What Does Punk Rock Have To Do With William Shakespeare?

punkshakespeareA musical culture began to take shape amid the unrest of Great Britain during the mid nineteen-seventies. With the emergence of bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash, the punk rock movement sparked a nihilistic ethos and a new sound that would change the musical landscape forever. While the modern day use of the word ‘punk’ might suggest anarchistic youth, William Shakespeare used the term quite differently over four hundred years ago. So how did this word evolve from a derogatory term aimed at a woman to a derogatory term aimed at a young man?

Although its exact etymology is not known, the term “punk” has survived numerous changes in meaning throughout the centuries. The first recorded use of the term (unknown origin) occurred in the early 1590s, with reference to a “prostitute, harlot.” The term “taffety punk,” a reference to “a well dressed whore,” appears in William Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, penned between 1604 and 1605.

The Scottish, spunk, meaning “a spark,” is a 1530s reference to burning embers and ashes. A similar use of the word can be found in a 1618 account by native inhabitants of Virginia as a reference to overcooked corn: “Some of them, more thriftye then cleanly, doe burn the coare of the eare to powder, which they call ‘pungnough,’ mingling that in their meale, but yet never tasted well in bread or broath.” Native peoples throughout the Delaware region of the United States  used the word ponk around this time to reference “rotten wood used as tinder.”

By 1896, and perhaps fueled by the “rotten” connotation to the term, punk had become synonymous with “something worthless” and “young criminal” — specifically in relation to a male youth. It is perhaps the latter definition that Dave Marsh had in mind when he coined the phrase “punk rock” in his May 1971 column featured in Creem magazine.

A Future for Poetry, 1937


By Marie Bullock
A Future for Poetry

A talk given by Mrs. Hugh Bullock at the Chautauqua Woman’s Club, Chautauqua, New York, on July 16, 1937

