'Introduction' to Muse of Long Haul: Thirty-One Isles of the Creative Imagination | Narrative | Poetry

Introduction to “Muse of the LongHaul: Thirty-One Isles of the Creative Imagination”

by Ian Irvine (Hobson)

“Adrift upon the ocean/ ten thousand leagues from home”
Image (which is in the public domain): From The Book of Wonder Voyages, by Joseph Jacobs, 1919, ‘The Queen of the Magic Clew’. Copyright: Ian Irvine (Hobson) 2013 all rights reserved – draft extracts from the ‘Introduction’ to a book on poetics entitled Muse of the Long-Haul: Thirty-One Isles of the Creative Imagination. [Note: Short extracts from other writers used under international copyright provisions for the purpose of review/critique only]. Publisher: Mercurius Press, Bendigo Australia, 2013.

Introduction: Thirty-One Isles of Creativity
‘At the advice of a Druid he then built him a boat, or coracle, of skins lapped threefold one over the other; and the wizard also told him that seventeen men must accompany him, and on what day he must begin the boat and on what day he must put out to sea.’1

This book began as an attempt to revisit the fabulous lands of my own sometimes gradual, sometimes abrupt, post-teenage initiation into a life revolving around the creative arts and humanities. The goal of such a ‘process’ oriented project was to provide some kind of antidote to the sense of meaningless and ennui I was increasingly feeling a few years back in relation to Western definitions—circulating through the media, academia and so on—of ‘literature’ and ‘creativity’. I felt increasingly disenchanted with what I saw as, on the one hand, the shallowness of much of the writing scene in Australia (connected inevitably to other Westernised writing scenes) and, on the other, to academia’s highly abstract, rational and analytic perspective on what it called ‘signifying artefacts’—what I still dared to call poems, novels, short stories, etc. The shallowness problem, it seems to me, revolves around our general tendency to commodify literature in hyper-capitalist societies (ideologically founded, of course, on economic and political Neo-Liberalism and Neo-Conservatism). Commodification comes with a strong subtext of particular types of ‘individuality’ (best illustrated by the phenomenon of the writer as hollow ‘post-modern celebrity’, famous, quite often, for being famous or for having made large sums of money). In terms of the production and dissemination of literary ‘products’ the relationship between reader and author (or ‘content provider’ as the Neo-Liberal would like to define us) is oppressively mediated by multinational publishing outfits answerable only, most often, to the profit motive (i.e. their shareholders). ‘Brand-name’ construction and maintenance is thus the priority. This might sound like a repetition of an old theme (didn’t Karl Marx, after all, describe similar distortions to the ‘cultural superstructure’ in the 19th century?) and on some levels this is true—however unfashionable to voice it these days. However, the postmodern period is characterised by new forms of capitalism, new models and technologies of information exchange, new social challenges and new forms of often globalised oppression—including of writers and other artists.2 The problem does not end with the commissioning, production and reception of literary works in hyper capitalist societies – i.e. it is lazy to place all of the blame at the feet of the major publishers and media conglomerates alone. The uncomfortable truth is that large segments of conventional, and even non-conventional, literary culture, have merrily or otherwise internalised the new economic zeitgeist with its ruthless ‘social Darwinistic’ hierarchies centred upon notions of success and failure (superior or inferior cultural ‘product’). Neo-Liberal and NeoConservative ways of constructing ‘self’ (including the ‘authorial self’) and ‘other’, require that only the strongest will survive, and that competition and individual striving at the expense of others always fuels positive social change. The ‘others’, however, the defect products, the authorial losers and failures, are expected to submit and meekly fall by the wayside. The guardians of writing culture, from journal editors to publishing company executives, from academics to newspaper reviewers, seem to understand that the ‘weak’ have to be
1 2

T.W. Rolleston, ‘The Voyage of Maelduin’, p.312, Celtic Myths and Legends, Senate, 1994. True, the internet and e-publishing generally, have made some inroads into mid-to-late 20th century media oligarchies, but, as many writers are discovering, such new media also come with their own draw-backs (as well, of course, as liberational possibilities).

