What is Mythology? (Part 4)

We’ve reached the point in this discussion where we must attempt the impossible: to define “archetype.” (This is difficult enough, especially since I haven’t even properly defined “Mythology,” but have only danced around it in Part 1.)

But, before that, a quick digression. In Part 3, I introduced the vomiting god Bumba, whose barf gave birth to the earth and its creatures. He is, however, not the only mythological figure whose ralphs are heard ’round the world.


In Greek mythology, the titan Chronus swallows his first five children in an attempt to protect his grip on the throne. When the sixth child (a chap named Zeus) is switched with a rock, Chronus swallows the rock and subsequently yaks his other children, the first generation of gods, into the world.

The secretions do not stop there. According to Chapter 2 of Kathryn Valdivia’s online Mythology lectures, creation myths often depend on such bodily emissions as: “vomit, sweat, urination, defecation,” and so on.

What’s going on here? A true reminder that mythologies were formed during the childhood of humanity? Or some kind of Freudian obsession with bodily functions written into translations by repressed priests and shamans? Or are these pre-literate, pre-Christian groups just less uptight about perfectly natural phenomena?

Perhaps, but I think there is reason to believe that such references have a third layer of meaning beyond the literal interpretation (“a god is barfing”) and the figurative (“the god barfing represents how the world was created out of nothing, or possible from a reconstituting of materials rejected by the gods”).

This opens up an entirely different discussion about the function of myth, but I promise I will circle back to discussing “archetypes” before the end of this post.

As I mentioned in Part 2, myths make less sense when plucked from their original context as communal ritual, usually performed as music and poetry, and ritualized for purposes both civic and spiritual. For example, Washington Matthews’ translations of The Navajo Night Chant can perhaps be read as something akin to contemporary poetry when found in the Norton Anthology of World Literature. However, reading it silently (as one would read a poem by John Ashbery or Mary Oliver) can feel a bit odd, especially given the seemingly excessive repetition:

In beauty may I walk.
All day long may I walk.
Through the returning seasons may I walk.
On the trailed marked with pollen may I walk.
With grasshoppers about my feet may I walk.
With dew about my feet may I walk.
With beauty may I walk.
With beauty before me, may I walk.
With beauty behind me, may I walk.
With beauty above me, may I walk.
With beauty below me, may I walk.
With beauty all around me, may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk.
It is finished in beauty.
It is finished in beauty.

This looks like a typical quiet contemporary poem. But, in practice, it sounds like this (from Voyager’s Sounds of the Earth recording:

The text stretches on for days with chanting and song as part of a healing ceremony intended to purify and transform the sick. The event lasts for nine days, including ten straight hours of dancing on the ninth day. Only when translated, written down, and divorced from its context does it become what we commonly call “literature.”

Though I have never been there, I am certain that sweating and vomiting occur, as it certainly occurs in various other religious ceremonies around the world, many of which include physical deprivation, dehydration, starvation, extreme temperatures, and consummation of what we call “drugs” in the contemporary Western world. Ayahuasca and peyote almost always involve vomiting, as would excessive amounts of wine in Dionysian ceremonies.


If mythological texts are fugue-like (see Part 3), and if one function is to describe the process of being ritually initiated, then perhaps the descriptions of bodily functions are simply (or not so simply) part of the ritual. And, of course, since these are secret groups who by definition must remain mysterious to outsiders, none of this can be said directly. It helps to remember that many myth-makers intentional obscure their meanings by using esoteric language.

So it seems there is a logical explanation why so many myths feature bodily secretions. On one level, it could be mere data, a compilation of what goes on during shamanic rituals and cultic celebrations.

This would not, however, explain the repeated use of such imagery in stories of how the world was made. If a given myth is created over time and takes on layers of meaning in order to reflect the various functions of the myth (i.e. not just a “script” for the ritual, but also a culture’s cosmology) then perhaps certain physical acts came to be seen as microcosms of the divine order.

Vomiting as a physical necessity, but also as part of the customary ritual, yet also as a recreation of the origins of life, so that, in some sense, the participant is returning to the source, beginning again, healing in the deepest way imaginable. (It is telling that Bumba, discussed in Part 3, later walks from village to village in an attempt to cheer up his creations, repeating, “Let joy flood your hearts!” His imperfect creations caused him to vomit, but he is not about to let this ruin the world.)

Why then, across time and space, do so many cultures use images of bodily emissions to explain how the world was made? If we expand the category a little bit, we also find numerous creation myths depicting severed body parts used as the raw material for the creation of land, ocean, and sky. In “The Enuma Elish” (the Babylonian creation myth), for example,  Marduk crushes Tiamat’s skull and breaks her body in two like a shellfish, forming from it the sky and the earth. This is a motif that shows up often.

