A poem written by … nobody?

In his excellent book Memoirs of an Irish Troubadour, Liam Clancy describes, among other things, his life as a young actor and ballad singer in New York in the early 1960s. At one point he tells how, one night at a party, someone had the idea that everyone should write a word or words on little pieces of cardboard, which they placed in a large paper bag. They then took turns at pulling out words and stringing them together.

After a month or so Clancy and his flatmates had transferred the words to a box, and were using it as a device for divination – i.e. asking questions and extracting sequences of words as ‘answers’. His girlfriend, Tina, always seemed to produce articulate and meaningful answers.

This use of ‘the Box’ lasted two years, and they became so obsessed with it that none of them would leave the house till it had been consulted. Eventually they started asking it for poems and, over a period of a year, received ‘a volume of poetry … with such intense imagery that it really did frighten me’. Clancy says, ‘Perhaps the most frightening piece of poetry, and the main reason why we destroyed the Box, came towards the end of our psychic adventures.’ This was it:

That night out there I saw your face

Where I knew it could not be.

And then I knew

That the thin threads

That hold the mind together had been worn through.

Will your wild face drive me to such insanity

That I go planting scarlet flowers

In the furrows of the sea?



Filed under Death, Poems

49 responses to “A poem written by … nobody?

  1. Cymbeline

    Real send-you-over-the-edge stuff.

  2. Cymbeline

    The thin threads that hold the mind together – indeed.

  3. Cymbeline

    But I suppose that the words did not come out of The Box in that order.

  4. They did, according to Clancy.

    One can delve into the collective unconscious or ‘what lies beyond’ … whatever it may be called … but that can certainly lead to the dissolution of the mind. I found this when a friend of mine died when I was 21 … I walked in quicksand for a while but was able to get back on solid ground, thank God.

    I think the mind has to be contained in a semipermeable membrane … if the membrane is too permeable one goes insane; if it is too impermeable one is dull and stunted.

  5. Cymbeline

    Yes, I think that the mind has to be contained in a semi-permeable membrane too – that is no doubt why I tried to rationalize the poem in terms of word order.

    I would have been very frightened indeed to see that poem.

  6. Yes. When one reaches that point, one has to stop and turn back. And sleep with the light on for a while, probably. 🙂

  7. Cymbeline

    Christianity helps me to keep that sort of fear at bay.

  8. Cymbeline

    Another version of the light on, perhaps.

  9. Yes, I think that’s the great thing about organized religion … it gives one a kind of island to stand on, out of the rushing water.

    I am religious by nature, I think, and have a lot of time for Christianity, though not so much for the churches. I tolerate ambiguity, so to speak … I don’t feel a need to have hard-and-fast beliefs, as the Catholic Church, say, would have us do.

  10. claire2

    Yes, that poem is real send-a-shiver-down the spine territory.
    Imagine the hold/terror that the box must have exacted on them. Not unlike some sort of addiction to oujii boards, or a sect, I suppose.

  11. Cymbeline

    Salut Claire. The fascination with elsewhere, and the addiction to the idea of the next instalment too. I can understand that impetus – the impetus of ‘what next?’ It is very much part of human drive.

    I would not want to get involved with the occult though. It seems evil to me.

  12. Cymbeline

    Or sometimes just plain silly.

  13. Cymbeline

    Brendano. Two thousand years later, it is sometimes easy to forget the extraordinary message of Christianity. Nothing like that had ever been said before. Love, charity, forgiveness, freedom from dietary laws, freedom from fear and superstition, refusal of violence and hypocrisy, equality, redemption, salvation. Those ideas are as fresh and freeing today as they ever were. Light.

    What organized religion has done to that message is another subject.

    As you know, I have no time for religion when it oppresses thought and tries to wield political power.

  14. Hello Claire and Cymbeline. Yes, Claire, it could be extremely oppressive, claustrophobic and anti-life, I think, and could lead to obsession and evil.

    I wouldn’t want to get involved with the occult either, Cymbeline. I think you’re right about Christianity.

  15. claire2

    Hello Cymbeline and Brendano. I was trying to reply hours ago but got waylaid…
    I guess everyone has heard of some horrible story or other about the occult. Do you know – and I’ve said this before – but I think the old MyT was like some sort of oujii board. Give it a whirl and you never know what sort of demons you might stir up 😉

  16. That’s very true, Claire. I think the two had a lot in common, all joking aside.

  17. Cymbeline

    Well of course. When the Liam Clancy people were writing the words on the pieces of cardboard, they were plucking words and ideas from their subconscious minds. A world far away from the control of politesse.

    Writing on internet is very much like that. It is not at all like speaking to someone in person. Most internet barneys are to do with the submerged, rocky part of the mind.

  18. Yes, exactly, Cymbeline. The unconscious mind needs to be curbed in favour of the conscious one (though not repressed entirely). In a place like MyT, its reign can be too free and some rather negative, destructive contents can come out and have an effect.

  19. claire2

    Cymbers; Brendano…hi. I missed this. You two are early birds and I am a night owl!
    That’s very true about internet bust ups being a manifestation of some internal stress on subconscious levels. Blogging is communication devoid of non verbal elements like paralinguistic features,facial expression and the reality of human contact. Add to that the freedom of expression with anonymity, the habit of using logic/rationalism to browbeat others, and the use of negative lexis, rhetoric and hostile colloquialisms/cliches, and you have the recipe for the old, destructive MyT.
    It was spooky at times. But it’s a shambles now. Ah well; back to the ouji board 😉

  20. Nicely put, Claire. 🙂

    Yes, MyT’s power has been diffused or defused.

    Did you ever use the I Ching? I did a few times, ages ago. Fascinating book.

  21. claire2

    Brendano; hi. never heard of it…what is it about?