sacrificed/rejected if the world of ‘literature’ is to remain ‘strong’ and ‘healthy’. The ruthlessness of the resultant hierarchies, dominated as they are at the top by ‘brandname’ authors, poets, screenwriters, etc., would please the leaders of any authoritarian/fascist state but they should make any writer with a social conscience feel distinctly uneasy. Surely there is something more communal and relational, less Darwinistic, about the ideal literary experience? I need to believe that the act of writing represents something more than the creation of polished individualised ‘products’ capable of ‘taking on the world’ and providing the creator with a shot at celebrity. The second problem, that of over-theorising literature, is perhaps a problem relevant to any art form under analysis by humanities and social science academics whose funding brief is often to found their discipline on ‘quantitative’ and ‘socially relevant’ principles. In a piece entitled ‘Optimism and Critical Excess’, US L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet Charles Bernstein, paraphrasing to some extent Alvin Gouldner3, discusses both the ‘speech communities’ constructed by literary analysts and the theoretical language they employ—what Gouldner calls CCD (Careful and Critical Discourse). Both Bernstein and Gouldner suggest that the goal is to maintain the speech community’s social ‘power, control and dominance’: “[The] deligitimation of context sensitivity and context-variability is part of CCD’s own privileged claim to ‘theoreticity’ as a universal and incontestable standard of ‘all serious speech. From now on, persons and their social positions must not be visible in their speech. Speech becomes impersonal. Speakers hide behind their speech. Speech seems to be disembodied, decontextualised and selfgrounded.’”4 If you have to make like a scientist, political analyst or economist when approaching poems, short stories, novels, songs etc. it is hardly surprising that your mode of communication will favour theory-speak (and occasionally evasive ‘Yes Minister!’ rhetoric) over metaphor, symbol, narrative and the like. This may seem like a strange critique given the previous discussion of our Social Darwinist literary culture, but I am not arguing in this work for a depoliticisation of ‘literature’ (which typically carries with it unexamined Arnoldian and Leavisite notions of the ‘self-evident’ classic unpolluted by class, race and gender power-plays) such as one routinely encounters in the opinion pages of the conservative print and online media. I am simply arguing, along with Bernstein, for more self-reflexivity among literary academics concerning the potential oppressiveness innate to their own way of ‘discoursing’—i.e. that they examine the power imbalances implicit to the highly abstract, jargonised, elitist, language they habitually communicate with (especially in an age where university study in many Western democracies is again becoming dominated by the children of the upper and middle classes). Such reflexivity and humility might allow them to view poets and other artists, as well as the unique modes of communication they make use of, in a more empathic, less judgemental light. My own discomfort—and increasingly, boredom—with this kind of postured objective ‘discourse’ has led to this book being written with the following statement by Bernstein in mind: ‘Poetics is the continuation of poetry by other means’5. This is a book expressing elements of my personal poetic and thus Bernstein’s statement is always in the background. I have no desire here
3 4 5

Alvin Gouldner, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class, 1979. Charles Bernstein, ‘Optimism and Critical Excess’ in Poetics, p. 159, 1992. Charles Bernstein, ‘Optimism and Critical Excess’ in Poetics, p. 160, 1992.

