The following is from the Introduction to my forthcoming book, Awesome Your Life:
When students show up in my Reading Poetry class at the University of Pittsburgh, they’re usually taken aback to discover that I think the only reason to read poetry is to become a poet in the fullest, most sacred sense of that term—a sense that’s been largely forgotten both by contemporary academia and by modern publishing poets.
I explain to my class that real poetry is stuff which is the side-effect of poeisis. In ancient Greek, “poeisis” meant “making.” What is made in poeisis? The soul. What is the process of poeisis? It has various names, but in the Western tradition it’s been widely known as alchemy. This alchemy is a deep work of collective and personal transformation and evolution. It is the mysterious union of the conscious with the unconscious, of the witnessing faculty of the mind (Shiva) with the electric energy of the subtle body (Shakti). I tell my class that anything anywhere that we have, any painting or piece of writing or house or garment or nation which was made by a person or group of people who used the occasion of making it as a chance to imaginatively work out evolution, collective or personal, is poetry—it is alive, it has a restless, provoking energy, a soul of its own. Looking on it, enjoying it, teaching it, reading it, hearing it, living in it can stimulate our own souls and launch us further on our own alchemical trip. The result of successful alchemy in any human life is abiding, grounded ecstatic bliss, creative potency, and joy. Lots of things are made by human hands which are not part of this alchemy—these things might entertain or decorate or serve a purpose—but they don’t stir, alter, enlarge the spirit of the one who engages with them.
For my startled students, it usually takes a while for it to sink in that I’m really talking seriously about all this crazy stuff—alchemy, electric energy, ecstatic bliss—and worst of all—the soul! They’re at first disturbed to understand that our course is not devoted to parsing iambs from dactyls but is rather a course in becoming a poet in the highest, deepest, most radical way—that is, a course in becoming one who makes the soul in himself, in others, and in the world manifest —a course in becoming a person fully alive in the expression of her genius, fully joyful and illuminated with strength. Gradually, as the weeks pass on and they see I’m really willing to support them on this undertaking, they become restless with excitement. They’re able to follow me when I suggest that they don’t need to believe in or prove this notion of soul in order to participate in it—they get it that soul is itself a poetic theory, an enabling fiction, something created. That which creates is that which is created. Should this surprise us?
All this strangeness is predicated on certain premises which I hold:
1) The only reason to read or write poetry at all is to be helped on your own trip towards becoming a poet in this strong sense.
2) A poet is not an insipid person who writes nice verses and gets them published to widespread approval in pretentious magazines among polite professors.
3) A poet is a soul-maker. She’s a dynamic force that radically changes the movement of thought and imagination within her generation. A real poet is a shaman and a healer, a warrior and a scientist, a philosopher and a living dream. She might write some verses or she might not. The verses might be published or they might not. This has exactly no consequence or bearing for the poet’s actual purpose and mission, which is to bring soul into the world, by whatever means available and necessary.
It’s presumptuous of me to assume that students who sign up for a course in Reading Poetry want to do this weird business of becoming a poet in the most profound sense— after all, reading poetry sounds like a nice, easy, fireside activity. But becoming a true poet—that is not easy and that is not safe at all. It’s vital, intimate, demanding and thrilling work. It’s an adventure into the depths of the unconscious, into the life-force of the body. It’s a descent into the underworld whose outcome is uncertain.
I operate my presumption on the faith that anyone who wanders into my classroom is there by virtue of a synchronous alignment and is ready to ripen in this way. After years of teaching, I’ve found I’m very largely right. My students come to me stressed-out, hung-up, disaffected, sick with worry, cynical, stifled and depressed in a thousand ways. Half of them don’t think they’re creative or imaginative at all and heavily doubt that anything we can do together will change that. Yet after a semester together I see the overwhelming majority of my students blossom into poets of real and dazzling power—which is to say, people who are capable of stirring and expressing the deepest levels of imagination in themselves and others. They become relaxed, confident, capable. They become truly responsible in that they learn to be responsive to their own soul.
My basic insight as a teacher is to recognize that there’s no use in anyone reading the written stuff called poetry or attempting to write it unless that someone is themselves on a journey of poetic evolution, a journey to become a soul-maker. To start students on this evolution, I invite them to participate in a course of adventure which the famous mythographer Joseph Campbell observed as the underlying movement in all myth and folktale. This adventure is widely known as “the hero’s journey” but as I use it, I prefer to call it “the mythic journey” both to denote the non-gender specificity of the process and also to allow for the adjustments and elaborations which I extend out of Campbell’s work.
When we consciously, deliberately enter the mythic journey we begin the work of joining our conscious with our unconscious and so we become much more alive to symbol and metaphor, allusion and story, character and drama— all this stuff is the stuff of dreams, and it is also the stuff of poetry and myth.
The mythic journey is a labor of answering our heart’s call to evolve by deliberately engaging with and taking on the challenges offered by our own unconscious. It stirs up stunning synchronicities, omens, and mysterious forces in our lives. It is a symbolic and imaginative process but not “merely” so – because as we do it we find the symbols and the imaginations that we meet with in our fantasies and dreams becoming living realities outside of us.
When we start to adventure into unknown and magical territory, we become hungry for the poetry of others, wanting guidance and confirmation that the path we’re walking can be navigated. We become eager to create poetry—in verse or in action. If we’re not actively travelling this path, the poetry of others and the poetry that we ourselves generate is dull and irrelevant.
What I teach is a process of becoming a soul-maker. In this process, we liberate our creativity and our joy, our power and our purpose. We become imaginatively rich and spiritually vibrant.
The interesting thing about soul-making is that everyone craves it – an enlarged imaginative perception of themselves and the world, a deeper emotional connection to their own hearts and to the hearts of others, a wilder capacity for joy—and yet we have almost no societally sanctioned space for it. Soul-making is the rightful province of humanities education, as the depth psychologist James Hillman has pointed out—yet in the present-day scrupulously secular academy, the word “soul” creates a scandal. Depth psychology itself makes room for it—but how many people have access to their very own archetypal analyst? In my work as a teacher, I bring soul-making back to the secular humanities classroom—and in the present work I offer soul-making to the world at large.
I’ve taught budding neuroscientists, engineers, writers, medical doctors, philosophers, historians, linguists, and mathematicians—and people who had no notion what they wanted to do. I’ve seen orthodox religious students undergo ecstatic Whitmanian spiritual awakenings, stoic pre-meds unleash tearful emotional breakthroughs, and business marketing majors write poems that made me feel as if the top of my head had blown off. I’ve come to understand:
No matter who you are or what you do, you have genius within you that demands to be brought forth. It is not too weird, too useless, or too fluffy to go about the labor of soul-making. Through my own work and that of my students I’ve come to see that the soul will have its way with us whether we will it or not. Our resistances to the process of undergoing deep adventure is just our fear and clinging to the surface stabilities of life.
If you’re clinging to the surface, if you’re afraid and tired and empty and see no lightning bolts of passion in your life, it is possible that you can liberate yourself and those around you by taking up the tools and processes this book offers. This world, as the poet John Keats told us, is not a vale of a tears. It’s a vale of soul-making: a place to flame the little sparks of divinity that we are into roaring fires capable of our own unique bliss. Keats suggested that we make our souls by learning to read the terrors of the world through the expansive wisdom of our hearts. This process is an inevitable one—it can happen very slowly, over a million life times, or it can happen right now, in this one, if the work is undertaken.