Enter archetypes. When recurring patterns such as these emerge across time, there are three possible explanations: #1) meaningless coincidence/utter obviousness, #2) universal human psychology, or, #3) to put it one of a thousand different ways, divine plan. I think you could make the case that all three point to archetypes. Or, you could make the case that the first two provide a way to explain such recurrences without archetypes, and that the third is just a fantasy.

Either way, defining archetypes is not easy. In C.G. Jung’s writings, an archetype is a pattern that lies beyond the physical world. We can never know the archetype directly, because it is, ultimately an unconscious idea and, as Jung famously said, “The Unconscious is always unconscious.” These unconscious ideas manifest themselves in the world, suggesting patterns over time. The archetype, then, is controlling or guiding our behaviors and actions mostly unbeknownst to us.


As an analogy, it is helpful to think of how most cultures viewed astrology just a few hundred years ago (and as many people still view it today). That is, when events happen in our lives, it is because they are being guided by mysterious forces “in the stars.” Our lives are the products of alignments and intersections, recurring patterns that are something like generic and abstract plans from which a variety of results can be derived. When, for example, Mars is in retrograde, it determines that certain qualities or possibilities will go into effect. The underlying ideas repeat themselves each time this happens, but the results are always different. You can see the patterns, but never know the ultimate idea behind it.

An archetypal symbol, then, is not the pure archetype itself, which can never be known, but an image that suggests the archetype is at work. It could be that no such underlying idea exists, but that something in us is drawn to repeat the activity or to notice the image. (This is the second explanation listed above.) But this intense response to such images would be enough to study them, and perhaps enough to posit some not-quite-so-cosmic archetype at work on our psychology, something akin to universal human meaning.

Take the snake. (No, go ahead, take it, I dare you.) While very few snakes show up in Inuit mythology, the use of snakes and serpents in mythology is widespread. Why have we chosen them to be featured more frequently then, let’s say, the worm. It could be explanation #1: Snakes are scary. Isn’t it obvious. Perhaps, but Carl Sagan wasn’t happy with that explanation. In his book Dragons of Eden, he argued that our fear of snakes results from an earlier time in our history when larger lizards posed a threat to our survival. This led to the use of dragons in mythology.


Something like this, I believe,explains the prevalence of flood stories in mythology. We will discuss this at more length in addressing Gilgamesh in a future post. (Gilgamesh contains an account of Noah’s ark some 1500 years before it appears in the Book of Genesis.) The question is, why do so many myths feature floods? The obvious answer is: many of the great early civilizations were built near rivers which flooded. Duh. The less obvious answer is: floods were unpredictable events that surely seemed like divine intervention (perhaps explanation #2.) The archetypal theory might posit that flood imagery reminds of how the unconscious can well up and take over, as in the tidal wave of blood Carl Jung saw as he rode the train the year the first world war broke out in Europe, and the year his own unconscious visions began taking over his life and almost drowning him. Floods, then, are archetypal images of the sudden and frightening power of the unconscious. They are the Unconscious speaking to us.

Of course, such messages might not be coming from beyond. Freud would have instantly reduced such imagery to a primal place, the womb, which is the first flood we experience. This is, essentially, the reason Freud and Jung underwent a professional separation. To Freud, the unconscious mainly contains our primal urges, the Id, which are in constant battle with the Superego, a layer of morality we acquire from authority figures at an early age. Jung believe the Unconscious had another layer, a second basement, which was filled with universal archetypal imagery we all have access to. This he called the Collective Unconscious, and it’s an important concept for the study of Mythology since Jung’s work is the primary influence for Joseph Campbell, whose theory of recurring narrative patterns across mythology is archetypal to the core. We will discuss this later when we reach epic tales and Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

What is Mythology? (Part 3)

In Part 2, I ended by evoking William Irwin Thompson’s notion of “Myth-as-Fugue,” or the idea that ancient and classical myths served multiple purposes and contained a variety of discourses (political, spiritual, historical, etc.). Key to this concept is Thompson’s use of a musical term, “Fugue,” where competing voices cohere (not without tension and dissonance) into a single composition. Here is Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ (trust me, you’ve heard it) with the separate parts represented visually:

The result is a composition that should not make sense, but does. It makes sense in traditional fugues because of the pleasing contrapuntal effect of independent melody lines playing off of each other. As long as one doesn’t mind being pulled in multiple directions, but instead enjoys the dynamic tension that results, fugues can create a richer listening experience, and, some would argue, a whole brain workout that forces the listener to mentally juggle and synthesize multiple, disparate factors.

This is, incidentally, how good poetry works. Often, through linguistic and symbolic ambiguity, a well-wrought poem suggests layers of meaning, sometimes establishing sharply contradicting interpretations.


