Poetry and Prophecy
For the ancients, the two were very much intertwined—prophecies were given in verse, and one word for poet in Latin is “vates”—prophet. Both poets and prophets were supposed to be enthused—en-god-ed—inspired by forces outside themselves. (Virgil’s works were even used in the Middle Ages for prophesy by the picking out of verses at random.) This notion now strikes us as pretty quaint. A poet is someone who struggles on his computer with ornery lines, sometimes making a living by teaching others how to wrestle with the same blank screen. The contemporary poet has largely eschewed any claim to the “vatic,” a mantle many poets a generation or three ago aspired to.

I am curious whether other poets ever feel that their poems are indeed in some minor—or major--ways “prophetic.” I know that mine seem to be, at least on a personal level. Friends often read my poems as keyed to personal events, but they get the chronology wrong, because the poems in fact often predate said events, sometimes by years. I don’t mean prophetic in some supernatural way (or do I?—hmmm--I suppose I consider myself a sort of Episcolapian Epicurean)—but that our creative selves are perhaps in tune with trends in our lives or in the lives around us that our rational selves have yet to cotton on to. Is anyone else ever frightened of writing certain lines, of touching on certain subjects, out of a fear of being prophetic? Not of goetically invoking some evil perhaps but of predicting it, of being a harbinger, of being too aware…
I’m not talking about mere superstition. Poets have that too, of course. I won’t discuss poems in progress or ideas for poems until they are pretty well fleshed out and committed to the page. I find that to discuss an idea when it is still nebulous is to blow it away like a puff of smoke.
Well, I was thinking of these matters over the weekend. Woken up late in the night by a toddler with an erupting molar, I found myself unable to go back to sleep and suddenly started writing a poem—a rare enough event these days. But I keep going back and forth about the last line. In its original and more chilling version (to me) it seems almost prophetic. What to do? Ah… but I shouldn’t discuss a poem in progress!

Originally Published: November 26th, 2007

A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...

  1. November 26, 2007
     Cuitlamiztli Carter

    We needn't limit the understanding of "prophet" to just predictions, though. Many of the prophets of the Hebrew tradition would point out current social ills as much as predict their outcomes. They spoke to what was happening now in colorful depictions of corrupt rulers and wayward cultures. I think many contemporary poets do this very thing.

  2. November 26, 2007
     Henry Gould

    I've sometimes had the experience of writing poems which seem to gesture toward future POEMS, which show up later, & which I don't yet know about - but that's a bit different from what you're describing.
    I do think poetry-making often feels like some kind of divination - the linguistic matter of the poem behaving like whatever material the old diviners used - I Ching sticks, shapes of stones, etc. Or like a musical instrument in the hands of an improviser.
    Perhaps in really prophetic poetry, it's the combination of such antenna-like "instruments" with a mind focused on some theme of great cultural interest or historical importance, which produces the truly "oracular".
    Here's a very old poem (1971) from my student days & NY School fixation - hovering somewhat around this topic :
    We found a narrow path for each year to travel on,
    the days sloping into each other, a horse steps down a hill.
    Each new year trembling like a wet bird, in colors
    dazzling and negative, of people and wide streets.
    We built resting places for old cripples with sacks.
    Disgust or joy slides like surf across the faces of the poor.
    Temples were piled up with small, touching objects
    which we gave to girls on the street.
    More and higher stone delights rise into the sky,
    which rains. Sampans and ketches bobbing in the blue harbor.
    In the country, vague tremors in the well-yard, odd clouds.
    Finally, just as he predicted, as he sighed his last
    out through the hut door: white ships glide into the bay.
    Stars bump quietly. Wooden docks, the boulders on the shore.

  3. November 26, 2007

    I have to agree with the observation that to understand the term prophet strictly in terms of predictions is limiting. The bigger issue, in a sense, is where does creativity come from; where did that poem I just wrote come from?
    It is the very language that we use to express the question that points to its essential unanswerable state. "Where does it come from" implies that it comes from outside, from some external source. Perhaps the cultural history of language is the limiting factor here. I prefer to think of poetry (and prophecy's function in creating poetry) as part of the bigger question of existence. For me, poems are not answers but are a constant attempt to restate the question(s).
    Intuition and the essential emotive state of human beings come into play when dealing with the big questions - to quote Gaugin, "Where do we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going?" Isn't this what it is all about, what we are all trying find the answer to when we read and write poetry?
    Don Wentworth, Lilliput Review

  4. November 26, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    Cuitlamiztli and Don--I absolutely agree that prophecy shouldn't be reduced to fortune-telling--rather in the Greek sense, a "speaking for" something beyond the self, where the self becomes a vessel. And sooth-saying in the sense of truth-telling. I am put in mind of Wilbur here, a prophet "mad-eyed with stating the obvious." But it is strange isn't it how poems turn out to be prescient, not again by predicting the future, but by recognizing things in the present that somehow escape our conscious notice, things that become clear only in retrospect.
    Henry, thanks for your oracular poem. I especially like the bumping stars!

