Monday, September 16, 2013

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Conceptualism.... blah


I

I have this animus against the "Conceptual Poetry" phenomenon.  It's not reasonable, it's not informed, it's just a visceral dislike.  My attitude reminds me of my attitude back in the '90s toward Language Poetry.  It's not fair, it's just there.  So, being so terminally bored by the ponderous pronouncements of Kenneth Goldsmith & Vanessa Place - bored enough not to read much of it at all - I probably have little light to shed on this matter.  But I just thought I'd vent a little.

The whole movement seems to stem genetically from philosophical discourse.  The attitude of amused contempt displayed by the Conceptuals toward ordinary "poems" seems similar to that of Plato.  Plato's worldview was fundamentally binary and divided.  Mind was separate from Body; the material Cosmos is an imperfect reflection of the perfect, immaterial, transcendent, shaping Ideas which formed it.  Poetry, that unaccountable verbal what-not, that irrational chaos, that disturber of Plato's perfect (authoritarian) Philosopher's State, was to be dismissed, shunned, outlawed.

The Conceptuals don't want to outlaw poetry.  But they seem to have a parallel bias toward intellectual constructs over actual works of art.  Their progress through the authorizing institutions of Poetryland resembles Plato's dream of a philosophical coup, a take-over of ordinary this-world governance.  King Kenny & Queen Vanessa, the Conceptual Royals, institute their theoretical reign over the last tattered vestiges of the post-Romantic "lyric I".

Plato considered art to be fundamentally a matter of imitation, a mirror (a tarnished mirror).  But it's possible to conceive of other framing analogies.  One does not have to accept Plato's dualistic cosmos, split between matter and mind.  Instead, one can imagine a more holistic universe, an "incarnational" cosmos, in which mind and body, spirit and matter, may indeed be valid ontological distinctions - but not irreconcilable divisions.  Reality may be less like a system, and more like a story.  Poetry may be less like a mirror, a reflection, and more like a building - a construct rising out of the primal process of naming.  The act of giving a name to something involves more than reflection, mirroring.  Wallace Stevens called poetry "the sanction of life".  I think this gets closer to essence of the process of verbal shaping and ordering, its final purpose, than Plato's formulae.

The Conceptuals would like us to believe they have a special theoretical angle on poetry.  They apply a pseudo-radical tactic :  debunk the hoary Romantic concept of poetry, as subjective, lyric expression, by attacking the notion of personal identity itself.   Replace composition with the functionalism of meaningless, evacuated "text".  They might do better by recognizing that poetry is an integral activity which surpasses its own (or the philosophers') theoretical abstractions.  The Romantic theory that lyric expression is the essence of poetry - a theory which also stems from philosophical speculations, in this case those of J.S. Mill - may be long out of date.  But their attempt to replace poetic "substance" by theoretical concept, combined with an attack on personal subjectivity itself, seems more like a promotional gimmick than a real change in poetry or poetics.

II

It's fun to think about poetry, which presents a lot of mysteries, conundrums.  It's fun to talk about it.  But making it is something else.  The activity of making poems resists theoretical frames & boxes.  Take, for example, the postmodern thesis that the lyric Subject is an illusion, a mirage of false consciousness driven by repressed class-historical-material forces, or by a mis-perception of the de-centered insubstantiality of the Real.  Yet, au contraire, what the actual labor of making poems reveals to the maker, is that the poem is the outcome of a personal struggle with an unaccountable something or someone other than the "lyric I".  And the very process of dialectical making - this struggle - tends to carve both poet and "other" into high relief - to bring on a greater intensity of conscious presence or being.  The process itself becomes primary : a process which involves the shedding or transformation of abstract preconceptions of every kind.

Poetry is conceptual by the very nature of its medium, language - so the phrase "conceptual poetry" is redundant.   But the "concepts" in poetry are secondary.  The primary power of poetry resides in names : the originary soundings of enunciation, evocation, expression.  The words, that is, the beginning and end of the poem, do not "represent" things : they establish things.   The dualisms of mind and body, thought and action, spirit and matter are transmuted within a sort of explanatory harmonics : earth is (figuratively speaking) transported to heaven.  Prose and poetry, innocence and experience, are not divided, but implicated with each other, woven together in unbreakable knots.

There are a lot of anti-poetic forces at work within American Poetryland.  There have been for a while.  Groups with agendas to promote at the expense of actual poetry.  But poetry is a stubborn, resistant, ineradicable thicket of laborious making.  It will not be undone by superficial theoretical make-overs.  Notions like the "obsolescent lyric Subject" are glib reductions from a much more complex actuality.  Strong poetry actually builds on the "I" of the solitary lyric - branches out from this seed into more expansive forms - dialogue, satire, narrative, epic, drama...  The whole ancient "wheel of Virgil" (eclogue/georgic/epic) still awaits contemporary fulfillments.

III

This annoyance with Conceptual Poetics... could it be because I'm jealous?  Doubt it.  Because I'm secretly one of them?  Possible, I guess.  I certainly like to speculate & natter on endlessly about "poetry", as every reader of this blog already knows.

Walking along Morris Ave. on my way to the library on a brilliant mid-May morning, I asked myself what is my concept of poetry?  And I thought, I conceive of poetry, and art generally, as a sort of disk, or circle.  A circle, in turn, can be conceived as an infinite series of congruent half-circles, each bounded or held together by an invisible straight line (its diameter), the center point of which is also the center of the circle as a whole.

Follow that?  The half-moon shape of a semi-circle resembles a bridge, or a bow held taut by a bow-string.  This circle, then, is a round of infinite half-moons or bridges.

The bow held by the string is an ancient metaphor for metaphor.  For Metaphysical "wit" : the yoking-together of contraries (night and day) in harmony (think of Hart Crane's symbol of his Bridge :  "power in repose").  Harmony is the mean between extremes : the force that makes peace between warring opposites, the magic alchemy which transmutes difference into complementarity.

Of course this is a fundamental aesthetic concept, underlying some of the great monuments of Modernist poetry (Crane's Bridge; Eliot's Chinese vase, in Four Quartets, still moving in its stillness, "at the still point of the turning world").

