Friday, December 03, 2010



In an early essay, Mandelstam wrote : "for an artist, a worldview is a tool or a means, like a hammer in the hands of a mason, and the only reality is the work of art itself." On the face of it, an eminently modernist sentiment. On a similar branch, Wallace Stevens, in "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words", writes : "... above everything else, poetry is words... A poet's words are of things that do not exist without the words." Yet for both these poets, "worldview" stood for something more : call it "reality", call it "truth", call it "history", it is that dimension which exists distinct from, and in tandem with, poetry itself. For both of these poets, the relation between poetry and "worldview" helped determine the poet's attitude or stance within/toward the wider culture - & this was something both of them took very seriously. What is the role of the poet? What (if any) is the social sanction for poetry? For Stevens, these questions prompted a sustained, even relentless search for understanding. For Mandelstam, they underwrote his forthright, polemical stance toward the "worldviews" which grounded contemporary Russian literature & politics : his commitment to Acmeism vs. Futurism, to "unofficial" vs. "official" writing, to intellectual freedom vs. loyalty to the State.

In today's America (as in yesterday's) we sense an absolute allegiance to the values of success, achievement, superiority, wealth, fame... We are a nation of driven, workaholic strivers, a people obsessed with those mechanical short-cuts to bliss known as "gadgets." We are surrounded by tall wobbly ladders of rules, protocols, steps, points, scores, levels, etc. etc., which everybody is eager to either follow or circumvent. In fact the rules offer themselves as intriguing & ambivalent amalgams of both obedience & circumvention. Kafka would understand. Lots of contemporary novels are structured around such Janus-faced rules. The only rule this nation descended from the Puritans seems to have forgotten, is an unambiguous one, a rule those Puritans held sacrosanct : to keep holy the Sabbath; ie., to rest from striving, to sit still, to be, simply, thankful for existence...

I don't exempt myself from these typical American obsessions (or demonic possessions). I'm just as driven as the next scurrilous wannabe-squirrel. But I'm interested in how "worldview" coalesces with "poetry" in forms which sometimes offer resistance. I am skeptical of the culture of MFA networks & "workshop" self-improvement; I am equally skeptical of the worldviews suggested by literary experimentalism & the busy, much-loved avant-garde. Both trends seem finally indistinguishable from the culture of hard-driving lemmings I have described. MFA systems offer poetry as something measurable & objective, a professional "field" one can pursue, step by vocational step, like a degree in law or engineering. Experimentalism promotes the aesthetics of the gimmick. We see this trend across the spectrum of literary publication, from the New Yorker to the tiniest lit-zine. This is the poetry of the one-shot deal, the hit, the gag, the stunt : its presence is pervasive, its technical versatility & wit are irreproachable & immediately "winning" (the whole aim, after all, is to be winning). The style involves speed, cunning, sarcasm, transparency, readability, immediacy : conversely, it downplays depth, feeling, continuity, profundity, complexity, irony... & because it draws on a now-traditional (& predictable) set of alienation-effects and scandalous subversions, I would christen this omnipresent set of techniques "retro-futurism".

On the other hand, there is also a mode of resistance to the frantic polemical side-taking in poetry circles, which might be summarized as simply anti-theory . This is the strategy of the deliberately-inclusive, the dogmatically-uncritical and non-judgmental, the Big Tent approach, the cowbell "Come an' Get It!" communal-table method, the "just poetry, no ideas" attitude, the "just paint, no Cubism" mantra. No such thing as good or bad in art. The trouble with this entire approach is that it morphs so seamlessly into its opposite : the "this is what we're having for dinner so just eat it!" answer to all questions of value & taste. Do you really want to read this lousy poetry? With its shrunken, tattered & abused vocabulary, its second-hand & obvious ideas, its shallow or non-existent feeling? Its essential crudeness, its vulgarity - its aggression, its assault on human dignity? Is this what you want? This is the meal awaiting you in the Big Tent, friends. I think that underlying the all-inclusive, non-critical mode is a fundamental aestheticism : a set of art-for-art's-sake assumptions, a kind of monochrome vision, which cannot recognize the basic dialectic of art & worldview (which so absorbed Mandelstam & Stevens).


Art & worldview. I have asserted their importance, their necessity : so where do I stand myself in this regard? But I have rambled at length & with much incoherence & tedium, elsewhere, on the subject of my own worldview : so here I will just suggest a possible avenue of pursuit.

