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.