On Poetry and Prophecyposted on 02 Nov 2016
On poetry and prophecy by Jonathan Taylor
[Jonathan Taylor is a poet, novelist and memoirist. His books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), the memoir Take Me Home: Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself (Granta, 2007), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013). He lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.
This article first appeared on the Lonely Crowd website and is reproduced here at the request of the author.]
I’m currently working towards a second poetry collection, which will revolve around ideas of prophecy. Of course, there is an ancient connection between poetry and prophecy, which goes back, via the Book of Revelations, to pre-Christian, pagan documents. Enuma Anu Enlil (When the Gods Anu and Enlil ...) is a case in point: it dates back well over three thousand years to the ancient Babylonian empire, and consists of a large number of tablets, on which astrological observations and omens are carved. If not exactly what we might understand as a ‘poem’ or sequence of poems nowadays, the language is poetic, elliptical, full of imagery and symbolism. It is almost as if, in straining towards prophecy, language necessarily fragments, fractures, reaches towards symbols and metaphors: it becomes, that is, poetic. On a more mundane level, you can see this in modern newspaper horoscopes, which are often structured like miniature poems (even when that poetry is stereotyped and banal).
So I’m very interested in the ways in which prophecy emerges from poetry (and vice versa, I think). Of course, the connection between poetry and prophecy might sound over-blown a post-Romantic era; after all, the idea of the ‘poet as prophet’ is a peculiarly Romantic concept, taken up by writers as diverse as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Carlyle – and, of course, Shelley who famously declared that poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves.
It’s hard to take this seriously in this age of Larkin and irony – though I think the attitude persists, sometimes ironised, sometimes underground (as in some of Larkin’s poetry), and sometimes closer to the surface (as in some of Ted Hughes’s work, and certain kinds of American, often male, poetry criticism). The idea of the poet as prophet just won’t go away.
Now, I’m not a prophet by any means. God no. But I am fascinated by the prophetic element of poetry (which, as I say, is sometimes unconscious); and, conversely, by the poetic elements of prophecy. However much we may sneer at the overlap between poetry and prophecy, as I say, it just won’t go away.
Nor will the idea of prophecy in general: it is everywhere in our culture, despite the peculiar notion that we live in a post-religious, unsuperstitious society. Politicians, economists, physicists, TV pundits, the CIA, generals, soldiers, educators, all indulge – or are expected to indulge – in forms of prophecy. The whole Brexit campaign on both sides was based on divergent prophecies. Even those representatives of secular modern science, doctors, are also prophets, in that they are expected to be able to predict the progress of diseases and cures. This is why the collection I am writing does not merely consist of new versions of ancient prophecies, but also of modern and contemporary forms of divination, and the failure of divination. The latter is suggested in the poem ‘A Chaos Theory of Parkinson’s,’ which is based in part on Oliver Sacks’s famous book Awakenings (1973), where he came to link the failure of L-Dopa to control Parkinsonian symptoms with the radical unpredictability of Chaos Theory. It is also, incidentally, based on my own personal experience: my father had Parkinson’s disease, and the neurologists found the condition almost impossible to predict and hence treat properly at the time.
The failures of prophecy are, of course, as fascinating as its successes: Chaos Theory has, in the last few decades, complicated notions of scientific predictability; and, of course, we are often at least superficially sceptical of mystical forms of prophecy in twenty-first century Britain. Such scepticism goes hand in hand with endless fascination – as if prophecy is a kind of childhood toy we still cannot leave in the box. Part of the fascination inheres, I think, in the idea of prophecy as often both wrong and right at the same time: the childhood toy might be dusty and broken, but some of the lights and noises still work.
To put it another way, prophecies of an approaching apocalypse (for example) are generally wrong, in that the world hasn’t really ended yet; but they are also right, because the world is always ending, always seems in its last days, on its last legs as it were. Pessimism is always a good bet. The world is continuously apocalyptic, in a sense – one only needs to watch the News to see that. What this means is that prophecies, even ancient ones, are frequently transferable: whilst they may seem historically and culturally specific, there are often shared elements between prophecies (whether scientific, political, economic or theological), and trans-historical elements which might be applied to now. In the Enuma Anu Enilil, for instance, I have chosen certain passages which are at once culturally specific but also might speak to the present: this is perhaps most clear in the final section (‘Everyday Omens’), but also applies, in a more displaced way, to many of the other omens I have selected.
In the end, prophecy, as the Enuma Anu Enlil suggests, is all about the reading and interpretation of signs: ‘To know the signs of earth and sky in this way / will help you do best whatever it is you are doing.’ Empirical modern science, of course, uses the same method – as does poetry. Poetry is an act of reading, of interpretation. So I suppose that poetry about prophecy is an interpretation of an interpretation, a reading of a reading. Poetry about prophecy is also, by definition, retrospective: it looks back on prophecies, and reads them again in light of what’s happened since. To use the technical term, it is an act of ‘retroactive clairvoyance’ (sometimes also called pseudo-prophecy). Retroactive clairvoyance is the act of retrospectively prophesying something which has already happened. There are lots of examples of this from the ancient world, where prophecies are found to have been written down after the event they purportedly predicted. Similarly, ‘hindsight bias’ is the reinterpretation of prophecies in light of what has since happened: it is a re-reading of vague prophecies and the retrospective privileging of aspects which have seemingly come true.
These forms of interpretation are not simply wrong – rather, they point up the doubleness of many prophecies, which can be (as I say) both right and wrong at the same time. Put it this way: my father used to say “I told you so” (his favourite phrase) whenever I made a big mistake about something in my life. He did this even when he patently hadn’t “told me so” beforehand, at least on a literal level; but, in hindsight, it still always felt, and feels now, like he had. He’s still telling me so about every mistake I make after I make it long after his death. Maybe, deep down, that’s why I’m so interested in prophecy and pseudo-prophecy, and why I’m writing so much poetry about it.