Sunday, 9 January 2011

The Religion of Poetry Meets The Poetry Of Religion part 1 w/ Niall O'Sullivan

We humans create many things that create division between us. I believe power and the hunger for it is what keeps most people divided.

Of course there is also natural division (what we're born with) but here I’d like to explore another language of human division – Religion.

I had a performance piece exploring my religious views (was listening to lots of George Carlin at the time) and it always seemed to create tension.

I know you can’t please everyone and everyone has their own truths. I can tackle my own truths on many things and instigate a constructive and stimulating conversation through my work.

However that never seems the case when exploring religion.

You seem to enforce the belief people already have whether its for or against religion and it always seems to create division between you and the audience.

Maybe I just shouldn’t drop it at a poetry night full of evangelical Christians.

I’ve seen Baba Brinkman’s Hip-Hop show on Charles Darwin’s theory of Evolution and its brilliant but I guess Baba Brinkman is an artist who has found his audience. (and it isn’t a group of evangelical Christians)

Anyway I pulled in two London poets ‘Niall O’Sullivan’ who runs Poetry Unplugged at the poetry cafe in Covent Garden. He’s published two books called 'You’re not singing anymore' and 'Ventriloquism for Monkeys'.

He’s written many poems inspired by Darwinism.

I also pulled up young performance poet James Massiah for Part 2 of this discussion. James is a regular face and voice on the London poetry circuit.

Niall was quick to point out that James is not the messiah... he’s a very naughty boy!

So Niall, first question is who is your favourite biblical character and why?

The snake in the Garden of Eden. Read in a certain way, the collection of Semitic literature that we call the Bible begins with a world of dumb perfection brought into being by a god who is very much involved with human affairs and ends in a world of our own abyssal freedom with a god who is no longer involved and has, perhaps, stepped away from the act of being itself. The snake, and the subsequent exile from Eden represent the first step of this narrative.

The snake is often lazily labelled as the Devil or Satan within Christian cultures. The Devil is the product of the collision between Judaistic mythology with Graeco-Roman Paganism. There is no mention of the Devil in the Hebrew scriptures. Satan is mentioned a few times but is often appointed as a devious associate of Yahweh rather than an outright adversary (one translation of his name is The Prosecutor, a role that is carried out in accordance with Yahweh's as Judge, such as in the Book of Job). The snake is not the Devil, neither is it Satan.

The story of a man, woman, tree and snake is older than the Book of Genesis, images of the scene appear in Sumerian seals. The comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell points out that the snake is revered in other cultures and religions. Its body flows like water and its tongue flickers like flame. The snake is also a symbol of transformation, illustrated in how it sheds its skin.

What were Adam and Eve before the fall? A couple of babies wandering about Eden, with no problems to contend with, snug in the mind-numbing tedium of perfection. The fact that they were threatened with expulsion if they ate from the fruit of the tree of knowledge presented it as the only way to reject the dull, predictable world of perfection. In place of this world they were given a world that contained pain and struggle, but with this pain and struggle their lives were given meaning and freedom. Campbell also goes on to explain that in other versions of the story the serpent is the mother goddess. Is it not curious that in the story of Yahweh, the male god, the mother goddess snake and Eve are both scape-goated for the presence of pain and struggle? With those out of the way, we get the dominance of the genocidal, ethnic cleansing Yahweh of the Flood and Exodus. But this is also the Yahweh that no longer walks with man in the garden. Moses can only glimpse his “hind parts” during their meeting at Mount Sinai. Yahweh becomes a human in the Gospels and is put to death. Finally, he disappears into the skies. What is left is a Holy Spirit, the brother-and-sisterhood of humankind. Could this not be read as the gradual retreat of a god as mankind takes responsibility for itself, all put in motion by the agent of transformation, the snake?

So you’re sitting on an empty tube carriage at midnight and your drunk and on the way back from Jesus’s birthday party (Christmas) and Charles Darwin gets on at Holborn and sits next to you... what would you say to him?

Darwin was a quiet, humble man during his life. He sat on his theory of Natural Selection for decades before Alfred Russell Wallace forced his hand by also discovering the theory. So I'm not sure Darwin would have felt comfortable with some drunk guy yammering on at him on public transport. Darwin is often portrayed as some kind of iconoclast, but evolution itself was a much older idea and non-literal readings of Genesis go back to Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine. If anything destroyed Darwin's faith, it was the death of his daughter rather than evolution. Even on losing his faith, Darwin would walk his family to church of Sundays and sit outside until it was time for them to leave.

