind. He was not necessarily a poet but shares the poet’s deeply sensuous nature to an extreme; an over-sensitive, disturbed imagination, who wrote and also stole! His personal demon was kleptomania. Jean-Paul Sartre and the French intellectual circle were forced to intercede on his behalf and tell the French Government to ‘leave the thief alone’ and got him out of prison, where he only penned the next brilliant play, anyway. In a manner of speaking they were saying, ‘he is an armless but disturbed writer only’.
A restlessness of spirit and an excess of imagination can lead in all kind of directions. Christopher Okigbo, a poet’s poet, was restless and dissatisfied with the treatment of the Igbo in 1960s Nigerian polity after warning in vain and ceaselessly, “for the far-removed there is wailing”! He was pushed to take up arms and die on the battle-field. He was the priest entering the synagogue of the wicked to whip them in his rage. He lost his head for it. This self-immolation, was it the right course of action? Something in his personality made him do it; it was his one sin against his brilliant imagination. But as he himself noted in one of his memorable poems, “life without sin”, is life “without life”. The poet can be as much a sinner as the other man or woman; he or she is as complex as anyone else – if not more so due to his or her over-sensitiveness. So it is sometimes necessary to separate the man or woman and the work. The ideas in “Truth and Poetry” is just that – idealistic. It is an ideal worth pursuing for the poet; how far he or she succeeds depends on how well he or she can keep his or her intellect, imagination and visions within the bounds of a conscious self-apprehension, which unifies all those qualities in him or her towards a greater general good. In such a case he or she is true to the epitaph on Gabriela Mistral’s tombstone, which reads: “What the soul is to the body, so is the artist to his people”. Otherwise the poet is just another disturbed imagination, an idiot, a schizoid and madman or madwoman!