Eliot, Pound, Stevens : Medieval, Renaissance, Modern. As if in this trio we have a kind of exemplary recapitulation of the history of the West. Eliot the medieval man : for whom the measure of Man is only to be found in her relationship with God. Eliot's God is in many ways remote & elusive, and he compensates for this by emphasizing the objectivity of dogma, the absolute quality of both the articles of faith & the cultural traditions for which they are the foundation. Pound the Renaissance man : for whom "Man is the measure of all things." In such a situation, calm, peace & stability are elusive, & Pound compensates for this by emphasizing the objectivity of Nature, and the supremacy of the men of inherent power & natural wisdom (Malatesta, the Founding Fathers, Confucius...). Stevens the modern : for whom nature is fundamentally immeasurable & mysterious, and therefore Man-within-nature must imagine her own order (since order is to be found nowhere else).

These are obviously over-simplifications. All three poets remain elusive themselves, their attitude & work can be read from all three cultural-historical "positions" (& more). As for my own worldview, I think I oscillate between something like Eliot's & something like Stevens' sense of things. What Stevens suggests - & which essentially modifies both Eliot's and Pound's tendency toward dogmatism - is the key role of the imagination : the imagination of the human species as a whole, as a kind of unity. In this Stevens descends directly from that earlier trio of poet-thinkers, from whom both Eliot & Pound took pains to distance themselves : Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats. What both Stevens & Eliot, in their greatest work, share with Coleridge & Wordsworth & Keats, is a recognition of the shaping power of the human mind within experience : that we live, as the Renaissance thinker Nicolas of Cusa wrote, in a "conjectural" world, a world of fundamentally human shaping. "The Word is Psyche," as Mandelstam put it. As for my own worldview, maybe I stand closest to Nicolas of Cusa, then : for this was someone who could synthesize & integrate both : 1) a Renaissance sense of the powers of the human mind, and 2) a recognition, an acknowledgment, of a loving relationship with a universal God, the ultimate ground of all existing things, who is also a "personal" Spirit (of whom Man is the "image & likeness").

Friday, October 22, 2010


T.S. Eliot's famous concept, the "dissociation of sensibility", articulated a benchmark for Modernist poetry : the new writing would seek to overcome that split between thought & feeling, reason & experience, sense & sensibility in literature, which was in part a consequence of the Enlightenment (see his essay, "The Metaphysical Poets").

Since at least the Romantic era, up to our own day, overcoming this basic division has been a project not only of the arts, but of certain sectors of science, social science, psychology & even politics. The dissociation of thought and feeling in literary style shares broad parallels with myriad polarities : theory/practice, reason/emotion, mind/body, intellect/sensation, thought/action, idea/thing, conscious/subconscious, human/animal, divine/human, male/female... and one could delineate the central motivation for numerous intellectual and socio-political agendas in the overcoming of one or another of these basic binaries.

Central strands of ancient thought, on the other hand - both Greek philosophy and Hebrew religion, for example - insisted on the substantial actuality of, and necessity for, these basic polarities. Even with a "monistic" thinker like Aristotle, for whom polarities and distinctions were perhaps more epistemological than ontological - that is, they were abstracted aspects of actual whole & unitary objects of knowledge - such differences were nevertheless necessary for an adequate comprehension of the thing itself. For Plato, for the Biblical writers, reality was grounded in a central borderline : between intellect and sense. The intellect was aligned with the invisible and eternal : mind, soul, God or gods, changelessness, eternity, universality, Ideas. Sense was aligned with all the related polarities : body, movement, animality, change, things, mortality.

Eliot's career can be seen (in simplified fashion) as following a certain trajectory : beginning with a literary allegiance to the Metaphysical poets, motivated by a literary strategy (to overcome the "dissociation" in style); and culminating in a personal conversion to Christianity, and the development of a sort of neo-medieval vision of the restoration of European culture in toto. As such, his path can be seen as a recapitulation of the historical arc of ancient thought in general. For the central polarity between intellect and sense culminated, in the ancient world, in Byzantium : in a theological elaboration (and defense) of the Christian announcement.

