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The Orphic Oath: Establishing a Standard of Excellence for Aspiring Poets

Expository essays in literature, politics, philosophy, and science issues allow space for affirming one's stance on issues, old and new.

Orpheus - Father of Poetry and Music

Orpheus - Father of Poetry and Music

A Hippocratic-Style Oath for Poets

The Hippocratic Oath is a covenant between the beginning physician and his profession regarding his conduct with patients. Perhaps such an oath for poets could be called an "Orphic Oath," after Orpheus, the mythical father of poetry and music, who descended into Hades and then returned.

If beginning poets were required to take a vow equivalent of the medical "Hippocratic Oath" and, therefore, could be held to a standard of excellence, less doggerel would plague the literary world.

While all poets, established or aspiring, could benefit by adhering to a standard of excellence, it is the beginning poet who could most benefit from taking an artistic equivalent to the physicians' famed "Hippocratic Oath."

Bust of Hippocrates - ancient Greek physician, noted for the "Hippocratic Oath"

Bust of Hippocrates - ancient Greek physician, noted for the "Hippocratic Oath"

Does Poetry Make Sense?

Poets require standards. Many novice poets believe that anything that occurs to them to spew across the page in lines shorter than prose should be regarded as poetry. And many novices are convinced that poetry does not make sense and should not.

They think that words in poems always have altered meanings: light never means light, dark never means dark, smile never means smile—but must be interpreted or translated into some meaning that never approaches the literal meaning of the word.

For far too many beginning wordsmiths, words in poems take on a magic spell that renders them so other worldly that only the expert poetry reader or teacher can ever really understand them.

During my stint at Ball State Univeristy as an assistant professor teaching English composition, I discovered that some students thought of poetry as a discourse that could mean anything they wanted it to mean.

And others believed that only the teacher could tell them what a poem means; most students believed they could never arrive at the exact meaning for themselves.

As I was walking across the Ball State University campus outside Bracken library, I heard a young woman remark about her composition instructor, “She says my writing doesn’t make sense. But I write poetry and it’s not supposed to make sense.”

That remark told me a lot about many students' attitude toward poetry. They begin with notion that poetry is "not supposed to make sense," while others believe that somehow it might make sense to a teacher.

Aspiring Poets Need to Know Better

It is understandable for general studies students to begin with inaccurate beliefs about poetry, but by the time a young person has decided to write poetry, it seems that that aspiring poet would know better.

One wonders which poets such future poets admire. But the sad fact is that many would-be poets likely do not admire any poets, because they have never actually read and studied any poets or poems.

Another immature yet widespread belief about poetry usually held by those who have moved to a mid-level stage but who have not yet learned enough to remain humble is that to explicate, analyze, or otherwise comment upon a poem is to diminish its value as a poem.

That mistaken idea also stems from the notion that words in a poem always mean other than their literal meaning. These mid-level beginners hold that critical commentary on a poem turns out the light that mystically shines from the poem left unscrutinized.

Orpheus playing lyre

Orpheus playing lyre

The Orphic Oath

If you are a beginning poet, or a mid-level beginner—even seasoned, published poets could benefit from this oath—you might do well to consider the following oath, which I have refashioned, based on the Hippocratic Oath to which physicians swear at the beginning of their careers, and which I have labeled "The Orphic Oath," after the mythological father of poetry and music.

As I begin (continue) my career as a poet, I solemnly swear to the following covenant to the best of my ability:

  1. I will respect and study the significant artistic achievements of those poets who precede me, and I will humbly share my knowledge with those who seek my advice. I will dedicate myself to my craft using all my talent while avoiding those two evils of (1) effusiveness of self-indulgence and (2) pontification on degradation and nihilism.
  2. I will remember that there is a science to poetry as well as an art, and that spirituality, peace, and love always eclipse metaphors and similes. I will not bring shame to my art by pretending to knowledge I do not have, and I will not cut off the legs of colleagues that I may appear taller.
  3. I will respect readers and ever be aware that not all readers are as well-versed in literary matters as I am. I will not take advantage of their ignorance by writing nonsense and then pretending it is the reader’s fault for not understanding my disingenuousness. Regardless of the level of fame and fortune I reach, I will remain humble and grateful, not arrogant nor condescending.
  4. I will remember that poetry requires revision and close attention; it does not just pour out of me onto the page, as if opening a vein and letting it drip. Writing poetry requires thinking as well as feeling.
  5. I will continue to educate myself in areas other than poetry so that I may know a fair amount about history, geography, science, math, philosophy, foreign language, religion, economics, sociology, politics, and other fields of endeavor that result in bodies of knowledge.
  6. I will remember that I am no better than prose writers, songwriters, musicians, or politicians; all human beings deserve respect as well as scrutiny as they perform their unique duties, whether artist or artisan.
  7. I will not rewrite English translations of those who have already successfully translated and pretend that I too am a translator. I will not translate any poem that I cannot read and comprehend in the original.

