Sing, O Maysie!

“Most poets can’t read their own writing.”  Leslie Norris said this as we mulled over a reading we’d attended the night before.  He wasn’t speaking just about Mormon poets, though most poets reading at the previous night’s gathering had been Mormon.  He meant poets generally.

His criticism wasn’t an off-handed remark.  He meant it as vital instruction.  Many people who have heard him read can sense that for Leslie, getting words down on paper was only part of the business of writing poetry.  His verse bloomed when he spoke it aloud to an audience.  Or we could say a kind of auditory sun rose in his verse when he performed it.  That is, if we could hear the sun rise, it would sound something like Leslie performing a poem.

Leslie’s ability to read his own verse wasn’t a gift in the sense of something born whole with a person and not in any need of tinkering.  He was raised among a folk ““ the Welsh ““ who still tend to the oral tradition in language arts with great care.  Here in the U.S., among the general middle class culture dependent upon the accessibility of written texts one may read in private to “experience” a story and upon various entertainment industries to “bring the story to life” or make it “interactive,” the deeply social nature of an oral tradition might appear quaint, even primitive.  But people who experience the heightened levels of engagement that can occur when a skilled singer, poet, or storyteller speaks across to you, opening up a circuit between the performer and the audience, the past and the present, and the human and the divine, know: Performing verse well and hearing it well-performed isn’t simply enjoying a pleasurable experience ““ it’s engaging in a communally creative and spiritual act.

With the possible exception of singing, poetry’s sister art, poesy’s roots are sunk the most deeply into oral tradition and the craftsmanship and showmanship entailed therein.  So how can it be that, as Leslie said, so many poets can’t read their own verse? 

Answers to this question will vary from poet to poet, but I’d like to propose two important areas wherein modern poetry generally drops off into a mumble.  First, the social roots of poetry have become much neglected, the free-wheeling spirit of “self-expression” having taken hostage the flow that traditionally and effectively ran from the muse through the performer to the audience. Second, not a lot of poets — that is, not a lot in proportion to how many there are — have caught on that human language is more than a mere tool one picks up to accomplish a task and then puts back when the task is completed.  Language creates experience, causes things to happen.  Or, as I’ve put it before, language does things to and for people.  Engaging language is not a matter of manipulating an object or a system, it’s performing an act entailing power.  How much power, and to what effect, depends on the poet’s skill, intent, and level of engagement with experience.

In his book Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature, John D. Niles investigates oral narrative as a “type of social action” whereby “strong communication” takes place between a performer and his/her audience. Niles proposes that such moments of communication unite the separate souls of the audience, “sparking recognition of their common character or fate.”  He describes the intense nature of this poet-audience interaction as a sender-receiver relationship and discusses how the physical presence of the performer enhances the power of language that crosses the physical and mental gap between the sender and the receivers.

As an example, Niles speaks of a Scottish oral tradition bearer named Lizzie Higgins, whose performances he describes as uncanny.  Lizzie referred to her intense experiences of sending and receiving as the “maysie.”  Higgins, Niles says, “derived the word from “˜muse’ and said the experience has to do with inspiration.”  He speculates that the word has hybridized from the verb “amaze” but decides that the exact etymology doesn’t matter.  More important is what the maysie does to both performer and audience.  Niles describes the physical effects he felt while witnessing Lizzie perform:

It takes the form of a sort of chill.  There are shivers at the spine, and the small hairs on your body start to rise and move.  Animals know about this, but not all humans do.  While it lasts it is like a living death.  Emily Dickinson knew the feeling well “¦

The power of the maysie, Niles says, “depends on the presence of receivers, not just a sender.”  Much of modern literature has become ambivalent to this relationship or completely lost touch with it.  The reasons are many, but probably one of the more important problems is that ideas about self-expression, where the performer/poet acts as the eminent receptacle of the maysie, have skewed the performer-audience relationship.  A self-expression-based performance hogs the spotlight while the audience sits physically and spiritually isolated in a darkened hall as if its members are passive consumers of a product rather than essential participants whose reactions can, as Niles puts it, guide and inspire the performer.  Beside engendering nonchalance or confusion regarding judgment of the quality of a poet’s craftsmanship and showmanship, self-expression reduces the maysie to a genie in a bottle who’s bound to do the bidding, good or bad, of the person possessing it. 