To cite one simple example, Robert Frost’s “The Mending Wall,” which begins with the line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” is a poem that gives voice to at least three positions: the highly quotable anti-wall posture of “Good fences make good neighbors,” the skeptical idealist narrator who declares that “before I  built a wall I’d ask to know/ what I was walling in or walling out,” and Frost’s own voice, in the background, carefully painting the narrator as a snob who imagines his uneducated traditionalist neighbor as “an old stone savage,” not to mention the poem’s perfect blank verse structure. We have, it seems, a poem about walls that sets in motion competing views on the subject matter, all the while traipsing along in deft, vernacular iambic pentameter (as carefully structured as a stone wall), written by a poet who once declared writing free verse to be “playing tennis without a net.” One final note, it is “frozen groundswell,” or frost (get the pun) that destroys the wall in the beginning of the poem.

Form? Freedom? Love? Suspicion? Equality? Hierarchy? Creation? Destruction? What is this poem about?

My answer is the same answer I give to all my students: read it out loud.  That is what it is about.

This reinforces the need to read myths out loud, their connection to oral tradition, and the idea of myth as ritual, discussed in Part 2.

But let’s not go in circles. The same quality that frustrates undergraduates about poetry informs ancient and classical myths: they are multidimensional, multi-directional, ambiguous, contradictory, symbolically rich and diffuse, and densely-packed with all kinds of meanings and associations. “Why can’t you say exactly what you mean?” the frustrated undergraduate demands of the dead poet. “Because,” the dead poet replies, “in order to say exactly what I mean, I must say it inexactly.”

This is mythopoetic language: the art of approaching the mystery mysteriously. One cannot tackle a water buffalo head on.

Language is a good medium for giving directions to the grocery store, for explaining evolution (but not quantum mechanics), and for filling a crowd up with enough pride so they will vote for you. It’s not so good, however, at explaining the essence of experiences that extend beyond its purview, or in questioning why language (or anything) exists in the first place. It gets tangled up in knots at this.


Let’s take Bumba for example, the creator-god found in the Boshongo and the Bakuba traditions of Zaire, who vomits the sun, earth, and humans into existence. It is an act of rejection and creation at once. He is both giving birth and trying to eradicate the discomfort of spent, harmful material. His stomach is both a womb and an underworld. Additionally, vomiting seems an apt metaphor for the scientific narrative of what happens during the Big Bang, when matter violently emerges from a much smaller enclosed space.


Vomiting then, is simultaneously a shortcut to understanding and a digression from it. You wouldn’t want mythology to function otherwise. It wouldn’t be mythology.

Mythopoetic (also “Mythopoeic’) language has been described as myth-making, and if one is going to make a myth, he or she must think poetically, speaking or writing in images dripping in meaning, images which seem to speak directly at first, though soon begin doing abnormal things, associating with other images in leaps and fits, the sorts of images that at once suggest an ancient connection to truth made readily apparent, undeniable symbols from the unconscious, yet which quickly recede behind fog, or shape-shift, or break apart and shatter, reflecting something, anything, what?

In order to work, mythopoetic language must be both old and new, surprising us with what we already know. A prime medium, then, of mythopoetic language is the archetype, an image which negotiates the space between the timeless pattern and the ceaseless manifestation of the present. More on archetypes in Part 4.

What is Mythology? (Part 2)


“The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.”  Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces

Mythology is indeed reality, even though mythology may not be real. Certainly, it is at least based on reality. Gilgamesh and Quetzalcoatl (though not Zeus and Bumba) actually lived and perhaps performed heroic deeds or left historical marks that eventually morphed into tall tales.

This implies that mythology is just another type of literature, to be read as fiction and dissected as such. We may explore the psychology of Gilgamesh the way we would Jay Gatsby, to extract ideas from characters, whether they be 2oth century moguls or ancient kings who are two-thirds divine.

But what if we have this backwards?

Instead of assuming that mythological tales are crafted documents in which literary writers embedded (consciously or not) signs and symbols in order to occupy liberal arts students who don’t excel at math, what if we imagine that the myths were written by the signs and symbols?

After all, authorship is an entirely different deal in mythology. We know F. Scott Fitzgerald (and a bottle) wrote The Great Gatsby. But who wrote the Epic of Gilgamesh? This is the wrong question.

I could give you my usual spiel on oral tradition, which I seem to spend a third of the semester on whenever I teach Mythology. This is because, along with the notion of “Myth-as-Fugue” I discuss below, it is absolutely vital in understanding the crucial differences between mythology and what we normally call “literature,” i.e. stuff written by one person in book form. I will restrain myself, however, and mention just four keys points concerning oral tradition:

1) Before the slow spread of literacy and writing began (perhaps 5000 years ago and continuing to this day) and before the West’s version of the printing press (more specifically Gutenberg’s adaptation of movable type,  550 years ago) accelerated access to books, the primary way in which “texts” were encountered was through oral transmission, i.e. hearing someone perform a memorized and partially improvised story.

