Thursday, September 27, 2007

THE POET AND THE NAME

As everyone knows, we take language for granted. There's a reason for this. A lad carting a wheelbarrow doesn't want to stop & contemplate the invention, design, and special virtues of the wheelbarrow's wheel. In a world of struggle and necessity, we have to get on with things as efficiently as we can.

But life is more than work. As Welsh poet David Jones liked to point out, our aptitude for making non-utilitarian aesthetic objects (art) is what distinguishes the uniquely human from the generally animal. Poetry, too, is situated within that magic (playground) circle. And play itself grants access to otherwise disregarded elements of reality.

Goofing around with words, the poet stumbles upon a hidden treasure : language's native spring - the substance of naming itself. Who among the professional linguists and philologists has comprehended the intellectual wonder of Adamic naming?* When human mind, heart, lungs, throat and mouth first formed the intelligible signs for things? And gathering these signs and keeping them in mind, ordering them by imaginative precedent and law, began to articulate the grand, vast logical-rhetorical sea-going vessel of human speech?

What the poet does, in playing with words, is strike those original sparks of imaginative apprehension - the first (& prehistoric) Promethean fire. Thus the poet reiterates verbal representation with the flavor, the sharp scent of that first encounter. This primal imaginative-intellective labor is what accounts for poetry's famous vividness; what Mallarme (and Eliot) meant when they spoke of their vocation as Donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu (to render a purer sense to the words of the tribe).

Mankind the Word-Maker, the Playing Animal... one could go so far as to say that the poet, through free verbal play, recapitulates the human image - polishes it, in order to shine - a kind of microcosm of the human essence.

The poet must walk a tightrope between prosaic, utilitarian usage (which manacles naming under the sign of Necessity), and that arrogant artistic egoism and vanity which treats words as building material, as means not ends (splitting off words from their original naming function, and in doing so, deforming them).

*Giambattista Vico, for one.

Monday, September 17, 2007

THE GARDEN OF THE FORKING IDEOLOGIES

Ten years ago, after a furious email melodrama, I along with a few others was expelled from the Buffalo Poetics Discussion List (SUNY Buffalo). At the time this was interpreted by Kent Johnson et al. as a free speech/censorship issue (while others debunked it as a ridiculous tempest in a teapot). However, underlying those events, for me, was a kind of agonistic relationship which I was maintaining, against what seemed to be the stance of both the founders & the majority participants of that list. There was a difference of opinion, of approach, of "poetics", if you will.

I had developed a deep suspicion and dislike of the phenomenon known as "language poetry" and related strands of experimental writing. What I sensed was a particular motivation rooted in the language school : an attack on the ontological status of the individual, of the person. This attack included what seemed (and seems) to me a paradoxical consequence - a parallel attack on, or degradation of, poetic language itself. The very term "language poetry" seemed like a frivolous affront to the poetic word. Though the language poets themselves denied originating this label for their movement, they went on to adopt it - which was, in a sense, for them, a validation of its use.

It seemed like the application of ideology to poetics. Now, as everyone knows, the current notion of ideology is that everyone has one (or many). It's inescapable. Nevertheless I want to consider some of its characteristics.

Ideology is like a mental mold or crust, a reification - a hardening of the mind along specific channels of vocabulary, definition, identification. Once this hardening process takes place, the resulting loaf or dry crust can be applied as a kind of template - an overlay for interpreting phenomena. It can also be used as an intellectual club, to force the mind in certain directions. The club or weapon stands outside of the object to be forced. It's a tool - a powerful one, an Archimedean lever, providing a useful alienation from the object under consideration.

Poetry's elusiveness, its waywardness, its ad hoc, improvisatory quality, its ex nihilo creative rawness - all these aspects help protect it (and the other arts) from the automatic or utilitarian, the ideological uses of language. At least this is the wished-for ideal.

As I pointed out in another essay (Integral Poetry), the history of poetry reveals an oscillation around the crucial problem of subjectivity and solipsism. In American poetry, we witnessed one of those watershed shifts, around 1980, when the somewhat standardized "Life Studies" model of the personal, anecdotal lyric was attacked, from two directions : first, by the proponents of "identity literature", for whom the self is fundamentally the product of an embattled socio-cultural group identity, rather than the sum of familial characteristics or universal human qualities; second, by the language school and related postmodern trends, which denied any essential ontological status to the individual self, the person.