An effective oral performance will bear, as Niles describes it, “a corporeality about it, a sensible, somatic quality that derives from the bodily presence of performers and listeners.”  That is, it will be “collaborative” and dependent on “a visible, audible, olfactory, and sometimes tactile connection” between the audience and the poet/performer.  Together, performer and audience create an environment in which the maysie may flourish.  Self-expression, on the other hand, endows the poet with the full, perhaps overblown figure of creativity, meanwhile reducing the audience’s role to an anorexic, passive presence in the creative act. 

Thus the thriving maysie catches up not only the poet, the “maker,” but also the audience, who will take the poet’s words and make something of them, perhaps long after the performance has ended.  So any poet wishing to produce a lasting effect between an audience and him/herself must practice the social graces of the maysie.  That is, to create an environment hospitable to the maysie, a poet performing aloud must take upon him/herself a great deal of social responsibility in behalf of and along with the audience as well as practice the physical skills reading or performing requires, including crafting his/her voice.  He/she must cultivate the physical presence to get across to an audience as well as to enable the audience to come across to him/her. A poet must wire his/her language for sound and other sensation as well as for broad yet communal meaning.

Now, as part of accepting that social responsibility and cultivating physical presence, a poet might to try to learn the power language has to do, or to cause things to happen, such as produce a physical effect upon the audience or enable some shift in thinking (usually, an unintentional shift in a totally unpredictable direction).  Niles speaks of oral tradition mostly in its role as the shaper of communal identity, a preserver of communal values, which includes a “consciousness of a past.” But also, as he says, storytelling, including poetry, is a “type of social action “¦ [relating] to people’s understanding of the world and, ultimately “¦ helps create that understanding through its cosmoplastic [world-building] power.”  Through talented performers skilled in their native language, the maysie, Niles says, may sometimes “modulate [culture] in innovative directions.”  Whatever the result, Niles says the best and most creative cooperation that arises between the maysie, the performer, and the audience is accomplished through “wordpower,” which some performers, such as Lizzie Higgins, describe as a kind of magic.  “Words,” says Niles,

are not abstractions.  They are not just groups of letters calling up concepts …   They are things of power, solid parts of the physical world.  They can be hard as rocks; that is why they do harm when hurled.  They can also be incantatory, resplendent.

I think that what Niles means when he says words are “solid parts of the physical world” is that words affect the physical world as much as and perhaps at times more so than do actual physical materials and their elements working upon each other.  Where social concourse is concerned, words, like principles of attraction in gravity, make the world go round, which is the same as saying they make human life possible.  Niles speaks of words as being nourishment: “Stories and the social situations in which they are shared were and are better than food “¦ for they fill the spirit and not just the belly.”  Thus, a well-worded poet, hosting the muse, “puts food on the table through stories,” not just in the sense that stories feed the dinner guests that have seated themselves at his/her narrative spread but also in the sense that cultures that value stories pay storytellers for the sustenance they provide.

Furthermore, for Niles, not only are stories the “food we set on the table,” they provide a roof over a society’s head:

Storytellers are “¦ the architects and masons of our universe.  They build arcs of invisible stone that span huge banquet rooms.  They also build the commonplace rooms that shelter us routinely. “¦ [I]t is as when words are exchanged, the society as a whole were breathing in and out. 

That is to say, language, operating at full wordpower, sustains life.

When I say in my posts that language ought to be sustainable, Niles’ wonderfully worded passages about language’s creative capacity to provide nourishment and to house people suggest part of what I mean.  I read to audiences as often as I can, and personal experience has borne out that performing poetry or lyrical prose even just adequately does indeed tap into language’s nourishing qualities to the point of affecting an audience physically, providing them something they came to the reading in want of.  In one case, when I read a writing workshop exercise to the class, the instructor said, “I liked how you read that.  It filled me up.”  He liked it so much he stole a line to use in a work he published a few years later. 

Which brings me to my next point about sustainable language.  More than sustaining in the sense of “supplying with adequate, even more than adequate necessities for,” wordpower, blessed with the maysie, travels through the performer to the audience, investing its members with wordpower as well.  That is, members of an audience may take a poet’s hearty language into the body of their own language, where they apply it to shaping the stories of their own lives, perhaps creating something altogether new, though directly related to the original experience.  Though altered and placed in a different context, that line from that workshop writing exercise is clearly recognizable in that instructor’s book, and his using it provides a good example of what I mean when I say that sustainable language allows members of an audience to make something else or something more of what a writer/performer says, or of what the muse gives rise to between people.

