The Role of the Poet in Contemporary Culture(s)

By Jody Aliesan. From the Raven Chronicles, Vol. 6, No. 1, “Power of Language" Fall, 1996

These days, especially in a city, our definition of culture/community is often something other than geographic: it’s a matter of affinity, experience, solidarity, common purpose and struggle. For example, I consider myself a member of:

—the women’s community, ever since the second wave of feminism in the late 60’s, early 70’s, when I had the first experience of my words being useful to others, the function of the “cultural worker”;
—what I will call, in order to be most inclusive, the queer community: gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans-gendered people;
—the “counter-culture” or “alternative” community, although I might not choose those labels;
—and other communities, such as those who have suffered rape, or clinical depression.

But my sense of the place of the poet in a culture has come most (consciously or unconsciously) from what’s leaked into me out of my Irish ancestory.

Gaelic bards were perceived as a particular obstacle by the colonizers, not just because they epitomized a cultural tradition which the occupiers hoped to destroy, but, more practically, because they were figures of political influence in their own right, second only to the chieftains, to whom they sat next to in council. —Declan Kiberd, “Irish Literature and Irish History,” The Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland.

The resident officials in Ireland gave considerable thought to the wiping-out of the two significant and overlapping elements in Irish society; the traveling craftsmen, messengers and entertainers, and the learned class of brehons [jurists] and poets…. This would have torn asunder significant parts of the structure of Irish society, more particularly by eliminating the jurists—the poets were more difficult to silence. —D.B. Quinn, The Elizabethans and the Irish.

In ancient Irish/Gaelic culture, the people, led by their chieftains, were married to the land. But there was an itinerant learned class who moved with safe conduct around the country, uniting the nation:

—the druids (a word I hesitate to use because of what’s been invented about them by New Age writers. If you read anything that claims to know what the druids believed or what rituals they used, it’s creative writing. Everything was oral, and it was all lost). They were priests, healers, and philosophers;
—the brehons, who were judges, legal counselors, and scholars of the law;
—the filii, the poets, who were the seers, historians, and keepers of the myths and sagas. They looked forward and backward and spoke of what they saw.

All this was orally produced and transmitted, and the filii studied 21 years before they were considered poets—they were walking libraries among the clans, and members of scholarly communities.

Most important to me is their twofold function: telling the truth, and speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves. Giving them words. The poets were called to sit beside chieftains because they could be counted on to do this. And they were protected from the consequences.
After this ancient culture was finally crushed, the poets became dispossessed outcasts sheltered by the people; itinerant teachers and custodians of literacy during the Penal Years of the Seventeenth Century when the native Irish were forbidden education. They were hunted down, because they raised the spirit of the people and reminded them of their history, of who they were. Their power, of critique and satire, was feared.
So what does this mean for me, personally? What does it have to do with the present? During the reign of the English King Henry VIII, ancient Irish manuscripts on animal skin were cut into strips and used to stiffen the spines of English books. Now these books are being taken apart and the strips recovered. One of them includes a fragment that reads: “The poet is the wick in the lamp of the community. Not the oil, and not the flame; but the simple piece of cloth that unites the two so that the people can see their own light.”

I am a member of communities. I feel a responsibility to them. Being a poet is a job, a calling, a way of life (also a doom, a fate, and a curse). It’s a function among other human beings, an absurd assignment—but somebody has to do it.

So I contribute to my communities as a poet by doing things like organizing benefit readings for Hands Off Washington; or providing an invocation at Tilth’s 20th Anniversary conference; dedicating royalties (such as they are), or donating books and performances to auctions. Most of all I believe I contribute by living my life, writing about what moves me, from my community-influenced point of view, and telling the truth: pursuing it down through the mazes of my own self-delusion and denial.

But here’s the central paradox: I can do this best if I’m separate, detached, standing one step away, independent and spiritually itinerant. If I don’t belong to anyone, no one owns me. Then I can speak the truth, even if I’m not protected from the consequences.

It’s a matter of binocular vision: one eye is the personal “I”, the ego, the personality; the other is the mythic eye, that sees my life as representative of human experience. So, my community, my culture, is our common humanity. I aspire to speak for that.

from the Raven Chronicles, Vol. 6, No. 1, “Power of Language”, Fall, 1996
The Raven Chronicles. A Journal of art, literature and the spoken word

Jody Aliesan 1943—2012, poet, writer, and feminist

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