Ever since Mrs. Pennypacker’s invitation came asking me to speak at the Chautauqua Woman’s Club, Chautauqua has been foremost in anticipation in my mind. And now that I am here I find all my premonitions of loveliness and interest overwhelmingly come true.This is my first visit to Chautauqua. I have never seen any place quite like it. Since my arrival I have been making comparisons with those great artistic, musical and dramatic centers I know so well, Bayreuth, Salzburg, Stratford. Chautauqua is more than these. I find now that I want to add the spiritual fervor and deep emotion that I found at Oberammergau.Standing before you here in this beautiful Hall of Philosophy I am so deeply impressed with the surroundings, with the whole atmosphere, with the people I have met, with you, my audience, that my small ego senses its diminutiveness and feels even smaller.Who am I to come to you here in Chautauqua? What are my honors, my degrees, my human qualifications as well as my educational ones? The story is all too short. It came upon me suddenly when I was writing a few lines of biographical sketch of myself for you. It contained statements of Birth, Marriage, Motherhood. And that was practically all I might claim for my own.Am I humble, modest and retiring, as I should be from this description? Do I stand here, terrified, longing for all those courses in public speaking that I never took, for Dale Carnegie’s advice, for fluency, for expressiveness, for anything; but especially deep, dark oblivion?Strangely, no.It is my personal opinion that every human being has a purpose on this earth. A reason for being. Some are made aware early and some late. Some never at all. But still they serve their purpose. And that is why I am here. I bear a message for you. A message of such vital importance that my personal humility is gone.  I want you to carry this message away with you, close to your hearts, into your worlds, when you go home from Chautauqua. Let us turn to poetryPoetry was originally the reply to a crying need. It answered a practical question. The necessity for news. Minnesingers and troubadours on their long journeyings gave a lilt and a rhythm to their messages that made them easier to remember and to tell. Poetry grew with the times. It became the privilege of princes and courtiers and it sang of heroism and of love in all the royal courts of Europe.  Poetry, besides chronicling beauty, has always painted the most vivid picture of its own times. Romantic or stark with facts, it has been the perfect description of the period it sought to depict or the age in which it was composed. And this is true of all countries and all times.  A few scattered names will suffice to bring some specific examples, chosen along the centuries, to mind: Homer‘s Iliad and Odyssey.François Villon and Paris of the Middle Ages.Tennyson and the Court of King Arthur.Germany’s Goethe.The Heaven and Hell of Dante—perhaps we    cannot be so sure of this, but at least the   states of mind are accurate.Molière and the time of the Précieuses Ridicules.Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat.And to come closer to ourselves:Walt Whitman and the pioneer spirit of America.The World War—Rupert BrookeSiegfried
, Alan Sieger—”That there’s some   corner of a foreign field that is forever   England!”Carl Sandburg and the Age of Steel.This catalogue could go on indefinitely.Shall we be crude and demand of poetry something more than: “The best words in their best order,” as Coleridgesaid; something more than beauty, idealism and timelessness?Then let us ask poetry to portray us as we are, our times, our ways of life. Who but our poets can give these supreme word-pictures to our descendants? How shall these children of our children visualize our era if our poets are silent?Through the cold, factual lines of historians? The limited dimensions of painters, sculptors and musicians? The poet is all and more than these.They may know us for tall skyscrapers, for slim silhouettes and changing fashions of apparel, for syncopation and disturbing opinions on sex and marriage, for birth control and a new Supreme Court, for sit-down strikes and stand-up lunches. But who shall tell them of our souls, of the innermost heart and head of us, if our poets are stilled?lt follows that we should cultivate our poets. Permit their flowering to complete maturity. Allow no more Chattertons, or Poes, or Lindsays.”Seven wealthy towns contend for Homer dead,Through which the living Homer begged his   bread!”Some people have been heard to say: “Why become wrought up over poetry being silenced in our generation? lt has withstood the buffetings of many years.”May I answer them at once, now?Do they need to be told of the practical-mindedness engulfing us today? How often do you find time in this hectic life to read poetry, and, shutting your eyes, dream those necessary dreams of beauty, and become enchanted with long vistas of thought that you may follow endlessly?How often is this possible for the housewife, the business man and woman, the teacher and the salesman in America today? Yet poetry has always been of vital importance. It has inspired many great men. It still does when they find time to pursue it.Newton D. Baker wrote me once: “All my life I have tried to save some part of my time for the inspiration which the poets give.”Earl Baldwin’s favorite poet was his cousin, Rudyard Kipling, from whom he received great inspiration and still does. Many of our outstanding characters in public life are known to care for poetry. Many more love it in secret.It is not all practical and unpoetical in other lands.May I become personal for just a moment?I have sat by the Rhine, eating Rhine salmon, sipping Rhine wine, listening to Wagner’s Tristan or Götterddämmerung. I have come home leisurely from flower markets early in the morning laden with multi-colored blossoms after hours of stillness in an Austrian wood. I have lain on my back in a French field by a trout stream while a nightingale sang in the forest.I tell you these things only to stress your realization of how little real living is being done in our country now. We have no time for such delicious things. Nor do we seem to have time to encourage the delight in and understanding of poetry amongst children in kindergarten and first grade as they do in European countries. The tiniest tots lisp long lines of poetry. Even more especially the young men and women of these lands—France, Germany, Japan, etc.—make time for the discussion and criticism of poetry, ancient and modern. Tell me; do you find inspiration in noisy drives on Sunday through crowded streets on the way to the country, where you must search for hours for a quiet picnic spot and end up between a trailer and a bus?Is there poetry in night-clubs?—and department stores?