to posture as an ‘impersonal’, ‘disembodied’, ‘objective’ member of the CCD community. By 2005, then, I was through with both Neo-Liberal and academic attempts to define ‘literature’, ‘creativity’ and the idea of the ‘author’. The writing scene was becoming increasingly meaningless to me. The ‘conditional love’ of such literary networks was making me uncreatively ill; sapping me of the desire to write poetry and fiction or compose music. I either had to give up entirely on the literary world and my own vague intuition that ‘creativity’ was important to the health of individuals and whole societies— (I fantasised for a time about becoming a Transpersonal psychotherapist, it seemed to represent a more honest and worthy, less fake and ruthless vocational option)—or I had to find an antidote within myself. My first instinct was to re-trace the encounters I’d had over the years with various writers, artists, philosophers, psychologists and musicians as a means to recapture the special something I seemed to have lost. Put simply the ability of art to make sense of the world, to speak to the deepest aspects of experience. The process of retracing, of remembering, is thus one aspect of the journey idea that motivates this book—the need to retrace/remember as a means to go forward, and also to ‘reinspire’ myself; to perhaps birth new works that explore the wonder and misery of existence at this particular moment in history. Perhaps, I reasoned, the journey itself might provide me with an antidote to my creative ennui. This personal quest certainly frames the broader narrative of the book. Many primordial traditions posit ‘art’ as a transformative even ‘otherwordly’ experience. In this sense a number of Irish and Gaelic stories have fascinated me for some time now and will act as guiding metaphors for the book as a whole at the same time as they signify to me important aspects of the child migrant experience I underwent at age seven. ‘The Voyage of Mael Duin’s Boat’ (Ir. Imram Curaig Mael Duin [8th to 10th C A.D.]) relates Mael Duin’s journey— accompanied by seventeen crew members—to thirty-one ‘otherworldly’ Islands. ‘Bran’s Voyage to the Isle of Women’ (7th-8th C A.D.) is another such story. The tale begins with Bran acquiring the traditional Celtic symbol for druid knowledge, ‘a silver apple branch’. Soon after he is accosted by a mysterious woman who sings of the Land of Promise (Emain Ablach)—otherwise known as the ‘Isle of Women’—and bids him to seek it out. The story is poignant to me on several levels. At its most personal it symbolises the child migrant’s experience of adventure undercut by profound dislocation that was my lot as a young boy. What else was ‘Australia’ to my father, in particular, but the Land of Promise? Likewise, how many fabulous ‘(Is)lands’ (real and imaginary) would I encounter due to my parents’ fateful decision to sell our small two story home in central Middlesborough, England in order to journey 12,000 miles to that vast and strange southern continent these days named Australia? On another (perhaps slightly more traditional) level, the book you are about to read stands as a metaphor for the journey that is literature and art. What other practice or body of knowledge assembles and disassembles, interrogates and plays with what we take to be ‘reality’ with the rigour of the activated creative imagination? What other practice or body of knowledge explores, and makes explicit, personal states of dislocation from conventional time and space, self and community? ‘What world is this?’ is the perennial question of the kind of literature and art that mattered most to me as a young man. The question is also an explicit invitation to the existential voyage, an invitation to countenance ‘other worlds’ far beyond the ken of the ‘stay at home’ types who most often run the world. How fitting then that Bran’s journey should be initiated by a Muse figure, a mystical

