Mythopoetics: useful word or distraction?

In my story ‘Sally and the Universarium’ I had one of the characters use the word ‘mythopoetics’ to describe his thinking about an undervalued aspect of English teaching. It’s a word that has been sitting uncomfortably with my colleague Rachel. She wrote on this blog, after reading the Sally story:

I thought I’d just come right out and say a few things about the word ‘mythopoetic’ and what has been bothering me about it for a while. We’ve of course written together on mythopoetics and mythopoesis – and I still don’t have a better expression that encapsulates some of the qualities of teaching and studying English and how it seems to differ from teaching and studying other current disciplines. But I’ve come to dislike this word, to be honest. When I google it, one of the first links is always something about the Men’s Movement, like the one here:’s_movement. Personally, I want to distance myself from this movement and some (perhaps not all) of its tenets. The associations between the essentialism and rejection of cultural relativism here, and the mysterious, non-rational qualities of stories and fiction that we have wanted to describe, are uncomfortable to me. So my question to you and to your readers is: is there a better word? Or can a new word be created, one that redefines MacDonald’s categories, as Wilson describes them. It needs to be a word that defines itself against calibrated, technical neoliberal forms of scholarship. It needs to acknowledge – perhaps even privilege – the power of myths, stories and poetry in school curricula. What does everyone think? Any ideas?

Lady Magpie responded:

This is so interesting, because my reaction to the word “mythopoetic” is so different! I didn’t study English much at university (I got my English teacher quals sneakily via linguistics) and the first time I ever heard the term was during the dip ed. I had no idea what it meant and I certainly knew nothing of any stigma or associations positive or negative that may have come along with it. All I knew of it was that it had something to do with myths and stories and poetry. I loved the word instantly and have come to love it more and more as I create my own associations with it, mostly through your (Rachel) and Steve’s writing. When I think of “mythopoetics” I think of the stories and the poetry that are in the real and every day, and the real and every day that are in powerful works of fiction and poetry. At the same time I think of the mysterious and out-of-the-ordinary; the things that seem ONLY to live in story worlds but in some way change the way we think and live. I still don’t know what “mythopoetic” means, really, but it’s been good to have a word to hang on a preoccupation: to say that I am searching for mythopoetics in life, or that I’m trying to enrich my students’ worlds by viewing them through a mythopoetic lens.

Like Lady Magpie, I’ve felt ‘it’s been good to have a word to hang on a preoccupation’. But is there a better one, Rachel is asking, one that doesn’t have other associations?

This has prompted me to ask myself what words some of the giants in this field have used. I’ve been reading Maxine Greene Releasing the Imagination, and this morning I retraced my steps with her book to see how she has described this elusive concept.

She never uses the word ‘mythopoetics’. Instead of relying on a portmanteau word, she tells a story about what a release of the imagination through an engagement with literature and language (and the arts more generally) can do. It discloses the unseen (28), evokes memories and desires (44), expands perspectives (58), returns us to our body and to its relationships to other bodies (61),  restores lost spontenaeity (78), reconstitutes the known world  (104), transcends the given (111), encourages action (116), creates hope and leads to repair (130), creates community and acknowledges plurality (155).  At one point, she uses the phrase ‘aesthetic education (137), but never ‘mythopoetics’.

Does the term ‘mythopoetics’ add anything? Why not just talk about ‘the release of the imagination’,  or ‘an aesthetic encounter with literature and language’? Surely Maxine’s Greene’s emphasis on action (release, encounter) conveys more than a possibly misleading and vague word like ‘mythopoetics’?

I want to keep thinking about this. But, for the time being, I find it useful to have a word that describes an element rather than an action. Having a word which describes what we sense is a missing or undervalued element might help us find a language with which to unite and put our case. The fact that an English teachers like Lady Magpie has fallen in love with the word is promising.

Maybe we should try to occupy the ground, rather than allow others with other associations to hold it. Maybe we should re-write the Wikipedia article. I wonder what we’d write?


Since writing the post above, I came across the following from an article by Maxine Greene. She writes:

 To experience it is to come in touch with a “reality” deeper and richer than the everyday but underlying it, feeding the ongoing becoming of a self. To enter into a poem may be to come in touch with a lost landscape, a landscape of color and smell and sound brought into a kind of rebirth by an act of imagination. And so, in distinctive ways, is an aesthetic experience achieved. It may be dark and fearful like an encounter with Medea; it may be ripe and various and startling like Toni Morrison’s Jazz; it may arouse rhythms in our hearts and mind as may the improvisations of jazz. We grasp a little more if we can explore the medium of jazz, the medium of words, the medium of paint, but there is the remarkable possibility of awakening, of overcoming the “anesthetic” said to be the opposite of the “aesthetic,” of attaining the wide-awakeness that resists apathy and withdrawal. The new educator must be awake, critical, open to the world. It is an honor and a responsibility to be a teacher in such dark times—and to imagine, and to act on what we imagine, what we believe ought at last to be.

‘Teaching in a Moment of Crisis: the Spaces of Imagination’, New Educator, 1:2 2005

2 thoughts on “Mythopoetics: useful word or distraction?

  1. My husband is an artist. When I met him he had spent 10 years living in the Central Victorian bush, painting landscapes. Over the years his style had become more and more abstracted in a way that I associate (in poetry) with the idea of the Sublime. It drew on archetypes, unconscious associations, was alive with hidden or semi-hidden connections, and the more you looked at them the more you could SEE… When people ask me what his style is, I tell them it is “Mythopoetic.” For me, that word has a resonance with poetry, with transcendence, with a Jungian somethingscape…

    Maybe the term is imprecise but it gestures toward the depth that only an emotional connection can comprehend.

    • Cath,
      I smiled with pleasure at the ‘Jungian somethingscape’! For me, too, it’s pointing towards something that we haven’t quite yet got words for. My colleague Rachel often reminds me of the connection some people make between ‘transcendence’ and ‘escape from the day-to-day’, and so I’ve been thinking more about the word ‘immanence’ recently: the soulful as existing or operating ‘within’ rather than ‘outside of’ or ‘above’. I think this is what I find attractive about Spinoza’s philosophy.

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