Saturday, September 19, 2009

HUMAN MANIFESTO

I. Poetry & Worldview

I sent a letter to Poetry magazine, in response to Robert Archambeau's essay on manifestos.

Poetry & Worldview. There's a tension in the idea of poets' manifesting a worldview - since art & poetry are, basically, a constructive escape from abstraction. And a manifesto is a strategic reduction or formula ("My poetry is....")

On the other hand, certain very creative periods (say, 12th century France, or Renaissance Italy, or Eliz. England) seem to have so much energy that philosophy & poetry, abstractions & particulars, find their way into productive chemical (alchemical?) bondings...

As regards poetry, I'm a maximalist. I'm drawn to the deep thinking of Wallace Stevens & Mandelstam, on the spirit of poetry & the poet's vocation. The "theory of poetry" is about the relationship between poetry and the world, between poetry and worldview. It assumes that underneath all the differences, somehow, poetry is "one thing" : and that mysterious something is distinct from other modes of human thought, action and art.

So what marks it out, distinguishes it? To put it baldly : in poetry, language is most alive. If you think of the power, the effect of words & conversation & storytelling upon the mind & senses of a young child - & the child's desire to respond with a substantial message or articulation of his or her own - you are getting closer to the motives & effects of poetry. The Word in this sense is simultaneously Order (the world making sense), Meaning (communicating that sense), & Pleasure (having fun with that newfound power). Mandelstam's theme of "domestic hellenism" - poetry's capacity to domesticate & civilize the world, to help us be at home in reality - gets at this also.

If I were to write yet another(!) manifesto this afternoon, I would push for something like an integral poetry. This would be a bent toward understanding the poem & the work of art as an utterance which synthesizes, rather than alienates, its own background. By this I mean something like Mandelstam's voting for Potebnia over Saussure & the Russian Formalists, in terms of the linguistics source of poetics - Potebnia's notion of the underlying image-basis of language, the ur-image. Language in this sense is not an autonomous shuttling of symbolic differences, disconnected from their origins in primitive pointing & representation.

The poem is an enacted recapitulation or summation of experience, as well as a free & self-contained art-work. It must balance these two, if it wants to be fully integral - that is spilling over with both meaning and (emotional, perceptual) sense. It must both breathe and be complete (exhibit finish, shape, fulfillment - the forms of beauty).

Poetry is the human race throwing itself bodily into vocal, dancing evocation. It is the embodiment of language by (the human) spirit. This is how - by being "maximal" - poetry becomes what Wallace Stevens calls "the sanction" of life. The epic impulse - the Bible, Virgil, Homer - is the impulse to an integral fulfillment - in language - of a time & a culture as an entity, as a whole. Northrop Frye writes about this.

Emily Dickinson : "my circuit is circumference".

II. Mindful Consequences

"The letter killeth; the spirit giveth life." If poetry is the human spirit entering, reviving & giving life to the twilight realm of dead letters - & this, of course, is a big & debatable if - what are the consequences? What implications can we draw for both worldview & poetics?

In the current intellectual climate I suppose my terms & formulae will not find much traction. No, they will be ignored, if not rejected out of hand. Because by using such terms as "spirit", I'm implying an idealist worldview - something of a throwback, akin to the Romantics, & to much earlier thought. One of my heroes indeed is Bishop George Berkeley, a one-time Rhode Island (Newport) dweller (who turns up in the long poem Stubborn Grew) - an idealist if there ever was one, the idealist's idealist, an object of practical Samuel Johnson's mockery.

How can I characterize or summarize my perspective? Our experience of reality and the universe is grounded in consciousness. The human mind is a manifestation (a Human Manifesto) of some more universal & substantial form of Mind. This substantial consciousness is the underlying ground (the sanction, if you will) for world civilization (in Mandelshtamian terms, the global well-being of "domestic hellenism").

So again, what are some of the consequences for poetry? I can only speak for the small sliver of my own point-of-view & my own enthusiasms; there are as many such perspectives as there are poets. & my perspective, to put it awkwardly, is something like incarnational. I wish I knew the technical theological term for my sense of this : it has to do with the logical "architecture" of the manifestation of human thought & language in time, culture & history. One term close to what I'm thinking of might be recapitulation.

Mandelshtam, quoting some 19th century thinker whose name escapes me (Darwin? Lamarck?), writes somewhere : "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." In other words (I think) the individual of a species recapitulates, in its features & characteristics, all the prior stages of evolutionary growth. It carries the signs of its own species-history like scars (or tattoos).

One philosophical implication or analogy I draw from this is, that the individual can be viewed in a "teleological" way : that is, speaking of human beings, the Person is viewed as bearing the signs of an end, a fulfillment, of all prior time & development. Each person an encyclopedia, a microcosm of the species (Whitman harps on this idea in every line of "Song of Myself").

One literary-theological implication or analogy I draw from this notion (of recapitulation) is as follows : each Person is the telos or end or fulfillment of the language expressed in relation to him or her. The Person supercedes or fulfills or embodies or surpasses all the text, scripture, language within which he or she is enmeshed. In this sense, the Christian concept of the "fulfillment of Scripture" is a kind of symbolic norm, referring to an actuality which applies to all persons. One does not have to be a doctrinal believer in order to at least entertain, philosophically, the idea that Jesus' & the Church's playing with the notion of completing, fulfilling Scripture, in Christ's own body & person, is a symbolic representation or acting-out (in a kind of Northop-Frye sense) of a cultural reality which is universal (keeping in mind that the historical record of such theological "play" has included some violent & absolutely tragic results).

