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(Extract from: Muse of the Long Haul Thirty-One Isles of the Creative Imagination)
Copyright, Dr Ian Irvine, 2013 all rights reserved. All short extracts from the texts discussed are acknowledged and used under fair usage related to ‘review’ and theoretical ‘critique’ contained in international copyright law. Cover image: ‘Sketch of the Dancing Sorcerer’ From the Trois-Frères Sanctuary. Sketch by Clottes, J y LewisWilliams from Breuil’s original of the 1920s. The image is in the public domain being a faithful reproduction of an image 15,000 years plus old. Publisher: Mercurius Press, Australia, 2013. NB: This piece is published at Scribd as part of a series drawn from the soon to be print published non-fiction book on experiential poetics entitled: Muse of the Long Haul: Thirty-One Isles of the Creative Imagination.
Island Twenty-Seven – Translating the Dancing Sorcerer
I first came across Clayton Eshleman’s poetry in late 1983 whilst attending university in Auckland, New Zealand. I’d bought a copy of Hades in Manganese from a city bookshop and had read it closely. I became fascinated by Eshleman’s poetic explorations of modern life through Paleolithic cave art and intuitively perceived that he had somehow exposed the prehistoric foundations to our collective psychic life—likewise, the pre-history to an array of mythologies I’d been interested in for a couple of years (after reading Robert Graves’s book The White Goddess). Graves’s book had proposed a pre-patriarchal theory of ‘Origins’ (leading to an archaic theory of creativity) that I found useful, but here was a poet pushing the ‘back wall’ (Eshleman’s terminology) of the human imagination back tens of thousands of years further into the past. This historic depth to his poetry struck me as immense, and I understood intuitively that he was espousing an anti-oppressive, internationalist and visionary poetics vast in scope. His poetics merges 20th century avant garde innovations with a truly original archaic poetics that has parallels with many traditions world-wide—stretching back, I have no doubt, many millennia in human history. The movements he is usually linked to in the critical literature are the ‘Ethnopoetics’ group (launched by Jerome Rothenberg)1 and the early Deep Imagist poets (influenced by Jungian thinking). Other sources point to Bakhtin’s work—especially his theorizing on ‘grotesque realism—as an influence (which Eshleman acknowledges). We also note the influence of specific poets—poets he often ended up translating, e.g. Neruda and Vallejo. The trans-historic themes I found in Hades were counterbalanced by an extraordinary ‘poetics of the interior’ that spoke directly to my own inner world at that time. Recall (from earlier chapters of this book) that by late 1983 I’d read most of the major texts by Wilhelm Reich, Arthur Janov and Alexander Lowen and was starting to feel a need to undergo some kind of psychophysical ‘cleansing’ through commitment to one of those modalities. Eshleman (I only found out much later) was interested in Reich’s work—indeed he had undergone Reichian therapy in the late 1960s whilst living in New York and felt it had fuelled his poetic awakening. There is an intensity, psychological honesty and physicality to these modalities that is often transferred to clients through the therapeutic process. I suspect that in Eshleman’s case some of that ‘energy charge’ was also transferred to his poetry, which I, in turn, picked up on as a reader back in 1983. I also found his poetry to be ‘formally’ inspirational. Hades in Manganese made me realize I needed to develop a contemporary poetic ‘voice’ capable of exploring the kind of themes I was interested in. The poems in Hades enact a complex fusion of modernist free verse innovations, archaic visionary motifs and postmodernist ‘docu-praxis’ techniques (e.g. combining poetry with archeological insights—which is also found in Juniper Fuse, his seminal
In an essay for a book edited by Charles Bernstein, The Politics of Poetic Form, Rothenberg writes: Ethnopoetics – my coinage, in a fairly obvious way, circa 1967 – refers to an attempt to investigate on a transcultural scale the range of possible poetries that had not only been imagined but put into practice by other human beings. It was premised on the perception that western definitions of poetry and art were no longer, indeed had never been, sufficient and that our continued reliance on them was distorting our view both of the larger human experience and of our own possibilities within it.