Of course, any literature, whether meant for performance or to be read in solitude, can invoke the maysie and cause things to happen.  Niles holds that an oral tradition is superior in that the physical presence of a skilled performer enhances a story’s wordpower.  But whether verse is designed to be read aloud or silently, if anything goes wrong with the language on the social end of the storytelling or if poets are unable to make sustainable stories because they can’t work up the wordpower, they will not be able to send through the maysie.  Naturally, then, they will lack the skill to read their own writing.  When the communal potency of the maysie is shrunk down to indulgence in self-expression or when wordpower slumps to become a plaything or piece of weaponry rather than an investment of power that works upon the world in creative, sustainable ways, then inarticulateness, narrative starvation, and social impotence will result.  In short, you will have poetry that, regardless of its potential, can’t shine through a poet’s poorly lit voice, or worse, you’ll get poetry that reduces to rantings, muttering complaints, and linguistic misfirings that will leave an audience wanting ““ poetry that children reciting nursery rhymes will be able to run circles around.

Not every experience reading or listening to a poet perform needs to be as excruciating as Niles describes his was when he listened to Lizzie Higgins sing.  But if, as you read aloud to an audience, you hear people groan or gasp or sigh, I submit that’s a good rather than a bad sign.  Such audible expressions testify of the maysie’s presence, whatever you like to imagine that the maysie is.  The world is starved not just for well-written verse but also for verse that is well-spoken.  Audience members who wouldn’t pay much attention to your writing if they encountered it in print sit up and hang on your words if you perform not to showcase talent but rather to get across to them and give them something more than they came in with.  It’s a simple matter of clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and providing the raw materials people need to make something more of their own stories.      

Here is a decent recording of Leslie reading his poem, “Water.” (Click on “Listen to this poem reading by Leslie Norris”.)

Here is a clip from the BYU-produced video Crossing Borders where Leslie describes his writing process.  Note how he says he “tests the poem” by reading it aloud. (Click on “The Process of Writing” in the box labeled “Video Clips”.  

25 thoughts on “Sing, O Maysie!”

  1. I remember hearing a poet once criticize those that participate in “slams”, by saying that poetry was meant to be written and read, not spoken and heard.

    I like both.

  2. Me too. But if I have a chance to hear a poet (or anybody whose writing I like) perform his or her work aloud, especially someone with the ability to perform, I want to be there.

    “poetry was meant to be written and read, not spoken and heard.”

    How lonely.

    By the way, can somebody tell me what the difference is between a “slam” and your basic open mic?

  3. Attitude?

    A slam has judging — it’s a competition — and tends towards a poetry style that is more similar to hip-hop/rap. However, I believe that these days the terms “poetry slam” and “open mic” are often used interchangeably to simply mean a live poetry performance.

  4. Thanks, Wm. Wish there was some way to arrange for a bloggerslam or slammernacle poetry reading. Or something.

  5. With the right recording equipment, it wouldn’t be hard to arrange some sort of Utah-based event (centered around LDS general conference or the AML meeting or Sunstone?), record it and post it.

    There are lower tech ways to go about it, but I think that the quality would need to be good. **cough**no-laptop-mics**cough**

    I did two readings a long, long time ago with a (back-in-the-day) Blogger feature that let you call in to a special phone number and audio post to your blog:

    William reads Clint Larson’s “Advent”.

    William reads Doctrine & Covenants 128:19-21

  6. 1. A good microphone
    2. Headphones
    3. Some sort of software to edit/clean up the recording with (Audacity, Garageband)
    4. A way to post the resulting file (numerous easy ways to do this)

    Recording a live event means a slightly more complicated audio set up (and most likely the need for a more expensive microphone).

    And recording a conversation using an Internet talk program (Skype, iChat, Google Talk, etc.) can vary in quality depending on a few factors but is doable at a quality that’s higher than the BCC Zeitcast.

    I’m by no means an audio expert, but these are the basics as I understand it. Obviously, the close to studio quality equipment and environment you get, the better the result.