I realize I'm getting into some deep & controversial waters - a seeming roadblock to my readers, to anyone who is trying to follow how this gnarled idea relates to poetry itself. Let's go back to the primary assertions here :
1) Poetry is language brought to life by a kind of joyful, expressive energy - of assimilation, representation, & recapitulation of experience.
2) The human spirit proceeds from consciousness, mind - which is the ground of any reality we know.
3) The person, as a kind of epitome or manifestation of this Mind, can be understood in teleological terms as End and Microcosm.

To these basic ideas, let us add the reminder that human language is partial, imperfect, often mistaken : so that that personal "epitome" - the Person from whom, to whom, and around whom language proceeds & gathers - appears in a kind of shroud or disguise of error. Eliot (for one) repeatedly refers to this dimension, with his references to the poet's "faulty equipment, always breaking down" (Four Quartets - if I'm quoting correctly!).

As the Person is the epitome of the species, and Mankind a kind of microcosm of the universal elements, so Poetry aims to epitomize experience in the mirror of language. This is what Frye describes as literature's "epic" drive toward totality, the aim to include everything (see Whitman, Dante, Homer, the Book of Genesis...). Poetry is the telos or summa of language in general; it is speech brought to measure, harmony (& there is no harmony without wholeness, completion).

So, an "integral poetry" would manifest as such on both a micro and macro level : that is, on the micro level, its language would be integrated, synthesized, with prior experience, rather than closed off from it; while on a macro level, its language would aspire to, or at least reflect the presence of, that epic totality which mirrors the substantial wholeness of the original, universal grounding in consciousness itself.

Some of these ideas are glanced at in this stanza of a poem called "Letter to Emily D." (publ. in Dove Street) :

For Scripture precedes history - your insight
precedes Scripture - April's alpha and omega
purl playfully from your soul-saga.
Who finds you meets a palm-tree full of light.


III. Song of Songs

I focused in previous sections on some philosophical or religious background/worldview for my own concepts of what the poet is about. Spirit, mind, idealism, totality... & yet I think I've neglected a vital part of poetry's distinctive range : that is, not so much mind (in the somewhat Platonic sense I've been sketching), as heart, & soul.

Maybe it's the time of year. These beautiful last days of summer & incipient fall somehow help to bring that autumnal phantom, "soul", into view.

If it's permissible to generalize... I don't think our culture is very capable these days of distinguishing between the physical and the psychic, desire and feeling, body and soul. We live in a cultural marketplace of the body - its functions, desires, natural cycles, & illusions - in the midst of which the feelings & intuitions of the soul grow more elusive & estranged.

In the prior sections I talked about how an "integral poetry" would recapitulate experience & suffuse it with meaning, feeling. This is the goal of its voracious inner energy. By this I would not want to exclude experience in any of its ranges or registers; but I also think poetry's deepest impulses have to do with the life, the searchings, the intuitions of the soul. Our tumultuous, painful, exalted, terrible, tragic, comic, sublime, & ridiculous dramas of love, in all its forms, are the substance of that life which poetry aims to recapitulate, represent & celebrate. Thus the "Song of Songs" takes this name because it represents an epitome of song, song reaching toward its fundamental purpose or telos. The rabbinical & monastic hermeneutics which came after - all the interpretations of this sensuous love-song, as a spiritual allegory of the soul's loving search for God - are also paradigmatic, with regard to poetry's expressive purposes.

I'm not trying to canonize the Song of Songs (certainly it doesn't need me for that!) - only aiming to suggest how it represents a central aspect of poetry per se : the search for wholeness, integration - the attunement, the harmony of male & female, parent & child, sibling & sibling, neighbor & stranger - of love with life, soul with body, soul with God.

It can be argued that I'm singling out only one aspect of poetry. True, but there's no help for it : this "manifesto" is an effort to describe my own experience. & what I'm suggesting is that the impulse to write poetry cannot be separated from the impulse to love. Song, as such, is an effusion, an emanation from a state of harmony, or an intuition about possible harmony. It is a back-&-forth, reciprocal drama, which happens as a kind of conversation or encounter, within the creative imagination of the poet.

The affective pathos in individual poems, those qualities which move us, emotionally, are like mini-dramas, off-shoots from the central energy of this creative "love-impulse". The poet, echoing & re-echoing an inward "song of songs", is actually wooing some sweet dimension of life, earth & reality. The song of the poet is analogous in this sense to the "bride" or "bridegroom" (as symbolized in the Book of Revelation).

I think it can be said that the two great (unmatched, unmatching) towers of Western poetry, Shakespeare & Dante, share one central concern : to delineate the nature of love, to measure its whole scale of motives & effects - from blind self-regard to the patient kindness of other-centered agape (rooted fundamentally in the joy & gratitude of life).

These are "soul" matters : not so conducive to scientific analysis or determinate calculation. But that's why poetry happens, anyway : because "there are more things in heaven and earth than are met with in your philosophy, Horatio."

LOVE is anterior to life,
Posterior to death,
Initial of creation, and
The exponent of breath.

