George Wallace

Here Lies Danger: Orpheus, Caught Between Myth And Moment

As the practitioner of a performance art   the writing of poetry, and the reading of poetry before audiences   it was something of a challenge to formulate some thoughts about the timeless story of Orpheus, its connection to the role of the artist in mediating between myth and moment, and the practical insights there were to be gained from engaging in such a process.

Performance art, I say, as I treat the act of writing a poem, or the reading of it aloud, as a performance 'in time' as surely as the singing of a song, the dancing of a dance, or the action painting of an action painter is a performance in time.

Challenge, I say, as I am neither a theoretician nor a theory based artist, but rather an auto-didact. Condemned to grow my craft thread by magical thread. To lift myself rung by slippery rung up Jacob's teeming ladder of poetry-angels, on the strength of curiosity, intuition, and a stubbornly Romantic insistence on the intrinsic legitimacy of the subjective artistic vision.

And Practical Insights, I say, as I am a poor and simple American pragmatist, devoted slave and obedient to the holy grail of functionality.

Fortunately the subject at hand made the process easy, and I'm happy to waste a few moments of your precious time in sharing my thoughts.

The first thing is this   the space between myth and moment. That was the easiest part. After all that's prime territory in which an artist may operate. Serving to make connection in both directions   in one direction, applying the icons of accumulated cultural wisdom to specific experiences, real or concocted, of our individual or collective lives. In the other direction, the alchemic transmuting of real or concocted experiences into myths.

Poet as myth-maker.

Poet as applier of myth to experience.

Poet as singer, whose work in mediating between myth and moment is not complete until it bears an audience to the same wondrous point of connection that he or she has visioned.

One person, a half a dozen devoted listeners, an entire society.

That bearing of audience to wondrous realization is a gift. Orpheus' gift.

For Orpheus was gifted by Apollo to mesmerize through song and make his listeners to dance   animals, trees, people, gods, rocks. To mesmerize is to intoxicate and to implant. An animal that dances is an animal that has bought the song. A rock that sings is a rock that has joined in on the process of linking moment to myth.

That's sexy stuff. But it's also dangerous. And at the core of the story of Orpheus are two cautionary tales for anyone that doesn’t have rocks in their head to pay particular attention to.

And here is where the practical in me kicks in.

The first tale of course is the best known   what happens when Orpheus tries to rescue Eurydice, ie use the powers he is given for personal purposes, instead of what they were designed for.

After all, Apollo gave Orpheus the power to mesmerize through song, yes   but why? For the sake of what mythmaking can do for people and societies, surely. But for personal purposes? In this case to break the rules of life and death, get a special deal from Hades, and spring his wife from death?

Not so much.

But that's what Orpheus did   he abused the power he was given   and you have to figure Hades set up that little 'but-you-can't-look-back' catch deliberately, figuring correctly that Orpheus wouldn't be able to keep from doing it.

Orpheus' failure wasn't looking back   it was abusing his god-given powers.

The second tale, less known, is equally suggestive and cautionary. Orpheus, inconsolable after failing to rescue Eurydice, sits down by the banks of the river Ebro and refuses to pick up his lyre and sing for some rambunctious furies who have happened along. Enraged, they tear him to shreds, rip off his head, and throw it in the river.

Thus we have it   Orpheus' head, singing as it floats downstream to the sea, and on to the isle of Lesbos, before Apollo finally shuts it up. 

Once again, Orpheus has failed. For personal reasons, he has put aside the duty he had to share his god-given powers – this time, resisting what the gods have ordered through the auspices of wild maenads under the control of Dionysus   because he’s in mourning for his unrescuable wife. Instead of learning the lesson and moving on – you can’t misuse the powers you’ve been given – he refuses to submit to them. 

So what's the point of these cautionary Orphic tales?

Simple. As artists, we are given a special gift   to act in the role of mythmakers for our societies. To connect myth to moment, and moment to myth. To use that gift for the purposes it was given us.

We are warned against attempting to misuse or abuse that gift.

We are warned not to withhold that gift.

People who have been gifted with the ability to make myth out of moment incur an obligation when they pick up the lyre, and need to be careful of what they ask for in return.

Bottom line: Be the mythmaker. Serve your art, not yourself. Consider the possibility that, like Orpheus, you are caught between myth and moment. If you become frustrated with what you can and cannot have in return for practicing your art, and have the urge to say you want to put the damn lyre down, resist that urge. It may just cost you your head.


The project “International Festival of Poetry “ORPHEUS” – Plovdiv 2018” was realized with the financial support of “The Cultural Programme for the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union 2018” of the National Culture Fund.


Bulgarian Presidency
of the Council of the European Union

© 2018 International Poetry Festival „Orpheus” – Plovdiv
Международен фестивал на поезията „ОРФЕЙ” – Пловдив