As Carol T. Christ makes clear (Victorian & Modernist Poetry), these oscillations were a consequence of the Romantic foregrounding of the unitary subjective self, as source and end of consciousness, perception, art. Here, of course, I am oversimplifying. Coleridge's position, for example, was far more nuanced in this regard. For Coleridge the unity of the self was ultimately rooted in the unitary ground of the Spirit, the Godhead, the great "I Am", with which the creative Imagination fused. But the development, in Western culture (and not just in poetry), of self-reflexive human subjectivity, was the paramount factor in the dilemma (of solipsism) we are considering.

The problem was that the Romantic Self seemed grounded on the void. When the autotelic self came to the fore, in modern, Enlightenment culture, the seeds of its inevitable disintegration were already planted. Wordsworth's Egotistical Sublime prefigured T.S. Eliot's ritualistic religious self-renunciation, his formal (and ceremonial) return to a medieval ideology.

I would locate my own attitude, however, somewhere between these poles - close to Coleridge's dual concept. The person is neither a phantasmal construct of ideological/historical determinisms, nor the embattled tribal-social being of identity politics, nor the imperial Self of modern scepticism. Reality as we know it is fundamentally structured by Personhood; but human personhood is rooted in some utterly mysterious spiritual Personhood. It is essentially relational; it is inter-personal. (Akin to the Byzantine notion of the icon, the Imago Dei.) What for the Language Poets is an obstacle to the abstract and impersonal mechanism of an ideal (Marxist) social justice, is for me the ground of a spiritual life : that is, a moral and political life, devoted (ideally, anyway) to truth and to the common good, rather than to merely materialist and opportunist ends. This is the moral vision underlying our literature, going back to Langland and Chaucer, & probably long before.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

INTEGRAL POETRY

I

One of the advantages for the rank amateur and dillettante is that there is no professional compulsion to keep up with the intellectual Joneses, or track contemporary trends assiduously out of a sense of duty. Instead one can go on whim down odd paths, and find valuable things in out-of-the-way places.

One such find for me is a slim book published in 1984 by Carol T. Christ, titled Victorian & Modern Poetics (Univ. of Chicago Press). The author grounds her comparison of these two literary periods in a consideration of some primary qualities of the preceding Romantic era, to which the Victorians and the Moderns responded, as she shows, in quite similar ways (despite the polemic effort of the Moderns to distance themselves from their immediate predecessors). Christ argues that the main problem for poets of both periods involved trying to find a way out of the cul-de-sac of Romantic subjectivity and solipsism - inevitable dark twin to the latter's firm commitment to individual consciousness, perception and experience. And the technical solutions the poets of both eras found show some remarkable similarities. The dramatic monologue, the mask or persona, the striking or picturesque image, and the scaffolding of myth or history : all these techniques were taken up by the Victorians, and then borrowed (and tweaked) by the Moderns. All were designed, more or less, "to separate the poet from the poem" : to restore some kind of impersonality and objectivity - a common ground on which to outgrow the purely individual and subjective.

Today we find ourselves situated on the other side of the Modern era, among the "postmoderns" : an era characterized by at least two sharp swings of the stylistic pendulum. Both can be understood as effects of the great vitality and power of the Modern era in poetry. The first, in the mid-1950s, was a sharp turn away from what had become a kind of dogmatic crystallization of Modernist precepts of impersonality, formal autonomy, and tradition (sponsored by the post-Eliot, New Critical poets). It was felt that by following these precepts to their logical conclusion, poetry had become lifeless : no longer in touch with the imperfections, the contingencies, the mixed weakness and strength which constitutes ordinary social life. Poetry's rarified air had lost the human touch and the personal voice. Robert Lowell's post-Life Studies career exhibits the familiar paradigm for this mid-century turn; and in their different ways, the Beats, the New York School, the Objectivists, and the followers of the Olson/Williams "local epic" approach, all took part in this sea-change, toward the inchoate, the provisional, the imperfect, the personal. It was the beginning of what we call the postmodern era, and its effects were visible not only in literature, but in visual art, music, architecture : a willingness to express the idiosyncratic, the peripheral, the eccentric; a dismissive attitude toward "finish" or traditional form; an emphasis on human experience over impersonal aesthetics.

