July 2, 2022

Prophets of the Underworld

By Shoshana Olidort

Aviva Bogart, Fear/Manifestation Dance, 2021

I grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community in Brooklyn, New York. More than the myriad rules and regulations that circumscribed our everyday lives, including strict gender segregation and rigid dietary laws, what defined our world was the person at its helm, a man we referred to as “Rebbe,” meaning teacher, but who functioned as a sort of modern-day prophet. Whether blessing or admonition, command or reprimand, his words were taken as the word of God—Truth—and they reverberated throughout our insular community, and its hundreds of satellites around the globe. In part because of this, prophecy has always struck me as a profoundly male genre. But I don’t think this is the only explanation for my association of prophecy with maleness, and I imagine I’m not the only one for whom the very word prophecy conjures up the image of a man—often a bearded man—presiding over crowds of adoring fans/enthusiastic disciples.

From Walt Whitman to Allen Ginsberg, the poet-prophets of the American tradition are typically male and seem to loom over audiences as they give breathless voice to their expansive visions. One imagines Whitman perched atop a hill, looking out onto “a thousand acres” of fields and hillsides, as he projects his “call to mankind.” So, too, in “Howl,” Ginsberg seems to be lurking somewhere above the city, on a rooftop, perhaps, from which he can take in the myriad ills of the urban sprawl beset by madness, poverty, and starvation. In both cases, and many others, America’s visionary poets are men who project their claim to truth from a position of privilege that affords them sweeping, panoramic views and the belief that theirs is, in fact, the long, true vision.

Among the defining characteristics of this prophetic tradition is a gaze that is turned heavenward, or fixed on some distant point on the horizon, as if nodding towards the great beyond. The effect here is to imply, if not direct communion with, then at least access to some mystical source of wisdom. From this vantage point, the poet-prophet can seek—or claim—validation from both a supernatural power and from mortal devotees.

If the tools of male prophetic poetry include the claim to truth and universality—think of Whitman’s “What I assume you shall assume”—the apparatus of a female visionary poetics may appear less obviously utilitarian. Instead of making grand promises and sweeping statements, such prophecy is focused on the search for truth. I’m thinking in particular of Adrienne Rich’s groundbreaking 1972 poem “Diving into the Wreck” and Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette, an epic book-length poem published in 1996. As their titles make clear, both poems narrate stories of katabasis, or descent into an underworld, a prevalent trope in ancient mythology. In Rich’s case the destination is an underwater wreck. Notley’s poem, which reimagines the ancient Sumerian myth of Inanna, takes her narrator into the bowels of a modern-day urban subway system in order to find and destroy the tyrant who has consigned all of humanity to the nefarious underworld. These are not, then, traditionally prophetic poems. They offer no predictions or armchair diagnoses, nor do they profess to be the vessel through which insights from some other realm are funneled into our earthly sphere. Instead, these are searching poems, propelled not by certainty but by a quest. In both poems, the speaker embarks on a descent in order to right past wrongs—wrongs they did not commit but which they feel compelled to rectify. Instead of the kind of visionary poets who insist on looking forward, outward, or upward, the speakers in these poems, much like Walter Benjamin’s famous Angel of History, have their gazes fixed on the ruins of the past. But where Benjamin’s Angel is rendered helpless by the winds of progress that propel him forward, the speakers in both “Diving into the Wreck” and The Descent of Alette insist not merely on looking at the past ruins, but on transforming those ruins, on salvaging the wreckage and reclaiming the past.

If the male poet-prophet’s default position is above his listeners, the prophetic voices in these two works by women poets emerge from a place deep within—the bowels of the universe, or of the human psyche. Both poems open in the passive voice, which suggests self-abnegation, a characteristic often associated with women and those engaged in the work of care. Thus, Rich begins: “First having read the book of myths,” and Notley: “‘One day, I awoke’ ‘& found myself on’ ‘a subway, endlessly.’” Compare these openings to Whitman’s “I celebrate myself . . .” and Ginsberg’s “I saw the best minds of my generation . . . ,” in which the “I” is front and center, launched into the world along with the poem itself. While Ginsberg claims to have insight into the minds of an entire generation, Notley simply registers what she observes on the subway, namely, a “world of souls.” And whereas Whitman’s poem begins in celebration, Rich’s opens with trepidation, as the speaker takes her first steps in what will be an arduous descent. Whitman relates to the world as mere extension of himself, everything filtered through his sensory experiences—“the smoke of my own breath . . . my respiration and inspiration . . . the sniff of green leaves and dry leaves . . .” Rich, in contrast, makes sparing use of the first-person pronoun in this poem, and the self is always secondary to the work of descent and rescue. It’s not until the fourth line of “Diving into the Wreck” that the “I” makes an appearance: “I put on / the body-armor of black rubber.” As she navigates the underwater terrain, Rich’s narrator discovers an inner strength, a power in her blood that is simultaneously vital and also wholly irrelevant:

the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

Journeying downward, “not like Cousteau with his / assiduous team,” Rich’s narrator descends, rung after rung, and as she does so she begins to regress and resemble something not quite human: “My flippers cripple me, / I crawl like an insect.” From this position underwater, beneath the heaving world above, the narrator of Rich’s poem attempts to redeem our world from the primordial sin—not of sex or the forbidden fruit, but of gender itself, a construct that, as Rich knew all too well, remains one of the most powerful and destructive tools of the master’s house.

I recognize that this dichotomy I’ve set up of male versus female prophetic poetry runs the risk of reinforcing gender stereotypes—feminine inwardness versus masculine expansiveness, a voice that projects as against one that seems to retreat into itself. But my aim here is to reconsider entrenched notions of the prophetic mode in poetry. In both Notley and Rich, I find evidence that prophecy can continue to persist and to flourish outside of an authoritarian framework. As we try to find our way out of the mess our world has become, it seems to me that the prophetic urge may be worth cultivating, if only in a different register, one motivated not by a claim to truth but by a commitment to the search.

I began my journey away from Orthodoxy in my early twenties, a painful but profoundly freeing process that involved relinquishing any sense of certainty, along with the specter of the Rebbe-as-prophet. In leaving all that behind, I imagined I had given up on prophecy for good. Now, as I find myself increasingly drawn towards women’s poetry, I wonder whether this is what I’ve been searching for all along: an alternative form of prophecy, one that is not the domain of benevolent dictators in a patriarchal society, but is instead open and readily accessible. At its best, such prophecy can allow us to reinvent the world in which we live so that it might begin to resemble the world of our collective dreams.

Works Cited

  • Walter Benjamin. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.
  • Allen Ginsberg. “Howl.” In Howl and Other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights, 1959.
  • Alice Notley. The Descent of Alette. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
  • Adrienne Rich. “Diving into the Wreck.” In Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971–1972. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1973.
  • Walt Whitman. “Song of Myself.” In Leaves of Grass. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1973.

Shoshana Olidort is a critic, writer, and translator. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Asymptote, the Times Literary Supplement, the Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Literary Hub, among other publications. She is the web editor at the Poetry Foundation.