What that proclamation amounted to was this : there is an infinite distance between the invisible Creator and the creation he has made; there is a fundamental distinction to be drawn between divine intellect and mortal sense. Man divided himself from God by an original act of will : a turning from his intellectual source of being (God) to the things of sense (the material world). God, out of love for Man and his creation, intervened : becoming Man himself, in the Person of his Son. The Incarnation - and the person of Christ - is the matrix of union for all the polarities, the center of human time and space. In the divine-providential process, the world-historic drama enacted by the Trinity, intellect and sense, mind and body, thought and feeling, mind and heart, sense and sensibility, one and many, order and chaos, wholeness and contingency, part and whole, male and female, individual and community.... all these polarities are reunited and harmonized - as Maximus the Confessor put it - "without separation and without confusion".

We are some distance from Byzantium, today. For many, these concepts no longer have any meaningful reference in reality : they are allegorical, mythological formulae. This is understandable. Most of the words we read, the signs we apprehend, skim by in a sort of abstract streaming.... only actual experience strikes us as whole, as real. And we are rather far from the actualities, and the thought-worlds, of Palestine in the time of Emperor Augustus.

Our scepticism (or incomprehension) is also understandable from another, theological, angle, if you will. As Maximus might have put it (much more elegantly) : created things cannot, by their own capacities, comprehend that which created them. The basic division between intellect and sense - and its resolution by divine action - is essentially a mystery, illuminated for us by revelation (divine grace).

Again, I realize I am using concepts and terminology many would find terminally obsolete. My own ability to explain anything is hobbled and strictly limited. I can only (metaphorically) raise my hands, shrug my shoulders at my own incapacity. Can only say that I, along with some others, find personal, existential, experiential meaning in the scriptural record of long-ago events. I find testimonies from ancient & mythological ages which echo and ring with events from my own life, with the thoughts & feelings that arise in my own mind and heart. I find believable the radical & fantastic idea that consciousness, in its mysterious depths, rests at the foundation of the entire cosmos : we don't so much know anything, as we are known. In such manner, I guess, I have experienced, to some limited degree, the reconciliation of polarities, the overcoming of dissociations. And I continue to try to relate & express these experiences in my own fashion, in the belief that what I have experienced is not strictly private or personal or unique or inimitable, but rather is part of something real for all. As that metaphysical poet-preacher John Donne put it : "no man is an island..."

Friday, April 23, 2010

RESTORATION DAY (the harmony is there)

It's Friday, it's Shakespeare's birthday... Henry will talk some more about poetry...

Henry has been let us say struggling with poetry & with being a poet nigh on 40 years now. I started being a poet in earnest just 40 years ago, in 1970 - when I came to Rhode Island & the East from Minnesota, for school (though I started writing it before, in the 60s... composing my first poem in 1959 - my father scribbled it down on a key card as he went out the door to work).

& a struggle it has been... for recognition, for validation, for publication, for fending off failure & shame & fear & oblivion... but mostly a struggle to write well, to keep at it, to find a way to keep making poetry... when the pressures & temptations & distractions of life are sometimes all against it...

& why? It's a calling. I find a certain superficiality, a thinness, a lightweight quality to much of the current talk about poetry in US circles... a forced & slightly fevered tone that comes mostly from the anxiety of trying to make poetry a career... that's one of the factors, anyway. Another might be the typically-American obsession with technique, technology, gimmickry : the poem is treated as a cool gizmo rather than an utterance emerging from the real stress of human experience, of life & death, of time & history. The "realism" of poetry is not some kind of photographic or documentary replication (another technique) : it's the product of the poet's confrontation with the trials & sufferings & perplexities & joys & marvels of actual life, in the struggle to answer the call of the poetic vocation itself - to fulfill the claim of that calling. The Greeks named memory the "mother of the Muses" - & what is memory, if not the reflection of the conscience - on life lived, choices made, crimes & sins committed, love & charity given & received, punishment, ignorance, foolishness, mistakes, wisdom, & grace? The inward field of the human drama - in this "vale of soul-making," as Keats put it. This is partly what I think Wallace Stevens meant when he wrote about the "conscience" of the "faithful poet" - the poet faithful to conscience & memory & the truths they bear. Every true poem is an accounting, part of someone's last will and testament. This is one of those affective dimensions which a literary world trimmed to the latest gizmo-circus spectacle simply cannot see.