But then of course the time of modernism has passed, and postmodernity is here.  The atrocious 20th century has eroded modernism's idealizations, its heroic icons of order and power.  We recognize the irrational violence, the sense of global/cosmic displacement, the total futility of human grandeur as never before.  Violent History (gloomy Spengler's metier) is the master frame - bracketing all our rusty icons, our ideals, of what is good and pleasant to behold.

But I'm not surrendering my magic circle, my secret totem, my spell.  We only need to expand the two prongs of these moon-calipers, to enclose a wider, deeper spectrum of opposing forces.  Art is meshed in a circle with Life - the circle of human seasons, of birth and death, weakness and strength, suffering and joy.  We try to remember and seek to re-establish that Golden Age which lingers somewhere in the heart of a happy child - out of an equilibrium of natural life, the shelter of the family house, the "dwelling", the tent, the dome (a circle of circles).  These speculations are only another illustration of the worldview of Russian Acmeism - Mandelstam's notion that poetry is fundamentally a form of "domestic hellenism", a means by which mortal Man on earth surrounds herself with "teleological warmth"- makes himself at home.  It lingers in Joseph Brodsky : "Man was put on this Earth for one purpose : to make civilization."  Art sinks back, sinks its foundations, into the deeper circle of normative life, the most basic "golden mean", our shared well-being.  And a metaphysical hope remains in the poetic work of "naming" : the nominative, inventive, perspicuous, originary act of joining word and thing.   Adam, in the beginning, gave names to every creature.  The poet, in the end, brings this process to fulfillment, a flower in bloom - its rose window, circling in stone...  the Word does not merely represent : the Word establishes (anew).

So I recall Emily Dickinson's aphorism for her poetic work : "my Circuit is Circumference".

IV 

Blah, blah, blah...  not sure how much longer I can yoke these contraries (Concept & Blah) without giving us all the blahs.  But I think of things, walking to work, so I'll try to note it down.

Taking a long (wide?) view, Conceptual Poetics, Uncreative Writing, etc. may be irremediably trivial : yet it's curious how the concept, in connection with poetry, necessarily leads to the nearby endeavors of Literary Criticism.  What is poetry? has been the question.  As it happens I've been wading through a magisterial tome which used to be required reading for every English major, M.H. Abrams' The Mirror and the Lamp.  A historical study of critical theories of poetry, focused on the Romantic era, but analyzing it as one phase in a development stretching back to Plato and forward (for him) to the New Criticism of the 20th century (his own era).  And maybe beyond (I'm less than half way through).

For Abrams, the interesting thing is how the history of critical theories about poetry (in the West, anyway) reveals a procession of world-views, of philosophical eras, of chapters in the "Western mind", which determine in every way the specific aesthetic notions - about poetry and art in general - of each era.  Abrams develops a simple diagram, with "the Work" (the poem) at the center, from which arrows extend in 3 directions - "World", "Audience", "Poet" - which correspond, respectively, to 3 succeeding approaches to poetry : Mimetic, Pragmatic, Expressive.  (These in turn correspond to particular leading theorists : Plato/Aristotle for the mimetic; Horace and the neo-classical authors of the 18th century for the pragmatic; and the Romantics for the expressive.)  A fourth theoretical mode, which corresponds to the "Work" alone, Abrams calls "Objective".  I haven't gotten to those chapters yet, but I think he's referring to 20th-century Modernist and New Critical approaches, which highlight the integral, autotelic, self-contained "objectivity" of the work-in-itself.

Still awake, dear blahdom companions?

You get a sense, reading Abrams, of poetry as an ongoing, curious phenomenon, a puzzle, a conundrum, around which thinkers down the centuries have tried to attach their conceptual pincers.  With only partial success ; the thing remains a riddle, and what critics say about it often says more about assumptions and enthusiasms of their own era, than about this elusive what-not itself.  And the pattern of Abrams' argument seems to be leading toward some kind of crux, or cul-de-sac, since if you walk through his historical chart geometrically, you see a kind of swirl or spiral, of theories - absorbing the outer three in succession (imitative, pragmatic, expressive) and then turning inward to the center, to the last element, the Work itself (objective theories).  Where do we go from here?

Should we ask Helen Vendler?   Harold Bloom?  The Academy of American Poets?  A.W.P., maybe?  or the Poetry Foundation?  I asserted previously in this little series that poetry does more than represent reality - it (somehow) establishes same.  But I want to distinguish this phenomenon itself from its professional American expert establishers of literary establishments.  Poetry tends to get buried under the eager thundering of its mobs of advocates, all trained in their various ways to integrate literature into society, to promote the arts, to laud, praise and p.r. its established practitioners under compost piles of laurels and mountains of award grants.  It's a gradual smothering process out of which swarms of compost-insects rise and dance and do battle (winners & losers & bettors & publicists & kibbitzers).  Bye-bye, poetry.  Hello, symposia, festivals & funeral orations.

Much has changed in the 70 years or so since M.H. Abrams composed his subtle summa of Romantic poetics.   The critical ground has shifted, or given way completely.  Postmodernity rejects the unproblematic essentialism of all critical terms.  History and cultural identity are relativistic, contested fields of competing discourses.  The New Critical icon of the "poem itself" shattered and crumbled quite a while ago.  Ron Silliman, the Language Poet, for example, pronounced that "there is no such thing as poetry - only poetries."  So-called avant-garde programs (Flarf, the Charles Bernstein Unit, Uncreative Writing, etc.) are structurally self-corroding, designed and promoted through tongue-in-cheek technique.  Sincerity is for simpletons.  In a sense, these theory-driven or concept-based movements (arm-in-arm with most of the sub-critical poetries at which they poke fun) dramatize the hollowing-out of traditional literary criticism - dancing on its grave.

