Wednesday, August 09, 2006

THE VALUE OF QUIETUDE AND THE NEED FOR ROOTS


Toward the end of his life, in a forward to the New Directions edition of his Selected Prose, Ezra Pound wrote : “re USURY. I was out of focus, taking a symptom for a cause. The cause is AVARICE.”

Is it possible that our advanced poetry schools of today – both academic and fringe – for whom Ezra Pound is an originary daimon – have somehow missed the import of this statement?

What Pound’s acknowledgement amounts to, is that his career-long jeremiad against the political economy of the West was... not so much wrong, as misdirected. He doesn’t retract his assertion that there is a problem: he says that he analyzed the problem on the wrong basis, at the wrong level, with the wrong tools.

What he’s admitting is that the crisis of his world is not what he used to think it was – that is, an obvious engineering problem, which only a little political tinkering will put to rights.

Instead, the roots of the problem are moral. The roots are planted deep in human nature. To put it an old medieval way – the roots have to do with a propensity for one of the mortal sins (and perhaps by implication, a propensity for them all).

The condition of poetry these days reflects that of the arts in general, only in more concentrated form (because poetry is such a “specialty market”). The atmosphere shifts between radical discouragement, high (frustrated) political dudgeon, and artificial giddiness.

We appear to inhabit a late-modern era, which parallels – in shapes of grotesquery and burlesque, of shriveled civic hopes, of forebodings of plague and war – the late medieval period of the 14th-15th century. The satires of Swift and Orwell have nothing on the comic inversions of language and conscience found in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The Pardoner, the Summoner and the Wife of Bath would feel right at home in the stews of current Celebrity, and the epicurean, post-Christian society it reflects.*

The Modern World, of course, views everything as an engineering problem. The United States (which I know best) produces its political partisans, facing each other down with mutual sloganeering. Now we have Red and Blue Americas, resembling the color-coded riot system of ancient Byzantium. Each team works up its smug (and self-serving) manuals for systemic tweakage, blaming the other for All Existing Irritations.

And with so many semi-employed software engineers, who needs poets? Poetry’s backed into a corner, seething with pent-up vanity and papered with its own mildew. The causes are many. Some blame the hegemony of prose fiction; others blame the movies. Some blame American Puritanism and its workaholic ethic (even San Francisco no longer offers much reprieve). Poets are not recognized players in the vita activa of private enterprise, so a special farm has been established for them in academia, with its own degree programs and publications. (This works well, if you don’t mind being domesticated and part of a stable.) The rich, fat, happy middle class gets the minor verse it has always deserved, in the odd margins of its magazines.

The Venting Avant-Garde just hates this situation, but plays along as best it can – making sure that it flaunts its own distinguishing colors in the byzantine one-upmanship races. American poet and blogger Ron Silliman, for one, has made a specialty of this color-coding operation. With him, it’s the New Americans vs. the School of Quietude. It’s Red-Blue political pigeonholing on a smaller, aesthetic scale. And pigeonholing, of course, is a technical term drawn from Civil Engineering.

But what’s on the other side of the moon from vita activa? Why, it’s the vita contemplativa. Another name for “quietude”. Chaucer – like Dante before him – constructed elaborate, elegant and searing models of the social world. Within their sustaining spine lurks a Christian-Platonic concept of the Whole Good, the common good – that goodness which surpasses all private and partial and worldly and epicurean goods (on behalf of which Chaucer’s pilgrims hilariously condemn themselves out of their own mouths). A design which depends on, and from, the vision of a dual cosmos – an architecture which the contemporary world has trouble visualizing.

In the dual cosmos, there is Spirit and Flesh, Soul and Body, Heaven and Earth. And History is an undertaking from on high to reconcile the two, by way of those values which diametrically oppose the values of the worldly Epicurean : humility & good works for pride; poverty & charity for greed; chastity & compassion for lust. And this vision of the Whole Good is not an intellectual prize or academic acquisition – it is, rather, an inward product of contrition and penitence.

Simone Weil, a curiously medieval person of the 20th century, summarized this missing reality in her book’s title phrase : “the need for roots.” By which she meant: spiritual roots.