& there are other dimensions missed, too - aspects of poetry seen from a more impersonal or philosophical (aesthetic) perspective. I understand poetry most basically as song. By "song" here I'm referring to harmony, in its essential (not simply musical) sense. A poem, as a work of verbal art, is an entity in harmony with itself. In other words, it is a thing of beauty : it displays an integrity & wholeness & proportion & brilliant originality (Aquinas' & Joyce's requirements, basically). As a thing of harmony, it resonates : in the poem, language reverberates, stands free, returns upon itself in generative reflection & depths of meaning. This is the magnetism of the work of art in general : we are drawn to its resonance, as something with inner integrity & life, as something with inherent value.

But is poetry, then, an end in itself? Is it art for its own sake? Not in my view. The poet's vocation - the vocation to "sing"- stems from an inward (often-unconscious) faith in the ultimate harmony of life itself. How is this possible? Is poetry, then, essentially a throwback to pre-Enlightenment civilization? Is not the Modern era defined by the term disenchantment? Is there not a fundamental chasm between modern and medieval consciousness?

If there is such a chasm, then poetry spans it. Because neither atheism nor religious faith can be proven, we are faced with a pragmatic choice : we must think, that is, inductively - gather up our inferences, order our incomplete knowledge, and live by means of a "working theory," an hypothesis. This gets to the crux of my understanding of poetry's highest purpose and the poet's ultimate vocation. Poetry's song is - at its most basic and its most exalted - primarily a song of thanksgiving. A celebration of the ultimate (unknowable, but sensed) harmony of reality. And (for me) this harmony is ultimately Personal : human & divine. Reality is Creation : God is Personal : and the God who created all from nothing will also save that creation, and us along with it - in fact, has already done so. This is the ur-drama, the play-within-the-plays, of the history of the earth (theologian Hans Küng has described all this better than I can, in his great book Eternal Life?). To the sceptic this will sound like typical neo-medieval mystification; but, as anyone who has followed the theism/atheism debates over the last decade will know, there are many intelligent people today, with impeccable intellectual credentials in various professional fields, who are also theists. To repeat, neither side can prove its case : but what I am arguing is that the harmony of poetry bears witness to a greater harmony at the silent, hidden heart of reality itself. It is the imagination of an inexpressible dimension (a dimension, as Küng suggests, that humanity must go through death to find - the way of the Cross, and of Everyman).

The objections to all this are already clear. Henry, you do a disservice to the autonomy and variety of art and poetry (not to mention of life) by yoking it to a theological rationalization. You narrow poetry down, you squeeze the life out of it : poetry is more than pious vision. This is another unending, irresolvable debate. I respond : yes, poetry is various, secular, impertinent, impious, impish, unpredictable, free. But I also say this : harmony is the heart and soul of poetry; and harmony is something inherent within life itself, within reality as a whole. My own explanation for the presence of this harmony is theological : there may be other, and differing, explanations for it : but I, as poet, assert that the harmony is there - and that is why I sing.

This, in my view, is the essential difference between poetry and prose : you can have prose without art, but not poetry. For a long time, the modern, post-Enlightenment temper has reflected disenchantment; and as a result, we have had a flood of dense, reductive prose "explanations" for life's phenomena. But what if the ultimate truth is harmonious, is harmony? This is what the Romantic poets asserted (Coleridge, Blake) - this was at the heart of their protest. I am not a Romantic, but something a little older (let's say, a Christian humanist) : put me with Donne, and Milton, and Herbert, and Andrew Marvell. This is the true Restoration (check out the photo of young Henry, in NYC, ca. 1975, at his Royal typewriter). I was born on Restoration Day, by the way - May 29th; also Rhode Island Statehood Day, and the date on which my gr-gr-...grandfather Zaccheus Gould established the town of Topsfield, Massachusetts (1637 or so). Poetry has been a long struggle, for me - but I will top the field. I live by the River Okeanos; Rhode Island is the Ocean State. My poetry is not so well known, yet - but it's out there; its endless surf of abba-soundwaves will penetrate the atmosphere, someday.

