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The Poet as Revolutionary: Thoughts on Presence

Posted on 29 Jul | 2 comments
Photo by Alan Levine.
Photo by Alan Levine.

I believe that being a poet is a revolutionary act. Please note, I did not say writing or reading poetry. I said, “Being a poet.” For me, this means witnessing the world and one’s self with poetic vision. Poetic vision includes a potency, a quality of existence that both descends and transcends beyond self into a vivid attunement that, regardless of pleasant or unpleasantness, brings aliveness and vitality. To me, poetic vision is a form of presence. I believe that in this day and age in which we are treated like lab rats by the media, the government, and even psychology, trained to serve unseen powers that hold no interest in the well-being of the soul, being present is more than a state of being: it is a revolutionary act.

Allen Ginsberg said, “To gain your own voice, forget about having it heard. Become a saint of your own province and your own consciousness.”

To me, this points to the rightfully exalted utility of being a poet. Writing poetry is not just about being heard by others. Although it is likely that once we have found a precious personal truth, sharing it will be enlightening to others, the best part of being a poet is the rediscovery of how we really feel, what we really think, and therefore, who we really are. Oftentimes, a natural by-product of this self-discovery is a self-excommunication from the church we signed up for in blind faith and by engineered consent. To “become a saint of your own province” is to renounce misleading voices and plant your own flag in your own soil—to establish your own symbol for your coat of arms. It is like naming one’s self. Oftentimes, expanded consciousness and enlivened presence results in a more intentional act of self-governance. Once again, an act like this is revolutionary.

I believe that there is poetry in every single person on the planet. However, I don’t believe that everybody has faith that they can be a poet. Like so many other commodified things in our lives, poetry has become identified much more about the end product than the quality of living associated with fluid language. I believe this is why people don’t think they have access to the poet within. This has me thinking about presence, and how we view presence collectively. Although people like Martin Buber and Jim Bugental have explored the dimensions of presence in a more vast and concentrated way, the exposure of their definitions to the general public is limited. I decided to look up “presence” in the dictionary, and here is what I discovered.

The 2001 Edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary lists four definitions for the word presence. These definitions are qualified as nouns. They are as follows:

“the state or act of existing, occurring, or being present in a place or thing.”

“a person or thing that exists or is present in a place but is not seen.”

“a group of people, esp. soldiers or police, stationed in a particular place,” and;

“the impressive manner or appearance of a person.”

The first three definitions refer directly to existence. The second and fourth refer to the quality of existence. Still, I reference the dictionary because my aim is to juxtapose the common use of and understanding of the word presence with the more nuanced, soulfully informed use of the term.

My first bone of contention with the popular use of the word presence is that it is being qualified as a noun rather than a verb. Nouns are tangible entities, and can still be used as things. A verb is more active. In The Art of the Psychotherapist, Bugental (1987) refers to presence as an active state. Here, we see presence in the popular culture being viewed as a static and even anonymous entity of existence, and the challenge I see so many people in this world facing is the struggle to become more active in their way of being in the world, at least when they become aware enough to know that they want something different. It is a problem of agency, and our agency is an inextricable act of our being.

When we actively use language as a tool to expand our way of understanding our experience and the result is enlightenment, we have implicitly rebelled against a system that wants to keep us comfortably numb. I do not use the term “enlightenment” to mean something fantastically esoteric and cathartic, but rather basic and essential to our everyday existence. This enlightenment does not have to appear on the gargantuan wings of a holy angel, but rather in simply pausing long enough to look closer and with all five senses, curious and receptive, willing to transcend what we were told we should see and into ourselves. It adds more dimensions to what we see. Poetry can help us do this because it requires two things: if we actually write, the very time and space that the powers that be otherwise require, and if we are concerned with what it is we strive to see, then our concentrated attention, i.e., presence. This is the presence that has been stolen from us systematically through the years.

With that said, anybody can do this if he or she invests in him- or herself. They just have to risk looking within, really looking out, and then seeing how the two interface. The change is glorious, and the first step in global change. The act is revolutionary. Therefore, anybody can be a revolutionary. Anybody can be a poet.