2) Oral transmission (which involves learning, reciting, and passing along stories, myths, and poems without a written text) results in multiple primary “texts,” vague or impossible-to-define origins and dates, and no discernible authors. Additionally, these “texts” change over time to reflect regional differences, political agendas, translations from one language to another, and the creative whims of poets, performers, and community members.


3) The written versions of oral tales (recorded on stone tablets, animal skin scrolls, and papyrus) are usually created hundreds of years after their initial creation. Often, as is the case with Mayan and Aztec myths, they are subject to distortion by colonizing forces. In reading a mythology textbook, you are always reading a version of a version of a version, and so on.

4) Myths from the oral tradition can only be understood properly as performance pieces, as the scripts for elaborate cultural or religious rituals, civic rites, or entertainment events featuring large audiences, music, and sometimes human and animal sacrifices. To complicate matters, some myths are derived from the initiation rituals of mystery cults, resulting in texts that are intentionally esoteric and hostile to outside interpretation.

In other words, grab your mythology textbook and some drums and get together with your friends for three days of wine and chanting. Maybe you’ll get a sense of how mythological texts are supposed to exist.


Now that we have that out of the way, how does the reality of oral tradition affect how we read or interpret mythology?

Certainly, it is impossible to ask, “What is the author trying to say about X?” which is a common formula I encourage in introductory literature classes.

First, there is the obvious problem of not having an author, or of reading a text cobbled together with words and ideas from multiple poets, translators, editors, authority figures, priests, and local performers.

Second, the author (whoever that is) might not be trying to say anything. That is, perhaps the myth is an occasion for some pre-existing and mysterious ideas to manifest in the world through poetry. (More on this in Part 3, when I will discuss archetypes and mythopoetic language.)

Third, if you thought “The Wasteland” was complicated, get ready for mythology. A poet like T.S. Eliot might use multiple languages, allusions, and styles of discourse to create a dense, inscrutable collage poem, but that poem still has a one-dimensional function: it functions as poem to be read out-loud or silently by one person so that we may engage it in some literary setting: classroom, library, bookstore, under a tree, or, god forbid, a poetry reading.

Not so with myths, which aren’t just literary documents (though we treat them as such in the college setting). Instead, since myths were created before the specialization of knowledge and (as the previously beaten dead horse reminds us) before widespread literacy leads to obsessive data collection, myths had to hold everything. Myths were the storage unit for a civilization’s history, poetry, religion, politics, entertainment, and so on. Cultural historian William Irwin Thompson refers to this as “Myth-as-Fugue.”

I’ll finish Part 2 by posting a video lecture I recently made on this concept and how it applies to The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest known epic tale:

What is Mythology? (Part 1)

2001 Space Odyssey (08)

Mythology is not a canon of lies, though it is never true.

Or at least the products of mythological thinking are not true. Stories never are. Even true ones. Non-fiction is impossible.

A myth, then, is the lie that emerges from truth. And since you can’t tell the truth with the truth (you can’t contain water with water), lying is the only way to go. Build a dam. It will hold for a little while.

Let’s start over. No, really start over: let’s say two million years ago. Dates may vary. Remember, I am telling a story.

The first archaic humans begin to develop something that resembles symbolic reasoning. Perhaps this started much earlier with bands of apes requiring communication and planning to ward off other scavengers who were physically superior. The human race, it is known, clawed its way to the top of the food chain from the lowest rung: sucking marrow out of sun-dried bones picked clean by the stronger predators.

(This is probably where the myth of the self-made man comes from, he who pulled himself up from the bone yard to the captain’s logos.)

This is precisely the point. Once you devlop the ability to recreate what you saw at the watering hole using signs and evocative grunts, you can coordinate. Language was our most important survival tool.

But let’s not tell all of human history as if physiological need explains it. (There is no time for a tangent on bonobos and sexual politics.) Don’t you think that once the beasts were driven off, and the proto-humans had secured their meat, and they sat around newly plump and full of ideas, that perhaps they practiced their powers of communication, first planning the next day (for with language comes conception of the future) and, languid with food and brimming with strange identifications, began to discuss the stars and, some day, their own demise.


None of this happened over night. It is still happening. Perhaps history has not moved forward from the first moments when human experience began to be externalized in symbols, images, and words. We began telling stories, none of them true.

The Dawn of the Lie was born, and we were ejected from true history, straight out of time into endless digression.

But the ant tells stories. The ant teaches, organizes, coordinates, steals. Lies. (What is the mythology of the ant?)

The Big Bang is a lie. It is true as myth. It has only existed as story. The story is pointing to the truth, which is true, I suspect, though the story is not. Science is a myth. Some myths are better than others.

Take me there and I will believe, jettison all stories, curl up in the question and die. In the meantime, tell me lies.

Myths explore; they do not explain, for what the best myths are attempting to explain can never be explained.

Take the famous philosophical question, “Why is there something instead of nothing,” or, in Heidegger’s simplification, “Why the why?”