When the modern world dismissed monasticism and its disciplines, the social role of the vita contemplativa was also displaced. The new scripturally-infused individual was supposed to have everything needful right there in the family Bible. And certainly there was something true and liberating about this change. But something was lost as well: the imaginative efflorescence of spiritual contemplation. And when this was gone, the underlying rationale or ground for a certain (medieval) kind of social critique and literary engagement also dissipated in the West. Eliot, Pound, Joyce – to name only a few of the most prominent modern exponents – give evidence, in their nostalgic re-workings of Dante, of an awareness of some missing factor.

It is a concept of cosmic natural law and divine Providence – emanating from what Chaucer calls heaven’s “stability”. Sustained in a prophetic debate or dialectic with the world – the world mired in those three malign arch-vices, given various names, anatomized by John the Evangelist long ago as “the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life” (avaritia, luxuria, vanitas). These are the spiritual enemies – the complex of human foibles – which Chaucer descried and anatomized as the real source of the “engineering problems” stirring the ideological conflicts and debates of his age.

Today, it is novelists who engage in this kind of imaginative-sympathetic-satirical anatomy. The unread poets are left with their various second or third choices – whining political rants, private aesthetico-psychic-symbolic mystagogy, drug-enhanced persiflage, sit-down comedy routines, and so on. Or, one can join a promotional subculture-team, and find some minimal ego relief and career advancement there.

Or, perhaps... one can choose... that old rocky road to Quietude. And human relevance.



*see Paul A. Olson’s study, The Canterbury Tales and the Good Society (Princeton Univ. Press, 1986), for a remarkable presentation of these issues.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

READING THE BREEZE

Breeze, by John Latta
Notre Dame, IN : University of Notre Dame Press, 2003
115 pp.

Mountains and mountains of words have been applied to the poetic productions which began to surface about 100 years ago and have come to be known by labels usually containing some variation on, or some extension of, the word "modern". Most of these many phenomena share one characteristic : they exhibit the self-conscious awareness, on the part of their makers, of their status as art works. In their unfolding they reflect on themselves. Wallace Stevens offers one of the clearest and most programmatic examples of this tendency. The record of a chaffing conversation with Robert Frost is apropos. Stevens is said to have remarked, "You write on subjects." (Frost countered, "And you write on bric-a-brac.") Poetry, for Stevens, is not "about" things : it is something in its own right. Poetry "celebrates itself".

Much poetry of the last century is a record of the problematic consequences of this "supreme" (Stevens' term) self-authorizing maneuver. The poet who obliges it is immediately confronted with at least two big problems : first, the danger of solipsism (what is self-reflecting may not reflect anything else); second, a confusion about where, exactly, are the boundaries between the artwork and everything that is not artwork. (Is the "poem itself" only the aesthetic object, in strict isolation? Is it the state of mind or knowledge or feeling suggested or evoked by the poem? Is it the poem as received by its reader, or does it exist prior to that? etc.)

These issues have been chopped to a fine gruel - and I have little to add, except to say that John Latta's book of short poems, Breeze, plays a definite (if latter-day) role in that history. The breeze figures out how to turn self-consciousness in a direction which affirms both poetry's independence and life's infinite correlations.

Latta's kinship with the Hartford insurance man is clear. A glance at the table of contents reminds one of Stevens’ first book : "Chants of a Myrmidon", "Blank, with Blandishments", "Dirty Weather", "Noting it is Nothing", etc. Yet the volume's title marks its distance from Harmonium (natural phenomenon vs. musical artifact). A breeze is neither organ-pipe nor aeolian harp nor spiritual "wind" - it is something more natural and ordinary. Situated between Stevens' sometimes baroque blank verse and Whitman's variable lines, Latta writes (most often) in a free verse corralled into modulating triplet stanzas :

"So we stop talking
Just as the rain,
In a lengthy diminuendo, thins itself to a temporary halt.

Though we hardly notice it:
Our feet, unbeknownst to our feet, move
Now in easy reiteration,

Now in cumbersome jest, speaking
The gone rain's story, happy
Geniuses of the story of the gone rain."