  7. Slam poetry is different from an open mic because it is competitive in nature (the audience usually votes on who goes on to the next round), there are rules (usually a two minute limit), and prize money. They have national and international competitions and rankings. I think William’s statement that slam poetry is more hip/hop only tells half the story. Maybe if you blended hip/hop with protest music you’d be a little closer to the right vibe. Although I imagine that the type of poems you hear would depend on the region you are in. (Where I live the majority of slam poems I’ve heard are lesbian love songs and anti-war protests. Being a SAHM I don’t have a lot of time to devote to slam, so those may not be good examples.) If you want to know more about slam poetry check out

    I am waiting with baited breath to see about bloggernacle slam and/or live (ish) reading. I’ll start saving my pennies now so I can fly out and attend.

    I think one reason poetry has become a dead art, or at least an unappreciated one, is because people haven’t heard poetry read aloud. If you haven’t heard good poetry read aloud by a talented reader, you can’t understand good poetry on the page.

  8. Thanks, Laura. I wasn’t able to test them at work because they tripped the media downloads filter.

    It’s possible that they are a casualty to the frenetic pace of the Internet (or to Google’s acquisition of Blogger). Pity. Although to be honest, my voice isn’t the greatest. Add a large dash of California surfer dude to the pretentious English baritone and layer both on the substrate of southern Utahn drawl and you don’t end up with the best result.

  9. Nobody has brought this up — maybe nobody is interested — but sometimes I wonder if Mormon writers feel uneasy with the physicality of performing their work aloud. This isn’t just a matter of modesty or shyness. A good reading does things to you, if, as Lizzie Higgins says, you are a receiver, somebody capable of connecting with the maysie once a sender introduces it into the room. Among other things, a good performance conjures pictures, often ones that leave you wonderstruck, and the music and intention of the language shifts your attention this way and that. If the language is good enough and the reading done with the audience fully in mind, it might even rewire your brain. If you feel the spasm of the maysie run up and down your spine — that incredible bolt of connection, both between ideas old and new and between reader and audience, how do you react to it? Have any Mormon poets or prose writers out there felt this, or has anyone who has sat in an audience of a live reading felt anything like this? Or even a recorded reading? For instance, that recording I linked to of Leslie Norris’s “Water” transports me, taking me outside myself, stopping time. I see things through his words I wouldn’t otherwise see. It’s a strong experience.

    Might Mormon poets feel uncomfortable having such an effect upon members in their audience because it feels immodest or too strong or … something?

  10. Disclaimer: I’m not a poet. I don’t even pretend to be one on TV. It’s the only written form I don’t understand and don’t appreciate.

    Have any Mormon poets or prose writers out there felt this,

    Yes. Twice.

    1. I did a reading of an essay-length story my father wrote for a ward gathering of some type, which I don’t remember what it was. There was a current in the room.

    2. I read a short story I wrote (a shaggy-dog story) in a different ward at a gathering of some type, which I don’t remember what it was. The current wasn’t electric; it was more…a thrumming jollity.

  11. Now that you mention, it, MoJo, I’ve experienced something similar to what you describe in gatherings outside of arts (if we may indeed categorize experience in such ways), like during Sunday school when particularly good lessons come across.

    I feel it when I hear Iris Dement sing “Mama’s Opry” on a the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band vid “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Same with the Jaime Hanna and Jonathan McEuen when they sing “The Lowlands.” The first time I heard Iris Dement’s voice I was thunderstruck.

  12. I’ve felt this a number of times. The most recently was when our library hosted some slam poets. They weren’t afraid to look you in the eye or wander around the room. Their poems were memorized and they rocked to the rhythm or beat their chests for emphasis. It was so energizing that when the reading was finished my brain felt like it was full of bubbles about to burst–bright and ebullient.

    Also, last February in the tabernacle on Temple Square one of my poems was performed. The poem contrasts sacramental imagery in the OT with sacramental imagery in the NT with modern sacrament meeting experiences so whoever staged the poem had three different women reading the parts. Their voices overlapped in certain parts and played off each other until at the very last line they suddenly came together. I got chills (even though I was rocking my very warm baby to sleep) and the audience seemed different for a few moments afterward.