—and great, grinding factories?Our poet will tell you that there is human interest there, and that these scenes are typical of our times, but he cannot deny that this sort of existence does not create a public for the reading of his poems. His books of verse do not sell today. He must turn to prose to eke out an existence. Entirely aside from Art, he must live first, and also make a living for his family and dependents. He cannot do this under present circumstances by writingpoetry.Few people are aware of the plight of poets in the United States. You will be interested in the following statistics compiled by our organization two years ago:It was found that the half-dozen topmost artists—let me stress this, the half-dozen topmost artists—in painting, sculpture, reproductive music, architecture and prose were earning amounts that ran into high figures annually. Certainly into five figures, with some few world-known individuals actually earning a hundred thousand dollars or more a year. And these statistics are not of 1929.Now let us turn to poets. Publishers have advised us of figures that average as follows: the foremost American poets consider themselves fortunate if they can acquire a thousand dollars per year. Usually this amount is nearer six to eight hundred dollars, and means writing a new book of verse, selling poems to magazines and newspapers, plus a lecture tour or two.This is the appalling truth, as well as the fact that publishers won’t take a chance on poetry, especially that of new, unknown poets. You cannot blame them. Anyone would prefer a best-seller.It is also true that most papers and magazines pay forpoetry at the rate of twenty-five cents a line, or less; and buy sonnets or anything shorter to fill in a column space.Most horribly true it is that the fifty or so poetry journals in the United States that come to life every year, have a most precarious existence and die out before the year’s end from lack of subscriptions and funds. Even the best ones. The two or three that have withstood these circumstances by a miracle of leadership through the years are threatened now with similar discontinuance. And even these, in most cases, have not been able to afford paying their contributors.Why should poets be the only artists to give away their life-work?It were well to look abroad and see what is being done in other countries today. Besides the facts that I have mentioned in connection with children and the youth of various nations studying poetry in all its forms, there are certain great organizations to consider.In France, L’Académle Française; in Germany, the Goethe-Haus; in Italy, d’Annunzio’s Accademia, and in England, of course, there is the Poet Laureate as well as the Civil List, upon which we may find some of the most outstanding names in English literature, receiving a life annuity. I shall only mention these. You know them all so well.Besides all this, the poet abroad has a certain aura of honor about him. His name is spoken with awe; he is honored and admired publicly; his books are read and criticized frequently. He is revered and honored in his own country.We must realize this could not be so in a land of pioneers, of stolid business, of practicality and speed, where poetryappears to be out-of-date, unnecessary and superfluous. One cannot ask too much.However, today we are beginning to show an understanding for the needs of poetry in America. We have taken the first step. We have created The Academy of American Poets.Its machinery is simple and practical. It is suited to the times. It is logical for the day when the individual princely endowment is growing more and more impossible. I will give you a quick picture of its plan.The project was founded about two and a half years ago as a Membership Corporation incorporated in New York State.It has two principal purposes: first, to encourage and foster the work of American poets of outstanding merit; second, to discover new poetic genius wherever it may be in the United States.As the main part of this program, The Academy of American Poets plans to award Fellowships which carry a stipend of five thousand dollars for the term of one year.Like the European government grants and the Nobel Prize, these Fellowships are only awarded for the highest achievement. Moreover, only those American poets whose regular income does not exceed five thousand dollars a year are eligible. (Which, may I add, eliminates practically none!)The number of these Fellowships will be determined by the estimated income of a trust fund, of which the Guaranty Trust Company is Trustee, and for which The Academy of American Poets was organized to receive donations.A board of twelve Chancellors or judges, chosen for their high literary standing, will make the awards.A prefatory award for accomplishment was made this year to Edwin Markham, whose “Man with the Hoe” we all know so well.Amongst the outstanding sponsors of The Academy are: Our beloved Mrs. Hammond, James Truslow Adams, Dr. Lewis Perry, Mrs. James Roosevelt, Dr. Harry A. Garfield, Mrs. Oliver Harriman, Mrs. Benjamin Harrison, Jo Davidson, the noted sculptor; Dr. William C. Beebe, of undersea fame; Ernest Schelling, Max Steuer, Dr. Henry Seidel Canby, Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, Mrs. Thomas Edison-Hughes, Walter de la Mare, Fritz Kreisler, the incomparable violinist; Fannie Hurst, Bishop Manning, Professor William McDougal, Philip Merivale, Lawrence Tibbett, Owen D. Young, and many others too numerous to mention now, but all prominent in their particular and widespread fields.In the two years since its incorporation, The Academy has had a full career. It has secured the endorsement of over one hundred college presidents from coast to coast. It has had posters in most of the great libraries of this country. Its literature has been dispersed by book-stores and clubs. Its speakers have gone from state to state carrying the story, spreading it far and wide. It has presented its own program several times over national networks, and been mentioned in many other broadcasts. Editorialists and columnists have helped its progress by writing of its plan in their papers and magazines.Miracles can happen, and dreams will come true. This one is well on its way to realization. But we must have the cooperation, approval and active help of all lovers ofpoetry.When I went to see Leonora Speyer with the idea of The Academy after it had been first informally discussed, she became silent, and, after a long pause, when I repeated my desire to know her opinion, she said: “It is so big it took my breath away. It would be perfection. The dream come true. But can it be done?”Being here today is one vast proof of my assertion to her that it could be done and would be done.You to whom I have been speaking are bearers of a message. Each listener is hereby appointed specially to take this word to their homes for The Academy.There is a Future for poetry in America today. It is aFuture important to all of you—your own family, your kin, your friends; to all who love poetry and poets. Wherever you live, it is important. The poet who is rewarded with a Fellowship of The Academy may be your neighbor, your best friend, your brother.The sooner the plan of The Academy is completed, the sooner will its benefits become known, and these are not limited to town or state, but its awards will be available to every American citizen who produces fine poetry, whether he lives in New York, California, Illinois or Georgia.I gave you a picture of this plan as it stands in black and white. There is so much more besides. The ideal involved visualizes improvement in all fields of poetical activity. Publication, teaching, reading, speaking, and so on. The field is untouched. Whole continents lie before us. And there is work to be done!This is a national organization, and you carry its message to all corners of our country. Carry it high in your hearts, carry it foremost in your minds.Through the stress and strain of daily living, ring your own pure note of idealism and love of beauty. Be an army of builders with a goal of construction. Build beauty for yourselves and for your children.Through the message of The Academy of American Poets make poetry a living thing once more.