If young poets treat their art as a trust between themselves and all they hold sacred, they will gladly follow this covenant and represent their chosen art gracefully and successfully.

Postscript: Supporting Yourself by Writing Poetry

Aspiring poets needs to be aware that making a living solely by writing poetry is unlikely. They will, therefore, need to support themselves by other means, at least until they can ultimately parlay their literary reputations into full-time writing.

An example of a contemporary poet who was able to parlay that reputation is Dana Gioia.

Sources

  • Editors. "The Hippocratic Oath." Greek Medicine. National Library of Medicine. First published: September 16, 2002. Last updated: February 7, 2012.
  • Editors. "Orpheus." GreekMythology.com. Accessed August 29, 2022.
  • Dana Gioia. Official Website. Accessed August 29, 2022.

Greek Mythology: Story of Orpheus

A Juxtaposition: Genuine vs Bogus

Let's examine the following two poems, using the following questions:

  1. Who is the speaker?
  2. What is the speaker telling you?
  3. Does the speaker say anything that confuses you?

Poem 1: "The Cat in the Kitchen"

Have you heard about the boy who walked by
The black water? I won't say much more.
Let's wait a few years. It wanted to be entered.
Sometimes a man walks by a pond, and a hand
Reaches out and pulls him in.

There was no
Intention, exactly. The pond was lonely, or needed
Calcium, bones would do. What happened then?

It was a little like the night wind, which is soft,
And moves slowly, sighing like an old woman
In her kitchen late at night, moving pans
About, lighting a fire, making some food for the cat.

Poem 2: "Living in Sin"

She had thought the studio would keep itself
no dust upon the furniture of love
Half heresy, to wish the taps less vocal
the pains relieved of grime. A plate of pears,
a piano with a Persian shawl, a cat
stalking the picturesque amusing mouse
had risen at his urging.
Not that at five each separate star would writhe
under the mailman's tramp; that morning light
so coldly would delineate the scraps
of last night's cheese and three sepulchral bottles;
that on the kitchen shelf among the saucers
a pair of beetle-eyes would fix her own—
enjoy from some village in the moldings . . .
Meanwhile, he, with a yawn,
sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard,
declared it out of tune, shrugged at the mirror,
rubbed at his beard, went out for cigarettes;
while she, jeered by the minor demons,
pulled back the sheets and made the bed and found
a towel to dust the tabletop,
and let the coffee-pot boil over on the stove.
By evening she was back in love again
though not so wholly but throughout the night
she woke sometimes to feel the daylight coming
like a relentless milkman up the stairs.

Commentary

The following commentary is the result of my examination of the juxtaposition poems using the questions: Who is the speaker? What is the speaker telling you? Does the speaker say anything that confuses you?

Poem 1: "The Cat in the Kitchen"

Who is the speaker?

The speaker remains anonymous. This type of speaker is called an omniscient speaker. He does not take part in what happens in the poem; he only reports the events.

What is the speaker telling you?

A man falling into a pond is like the night wind which is like an old woman in the kitchen cooking for her cat.

Does the speaker say anything that confuses you?

Most of the claims made by the speaker in this poem remains confusing because they simply make no sense.

They resemble of stream-of-consciousness exercise without any actual consciousness. The piece sounds as if the poet has just jotted down some images and then failed to connect them to produce meaning.

This piece is bogus.

Poem 2: "Living in Sin"

Who is the speaker?

The speaker in this poem is also an omniscient speaker, not participating in the events of the poem, only reporting them.

While it remains unclear why the speaker in "The Cat in the Kitchen" employs the omniscient position, in "Living in Sin," the speaker uses that omniscience to be more objective and believable.

If the woman in the poem were reporting the events and the feelings engendered by them, only confusion would ensue because the woman in the poem is, in fact, confused about her feelings.

What is the speaker telling you?

By describing the experience of young woman who recently move in with her boyfriend, the speaker is colorfully revealing through her choice of images that romantic blindness leads to disappointment.

Does the speaker say anything that confuses you?

No. The speaker describes each scene thoroughly. The speaker makes it clear that sometimes romantic ideas turn out not to be so flattering in the cold light of day.

This poem is therefore genuine.

Personal Opinion on Poetry

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Linda Sue Grimes

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