woman with explicit knowledge of Emain Ablach. Here again we encounter a theme that will be dealt with more explicitly in some of the book’s key chapters. Like many of the themes to be explored here-in, the theme of the Muse (or the Muses, as they were known to the ancient Greeks) has both personal and social-historical resonance. Particular ‘women’ acted as literature’s ‘otherworldly’ initiates for me at critical stages of my creative journey. This is a highly unfashionable admission in an age of Science and Feminism, but I take a lead here from Francine Prose’s fascinating study of the ‘Muse’ phenomena in her book Lives of the Muses. Without going into detail, Prose’s book looks at the dynamics of the ‘Creative Artist/ Muse’ relationship in all its specific, and very human, detail and helped free me from outdated classical and Medieval notions of the relationship based upon what we might call ‘pedestals’ and ‘virginity’ (e.g. Beatrice as viewed by Dante or Laura as viewed by Petrarch). Along with many others I encountered, and took to heart, the highly original ‘mono-myth of musedom’ outlined in Graves’ book The White Goddess back in 1983 and promptly saw it applied unconsciously or otherwise to my own relationships, with predictably disastrous consequences! A more or less traditional classical humanities university education in the early nineties did nothing to diffuse, or broaden the archetype. In this book I want to explore the concept with a view to broadening it—why? because this book has been written primarily for creative people intent on ‘fabulous encounters’ with movements, literary traditions, techniques and the like that have served in the past as sources of inspiration. Though Maile Duin and Bran’s journeys are voluntary (making them examples of what the Irish call Imram stories) other Celtic literary and mythological heroes were forced to embark on involuntary journeys to the otherworld. The Irish term for these tales of ‘fabulous exile’ is ‘longas’ – for example Longas mac nUislenn (in English ‘The Exile of the Sons of Uisnech’). The so-called Echtra stories are also relevant—stories concerning visits to the otherworld, often close in style to Icelandic sagas but like the other types featuring high adventure in a supernatural landscape. All three story forms involve to some extent the hero pushing out into unknown territory and temporarily or permanently breaking connections with the ordinary ‘mortal’ world. Michael Comyn’s ‘Lay of Oisin’ (1750) is probably the classic Celtic otherworld journey. Though it is a beautiful woman on a white horse—a clear muse figure—who initiates the journey, for the moment I’m more interested in the story’s ending. After Oisin enjoys 300 years of love-making with his otherworldly consort, Niamh, in Tir na nOg (‘the land of youth’) he decides to return to Ireland to visit family and friends. Niamh tells Oisin as he leaves that he must not touch earth (he is riding an otherworldly ‘white stead’) during his visit home or he will become instantly aged, with all accompanying infirmities. In returning to Ireland he finds, as is usual in such story types, everything much changed; old friends and family have passed away and the landscape has many unfamiliar features. To make matters worse he fails to heed Niamh’s warning and dismounts. Instantly aged, Oisin is doomed to wander from town to town until his death, all the time singing of the fabulous worlds and beings he met in the otherworld. This is perhaps one of the most tragic descriptions of the burden of the ‘literary’ imagination in all world literature. As a parallel for me it nicely captures the strange experiences I have on my periodic return visits to the UK where relatives appear to age seven or ten years at a time. My as photo albums plot this strange distortion to what I’d call the ‘relational’ experience of temporality. The latter parts of Bran’s voyage also serve as metaphors for the great adventure and

tragedy that is literature and art. After many ‘otherworld’ years on Emain Ablach, the Isle of Women, Bran and his men decide to return to Ireland. Again everything has changed; many centuries have passed and to ‘touch the earth’ as one poor unfortunate, Nechtan, does, is to turn to dust. Not wishing to experience this fate, Bran decides to tell his countryman of his otherworldly adventures by writing them down on wooden sticks and flinging them landward. This gesture speaks of the tragic inadequacy of art and literature. These tools of cultural communication almost always convey to us imperfect, second order ‘realities’ (fictive or historic) given that only the author actually experiences (or imagines) ‘first hand’ the things he or she writes about or paints, etc. It is well to remember that the shared ‘cultural signs’ that mediate the exchange, ‘ogham’ in the Bran story, are inevitably flimsy and fallible. No doubt a postmodern ‘deconstructionist’ would make much of this, and it is true that much of the impact of any story resides in the heart and mind of the receiver, the person who uses some innate faculty to ‘recreate’ what the author perhaps intended. If we expand the metaphor we might also acknowledge that a major drive of artists of all descriptions is the desire to create works that transcend physical death—we’d like our words or images or music or whatever to speak to generations yet to come. As we create we unconsciously become the singing head of Orpheus—imagine ourselves immortal despite our inevitable encounter with the world’s many maenads that symbolise mortality. Of course the echtra and imram story forms were understood as narratives of otherworld journeys, meaning they recorded journeys beyond ordinary mortal existence, in some cases to places only the dead ordinarily travelled to. Whether the travellers in the stories journeyed to Mag Mel (the Plain of Delight or the Plain of Sports), Tir Tairngiri (the Land of Promise), Tir na mBan (the Land of Women), Tir na mBec (the Land of the Living Ones) or Tir na n-Og (the Land of Eternal Youth) encounters with immortality pervaded their experiences. The ordinary laws of mortal life, with its suffering and limitations, were often transcended by characters on these journeys. Surely this utopian element, also defines an important aspect of the creative impulse associated with literature, and art generally. Perhaps populist forms of ‘immortality’ (in the sense of fame/extra social status, etc.) are not fundamental after all, perhaps what we’re doing when we create literature is ‘working through’ the universal quest for ‘paradise’, i.e. the desire to overcome that which is lacking in our lives or in the world. An attempt to transcend suffering, or at least to give it meaning, is perhaps more primary than most of us would admit to. In between any particular hell of inadequacy and any particular heaven of fulfilment, of course, is the ‘journey’ itself:
The realm described is a place of happiness and beauty, where sickness, death and decay are unknown; trees there bear rich fruit, while their leaves make music and birds sing in their branches; there is abundance of gleaming gold and silver, and everywhere lovely women, the welcoming goddesses of the Sid.6

