Myths are all around us. There are those who think it is not so, that myths belong to a previous age, an ancient, pre-scientific time. But in fact, we encounter them everywhere: ancient myths and modern myths, myths of religion and myths which spring from science itself and from scientific enquiry, myths from business and from politics. Tales to give racial or social significance and cohesion. And there are family and private myths - stories that do the same on a domestic or personal scale. Narratives to maintain the individual psyche. Some may become loose canons and end up fragmenting what they should bind: the myths of racial purity and racial supremacy, for example, which devastated large areas of the world during the previous century.
When I was growing up there were those in the extended family who would tell me of the myth of infinite human progress and perfectibility. That particular myth was already dead, of course: killed by the first World War and buried by The Second, as an uncle of mine would have it, but they still believed it, they had been brought up with it. I found it a seductive myth, even if I never did quite take it in. There were others : the myth of Papal Infallibility was one. I never did get my head around that. Like unto it was the myth of the infallibility of British Justice. Some, I think, thought me almost a traitor because I would not swallow that one - and strangely, I have no idea what prevented me: I had no obvious reason, no evidence at that time not to believe. Years later, of course, when the great backlog of miscarriages of justice began to trail through our High Courts, I felt some vindication. The Guildford Four and Maguire Seven, The Birmingham Six and many, many others. So not all myths are good. Some have served their purpose and now work against it. We have to be careful which myths we assimilate.
It is through myth, I believe, that poetry and religion shake hands. Wallace Stevens wrote that poetry had supplanted religion, but I see it more as a handing on of a baton - perhaps only temporarily. We have to remember, though, that religion is not myth, even if myth is religion. Myths are not stories which are not true. neither are they true stories, they are truths told in stories. They are not fables about non-existent entities, but revelations concerning realities.
We live in a world that we do not fully understand. There are powers at work that are beyond us. This is so even for the scientists at the cutting edge of discovery, perhaps especially so for them. But we - and they - must try to understand. Furthermore, this world that we do not understand is changing in ways that we do not understand, and so we are striving - before it is too late - to create the myth that will look back to remind itself of our origins, even as it looks forward and attempts to tune our hearts (some might prefer to say souls) to that which we are becoming.
To me poetry and myth seem inseparable. Poetry at its best shares the mythic quality that lies at the heart of religion. A narrative becomes mythic when it has a discernable truth running through it like a vein of gold through a landscape. Poetry and religion are the two alternatives, the two main tools at our disposal to mine that vein. What poetry brings to the task is its focus on the vein, its refusal to be led astray by the extraneous, more prosaic facts of the narrative. Poetic truth is mythic truth, and myth, as I have stressed, is religion. Margaret Whyte has said of myths; without them, we were born yesterday. They are indeed, our history, but that is not to imply that they carry historical truth. They express our root,. they picture us as we were and in that picture we see ourselves for what we are.
And the great dynamo driving all these myths is death. People the world over are coming to terms as best they may with what for the individual must be life's biggest fact of all. They have always done so, of course, but in modern times there has been an increasing tendency to find the official myths wanting, and these being Do-It-Yourself times, for the individual to attempt to find a bespoke narrative. To some extent the days of the one-style-suits-all have passed. Possibly people in past times did the same, but were more reticent about it, not wanting to break ranks - or be excommunicated or burnt as a heretic. I have reached the age at which it begins to seem more and more urgent to thrash out an exit strategy. I can recall the moment when the fact of death first became a reality for me. It was war time, so I had heard a lot about death and people being killed, but it was all very remote, like a film that didn't hold my interest. For me and for my friends war was fun. We went out mornings after air raids looking for shrapnel, even bits off aircraft if we were lucky. I was at Junior school, so would have been between 7 and 11, probably somewhere around 8-9. I was walking home from school with my friend - he who was the subject of my poem Pistol-Whipped - when we came upon a dead fox and a dead rat. We said it was a rat, but upon reflection it could have been a large mouse or other rodent. They had both been skinned, the fox, I think expertly, the rodent perhaps not so well. It was a traumatic moment, but the trauma passed very quickly. My friend pointed out how like a map the fox's body was with its veins and arteries and its bumps and blemishes - plus a few scratches which we immediately decided were claw marks. The devil's! - and soon we were concocting stories as to how the two animals had met their deaths and how they had come to end up skinned. I do remember that soon after this there were dreams and fantasies about death, which over the years, as other deaths (and the mythic teachings of Christianity) were assimilated, began to assume the shape of a private myth. At some point in the last 20 - 30 years poetry took over the organising-integrating role from religion. Impossible to say exactly when or how this happened, but soon after that I began to read Wallace Stevens and to discover that he had trodden a similar path. Not the same path exactly, for I did not feel, as he did, that poetry had to fill the gap left by an empty Heaven. It was simply that it worked more efficiently for me.
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