Friday, April 16, 2010



April 2010 ushers in the conjunction of National Poetry Month with the vast and bulbous Associated Writing Programs (AWP) Conference (in Denver this year), and so, under the lights of such stars, we non-attenders and outsiders are tempted to assess the national state of the art. But the first question is, is there such a “national state”? Should we call it “America” or “the United States,” or neither? I’m going to use “America” and “American” here for the sake of convenience. But simply deploying a name is not enough : you have to prove the name corresponds to something in nature. Presently we Americans are enduring a time of extraordinary divisions, partisan disputations, multiple balkanizations, political and economic stress, upheavals and dislocations, war and terrorism, (man-made) ecological threats, poverty, uncertainty, change and anxiety; is it possible even to speak of a single American nation and culture anymore?

I’m not going to try to answer that question directly. My interest here is in the character of poetry, especially American poetry, now – another vast and diffuse and elusive phenomenon; it seems the only proper way to begin talking about that subject is to try to describe the limits of one’s own perspective and method of approach. My method and perspective in this essay are going to be deliberately eccentric. I’m going to look at our subject through the lens of a single critical concept, which was articulated just 100 years ago by a Russian poet in St. Petersburg, a founding member of the fleeting Russian literary movement called “Acmeism” – Nikolai Gumilev. The concept or hermeneutic tool was something he called “chasteness.” Gumilev identified chasteness with a general sense of the integrity of individual, actual things in the world. The concept has religious, Biblical roots (the earth and universe are a creation, which God “saw was good” : the divine is present through God’s “incarnation”), but it is primarily (in Gumilev’s hands) a philosophical idea, with cultural and artistic consequences. Chasteness is akin to Joyce’s aesthetic of the “epiphany” : the artist’s sense to recognize, and to express, the brilliant, distinct particularity of individual things – their quiddity.

The philosophical roots of Gumilev’s notion are clearly planted in Aristotle. Aristotle’s intellectual modesty – that is, the essential humility of the scientific investigator, empirical, inductive – allowed for the substantiality of distinct things, for the “concrete universals” of poetic representation. In Aristotle’s Poetics, the integral wholeness of dramatic plot (beginning, middle, end) undergirds the unique architectonic of each work of poetic art, which in turn mirrors the chaste and distinct integrity of the matter which it represents.

It is indeed the architectonic dimension of Gumilev’s Aristotelian approach which seems particularly interesting and potentially fruitful. Like an Escher drawing, or a series of mutually-supporting vaults, this notion of chaste integrity bridges the distance between the distinct integrity of the poem, and the normative qualities of human experience, the ethos, which it expresses, guards and celebrates. It is an exercise in equilibrium. And there was (and is) a democratic or egalitarian aspect to this projected ethos, since, as Gumilev put it, chasteness represents the inherent dignity of each person and thing, as it is : that is, its right to be itself. (As Mandelstam wittily put it, Acmeism celebrated the “beautiful Law of Identity : A = A.”)


So then – how do we apply this imported Russian aesthetic concept to contemporary American conditions? As noted above, we inhabit a time of particular storm and stress, of ideological polemic and conflict, of multiple challenges to any claim to authority or consensus. But the Gumilevian/Aristotelian idea of chasteness/integrity, when used as a lens, brings surprising things to light. First of all, it can possibly justify our concern for a specifically American poetry, in that, by the law of “epiphany” and chaste integrity, every culture has a unique history – a particular set of circumstances, characteristics, traditions, choices, events, which go into defining its quiddity. To base one’s approach on such a quasi-scientific, disinterested method is to push back against both ends of the current spectrum of polemics : that is, one the one hand, against neo-classical formalists and traditionalists, who center the norms of poetry in English, and the richness of culture per se, in the great works of past times and places; and on the other hand, against the anti-historical and anti-traditional relativism of the postmodern “permanent revolutionaries.” Our poetry, in such “chaste” light, will be seen as inevitably the expression of a distinct culture and nation (which will also, of course, inevitably include its own set of borrowings, hybridities, endurances, etc.).

Such might be viewed as a statement of the obvious; but then, lost in our byzantine labyrinth of literary jargon, polemics, and the Emperor’s ever-new clothes, sometimes the obvious becomes the necessary. Moreover, Gumilev’s concept rhymes to a striking degree with something very characteristic of American poetry : the sharp-eyed, down-to-earth affection for, and attention to, things-in-themselves. Robert Frost rendered this strain (out of Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson) memorably and perhaps best : “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.” In his introductory essay to the very popular (and still in print!) mid-20th century anthology, the Mentor Book of Major American Poets(1), Edwin Honig focused on the fond attention to particulars – the confluence of humble, everyday reality and poetic metaphor, in imagery – as the defining characteristic of American poetry (beginning with the Puritan poet Edward Taylor, and growing stronger from there). Imagistic realism, by itself, is an insufficient measure of American poetry (or any poetry) as a whole (in the same way that the Imagist movement of the early 20th-century had inherent limitations); however, when subsumed within the more general concept of integrity (as presented by Gumilev, Aristotle, Joyce), the architectonics of a national literature begin to become visible again (in outline or sketch) through the polemical mist.