  5. November 26, 2007
     Cuitlamiztli Carter

    For [Wentworth], poems are not answers but are a constant attempt to restate the question(s).
    I agree wholeheartedly and I think for all of the ills - both alleged and actual - of the modern state of Western poetry, our poets are still quite good at anticipating the questions of the day and addressing them in verse. Look at Harriet's own Mr. Goldsmith - tackling issues of creativity, copyright, and copy-pasting in his works. With the advent of Creative Commons, so-called "orphaned" works floating in cyberspace, the rise of sampling as more than an underground phenomena, the collage culture of inner city spraypaint and wheatpaste leaving the streets to give us basic cable insanity like the Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job and Aqua Teen Hunger Force, etc. the issues raised by Goldsmith's work are seen as anticipations, not merely experiments.
    But even beyond language experiments, poets of past ages have given us new idioms for expressing our frustrations and wonder. It's no surprise that people interject song lyrics and snippets of poetry into philosophical discussions - a good poet encapsulates an issue in his or her phrases and allusions. Lewis Carroll's Alice has only been in existence for a century and a half, yet has shaped a great deal of our culture. The average man of the street understands better and expresses himself more with the trials of Alice than the wrath of Achilles. In a more modern example, John Lennon and Paul McCartney will be studied 300 years from now with as much if not more attention given to their lyrics than to the music, though the music tells us a great deal about their values. However, notes and beats do not a lexicon make. You can express a mood with an Em chord, but cannot ask a question.
    In this sense, poets are most definitely prophets. Looking at the Hebrew prophets, many of the so-called minor prophets would have one or two key issues or events they would address. "Why has our kingdom fallen to outsiders? Does God aid in every distress? Is prayer useful?" They would state the questions asked by their fellow citizens, or the ones they should have been asking, and then either offer answers or expand the questions so the implications were laid bare.

  6. November 26, 2007
     Mary Meriam

    I knew you were going to bring this up, Alicia. lol.
    I wouldn't call my experience prophecy. I've always just called it being psychic, although that word is rather cheap, isn't it. I like the word intuition best. The most glaring example I have is a poem I wrote in parts over a few months. Well, it wasn't all one poem until I decided to join them together. Then I needed a title, and really, out of the blue, used Wu Tsao's name. I'd been reading translations of her poems, but what my poem had to do with her or her poems seemed rather flimsy. Then I remembered she was a Taoist priestess, so I researched Taoism. It was unbelievable - my poem had Taoist words and concepts! I had never studied Taoism before! How could I have learned about it just from reading translations of Wu Tsao's poems???

  7. November 27, 2007
     Jennifer LeClaire

    I think it's certainly plausible and more than likely that some poems are prophetic. The Spirit of God is a prophetic Spirit, a creative Spirit, an inspirational Spirit. If we are sensitive to His Spirit, we may find ourselves penning prophetic poems, or psalms, without even realizing that we are drawing inspiration from Him. I can't tell you how many times I've written an essay, a psalm, or a song and it just flowed from my fingers through the keyboard and on to the screen with such ease that when I read it later, I halfway didn't remember writing it. It was so poetic, so beautiful, that it could only be inspired by the One who is Love.
    Thanks for bringing up the topic. I enjoyed the comments.
    Jennifer LeClaire
    Author, The Heart of the Prophetic

  8. November 27, 2007
     Henry Gould

    Virgil is credited with the paradigmatic prophetic poem (at least in the non-Ibilical world) : the passage in his fourth Eclogue predicting the coming Child of the Golden Age (taken in the Middle Ages to be a pagan premonition of the Messiah).
    There's a compelling book about Virgil by Christine Perkell, titled "The Poet's Truth". She offers an hypothesis about Virgil's own sense of the poet's social role, which pivots on notions of "pity" and "audacity". It's the poet's special "audacity" to define and defend that "pity" (kindness, gentleness, wisdom, peace), which was lost to the world when the Golden Age gave way to the Iron Age (when Jupiter overthrew Saturn, in classical myth), and which is supposed to return again.
    Some such primary allegiance might lurk at the roots of both Biblical and Classical (as well as other) "oracular" poetic traditions.

