Poetry, Story & Ritual: The Three Strange Angels
By William Ayot
Written for a talk William gave on 6.7.2020 for Online Events called
Men & the Quest for Soul: A Mythopoetic Journey. You can find William’s website here.
Poetry, Story & Ritual: The Three Strange Angels
Was the skald who first recited Beowulf a poet or a storyteller? The answer of course, is both. It was only later that story and poetry separated out, like the various liquids in an apothecary’s jar. In our over compartmentalised and reductionist world, poems are one thing, stories another, and yet it has always been true that “a metaphor is a myth in brief” and that images in poems are the seeds of narrative. From both a developmental and a healing perspective poems and stories are interchangeable. Be they parables, trickster tales, fairy stories or ancient myths, they have the metaphorical and imagistic ‘otherness’ to engage, transport, and purge. Moreover, there’s an increasing body of science that is beginning to ‘prove’ what poets, storytellers and shamans have instinctively known for millennia – that storytelling and poetry helps to grow the brain: by laying down neural pathways, or ‘bridges’ and strengthening them through repetition; by developing linguistic, rhythmic and memory skills, by altering brainwave patterns, and by engaging both hemispheres of the brain.
In working with groups and individuals in the field of mytho-poetics for over twenty years, I have come to see poetry, story and ritual as the ‘three strange angels’ invoked by D H Lawrence in his poem Song of a Man Who Has Come Through. Put together these three angels offer us an extraordinary palette of options for growth and healing. If used judiciously and adeptly, they really can ‘bring us to the Hesperides”, the Happy Isles that Lawrence imagines us getting to, beyond our tribulations.
Historically, e-mail is less than twenty years old, and the postal service less than two hundred, while the printing press has been around about five, and written language less than forty centuries. Stories, poems and rituals however, are as old as man – maybe a million years old. They hold the building blocks, the very foundations of every culture in the world. There’s a line, a golden thread, that runs back from Shakespeare through Chaucer and the Beowulf poet, through Virgil and Homer to a chanting ‘medicine’ man in the caves of Lascaux – and beyond him to an alpha male and his ‘tribe’ of chimpanzees in Africa holding formal rituals (i.e. witnessed, structured and led) to warn off the threat of an approaching storm. Our all too dominant and rational left brains think of ourselves as post enlightenment, logical beings, but the human reality is that of infinitely older creatures – vulnerable, suggestible, creative and wise. Today’s healers and urban shamans, ignore these extraordinary tools at their peril.
And if we follow the golden thread back, starting long before the separation of mind and body, we find poetry, story, theatre and the performing/ritualising arts inextricably linked to healing and initiatory growth. En-chant-ment and incantation were vital tools passed down from the earliest practitioners and were as intrinsic to healing as the creation of spells. These dark and primitive practices were left behind long ago, of course, as we moved into the world of modern medicine and computers – except that prescriptions, are still written to be repeated like a chant or mantra to this very day. “Take one tablet, twice a day”… says the little incantation on the side of the pack of Prozac. You are even enjoined to ritualise this activity, regularly repeating the dose at the same time of day for a very specific period…. There’s a deeply wired, instinctive relationship in people’s minds and hearts to the repetitions and rhythms of poetry and chants, and between image and song, on the one hand and symbolic action (ritual, dance, activity) on the other.
No matter how sophisticated we become, we still have a fundamental, if unconscious need for ritual. As much as the cat that welcomes us every time we enter her territory by ritually circling around our legs, we seek out opportunities to ritualise; symbolically marking changes of state – such as marriage – by ritual acts such as the placing of a ring on a finger, so that the psyche/soul (which deals in symbols not data) may take in and digest the facts of change.
I learned much of my story (and poetic) technique from shamans, medicine teachers, what some people call witch doctors. Living in exile and mainly dispossessed now, these men and women eat, sleep and dream their stories as vital, essential, life-giving mythologies. They talk in terms of story as a living entity, and say that it needs nurturing and feeding. They think of a myth or a tale as something that holds more than just a message or a “learning opportunity”. They know that it carries the weight and wisdom of an entire culture. These people are weavers of stories, who deal in incantation and enchantment. They bind spells and formulate rituals using their stories and chants with almost surgical precision. They astonish, move, teach and empower. They are entertainers and visionaries, leaders, priests and healers. They are the true inheritors of the ancient traditions. At our best, as artists and healers, I believe, we can fold their unique skills into our own practice. In short we can be like the bards of old.
Sadly, in the West, we have lost much of our indigenous magic. In fact, it’s fair to say that there is something in the modern world that actively works against the mysterious, that seeks to suppress the imagination and stifle dreams. There’s a part of us that doesn’t want to listen to stupid old stories.
Meanwhile the god has left the garden
The muse lies minimised at the corner of our screens
Not dead, not buried but ignored and unseen
Like a doodle at the edge of an action plan…
Fortunately there is another part of us, which I think of as an alert and curious six-year-old, who only has to hear the word story to become fully engaged and attentive. This is the part of us that storytellers meet on a daily basis – the part that wants to follow Theseus into the Labyrinth, the bit that fights dragons and trolls. Shamans know that this is the bit that needs to be met, the bit that’s capable of awe and wonder, hatred and compassion, the bit that’s capable of anything and eager to learn. As healers, this is the part we need to connect with, so that, picking up the ancient thread, we can then lead people away from the devouring Minotaur.
It’s not always automatic, nor is it easy. I have stood in rehab centres, prisons, boardrooms and business schools around the world and I have seen that little part coming alive in people who then practice not responding to it. They deliberately defend against it – such is the power of the left brain’s tyranny. If we want to help, develop or heal such people we need to find ways of cracking the ‘defences’ of those who, long before, shut down and armoured up for survival’s sake.
This is where a poem can serve – to reach across a chasm, to break down a wall, to kick in a door or throw a life-belt. Poetry’s psycho-active ability (like music or drumming) to elicit emotions, and break through barriers, calls for confidence and authenticity. That means knowing your material and having the sensibility and presence to embody the poem so that it lands in the body of the listener, so that you transmit the poem as an experience.
This is what Lawrence’s three strange angels promise and deliver. Poetry, story and ritual each have, in their different ways, the ability to outsmart, confront, or bypass the controlling mind; to access and present the grounded reality of experience. Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, once went against received wisdom by saying that we don’t look for meaning in our lives. He said we are looking for something deeper. “I think what we’re seeking”, he said, “is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive”.
If through poetry story and ritual we can help others to experience this rapture, and by doing so heal the broken and diminished parts of themselves, we will have done some good. We will also be a part of an ancient continuum that connects us to the core of human experience.
© William Ayot