Buber, M. (1958). I and thou: Second edition. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Bugental, J.F.T (1987). The art of the psychotherapist. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

-- Candice Hershman

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Comments and Discussions

Oh my - I just stumbles onto

Oh my - I just stumbles onto this response and need a little time to think about it . . . I read some . . . I'm not sure I'm in total agreement about the non-self . . . I take a more paradoxical approach . . . I personally believe that there is something there that longs to be discovered, but I feel like that conversation is an ouroboros just waiting to happen . . . more later . . . I have to eat, but want to discuss. I'm grateful for your thoughtful consideration of my blog piece and challenges . . . brisk for the mill is good.

Candice, this is a wonderful

Candice, this is a wonderful post and invites discussion, clarification, elaboration, debate. My poetic imagination calls for a few bottles of wine and an evening of lively conversation with a group of thoughtful, unconventional people. (compared to sitting around with live people, the internet is lacking so I must settle for virtual reality instead)

You write: "the best part of being a poet is the rediscovery of how we really feel, what we really think, and therefore, who we really are."

Some thoughts...disconnected, rambling, off the cuff, in need of editing, but spontaneous, and better than nothing. I hope.

Do we discover ourselves or create ourselves? I believe we are confused on this matter. Rediscovering oneself suggest that we have previously lost ourselves. This loss of the "true self" raises additional issues that invite reflection. What and how of this loss? Reality and personality, those vital lies, those necessary illusions, the appearance of things, our shared modes of inauthentic being, entail repression and displacement of the true nature of our existence (Being in a Heidegger sense) and the spontaneous, irrational dimensions of my own embodied awareness/consciousness.

To find one's true self is to discover that there is no self to be found so I better get busy creating a self. This is quite difficult to do on my own so I rely on others, society and my culture to get me started.

Candice, your observation that a by-product of expressing/recognizing the inner truth of who we are entails a an a break (be it an apostasy or excommunication) from the church we signed on to also raises some interesting issues.

I'm assuming that Candice's "church" is a synonym for a shared reality. This reality is as much a product of social conditioning as a willful, conscious, signing on. So much begins to happen when we stop and ask what have I signed on to and what price is demanded of me? A distinctive character of modernity is the belief that until we ask this question and take on the duty of defining the self we are not on the path to being fully human.

Do we all have the potential to be poets, yes. Do we all want to be poets, no.

One of the strangest ideas of our times is the belief that everyone is called to be a fulfilled human being and to realize their unique self. Even stranger is the belief that some people actually achieve this.

Our imperfections save us from ourselves.

Otto Rank (l978) puts it this way: "Reality unveils itself to analysis always as something displaced, psychologically untrue." (p.42) Rank continues: "This displacement, if it succeeds, we regard and rightly so as healing, for this constantly effective process of self-deceiving, pretending and blundering, is no psychopathological mechanism, but the essence of reality..." Rank goes on to state that it is the essence of personality as well.

For the sake of brevity let me summarize Rank's main idea. When we seek the truth we expose reality as an illusion, a displacement of the true nature of our human condition. When we seek our true self, as human being, we expose our personality as inauthentic. What we find overwhelms us such that we must create a new reality, a new self that is essentially inauthentic since it is a displacement or replacement of the truth of our existence.

The poet, having excommunicated (or been kicked out) herself from the church of shared reality, languishes in loneliness and alienation unless her poetic vision is shared and respected.

Authenticity, an experience of our existential condition, is the ground out of which we create an inauthentic reality, a personality (with character) some necessary illusions, vital lies. Inauthenticity is the outcome of our creativity and the ground of our creativity is authenticity.

"Only he who has freed himself from illusions of man and at the same time has seen them as necessary to man, is genuinely redeemed." Peckham, (1962) Beyond the tragic vision.

Peckham goes on to comment "It is impossible to redeem someone else."

We are mixed up in this together. We cannot sustain an autonomous and self-created illusion. We need each other and some sense of an authority beyond. We live in a world of illusion which we hang on to by believing that reality as we know it has either natural or divine authority. (or is grounded in some deep inner impulse that represent divine inspiration.