The Next Poetic Wave …


The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.

~ David Foster Wallace



So when the day finally comes

I will probably have already

Checked out of the room,

Tired, so tired after years of words

And poems and voices and far too

Old to care anymore

About the nightly news.

And yet?

From somewhere six

Feet underground I will still be able to

Hear the wind, and like a flower

My body or what’s

Left of it will briefly rise and stir

As if in interest of even more of history’s

Passing events, and I, being merely a corpse

Will concede to write in the remaining fragments of

My mind and soul

A poem, and this poem

Will be my best poem

Heard by no one but my friends

Like Mrs. Applebee, who is in the lot

Next to me, who in life hated poetry

And who died at 83, or by the young

And newly dead Mr. Hastings who

Was is in love with Penelope and who was

In love with catastrophe and who dared

The poor young Mr. Hastings to

Have some quick sex sitting upon

Her balcony just outside

Her window ledge


So Yes

Sorry, I’m still here

Ever so briefly.

As it seems that

Life is always presenting us

With it’s own stories

Of death and romance

Honor and bravery

And love and war

And in this epic poem from

The great beyond I shall go on

To tell all of you, dear humanity about

How cold the earth can be and

How comic and how tragic it all is in the end

To finally realize what all the final answers

Are to the universe and what all the how’s & all

The why’s and etc.(s) mean and to be able to

Tell no one.


So OK,

Doug was right

(The Answer? It’s 42)

But please wait, please listen

For I am now merely a voice

Upon the wind and

I’m forgetting something important

As my dead memory is

Fading, the poem in my head,

My soul slowly decomposing

And the world, planet earth

Is finally ending and turning into

Just fire and ashes from above

So I’ll recite it

As quickly as I can

Here’s the poem

The last poem

And it goes something

Like this :

So here’s the poem

The last poem

And it goes something

Like this

So here’s the poem

The last poem

And it goes something

Like this

So here’s the poem

The last poem

And it goes something

Like this

Like this

Like this

Like … This:

It’s … This.

Don’t worry.

Stop worrying

And live

Because everything

Is beautiful

And the poem

The story,


Everything is beautiful

And the poem,

The story repeats

Everything is beautiful

Everything is beautiful

Every … Thing    is

Every … Thing  is   is   is   is







A smoke, a book, a cup of coffee.

These are the little things that get us through this sometimes weary world and all the rainy days.”


 R.M. EngelhardtThe Resurrection Waltz Poems R.M. Engelhardt

Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same



Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same. Lean down your ear upon the earth and listen.