This is unsolvable using language, using rational explanation. Perhaps because it is a language trick. Perhaps because knowing the answer would require empirical data unavailable to us. Perhaps because we’re not God. Perhaps because there is no God. Perhaps because God doesn’t go by that name anymore and is instead taking a vacation doing the backstroke through the waters of your right eye.

Mythology, I believe, began with a recognition, a feeling suggested by Heidegger’s question, the weirdness of being, you could say. Why is anything here, and how strange that I am awake to perceive it. What is this?

It’s not really a question at all, and it has no answer. Feeling it deeply enough is the verification of truth, but once we set out to explore and explain using language, we fail. Mythology is beautiful failure. Weird stories attempting to return you to the simple feeling of being weirded out by life and consciousness.

What does any of this mean? Don’t give me an answer (there aren’t any). Give me a myth.

It has been argued that the Dreamtime myths of aboriginal Australians represent the oldest living mythology, dating back 40,000 years. But of course, any mythology based on dreams can only come secondary to myths exploring the waking world. One would have to develop waking consciousness first in order to shine some light into the unconscious state of sleep. Once the language acquired to survive during the day penetrated sleep, some dreams were pulled back out for study.

Though I may have this backwards. Perhaps symbols from deep in the Unconscious slowly made their way to the surface, and this was the dawn of human consciousness. After all, didn’t life emerge from the ocean? Doesn’t the sun come up from the Underworld?


Many of the earliest myths were developed to explain what, to us, is now explainable: what is the sun? What is the moon? What is a thunderstorm? But even before these questions rests the question, “Why the Why?” It was the dawn of self-reflective consciousness itself that gave birth to mythology, not as an incidental by-product, not simply as an evolutionary necessity (tell stories or die!), but as a new reality, as the only reality.

Myth, it turns out, is the only thing that is real.

Reality is a lie.

Lies are the only form of truth.

Mythology is the truest lie available.

Reality is a myth.

Myth is real.

The Plasticity of Language

In the original introduction to Roget’s International Thesaurus, first published in 1852, Peter Roget writes about “the elasticity of language” as suggested by his seminal reference work, was the world’s first thesaurus (29). Roget claimed that the cross-referenced alphabetical index of words at the back of the book (the main content of his thesaurus utilized an organizational strategy that divided all words into six conceptual categories) sufficiently demonstrated “the multiplicity of uses to which [….] the meaning of words has been stretched, so as to adapt them to a great variety of modified significations” (29). It is no surprise that someone setting out to compile and classify the lion’s share of English words would conclude that language is a flexible, fluid, and slippery substance, especially since the aim of his project was to create chains of interrelation between words. If a word (which may already posses multiple meanings) can conceivably be replaced by dozens of alternatives, thereby producing variable echoes of the original, then a writer’s pursuit of precision and accuracy would be a futile act. Instead, the object of the writing game becomes something more like selecting the most satisfying assortment of words from the field of possibilities (however “satisfaction” is to be defined). Furthermore, the implications of language’s elasticity provide particular trouble for poets. Because poetry is the most self-conscious genre of writing (that is, the mode in which the writer must most be attuned to the qualities of language itself, the physical and semantic characteristics that make words both conveyors and obscurers of meaning), a poet cannot practice for long without questioning the ingredients of his or her medium. Upon finding language to be fungible and in a state of constant deference toward yet more words, the poet should write in such a way to reflect, not restrict, the potential of language to stretch across a multitude of connotations and discourses.

The Oulipo movement invented literary forms that forced writers, via stringent constraints, to utilize the diversity and flexibility of language. By disallowing, for example, the use of the letter “e” in composing a text (as in George Perec’s novel La Disparition), an Oulipo writer constructs meaning with words that might normally be selected as a second, third, or fourth option (if at all), thereby encouraging a tour through a thesaurus’s back pages, so to speak. Fresh and striking verbal passages emerge from an Oulipian text precisely because the consensual phrasings and syntax must be exchanged in light of arbitrary constraints. Here, for example, is an excerpt from “Dexter Weaver Serves Breaded Crested Grebe,” a text written by Dallas Wiebe using only letters, numbers, punctuation marks, and signs found on the left hand side of the keyboard:

at easter at sweetwater texas few feasts grace watered grass # ragweed rages # secret feverfew craters terraces # bare trees starve as star wars rage # garbage bags sweat as sewers target excess crawdad cadavers #  (165)

Despite the severe limitation he has imposed upon himself, Wiebe is able to convey meaning, in fact constructing original phrases, such as “bare trees starve” and “crawdad cadavers.” The language is fecund enough to respond to Wiebe’s one-hand-tied-behind-the-back antics, actually flourishing in some sections.