  9. November 27, 2007
     Emily Warn

    Jung coined the term "cryptomnesia" for this type of unconscious plagiarism, a concept that Rachel Aviv explains in anarticle we published this week about a popular Christian poem that four people claim to have written.
    Aviv writes:
    "In 'Cryptomnesia' (1905), a paper about accidental plagiarism, Carl Jung argues that it’s impossible to know for certain which ideas are one’s own. 'Our unconsciousness . . . swarms with strange intruders,' he writes. He accuses Nietzsche of unwittingly copying another’s work, and urges all writers to sift through their memories and locate the origin of every idea before putting it to paper: 'Ask each thought: Do I know you, or are you new?'"

  10. November 27, 2007
     Emily Warn

    I agree that prophecy and some poetry are primarily focused on the present.Even the Biblical prophets didn’t spend their time predicting the future so much as warning their audience about what the future would hold if no one paid attention to the here and now.
    Isaiah, in particular, rails about his people’s refusal to be more fully alive to the present.
    “Truly, as one who speaks to that people in a stammering jargon and an alien tongue is he who declares to them, “This is the resting place, let the weary rest, this is the place of repose. They refuse to listen. To them the word of the Lord is:
    Mutter upon mutter,
    Murmur upon murmur
    Now here, now there.
    -- Isaiah 28:11-13
    Interestingly, Isaiah describes this experience with God as one that occurs in language. If only the people would listen, they’d hear the “mutter upon mutter.”
    As the 20th century Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel wrote, “It is not a world devoid of meaning that evokes the prophet’s consternation, but a world deaf to meaning.” The prophets’ authority, in fact, their claim to speak for God, rests upon the divine presence their words reveal. As Heschel wrote,
    "The words the prophet utters are not offered as souvenirs. His speech to the people is not a reminiscence, a report, hearsay. The prophet not only conveys he reveals. This is the marvel of a prophet’s work in his words, the invisible God becomes audible."
    The authority of many poet also rests on creating a presence every bit as real as that damn molar.

  11. November 27, 2007
     Henry Gould

    p.s. sorry about umbilical typo, above (should read "Biblical", not "Ibilical"). . .

  12. November 27, 2007
     Mary Meriam

    Hi Emily. Plagiarism - that's a loaded word, accidental or not. But what's so strange is that the poem I wrote is about the most personal mundane things - a new mattress, the post office, the supermarket, driving a car - in diary-like entries. Molar material. I've searched my mind, and can't honestly remember any time when I might have read about Taoism. Therefore, I think it would be best if you all refer to me from now on as the Taoist priestess.

  13. November 27, 2007
     Emily Warn

    Dear Taoist priestess,
    Gosh, I didn't in anyway mean to accuse you of plagiarism. "Accidental plagiarism" was the term Rachel Aviv used in the article to describe minds that swarm with the same material--you know, "molar material"--a much better term than "cryptomnesia."

  14. November 28, 2007
     Antoine Cassar

    Would you consider these lines by the young Neruda to be prophetic?
    "Así en horas profundas, sobre los campos, he visto
    doblarse las espigas en la boca del viento."
    "Thus in profound hours, over the fields, I have seen
    the ears of wheat bending into the mouth of the wind."

  15. November 28, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    Well, I suppose actually there were signs predicting the molar for several days that I was blind and deaf to--irritability and low-grade fever. So maybe there is a molar connection with prophecy...
    Antoine, I would certainly consider those lines oracular.

  16. November 28, 2007
     Mary Meriam

    Emily, yes, I understood the context in which you mentioned plagiarism, and thanks for the link. Still, the word in any context is very alarming to me, since my poems are all by me and all I have to show for myself. That is, it's hard enough protecting ones own body in this crazy world, but then if you have a body of work, then that needs to be protected, too. This issue is on my mind a lot lately.
    I'll concede that there may have been a time decades ago when I read about Taoism, but it was long forgotten. I prefer to think of the coincidence I've been describing as an example of the mysterious strength of poems and of the unconscious. So I read a couple of poems by a Taoist priestess, and the mysterious strength of those great poems (even in translation!) worked on my mind in a mysteriously strong way, and then I wrote a seemingly ordinary humdrum poem that mysteriously translated Wu Tsao's beliefs, or something.
    I've wondered what I might have in common with Wu Tsao, who was from another century and side of the world. It could be seclusion. Apparently she was secluded in the country when she was a Taoist priestess. Well, I'm secluded in the country, too. So then I wonder if seclusion in the country might be more conducive to being receptive to the swarm of ideas in the world. Whatever!

  17. November 30, 2007

    Akhmatova was pretty darn prophetic sometimes.
    I always interpret a fear to write or do something as a recommendation that it is, in fact, what I should do hahaha.