Ironically, this sharp pendulum-swing prepared the ground for its own reversal, back in the other direction. This happened roughly a generation later, in the 1970s and 80s. The personal, anecdotal lyric began to seem stale and contrived - to exhibit all the the old solipsism and what might be called "generic" individualism which had shadowed the Romantic movement from the beginning. Furthermore, the new intellectual forces of "identity politics" and postmodern critical theory both worked to dissolve, as in an acid solution, the narrated individual of the previous generation. The new style emphasized "textuality" and semantic/syntactical distortions. The self and its stories were either thrown out altogether, or subjected to a kind of lexical filter, a phase distortion, resulting in newly impersonal, autotelic documents. The poem was an object, existing independently from its maker and subsisting upon its own internal, verbal logic. The poet's business was not personal expression, but a kind of political challenge to coercive modes of social speech. This "impersonal" manner was exhibited in its (polemically) pure form in Language Poetry, but the latter shared similar postmodernisms with poets of the New York School, post-Objectivist, and other trends.

After a while, these pendulum swings start to resemble rotations of a merry-go-round. The autotelic remoteness of the "language school" and related styles mimics the "rigor" of the New Critical manner, as well as (in a funhouse mirror) the self-enclosed solipsism of the Confessionals. Aside from positing a general (very postmodern) End of History, how can we interpret these shiftings in a way that might help us get off the merry-go-round?

Let's recall the linchpin of Carol Christ's presentation : the motive for experiment for both the Victorians and the Moderns was the impasse of Romantic individualism and subjectivity. But Romanticism itself didn't arise from nowhere : it subsists in a continuum of developments and repetitions much like the later periods. That is, Romanticism is rooted both in Medieval poetics and in Renaissance individualism; both the Renaissance and the Medieval eras were, in turn, rooted in the Ancients. And if we look again at the general pattern of intellectual eras, we see that Romantic subjectivity was in part a reaction against the generalizations and laws - the objectivity - of Enlightenment Neo-Classicism, which was, in turn, a reaction against the baroque and eccentric excesses of Renaissance individualism. Our contemporary American paradigm shifts are reflected in these earlier oscillations. We can draw a simple tripartite graph of this history, as follows :

Ancient - Medieval - Renaissance
Baroque - Neoclassical - Romantic
Victorian - Modern - Postmodern


Examining this series, we notice not only a dialectic of mutuality and reversal, but several of the names of eras have a provisional or dependent quality : "neo", "middle", "post"รข€¦ "ancient", of course, is the twin of "modern", "baroque" the challenge to "classical", etc. We note, also, a progressive foreshortening in the timespans of each era, as we approach the present, so that the recent oscillations in American poetry seem to be only the latest, briefest examples of a phenomenon of chronological perspective - an angle of acceleration.

From these observations, we can propose a couple of preliminary hypotheses : first, that the next mini-pendulum swing will probably be a return in the direction of the personal and the subjective; second, that the progressive periodic foreshortening suggests the approach of a time when we will be able to transcend this entire polarity. The Ancients resolved the difficulty by means of separate modes (epic, lyric, dramatic); the Moderns by means of particular techniques (masks, myths, histories). Both of these were partial "solutions" to the conundrum of subjectivity - that human mystery, or mystery of humanism, which came to the fore during the Renaissance and Romantic eras, and was most systematically sidelined during the Neo-Classical and Modern eras.

With this general scheme and my two hypotheses as preliminaries, I would like to outline something I'm calling integral poetry. By this I mean something more than a simple synonym for "good poetry", and something less than a polemic for a particular manner or technique. Rather, my term, as I will define it, offers a basic context (by way of the traditional revolutionary method - the return to first principles) for the appreciation of the new poetry on its way.