  22. Cymbeline

    Claire. I think it is the sequel to ‘I, Claudius’.

  23. claire2

    Hi Cymbers… thanks for that. I will google it, when I have sorted dinner and bathtime out 🙂

  24. Cymbeline is just kidding, Claire. The I Ching is an old Chinese method of divination. You ask a question and throw a set of coins (or yarrow sticks, originally), and get an answer from the book based on what comes up.

    Do Google it. I wouldn’t use it now, but I did at times when I was younger.

  25. claire2

    ooh cymbers. Good job I was being all Pollyana ish.
    I Claudius was quite cool though; my dad used to love it, so I was taking a large pinch of salt while you were taking the proverbials… 😉
    There are so many references to old films and books among you lot i feel quite an ignoramus at times…
    Brendano; ta luv. Sounds rather spooky if you ask me

  26. I see it all in terms of patterns, Claire. Patterns and mirrors. 🙂

    Lines from one version of Dylan’s ‘Idiot Wind’:

    ‘I threw the I Ching yesterday … it said there might be some thunder at the well.’

    It’s all couched in those terms … thunder, wells, etc. Then there is an interpretation of what it means by some English scholar from way back.

  27. claire2

    do you have a link?
    Sounds interesting; sorry if I sound rushed. As usual,I’m taken up with last minute business of trying to cobble together acoustic guitar songs-with-no-mention of licentious fings for tomorrow…

  28. Wiki is perhaps as good as any, Claire …


    Good luck with those non-licentious songs. 🙂

  29. Cymbeline

    Claire. I was not taking the piss in a personal sense – I seldom do that, to anyone. Just a light-hearted comment. I am afraid I find it very difficult to stud my comments with those beaming yellow smiley things. They would be insincere and grotesque if I used them.

    Good luck with the search for respectable songs!

  30. Cymbeline

    I had not heard of ‘I Ching’ before either. Sounds interesting. I like thinking about symbols.

  31. I have a copy of it, with a foreword by Jung. He was very interested. He says it was the main inspiration for Confucius and Lao-tse (it’s very old, obviously). He was interested in general in the importance of chance and coincidence as opposed to the causality on which much of Western thought depends … hence his idea of ‘synchronicity’.

    ‘Like a part of nature, it waits until it is discovered’, he says.

    Or like a work of art, I suppose.

  32. Cymbeline

    Dearest Claire. Ma Claire chérie. I see that you have removed your picture, and decided to disappear once again. I do that too. I think that we are very much alike on monthly things. Followers of the moon, as Brendano once said in a poem. I only realized how cyclical I am from other people’s puzzlement, and sometimes irritation or even anger on internet. I do not think that I show those cycles in ‘real’ life (whatever that is).

    Je t’embrasse. Le bonheur revient toujours.

  33. Cymbeline

    Brendano. I am interested in all sorts of cultures, but European culture interests me the most.

    Aimé Césaire says the same sort of thing about Négritude.

  34. Cymbeline, you might be interested in this: it was linked to in one of the ‘possibly related posts’ on my blog.


  35. Cymbeline

    Thank you for the article. I have always waxed lyrical about the Irish monks and missionaries. Christianity in Ireland came via the Welsh (or the Romano-British in general). St Patrick is ours, not yours.

    This Christianity arrived in Britain at the end of the Roman Empire. The barbarians then flooded the Roman Empire, and the Irish were particularly splendid in converting them. They carried light back into Europe. Iona was the most important missionary centre. I see that a man called Columbanus founded important mission stations at Luxeuil in Burgundy and at Bobbio in Lombardy. The missionaries were called ‘Scoti’.

    The journalist speaks about ‘gloomy classicism’ and the jaded sense of fatedness in the Greco-Roman tradition. He is very wrong. Classicism is anything but gloomy, and on the contrary the Greco-Roman tradition is full of optimism, love of beauty, and the belief that the universe can be explained. Classicism is very much linked to this tradition.

    The journalist is also overdoing it a bit when he says that the Irish saved the books of Western civilization. No, the Arabs did that.

    The playfulness? Everyone is playful. Folklore trap?

  36. Thanks for that, Cymbeline. Everyone ought to be playful … I’m not sure that everyone is. I remember being amused by the placename ‘Bobbio’ at school. We learnt about Columbanus and such people (I tend to confuse him with Columba/Colmcille, one of the three great saints of Ireland along with Patrick and Bridget). As you say, there was a great deal of Irish missionary activity on the continent.

    As it happens, I was going to post a poem with St Patrick in it this morning, but posted another one instead. He decided to be one of ours, I suppose … was brought here, went away and came back. There was always a lot of coming and going … still is.

  37. Cymbeline

    Even more coming and going in Britain.

    Far,far more.

  38. Perhaps, Cymbeline. But seen differently. Different psyches and self-images.

  39. Cymbeline

    I am afraid that I cannot let you get away with that sort of waffle. What do you mean?

  40. Briefly (loads of work to be getting on with), I mean that Ireland sees itself largely in terms of invasion and emigration … of being violated and peripheral. Britain sees itself as inviolate and central.

    Yet the Irish temperament is largely optimistic and ebullient and the British largely pessimistic, or so it seems to me.

  41. I don’t know why but I feel very close with Irish and Scottish people.

  42. Cymbeline

    Yes. I see what you mean. Britain has still not got over the loss of the Empire.

    Sorry to disturb your work.

  43. Cymbeline

    Don’t be daft, Levent.

  44. Cymbeline

    Right, I’m orff. I have not slept for 24 hours.

    Smiles to you both.

  45. You’re not disturbing it at all, Cymbeline. I generally manage to fit everything in. 🙂

  46. Thanks for the comments, Levent. 🙂

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