Poetry and the Muses Part 1

We live in a post-modernist world and its values are everywhere around us; and everywhere these values are almost largely unexamined, and because we have little to contrast our present state with we fail to see how lamentable and poor we are. There is a deep materialism running through society which deprives people of the hope, the creativity and the deep mystery of life. Indeed, on this latter point, we see this being hammered home all the time on the news; for when it is not going on about the latest wars, plagues and famines, is always emphasising how the frontiers of science are expanding, and how soon – someday, one day – all our problems, especially diseases and even mortality, will be solved as the next medical advance is posited as something we all might confidently place our faith in. If ‘making progress’ actually made progress, then there might be some grounds for optimism; but as, after nearly two centuries of science and technology, we seem to be on the verge of world destruction, this seems fanciful at best.

Of course, this phenomenon of materialism/progress is ubiquitous, but also encompasses that tiny domain which we call poetry. I say ‘tiny’ because that is what materialism, and associated atheism, has reduced the mighty empire of the poets to. Compared with, say, science or technology, or even medicine, poetry has become largely irrelevant to most people’s lives. The best it can possible muster is either verse on a Valentine’s card or insincere worship at the shrine of William Shakespeare, one indisputably great poet. Naturally, we have to worship Shakespeare in England because he generates so much revenue for the UK economy – but, hush, no, don’t say it like that!

There is an important sense, then, that we have to return to basics and once more see the object for what it truly is. “The decline of literature indicates the decline of a nation”, said Goethe, which is a serious matter; and we need to address it because as he also said, “Reality is that which is effective”. Whatever else, we need to be effective, which is to be real.

What, then, is the starting point? The starting point is the Muse, the source of all sublime inspiration, and a living reality, as well as a potent metaphor and symbol of divinity. We need to understand from the myths of the past where the Muse comes from and how she operates. The Greek myths give various accounts of this, so I am not wedded to one literal interpretation of this phenomenon, but here is my best shot so far at it.

In the beginning the sky god Zeus, the thunderbolt, the male principle of living and active energy, the yang, and the one who shapes the future, for by the will of Zeus all things are allowed – or not – and who defeated the Titans and the forces of chaos, this great god in some present moment coupled with Mnemosyne, the undefeated Titaness, the female principle, the yin, and goddess memory, who in her vast and capacious mind conserves all things, for in her womb nothing is lost, for the past is remembered, which is re-membered. This coupling (effectively of the male principle of strength and the female principle of beauty) gives birth to the nine Muses, who are the key to the good life: prosperity, friendship and beauty. Notice of course that they are female, and thus incarnations of beauty and so desirability, and this seduces us or we surrender to them. And we see, regarding the good life, this even etymologically in our language when we refer to various aspects of the ‘good life’: we love muse-ums, which are shrines to the Muse; we love friends who a-muse us, because laughter makes us glad; and we love mus-ic, because it speaks to our souls.

Each of the nine Muses has a special function, but the queen of them is Kalliope, she of the epic poem and ‘lovely voice’; she it is who inspires such undertakings. And there is my favourite, Erato, meaning ‘loveliness, who inspires lyric poetry; and let’s not forget Polyhymnia – she of many songs, especially of a spiritual nature. The other six are well worth exploring too.

But it should be clear from this that the Muse operates in some special place positioned exactly midway between the future that is to be and the past that was; we call this place the present. And it is why true creativity, true poetry, is always written in a semi-tranced out state, for one is abnormally in the present moment. What this means is that – as with deep meditators and hypnogogic states – time either stops or is slowed down and we enter another reality. Hence, too, why prophets and poets are often seen as synonymous: because time has slowed to a crawl it is possible to anticipate the future and redefine the past. It is not that poets are seeking to be prophets or historians (incidentally, Kleio is the Muse of history or ‘Renown”) but that it is entirely possible and even probable for the future or the past to leak into their work.

This state we enter is so powerful, so desirable, so creative that we all long to be able to switch it on at will, but in this world that is not possible. Because it is not possible, we have a history of poets (and other artists) who try to short-circuit the process and get there illegitimately through substance abuse. The most famous collective example in English literature were probably a handful of the Romantics; but this view that, basically debauching the mind, is necessary for creativity is unfortunately still with us in the lives of so many Twentieth century poets: for example, Dylan Thomas, who the New York coroner recorded as dying of ‘a severe insult to the brain’ (alcohol). The point is that it is not by and through the will that creativity – poetry – comes to be written, which is as much as to say that it is not through the ego. Socrates put it this way: “I soon realised that poets do not compose their poems with real knowledge, but by inborn talent and inspiration, like seers and prophets who also say many things without any understanding of what they say”. And his last point here, too, is important: creativity involves not knowing necessarily what one is going to say. We have intentions to write – and that is good – and we have skills, knowledge and experience – and that is good too, but how will the Muse, if we allow her, inform the work? Poets often record their astonishment at what the final draft of the poem turned out to be; there is in true creativity a certain unpredictability (if ‘certain unpredictability’ isn’t an oxymoron!). As Natalie Rogers says, “Creativity is not a tool. It is a mystery that you enter; an unfolding; an opening process”.