- E. Dickinson

I want to mention one further consequence of the state of affairs I am trying to evoke here. It seems to me that, if the life of poetry consists in a kind of soul-courtship, or in Mandelstam's terms, a "playful hide-&-seek with the Father", then maybe we have to try to set aside some of the more pedantic, deterministic, superficial, in-house, or otherwise quantified & utilitarian critical approaches to literary reception. Just as the poet's creative labor is subject to the mysterious impulse of the "muse" of soul-searching love - so the reader's reception of the fruits of that labor will echo these deeper dimensions or concerns. & these things are difficult to judge & quantify. The relationship between a poet and his/her culture is analogous to the unpredictable and dramatic dance of courtship. For every culture, this can result in a very long "crane dance" - over centuries, even - at the gate of a very complex labyrinth.

IV. Microcosmic Recapitulation

From various villas of the poetry blogoshphere (not a typo) - from John Latta's periodic jeremiads against deracinated poetic sophistry, to Stephen Burt's New Thing essay, to Kent Johnson's article on an incipient Chicago School - from these directions & others, we are presently witnessing poets taking note of a new bent toward objectivity & real things, of poetic perception as well as expression. So how might a Berkeleyan Idealist-Maximalist-Christian-Platonic Recapitulationist-Poet, a partisan of "integral poetry", with a lot of conceptual baggage (obviously), connect (if at all) with this new trend?

American poetry since the beginning has exhibited strong "Adamic" tendencies - ie. the drive (very Emersonian) toward origination. To call it the "reinvent the wheel" syndrome would be cynical; the idea is that poetic perception returns the poet & reader to a sort of dawn-time, a spiritual & intellectual inner freedom where all things are made new. This is visible across the spectrum, from Whitman to Dickinson, from Frost to Olson - extending, in Olson's case, to a kind of megalomaniac liminal region, psychologically both risky & exciting (Kenneth Warren has been exploring this aspect of Olson in an extended, complex series of essays, in his journal House Organ). Jungian, inward, soulful.

Here, actually, we might find an area of overlap between what I'm calling "integral poetry" and these current trends. That ideal "maximalist-recapitulationist" poet, whom I've been attempting to delineate in previous sections of this essay (let's call him Henry, for short) once upon a time took very much to heart the epic & totalizing ambitions of Pound & Olson. He admired Pound's vivid, witty, shorthand notation of historical events, the way he strove to blend them into vast frescos of civilizational flowering & decay; he took to Olson's injunction (offered to Ed Dorn once upon a time) to steep oneself in the cultural history of one region, one locality - become an expert; he saw this carried out beforehand in an interesting, sometimes-graceful way in WC Williams' Paterson. The challenge posed by these masterful poets was Janus-faced : a call both to emulate & to differentiate - since he found a great deal to disagree with in their underlying worldviews...

We have tried to characterize an integral poetry as rooted in experience, not deracinated : that is, a recapitulation, a synthesis of both lived (historical, biographical) and literary past. Here is the point I'm trying to make : the only way to achieve this level of integration is by drawing on the epic dimension, the epic mode. The poet is "maximalist" because totality, wholeness, universality are active, essential elements in the poetic construction.

The "things", the "minute particulars", which surface in the kind of poetry I'm talking about, are not simply particulars of the world in general : they are distinct things within the microcosmos created by the poem. The integral poet evokes and summons up holistic imaginative worlds, within which particulars are surfacing all the time, on many narrative levels - exhibiting a multitude of facets, harking back to the Biblical/Dantean/Joycean richness of fourfold meaning : literal, allegorical, moral, anagogical...

& I should mention that one examplar of this approach happens to be the maximalist-recapitulationist poet, "Henry" - who has been spinning layered worlds for some time now out of the history & psycho-cyclobiography of the little state of Rhode Island, in various modalities of short & lengthy works...

V. Afterthoughts

I've probably overshot the mark, & want to hedge my remarks a little. My insistence on the epic impulse, on totality, might be taken for sheer grandiosity, magnitude for its own sake. Or for a mandarin complacency, weighed down with pedantry rather than experience : out of touch, out of air. To burden all poets & modalities of poetry with the elaborations of epic would be unrealistic, to say the least; in fact, it would represent an all-too-familiar form of eccentricity. One remembers, inevitably, Stevens' (very 20th-cent.) lines from "Poems of Our Climate" :

Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.


No : all I want to suggest is that the "integral", integrated vision - the epic impulse, the whole story - lies at the roots of poetry considered as a whole itself, as "one thing". It's there, as a dimension which can't be left out (ie. poetry is not reducible to Sergeant Satire & Private Lyric). A sort of underground spring, a possibility, an impulse, an aspiration - a potential source of nourishment.

The human search for wholeness, love, & freedom is not reducible to either American-style Adamism or European-style existential deracination. The search for truth also involves memory - historical, literary, poetic - & the recognition of continuities, returnings, recapitulations - strange/familiar echoes - deja-vu...

Friday, June 19, 2009

ON FORM & INFINITY IN POETRY

Have been reading some beautiful things by 20th-cent. physicist Erwin Schrodinger (Nature and the Greeks). What a witty, wonderful writer he is! Philosopher-scientist. Interesting how the crisis of the 2 world wars & the Nuclear Age sent so many different kinds of thinkers & personalities back to origins of civilization (Schrodinger, TS Eliot, Chas. Olson, to name just a few...).