So... ?  Abrams' spiraling template ends (I'm guessing) at the summit of the "Work".  The poet's job used to be to imitate Nature in a wise & pleasing way (Mimetic).  Then it evolved into an Horatian mode of rhetorical suasion - leading readers to Goodness by way of Charm (Pragmatic).   Then the Romantics came along - resurrecting a neo-Platonic (Plotinian) spirituality, replacing the attenuated Deism of the rationalist Enlightenment with a new enthusiasm, grounded in the lamp of divine Imagination (Expressive).  Finally, once the ruinations of industrialism and war put paid to Romantic ideals, new forces of reactionary/revolutionary Modernism arose, grounded in the autotelic power of the Work itself (Objective).  Then at last came the great deconstructive fibrillations of the late 20th century.  & here we are.

Versions of all five of these approaches are still with us.  The whole Coliseum of professional American literary praxis continually justifies itself through apologetics based on some or all of these critical angles.  (Mimetic : " Poet X provides an excruciating but finally enthralling account of what it's like to live in Y."   Pragmatic : "Poet J reminds us, with moving memories of home, that we need to return to our roots."  Expressive : "Poet Q is a magician, an alchemiste du Verbe - revealing a wonderworld of fantastic visions."  Objective : "Poet Z is an uncompromising formalist, who cannot be tagged with any of the current labels. Neither traditionalist nor experimental, her austere, formidable style is literally incomparable."  Postmodern : "Poet M. unravels poetry from his shoelaces down, and builds it up again - as video.")

Yet poetry, the thing itself, slithers along like Montale's eel, some subterranean life-force, beneath the flimsy fabrications, the droning roar of the pros of the status quo.  Some of the most gifted 20th-century poets, including Stevens, Crane and Berryman, struggled against the complacent New Critical dicta regarding the autotelic "poem itself".  They were searching for some firmer sanction.  Stevens, often portrayed as the paragon of a neo-Romantic sublime (Bloom) or as a master of the self-pleasing, self-sufficient work of art (Vendler), might instead be understood as someone engaged in a relentless, rather tense intellectual struggle to find a justification for his work, for the making of poems.

Poetry and worldview : I think we can say these depend on each other.  But maybe the poet doesn't so much articulate or express a worldview, as respond, obliquely, to the existent worldview, the reigning zeitgeist.  And maybe within this response are encrypted some intimations of futurity - of a future human ambience, or common sense of things, which hasn't happened yet.  Thus when I proposed that the poetic Word not only represents, but establishes, maybe this could be understood in this kind of future tense.  Here I'm reminded once more of Emily Dickinson....

I dwell in Possibility--
A fairer House than Prose--
More numerous of Windows--
Superior--for Doors--

Of Chambers as the Cedars--
Impregnable of Eye--
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky--

Of Visitors--the fairest--
For Occupation--This--
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise--




Monday, November 26, 2012

Review of "Stolen Air" in Critical Flame

Here's a link to my review of Stolen Air - a book of versions/translations of Osip Mandelstam, by Christian Wiman.

Friday, May 20, 2011

RAPTURE & POETRY

My time is still unbounded.
And I have accompanied the rapture of the universe
As muted organ pipes
Accompany a woman's voice.

- Osip Mandelstam, trans. by James Greene

Until today (the day before the predicted Event) I haven't paid any attention to all the yap about The Rapture. It seems to be of more (comic) interest to the irreligious gabbosphere, than to soi-disant "people of faith."

One way to think about some statements of Jesus in the Gospels about the Day of Judgement, and what is called "the Rapture" (ie., to paraphrase : keep watch : no one knows when the end is coming : "on that day, one will be taken, and one will be left behind" etc.), is that they fall within a general Gospel/Biblical emphasis on a distinction between soul & body, spirit & flesh, invisible & visible, heaven & earth, eternity & time. Contrary to prevalent stereotypes - most of them originating with Christian monastics & preachers themselves - this distinction, in both Judaism & Christianity, is just that : a distinction, no more no less. It does not mean a denigration of the earth, the body, the visible, the flesh, etc. All these things from the latter half of the equation are to be accepted with joy & gratitude as gifts of the Creator. What the emphasis on this distinction of Spirit is meant to do is to restore the balance : to bring humanity back to spiritual wholeness & health, in a world overwhelmed by the fleeting & changing things of "this world." Thus the reminder of an End-Time - & the focus on individual alertness & awareness (ie. "let your loins be girded", for "one shall be taken & one left behind") - is again a kind of memento mori, and a reminder of the nearness (though invisible) of the "kingdom of heaven."

This is just one way (a low-key, common-sense way) to approach what is implied by the "Day of Judgement" exhortations in the Gospels. But I want to foreground this distinction (earth/heaven, body/spirit, visible/invisible) as an entry into what follows. I want to talk a little about poetry and "rapture". Osip Mandelstam points toward this theme, in the stanza above - from a late poem, written (not long before his final trip to Siberia & death) after listening (from exile in provincial Voronezh) to a recording of Marian Anderson, singing gospel music on Moscow Radio. Poets - in their visionary, enthusiastic, prophetic, charismatic, shamanic modes - have been associated with "raptures" from the beginning of time (isn't rhapsode a name for "poet" in Greek?). Plato memorably contrasted the "reasonable" discourse of the philosophers with the Muse-inspired, unpredictable flights of poets. The ancient kinship between poem & oracle was a cross-cultural given. What is involved here is the charisma of possession - of the in-coming of the God, the Divine, the Spirit : of a somatic/intellectual experience which transports the poet into a "harmonic" state, resulting in song : the expression, the narration of the holistic, visionary experience itself : Mandelstam's "rapture of the universe." We are reminded here of the apostle Paul's account of his sudden transport to "the third heaven" (ie. above the clouds, and also beyond the stars), where he saw things he could not put into words; and of Dante's journey to Paradise with Beatrice (which explicitly adumbrates Paul's confession). These are what you might call canonical examples in the history of "rapture." They are akin as well to the Gospel episode, when the disciples witness Jesus' Transfiguration - standing on the hill with Elijah and Moses - from earthly man into heavenly being.

Many people - maybe everyone, really - have experienced, at one time or another, brushes with the inexplicable : the uncanny, the marvelous, the serendipitous, the wonderful, the mysterious... the spiritual, the numinous, the holy. Encounters or events which one cannot (or will not) reduce to some rational explanation or verbal equivalent. For the rare saints & holy people among us, ordinary life, whatever it brings, is perhaps transformed into the "bread & wine" of spiritual understanding : for the rest of us, most of the time, we're O.K. if we can just stave off trouble & get through another day....

