Sweeney, Orpheus, Rimbaud: Accursed/Blessed Poets


The path of poetry can take us deep, very deep, into places where the ego doesn’t fit. There are so many myths in many different cultures that show us this as well as in contemporary realizations. Sloughing off, emerging naked in cold wet rooms, slathered with viscous fluids, or heated up and sweating. We emerge where there are serpents, fissures, voices speaking in languages we only half recognize.


There are those that go down like Orpheus, seeking one thing, but not getting it, yet forever changed. This is intrinsic, I think. When he emerged he was altered, he was the ur poet, the one who got the trees and bears to dance, and lived outside of the walls of the city as his grief slowly healed. The sons of the city dwellers came to dance to his music and rekindled the flames of his heart, as well. Sometimes the going is to a place where one doesn’t really ever return from like mad Sweeney (Suibhne Geilt), but still the poetry makes it to the people. Sweeney is presented as a king of Dál nAraidi in the 7th century, a time of conflict between the old ways and the encroachments of the Catholic Church with Sweeney coming into conflict with a cleric named Moling; he tosses his psalter in a lake and the Christian puts a malediction upon him. In the ensuing battle of Moira, in the midst of the battle he is overwhelmed by ‘vertigo’ and ‘hysteria’ and will run into the woods where he will live a bird like existence. He hops from tree to tree in the wilderness—and Ireland is cold, it is not a comfortable existence that he has, but there are wild joys in his voice, such knife keen descriptions of nature’s beauty. Sweeney has something feral about him: he had been a king and he had been a warrior but this was all left behind in a situation of what would be labeled post-traumatic stress today.


In my own life at a time where I felt nearly sunk in grief, I went down to the waterfront, to a place that was feral rather than wild—a bit of remnant shoreline along the bay, near a horse racetrack…where a stand of huge eucalyptus reached up to the sky above this rather forlorn spot, overlooking a beach riddled with driftwood and nautical flotsam and jetsam. Sometimes I would wander through the town, through the dark streets at night, listening to the plants, and glimpsing the animals who also wandered at such hours. Sweeney was one of my guides. In imagination I roosted in those tall trees and flew out in the dark before dawn to a spit of reclaimed land, and feasted on the berries that grew out there, on a feral swathe of landfill, a reclaimed temple of our age of waste.


The voices of the dead, of wandering spirits can be heard in such places and states. There old selves that are broken, fractured armor, can be dropped off, racked open and something new step out, vulnerable and sensitive, wings tentatively unfurling….the goal is to become both less than human and more than human, embracing the wild, and building a campfire and carefully blowing on the embers of the divine.


The gleaming of enchantment is here—a place of broken cement foundations and cascades of ivy, and trees well established from another continent—brambles and dandelions too. For some it is silent here, but listening carefully, perhaps it becomes a chaotic jumble of sound. But one can press further and listen to the speaking that is going on. Of course, enchantment is also about chants, songs, poems…You might bring one back; sometimes they are simple, sometimes complex.


Jean Marais as Orpheus
Jean Marais as Orpheus

This can happen at home too, on comforting pillow and soft sheets: hypnagogic/hypnopompic states are liminal, that state where the daily self has not been fully reassembled. Where time has yet to reassert its tyranny. Where we may be many ages, be awakening in multiple locations like Proust’s narrator in Remembrance of Lost Time:

“But for me it was enough if, in my own bed, my sleep was so heavy as to completely relax my consciousness; for then I lost all sense of the place in which I had gone to sleep, and when I awoke in the middle of the night, not knowing where I was; I had only the most rudimentary sense of existence, such as may lurk in the depths of an animals’ consciousness; I was more destitute than the cave-dweller; but then the memory—not yet of the place in which I was, but of various other places where I had lived and might now very possibly be—would come like a rope let down from heaven to draw me up from out of the abyss of non-being from which I could never have escaped by myself: in a flash I would traverse centuries of civilization, and out of a blurred glimpse of oil lamps, then of shirts with turned down collars, would gradually piece together the original components of my ego.

From the abyss we emerge over and over and we can retrieve words, shapes, shadows, memories of our encounters and knowledge as we return– much practice is required or it will all disappear like fairy gold.


Arthur Rimbaud (1854-91) is a key figure to modern seer-poets: his poetry that would have such impact was all written by the time he was 20, including A Season in Hell and Illuminations. For Rimbaud it was the derangement of the senses that was the key to the visionary poet. The techniques are legion, but the opening, the rearrangements allow other I’s to step forward. “The I is an other”, he wrote. He wrote in a letter in 1871, “The poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious rational disordering of the senses…he reaches the unknown; and, even if crazed, he loses the understanding of his visions, he has seen them!”  It’s interesting that he uses the term a ‘rational disordering’, in other words a methodology.


Yet he also writes that the suffering is enormous, this is not a something that takes place in a comfort zone but is a deep diving, a going down into places of enormous pressure, spelunking into the realms of Hades, which are zones of wealth too, where the great pressure turns carbon into diamonds. Or where strange fish unknown to science are observed scintillating in their own luminosity. There are poisonous veins here too and much sulfur, but sulfur is a key element in alchemical transformations. Many discomforting realities may be faced; the same self will not return. Again the disassociation from the ego, the ordered I.  A venenum: a spell may be obtained there, which could also be a medicine, a potion or a a poison. The gift received may be polyvalent: how is it approached and carried? This may well determine outcomes that can have profound consequences.




Clayton Eshleman, another poet of the chthonic and long time explorer of the cave art of the French Paleolithic and author of Hades in Manganese writes:

“And we know that in dreams the world is turned upside down, events most marvelous and terrible take place, and because this upside down world is threatening to our ability to keep balance in everyday survival (you don’t want to start dreaming while driving on the freeway), most people keep it under lock and key, and only, when out of conscious control, in sleep, are penetrated by its phantoms….Rimbaud is saying he wants to dream awake, to exist in a trance, in which he has conscious aces to his dream powers” (Archaic Design, 48).




Rimbaud is a prime example of the Poetes Maudites (title of an anthology published by Paul Verlaine in 1884 that included work by Rimbaud, and Mallarme among others), the accursed poet, the poet transgressive of the social order who may well live short lives, and die violently like Orpheus. Sweeneys’ life was not a comfortable one, this not a path for those who crave convenience. The accursed and blessed can be two sides of the same coin.  The gifts can be incredible but they take one into zones of sacrifice, into dark energy and difficult matter.