As an atheist, I find myself just as exasperated by the appropriation of Darwinism as the last nail in god's coffin as I am with biblical literalists. Both the vulgar atheists of today and the Young Earth Creationists of the evangelic community are tied together by a mutual misunderstanding of mythology. The relevance of mythology has nothing to do with its facticity, mythology is a mirror of human nature.

So, back to Darwin, I don't think I'd waste my moment with the great naturalist talking about religion. I'd tell him about what we've discovered since his work on the Origin. He knew the mechanism of Natural Selection, but he didn't know of the unit of inheritance, DNA. I would also have told him that his hunch about Africa being the cauldron for human evolution was also true. I guess I'd ply him with knowledge about how far we've taken the science so far and after giving him ample time to take it all in, I'd ask him where we are currently going wrong. Of course, if Darwin had figured out how to get and use an oyster card, he probably would have got up to scratch on the current science and wouldn't need it explained by pish like me. I think I'd be happier to leave him sitting alone as he did outside that church, his mind hovering around the periphery of something brilliant.

Considering all holy books and scriptures are written poetically does that imply there is some form of authority and empowerment embedded in poetry and how does poetry and religion interact with each other?

I'd not go as far as to say all holy books are written poetically, there are countless tedious passages in the Scriptures about who begat who and furnishing tips. For every Ecclesiastes we get a Leviticus. We should also remember that our idea about the uniform poetical qualities of the Bible are more inherent to the King James translation than to the variable content of the original Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament books.

That said, it cannot be denied that there is plenty of beautiful language in religious texts. An otherwise ridiculous and nonsensical statement can seem to make sense when phrased poetically. The ear tends to casually accept that which flatters it. Rhyme, assonance and alliteration all lend their own logic to a sentence. Moral instructions are often phrased in rhyming mnemonic ways to help them lodge within the brains of children and adults. I've often heard poetry audiences hum in approval to lines that Larkin would have dismissed as beautiful crap.

As someone with an inherent distrust of organised religion, I find it heartening that we can appropriate the poetry of religious texts to strike against it, in the way that William Blake and Friedrich Nietzsche have. Is Nobodaddy not one of the most perceptive names man has given to god?

It is interesting that a lot of contemporary poetry has shied away from the “heightened speech” of religious texts, making use of more intimate and casual terminology. Poets that try to bring “heightened speech” into poetry often end up sounding comically archaic. That's not to say we might not see a return of this kind of rhetoric, but it takes a poet as good as Blake to make the breakthrough.

Slavoj Zizek made some interesting points about god in a recent lecture ( ). Many have removed the need for a god in our discourse on reality. We know that god doesn't exist, but does god know this too? What does this question mean? It simply means that we cannot get rid of god by disqualifying him from reality, not when so many religious and theistic assumptions make up the functional fictions of our world. Those functional fictions come from religious poetry and mythology, deeply meshed together within the implicit and the unconscious. We have killed god, but every time we open our mouths, he lives again.


  1. "all holy books and scriptures are written poetically" - been thinking this over, and I'm finding it quite difficult to come up with any.

    Niall's quite right to identify the King James Bible as skewing our (English-speaking) instincts here, and to question how much it improves on the original: New Testament Greek is certainly not very inspiring unless you are that way, the AV New Testament is amazing.

    The Old Testament seems unusual in world sacred text terms as containing actual poems (in e.g. Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs) - free verse poets take note, free verse in English begins with Bishop Lowth's 'Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews' (1787), which explains how these are still poetry without having to formally scan or rhyme.

    PLUG! tickets still available for my reading of Job in an ancient church in Sussex, Feb 12, get in touch.

    Outside Christianity, nothing suggests to me that there's anything poetic about the Koran. The Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita are in verse, but that isn't quite the same thing. And there's plenty of religious poetry all over, but that's not sacred books. Zen koans?

  2. Your reading of the Book of Job sounds like an amazing event Mr McKaye, I can't guarantee that I can make it but I'd urge others to if they can. One of my favourite books of the scriptures, though I wonder if the happy ending was tacked on by some oldschool Hebrew Harvey Weinstein?

    Also have to agree with you about Zen Koans, though I'd categorise them as mysticism rather than religion. Does a dog have Buddha Nature? Woof!

    Thanks for the heads up about Bishop Lowth too, I always followed the assumption that Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell was the first free verse poem in English literature, but it appears that the Bishop scoops him by a whopping three years!