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.

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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.

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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).

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& 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.