As your guide for some thirty-one chapters of a literary version of the above voyage now might be a good a time to acknowledge the fallibility of this book. It is not meant to be encyclopaedic, and thus it is inevitably punctuated by descriptions of my own ’dramatic real time’ encounters with the various movements and eras under discussion—theorists might call this style ‘first person commentary’, i.e. a technique where-by a non-fiction narrator inserts him or herself into

H.R.Ellis Davidson, Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions, p181, Manchester University Press, 1988

the story at regular intervals. A more grandiose theoretical term for such an approach is ‘to acknowledge one’s positioning’ (in terms of culture, gender, etc.). The result is a hybrid text, part literary criticism, part poetics and part populist narrative. As with the experience of reading the echtras and imrams discussed above the realisation that we each approach a particular movement or literary tradition at a particular moment in our life journey i.e. development as an artist/writer, perhaps makes for a more honest (and hopefully exciting and inspirational) reading experience. I’ve made myself a character in this book because I’ve crossed into the ‘literary’ other world—visiting many of its strange islands—on numerous occasions since the age of eighteen. Given the vastness of the world’s literary treasures I’m well aware that there are many, many more islands of the literary imagination still to explore. I long ago accepted the fact that there is no possibility of giving anything but a highly personal description of the strange terrains of creativity that I’ve encountered, thus there is no point even pretending that this map for possible sources of inspiration is anything but fallible, incomplete, uniquely ‘personal’ etc., i.e. indicative of my own particular ‘journey’ of creative exploration. I feel a deep connection to these Celtic ‘voyage/ journey and exile’ stories and cherish the many metaphors they make available to me for explaining emotionally and spiritual phenomena otherwise difficult to render adequately. Some of these metaphors have come to influence both the chapter progression and overall symbolic structure of the book. Similarly, a discerning reader will note that the traditional Celtic emphasis on encounters with ‘temptations’, ‘vices’ and ‘virtues’ though not made use of directly in describing say the Surrealists, Realists, etc. nevertheless enters the text by way of my own ‘biographical’ insertions. I’ve been travelling for over a quarter century in the land of literature and art, and inevitably my implicit attitudes toward movements or eras will permeate the text. These pages no doubt outline both a theoretical and experiential ‘personal poetic’—some of this will be explicit and obvious, some will be rather more subtly expressed, perhaps by resort to metaphor (or even irrational prophesy), at times by resort to omissions. The main goal, however, is to transmit some of the awe and excitement, puzzlement or distaste I first felt in encountering this or that movement. Journey stories are not confined to Celtic literature—the Odyssey of course is perhaps the classic journey story and like the Celtic tales contains significant metaphysical elements— however, given my Celtic heritage, this text more closely resembles a Celtic imram in the form of a thirty-one chapter voyage of discovery and inspiration to some of the literary traditions and movements that have most influenced myself as well as other writers and artists in the modern world. Several other Celtic tales also serve as propelling metaphors for the book—though here again the themes explored by these stories are evident in other traditions. The constellation of stories surrounding the ‘woodwose’ (‘wild man of the wood’) has long fascinated me. The key figures here are Myrddin/Merlin, Suibne, Lailoken and Owain ap Urien. All of these figures had periods of madness in the wilds. The 6th Century Welsh Myrddin figure seems to be the source of the later Lailoken and Merlin stories, he spent 50 years in the Caledonian forests after the traumatic death of his patron Gwenddolau in the Battle of Arfderydd (573-75CE) and emerged possessing numerous magical powers. The Irish figure Suibne, who features in ‘The Frenzy of Suibne’ (from the ‘Cycle of Kings’ sequence), loses his reason at the Battle of Mag Rath (637 CE). His madness however, seems to be indicative of a curse that pitches the old religion against the newly ascendant Christian faith. For our purposes the most interesting aspect of the Suibne story is that on account of his madness he became a more than competent poet.