But I've had my share of such rare & extraordinary experiences. Some of them have profoundly shaped the direction my life has taken. As I've written about before - when I was about 20 yrs old (in 1972-3) I underwent a series of seismic psychological events - uncanny, charismatic experiences - which seemed to mingle faith, vision & poetry. As a result I was shaken out of my practical life and rational pursuits : I dropped out of college for three years; I hitchhiked around the country (& England) in a kind of cloud of pondering & meditation on the mystery of things. & in a sense I have never stopped seeking that understanding : in 1973 I was brought up short by a kind of rational enigma, which spurred my curiosity about metaphysical, spiritual things. But I misrepresent what I went through, if I narrate this as merely some sort of gnostic search for occult knowledge. It was really an experience of being moved & changed in the heart of my personality : morally & emotionally as well as intellectually. My life was changed.

One of the consequences of this - & because what I went through was all tangled up in my mind with my sense of myself as a poet, with a literary vocation - was that I was unable to return to academics & the pursuit of a career in a "normal" way. I felt I had been through something which no teacher or classroom could explain to me; moreover, I felt motivated to find a way to express what I was "seeing" & learning directly in poetry. Poetry, vision & experience seemed irreducibly entwined. And I think at least one part of the reason I've worked at a kind of low-level job in a library for 25 years, is that I needed that independence from any kind of "worldly" demands on my ability to express things in poetry. I couldn't teach writing, I couldn't study or pursue an academic degree in a "sensible" way, because the intellectual & vocational responsibilities involved would be more than I could bear. (I realize there might be other, less charitable ways of evaluating such diffidence on my part. I'm sure there are many sides to it - "character issues"... I'm explaining just one of them.)

But setting aside the autobiographical vein : what I mean to suggest is that these extraordinary events - these strange spiritual promptings (nudgings?) - have provided me food for thought now for a long time : a food which has never run out. & over the past few weeks & months I've sensed a sort of integration in my mind, of longstanding notions & new researches - connected with the long poem I've been struggling with (Lanthanum). Integration, synthesis... it's a sense of certain ideas becoming substantial, & harmonized with each other, so that they provide a sort of confirmation, a weight or substance, http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifwhich I can carry around with me... in a state of mild rapture & joy!

This is really not easy to explain without degrading it in the process. I've been searching for images & rational analogues of something at the root of the poem (Lanthanum), which was an unusual dream I had a few years ago about the Gateway Arch monument, in St. Louis. I've been reading about architecture (Padovan, Proportion; Van der Laan; Smith, The Dome). I've been reading various things on the literature of the Holy Grail (Gemstone of Paradise by Murphy was especially interesting, as was an old book by Helen Adolf, Visio Pacis). I've been reading some theology, especially the Byzantine church father, Maximus the Confessor. I've been reading some physics & cosmology. From these & many other books I've been drawing nourishment, I think, for a sort of productive way of seeing, or way of understanding things in general. & out of all this there was not a single "Eureka!" moment - but a kind of drawn-out, successive, gradual, gradually-expanding & growing & strengrthening E-U-R-E-K-A !-sense... a real "rapture of the universe", as Mandelstam put it.

How can I say it? I can't. I've been trying to say it & express it & sketch it out in the Lanthanum sequence & other poems. But since tomorrow's supposed to be "The Rapture," let me on this special occasion try to articulate my own intellectual joy-glee-rapture as I seem to feel it & see it.

Murphy, in his book on the grail, sets himself the task of explaining why the poet Wolfram von Eschenbach (in Parzival) describes the grail as a "stone." He explains how the tomb of Christ was considered to be carved out of stone - to be a rock tomb. He explains that the Church began sanctifying portable eucharistic tables, so that pilgrims & soldiers could receive Communion even away from churches proper. These tables were little boxes or stands, made out of stone & gems, beautifully designed, with small hollow sections - miniature replicas of the Holy Sepulchre - which held the sanctified eucharistic bread (Christ's body). He shows how Wolfram's descriptions of the grail seemed based on such portable eucharistic containers - Murphy even discovers a specific box (in a museum in Bamberg, Germany) which he believes may have served as Wolfram's model.

The implication of these affinities is that the grail is equated with Christ's eucharistic Body : which itself (the eucharist) stems from, is part of, the body of Christ himself (in the Sepulchre, and resurrected on Easter). The Sepulchre today rests under a domed building in Jerusalem. Domical structures (as Smith relates) are a very basic & global figure for the human "home" (being a microcosmic representation - from nomadic tent structures to Hagia Sophia - of the "dome of heaven" arching over the earth). Thus we have the image of the mortal/risen Man/God - Jesus - located in the symbolic "center of the earth" (Jerusalem) - beneath the microcosmic dome-home - & replicated in a portable eucharistic "grail", available to anyone who seeks it.

Thus far we are discoursing on symbolic-religious symbols (which, taken by itself, could be criticized, I suppose, as a species of mystico-antiquarianism). So let me try to explain how I understand a sort of philosophical analogue or parallel to these symbols. And I want also to try to relate all this to poetry.

I think the human mind & imagination have an inborn orientation toward understanding. The discipline of science subjects this drive, this orientation, to the demands of analysis, experiment & proof : but the drive itself - to understand - came first. The mind - the imagination - is synthetic : aiming for wholes, for completeness, for the integration of disparate facts & experiences. The urge to wonder seems primordial to me : and what it answers, what it responds to, is an awareness of the basic difference between nothing and something. The vast universe - something - stands against nothingness, non-existence. I remember pondering these things in adolescence - but it probably starts in childhood : wondering, questioning the origin of life, of the universe.

Further, I think there is a basic consequence of this original human wondering, which is a state of what used to be called "natural piety". It is a deep and mostly-unconscious gratitude for being : an attitude of thanksgiving for the joy of mere existence, of being-alive. Of course, many things (we all know them) work to crumble & debilitate this attitude of gratitude : but this doesn't mean it's not still lurking there, beneath all our fears & disappointments. It is too basic, too primordial, to be destroyed.