These stanzas were chosen at random, but they are typical. They exhibit a balance between syntax and line, between self-conscious diction and casual phrasing, between life’s contingency and a pattern of construction. Observe the three topoi from the first stanza of the opening poem : flowers, noise, and philosophy. As you read on, you discover that these are recurrent motifs - as though part of an old-fashioned "garland". This is a book shaped in deliberate response to Harmonium, one of the indubitably great moments in modern poetry.

Latta's strategy, in part, is to take a step back from Stevens' elaborate finish. He leans toward Whitman, by foregoing cryptic ellipsis for more prosaic effects - more inclusive, ragged, and plain. Take, for example, the opening of the second poem, "Noise" :

"Off in the distance, the sound of
A truck backing up to unload a cargo
of roofing material…"

In fact, Breeze is built upon a notion of "interference." The book's organization rests on this polarity - a pervasive stress-interference-symbiosis, operating simultaneously within the prose/poetry of writing and within the prose/poetry of experience. The first poem, "In the Margins of a Book by Heidegger", encapsulates the theme, beginning with:

"Daily chores impinge, poking
Little subsets of clarity into the unutterable
Stink of thinking just as a philodendron,
Flexing, furls its tame blue fingers around a newel post"

These lines compact both processes (interference and synthesis). Latta's yen to unite contraries is grounded in the understanding that they remain contrary. Chords are suspended : tensions unresolved : affirmations are hopeful, or rueful, rather than resounding. Furthermore, The affirmations are 'impure' : they do not conclude neatly in favor of either self-contained art or idealized nature. Still, paradoxically, the affirmations are there :

"And if I say unreasonable things to you now and again
And conjure up makeshift desires dedicated to you
Whom I have lost, it is because the world

Is no fragment, no soap chip,
And with these words I am sudsing up a speculation and a return,
We could clabber something together together -

For I am a fragment, too."

This is from "Hazy Days", one of the volume's best, and representative, poems. Latta shares with Stevens an affinity for things French, one aspect of which is a willingness to engage in quasi-philosophical speculation - but with aphoristic brevity. Neat quips are leveled with the American bent toward rambling, open-ended, prosaic extension. The fact that Latta can articulate such a polarity is part of what distinguishes his work from run-of-the-mill anecdotal verse. His poems are often both anecdotal and philosophically engaged :

"No contrail scratches remain.
And I means I only by dint of this perfect mock-
Up of myself I's got sitting here

Socializing with the twentieth century, its dirt
Outlining the nail of a finger
Wagging emphatic an accusation

And pointing to the likes of words like you,
Unlikely though it is in such surroundings
To be you." ("The Wag of the Inconsequent")

Thus, and in similar playful flourishes, Latta combines a judgement on the limits of artifice with the grace of a (convincing) impression of personal presence. He unites what Stevens called the "the imagination's latin" with the vulgate of ordinary experience - the "lingua franca et jocundissima". These compounds, moreover, do not avoid painful and discouraging realities. In both happy and gloomy moods, the poet turns toward the natural world:

"For one short period you lived up there
In a shack and burned firewood. The need
To say something - anything - caught

In the terrible middle of you.
In the uptake, in the winch, in the draft.
Something about two

Bluebirds nesting in a box out back.
Something about the box tilting crazy
Against the fence post."
("Explication de texte")

What saves Latta from ruminative garrulity (always frisking the edges of his spangled phrasing) - and from the dated quandaries of fin-de-siecle theory - is the acumen of the artist. A rueful modesty allows for fusions of the personal and the intelligible, the literary and the natural. Humility makes for directness, accessibility. Latta is never simply performing. Even his ostensibly more-frivolous poems have a substantial feeling, rooted in a tendency to try say something to us about the nature of things. The results of this ratio between conversationalist and literary show-off are consistently charming. The poems have no extra-literary axe to grind : they celebrate their own fragmentary and companionable selves, and the peripheral goodness of their happening, their making. In doing so, they discover wider spaces. Can you hear the affable shades of Stevens and Whitman in these lines? -

"Hurrah for us wiseacres, us
earthlings who pout in the glamorous soup
Of airs we never put on with any success, democratic

As trees though.
Thorough our thought is though
Not exactly filling, our maneuvres those of mules

Hugging the sure contours of the map's bumps
And bridges, anything that divides land
Up into the here and there." ("Wisdom Terrestrial and Nigh")