Joseph Campbell and Poetry

In one of my poetry classes we’re reading about the link between myth making and poetry. Currently we’re studying An open Life by Joseph Campbell, and next we’re reading Pathways to Bliss.

Campbell has a lot to say about the role of poets in today’s society. He discusses how the old myths and rituals no longer serve people the way they did even 50 years ago, and that it’s the role of the poet to create new myths to sustain our need for a connection between the outer world and our inner lives.

Campbell’s study of Native American cultures lead him to his research of world myths. And after studying Jung and seeing the work of artists like Picasso and Paul Klee, he came upon his theories of the monomyth, The Hero, and The Call, which he describes in his seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

I read Hero a few years ago, but there’s so much to it that I’m pleased to have this chance to dive back into Campbell’s work. It’s a challenge, not only to base poems on old myths and fairy tales, but to create new, relevant myths through poetry. Film has done it: Star Wars, The Matrix, and now Avatar are a few examples of the Hero Myth in contemporary culture.

But what about poetry? Has poetry lost the ability to move the populace at large? Has film replaced poetry for the masses? I’m just asking.

9 thoughts on “Joseph Campbell and Poetry

  1. Collin Kelley says:

    Poetry is not moving the populace at large, and hasn’t been for a generation. Even when Elizabeth Alexander read at Obama’s inauguration, – arguably the biggest platform for a poet and poetry in history — her poem was met by ridicule from other poets and ignored by the public, who didn’t exactly get it or care. I haven’t heard a peep about Alexander since. Since I read a good bit of poetry, I cannot tell you how many collections have left me cold. The ideas, the delivery, the form — it all seems a bit tired. That’s why I’m not so worried about my own work. I’m going to write what I want to write and take my inspiration from music, film and other literature, because it’s rare that poetry moves me (with exceptions like Cecilia Woloch, Tania Rochelle, Cherryl Floyd-Miller) to want to write my own. Sad, but true. I’m actually happy to be in fiction mode right now because I’m a little disenchanted with what I’ve been reading lately. I’m going to expound on this on my blog later in the week, too.


  2. christine says:

    It’s a dense book, is’t it, Odessa? I’ve just downloaded the audio version to listen to in my car.

    Collin, I admire your creative energy, as well as your confidence to accept your inspiration where you find it. Film figures in a big way in your work, I know. Just keep writing those poems in between novels, OK? You’re right about the poetry world’s reaction to Elizabeth Alexander. I love the poets whose names you mention, too.


  3. Julie says:

    Hi, Christine. Your question is intriguing. It often feels like people, if they read at all, only read poets with themes, styles, or cultures that match their own interests.

    Unfortunately, I have read many poets who are like that, too. It shows in their work. It’s a big mistake for a poet to shut out the rest of the world. Working class may be my favorite type of poetry, because it speaks to my personal background. But as a poet, I must read all forms and themes, even if I don’t personally “like” the style. It’s the only way I can continue to grow. Sometimes, poets expect the rest of the world to do what they will not.

    We also have to lead by example and get out there and take poetry to the people. Film is doing a beautiful job of that. Granted, they have a medium that’s easier to attract the populace. Poetry on buses or subways is a great idea. Also, maybe if we designed more poetry “events” that would speak to the public and not just poets. It can be done without diluting or commercializing the art form. I could go on, but I’m already too long-winded yet again:) Thank you, Christine! You challenge me to think, and your discussions are absolutely wonderful!


  4. christine says:

    You’re right, Julie, with a huge screen and ample seating, film has it going on. I hope we can write poems that inspire people to make words come alive through the power of the imagination. That’s the rub, I think. A lot of people want someone else to create the images for them. I suppose as writers we have to try to be more concrete. You are so very good at that.


  5. Michelle says:

    I love the idea of creating new myths.

    And I think you have it spot on when you say: “A lot of people want someone else to create the images for them.” I think that’s so true. People are less self-reliant than they used to be.

    I’m so glad you’re learning about all these interesting writers.


  6. Rethabile says:

    Bravo to you, capital C. This is good stuff. I don’t know Campbell but will have to find him out pronto, because all this sounds like it’s lekker.

    Collin, I disagree with you when you say that poetry isn’t moving the population at large. Where?

    There are people in various parts of the world to whom poetry is life, and is found in song, lullaby, bedtime story, love-letter, dance.

    I have many favourite poets to whom I refer in the morning when I wake up. And that’s because in Europe where i live, poetry is dissociated from life, whereas in Africa (Lesotho, to be precise) where I grew up, poetry is life.

    My favourite poemts today are too numerous to name, but please let me link to a few who I think are doing it. I hope C’s spamware won’t block a few links.

    Joyce Ellen Davis, Mark Doty, January O’Neil, Julius Chingono, Geoffrey Philp, Derek Walcott, Rustum Kozain, and many, many, more.

    To me, poetry is vibrant. If I mention poets that are on the verge of doing it, the list is even longer, and it starts with you and I, and our fellow potes ate RWP and elsewhere. No, poetry is alive and well, even if in certain parts of the world it isn’t part of life, but is apart from it.

    And on a personal point, I like Elizabeth Alexander’s poem, but did not like the delivery of it.

    Thanks for your comment which is engaging and encouraging.


  7. christine says:

    Ret, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I agree, the poets you’ve linked to here are wonderful. You could easily have included yourself…. 🙂 I think Collin was referring to the sort of elitist exclusive attitude often found among academic poets. In addition to being a published poet and novelist, Collin helps run an open-mic poetry reading for everyday folks in Atlanta. I think he’s speaking from the perspective of a poet who has made a name for himself the hard way-through writing and publishing. He has a great blog, too-Modern Confessionals. In fact, January reads Collin’s blog! He’s an amazing poet.


  8. Rethabile says:

    Hey C,
    Hope you’re good. I read Collin’s blog, too. In his comment here, there are things I do agree with, like the tiredness of some of the poetry floating out there. I read mine sometimes and have to stop myself burning it. Nevertheless, I still feel there’s enough goodness in what’s put out to keep us poetry lovers happy, though, as you suggest, it’s all about “the sort of elitist exclusive attitude often found among academic poets,” which is usually bad through and through.

    Cheers to you and to your readers.


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