Anyway, reading his description of the encounter of earliest Greek science (Pythagoras, Thales, others) with the riddles of mathematics... it occurred to me that this all might have some pertinence in relation to poetry wars...

The thrust of the "new" (contemporary) formalists - & beyond formalism, the thrust of Poetry-as-Craft in general - is grounded in a concept of elegance : elegance, rooted in "number" in the poetic-mathematical sense. The poem is a sleek sort of toy - a verbal isometry between the concept & its expression (wit) - in which the evidence of mastery takes the form of elegant numbers...

Well, the problem I'm having with all this at the moment is that the idea of number... allied with the notion of craft & finish... & connected thus with the idea of elegance, mastery &, basically, success... (or authority)... well, all this runs head on into an aspect of Nature (that Nature with which Art is supposed to be elegantly married) which we might call either the Continuum... or Infinity... or Irrational Numbers...

an aspect of number which was a conundrum & embarrassment for the Greeks, & a mystifying puzzle for Cantor & other great mathematicians...

In my book, poetry is connected very substantially with the diagonal to the square of value "1" (ie. sq root of 2) - an irrational number... - & infinity - which scares & has frightened so many sophisticated poets, craftspeople, thinkers, calculators & operators - since it seems to open up again what they thought they had so elegantly counted out, measured, numbered, & closed off -

& why so? because infinity & the irrational are connected with the much-maligned "I" - that mysterious Subject - Shakespeare behind the arras - God - Keats' (negatively-capable) negrido - the Soul... & the great inimitable poets of all times are searching (elegantly, sublimely) beyond elegance... toward the (irrational square) root, the supra-elegance of... the ultimate Workshop (of the supernatural Author's... spiral jetty, or... Book of J...)... ie. the steep, the vertiginous, the vanishing point, that dimensionless point in Dante (& Joyce) wherefrom all the elegant magnitudes of creation proceed...

&, paradoxically, the oh-so-fumbly-stumbling quality of their (metaphysical, experiential) searching is precisely that dimension which allows the personal, the characteristic, the improvisational, to shine forth (very American) in their poetry... & make it inimitable & great... what they used to call Sublimity...

You must become an ignorant man again
And see the sun again with an ignorant eye
And see it clearly in the idea of it
...

Thursday, March 05, 2009

JOURNEY TO HOBOKEN

This essay was first published in Witz, issue #4.3 (Fall 1996)


Hoboken, New Jersey is what is known in biology as a salience, a
kind of protuberance or growth with characteristics of an entity;
an appendage of Manhattan, crossing state lines. Layers of
sedimentation (technical college, gentrified commuter haven,
industrial ghetto echoing back through the decades) produce an
impacted image of America--especially for certain Russian poets,
planed over here briefly from their own continent, at the end of
May 1996, to attend a conference. A kind of empyrical model,
though not as dazzling as that Potemkin village panorama one
beholds from the campus ridge, there, across the Hudson.

* * *

Temporary bivouac in Penn Station. Heavy book-filled bags. The
directions say: "Take the PATH train to Hoboken." Shouldn't it
read, "train PATH"? Has a conspiracy of Russian syntax invaded
New York?

* * *

Huffing with my bags up college hill to Stevens Institute of
Technology. Suddenly hailed from behind by a Russian accent, a
piercing timbre. It's Irina, the blonde and druzkeskii
journalist from Astrakhan, on the Caspian Sea--recent transplant
to Hoboken. She wants to know where is Peirce Hall (pronounced,
in English, like "purse"--Charles S. Peirce, inventor of
semiotics, one and only black-sheep American philosopher, taught
here briefly before his academic casting-out. . .). Irina wrote
a dissertation in Astrakhan, on Anna Akhmatova. Her mother and
father are philologists. We xerox the conference schedule--she
serves me tea and grapes, a Crimean meal. This confab is off to
a good start. . .

* * *

What's it all about? Well, frankly, it's a conspiracy, hatched
by a cabal made up of Ed Foster, poet, editor of Talisman,
publisher of Talisman House books, and Vadim Mesyats, Russian
poet and musician currently on the humanities faculty with Foster
at Stevens. This second Festival of Russian and American Poetry
and Poets is just one cog in an ongoing multivalent cultural
hob-nob cooked up by these two, and their friends there in
Hoboken, which includes readings, lectures, films, and a number
of translation activities, including bilingual anthologies of
Russian and American poets, and a series of contemporary Russian
poetry in English translation (the first volume, by Ivan Zhdanov,
is at the presses).