The voice of forest water in the night, a woman’s laughter in the dark, the clean, hard rattle of raked gravel, the cricketing stitch of midday in hot meadows, the delicate web of children’s voices in bright air — these things will never change.

The glitter of sunlight on roughened water, the glory of the stars, the innocence of morning, the smell of the sea in harbors, the feathery blur and smoky buddings of young boughs, and something there that comes and goes and never can be captured, the thorn of spring, the sharp and tongueless cry — these things will always be the same.

All things belonging to the earth will never change — the leaf, the blade, the flower, the wind that cries and sleeps and wakes again, the trees whose stiff arms clash and tremble in the dark, and the dust of lovers long since buried in the earth — all things proceeding from the earth to seasons, all things that lapse and change and come again upon the earth — these things will always be the same, for they come up from the earth that never changes, they go back into the earth that lasts forever. Only the earth endures, but it endures forever.

The tarantula, the adder, and the asp will also never change. Pain and death will always be the same. But under the pavements trembling like a pulse, under the buildings trembling like a cry, under the waste of time, under the hoof of the beast above the broken bones of cities, there will be something growing like a flower, something bursting from the earth again, forever deathless, faithful, coming into life again like April.



~ Thomas Wolfe ~  You Can’t Go Home Again


The corridors of the big hotels are empty and the cigar smoke is hiding. A man comes down the stairway and notices that it’s raining; the windows are white. We sense the presence of a dog lying near him. All possible obstacles are present. There is a pink cup; an order is given and without haste the servants respond. The great curtains of the sky draw open. A buzzing protests this hasty departure. Who can run so softly? The names lose their faces. The street becomes a deserted track.
About four o’clock that same day a very tall man was crossing the bridge that joins the separate islands. The bells, or perhaps it was the trees, struck the hour. He thought he heard the voices of his friends speaking: “The office of lazy trips is to the right,” they called to him, “and on Saturday the painter will write to you. ”  The neighbors of solitude leaned forward and through the night was heard the whistling of streetlamps. The capricious house loses blood. Everybody loves a fire; when the color of the sky changes it’s somebody dying. What can we hope for that would be better? Another man standing in front of a perfume shop was listening to the rolling of a distant drum. The night that was gliding over his head came to rest on his shoulders. Ordinary fans were for sale; the y bore no more fruit. People were running without knowing why in the direction of the estuaries of the sea. Clocks, in despair, were fingering their rosaries. The cliques of the virtuous were being formed. No one went near the great avenues that are the strength of the city. A single storm was enough. From a distance or close at hand, the damp beauty of prisons was not recognized. The best refuges are stations because the travelers never know which way to go. You could read in the lines of the palm that the most fragrant vows of fidelity have no future. What can we do with muscle-bound children? The warm blood of bees is preserved in bottles of mineral water. We have never seen sincerities exposed. Famous men lose their lives in the carelessness of those beautiful houses that make the heart flutter. How small they seem, these rescued tides! Earthly happinesses run in floods. Each object is Paradise.
A great bronze boulevard is the shortest road. Magical squares do not make good stopping places. Walk slowly and carefully; after a few hours you can see the pretty nose-bleed bush. The panorama of consumptives lights up. You can hear every footfall of the underground travelers. And yet the most ordinary silence reigns in these narrow places. A traveler stops, changing expression. Wondering, he approaches the colored bush. Without doubt he wants to pick it but all he can do is shake hands with another traveler who is covered with stolen jewels. Their eyes exchange sulphurous sounds like the murmuring of a dry moon, but a glance disperses the most wonderful meetings. No one could recognize the pale-faced travelers.