Poetry, I believe, is not a solitary endeavor, but an activity that seeks and requires an audience, a community, a language, an artistic discipline, a rich context, as Charles Taylor (l992) describes it, that provides our individual, private lives with horizons of significance. A creative process that lacks an audience, that retreats into a personal world of meaning becomes banal or narcissistic. Too many limit the artistic imagination to a private inner world.

There is a difference between a delusion and an illusion. A delusion is self-absorbed, detached creativity. An illusion is shared. In this sense, as I think of it, Mackay's (l932) Extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds" makes sense if one understands that the nature of a crowd (Le Bon, l960) is that it is a collective of atomized people without genuine human community. So indeed, the poet seeks genuine community, an I-thou encounter. To the extent that modern, technological, capitalistic society demands that we be disconnected, autonomous, self absorbed peas in a pod, poets have a tough time sharing their vision and can easily find themselves falling back into neurotic isolation. It has always been risky to be a poet, but it is particularly risky in our age.

I've been seeking a clearer understanding of reality and truth, artistic creation, authenticity and inauthenticity, and how we understand therapy. Candice's thoughts are relevant.

The suffering of the neurotic, Rank proposes, comes "not from a painful reality but from painful truth."

Here is where the poet seems to differ from the average human being. Again I draw upon Rank:

"While the average well adjusted man can make the reality that is generally accepted as truth into his own truth, the creative searcher after truth seeks and finds his own truth which he then wants to make general-that is real."

The poet creates a reality out of a personal truth. Somewhere there is an experience of authenticity, a sentiment of our human fate.

To paraphrase William Blake, we suffer when we confront our human fate, when the doors of perception are cleansed and all appears as infinite. We must deny the nothingness of infinity. It is at this point that human creativity emerges.

Art is true because it is a lie and doesn't pretend to be anything else. (I need to check this quote-from Northrop Frye I believe)

More often our perception is simply dusted off, not thoroughly cleansed, such a break from reality involves a bout of insanity, a big price to pay for creativity. But, even with a little dose of authenticity, reality appears to us less deterministic and more flexible. We make some minor to significant, creative adjustments and go on with life. Logotherapy is relevant here. Sometimes, the person turns to art, to this or that spiritual discipline. What we need to rediscover or recreate, because therapy as a paid relationship and an instrument of social adaption may have outlived its usefulness, are those spontaneous forms of therapy that where once important dimensions of culture and community. Our capitalistic, consumer culture is a disaster when addressing anything beyond the pleasure principle materialisticaly defined.

Rational instrumental therapy mostly seeks to re-condition the individual to an established reality. Existential therapy leads down a path of creative self generation. This creative self generation has an interpersonal and communal dimension that is as vital as the search for the truth of our human condition which we must evade as soon as we discover it.

Glimate change, end of growth, etc.etc., we damn well need to be creative individually and as communities.

Moments of authentic imagining disrupt our personalities and puts cracks and holes in reality. At such times, we have the opportunity to re-create ourselves. If we can afford it, we can engage a therapist to accompany us on this creative journey. When our shake up of reality goes beyond the consulting room, therapy becomes creative activism - evolution - revolution.

Can anyone be a revolutionary? Yes. Do we all want to be revolutionary? No. Do we need revolutionary heroes and heroines who set the bar high and inspire us to be more alive, more connected, more compassionate, with moments of unsettling authenticity so that we can be creatively inauthentic? Indeed, indeed we do.

There you have it Candice, my disconnected, rambling, flow of consciousness in response to your interesting "blog."

Frye, N. (1957). Anatomy of criticism: Four essays. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Mackay, C. (1932). Extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds. Boston: L.C. Page & Co.

Peckham, M. (1962). Beyond the tragic vision: The quest for identity in the nineteenth century. New York: G. Braziller.

Rank, O. (1978). Truth and reality. New York: Norton.

Taylor, C. (1992). The ethics of authenticity. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

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