The schedule of events reads like a roster of the American poetry
loft (I lean left. I mean lift), with some Russian, Chinese, and
Turkish poets thrown in for good measure. Three full days of
three-ring readings, scholarly paper-deliveries, films (on
Brodsky, Akhmatova, and a number of less well-known-in-America
Russians), two massive evening poetry songfests, a staged reading
of a parlor-piece masque by Robert Duncan (complete with stylish
Akhmatovian feathered headpieces), roundtables on translation,
the state of Russian and American poetry, little magazines,
Chernobyl and Gertrude Stein (in the same roundtable). . . and
more, and more. Here's the catalogue of ships: the Americans
include John Yau, David Shapiro, Leslie Scalapino, Eileen Myles,
Bruce Andrews, Jackson Mac Low, Juliana Spahr, Barret Watten, Ron
Silliman, Kristin Prevallet, Leonard Schwartz, David Rosenberg,
and many others I should name; the Russians include some of the
most interesting and important contemporary poets, including Lev
Rubinshtein, Elena Shvarts, Arkadii Dragomoschenko, Ilya Kutik,
Maria Maksimova, Vadim Mesyats, and Ivan Zhdanov. It's an
intense gathering--and it costs, yes, thirty-five dollars. It's a
conspiracy! Imagine all those people in one place for three
days, talking, reciting, discussing, laughing, vodkayaking,
vodkayaking etc. . .

Now I'll tell you what it all means.

* * *

At the "tail end of the 17th century", the "vast Russian
Empire"--"ancient, Orthodox", "xenophobic, hidebound"--had but one
seaport: the "little town of Archangel", on the Arctic Ocean.
Then "Peter the Great" built "St. Petersburg", modeled by himself
and "his French architect" on "Amsterdam and Venice".

Meanwhile, "America" was "colonized"; Salem had its "witch
trials", and "Anne Bradstreet". The "first American sea-going
vessel" was built in "Portland, Maine"--while Peter ("deeply,
steadfastly in love with ships and the sea") was doing the same
(while torturing and executing the "mutinous Streltsy"--an
"endless" bloodbath).

* * *

Saturday night. The endless reading in the dingy
chemistry hall, seats slanting up like some very provincial
Coliseum over the blackboards. While the Americans read, the
Russians go out into the spring night to smoke (not wanting to
offend). They are our guests--we translate their readings (as
best we can); it doesn't work the other way, unless some upstart
(like Eileen Myles) jumps out of her poems to address them
directly. But then, it doesn't have to work the other way! The
Russians, unlike us, understand us already! (They speak
English.)

Along the Coliseum aisles, Leslie Scalapino encounters Elena
Shvarts. Two shy poets, circling each other hesitantly, wary as
a pair of songbirds in the jungle of tongues.

* * *

Ivan Zhdanov. Tom Epstein, one of the few Americans here who
actually knows something about Russian poetry, calls him "one of
their best, a force of nature." He looks like a thoughtful
lumberjack, sparse jet black hair slicked down, glasses, rangy
strength. In fact, his translator, John High, looks like a
lumberjack too. Maybe they met in Alaska.

Zhdanov, like the other Russians, doesn't read. He recites.
Recites from memory. They know their poems by heart. The
Russian language has some similarities to English--it beats,
iambic, trochaic, unlike French--but the differences are also
great. English smoothness accents the rough chewing of
consonants, like a chard clarinet; whereas Russian is more like a
caged animal, a bear, trying to tame itself. Everything would be
full-throated--if the vodka-inflamed, heart-swelled throat would
only permit such a thing. . . if only a bear could sing. (But
you know this is stereotype. Russian is actually a lot like
Latin or Hindu--an oratorical, ceremonious organ-voice, given to
verbal and nonverbal festa, hilaritas.)

* * *

Jackson Mac Low and Bruce Andrews. Like father and son, a pair
of riders. "Language Poetry." Finally, I'm starting to
understand something, because I'm hearing it, out loud. These
are the angels, pouring out their vials of wrath and glee and
remorse at the apocalypse of syntax. Glee and wrath and remorse
are all that remain when the bridges to Disney World are burned,
and the enlightened conscience. . . flips: the craziness of pure
American products. But under the tongue the individuality of the
verbum replaces the commodious self, and syllables wrap around
alpha and omega of each blip with a kind of loving farewell.

* * *

It's Sunday morning, lovely. I decide to take a walk, clear my
head of the vodka and mistakes of the previous 3 am. Down
through the seemly garden-walks below campus, Hoboken. Across the
street, a shy small Russian, head down, glancing furtively from
one eye, bangs over her forehead, eating her constant cigarette
(the Russian's best friend). She's taking a walk, too. It is
Elena Shvarts.

We walk together. Finally I get a chance to talk to her (today
is the last day). She understands, speaks English.

Yesterday, during a roundtable discussion focusing on her work
(she is the most prominent contemporary poet in Russia), Shvarts
launches into a long provocative harangue (in
Russian--translated), the gist of which is, that the poetry of the
West, and especially the United States, lacks the essential
rhythmic quality of poetry--Dionysian fire, she calls it. The
Americans (including Leslie Scalapino, who's borrowed my book of
her translated poems) stir uncomfortably, shake their heads. She
reads some more poems. The moderator of this particular
roundtable never appeared. Tom Epstein does his best (and it is
very good) to fill in, giving us a brief, incisive overview of
Shvarts's labors. The roundtable breaks up--time to move on. . .

She says to me (roughly translated): Americans use the poem to
find out what they're going to say, and they take a long time
getting to it. The Russians wait until the whole poem is there,
and then they commit it to memory.

It is the difference between comedy and tragedy; opportunity and
fate.

* * *

Eileen Myles is the most Russian American poet here. Also the
most American. She speaks from herself. In spite of her
politics. Or, that is, you can't see where they divide her up.
It's all one.

