Saturday, September 19, 2009


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...