Poetic Language

thinkstock_rf_peachesA poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds. …

A poem should not mean
But be.

—”Ars Poetica” by Archibald Macleish

In general, good ritual uses poetic language and is succinct; bad ritual uses didactic language and is verbose. Some people may wonder about the need for symbolic language and why poets don’t just “say what they mean.” In their view, poetic language is just rhetorical flourish, which obfuscates the meaning. But this betrays a misunderstanding of the nature of poetry and overesti­mates the power of representational language.

Poetry or symbolic language is not representational lan­guage; it is evocative language. Symbols, in this sense, are not meta­phors or analogies. Metaphors have a known and finite mean­ing, but a symbol has a surplus of meaning which cannot be conveyed through explanation. A metaphor points to a single referent (a=x), but a symbol connects us to a complex web of associ­ations with a practically infinite range of meanings, and which will vary depending on the cultural context and personal history of each individual. Ritual uses visual symbols, symbolic movements, and symbolic language (poetry) to evoke this sur­plus of meaning. This is why the meaning of a ritual, just like a B.T. Newberg, the founder of the Humanistic Paganism com­munity blog (humanisticpaganism.org), explains the nature of symbolic language, like myth:

“The allegorical tradition has a venerable pedigree in­deed. However, I can’t help but feel that each in their own way has somehow gotten it wrong. Interpreting myth x to signify meaning y has an air of finality to it that silences other interpretations.

“What myths really are, in my opinion, are deeply reso­nant images to which the human imagination responds by creating meaning. In the act of searching for the ‘true’ meaning, a new meaning is created. Myths are not reser­voirs containing meanings waiting to be found; they are cre­ative stimuli midwifing the birth of the new. Each allego­rist is startled to see in it something no one else has, and feels compelled to go tell it on the mountain. In truth, however, they are simply participating in an eter­nal process of meaning-making.”

The same is true of symbolism in ritual. For example, when a devotee of Dionysus places a cup of wine on an altar, the wine does not “represent” the god, Dionysus. Rather, the wine con­nects the worshiper to every myth they have heard or read about Dionysus and every association they have consciously and unconsciously drawn to wine or the experience of intoxica­tion. These webs of meaning evoke the memories of remem­bered experiences and moods of forgotten experiences of intoxi­cation of all kinds.

Symbolic language is a rich resource for making rituals more emotionally powerful and both personally and collectively trans­formative. It is not enough to just add a poem into a di­dactic ritual. Wherever possible, poetic language should be used instead of discursive language. Ideally, the entire ritual will be a kind of poem.

Updated 2019