But the myth does not end here. Yes, the Muses are the embodiments and sponsors of metrical speech and verse; and also Kalliope, their queen, is the mother of Orpheus, the greatest poet. And the father? Various legends here, but my preferred one is that the god Apollo fathered Orpheus. Indeed, it needs to be said that Apollo, the son of Zeus, increasingly became the surrogate god who often replaced him. So that many claim that it was he who fathered the Muses, and so would be father and grandfather both to Orpheus; but this is a small technicality and even if true does not affect the power of the lineage, since gods do not experience the genetic weakness of humans. What’s important to understand is that Apollo was the god of the sun, of light, of prophecy -and so of truth (as in his Oracle at Pythia or Delphi) – and of beauty. All the statues of Apollo show him young and perfectly proportioned. He also fathered Aesculapius whose powers of healing were so effective that even the dead could be resurrected by him; and so, after Hades complained, was struck dead by a thunderbolt from Zeus to prevent the undoing of the triple structure of the cosmos (the bargain the three brothers, Zeus, Poseidon and Hades had struck when they defeated their father, Kronos).

But here’s the thing: Orpheus the poet demonstrated what poetry can do. His poetry, his music, made even the rocks – who obviously have stony hearts! – weep. Two incidents especially spring to mind. First, his visit to hell and Hades in order to reclaim his love, Eurydice. This ended in failure in that he did not manage to obtain her; but poetry and music charmed all of hell, and even the damned were relieved from their suffering as he sang his poem. It is said that Hades himself shed, for the first and only time, tears as he listened to Orpheus sing: tears that seemed like liquid tar. And then, of course, he was one of the Argonauts who sailed with Jason. There, where even the strength of the greatest hero of Greek mythology, Herakles, could not prevail – against the Sirens’ song, which no force in the universe could break – there he sang in direct combat against them and drowned out their false addictive charm. What we have here is the beauty of poetry that can heal and save, even from the worst and most intense addictions; for that is what the Sirens’ song represents – that dreadful, yet beguiling sound, that so draws us on to our own destruction, though we know it is false, yet still we crave it. This, then, is the healing power of beauty, of poetry, when poetry is beautiful, as once it was, and as it will be, for it cannot long be other than it is.

Thus we come to the present moment and its learning for us.

The Trauma of Children of Addicts and Alcoholics

Living with an addict (including alcoholics [1] can feel like life in a war zone. The addict’s personality changes caused by addiction create chaos. Family dynamics are organized around the substance abuser, who acts like a tyrant, denying that drinking or using is a problem, while issuing orders and blaming everyone else. To cope and avoid confrontations, typically, family members tacitly agree to act as if everything is normal, not make waves, and not mention addiction. Family members deny what they know, feel, and see. This all takes a heavy psychological toll, often causing trauma, especially on those most vulnerable, the children. Yet more than half are in denial that they have an addicted parent.

Dysfunctional Parenting Causes Codependency
In families with addiction, parenting is unreliable, inconsistent, and unpredictable. There never is a sense of safety and consistency, allowing children to thrive. The majority suffer emotional, if not physical abuse, and thus carry issues of trust and anger about their past, sometimes directed at the sober parent, as well. In some cases, the sober parent is so stressed that he or she is more impatient, controlling, and irritable than the alcoholic, who may have withdrawn from family life. The children may blame the sober parent for neglecting their needs or not protecting them from abuse or unfair decrees issued by the alcoholic. In high conflict couples, both parents are emotionally unavailable.

Children’s needs and feelings get ignored. They may be too embarrassed to entertain friends and suffer from shame, guilt, and loneliness. Many learn to become self-reliant and needless to avoid anyone having power over them again.

Because an addict’s behavior is erratic and unpredictable, vulnerability and authenticity required for intimate relationships are considered too risky. Children live in continuous fear and learn to be on guard for signs of danger, creating constant anxiety well into adulthood. Many become hypervigilant and distrustful and learn to contain and deny their emotions, which are generally shamed or denied by parents. In the extreme, they may be so detached that they’re numb to their feelings. The environment and these effects are how codependency is passed on – even by children of addicts who aren’t addicts themselves.