Perhaps no contemporary text better demonstrates the malleability of the English language than Christian Bök’s “Eunoia,” a long prose poem written in five univocalic chapters, respectively titled A, E, I, O, and U. Each chapter uses its titular vowel as the only vowel allowed in the chapter. Bök further constrained himself by requiring that each chapter use at least 98 percent of available words. Additionally, each chapter must “allude to the art of writing […..] describe a culinary banquet, a prurient debauch, a pastoral tableau and a nautical voyage” (Bök 103). Here is an excerpt from Chapter E, a reversal of Perec’s novel:

He prefers the perverse French esthetes: Verne, Péret, Genet, Perec—hence, he pens fervent screeds, then enters the street, where he sells these                                     letterpress newsletters, three cents per sheet. He engenders perfect newness wherever we need fresh terms. Relentless, the rebel peddles these theses, even when vexed peers deem the new precepts ‘mere dreck.’ The plebes resent newer verse; (31-32)

The emergence of perfectly quotidian speech (“then enters the street,” “three cents per sheet”) that would make sense removed from the poem’s context and placed in a perfunctory role out in the world proves that the language can still be referential despite the limitations imposed upon the text. Additionally, certain phrases are uncannily appropriate, perhaps ideal, when written in this form, “fervent screed,” for example. When Chapter I begins, “Writing is inhibiting,” the text is clearly speaking about itself, finding a way to be perfectly self-referential without breaking the form (50). Furthermore, Bök is able to retell the story of the Odyssey in Chapter E, from Helen’s point of view, of course. This and other content restrictions demonstrate the lengths to which the language will stretch in order to cover ground the writer, for whatever reason, is determined to reach. In Eunoia’s afterward (the poem is the book’s title piece), Bök confesses one of his aims in writing the poem:

The text makes a Sisyphean spectacle of its labour, willfully crippling its language its language in order to show that, even under such improbable conditions of duress, language can still express an uncanny, if not sublime, thought (103).

Language can be bent and twisted into new forms, but apparently not broken. Instead, Bök treats the vowels as separate colors and rotates through his palate systematically.

The vast verbal ground covered by “Eunoia” results in the text celebrating a sweeping, democratic embrace of the multitudes found in the English language, and therefore existence. Whitman achieves this through his philosophical stance, his observations of the dynamics and diversity of American city and rural life, and the cataloguing technique. Bök’s Oulipian constraints force him to include any word—regardless of its meaning—that fits the arbitrary criteria. Whitman’s vision is willfully wrought. Bök’s is a necessary product of the multitudes of the English language. Like Whitman, “Eunoia” juxtaposes high and low culture and/or the sacred and the profane. Whitman proclaims that “the scent of [his] arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer,” and he includes the opium eater, the prostitute, and the president in the same catalogue (49). Within one chapter, Bök shifts from Kant, Marx, and Kafka to “A gal can grab a man’s balls and wank a man’s shaft” (16). Earlier in that chapter he sets “gangsta rap” alongside “Brahms” (15). Chapter O moves quickly from “Profs from Oxford” to “pornshops known to stock lowbrow schlock” (59, 61). One minute “God frowns on fools who do no conform to the orthodox protocol,” and the next we see “color photos of cocks, boobs, dorks, or dongs” (60, 61). Such topical range is unavoidable given Bök’s goal of using 98% of available words, effectively demonstrating the variety of subject matter that can cohere under the arbitrary division of a language. “Eunoia” serves as a showcase for the vowels, each establishing a pitch for its respective chapter. Consonants and content then become the variation or dissonances which play off the base vowel tones.

Harryette Mullen, another contemporary poet heavily influenced by the Oulipo, also engages in the kind of serious play found in Bök’s work. Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary features several poems inspired by the Oulipian N+7 technique, whereby an already existing text is rewritten by replacing each noun with the seventh noun ahead of it in the dictionary. Mullen doesn’t adhere to those rules, but instead uses a thesaurus and the ubiquity of consumer products to replace substantive words in an iconic sonnet of Shakespeare:

My honeybunch’s peepers are nothing like neon. Today’s special at Red Lobster is redder than her kisser. If Liquid Paper is white, her racks are institutional beige. If her mop were Slinkys, dishwater slinkys would grow on her noggin. (20)

Mullen stretches each word into a new, but related form. The original poem, because of synonyms and syntax, is still visible, but something new has emerged. Recognizing the remnants of Shakespeare’s sonnet is a matter of both being familiar with the original poem and being able to mentally slide down a chain of synonyms from, for example, “honeybunch” to “mistress.” This reflects the process many poets go through when attempting to select what is, in their minds, the right word. Of course, the field of potential language is not limited to whatever the poet pulls up from some mystical backwater of the subconscious. Indeed there is a larger field of language available, a fact to which the dictionary and thesaurus attest. The exploration of the dimensions and subtleties revealed by the interrelation of available words provides subject enough for a poet, and in fact may be the a priori subject of all poetry. While a Romantic might celebrate a poem as an individual’s well-wrought creation, a semblance of order pulled from chaos and crafted into a clear-eyed vision of truth, the underlying reality may be something quite different. The words of the poem may instead be knots where the poet— for reasons having to do with culturally-influenced disposition, latent psychological desire, or genetic hardwiring—tied the endless string of words connected to, but still severed from, the crafted work.

