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Poetic Imagination: The Rich Language Of Image And Metaphor

BY Kristina Dryža May 9, 2021

Constellations, by Dorothe. Creative Commons.

“Read myths as newspaper reports by reporters who were there and it doesn’t work. Reread them as poems and they become luminous,” [9] writes Joseph Campbell in Myths of Light as he invites us to cultivate faithful, imaginal thinking and intuitive perception, a subjective process that’s neither fanciful nor misguided. 

We often don’t have the language, or indeed the mental syntax, for the intuited unknown and so we’re obliged to reach into and employ the poetic mind. This mind enables us to better explore nascent truths that aren’t yet tangibly manifested. These truths are emergent and exist on the growing edge of our soul’s horizon. 

One of the motivating forces for our pursuit of deep learning is our longing for universality, which includes the integral coherence of the Kosmos within the psyche. A poetic and symbolic sensibility assists this endeavor because many of the most important lessons of life are expressed through pictorial narratives. Indeed, eternal truths are usually best conveyed through myth, parable, allegory, and metaphor. 

Unfortunately, though, when we solely exercise intellectuality, the proclivity of this faculty to commission rigid thinking and mechanization brings a disjunctive force into ourselves and into our surroundings. By engaging in pictorial thinking – and its imaginative fluency – we invigorate the spirit and nature realms together with the physical world.

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In Myths of Light, Campbell nourishes us with such vivid, descriptive visual thoughts and wealth of imagery that we’re virtually initiated into their rich, imaginative tones and textures. For example, the stories “The Tigers and the Goats” and “The Cry of the Buddha Child” provide a glimpse into an inner understanding of the world, and ourselves, because they are interior chronicles of who we are. “So this is what the story tells us: we are all tigers living among these goats. So go into the forest, and in the forest of the night, find the tiger burning bright in your own profound depths.” [140]

Frequently, it’s necessary to wrestle with the pictures of a narrative in our minds and souls to arrive at their deeper truths. The over-intellectualized mind struggles to apprehend these truths. And far too readily our nervous system becomes depleted if it’s engaged in constant, mental abstraction devoid of any iconographic content. It’s why, in this era of “fake news,” we desperately crave the poetic and mythological narratives with their vast, lyrical, pictorial palettes. And when we merely inhabit the mental analytics of our existence, we begin to lose the essential patterns, textures and tones of the whole. We then struggle to find even the simplest pattern, no matter how much effort of will or intelligence we apply. The mind depleted of an imaginal capacity cannot solve our inmost anguishes or commune with our higher longings. 

To be creatively fertile is life’s true survival. It’s why Novalis wrote, “Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.” And it’s also why Campbell reminds us, “To see life as a poem and yourself participating in that poem is what the myth does for you.”  

Campbell describes the rebirth of the sun, moon, lion, bull, eagle, serpent, and the figures of the early mythologies across cultures in respect to the vegetal rebirth of life. He does it in such an engaging and poetic way that his words themselves become alive, a pictorial creation. The language of metaphor and imagery leads us towards the existence of deeper meanings and truths because such imagery connects, while the intellect, roaming on its own, has the inevitable inclination to only see and seek separation. Its tendency is to divide the world into parts and demand fixity of them.  

A famous statement of Campbell’s advises, “If you want to change the world, you have to change the metaphor.” And all too often we’re trying to change the world through a linear mind, when in reality, it can only (ultimately) be transformed through the non-linear – metaphors, myths, dreams, symbols – and cultivated affectionately through a caressing, inner knowing.

It’s our duty to honor the inner life through accepting and respecting the fluidity and flexibility of the psyche – to not over-prioritize the literal and material to the detriment of the imaginative and spiritual. This book serves as a reminder to reconnect with the Kosmos because it inspires us to seek the light, to dwell in the divine mysteries, and to develop a fruitful, archetypal eye in the process.  

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth.” So how today can we evoke both the visible artistic and the invisible, yet felt, mytho-poetic forces, which weave in and around us awaiting our recognition? In exactly the same way that many folk songs and stories are encoded with meaningful messages through their purposeful marrying of the illumined mythic with quotidian life. For when we reach for something far more metaphorical, more imaginal, more poetic and indeed, more luminously mythic in the everyday, and within ourselves, we may truly embrace these words of Campbell’s. “The message of the Buddha is simple but profound: we are to seek joyful participation in the suffering of the world.” [125] And perhaps, we could also add, “participation in the deep telos of the world.”


Join the conversation: visit Conversations of a Higher Order to discuss this MythBlast with the author, Kristina Dryža, and the rest of the JCF community.

Kristina Dryža is recognized as one of the world’s top female futurists and is also an archetypal consultant and author. She has always been fascinated by patterns for feels we are patterned beings in a patterned universe. Her work focuses on archetypal and mythic patterns and the patterning of nature's rhythms and their influence on creativity, innovation and leadership. Find out more at her website or watch her TEDx talk on "Archetypes and Mythology. Why They Matter Even More So Today."

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In this wonderful, thought provoking extract from Myths of Light, his exploration of the underlying myths of the great Asian philosophies and religions, Joseph Campbell presents two characteristic stories: one of the Buddha’s birth, and the other the Hindu parable of the tiger orphan raised by goats. In his exploration of these two tales, Campbell unlocks the core mythological values of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Confucianism.

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Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed.

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Myths of Light

This previously unpublished title brings the focus of Campbell’s remarkable knowledge and intellect to one of his favorite topics: the myths and metaphors of the Asian religions. By his own account, Joseph Campbell began his comparative study of the world’s religions with a chance meeting with the renowned Indian Theosophist Jeddu Krishnamurti on a trans-Atlantic steamer.

Though he was deeply fascinated by mythologies and religions from every continent, Campbell’s imagination was most captured by Asia’s potent mix of theologies as they offered him paths to understanding the essence of myth. Readers who have been waiting for an accessible summation of Campbell’s insights into the great Asian traditions will have it in this compact volume.

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