~ From The Magnetic Fields by Andre Breton And Philippe Soupault

The Inner Meaning of Poetic Form


It is becoming clear at this moment in American literary history that the most dynamic and promising trend in poetry today is the expansive movement, or the new formalism as it is also known. Periodicals, conferences, poetry collections, critical essays and monographs are recognizing and celebrating this turn in poetics; young poets either embrace the new mode or at least accommodate their theory to it. So this is a good moment to put this fashion to the test—to see whether it is just a fashion, or if it promises something deeper, some transformation in the nature of poetic art that will bring our practice closer to its true function. As one of the founders and spokespersons of the movement, I nevertheless recognize that mere technique in poetic form and narrative, however skillful and admirable, is not enough; great poetry has been written in free verse, and trivial poetry has been written in tight, ingenious meters and cleverly organized narrative structures. The promise of the new trend will be realized only if poets and readers are able to take the formal elements of poetry at their deepest level, as talismans or psychic technologies designed to unlock the gates between the human and the natural, the conscious and the unconscious, the present and the past, the rational and the chaotic, life and death. Or rather, even to invoke these dualisms is to be betrayed by a language that is not truly poetic, not truly capable of the deep science in which the dualisms disappear. When we respond to the meter or the mythic plot of a poem, we are doing so as a member of the species Homo sapiens, as a primate, a mammal, a vertebrate, a living organism, a marvellously intricate piece of carbon chemistry, a play of physical particles and forces, an involuted knot of spacetime. In other words, we are not confined, as we can be by unmeasured denotative statement, to the most recent level of biological evolution, that brought about the specialization of the linguistic areas of the left temporal cortex, but released into our entire evolutionary history. The pleasure of meter, as I have shown by the research reported in my essay The Neural Lyre, is based upon the three-second rhythm of the human information processing cycle or neural present, and mediated by the secretion of biologically ancient neurotransmitters. New research by Colwyn Trevarthen and Ellen Dissanayake shows that mothers and newborns conduct their prelinguistic conversations in a three-second antiphon of “motherese,” and that mammals conduct their continuous little dance of movement, attention saccades, and expressive action in a three-second cycle. But meter is important at much deeper levels yet. As the psycholinguists Michael Lynch and Kim Oller have shown, within the three-second short-term memory window there is room for about ten shorter beats, corresponding to syllables, or to the shortest interval in which human action reflexes can still operate; within this 1/3 second period there are nested about ten yet shorter beats, corresponding to the minimum interval at which we can perceive the order of two different sounds; and within this tiny moment there is room for about ten tinier ones, the minimum interval at which we can identify anything at all. The brain uses the meter in which neural firings are exchanged as a carrier of precise information about what is perceived or remembered, and the enzyme and RNA factories that construct the body’s proteins consult their central DNA library in an intricately hierarchical rhythmic pattern. Ilya Prigogine has shown that complex chemical reactions, especially those involving catalysts, have a rhythmic temporal structure, and quantum chemists and physicists have long known that matter can be described as the nodes where the different local periodicities of energy quanta find their harmonic resolution—matter as a kind of rhyme… . So when a poet uses and an audience hears meter, we are taking a first step into an organic recognition of our unity with the physical universe; we are, if you like, celebrating our participation in the being of Gaia herself. We are also affirming our solidarity with the whole past of the world, and making it possible for our creations to be the issue of generative forces that go far beyond the capabilities of our clever little linguistic centers. Poetry becomes an accelerated version of evolution itself, of that miraculous feedback among variation, selection, and heredity which produced the orchid, the sperm whale, the tobacco mosaic virus, the giant panda and the coral reef. Perhaps indeed this is the meaning of the myth of Orpheus, the first poet in the Greek mythology, who, like Solomon, or like Vyasa, the mythical poet of the Mahabharata, could speak the languages of animals and plants and stones. Orpheus’ journey to the underworld and back (as Virgil says, any fool can go down there, but to return—this is the labor, this is the task) is more than just a search for his lost wife Eurydice. Or rather, the search for his lost wife means the recovery of the organic connection with the rest of the universe. The point is that Orpheus can make his journey only because he possesses and can use his lyre, the instrument by which Greek poets kept the measure of their meter and gave their lines a rhyme. It is the lyre that opens the gates of the underworld; and it is when Orpheus fails to trust its magic, and looks back to see if Eurydice is following, that he tragically loses her forever. We can follow the mysterious logic of the myth still further; for the lyre of Orpheus (and of his father