Mullen’s poem “Mantra for a Classless Society, or Mr. Roget’s Neighborhood,” emulates a thesaurus entry in order to construct a chain of words that is able to reveal a subtle and perhaps more accurate representation of an external reality by refusing to settle upon one adjective, instead letting them all settle in to the picture:

cozy comfortable homey homelike
sheltered protected private concealed covered

snug content relaxed restful sedate

untroubled complacent placid serene calm undisturbed

wealthy affluent prosperous substantial
acceptable satisfied satisfactory adequate

uncomfortable uneasy restless

unsuitable indigent
bothersome irritating indigent
troublesome discomfiting disturbing
destitute impoverished needy
penniless penurious poor

poverty-stricken embarrassing

upsetting awkward ill-at-ease

nervous self-conscious tense (1-15)

By mimicking the progression (or perhaps regression) of houses observed when traveling through a neighborhood, Mullen reflects the vast array of living conditions often corralled together in urban areas (the kinds of in-flux neighborhoods where expensive restored historical homes might sit just down the street from a boarded-up crack house). She is also acknowledging the continuous, fluid transition from word to word that serves as the underlying drone of our conscious lives, the sort of hum or stream of language not yet shaped into the conventionally agreed-upon rules and structures to which individual human languages adhere. If Mullen were to pause on a particular word or image and flesh out the portrait of an individual house using a more sustained and compartmentalized treatment of the home’s structure (roof, door, siding, etc.), the poem would become more interested in an end outside of language, i.e. an image of the home transmitted into the reader’s head. By studying instead the mutability of the neighborhood, the poem is focused on the swath of adjectives stretching down the street, a continuous band only broken by someone purchasing and fencing-off a particular plot.

Alas, a poet cannot submit a cross-referenced compendium of all known words and call it a life’s work. First of all, new words emerge every day. The work would never be finished. Choice and editorial selection are inevitable. In fact, a poet may be nothing more than an editor whittling down the text (all available language) to a manageable length. It is then by becoming attuned to the process and underlying motivations of these editorial choices that a reader can appreciate the impetus for the poem’s existence.

Oulipian texts make this process apparent by arising in reaction to the constraint. In fact, a popular Oulipo mantra reads, “A text written according to a constraint describes the constraint” (Roubaud 42). Without the presence of a clear constraint, such as the one used by Bök, the editorial process is simply constrained from accessing the fields of language not illuminated by the writer’s conscious attention, either because of the lack of certain language skills, editorial bias, or a willfully narrow scope. A poet seeking to transmit works from the wider field of potential language must first develop a wider ear, eye, and mind, while still recognizing that concessions and selections must be made.

The work of John Ashbery consistently displays an awareness of the various and competing streams of discourse that underlie, surround, and permeate our consciousness on a daily basis. His poems frequently resemble a pastiche of multitudinous voices all vying for conscious attention. Accordingly, the language normally reserved for poetic discourse stretches to accommodate a cacophony of styles and language tracts. The opening stanzas of “A Day at the Gate” seamlessly maneuver through the language of pulp urban melodrama, economic reporting, and hokey colloquialism:

A loose and dispiriting

wind took over from the grinding of traffic.

Clouds from the distillery

Blotted out the sky. Ocarina sales plummeted.

Believe you me it was a situation

Aladdin’s lamp might have ameliorated. And where was I? (1-6)

Over the course of a day (or perhaps simultaneously), a citizen of modern society may encounter all of these voices via book, television, and crowded street. “The mind/ is so hospitable,” Ashbery writes, “taking in everything/ Like boarders” (8-10). Upon receiving the assortment of discourses that impinge upon consciousness in the present time’s hyper media culture, a poet can pretend to ignore such influences and carve out work that supposedly asserts an individual voice, or the poet can reconsider the nature of poetic language and accept a broader definition of the poetic, stretching the language to incorporate the raw material generated by a diversity of media voices. Ashbery provides a primer for this approach with his prose poem “The System,” published in 1970, well before the deluge of 24-hours news and the Internet. Yet, even then Ashbery apparently felt assaulted by disparate chattering of informational prose. The poem can be read as a collage that parodies non-fiction genres, such as self-help, new age prophecy, philosophy, and science text books:

In addition to these twin notions of growth, two kinds of happiness are possible: the frontal and the latent. The first occurs naturally throughout life; it is experienced as a kind of sense of immediacy, even urgency; often we first become aware of it at a moment when we feel we need outside help. Its sudden balm suffuses the soul without warning, as a kind of  bloom or grace. We suppose that souls “in glory” feel this way permanently, as a day-to-day condition of being. (59)

Ashbery stitches together a variety of found and overheard prosaic dispatches, acting as a sort of editor of the world at large, receiving discourses and selecting those that, with some stretching, fit into the loose, rambling narrative of the prose poem. “The System,” which accounts for some fifty pages of the book Three Poems, uses preconceived and previously performed writing and speech as a fuel, opening its mouth wide to swallow and regurgitate great fields of verbal crop. The result is a poetic text generated by the enlistment of language existing beyond the scope of inward-drive self-reflection common in the first-person contemporary lyric.

