Poetry and Prophecy
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!
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,...