Apollo) was originally the invention of Hermes, who traded it for the caduceus, the snake-entwined rod by which he conducts mortals between the lands of the living and the dead. It so happens that the double helix of the two snakes is an exact model of the shape of the DNA molecule; and this is not just a coincidence, for the double helix is perhaps the best intuitive diagram of any feedback process, and DNA is the feedback process of feedback processes. If the lyre, then, is in some sense equivalent to the caduceus, we may infer that the meter of poetry is analogous to the meter of biological reproduction and evolution. This is the central insight of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. Other versions of this talisman are the magic flute of Mozart and da Ponte, the golden bough of Virgil, the metatron of Moses (also a combination of rod and snake), the drum of the Asiatic shamans, the bagpipe of the ancient Magyar bards—even perhaps the “Mcguffin” of Alfred Hitchcock. But this is perhaps to give too great an emphasis to meter. One could make much the same argument for narrative technique, that marvellous system by which time takes on its strange, unspacelike asymmetry. A story, like a melody, is any sequence of events that are retrodictable, that is, can be shown to have been inevitable once they have happened, but not predictable before they have happened; because the events themselves bring about a new kind of universe in which their antecedents now add up to an irreversible chain of causes. (The most crass example of this is the detective story, whose solution is obvious once the sleuth unveils it, but not before). In this sense we may perhaps take the rod of Hermes’ caduceus to mean the fixed retrodictability of a story, and the snakes to mean its protean unpredictability. The unpredictability of a story is what makes us want to know what happens next—and this is why the Sultan spares the life of the storyteller Sheherezade, and Minos spares the life of Orpheus. In this light the duality of meter takes on a deeper significance still. The fixed pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables (or long and short syllables, or tone-changing and tone-unchanging ones as in Chinese verse) bears the same relation to the varying pattern of spoken cadence that floats above the fixed framework, that the predictable bears to the unpredictable elements of a story. Or one could even say that meter was micro-story, or that story was macro-meter. Thus if we are to take seriously the return to meter and narrative proclaimed by the new formalists and expansivists, a whole new set of intellectual, imaginative, and social responsibilities open up for the poet. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the old responsibilities will come back in a new form. Essentially, the poets of the coming era must be shamans. A shaman is not just a private person voicing his or her personal angsts or expressing purely personal esthetic, philosophical, or political opinions. A shaman speaks to, and for, a whole culture, as the unifying mouthpiece of its own deepest collective musings, and as its representative when it consults its own dead sages and sibyls. Moreover it is part of the duty of the shaman to be to some extent public, even popular, to sell his or her visions in the marketplace, to hear and respond to the needs and yearnings of the patrons whose conscience they are. The new shaman must also learn the dialects of the tribe—and that tribe is now global, the human race itself. The most important dialects are the ones that are shared among all peoples, and are taken as legitimate media of exchange and criteria of agreement—trade, law, technology, and above all, science. Science is the way we learn the languages of all of the rest of nature, beyond our human circle, and thus is even more important for a new poet to know than trade and law. Technology connects science with the others—the special technologies of the poet are meter, storytelling, and imagery (which I have not dealt with here because it is so well handled elsewhere). Once we adopt the responsibilities of the shaman, many wonderful things that as poets we find increasingly difficult to achieve will suddenly become easy. One of them is finding a subject: we are engaged in the work of educating and healing our fellow-citizens, and we need only speak of what they need to know and hear. Another is being funny. The moment we recognize ourselves as the peculiar kind of primate mammalian animal that we are, trapped and incarnate in the material slapstick of physical existence, forced in the theater of human miscommunication to give and receive gifts from others in order to survive at all, laughter is hard to avoid. Shakespeare, perhaps the greatest shaman of all time, who fulfills all the difficult criteria I have tendentiously laid out here, knew all this very well. Another suddenly available resource will be vision. Instead of having to strain our humdrum daily perceptions for some little plankton-like smear of insight, we will have almost the opposite problem: how to make the miracle of existence, with its humming and ringing levels of concentric complexity, local enough to convey in an image or anecdote. Finally, the true shamans will find that rarest of all contemporary resources: a real audience, a public not drawn to the poet in hopes of recognition for its own poetic efforts, nor attracted by the fading glamor of another era’s poetic achievements, nor hoping to share a fellowship of social and cultural failure; but coming together in the deeply pleasurable, ancient, ad hoc ritual of world-construction.


~ Frederick Turner