Now let me try to pull some of these threads together toward some sort of conclusion. Here's what I say : the true "holy grail" is a kind of portable state of awareness. An awareness of what? A sense of an underlying harmony. What is this harmony? It is a harmony of proportion : a proportion (ratio, logos) between the human & the divine, between humanity & God. In a stance of gratitude. Gratitude stemming from an awareness of the "createdness" of the visible universe : of something born out of nothing. And not only that : but also gratitude stemming from an awareness of this central proportion itself : that human persons - in the "architecture" or "ecology" (the dome) of their lived lives on earth - represent visible images of divine Personhood. The earth, as Mandelstam, put it, is a "mansion" - & we are "God's grateful guests". This is a very basic (& fairly traditional) insight - shared by another Petersburg poet, Gumilev, & by Anna Akhmatova : it was part of the "chaste vision" of the Acmeist poetic project of the early 20th century. On this most simple foundation of gratitude or thanksgiving, the whole normative structure of civilization is seen to be constructed. It is stated most clearly in the Gospels, when Jesus explains that all the law & commandments hang on two basic commands : "To love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind & strength, and what is like unto it, to love your neighbor as yourself." This is the core activation of the most basic sense of faith in a divine or metaphysical or dream or dramatic order of cosmic reality : this is the "bread & wine" of the poetic vision of the universe - its "rapture." Under the estrangement of time, and change & mortality, this is the promise of a kind of Easter metamorphosis : a resurrection of the mind & spirit through a mysterious Approach of living Consciousness - the dramatic victory of "sacred history" - its epic plot, you might say - its "divine comedy" : the victory of spirit over matter, of immortality over death. This, you could say, is what Mary Magdalen "saw" when she found Jesus - "the gardener" - near the empty tomb. In another late poem, Mandelstam put this kind of deep rapture into words again, a poem which is one of my all-time favorites (translated here by Richard & Elizabeth McKane). The "clarity of a concept" - this is it.

To Natasha Shtempel

1.

Limping against her will over the deserted earth,
with uneven, sweet steps,
she walks just ahead
of her swift friend and her fiance.
The restraining freedom
of her inspiring disability pulls her along,
but it seems that her walking is held back
by the clarity of a concept :
that this spring weather
is the ancestral mother of the grave's vault,
and that this is an eternal beginning.

2.

There are women, who are so close to the moist earth,
their every step is a loud mourning,
their calling is to accompany the resurrected,
and be first to greet the dead.
It is a crime to demand kisses from them,
and it is impossible to part from them.
Today angels, tomorrow worms in the graveyard,
and the day after, just an outline.
The steps you once took, you won't be able to take.
Flowers are immortal. Heaven is integral.
What will be is only a promise.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

AN AMATEUR DEFENSE OF POETRY


What follows has no footnotes, no scholarly apparatus. Just my own faulty memory and groundless, amateur speculations.

*

When did poets begin writing "defenses"? My guess is that Philip Sidney's was one of the first, in Elizabethan England, around 1600. The Renaissance (or post-Renaissance) was in full swing, the Reformation was underway, the Enlightenment would be arriving soon. The Middle Age of faith was giving way to the Modern Age of reason & science. Prose was splitting off from poetry. Prose leaned toward facts, practical utility, rational argument, scientific evidence and explanation. Poetry leaned toward Art & Beauty (in caps), toward the emotional life, the life of the spirit, toward everything that could not be quantified & examined with objective detachment. The "defensive" stance, signaled by essays like Sidney's, represented a reaction against new pressures brought to bear on the traditional role of the poet-as-seer, as bearer and enunciator of ancient & communal knowledge - an immediate kind of understanding, outside the frameworks of rational argument or scientific proof. & I would say the division, the polarization, between the rational & the poetic approaches came to a head, was crystallized, in the shift from the discursive rationalism of the Restoration poets, to the imaginative vision of the Romantics (epitomized & defended perhaps most stoutly by Coleridge & Blake, with some help from Wordsworth).

*

But why does any of this matter now? The Romantics were a long time ago. Modern and Postmodern thought found other & seemingly more relevant ways to challenge any simplistic versions of rationalism or scientific positivism. But perhaps that is the crux of the problem. Poets have relinquished the debate to philosophers, physicists, biologists, commentators, theologians... to everybody except poets themselves. A defense, then, would have to involve a re-assertion, a new expression, of the cultural-intellectual authority of poetry. & poets themselves are variegated into all sorts of distinct groupings based on style, or on poetic theory, or by specific ethnic-cultural-historical-linguistic identifications. Often it is claimed that there is no such thing as poetry, only poetries. An intellectual defense such as I am suggesting, then, sounds like a tall order.

*

There will be no "return to Romanticism." But there might possibly be a return to something more venerable than the Romantics : a sense of poetry as matrix of cultural understanding, as source of vision. It seems to me that there are ways to step tentatively in this direction, from various points on the circumference. So here I will toss around a few hunches in that regard.

*

We could start by thinking of poetry as a kind of living monument or textual distillation of a culture's language. This is not a popular notion in these times. The focus today is on the immediacy of vernacular engagement : people find odious the idea of poetry as a kind of textual crypt of language. Yet something in the back of the mind nags every real poet like a guilty conscience : the language we speak is objectively beautiful; thus poetry ought to build lasting containers, expressions, exemplifications, of that language. Poetry ought to seek both the exquisite & the necessary - the best verbal equivalents of both experience & thought.

But to accept that challenge is to be confronted with considerably difficult consequences : for it means that new (or perhaps old) thematic demands are applied to poets & poetry. The "beauty of language" is not just sound-music, not just elegant wit & ornamentation. There is also the profound dimension of meaning & thought - forsaking which, poetry has already relinquished any claim to cultural authority.

To meet these demands, however, poetry brings to bear some surprising strengths. Because a poem is a kind of playful, seemingly-purposeless end-in-itself, it is capable of modeling the ends of things : forms, shapes, distinct entities, in their particularity, their integrity, their wholeness : in their identity as ends. The integrity, the self-fulfillment of things is echoed, modeled, sanctioned by the harmonious, inherent integrity of poems. This is a specific kind of verbal modeling (Aristotle called it mimesis) which is peculiar to poetry.

