Friday, September 19, 2008


... & so what do I mean exactly by "American Acmeism"? Here are some free-form disorganized top-of-the-head answers to that question.


What is/was Acmeism? The Acmeists were a small informal group of mostly St. Petersburg poets in pre-Revolutionary Russia, led by Nikolai Gumilev, and expounded/expanded-upon in a couple of interesting essays by Osip Mandelstam. There's a brief Wikipedia entry here. The Acmeists emphasized craft, clarity, neo-classicism, respect for history and cultural tradition, a suspicion of mysticism and vague other-worldliness (Symbolism), as well as of radical nihilism or a-historicism (as in some flavors of Futurism).

Mandelstam built a very baroque and imaginative superstructure on this simple platform, which involved both a "longing for world culture" and a kind of Bergsonian or Nietzschean enthusiasm for ana-chronism, the Eternal Return, a Renaissance-like sense of the infinite possibility of renewal through ancient texts and poets (Ovid, Villon, Dante...).

Mandelstam's this-world optimism, his gusto for reviving the Classic - a kind of millennialist desire for a new Golden Age - can be usefully compared to the "New America" enthusiasm of Waldo Frank, Sherwood Anderson, & in particular the Hart Crane of The Bridge : this was a neo-classicism with a folk-America, nationalist strain, a very deliberate counter to TS Eliot's Anglophile, reactionary & disillusioned stance. However, at least in Crane's case, it was also different from the radicalism of some of the more "futurist" moderns like Pound, Stein, WC Williams. Crane, as with Stevens, put less weight on the "experimental" surface of style.


Lots of things have changed since the heady days of the early 20th century; in fact the entire "climate of reception" of today, and literary culture as a whole, might be fairly unrecognizable to those antique Twenties scriptonauts.

But history in the larger view is still history; Reality with a capital R is still Reality, however mysterious; and some of the underlying philosophical and artistic ground remains similar to what it was in those days, if not exactly the same. And if history and Reality are relatively unchanged benchmarks, then it would, I think, be possible to reconstruct, reconfigure, and restore, in some ways, an Acmeist literary approach.

In other words, if I call myself an Acmeist, what do I wish this to mean? What would "my Acmeism" be?

An American Acmeism - my Acmeism - would be a name, for one thing, for a certain set of general beliefs about nature, culture, art, poetry, history, religion... a working philosophy, a pragmatics. We live in a polyvalent and polyvocal world, where poetry means different things to different people - and in many cases, poetry involves a reflection of very diverse and variant worldviews and ideologies.

For me, anyway, this notion of "worldview" is important, because I think poets participate in the broader activity of culture-making. Nothing happens in a vacuum; art is original because it is aware of its conditions and the context of its making - it is, actually, the process of reflecting, and reflecting on, those conditions.

Basically, the model of Russian Acmeism appeals to me, because in my reading of Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, and others who followed them (such as Joseph Brodsky), I find a harmony between basic cultural-historical attitudes, artistic allegiances, and the artworks themselves. In other words, the worldview and the poetry mutually support and guarantee one another; the "ideas" are manifested and "proven" in the works.

Scholars (& Russians!) might not find my reception of these writers to be sufficiently critical; but then, to be critical is their calling and business. For me, these writers serve as benchmarks, models and inspiration. Indeed, it is Mandelstam's "longing for world culture", and the poetic models he derives from that longing, which in turn provide a new lens for perceiving the weights and values of American poetry - the affinities and differences which impinge on the understanding of our own (American) cultural history and poetic developments (for example, the affinities and differences between the "classicism" of Frost and Crane and H.D., and the visions and allegiances of Akhmatova and Mandelstam).


In thinking about the appeal which M's "longing" has for me, I am brought unavoidably to certain philosophical or religious underpinnings of my own - my own "worldview". But I hesitate to dilute or debase the concepts themselves, by way of a glib summary, a reduction to tags and slogans.

So in sketching this out, I want to say that I seem to hold two contrary attitudes in suspension. Let's say that Eliot and [Crane/Stevens/Joyce] stand as figures for the two ends of this spectrum.

On the "Eliot" end, I believe in a supreme order or logos in-forming Time, Nature and History : what Mandelstam referred to, obliquely, as "the Christian calendar". History itself is a story : incarnational, actual, irrevocable, ineluctable. As such, the vocation of Israel, and the Christian Incarnation and Redemption - no matter how confused and in the dark we may be about their "final" meaning(s) - are the pivotal points of reference for human knowledge and experience.

This is a cultural order, which immediately contextualizes the meaning of more local or national historical events and artistic developments. Culture as such fuses and transmutes the ordinary and "natural" growth of poetic making and artistic activity. This is one way of representing M's "longing for world culture", his (very Petersburgian) desire to unite Russian destiny with European and world culture as a whole. Eliot, in this sense, represents a somewhat similar impulse in relation to the culture of the United States, though their personalities and underlying vision of things could hardly be more different.

Then, on the (so-to-speak) "Crane/Stevens/Joyce" end of my view of things, stands the role of the poet as original maker, as Orphic-Romantic visionary. Here the poet (and reader) is a free and independent interpreter of the given : that is of the historical given, of the script of history. Nothing means anything without interpretation : I take very seriously the Gospel statement that "the Truth shall make you free". There is a playful spiritual optimism lurking in these three writers, a whiff of absolute freedom - something that was snuffed out in Eliot and Pound, as a consequence (or a symptom) of their authoritarianism and reactionary world-weariness (post-WW I). This optimism is also in Mandelstam and Akhmatova (despite her grief-filled, elegiac sensibility) : a spirit of confidence and endurance. There is no poetry at all without this point of absolute, self-sufficient, spiritual originality : only for me this is complicated by an underlying "Trinitarian" understanding of the human person (that is, we are, in the most basic sense, the children of God : the living images of God : and we depend on the "Spirit of the Creator" in the very substance of our being). So it's a "relational" notion - not a Renaissance-ubermensch-Romantic idea - of creative originality. This is why, in my mind at least, I situate myself spiritually between Eliot and Crane/Stevens/Joyce.


So what would American Acmeism be about, besides representing a sort of boilerplate for my own poetry? It would be about re-reading and re-valuing the American poetic inheritance in the light of its affinities with the Russian Acmeists and their own allegiances (to world culture, to Hellenism, to historical memory). It would read Stevens' celebrations of this-world and of poetry itself ("the poetry of life"; "poetry is the sanction of life"; etc.) in the light of Acmeist culture-making. It would hear Mandelstam in Frost's line about "one could do worse than be a good Greek"; it would read M's "domestic Hellenism" in Crane's renovation of Pindar. It would see the devotion to craft and the spiritual optimism of the Acmeist ethos in some of the early American modernists. And these readings, in turn, would provide a new ground for understanding where we are in American poetry now. It would go to the neo-Aristotelianism of the Chicago Critics, and find affinities with Gumilev's concept of the poem as a dramatic-cultural act (as opposed to simply a "verbal construct", in the too-familiar terms of the Russ. Formalists and the New Critics and the Language Poets and the post-structuralists etc.). In Aristotelian fashion, it would re-think "form" as something far deeper and more elusive than the surface elements of meter, rhyme or stanzaic design : something much more closely interfused with both "meaning" and "plot".

The consequences of these basic orientations call for much more, and more imaginative, exploration : here I'm just re-formulating and restating ideas the readers of this blog have encountered before. But as they well know, I never tire of re-affirming my allegiance to those famous Petersburgians.