work on cave art and pre-historic image making). This approach made me feel that I might be able to explore transpersonal and trans-historic material in a contemporary language not that far removed from the minimalism I admired in William Carlos Williams’s ‘Objectivist poetics’. I recall wanting to avoid the breathy emotiveness of Ginsberg and Whitman, as well as the ornate formalism of 19th century Romantics and Symbolists. Eshleman’s work re-entered my life in late 2005 after I sent him some poems to look at with a view to possible publication. He emailed me to say he’d read and enjoyed the poems but could not publish them since he was no longer editing Sulfur or any literary journal. So began an email exchange that traversed many topics. I immediately felt a need to acquaint myself with the large body of work he’d had published since Hades in Manganese. Although I had little spare time during the first few years of our exchange—due to parenting and work commitments (Caleb had been born in 2003 and Kara was still in pre-school)—I read as much of his new work as I could get my hands on: Hotel Cro-Magnon (1989), From Scratch (1998), Juniper Fuse (2003), Companion Spider (2005) and An Alchemist with One Eye on the Fire (2006). I also acquired Archaic Design (2007) and The Grindstone of Rapport (2008) as soon as they were available. Inevitably I encountered many new dimensions to his work as a con sequence. His poetry from the 1980s on reveals a complex methodology—often influenced by his long-term interest in European cave art. His master text on the topic, over thirty years in the making and featuring both poetry and prose, is Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination and the Construction of the Underworld (finally published in 2003). The methodology of Juniper involves: 1) repeated visits to relevant Ice Age caves; 2) vast academic research, particularly in the field of archaeology, and 3) an attempt to interpret the cave art in poetic (rather than scientific) ways that amounts to an ‘imaginative re-visioning’ (not dissimilar to the ‘proleptic thought’ advocated by Graves in the 1940s). In his introduction to Juniper Fuse, Eshleman writes: This book envisions and examines some of the origins and developments of imagination recorded in cave wall imagery (for the most part in southwestern France) during the last European Ice Age.2 His purpose is to take us back to the beginning of ‘image making’and to expand his personal conception of what it is to be a ‘poet-artist’. He writes:
To follow poetry back to Cro-Magnon metaphors not only hits real bedrock—a genuine back wall—but gains a connection to the continuum during which imagination first flourished. My growing awareness of the caves led to the recognition that, as an artist, I belong to a pre-tradition that includes the earliest nights and days of soul-making.3
Juniper Fuse deserves to be ranked along-side Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, Shelly’s A Defence of Poetry, W.B. Yates’s A Vision and Robert Graves’s The White Goddess. It is a remarkable book—as revolutionary, in its own way, as any of the great modernist and postmodernist poetics manifestos. Early in our email exchange we found that we had a shared interest in indigenous and archaic
Clayton Eshleman, Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination and the Construction of the Underworld , p. x1. op cite.
