Put aside your fear, laborious poet of the days,
learn what you’re asking about and
hear my words with your mind.
– Ovid, in Fasti
When I first started writing (and reading) poetry at dVerse, someone suggested I obtain a copy of, “How to Read a Poem: and Fall in Love with Poetry,” by Edward Hirsch. I obtained it right away and did make an earnest attempt to read through it cover to cover. At some point the book was moved to a less-than-prime grabbing position; but before it was I took a look at, “The Glossary and the Pleasure of the Text” at the back of the book. What a treasure trove at my fingertips! Thank you to whomever made the recommendation.
I decided for the prompt today to let my fingers do the walking through Mr. Hirsch’s “glossary and…” until something “hit.” One word that jumped from the page was “vatic.” He says it means, “inspired with the power of prophesy.”
Some people say only thin lines separate poetry, prophecy, and madness. We don’t know if that’s generally true, but it is in the case of vatic. The adjective derives directly from the Latin word vates, meaning “seer” or “prophet.” But that Latin root is, in turn, distantly related to the Old English wōth, meaning “poetry,” the Old High German wuot, meaning “madness,” and the Old Irish fáith, meaning both “seer” and “poet.”
Hirsch goes on to say that, “The vatic impulse is signaled in poetry whenever a poet speaks in a prophetic voice beyond the social realm.”
A.E. Stallings said that, “Virgil’s works were … used in the Middle Ages for prophesy by the picking out of verses at random…. but that, “The contemporary poet has largely eschewed any claim to the ‘vatic,’ a mantle many poets a generation or three ago aspired to.”
Donald Hall said, “A premise: within every human being there is the vatic voice. Vates was the Greek word for the inspired bard, speaking the words of a god… We must find ways to let this voice speak. We want to get loose, we want to regress in the service of the ego, we want to become as children. We want to do this not only to make poems, or to invent a new theory of linguistics, but because it feels good, because it is healthy and therapeutic, because it helps us to understand ourselves and to be able to love other people. I think, I truly think, that to clear the passageway to the insides of ourselves, to allow the vatic voice to speak through us, is the ultimate goal to which [humans] must address themselves. It is what to live for, it is what to live by.”
How many times have you felt like someone or something else wrote your poem and you were merely the transmitter? I think this is what we become receptive to and is meant by the vatic voice. I want you to think for a moment how you got to a place where the words were pouring out. Is it a time of day? A mood you’re feeling? A topic you’re passionate about to write on? Is it something you don’t want to examine too closely for fear it will fly away? Has that spark or impetus changed over time? I found the following poem quite entertaining on the subject of my last question:
By Sydney Lea
It seems so different art that moves me now
From the sort of art I longed for long ago
Soaring Vatic Agon
I waited yesterday on the unsure shoulder
Of a drenched back road From my car I could behold
Our highway agent Gordon
Fill a rut with a spade climb up on his grader
And smooth things smooth as the top of a kitchen table
There were frost heaves by the score
And culverts clotted shut by April floods
So it was brilliant what Gordon did with mud
On Wallace Hill Pure mire
Out there The road goes narrow as a needle
On which you might wonder could dance how many angels
I don’t care I didn’t
No earthly need to summon spirits daemons
No sign of them at all Nor would I dream one
I might have once but wouldn’t
Nor gyre nor golem Nor great Leviathan
Nor djinn Nor fiend Nor signifying wind
That lingering in that lane might make me conjure
I had to get somewhere and fetch my daughter
To bring her home Sweet Christ
She might be standing in that mix of sleet
And ugly rain which called for Gordon’s art
I’m trying to be a grownup
Better late than never I suppose
Or am I only jaded I don’t know
It was as though I’d shown up
Just to see him wield his spade and blade out there
It kept me from surmising some furor
divinis Why should I bother
Now that I moved on thanks be to Gordon
Who signaled with his thumb for me to pass him
He pulled the grader over
Yes give me something useful here I said
Impromptu In my car it sounded odd
To say it now sounds different
I hope that Gordon watched me yesterday
As I signaled back I’d never have made my way
Without a skillful agent
I hope he saw me wave
As a recap, the vatic voice of a poet is one that is infused with spirit that comes from another place. That voice has been regarded by some as a sign of divine transmission and by others as a sign of madness.
Here’s the challenge today. Write a poem, any form, about the vatic voice. It could be speaking as a God to a poet. It could be a poet receiving a message. It could be a poem of prophesy. It could be about one others regard as mad by their words. It could be you invoking the vatic voice. After you’ve chosen your perspective and completed your poem, I would like you to say a few words about the process you went through and how it felt.
If you are new, here’s how to join in:
*Write a poem (in any form) in response to the challenge.
*You will find links to other poets and more will join, so check back later to read their poems.
*Read and comment on other poets’ work–we all come here to have our poems read.
*Please link back to dVerse from your site/blog.
Dvorak, Franz image: The angel of the birds (1910)
Hall, Donald (1969) “The Vatic Voice: Waiting and Listening,” first appeared in the Fall 1969 issue of Michigan Quarterly Review.
Hirsch, Edward (1999,) How to Read a Poem: and Fall in Love with Poetry, p. 319
Lea, Sydney, “Art” from I Was Thinking of Beauty. Copyright © 2013
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Vatic. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary.
Stallings, A.E., Poetry Foundation, Poetry and Prophesy, published 11/26/07