The Arthurian figure, Owain, otherwise known as the Knight of the Fountain, is also of interest for the purposes of this book, though his period of madness in the woods was due to ‘shame’ at an act of betrayal and did not result in prophetic and other magical powers. The Welsh figure of Taliesin also features as part of this constellation due to his imbibing ‘three drops’ of inspiration accidentally drawn from Cerridwen’s cauldron—though he undergoes a lesser version of the ‘sacred madness’ experienced by the ‘mad’ sojourners in the wilds. For the purposes of this book these tales of sacred madness and, in some cases healing and re-integration, represent profound socio-cultural truths about the role of creativity in society, and provide important metaphors for my own experiences of the tension between ‘creativity’ and personal psycho-spiritual well-being. This book then perhaps seeks to reaffirm Robert Duncan’s utopian statement regarding the purpose of poetry—though I’d like to extend it to all artistic/creative pursuits: What if poetry were not some realm of personal accomplishment, open field day race for critics to judge, or animal breeding show—… but a record of what we are, like the record of what the earth is is left in the rocks, left in the language? 7 Two poems from my collection ‘The Alchemical Sequence’ (2007-2012) follow –as a means to initiate the ‘voyage’...


The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, No.19, pp. 31-32, 2004.

Homesick (on the Voyage) Absence aches. You seek similar eyes unsure if you fully exist—an underground creature, transparent partially blind. Twin roots mutually impossible, thus weakened by splicing at age six. Fell into an impossible longing realised the tangle-wood in loss of perfumed closeness was not simply the child loses paradise—ogre and witch blasting soul to Trauma Lands. Circled the deep tissue infection, but couldn’t remove the ‘I’ from Imram—pushed into great wash of ocean, just a raft with a sail. The voyage—it always stormed things sideways. Thus everything—the objects about the house, the words you scrawl for casting, the skin you touch at midnight, this fruit of summer cornucopia— infected by these multiple spaces of white. Memory—a turbid, jerky creature— generates sorrow by law of reverse personification. Until you didn’t see the wattles and gums even as you felled them into silence—they did not authorise your childhood. You were not given this land— that laughing cockatoo, white squawk of mustard, that break-dance goanna— in play: play was a farm in North Yorkshire— 1967.

Children without comfort of tribal proximity—the family extended all to Empire horizon. And stung by recapitulation—four hours by plane to Aotearoa your seven year old, your infant son. Spellbound, uncertain how to read alien winds and bridge the miles—though full sail on pluming fore-deck. Off-course by supernatural stars, ‘til all alone in the southern desert. A question: was there something you could only learn here?

Author Bio (as at May 2013)
Dr. Ian Irvine is an Australian-based poet/lyricist, writer and non-fiction writer. His work has featured in publications as diverse as Humanitas (USA), The Antigonish Review (Canada), Tears in the Fence (UK), Linq (Australia) and Takahe (NZ), among many others. His work has also appeared in two Australian national poetry anthologies: Best Australian Poems 2005 (Black Ink Books) and Agenda: ‘Australian Edition’, 2005. He is the author of three books and co-editor of three journals – Scintillae 2012, The Animist ezine (7 editions, 1998-2001) and Painted Words (8 editions 2005-2013). Ian currently teaches in the Professional Writing and Editing program at BRIT (Bendigo, Australia) as well as in the same program at Victoria University, Melbourne. He has also taught history and social theory at La Trobe University (Bendigo, Australia) and holds a PhD for his work on creative, normative and dysfunctional forms of alienation and morbid ennui.

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