In a recent study of Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and Williams(2), Harold Kaplan projects a similar sense of American poetry as integral and distinct, by contrasting Eliot’s and Pound’s attachment to traditional European cultural authority, with Stevens’ and Williams’ bent toward democratic humanism. Without referencing the Acmeists, Kaplan describes how Stevens’ notion of human “nobility” was part of an effort to define the social purposes of poetry in relation to more general ethical norms – that is, grounded in a similar “chaste integrity” of persons and things. (Interestingly, in an appendix, Kaplan underlines an affinity between the argument of his book, and a study by Michael Eskin, on the ethos and poetics of Emanuel Levinas, Paul Celan, and… Osip Mandelstam(3)). The integrity of both things and poems, according to Kaplan (and Levinas), is underwritten by the fundamental integrity of persons : and this ontology has consequences for theories of literature – for the status of reading, writing, language and meaning. Kaplan outlines a philosophical realism, grounded not in systemic abstraction, but in a sense of reality that begins, ends, and centers in consciousness – the reflective, affective, ethical, and expressive consciousness of the human person. Again, this affirmation of the distinct personhood of authors and readers is in harmony with what we have called the American (and Acmeist, and Joycean) affirmation of the chaste integrity of things-in-themselves – things, including art works.

Things, including poems. Rather than carry these proposals further into the realm of polemic, here I only want to suggest that such polemic might prove necessary, eventually. By this I mean that the more deliberately one defines the characteristics of an American literature, the more inevitably will disagreements follow – since we inhabit a contentious democratic culture, subject to change, growth and decline. Furthermore, as a critical perspective is articulated, its application to actual works (by both critics and poets) becomes more self-conscious and differentiated. The more it becomes possible to see the outlines of a particular poetic phenomenon, the more one begins to distinguish between the inherently aesthetic and the ideologically (or otherwise) tendentious. What I believe Gumilev’s Russian Acmeism(4) and Kaplan’s American humanism offer us are the beginnings of a “way of seeing” our own poetry – as independent art, grounded in imaginative freedom, in the substantial dignity of persons, and in the quiddity of things.

1) Mentor Book of Major American Poets, ed. by Oscar Williams and Edwin Honig (NY : Signet, 1962)
2) Kaplan, Harold. Poetry, politics, and culture : argument in the work of Eliot, Pound, Stevens and Williams (Brunswick, NJ : Transaction, 2007).
3) Eskin, Michael. Ethics and dialogue : in the works of Levinas, Bakhtin, Mandel’shtam, and Celan (NY : Oxford Univ. Press, 2001)
4) For an invaluable study of Acmeism and the poetics of Gumilev and Mandelstam, see : Justin Doherty, The Acmeist movement in Russian poetry : culture and the word (Oxford Univ. Press, 1995)

Thursday, March 25, 2010


Poetry & religion, two different things... I think of religion as social-collective behavior - a cultural phenomenon made up of countless social orientations, commitments, actions. It is belief consolidated - substantiated in social formations : ethical traditions. This is obviously not poetry. Poetry is the verbal expression of the artistic imagination (or simply, the imagination). There is no sanction or requirement for the vagaries & dreams of free imagination.

Poetry (some poetry) might be closer to theology, though. I think of theology as intellectual reflection upon (& maybe insight into) the "givens" of religious tradition. There's a range - let's call it "vision" - where such endeavors can overlap.

In the modern era, religion is often represented as irrational, oppressive, & silly. I suppose modernity could even be defined as "the critique - & mockery - of religion." Novels & various discourses since the Enlightenment abound in satires on Medieval ritual, dogma, superstition, & the general moeurs of churchgoing folk. Certainly much of the critique was (& is) indeed liberating & enlightening; but the secular ideological-political formations which then sought to replace religion resulted in the vast desolations & conflicts of the 20th-century. So who gets the last laugh, so to speak (aside from the Devil...)?

