Story and History, Shaping the Day

During the Renaissance, poets delighted in the Greek sense of the word poet. Ben Johnson (in Timbers) defines it as “the makers.” The poet was perceived as a creator not unlike the Primeval Creator of All.

But I personally find its older, Sanskrit meaning much more congenial to the task I think I do.  The Sanskrit congnate, cinoti, makes of the poet “a heaper into heaps, and a piler into piles.”

We artists, we writers — we come upon the stuff of our crafty attentions already there. But we find it a mess. Hopeless. A meaningless chaos. Our job is to organize. To order. To heap certain things with certain things over here, and to pile other things over there. To declare associations and differences and relationships. To make of this chaos a cosmos, which we do by translating things into language, and language into character and episode, and episodes into whole stories. Under our craft, time in no longer a series of endlessly repeated ticks. For every tick we offer a tock. For every beginning, a palpable and satisfying end. An “end,” that is, a purpose, a value, a “point to which” all these piled-up things do tend, and in which they may be fulfilled.

Our poems are that order. Our songs and our stories do more than persuade others that an order exists: they build the house; they weave a world; they companion our listeners into the experience of such ordered cosmos.

Another ancient word: the old English word which is translated as poet today, is Scop. It’s pronounced “shop.” And it is the ancestor of our present word: Shape.

Our forebears knew that the task of the minstrel, of the community’s tale-telling singer, was to sing amorphous, overwhelming events into shape.

Let’s say, for example, that a seventh century community has just fought a day’s battle with their nearest enemy. Hand-to-hand they fought until the dark descended enough to make a red mud of the earth beneath their feet; and one of their number had died; and now they’ve returned to the mead hall, exhausted, hungry, aggrieved.

They eat in silence. They drink that oldest of human drinks, a wine made of fermented honey. Their sadness deepens to a maudlin despair….

And just then the singer strikes a chord on his harp.

Everyone listens.

The singer develops the chord into melody. A familiar melody, in fact. One everyone has heard since childhood, and therefore one that carries profound, unutterable associations: parental comfort, an assurance of the divine. The singer sings familiar verses, and all the people nod: there is the weight of meaning in the these verses. They remember. They remember and reexperience  them now.

But then the singer begins to weave new words into the familiar verses: the details of today’s grim battle; the name of the comrade who fell; the deeds he did in falling, all of which, fetching up in the experience of this song, find place within the precincts of the divine; all of which are no longer senseless, but do bear now the weight of genuine purpose and meaning. And the people nod. And the dead ascends into the Valhalla of heroes. It is well. Chaos is cosmos. Desolation is now heavy with purpose. The day has taken shape in the singer’s song—

—and ever thereafter, it is the spiritual, artistic shape which is remembered as the the truth of that day, not the cold, undecipherable, purely empirical fact.

In my day and in my experience as the singer, the song I might sing is the twenty-third psalm. And the story I tell will always, always have a narrative familiarity to my wounded listeners; its pattern is ever the same. But the details will invite their particular sorrows, their particular persons and histories, to enter the tale anew. And the power of the old, old story will prop them up in all their leaning places.

The poet withdraws for the sake of the story.

And the story exists for the sake of relationship.


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