II

These are some definitions of "integral" which I would recognize as functions of the evaluation of new poetry. Stemming from the latin adjective integer - "whole, entire" - an integer (in English) is either, in mathematics, a natural number, or, more generally, a "whole entity". The adjective integral, then, is defined as (among other things) "essential to completeness", or "composed of integral parts" (ie., integrated). Integral poetry, then, is in some sense complete, or whole - because it is an integration of essential parts (themselves "integers" - ie. integral, whole).

This wholeness is, basically, the integration of two integrities : subjective and objective. Integration requires synthesis, rather than those excisions or rejections evident in the periodic (and polemical) oscillations we have described. In other words, we will renounce neither end of the polarity, but find a way to unite the two. We can do this by way of an analysis of each.

First, then, what do we mean by "subjective integrity" in relation to poetry? But in our times, what term has been more "problematized "(in tandem with the relativizing of all terms) than subjectivity? To begin with, I would simply state as axiomatic that subjectivity and personhood are fundamental values or qualities of experience, which are reflected in fundamental characteristics of poetry. In this context, however (and perhaps in every context), the personal itself is inherently relational in nature. The personal is a paradoxical both/and : both unique and inter-personal. This important corollary allows us, for the time being, to set aside all the sharp disputes over the status of social and individual identity, which seemed so important for the American literature during the previous two decades. If the personal is a function of both uniqueness and relationship, then the expressive arts have a basis - in the personal itself - for transitive social interaction and mutuality. There is an element of equality or kinship with others, in everything we call individual and personal.

Consequently, the art work - the poetic "object" - is always shaded, qualified, surrounded, suffused, in its objectivity, by the subjective and the personal. This, as we know, is the familiar centerpiece of the Renaissance and Romantic eras. Shakespeare (after Chaucer) inwove inimitable individuals within the fabric of his verse. Wordsworth and Keats, in turn, transported the scale of moral and emotional types into interior dramas of psyche and personality. But we do not have to return inevitably to the usual opposition of subjective and objective, of epic impersonality and lyric "I". If the personal is in a certain respect the interpersonal, then even dramatic poetry - traditionally the most "impersonal" and social of poetic modes - is also shaded or qualified by the subjective. Aristotle's analysis (in the Poetics) of the interest or appeal of dramatic poetry describes three paths by which this interest flows : ethos, pathos, and logos. These are the avenues of subjective response and audience reception, respectively moral, sensible (via empathy), and intellectual. In ancient times they were understood in a framework far less individualistic than they are today; yet even the anti-personal, collectivist attitude of Brechtian "epic" theater relies on a foundation of subjective response.

A poetry of "subjective integrity", then, would integrate, and reflect, aspects of personal engagement or response. The personal inhabits and shades the art work; the art work presents a provisional synthesis of human invention and personality.

What do I mean, on the other hand, by "objective integrity"? Here I am thinking of the poem not as personal testament or social experience but as aesthetic object. Integral, remember, is defined as "essential to completeness". Let us say that a poem exhibits "objective integrity" if, and only if, it is beautiful. Beauty is the substance of aesthetic value. In Aquinas's presentation, the integral elements of beauty are : consonantia (proportion), claritas (clarity, brilliance), and integritas (wholeness).

Again : for Aquinas, integrity (wholeness) is one of the integral qualities of beauty. But if we're going to follow Aquinas with regard to our definition of beauty (which thus requires wholeness), then we cannot achieve integrity in our definition of "integral poetry", unless we can synthesize its objective aspect (beauty) with its subjective (inter-personal) aspect. Thus our logic runs into a kind of Chinese finger-puzzle. Aquinas's objective wholeness requires the integration of an aspect which is not in itself objective.

I would resolve this, paradoxically, by a reminder that beauty, as anatomized by Aquinas, is not necessarily pleasing, ie. merely pleasant (ingratiating, entertaining). The "charm" of beauty, which leads us on, may be severe, sublime, tragic. It may be critical and purgative; in fact, according to Aristotle, the deep interest which poetry holds for us consists in its power to balance and purge the passions. Here we arrive again at the crux of the problem which divided the postmoderns from the moderns, the Confessionals from the New Critics, the Language Poets from the Confessionals. Life is not a work of art or a beautiful poem. On the other hand, life without art is less than human. Still, art separated from life is empty, vain, dead. These are the contraries on which the epochs of literary style waver back and forth.