Our local hero, Roger Williams, was an avatar of a different kind of cultural equilibrium between sacred & secular. By advocating tolerance of all faiths, liberty of conscience, freedom of speech, and the separation of civil and religious Authority, Williams set the stage for the Enlightenment, and for the balance of secular government & religious freedom as we know it today. Yet Williams' Puritan innovations had deeper roots in the cultural development of the West. Even medieval Catholicism recognized that peace & order depended on harmony between the "two swords" - the two Powers of Church and State, Church & Empire. The authority of the Church was an ethical counterbalance to the power of the King : they were never fused into one. This balance of the two had a scriptural basis in the New Testament - in Jesus' command, "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, & to God what is God's". The apostle Paul, in his letters, took up this theme, when he described how God's Providence works through all things, including the State & its ministers, "for our good" (an argument often used to justify passivity & conformity in the face of State-sponsored evil : but not necessarily or entirely false, in spite of this.) It was this conception of Providence working through all things, Christian & non-Christian, sacred & secular, which informed Williams' political vision.

And one could trace this tradition back much further. It's possible to think of Judaism as a religion which is a theological reflection & critique - a re-working, or overturning - of Egyptian and Mesopotamian religion. The God of the Hebrews - the primal & universal Creator of all things, who allies himself personally, not with the rulers of mighty nations, the immortal god-kings atop their ziggurats & pyramids, but with humble shepherds & slaves. This God does not merely issue obscure demands (though He does issue demands) - but comes down to dicker & argue with his adopted people. & the main aim of this Hebrew God is to provide liberation from oppressors, & from human wrong-doing in general. So we can see the historical consequence of this basic stance of Biblical religion : a theological challenge is offered to oppressive rule. A line is drawn between sacred & secular. The authority of the divine is set up in opposition to, rather than conjunction with, the secular or theocratic power of nations. Thus the seeds of individual conscience - the ethical demand of a divine & infinite universality, above and beyond any earthly power - were planted, long ago.

Recurrently in my poetry (esp. in Lanthanum) the figure of "Maximus" shows up. This could be taken as an allusion to Charles Olson's epic persona of the same name, but I'm referring to another Maximus : Maximus the Confessor, a Byzantine theologian. This Maximus was enmeshed in controversies over the Trinity and the nature of Christ's Person, with which Orthodoxy, centered in Constantinople, was engaged for centuries. A profound & creative thinker, Maximus synthesized Greek philosophy & Christian faith, to produce an affirmation of the Orthodox sense of the union of divine & human Persons. That the universal Godhead would manifest on earth as a particular human person was a mystery, a conundrum & a scandal from the very beginning - a scandal involving first of all the splitting apart of Judaism and Christianity, & then, within Christianity itself, at least a thousand years of polemics over its exact meaning (& of course, those debates have not yet concluded).

But poetry per se is not so formalized (logical) or realistic (descriptive) as theology claims to be. Poetry, as an (artistic) end in itself, is to some extent free from the claims of realism and denotative meaning. It's more concerned with modelling or representing "possible" realities : and in doing so, poetry is able to express deeper, more elusive, less systematic, more subtle layers of sense, feeling & experience. These "free, unsponsored" dimensions of psychic & emotional life themselves reflect back on the formal, "official" records of history, & dogmas of religion, & assertions of ideology, the oppressive superstitions of hide-bound culture. & that "reflecting back" is the substance of poetry's immemorial radicalism : the prophet's challenge to arrogant priesthoods, the poet's rebuke to overweening state authorities, the critique of "realism" offered by the imagination.

But protest and politics aside... I see a sort of harmonic affinity between theology and poetry, in the likeness between : 1) Maximus' synthesis of divine and human consciousness within the form of the Person - ie. the whole reality of experience is keyed to a human scale, and 2) the Petersburg/Acmeist poetic tradition of Gumilev, Akhmatova, Mandelstam - hewing to Mandelstam's idea of poetry as "domestic hellenism" : the humanizing, civilizing, & domesticating of life on earth with a "teleological (human) warmth." Both represent an architecture of existence based in confidence : a deep confidence in "Providence", in the eventual working-out of "faith, hope & charity" (history as Redemption).