Family Roles
Children typically adopt one or more roles that help relieve tension in the family. Typical roles are:

The Hero. The hero is usually the eldest child and most identified with a parental role, often helping with parental duties. Heroes are responsible and self-reliant. They sacrifice and do the right thing to keep calm. They make good leaders, are successful, but often anxious, driven, controlled, and lonely.

The Adjuster. The adjuster doesn’t complain. Rather than be in charge like the hero, the adjuster tries to fit in and adapt. Thus, as adults, they have difficulty taking charge of their life and pursuing goals.

The Placater. The placater is the most sensitive to others’ feelings and tries to meet others’ emotional needs, but neglects their own. They also must discover their wants and needs and learn to pursue their goals.

The Scapegoat. The scapegoat acts out negative behavior to distract the family from the addict and to express feelings he or she can’t communicate. Some scapegoats turn to addiction, promiscuity, or other acting-out behavior to distract themselves and manage their emotions. When they’re in trouble, it unites the parents around a common problem.

The Lost Child. The lost child is usually a younger child who withdraws into a world of fantasy, music, video games, or the Internet, seeking security in solitude. Their relationships and social skills may necessarily suffer.

The Mascot. Also a younger or youngest child, the mascot manages fear and insecurity by being cute, funny, or coquettish to relieve family tension.

Adult Children of Alcoholics and Addicts (ACAs)
Although these roles help children cope growing up, as adults, they often become fixed personality styles that prevent full development and expression of the self. Roles prevent authentic communication necessary for intimacy. As adults, deviating from a role can feel as threatening as it would have been in childhood, but it’s necessary for full recovery from codependency. Roles can also conceal undiagnosed depression and anxiety. Often, the depression is chronic and low-grade, called dysthymia.

Trauma
Many develop trauma symptoms of PTSD – post-traumatic stress syndrome, with painful memories and flashbacks similar to a war veteran. Physical health may be impacted as well. The ACE (“Adverse Childhood Experiences”) study found a direct correlation between adult symptoms of negative health and childhood trauma. ACE incidents that they measured included divorce, various forms of abuse, neglect, and also living with an addict or substance abuse in the family. Children of addicts and alcoholics usually experience multiple ACEs.

Second-Hand Drinking
Lisa Frederiksen, daughter of an alcoholic mom, coined the term “Second-Hand Drinking” or SHD to refer to the negative impact an alcoholic has on other people in the form of “toxic stress.” It’s toxic because it’s unrelenting and children can’t escape it. In her own recovery, she made the connection between ACEs and SHD and how toxic stress can result in generational addiction, including her own struggle with an eating disorder.

Both SHD and ACEs are two of the key risk factors for developing addiction (of which alcoholism is one). The two key risk factors are childhood trauma and social environment. Given SHD’s genetic connection, a person experiencing SHD-related ACEs then has three of the five key risk factors for developing the brain disease of addiction (alcoholism).”

Conversations with her mom, helped Lisa forgive her and allowed her mom to forgive herself:

During our conversations, mom identified herself as having five ACEs and that her own mom (my grandmother) had a drinking problem… All of us had long-term exposure to secondhand drinking. To be clear – not all ACEs are related to SHD, of course. My mom had two and I had one of those, as well.

“Mom and I talked about my realization that I’d blindly participated in passing along the consequences of my own untreated SHD-related ACEs to my daughters the same way my mom had blindly passed hers to me. And these consequences were not limited to developing alcoholism or an alcohol use disorder. They were the consequences of insecurity, anxiety, fear, anger, self-judgment, unclear boundaries, accommodating the unacceptable, constant worry, and the other physical, emotional and quality-of-life consequences of toxic stress. It was this shocking insight that moved me to treat my untreated SHD-related ACEs and help my daughters treat theirs.

“Bottom line is these discoveries helped my mom finally forgive herself the way I had forgiven her years ago. Not the kind of forgiveness that excuses trauma-causing behaviors, rather the kind of forgiveness that lets go of wishing for a different outcome. It is the kind of forgiveness that recognizes we were all doing the best we could with what we knew at the time.”

[1] In the recent DSM-5 manual for mental disorders, alcoholism is now referred to as an Alcohol Use Disorder and alcoholics as a person with an Alcohol Use Disorder. Similar changes were made for other substance-related disorders, classified according to the substance, such as opioids, inhalants, sedatives, stimulants, hallucinogens, and cannabis.

┬ęDarleneLancer 2017