What is mythology? What is personal mythology?
Very simply put, a myth is a story with a purpose – that of trying to make meaning, to explain the way things are. Depending on the context, we might also define a myth as a sacred narrative, or a popular or socially powerful belief or tradition.
When we speak of mythology, we generally refer to the study of a collection of stories shared by a large group as part of a cultural history or world view. When we refer to Greek, Lakota or Masai mythology, for example, what we’re really talking about is the social or sacred narrative of a group of people by region or nation.
By this definition we may also speak of the mythologies of Buddhists, Hindus and Christians without offense, seeing mythic structure as supportive of religious or spiritual intent. In another direction, perhaps the Internet and medical science also have their own mythologies, necessary to certain social needs.
We might also imagine that any smaller group can have a body of myths. Cities, for example – think of the culture, politics and history evoked by such concepts as “Paris,” “San Francisco,” “Waco,” or “Atlantis.”
What about the fascinating collective narrative of small towns? Consider the neighborhood you grew up in, and the stories, legends and truths that were passed to you there. What about other “tribal” identities and affiliations you might have: sports teams, schools, political parties?
Think of your family’s history, traditions, rituals, stories; this is rich territory.
An excess of childhood is the germ of a poem. – Gaston Bachelard
There are smaller groups still. If you had siblings, did you tell stories, made up or real (or very real) according to your shared childhood perspective? Think of the many ways the reality you shared with your brother or sister differed than the views of your parents.
And right down to you. You’ve inherited the story structures of the groups you were born into (whether you accept or reject them, they do inform your personal mythology). But there are events, moments and perceptions unique to you that form pivot points around which the story of yourself catches, gathers and takes form.
One useful way of defining personal mythology is, then, is that it’s the sum of those experiences, beliefs and stories that fulfill on an individual level those needs that cultural myths have traditionally performed for larger groups.
What is a poem? Will I have to write sonnets?
From its etymology, poetry is simply “making.” A poem is a made thing and a poet is a maker.
When we write a poem, we are making a thing with all this implies. When we read someone else’s poem, we’re handling something someone else made. Outside this functional definition there are as many ideas of what poetry really is as there are people (poets or not) who discuss it.
Making implies construction, creation, building – hopefully also play, experimentation and invention. I like to think of a certain intensity as being integral to what poetry is, but I encourage your thoughts and conversation here on the subject as we go. For the purposes of starting out on this month-long project, though, a poem is, and looks like, whatever you as the maker decide.
It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty. – Albert Einstein
I lean towards a more formal poetry practice, myself. I admire the various traditional and modern forms, I keep an eye towards the sound and the meter of my work and think of poetry as a craft. As such, I may suggest various ways of exploring each day’s exercise through a sonnet, blank verse, ode or ghazal if I see the possibility that a certain structure might frame our content in a provocative way. It is a curious truth about poetry that sometimes the formless may best be focused and expressed under the compression of a form, and I encourage making use of that tension if it’s meaningful to you.
Please don’t take these suggestions of form as anything more than suggestion. What’s important in a poem-a-day workshop is that we make some poems every day, not that we struggle under the weight of a villanelle and lose sight of the inner work.
Do keep in mind, though, that the work of uncovering and assembling a body of personal mythology is intense stuff and shares many of the classical attributes and elements of poetry. Story, images, sounds, metaphors, rhythms and repetitions are in our blood, our language, our history, and in our hearts.
More soon. Sleep on it.