    This is probably more than you wanted to know, but there was another time I was helping a mommy friend who had recently gone back to school with her lit. homework and the maysie struck. My friend had brought a poetry anthology with her and her assignment to our scrapbook night and began complaining how every poem in the book was “cheesy-puff nonsense”. I asked for an example and she opened the book to a Nan Fry poem called “The Plum”. I read the poem over once to myself and then read it aloud to the group. They all stopped scrapbooking and one chick said, “Huh. It does mean something, doesn’t it?”

    I think too that I’ve felt the maysie during testimony meetings, general conference, priesthood blessings, and even Enrichment. I think it’s because I am usually actively seeking a maysie-like experience and try to open myself to the meta-discourse that flows in and around poetic language. I think other Mormons feel it when they find themselves in places to experience it (which I don’t think they very often do) but maybe they don’t know how to savor it so it just slips away. Maybe it’s the sensual (of the senses, not sexual) nature of good poetry that puts the average reader off. Perhaps we Mormons are still a little too Puritanical. Or it might just be the effort invovled in finding the maysie is too much. Hmmm, good food for thought though.

  13. “Maybe it’s the sensual (of the senses, not sexual) nature of good poetry that puts the average reader off. Perhaps we Mormons are still a little too Puritanical. Or it might just be the effort invovled in finding the maysie is too much. Hmmm, good food for thought though.”

    I think the maysie might have qualities of attraction about it, in that it might, if it’s strong enough, produce a hormonal reaction, endorphins or what have you, perhaps on top of what we commonly call a “spiritual” moment. But I don’t think that means that it’s unchaste or crosses any social boundaries. The maysie, in greater and lesser degrees, does often cross other boundaries in that it takes us beyond ourselves. I think what the sensual nature of the maysie — which Niles does speak of, when he says, for instance, that the performance must have a “muscular” quality about it — might be more likely to mean is something along the lines of what you say, Laura — that it’s unfamiliar, and thus confusing in its effect. The maysie suggests, perhaps, a whole ‘nother layer of emotional life that we only rarely tap into in our arts and the relationships that come with artistic endeavor (or other kinds of relationships, though these lie outside the scope of this post). Maybe it goes along with the concept of art having “soul.”

    Personally, I think artists ought to be able to live with a high degree of receptivity to attraction in their lives. Attraction to other humans (overall), attraction to the beauties of skill in their art, attraction to the sensations of living, attraction to the wonders of the physical earth we live in and to other species — an overall level of engagement with experience that reduces the confusion that occasional eruptions of sensual engagement or manifestations of the maysie sometimes cause those not used to them.

    How else can they send the maysie across, if they don’t feel that level of electric attraction and engagement with as many levels of life as possible? How else can we receive it, if we struggle with being unaccustomed to the heightened levels of feeling and thought the maysie provokes, including the expanded social sense that pervades it?

    Regarding the effectiveness of the sending and receiving of the maysie, Lizzie Higgins told Niles, “If he [a sender, in this case a bagpiper, traditionally male in Scotland] hasn’t got it in him to send through to you, and ye cannae perceive, it’s nae use …”

    (Hm, sounds like scriptures I’ve come across here and there.)

  14. Patricia–I like engagement. That’s exactly it. Getting engaged in something means getting involved and once you are involved it gets complicated and I think we often shy away from the complications. Life is complicated enough sometimes and, truthfully, we are too busy. But it is certainly worth it when we slow down and engage our minds and senses. That kind of communion is priceless.

  15. Appreciate the pertinent comments here about the physicality of performance poetry, Leslie Norris’s valuable sojourn among us, about Iris Dement, the old Carter Family song, “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” and the undeveloped receptivity of some Mormon audiences. It should be mentioned that we are extremely fortunate to have one of the most uniqe and powerful performance poets in the world, wordshaker Alex Caldiero planted in our midst, having emigrated from Sicily, grown up on the streets of Brooklyn, converted to the LDS Church and transplanted in Orem, Utah, to leaven Utah County’s loaf–not to mention the reverberations he has sent state and nationwide. Caldiero is a peristent performer in all kinds of venues (recently at the Utah Arts Festival), and has performed several times at the Sunstone Symposium, recordings of which are available on tapes and CD’s.
    By the way, as is often the case, there are several poetry and fiction performances scheduled at this year’s symposium (Aug. 6-9 at the Salt Lake Sheraton) I am a participant in one (Randomly Delted Files: Stories and Poems from the Mormon Unconscious, Saturday, Aug. 9 4:45 p.m.), with Phyllis Barber, Belle Cluff and Terri Holland. It might be worth a look for some of you.
    But for those who have not been profoundly moved to tears, laughter and deep discernment by Alex Caldiero, don’t miss the next chance you have to see and hear him.