What's it all about? Personism (Pessoa?)? Personalism (O'Hara?)?
Peronism (no. . .)? Eileen Myles is the only American to shout
up from the podium--hey, you Russians, where you going? (or
something to that effect) as you leave the room. . .

* * *

Let's try to be incisive too, as you leave the room. Here are two
big empire-countries, once the rivals of the earth, now like two
paired lungs or windbags (Clinton & Yeltsin) breathing heavily
out of sync almost. On either side of. . . the "old" West. The
very old West, almost as old as the East.

At a certain salience sometimes, upside Manhattan, antennae try
to touch.

* * *

Craft and personality (passion) have always been rivals,
variables. Now toss in another variable--history. Enlightened
America protects the Individual proper (properly tied), to the
"detriment" of State and Religion. Russia experiences the
reverse. In America, the Individual, so glorified, becomes
commodified; in Russia, the Individual, so abased, becomes a cog.
The old East/West yeast. . .

Modernism, experiment, avant-garde. . . these in the West mean
subsuming the Individual to Craft, for the sake of utopia.
Postmodernism, in the West, is only blurredly differentiated from
the above, a reaction. Modernism, avant-garde, etc., in Russia
mean the same thing: subsuming the Individual. Now refer back to
paragraph #1 (history). So postmodernism means. . . something
very different, in Russia. It strongly opposes modernism and the
avant-garde from beforehand. It means the tradition of the
human, the primordial, the transcendent--a utopia beyond
"utopia"--and beyond the reach of power, force, and will. Only
miracle and grace achieve utopia. This is the Russian
perspective.

Everything is reducible to Futurism vs. Acmeism. Miracle and
grace have aesthetic implications.

* * *

Still--who or what is this mysterious Person, this Personality,
this Personalism? Are we to fall back into the blasted
ego-poetries of the seventies, into the nightmare of pale baby
Shakespeares, the filigree of greed and self-promotion? (Have we
even awakened yet?)

Once, in the nineteenth century, there was a Russian thinker
named Chaadev, a bold explorer, akin perhaps to Emerson. He
journeyed into the West, but then returned, called back to his
homeland by a sense of duty; bringing with him, like an unwelcome
prophet, a Western lesson--the gospel of moral freedom.

What is this moral freedom? A word, a phrase-capsule, for a
concept of the basic dignity of the human spirit--resting on the
human being's capacity to dedicate herself or himself--out of love
and piety (in its full uncanniness) and daring--to something
better, something beyond self, some One, some Other, some others.
The vanishing point where "moral" and "freedom" fuse.

Part of the artistic and identity crisis of the West has been the
fracture of the Person: the demand, the pull from both Right and
Left on behalf of either autarkic or subliminal--either nostalgic
or futuristic--concepts of justice and the good. Like mirror
images, Right and Left command our allegiance with the full force
of both rhetoric and experience.

Yet perhaps--perhaps by some strange grace, it is Russia--that
great animal, that evil empire, beyond the pale of enlightened
democracies and the full birthright of humanism--impoverished
Russia, suffering Russia, Potemkin Russia--that will return the
gift of Chaadev's moral freedom to the West. Mandelstam wrote
that in such times as these (speaking of his pyramidal, "Assyrian
age"), Man must become the hardest thing in existence, harder
than diamond. The free, loving gift-of-self is the essence of
art and the limit of artistry: but it is another step to
recognize it everywhere as an ontological fundament of reality.
Mandelstam again (trans. Robert Tracy):

It's not Rome the city that lives through the centuries
But man's place in the universal scheme.

This is the voice one hears in the strange, ceremonious finality
of Russian recitation; it is an echo, the curve of a shell, the
arch of a wave, a ghost dance, washing up in Hoboken.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

CREDO

The world has always been full of random verbal noise. However, starting about a century ago, the volume seems to have steadily increased.

A poem, on the other hand, is surrounded by a kind of silence, like a town just after a very heavy snowfall. This is because a poem is a kind of distillation - the precipitation or extraction of an essence (from within the noise).

The judges & critics of poetry should be on the lookout for these distillations. They are the actual poetic record or canon (recognized or not) of their times.

I think a poem is an act of balance, equilibrium - a conjunction of opposites. Both. Unique and common; original and final; personal and universal; individual and representative. It is both sui generis and an example of a class, a period. It is new and old. It is experimental and traditional.

We laugh and deprecate anthologies, canons. But they are part of the critical and self-critical labors of the culture from which they emerge. The point is to form your own true canon out of all these efforts - and in spite of them.

A poem, as an act of equilibrium, is also a display of a positive kind of disinterestedness. In this sense, a poem should show, not tell; imagine, not lecture. If it is going to lecture - and some poems must - it should provide authentic poetic evidence (in terms of both style and exempla) for its arguments. A poem should reveal something - and let the readers exert themselves (to draw their own conclusions).

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

AIEE! (AMERICAN INTERNAL EMIGRE-EMIGRE) POETRY : an extended Goof

Too tired from late night not to blather. Pouring white stuff outside. So here goes...

What, you might ask, can be AIEE! Poetry? Well, it's a homemade branding moniker for my poetry, obviously...