But when we recognize that the beautiful work of art is not exactly the same thing as the pleasing, the sentimental, or the comforting diversion - that the pleasure it provides may be rigorous, severe, critical, purgative, ethically scrupulous - then we can understand how subjective, personal experience (at the root of our interest in and response to art) might fuse and reside together with objective beauty. We can recognize how the postmodern dismissal of great and perfect modernist works - on behalf of the fragmentary, the abject, the middlebrow, even the ugly - was itself part of the struggle to find, in Stevens' words, "what will suffice" (and, moreover, what suffices in strictly aesthetic terms). Yet on the other hand, if we are willing to accept the notion of the personal as integral to the art work, we can see that the attempt to divest poetry of the subjective, the individual, the experiential - on behalf of (ethically) depersonalized formalisms - was also an example of an oscillation to the extreme, since the result was only to establish a new form of dissociation (into two halves) of one whole.

Thus an integral poetry requires the integration of these two fundamental categories of human experience. An integral poetry is suffused with the personal, the subjective, and the individual. The register of its integrity is the degree to which, in its characterizations and symbols, it deepens and complicates our sense of "identity" as ethical beings. Paradoxically, the subjective integrity of an integral poem will depend in part on the (subjective) qualification of its aesthetic objectivity - and vice versa. An integral poem is the record of a unique consciousness and personality; it reflects, simultaneously, the impersonal (sometimes severe and painful) justice of objective beauty.

Thus, in the integrity of the poem, the polarities of stylistic change, once in balance, become the irreducible values of its design.

* Addendum :

I should probably try to clarify one of the leaps (or lurches) of logic in the second half of this essay. I talk about aspects of beauty which are not simply pleasing, charming, well-ordered. Beauty can be severe, critical - the way Beatrice treats Dante in the Paradiso. "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty" - as Keats's ode has it. But what exactly does this have to do with the subjective/objective dilemmas of recent American poetry?

What I'm trying to suggest is that beauty's "severity", its image of justice, its kinship with truth, is the very aspect which grants license to poetry's personal, experiential modes, its individual voices. It's what goads us as poets and readers to get beyond detached, self-enclosed formalism : beyond those artworks which seem to require an absolute distinction between beauty & life.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

3D-POETICS

The relation of beauty (of an image) to its model is such that beauty is in the image as well as in what it is an image of. From this one may conclude that beauty is two-fold... an image is said to be beautiful when it is well painted, and also it gives a good representation of the object.
- St. Bonaventure


According to Bonaventure, then, beauty involves both construction ("well painted") and mimesis ("representation of the object"). Aquinas later specified three elements of such beauty : integrity (wholeness, perfection), proportion (consonance), and clarity (brightness). As Heywood Maginnis points out (in his book Painting in the Age of Giotto), there is another element which underwrites all these and which the two Scholastics do not mention : invention, or originality.

As is well known, the logical architecture of Aquinas stemmed from Aristotle. I noted in an earlier essay ("Art and Ethos") how the Chicago Critics of the mid-20th century drew on two important Aristotelian approaches : first, his method of empirical analysis, which begins with the unique integrity of individual objects, and distinguishes carefully between the object itself and the different tools of analysis and classification used to investigate its various aspects; second, his concept of aesthetic form (in the Poetics) - which can be understood as the opposite of the current received notion. For Aristotle, the form of the poem is the configured whole, the conceptual-intelligible shape or trail left by the action represented (in dramatic poetry, this would be the plot). Nowadays we tend to assume that form involves the rhetorical surface aspects of the poem : diction, figuration, stanzaic design, etc. For Aristotle, such verbal surface is the matter (the building materials). What we today tend to call content (the subject-matter, the plot) is what Aristotle thinks of as form. Applying this Aristotelian perspective was one way the Chicago Critics tried to differentiate themselves from their predecessors, the New Critics, and to ground poetics on a broader critical foundation.