*

For Blake & Coleridge, Wordsworth & Whitman, Keats & Dickinson & others, poems are the verbal distillation of human acts of imagination. Imagination is a specific faculty, a power of the human mind : essentially a power of invention & synthesis. The human power of invention is likened (especially by Coleridge) to a supernatural creative Power (the origin of reality itself, as a cosmic whole, in the divine "I Am"). The problem that these Romantics had with the rationalism of the Enlightenment (Voltaire, Rousseau, Locke, et al.) was what seemed to them a split between mind & heart, mind & soul, mind & spirit - between the reasoning, analyzing, abstracting mind, & the inspired imagination - its "sacred" representations of the whole of life, of life as wholeness.

The modern development of free-standing scientific rationalism, as the centerpiece of human thought meant the inevitable sidelining of the imagination, and hence of the purpose of poetry and the role of the poet. These are, of course, far from new ideas! But I think they represent the fundamental cause for the essentially ornamental & trivial social status of poetry in the contemporary world. It is, in sum, a question of two things : 1) the growing alienation of poets themselves from a sense of poetry as a distillation of the best (most memorable) language of their culture; and 2) the historical shift from imaginative (verbal) modeling of truth, to its rational analysis & (mathematical) verifications.

*

Is it possible today to counter these two trends - to rebuild, in a new mode, some of the intellectual confidence of, say, a Blake or a Coleridge? Many poets, in very distinct ways, have certainly made the effort. My own sense is that there is no method, no workable approach built on rational discourse or stubborn will-power. I think back, rather, to Wallace Stevens' notion, expressed in many of his poems & prose "adagia", that individual written poems are merely traces of something larger, more pervasive - some "poetry" inherent in the marrow of life itself. Poetry is thus some kind of basic aspect of "nature" or of the human, which comes to the fore by its own power - the faculty of imagination somewhat in Coleridge's sense. The human mind synthesizes experience - its ultimate or "authorized" expression - not in discursive prose tracts nor in mathematical formulae - but in poetic invention, the insight of the human imagination, the vision of the whole. The All (though of course poetry, being pervasive, is also visible, lurking, active, in prose & science & mathematics too).

*

& I predict that as historians, anthropologists, archaeologists & scientists persist in digging through the deep layers of human origins and the history of the planet, they will discover more & more evidence of the imaginative leaps of the human mind, which have emerged even in prehistory, to visualize & foresee amazing, "incredible" phenomena of the future (the vast, galactic, cosmic future), which we today find difficult to conceive or conceptualize.

Monday, May 09, 2011

PUSHKIN & US (U.S.)

Individual poets, whatever their imperfections may be, are driven all their lives by that inner companion of the conscience which is, after all, the genius of poetry in their hearts and minds. I speak of a companion of the conscience because to every faithful poet, the faithful poem is an act of conscience. - Wallace Stevens

Have been reading interesting book on Pushkin and other Russian poets of his generation (The esoteric tradition in Russian Romantic literature, by Lauren Leighton).

Leighton explores the background in Freemasonry which, for the poets, included some knowledge & application of numerology, "cabalistics", and other esoteric codes in their poetry. She quotes Pushkin : "How fun it is to guide one's lines / with ciphers precisely row by row." & she investigates the incredibly sophisticated numerical design in Pushkin's gambling story, "The Queen of Spades". (Anna Akhmatova : "how complex, The Queen of Spades. Layer upon layer.")

But the numbers games of Pushkin and fellow poets (such as Bestuzhev, .a.k.a. "Marlinsky") were motivated not only by aesthetic "fun", but by a need for secrecy. In the early 19th century, revolution was in the air - Romantic poets (inspired by French & American models) expressed heroic aspirations for liberty, democracy, the end of autocracy.... & naturally, came up against the Czar & the secret police (cf. the Decembrist revolt, on which Leighton elaborates).

In fact, what strikes me, reading this study, is how (apparently) seamlessly knit-together were aesthetics and civics in the vocation of poet - in the poet's self- and public image. Poets were (re-)tellers of popular tales, romantic novelists, vox populi, "public intellectuals." They were also tangled up in webs of intrigue and complicity with the Czarist government, and the small (& murky) world of elite aristocracy. The oppressive might of a centralized, unaccountable government, in dialectical fashion, clarified the moral position of the liberal intelligentsia : & this continued even into the 20th century (see Mandelstam's remark - in one of his essays(?) - confirming his "sacred vow to the Fourth Estate").

I started thinking in a vague way, walking to work this morning, just how much this world of poets & literature differs from our own. Here, today, in the U.S., we tend to take political liberty for granted : the temptation is not so much in the direction of conspiracy or extremism, as toward a complacent kind of factionalism. The basic principles of government are not in question; instead, the debates are over how to apply them, and on what ethical-pragmatic-political grounds. We do not have so much a "liberal intelligentsia" as a political class, divided by party affiliation & allegiance to contrasting ideals. We have a nation polarized by partisanship, more interested in one-upping the opposition than in finding common ground. We have professional political careers maintained primarily by lobbyists & the media. Meanwhile, in poetry world, we have a sort of institutionalized "poetry class", dedicated to the idea of differentiating "poetry" as a special kind of substance and activity which requires special treatment, and distinct professional-academic institutions for its support. What is involved is a sort of abdication of the role of "poet" as free intellectual, of the poet as engaged writer.

I don't mean to assert this in order to cry "j'accuse" : I'm just as implicated in this abdication as anyone else - perhaps more so. I'm just trying to understand it. We hear the seasonal calls for more political engagement from poets and poetry : poetry should be more clear, more sincere, more virtuous, more popular. Meanwhile, in counterpoint, we have the seasonal & generational developments of special techniques & styles by means of which poetry is supposedly enabled to promote a more enlightened politics (cf., in their various ways, Language Poetry, the Cambridge School, Flarf, Conceptual Poetry...) .