Do I need such a thing? No, probably not. Is it upstanding & ethical or even intelligent to muck & mudgeon about with such things? No, I suppose not. I've been slumming for 15 years now (since the dawn, for me, of internet poetry conversation - Buffalo Poetics List) - verbally wrassling with my sub-subcultural compeers over Important Topics in Poetry & Related Topics... while the fine upstanding & successful poets shuffled along their diurnal rounds - publishing in magazines, books, winning awards, "placing" themselves in colleges, & such like... I could have started doing that myself Forty Years Ago if I'd had any sense... instead I became successively Jesus Freak, Music Bum, Hobo, Food Coop Manager, VISTA Volunteer, Junior Politico, Mandelstam Disciple, Family Man, Divorced Family Man... you name it, I've been there. Ranch Hand. Professional Resume Writer. Wholesale Produce Delivery Person. What the heck. (mostly, Sub-Sub-Librarian.)

So, getting back to the Subject... what is AIEE! Poetry, then?

AIEE! Poetry is the poetry of an "internal emigre". This was the Soviet Writers' Union label for a social-professional outcast - basically, a criminalized person under Stalinism - those who survived to milder times to become "dissidents" later - personae non grata, those who (to use the Greek word, lanthanein) (successfully or not) "escape notice"...

& how does one become an AIEE Poet?

There are many paths (& many internalized motives) to this exalted status. I choose to focus only on that aspect of this dilemma which most directly challenges the cultural structure which arranges my placement there (ie. I'm ignoring perhaps even more important, inner, moral or psychological motives). The aspect I'm referring to is the strictly literary or artistic orientation of said emigre.

There are two primary paths in American poetry today which the AIEE! Poet has chosen not to take:

1) The Path of the Professional Poet (PPP). The Professional Poet is the poet who is capable of correlating his or her craft - which may be of a very high calibre - with the established social rewards currently offered (teaching jobs, tours, books, awards & so on). The PP is an upstanding adult member of the World As We Know It - the Institutions & Organs of same. Poetry here is Part of Our World. & a very good Part of Our World it is.

2) The Path of the Oppositional Poet (POP). The Oppositional Poet is the poet who is capable of assimilating his or her craft to an ideology of Revolt of one sort or another. (The really deft OPs combine a Revolting Worldview with the constellation of said established social rewards (see #1 above) - but this is a side issue.) In fact entire large critical-parasitical counter-constellations have arisen, which habitate (in symbiotic survival mode) with the Institutions and Organs of the World As We Know It.

& so where do I, Henry H. Gould, scribbler of long standing, fit in here? Let's ignore the first path for the time being. For 15 years or so I have engaged in dubious battle with by-night armies of the POP variety. & wherefore? Well, there may be all sorts of competitive & aspirational (vain) motives in play... But again, I will emphasize what I think is the critical difference - the disagreements over the nature of poetry & poetic style.

Let me zero in on what I believe to be the crux of the matter. It's this crux of debate which initially arose when I began piping up on the Buffalo Poetics List these many odd eons ago; and I think it has mildly resurfaced again (hence this screed of mine) in the tiffs over Flarf.

The POP trend - originating, perhaps, with the divagations of John Ashbery in Tennis Court Oath, if not before - & leading into the playful ellipses of NY School, & the not-so-playful strictures of the Language School - developed initially in opposition, not only to the Old New-Critical establishment of the 40s & 50s, but also to the simultaneous personalization & informalization (direct colloquial talk) of American poetry of the 60s & 70s, led by Robert Lowell & John Berryman.

POP arose as an effort to differentiate poetry from the undifferentiated flood of prose & prosaic free-verse - & POP tried to do this by way of formalization, abstraction & de-personalization. Hence we have the contemporary anti-dialects of postmodern poetry : the "verbal-material systems" & "procedures" we know so well.

Well, let me tell you, the AIEE! Poet rejects POP in its entirety.

Let's look at the example of Henry H. Gould, for example. How does this particular AIEE! Poet actualize an approach which differs from both #1 & 2 above?

Gould's poetry is founded on two very basic orientations or principles. Firstly, (1) he thinks of poetry as a distinct medium or mode or form of artistic expression, which by means of its roots in past & very ancient practice, maintains a kind of autonomous & healthy - one might say perennial - presence in the cultural-intellectual life of humanity. This distinct and autonomous mode operates as a kind of translating or transfiguring process : absorbing the events & discourses of real history & experience, & reconfiguring or transmuting them into its own distinct idiom. & here is the key corollary : this process of transfigurement is the radical activity of poetry per se, which brackets or supercedes both the ideological (political) and stylistic (aesthetic) dynamics of stylistic change.

Secondly,(2) - with (1) clearly in mind as a basis - Gould's poetry is rooted, along with all authentic poetry, in an inner telos or drive toward clarity, wholeness, and recapitulation (of experience). Poetry, in other words, aspires to simplicity-in-complexity : to the making of a clear & compelling mirror (the simple) of a differentiated and substantial reality (the complex). & this aspiration in turn is grounded in the sense of firm ontological ground itself : an Aristotelian-Aquinian-Maxi-musical notion of a holistic Cosmos consisting of Real, Integral Particulars (Individuals). Things are Real, and unmistakably Themselves (ie. they are not simply identifiable with, or reducible to, their various Descriptions or Labels). History is an Actual Record of the Real Process of the Change & Development of Things through Time. & Poetry is the Distinctive Expression of the Real Individual's Intellectual-Aesthetic Synthesis of the Real Actualities So Described. Personhood & Individuality are substantial and irreducible. So, also, are Intellectual Universals & the Process of History - the relation between the Individual & the Social-Historical (Common, Universal) Actuality.