As the glut of information continues to grow, the range of lexicons encountered by those who are both actively literate and engaged with media culture increases and diversifies, making possible the marriage of high and low, cartoon and sermon, weather report and romance. Poems must stretch and adapt in order to consider the potential field of words and shades of meaning emanating from an empowered and increasingly published globalizing community. The material of language is conducive to just such a pursuit.

Works Cited

Ashbery, John. “A Day at the Gate.” Can You Hear, Bird?New York: Noonday Press, 1995. 3

Ashbery, John. “The System.” Three Poems. New York: Penguin, 1970.  53-106

Bök, Christian. “Eunoia.” Eunoia. Ontario: Coach House Books, 2001. 12-81.

Mullen, Harryette. “Dim Lady.” Sleeping with the Dictionary. University of California Press, 2002. 20

Mullen, Harryette. “Mantra for a Classless Society, or Mr. Roget’s Neighborhood.” Sleeping with the Dictionary. University of California Press, 2002. 49.

Roget, Peter. “Introduction” Roget’s International Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases. Ed. C.O.S. Mawson. New York: Crowell, 1922. 1-37.

Roubaud, Jacques. “Introduction.” Oulipo Compendium. Eds. Harry Matthews and Alastair Brotchie. London: Atlas, 1998. 37-44.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Leaves of Grass, The First Edition (1855). Ed. Malcolm Cowley. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1997. 25-86.

Wiebe, Dallas. “Dexter Weaver Serves Breaded Crested Grebe.” Oulipo Compendium. Eds. Harry Matthews and Alastair Brotchie. London: Atlas, 1998. 165

Typing with the Left-Hand Blues Again

According to “The QWERTY Effect,” a 2012 study published in something called Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, words that you type predominately with your left hand are associated more frequently with negative emotions. The study concludes that the keyboard is “shaping the meanings of words as people filter language through their fingers.”

I’m not sure about these conclusions, but I have always liked Dallas Wiebe’s experimental story, “Dexter Weaver Serves Breaded Crested Grebe,” which appears in the phenomenal Oulipo Compendium, one of my favorite books of all time. The story, as you might be able to detect from the title, is written using only letters and punctuation found on the left-hand side of the keyboard. Here’s an excerpt:

“dear secret fasters #
easter exacts vast rewards # screw fasts # feasts create a
freer texas # crab rears fast # water bearer deceases # stars
agree a sweet taste averts graves # set feet faster #
sweetwater deserves carvers stabbers eaters carafe drawers
steadfast feeders # wear fast rags at 5 # 2 # 45 caveat
regrets regarded bad#
dexter fred weaver # sweetwater texas”

This is not mere madness (though, so what if it were!) As with many Oulipo writings, the text has a secondary effect (the primary effect is joy, I believe) of linguistic and philosophical commentary.

“Dexter Weaver” argues three things:

1) Language is largely an arbitrary medium of signs that can be manipulated and constrained for  a variety of silly effects, causing it to crater back in on itself, reminding the reader of its material properties and its tenuous connection to the external world.

2) Technology affects language. Writing with pen and paper is different from typing. Whether or not the emotional effects of the study above are true, there is little doubt that the medium massages the message. It’s nice to be reminded that our devices contribute to the meaning of a text as much as the intentions in our heads. Language is also one of those devices.

3) Literary texts gain their aesthetic qualities not from magic and emotion, but instead from constraint, form, repetition, and limitation. Read “Dexter Weaver” out loud. It sounds rich and poetic (and maybe insane). Its musical qualities are derived from the form. The writer is forced to repeat “e” and “a” vowels (the way in which an Italian poet is forced to repeat the same two rhyming sounds at the ends of first eight lines of a sonnet), as well as a restricted list of consonants. Music in poetry comes from repetition, from words echoing each other, building up resonance, then shifting away, then returning. Look at the closing paragraph of James Joyce’s short masterful story “The Dead” and listen to his use of the letters “s” and “l” for example (those of you trained to be anti-adverb drones should look away):

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Music is not freedom. It’s freedom struggling against constraint. This is why, to my ears, the truly “free jazz” of John Coltrane (think Ascension) is mere noise compared to his work that came before and after (A Love Supreme or Interstellar Space, to cite my favorites), when his aggressive, wrenching saxophone was attempting to break free from notes and melody. Once he finally did break free, a fundamental necessity of making music (form) was gone.