Somehow I find something basic missing from both these wings of the poetry scene. Poetry is only hobbled by a dependence on either institutions or technique. Both of these approaches reduce poetry to a craft, a career, or a cabal. I tend, rather, to conceive of poetry as a gift and a spirit. The free-standing autonomy of the process of making art (& poems) is allied with imagination, a profoundly synthetic faculty of human intelligence. Yet this constellation of forces is not driven or motivated toward more autonomy (ie., indifference), but in the other direction : toward deeper participation. Here art is allied with science as free intellectual activity : and it's this essential freedom which allows art & poetry to bridge partisan divides, to question & evaluate political slogans & vested interests, to find common ground (often ironic) between supposedly bitter ideological opponents.

The kind of literary activity I am idealizing can only be developed on the fertile ground of literary tradition. We have to get beyond the knee-jerk experimentalism of the nouveau-nouveau (which is profoundly shallow & uninformed), as well as from the marketable brands of traditionalism which reduce poetry to a set of learnable skills. Poetry is a gift & a calling toward engagement. Craft is inseparable from intellect & worldview, as larger, holistic dimensions. On this basis, the dignity of poetry is something sustained by the inner, moral discipline of individual poets (integrity : Stevens' "conscience"), and granted by society at large : it is not an attribute of professional networking or social cliques.
ODD HIGH FORMALISM

As the talking wheels of American Poetry World wring their hands over various issues (including hand-wringing), and gaze up at the unanswering blue sky crying "whither Poetry?" and such, I would like to outline, briefly, my prediction - not prescription, but prediction - for the general shape of the future, based on the general shape of the past. The past and future of American poetry lies with OHF, or Odd High Formalism.

Not "New Formalism," a 90s movement which called for a return to formal rhyme and meter and received forms (sonnets, sestinas, etc.). The generally reactionary attitude of that trend inhibited more profound experiments with form : as long as we went back to the good old tennis net so sadly neglected since Robert Frost's day, poetry would revive... no.

Nor do I refer to the formalism of the professional avant-garde, primarily represented by the descendants of the NY School, the Language Poets, and various offshoots of experimental Modernism. The formalism of these groups was terribly overshadowed by two influential & contradictory notions drawn from 20th-century philosophy and "theory," namely : 1) reality is constituted by language, and 2) language does not, cannot, really represent or refer to anything outside itself. It's not hard to see where such ideas might lead with regard to poetry : straight into very formal but also highly-mannered self-enclosed & solipsistic literary entities ("language poems" & such).

The perceived ailments & frailty of contemporary American poetry - it's academic effeteness, its anemic detachment from the larger, living world, its introverted fishbowl solipsism & narcissism, its loss of a public audience & the ordinary reader, etc. & so on - might be remedied by a clearer recognition of the main tradition in American poetry, which is none other than... Odd High Formalism.

What is the nature of Odd High Formalism? Here I can only sketch its main elements in a minimal way. Perhaps the best way to understand OHF is to consider the kinship between poetry, music, and public dancing. An era's leading styles of social dancing are paralleled in its poetry. A generation ago, in a series of books, Alastair Fowler analyzed the design properties of Renaissance poetry - combining number mysticism, seasonal or calendrical measures of time, the occasional thematics of major holidays, public events or persons. Poems were shaped to mimic the stately, ceremonial movements of social dancing. Think, on the other hand, about today's social dancing styles : mostly anarchic wiggle, bump & jump. & though fancier, more formal dancing seem to be making a comeback, it is still mostly limited to individual dancing couples, rather than the elaborate group dances of the past. And anarchic wiggle & hop seems like a pretty fair description of the formal approach of much contemporary poetry.

The poet launches into the poem : the audience or reader has no idea where it's going in a formal sense. It's free, it's experimental... it's of the moment, it's raw, it's real... these are the current values. Poetry wants to blend in with the prosaic activities of the world around it. It wants to be liked for blending in. But it will never be liked on this basis : it will only be held in slight contempt. Odd High Formalism accentuates poetry's difference from prose and ordinary life, by lifting its intricate and elegant formalities to another, higher, more intense dimension. Not a dimension of obscurity or elitism : rather a realm of highly-articulate order and elegance. The world of hip-hop and rap is closer to the ancient and Renaissance sense of poetry than anything being produced by the mainstream poetry factories. One may reject the hip-hop artist's often bleak, violent, selfish, cynical and misogynist worldview, yet still learn from hip-hop's focus on formal differentiation and intricacy (the meter, the rhymes, the word-play) - its separation from prose.

Most of the really great American poets of the past have been Odd High Formalists : that is, they have developed a highly-ordered & articulate formality which easily distinguishes itself from prose of any kind. It is inventive, personal, and suited to its own unique aims, rather than patterned on traditional schemes for tradition's sake (hence its "oddness"). Think of Marianne Moore's sui generis formal patterns; Elizabeth Bishop's elegant & playful designs; Emily Dickinson's construction of a poetic universe within a strict and minimalist formal pattern; Whitman's careful development of his own unique cosmic-bardic metrical form and manner; Melville's re-invention of the philosophical travel poem; Poe's highly-mathematical and calculated sense of poetry's rhythmic/tonal mesmerism; Hart Crane's re-invention of the Pindaric praise-song; John Berryman's manic formalism in the Dream Songs... the list could go on for pages. What these poets have in common is a bold - almost extreme - conception of poetry as an intense, highly-differentiated formal dance of sound, meaning, theme, occasion. The OHF poetry of the future will set a new standard of difficulty. This is not a poetry that will "blend in" easily with the prose world : it will be very much harder to write than what is offered at present in schools & literary communities. It will have to distinguish itself - by its formal qualities - from prose. It will have to offer a very high and strange dancing music, a relief - both from prose and from the mannered allusive theoretical academic obscurities which passed for "difficulty" in the last century. Only American Odd High Formalism will set the measures of the dance to come.