  16. That’s Randomly Deleted Files.

    and “unique and powerful.” Pardon the sloppy proofreading.

  17. Paul, thanks for reading and commenting. I’ve witnessed Alex perform at a couple of venues, and it certainly is something to behold. I’ve learned not to sit on the front row during his performances — it’s overpowering. I considered mentioning him but didn’t feel I knew enough about either his work or his performances — yet — to work him in in a meaningful way.

    You mentioned “the undeveloped receptivity of some Mormon audiences.” I like how that’s put. Brings out the potential aspect of the situation rather than the deficiency. But you didn’t mention why you thought it might be so that that potential is largely untapped or how to tap it. I’d be very interested to hear your take.

    Also, thanks for giving our readers a heads up on the performances coming up in SLC. Hopefully, some of our readers will act on your information.

    And I agree, anybody who hasn’t yet heard Alex Caldiero perform ought to grab the next available chance!

  18. BTW, Laura, if you’re still out there: I’ve been using the word “attraction” to suggest the allure something has that draws you into engagement. I was thinking that “wonder” might work equally well, “wonder” suggesting that instance, object, person or idea that snags your attention, provokes questions, and draws you in to become involved.

    Then I ran across a great line from an essay I’m reading in the latest Isotope. The essay is “An ocean of Instance, an Ocean of Law,” by Jessica Reed.

    Speaking of the “scientific attitude,” she says: “Among other things, to study physics formally is to learn that there is an art and skill to wondering: We can wonder successfully, we can wonder profitably, we can wonder fruitfully.”

    I like how she put this very much, and I believe it applicable to one’s creative process. Anyway, it is to mine.

  19. Patricia:

    Reading your post brought to mind a connection between the maysie and the Latter-day Saint oral tradition, punctuated by both a scripture (maybe the one you were thinking of) and an experience. First the experience: in May, I spoke in our ward’s Sacrament Meeting about the priesthood. Having prepared myself to speak from the heart as directed by the Spirit, I related several experiences illustrating the priesthood’s influence in and on my life, drew some scriptural parallels (why, yes, my life is quite scriptural: the Rameumptom readily comes to mind), testified, and took my seat. After the meeting, as my wife and I were talking to some friends, re-packing the diaper bag, and trying to keep tabs on our two older girls, a counselor in the bishopric essentially ran to our pew from the rostrum and said to me, “That was an amazing talk! You must have the gift of tongues. I envy people like you that just seem to have the right words.” (Or something to that effect.)

    I’d taken his comment to mean (and here comes the scripture) that he’d received my words as I’d done my best to convey them–in and “by the Spirit of truth”–and that he’d been “edified” and was ready to “rejoice” with me because of the speaker/hearer, communal connection he’d felt (D&C 50:21, 22). Not wanting to reduce the maysie to a non-Mormon manifestation of the power of the Holy Ghost or the Light of Christ, because I think it’s much more complex than that, perhaps the attraction you’re talking about, the gravity pulling an audience to the well-prepared speaker is, in part, a spiritual gift offered to those ready and willing to fine tune their words and their voices for reception by a sympathetic, ready-to-be-filled audience. Perhaps this is one way God deems to make his children one, to build an empathic community of individuals built on a shared experience with words, for isn’t that one thing language can do: create community?

    Taking a step back from my experience with the Mormon oral tradition, as comes through lay sermons, the bearing of testimony, and Sunday School, Priesthood, and Relief Society lessons– many of which teaching/learning experiences fall flat for one reason or another–I wonder if we don’t experience this communal connection more frequently because, despite our potential and all of our focus on lay teaching, we’re a people largely unprepared to speak and to preach, to hear and to receive. Perhaps this lackadaisical attitude toward speaking and listening carries over into the Mormon arts community to a degree.


    Perhaps not.

    I, for one, really don’t know for sure.

  20. Tyler, thanks for your comment. I think scripture, especially and most directly in the NT in the how Matthew, Mark, Luke and John portrayed Christ and his language, offers many ways of approaching the maysie, including speaking/writing for multiple levels of meaning.