What would happen if these various elements were combined and applied in a sustained way toward contemporary poetry? They imply a sort of sculptural sense : substantial, dimensional. Concept and action shape the wholeness of the form; language, rhetoric and design contribute to that wholeness, but they don't identify or define the work. Applied retrospectively to the "golden age" of the early Moderns (American poetry from Whitman and Dickinson to about 1950), they would foreground the unique excellences (and limitations) - the particular originality and quiddity represented in the work of those poets.

In contrast, today's poets and critics seem to inhabit a sort of Flatland environment. Differences in style and approach are assigned (by both poets and critics) to the historico-genetic development of rival groups and schools. The mannerisms of each school fulfill the same role as brands do in marketing - quick identifiers, amenable to snap evaluation. Style and form are surface elements - artificial literary dialects, as a matter of fact, which can be absorbed by osmosis in the various MFA programs tending in one direction or another.

And what would happen to poetry, if such "sculptural" elements were part of the poet's awareness and practice? The Aristotelian concept of integrity as a "whole action" - a complete conceptual/enacted gesture - brings to mind the live sculpture of dance. But the masks of stylistic dialects - what we think of as opposing trends or schools in American poetry - are insufficient in themselves; the masque should be informed by plot, and by plot's thematic resonance.

If we think of the poem as a three-dimensional object, and the poet as a maker rather than a performer, then our concept of the poet's social role begins to shift as well. If we relegate the surface elements to the poem's matter, and think of the poem's formal integrity as its thematic-mimetic wholeness, its conceptual gesture - then we are starting to move in the direction of rhetorical moderation. That is, the surface elements of style and manner are moderated, subsumed and synthesized by a more general aim. The poet's literary-mimetic action is analogous to other kinds of social action, and participates in the spheres of shared history and culture. This sounds obvious; but it does not seem so obvious how current (and contrary) assumptions about the role of the poet (ie. as an inspired medium of aesthetic self-expression, or as an experimental participant in collective stylistics) fulfill the architectonic, thematic gesture as outlined by Aristotle and the Chicago School.

A 3-D poetics, in which form equals (narrative or conceptual-thematic) plot - by way of a middle style, capable of absorbing and reflecting all kinds of discourses and events - would confirm affinities between the artistic gesture of the poem and the multifarious aspects of the world. The aim of the poet as maker would be to frame such makings, so as to explore and engage that world as fully and accurately as possible.

Friday, January 26, 2007

HOW TO READ A LONG POEM


A long poem is not like a short poem. It’s more like a novel. In his essay “Conversation about Dante”, Osip Mandelstam describes the poetic process as a sort of seismic crisis or dislocation, through which reading becomes writing, and writing becomes reading, and the reader discovers a kinship with the writer in the new reality of the text. Thus, a long poem is not a transparent film or glass placed over “the real world” : it’s a set of signals drawing the reader into an alternate reality, the fabric or texture of which is verbal, sonic, painterly... distinct.

*

In a classic, magisterial study, The Great Chain of Being, Arthur Lovejoy traced the history of the idea of cosmic-spiritual “plenitude”, from Plato and Aristotle through the medieval Scholastics down to the modern era. He analyzed the inner contradictions which arose in the attempt to define the nature of God : for, in order to be perfect, the Prime Mover – the infinitely powerful and good and self-sufficient, the ultimate desired subject/object of all created beings – this Being has to disperse herself, divest herself, expend herself in the full cosmic scale of finite creation. And so to know or understand or achieve God, the contemplative is drawn in two contrary directions : either the renunciation of this world, or the compassionate embrace of same. “The way up is the way down.” Different ages and personalities have emphasized one or the other (the Middle Ages the former, the Renaissance the latter).

The maker of long poems is caught in the matrix of these two impulses. There is a powerful urge to integrate the Many into One, to discover the inner rationale, the cataloging method, for the cosmic Encyclopedia. At the same time, there is the artist’s recognition that unless the artwork reflects the individuality, the quiddity of things, on every level of the “ladder” of nature, the artwork slips into pale abstraction – discourse and philosophy rather than landscape or portrait. This productive, contradictory matrix is what generates the poem’s (often exasperating) longevity.