Friday, December 03, 2010

RETRO-FUTURISM & ITS CHILDREN

1

In an early essay, Mandelstam wrote : "for an artist, a worldview is a tool or a means, like a hammer in the hands of a mason, and the only reality is the work of art itself." On the face of it, an eminently modernist sentiment. On a similar branch, Wallace Stevens, in "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words", writes : "... above everything else, poetry is words... A poet's words are of things that do not exist without the words." Yet for both these poets, "worldview" stood for something more : call it "reality", call it "truth", call it "history", it is that dimension which exists distinct from, and in tandem with, poetry itself. For both of these poets, the relation between poetry and "worldview" helped determine the poet's attitude or stance within/toward the wider culture - & this was something both of them took very seriously. What is the role of the poet? What (if any) is the social sanction for poetry? For Stevens, these questions prompted a sustained, even relentless search for understanding. For Mandelstam, they underwrote his forthright, polemical stance toward the "worldviews" which grounded contemporary Russian literature & politics : his commitment to Acmeism vs. Futurism, to "unofficial" vs. "official" writing, to intellectual freedom vs. loyalty to the State.

In today's America (as in yesterday's) we sense an absolute allegiance to the values of success, achievement, superiority, wealth, fame... We are a nation of driven, workaholic strivers, a people obsessed with those mechanical short-cuts to bliss known as "gadgets." We are surrounded by tall wobbly ladders of rules, protocols, steps, points, scores, levels, etc. etc., which everybody is eager to either follow or circumvent. In fact the rules offer themselves as intriguing & ambivalent amalgams of both obedience & circumvention. Kafka would understand. Lots of contemporary novels are structured around such Janus-faced rules. The only rule this nation descended from the Puritans seems to have forgotten, is an unambiguous one, a rule those Puritans held sacrosanct : to keep holy the Sabbath; ie., to rest from striving, to sit still, to be, simply, thankful for existence...

I don't exempt myself from these typical American obsessions (or demonic possessions). I'm just as driven as the next scurrilous wannabe-squirrel. But I'm interested in how "worldview" coalesces with "poetry" in forms which sometimes offer resistance. I am skeptical of the culture of MFA networks & "workshop" self-improvement; I am equally skeptical of the worldviews suggested by literary experimentalism & the busy, much-loved avant-garde. Both trends seem finally indistinguishable from the culture of hard-driving lemmings I have described. MFA systems offer poetry as something measurable & objective, a professional "field" one can pursue, step by vocational step, like a degree in law or engineering. Experimentalism promotes the aesthetics of the gimmick. We see this trend across the spectrum of literary publication, from the New Yorker to the tiniest lit-zine. This is the poetry of the one-shot deal, the hit, the gag, the stunt : its presence is pervasive, its technical versatility & wit are irreproachable & immediately "winning" (the whole aim, after all, is to be winning). The style involves speed, cunning, sarcasm, transparency, readability, immediacy : conversely, it downplays depth, feeling, continuity, profundity, complexity, irony... & because it draws on a now-traditional (& predictable) set of alienation-effects and scandalous subversions, I would christen this omnipresent set of techniques "retro-futurism".

On the other hand, there is also a mode of resistance to the frantic polemical side-taking in poetry circles, which might be summarized as simply anti-theory . This is the strategy of the deliberately-inclusive, the dogmatically-uncritical and non-judgmental, the Big Tent approach, the cowbell "Come an' Get It!" communal-table method, the "just poetry, no ideas" attitude, the "just paint, no Cubism" mantra. No such thing as good or bad in art. The trouble with this entire approach is that it morphs so seamlessly into its opposite : the "this is what we're having for dinner so just eat it!" answer to all questions of value & taste. Do you really want to read this lousy poetry? With its shrunken, tattered & abused vocabulary, its second-hand & obvious ideas, its shallow or non-existent feeling? Its essential crudeness, its vulgarity - its aggression, its assault on human dignity? Is this what you want? This is the meal awaiting you in the Big Tent, friends. I think that underlying the all-inclusive, non-critical mode is a fundamental aestheticism : a set of art-for-art's-sake assumptions, a kind of monochrome vision, which cannot recognize the basic dialectic of art & worldview (which so absorbed Mandelstam & Stevens).

2

Art & worldview. I have asserted their importance, their necessity : so where do I stand myself in this regard? But I have rambled at length & with much incoherence & tedium, elsewhere, on the subject of my own worldview : so here I will just suggest a possible avenue of pursuit.

Eliot, Pound, Stevens : Medieval, Renaissance, Modern. As if in this trio we have a kind of exemplary recapitulation of the history of the West. Eliot the medieval man : for whom the measure of Man is only to be found in her relationship with God. Eliot's God is in many ways remote & elusive, and he compensates for this by emphasizing the objectivity of dogma, the absolute quality of both the articles of faith & the cultural traditions for which they are the foundation. Pound the Renaissance man : for whom "Man is the measure of all things." In such a situation, calm, peace & stability are elusive, & Pound compensates for this by emphasizing the objectivity of Nature, and the supremacy of the men of inherent power & natural wisdom (Malatesta, the Founding Fathers, Confucius...). Stevens the modern : for whom nature is fundamentally immeasurable & mysterious, and therefore Man-within-nature must imagine her own order (since order is to be found nowhere else).

These are obviously over-simplifications. All three poets remain elusive themselves, their attitude & work can be read from all three cultural-historical "positions" (& more). As for my own worldview, I think I oscillate between something like Eliot's & something like Stevens' sense of things. What Stevens suggests - & which essentially modifies both Eliot's and Pound's tendency toward dogmatism - is the key role of the imagination : the imagination of the human species as a whole, as a kind of unity. In this Stevens descends directly from that earlier trio of poet-thinkers, from whom both Eliot & Pound took pains to distance themselves : Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats. What both Stevens & Eliot, in their greatest work, share with Coleridge & Wordsworth & Keats, is a recognition of the shaping power of the human mind within experience : that we live, as the Renaissance thinker Nicolas of Cusa wrote, in a "conjectural" world, a world of fundamentally human shaping. "The Word is Psyche," as Mandelstam put it. As for my own worldview, maybe I stand closest to Nicolas of Cusa, then : for this was someone who could synthesize & integrate both : 1) a Renaissance sense of the powers of the human mind, and 2) a recognition, an acknowledgment, of a loving relationship with a universal God, the ultimate ground of all existing things, who is also a "personal" Spirit (of whom Man is the "image & likeness").