    “Not wanting to reduce the maysie to a non-Mormon manifestation of the power of the Holy Ghost or the Light of Christ, because I think it’s much more complex than that, perhaps the attraction you’re talking about, the gravity pulling an audience to the well-prepared speaker is, in part, a spiritual gift offered to those ready and willing to fine tune their words and their voices for reception by a sympathetic, ready-to-be-filled audience.”

    I think it’s love, but that idea’s so unacademic and filled with echoes I hardly ever speak of it that way. I think it’s love that doesn’t seek itself, that’s capable of acting outside of expectations for “positive feedback,” that strives, in expression, to get beyond itself, both in the sense of surpassing its own point of understanding and in the sense of getting across to others. I think that being “largely unprepared to speak and to preach, to hear and receive” suggests not just inadequacies in skill or “preparation,” but also confusion about how to love thy neighbor or thine audience member. I fully believe that, one way and the other, love is the current the maysie rides, and I don’t think its power is limited to any particular physical, spiritual, or philosphical environment, though it may flow more fully and with less impediments in some places than in others.

  21. This morning I reread Tory Anderson’s essay, “Just the Fiction, Ma’am”, in which he explores the way fiction can help us gain experience. Leading us through a reading of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, he illustrates how the skilled artist, like Flaubert, can help us feel and understand how another feels and understands by moving us through a fictional life, a “refined life”, as Anderson calls it. In this way, he says, we can “understand something like the ugliness of chastity without experiencing it”, much like Christ can understand everything we’ve felt and done without actually doing it himself (73); and we can “absorb”, “expand”, and “complete” our own life experience “to the nth power” if we’re only willing to leap into these fictional worlds, to live vicariously through the eyes of an author and their fictional characters (76, 77).

    Reading this, my thoughts turned to what you said yesterday that “love is the current the maysie rides” and that you “don’t think its power is limited to any particular physical, spiritual, or philosophical environment.” Connecting these thoughts, I considered that maybe the maysie, as a communal experience, derives from the speaker’s passion–for life, for their subject, and for words–and from their compassion for their very human audience: having leapt without reservation into the flood of universal experience, they see, feel, and understand as others do and are somehow able, through talent, skill, voice, and audience readiness, to be the conduit through which that love, that compassion moves into the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual being of those present.

    Might that be one way to describe the maysie’s movement of souls?


    Anderson, Tory C. “Just the Fiction, Ma’am.” Tending the Garden: Essays on Mormon Literature. Ed. Eugene England and Lavina Fielding Anderson. Salt Lake: Signature, 1996. 69-77.

  22. “This morning I reread Tory Anderson’s essay, “Just the Fiction, Ma’am”, in which he explores the way fiction can help us gain experience. Leading us through a reading of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, he illustrates how the skilled artist, like Flaubert, can help us feel and understand how another feels and understands by moving us through a fictional life, a ‘refined life’, as Anderson calls it. In this way, he says, we can “understand something like the ugliness of chastity without experiencing it’ …”

    Arthur King expressed similar beliefs about literature in many places, but one accessible spot is in his book Arm the Children.

    “Great literature,” he says, “helps us, as we are growing (particularly in adolescence), to widen our world from ourselves so that we can better choose what kind of person we are going to be. It helps us to choose ourselves out of the many selves that there have been” (King


    “Very often the experiences we get from books are even more intense, more living, than is our ordinary life, because they are monitored to us by authors who have seen more than we should have seen had we been with them, and we can learn to see through there eyes” (129).

    At the moment, I can’t find any places where he made statements regarding how readers of truly good stories come to understand something like unchastity w/out having to experience it, but I know he said this.

    About the maysie’s aptness for moving souls: I think you put it nicely, but I can’t say for certain how the maysie does what it does, just as I can’t say for certain how love does what it does. Not being able to say for certain now means I might be able, at one or more future points, to comprehend other aspects I can’t at this time.

    But I’m fairly certain that love, however it manifests itself in art and other high acts of communal experience, has a lot to do with the energy and effect of the maysie.

    BTW, I’m so pleased with the word “maysie” I may never use “muse” again. Thank you, John D. Niles, for introducting this sprightly word to the rest of the world.

  23. Patricia–thanks for the ‘wonder’. I like that quotation very much.

    You and Tyler are really taking this discussion interesting places. As usual, I feel like I’m learning a lot.

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