The Poem As Lifehack
15 Mar, 2013 - John Estes
The Thracian women who dismembered Orpheus in a fit of rage—the original desperate housewives—did so, Ovid tells us, because Orpheus scorned them. So bereft at the loss of his beloved Eurydice, wandering the countryside wailing his dirge, forsaking food and the love of women, Orpheus dared to sink himself entirely, utterly, into his heartbreak and his song. This killing offense condemned not just Orpheus; an oft-forgotten fact of the story is that the pack of bacchae also slaughtered those who had gathered to listen, his audience: “the countless birds, the serpents, and the throng / of savage beasts.” Some versions say his separated head continued to sing, even as it floated down the river and as his unsinkable lyre played on.
It’s hard to resist reading Orpheus’ story as a fable of the lyric’s worldly fate. We are so accustomed to the poet’s estrangement, to feeling an antipathy between the lyrical virtues of beauty and the conventional values represented by this dionysian mob, we hardly shutter at the conflict. Thanks in part to Eliot’s version of the lyrical voice as the poet “talking to himself—or to nobody,” we are comfortable with lyric being alienated from common discourse. Coupled with the poet-artist-hero’s principled isolation, arrayed against the stultifying forces of mass society, no wonder that authority has traditionally accrued through this struggle. The figure of Orpheus embodies the mythic pattern of artistic passion—love and devotion unto suffering and death—that remains as alluring today as ever: sales of Rilke remain strong. Yet a poet is as likely to be found yawping on Twitter or Facebook as from the world’s lonely rooftops.
We are, no doubt less and less alone. Once considered a necessary school (if not lifestyle) for any poet, solitude—considered by solitaries as coterminous with the mystery of being and thus the sources of lyric poetry—is increasingly difficult to achieve. Busyness, connectedness: these sap the person of any possibility of inwardness, much less stillness. Technology provides a steady river of ephemeral information and constant sociability, a virtual panopticon that threatens to critically distract us from, if not mortally enervate, the motive force to write a poem where a text message will do. If one is always in touch, from what wilderness will one call out? And who will hear over the din we already filter, if the poet’s voice is just one bit of a live feed refreshing into eternity?
Perhaps the poem, at its best a concentrate of attention, will evolve to survive in an age bereft of attention and concentration. Perhaps the lifestyle once thought to be most conducive to writing—a room of one’s own, space for contemplation—will be revised. But there is a reason that scientists studying the phenomenon of attention frequent Buddhist monasteries. We fight distraction even as we encourage it, and many of us hold (if not fetishize) simplicity as an ideal of sanity; in principle if not practice we concur with Kierkegaard that purity of heart is to will one thing. As Elizabeth Bishop suggestively said to Robert Lowell, “Being a poet is one of the unhealthier jobs—no regular hours—so many temptations!”
Although distraction was once a synonym for insanity, we should probably be skeptical of eradicating our hard-won complexity. Inspiration was once considered a form of divine madness, and we might want to preserve room for that experience. Already we treat melancholy, an artist’s natural humor by medieval reckoning, as a psychiatric illness. In pastoral myths, the Muses chose as theie vessels shepherds who were, while good shepherds, inefficient workers: prone to sleep, song, and restlessness. To-Do-List-oriented poets are the exception; our work depends upon not Getting Things Done™. What poet or writer doesn’t depend upon the serendipitous word, the random association, the sudden revelation, events nowadays often seeded by hyperlinks and tabbed browsers? Imaginative catalysis occurs when the executive function is relaxed, when multiple pathways of the mind are open to non-obvious connections and unlooked-for suggestions: attentive distraction, distracted attention.
If any organism can prove adaptive to this environment, it might just be the chameleon poet. Maybe. Is it possible to think, much less pluck a lyre, much less preserve authentic personhood in such an ever-humming hive? As technologies move from novelties to embedded use-objects, we’ll see whether loafing and soul-inviting can occur within a data stream, amid the raft of friends, followers, and inboxes ever-updating and clamoring for updates. Cue neuroplasticity. The lyric is poetic precisely because it makes dynamic what is prone to becoming static, and if the poet succumbs, becomes too much a part of the herd, then artistic doom is probably at hand. My complete assimilation, despite undue attachment to my iPhone, is mitigated against by pre-existing analog conditions and a recurrent desire to own a bee farm. I am relieved not to be the forerunner. So while I may be divvied up into so many pieces by the demon scourge of my social network when I cancel the internet subscription, my faith in the orphic impulse assures me that a surviving remnant, gifted to sing while multitasking, will stay the wolves despite their sheep suits.