story-telling and poetic traditions (probably best understood as an ‘ethnopoetic’ interest). As a resident of Australia since 1987 my second encounter with Eshleman’s work inevitably brought to mind Aboriginal perspectives on creativity, story-telling and poetry. Clayton was very interested in Australian Aboriginal rock art and how Aboriginal perspectives might link with (or otherwise) his own research into European cave art. At one point he was hoping to visit Australia with his wife Caryl to perform poetry, deliver workshops and visit Aboriginal communities to discuss the cultural context to their rock art. In early 2006 I wrote a couple of poems responding to his entire oeuvre. I decided to add some prose content and sent the results to a Melbourne University cultural studies journal that also ran a conference every year. The piece was accepted as a performance piece. Unfortunately, I contracted a heavy duty dose of the flu shortly before the conference (it manifested on the flight back from a conference in Perth where I’d presented on Australia’s Jindyworobak poets). I fronted for the Melbourne University conference nevertheless (though I tried to keep my distance from people for most of the day!) and wheezed, coughed, sniffed and spluttered my way through the performance panel which also included Australian experimental poet Michael Farrell (as I recall he collaged material from a range of evening soap shows in his performance and I found myself interested in soap operas for the first time in my life!) Some months later I approached Clayton about conducting an interview with him about his work. It turned into a 17 page exploration of his creative life at that time (2007) and was eventually published in various places including his recent book, The Price of Experience (2012). Political concerns were finding expression in his work at that time (2006-2008) as he embarked upon a courageous, no-holds-barred poetic critique of his own government and military (especially in relation to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and Abu Ghraib). Both the conference performance piece and the interview required extensive research on my part and inevitably I had many questions about aspects of his work. His responses were always generous and incisive. In a number of his non-fiction works Eshleman discusses the ‘apprenticeship’ experiences of poets. Paul Blackburn, Cid Corman and (the ghost of) Peruvian poet César Vallejo appear to have been important figures in his own poetic development. These three poets—as well as Gary Snyder, Jerome Rothenberg and other poets of his own generation— taught him many things about living life as a poet. My encounters with Clayton and his work also taught me some valuable creative lessons: 1) The importance of engaging in long-term projects that take poetry into places which have previously resisted its insights. Eshleman’s thirty-year plus poetic exploration of Paleolithic cave art and the origins of the imagination illustrates this lesson. 2) The importance of serving (in some sustained way) the creative community one identifies with and maintaining a balance between writing and publishing one’s own work and assisting others through journal editing, translating, reviewing, teaching etc. Eshleman’s long-term commitment to editing, translating and teaching poetry illustrates this lesson. 3) Generosity and openness of spirit. Given the information and sensory over-load of the modern world it is difficult to stay emotionally open, intellectually inquisitive, politically informed, etc. for prolonged periods in a poet’s life. On the evidence of the many books
he has published in the past decade or so Eshleman has clearly stayed open to the world. 4) Sustained commitment to an art form requires that to some extent one lives through the art form—i.e. that one feels oneself to be living a meaningful life through practicing the craft. Eshleman’s work ethic that has seen him write thousands of poems and books on poetry over many decades. In the interview I did with him he states at one point that to him the life of a poet is an ‘all-embracing way of being’ out of which ‘a sense of meaning naturally emerges.’ 5) An anti-oppressive, anti-authoritarian perspective on interpersonal relationships backed up by a willingness to speak, when necessary, uncomfortable truths via poetry, prose etc.—a fearless willingness to ‘speak back to power’. 6) A trans-historical and transpersonal understanding of the human condition augmented by trust in the self-regulatory aspects of the human psyche. In Eshleman’s case I suspect that this implies resistance to institutionalized religions and ideologies that seek political and economic control through the moral control of individuals. My encounters with Eshleman’s poetry and poetics have been inspirational to me both as a poet and a creative thinker. Our exchange of ideas pushed me back to creativity’s transpersonal roots, and forced me to think once again about major historical paradigm shifts: i.e. from animism to polytheism; from polytheism to monotheism; and from monotheism to scientific secularism. I also had to reassess the impact of such shifts on the development of the human psyche as well as the history and future of the creative arts. For me one image best summarises the enigmatic ‘energy charge’ I associate with Eshleman’s entire oeuvre: the famed ‘Dancing Sorcerer’ figure from the Trois-Frères Sanctuary in France (see illustration opening this chapter). This image—painted deep underground so many millennia ago—perhaps best symbolises the psychic ‘fracture’ (related to the ‘separating out of the animal from the human’ during the last Ice Age) theorised by Eshleman. His own work helps us better understand the long pre-history of our imaginative evolution. It also points the way to future ‘creativity revolutions’.
Author Bio (as at June 2013)
Dr. Ian Irvine (Hobson) 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), as well as in a number of 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 and currently teaches in the Professional Writing and Editing program at BRIT (Bendigo, Australia) as well as the same program at Victoria University, St. Albans, 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.