Poetry, in other words, has a substantial intellectual grounding in Truth. But this grounding is not simply a given : it is the result of the Poet's own effort to discover & synthesize more General Truths. It is the grafting process of the unique & playful act of artistic making with its own wider contexts. Thus Great & True Poetry upholds this crown of artistic endeavor - this grafting process with the intellectual & experiential currents of the Real & Actual Larger World of Time, Space & History - as the real fruit - the ultimate aim & original source - of its own Traditions.

Gould's multifarious extended poetic Projects - all the long & short poems - can thus be viewed as forms of poetic Orientation toward a Larger World. Through the mode of art, poetry invests Experience with formulae of intellectual-emotional Meaning : the underlying structure or holistic arrangement of these discovered Meanings reveals a distinct Viewpoint, which simultaneously expresses Individual Personhood and World-Historical Reality. It becomes a "Henry" World, in other words : "Henry" cannot be exiled from his own verbal model of Truth.

So Henry's status as AIEE! Poet - or Internal Emigre - is like the reversible many-colored coat of that (subjective, artistic) World where Henry is always "at home". & the lights are on.

This orientation - in which Particulars & Individuals are both (1) real & Substantial & Inalienable in Themselves, and (2) part of a Real & Actual World-Historical Process or Drama which is inherently more than the sum of its Descriptions or Verbal Models - is clearly at odds with the POP trend. The POP trend, as a mode of Postmodernism, (1) denies the substantial Reality of said Realities, and (2) replaces them with a variety of Explanatory Overlays : these are the ideological-intellectual Discourses or Filters which POP has adapted to the mode of Poetry. In the process of such they must also Deny the Existence of Poetic Tradition (the mode of perennial Transfigurement I sketched out above). You might fairly ask : how does such Transfigurement differ from the Postmodern Overlay-Description? It differs in that Transfigurement bears witness to an allegiance to Realism or Truth. What Postmodernism (& the POP) denies, the AIEE Poet celebrates.

& It Has Yet to Be Noticed (lanthanein) (in the World As We Know It) that the Drama (a comedy of sorts) of the Internal Emigre-Emigre Poet - the irreducible inalienable Henry of American Poetry - is returning, is returning, is returning home again...

* ADDENDUM *

BRIEF NOTE ON THE STATUS OF THE "I" IN AIEE! POETRY

This is a deep, complex topic which I doubt I will be able to manage in the space of a few furtive key-taps at work. Let's recall, first of all, that the "I" initiates the phrase "Internal Emigre-Emigre", which suggests that the "I" inhabits a condition of (perhaps internal, inner) exile, and that the "subject", therefore, is always "on the move", traveling.

The best analysis of the self and the ambiguity of otherness, in relation to the grounding principles of AIEE! Poetry, can be found in Elena Corrigan's 2000 monograph, Mandelshtam's poetics : a challenge to postmodernism (SUNY Press). Corrigan argues that M's poetry & poetics cannot be subsumed under contemporary theories of postmodernism. For Mandelstam, according to Corrigan, the self is neither simple, essential and unitary, nor illusory and effaced by otherness. Writing is a distinctive process which synthesizes both estrangement and growth. The self, the textual "subject", grows and changes through a process of affinity or "kinship" with other textual voices (see esp. M's essay "Conversation About Dante"). AIEE! Poetry, in turn, as a kind of American offshoot of Russian-Mandelstamian Acmeism, shares and endorses the orientation outlined in Corrigan's study. We can see the outlines of this position in the very lexical and phonic attributes of "AIEE!" itself. The "I" of AIEE! is necessary, distinct and inalienable : but it is meaningless without reference to its place in the sound & spelling of the word "AIEE!" as a whole. Thus the microcosmic wholeness of the "I" is echoed in the structural wholeness of the natural forms in which it has its being (the word "AIEE!").

What must be repeatedly emphasized, however, is that the word "AIEE!", in turn, while integral and multivalent as a word-in-itself, is deracinated from its primary meaning unless we recall the first principle of AIEE! poetics itself : that is, the notion that poets, through their compositional labors, participate in a unique and distinct mode of verbal expression, whose perennial and substantial qualities - the process of "transfigurement" sketched out in the initial AIEE! Manifesto - bracket and subsume more temporary and local and timebound forms of stylistic change, within an overarching system of (worldwide, with variations) tradition. Thus the articulation of AIEE! Poetics is itself, also, merely an epiphenomenon (of self-awareness) within the larger schema or milieu of poetic transfigurement.

Many also ask : is I the "I" in "AIEE!" really just... Henry? The answer is : this depends on your definition of "Henry". Obviously my own view (as a Henry) might be blurred by proximity - however, I can state with some confidence that the "Henry" delimited by AIEE! Poetry is only a symbolic model for the distinct, inalienable quiddity of every single poetic subject and object. Thus univeral Henrification is simply an abstract index of the mysterious actuality & architecture of created & creative Nature. It might be appropriate to characterize AIEE! Poetry as not exactly "Henryesque", but rather "henotic" - ie., "harmonizing, irenic" - deriving from the Greek work for "one" (Hen).