*

Many religious and philosophical traditions reflect various forms of what in Christian doctrine is called kenosis : God’s self-humbling for the sake of saving the world : the King of the Universe “taking the form of a servant”. (Plato’s characterization of the god of Love as a homeless waif comes to mind.) If one considers the long poems since Wordsworth’s Prelude through the lens of this concept, one discovers an aspect contrary to their frequent evaluation as arrogant, prideful, sometimes infernal (viz. Pound's politics) exercises in egotism and megalomania. Perhaps all the long-poem efforts after Paradise Lost are marked, to some degree, with the sign of Milton’s Satan – efforts to supplant orthodox theology with a contrary, antinomian, heretical vision. On the other hand, if we can accept the notion that the basic poetic impulse participates, in some fashion and to some degree, with an overarching spiritual activity – ie., history as kenosis – then we might recognize the long-poets’ agonizing efforts as partial, imperfect reflections of that activity. Thus Pound’s obsession with economic justice, or William Carlos Williams’ efforts to advance “the local”, or Crane’s attempt at a lyrical Myth of America, or H.D.'s hellenic psychomachia, or Eliot’s enfoldment of earthly Time within cyclic Eternity (Four Quartets), or Olson’s scheme to absorb reality into microcosmic Maximus, or Zukofsky's plangent, all-absorbing interiority ("A"), or Jay Wright's West African Orphism (Dimensions of History, et al.), or (the most orthodox and explicit example) David Jones’s model of history as poised forever between Roman Empire and Catholic Mass... these 20th-century poems play out, enact, forms of literary kenosis. The poet suffers in giving birth to a cosmic totality – a totality which, as such, must reflect the complete scale (from highest to lowest, from heaven to hell, from fame and greatness to poverty and nonentity).

*

& I suppose it goes without saying that the poet's kenosis is representative of the creative turmoil of all writers & artists; & also stands, on a wider scale, for the ordinary mute behavior of everyone - all who express themselves in daily (serious and trivial) acts - gestures of hands, the semaphore of face and eyes.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

MY QUIETUDE

Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty: neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me.
Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child.

- from Psalm 131 (King James version)


In 1972, when I was 20 years old, I underwent a series of psychic shocks (which I have described elsewhere). My inner world and intellectual perspective changed dramatically. Since then, my life as a poet has been motivated by two sometimes contradictory impulses : first, the desire to continue writing poetry, and second, the drive to express and share this new perspective.

This experience can be described, roughly, as the shock of being seized by God. I have spent many decades since then attempting, in various ways, to synthesize this inner crisis with a reasonable and persuasive explanation for it. Part of this effort has meant trying to filter my sense of it through poetry.

But poetry does not persist in a vacuum or autonomous space : it reflects the cultural and intellectual concerns and knowledge of peoples in history. If one of the most basic elements of a culture’s worldview is a belief in the existence of God, then the characteristics of every other element of that view will be shaded by this primary belief. The history of Western modernity bears witness to a continual shifting and change in the dominant forms of philosophical metaphysics and theology - for the most part in the direction of secularization, rationalism, materialism, scientific positivism, individual subjectivity, psychology, and the de-centering of the spiritual. Consequently, the experience of being “seized by God” would be given, in most intellectual contexts, some kind of rationalist, materialist, or psychological interpretation.

Poets, however, are stubborn creatures, prone to invent their own explanations. Their antennae may, as often as not, lead them in directions contrary to the dominant trends. The Romantics moved away from the rational commonplaces of the Enlightenment era. The Moderns (some of them, anyway) sought to counter the technological impersonality of the Industrial Age. The Postmoderns challenged the political-ideological suprematism of the 20th century. Where does that leave a late-20th-century poet who believes he has been seized by God?

Many poets and scholars, most notably Northrop Frye, have recognized that a few strictly literary problems seem to re-appear in every culture and in every artistic era. The problem, for example, of extending poetry beyond the mode of the brief lyric : how much discursive or narrative freight can verse (successfully) carry? And how should this be done? When I was setting out, in the late 1970s, to revive my own writing, I was confronted, as mentioned above, by two sometimes contrary problems of my own. First, how to get going again? And second, how to express the momentous new experiences?

Isaiah Berlin once began a famous essay as follows : “There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: 'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing'.” Since Archilochus’s time (and before), the epic or long poem has provided poets a means to play both animals – to unite the Many and the One. Now for a poet who has felt himself seized by God, there is an overwhelming consciousness of the One : call it the Prime Mover, the divine Intellect, or the first Person of the Trinity, there is no getting around or away from some mysterious presence of Unity and the Absolute. For several years, in fact, this knowledge inhibited my ability to write poetry. It was only during the late 1970s, after reading the poetry of Osip Mandelshtam, and the memoirs of his wife Nadezhda, that I began to find my own way again. The Mandelshtams, together, somehow mediated a sense of things which was the right balance of the strange and the familiar. (It should be noted, I suppose, that Nadezhda’s memoir shapes an image of her husband which has overtones of both Judaism and Christianity. Nadezhda's Osip is simultaneously Jewish outcast, Russian-Christian holy fool, and sacrificial lamb.)

So I started writing again. My early poems of this second phase were dreamy, symboliste - a stew of American “deep images” and Mandelshtamian allusions. But I found myself severely limited in range. And I was beginning, in the late 70s, to become more socio-politically active. I became interested in the topical and documentary aspects of long poems – Pound’s Cantos, Williams’ Paterson. And then I also discovered a tremendous new poet, closer to home. Hart Crane had forged a dense style (akin to Mandelshtam’s), "freighted with ore" - and cast down his "Pindaric" gauntlet to the rangy, ragged long poem - in The Bridge.

These new interests took me a long time to assimilate. I didn’t begin attempting my own long poems until the late 1980s. And it was only until the late 1990s, after three or four separate long poems, that I began to write in this mode in ways that seemed really effective. This was in the long poem Stubborn Grew, which grew unexpectedly into a trilogy (The Grassblade Light, July), which, with a coda titled Blackstone’s Day-Book, I called, in toto, Forth of July.

What, in all this long effort, was I trying to do? Briefly, I was attempting to fulfill a vocation. For the person who acknowledges a metaphysical absolute – call it God – the order of literary modes and forms parallels, in some way, the order of nature. The motive of ancient epic – to narrate (in Pound’s term) “the tale of the tribe” – is to represent a culture as a whole, a vision of totality. The large poem embraces everything, so as to apprehend or represent its intellectual order. Behind the long poems of the second half of the 20th century – Paterson, “A”, Maximus Poems – stood Pound’s similar effort toward inclusive, encyclopedic relevance. And hidden far behind Pound (and the Romantic and Victorian poets) lay Milton’s Paradise Lost. And Milton was a kind of Dante-Virgil-Homer redivivus : the bard who re-shaped ancient and medieval cosmic poetry for a new age (or the cusp of a new age). (One could argue, however, that the best exemplar of this mode in the 20th century is not American, but Welsh-English : the poet-painter David Jones.)

I was aiming at something similar. I took Crane (along with Mandelshtam) as a model : someone somewhat aslant from the main 20th-century (Poundian) stream. Forth of July tries to combine a sense of American vastness, with local and personal particulars of the smallest state in the Union. If I were to paraphrase its argument in a nutshell, it would go something like this : metaphysical Love leads to rebirth and transformation; it is the hidden pivot of earthly and cosmic history. As for the modes, structures, style and stories I used to make this argument... I would rather leave all that for others to judge.

The public (non)reception of this big project was disappointing to me. My life turned another drastic corner when the poem was finished in 2000, and seven years have passed since then. I’m only now beginning to think that maybe I comprehend a little more clearly what might be the true (intellectual, metaphysical, spiritual) grounds of that “shock” I underwent 35 years ago. An American writer, apparently I inhabit a sort of limbo between the activist poetry subcultures, and the established, “professional” poetry world. I feel I’ve made a contribution to a particular vein in poetry in English, yet so far it has gone (mostly) unrecognized. There’s nothing I can do about that, finally – which is probably a good thing. So I’ve tried to move on.