Friday, February 12, 2010


[posted also at Plumbline School]


In an appendix to his book Poetic Affairs (on Paul Celan, Durs Grunbein, Joseph Brodsky, and the kinship each poet shares with Osip Mandelstam) Michael Eskin deftly draws together some logical threads of Mandelstam's "Acmeist" poetics :

1. aesthetic : "Mandelstam's notion of the 'living word' ties in with the overall Acmeist endeavor to create 'an organicist poetics... of a biological nature' - a poetics predicated on biology and physiology, on 'the infinite complexity of our inscrutable organism,' and on the basic notion that a 'poem is a living organism'" [Poetic Affairs, p.139]. More than that : "The breathing, moving human body is the ultimate ground of poetry. The 'poetic foot,' Mandelstam notes, is nothing but 'breathing in and breathing out.' The poem is literally animated into existence by 'the breathing of all ages' to the extent that it is the articulation of the breathing, moving bodies of countless poets 'of all ages' [ibid.].

The image of poetry projected here is strikingly reminiscent of the ecstatic "speaking-in-tongues" event on the day of Pentecost, as described in the New Testament : poetry here is akin to the descent of the Holy Ghost, by means of which people from "all lands" begin speaking together, each in their own languages, yet mutually understanding each other.* Poetry is a physiological embodiment, shared "inscrutably" across time & space.

2. ethical : The Acmeist movement developed in the early 20th century as a dialectical response to the otherworldliness of Russian Symbolism. Eskin explains : "'Acmeism is not only a literary phenomenon,' Mandelstam notes in 1922... This new ethical force... consists first and foremost, in the reversal of the Symbolist denigration of the real, phenomenal world of the here and now... Mandelstam emphasizes the world's very reality and materiality as the Acmeists paradigm and horizon...
"A love for the here and now, for 'all manifestations of life... in time and not only in eternity' - a love for this world and this reality, for one's 'own organism,' for one's singularity, cannot fail to bear on sociopolitics. What kind of sociopolitical setup will foster and secure the possibility of this kind of Acmeist existence?... Mandelstam lays out his own sociopolitical vision:

'There are epochs that maintain that they are not concerned with singular human beings, that human beings must be put to use, like bricks, like mortar... Assyrian prisoners swarm like chicks under the feet of a gigantic Tsar; warriors personifying the power of the state inimical to the human being shackled pigmies with long spears, and the Egyptians are dealing with the human mass as if it were building material... But there is another form of social architecture who scale and measure is... man... It doesn't use human beings as building material but builds for them... Mere mechanical grandeur and mere numbers are inimical to humankind We are tempted not by a new social pyramid, but... by the free play of weights and measures, by a human society... in which everything is... individual, and each member is unique and echoes the whole.'" [ibid., pp. 139-140]

Eskin notes how this stance had consequences for Mandelstam's personal fate, & which was echoed by Brodsky in his remark that the poet "is a democrat by definition" (& here we further note the shade of Pushkin, standing behind both Mandelstam & Brodsky).

Finally, Eskin reiterates Mandelstam's supremely dialogical concept of poetry. M's famous essay "On the Interlocutor" likens the poem to a message in a bottle, set afloat on the sea toward an unknown friend/reader in the future; when conjoined with the charismatic ("Pentecostal") sense of poetry outlined above, we understand that each reader, each one of us - when we truly encounter a poem - has become the intended recipient of the message. We are conjoined - in a kinship of friendly dialogue & companionship, across the sea of time & space - with the poet in person.

[*Note : these references to the Pentecost are my own interpolations, not not discussed in Eskin's text.]


& how would I relate all this to our Plumbline?

I feel a sense of weight : of the earthly weight of material things, and the weight of lived experience. & I relate this first of all to all those dimensions of poetry which remain unspoken : the submerged portion of the iceberg, so to speak : all the overtones & undertones & inexplicable feeling-tones & hidden meanings & unknowables which help give a poem its resistance, its resonance, its own specific gravity. & further, I relate this to living specificity and particularity, that vividness and local accuracy which are part of the glory of poetry - a synthetic brilliance of referential & evocative vision : faculties of Mandelstam's "infinite complexity of our inscrutable organism." These are dimensions which weight the "middle path" of our plumbline : tied deep down in the heart of faithful utterance, Wallace Stevens' "spirit of poetry" as the "companion of the conscience." & then I think of all this as impelling the poet to strive for a poetry that can speak... like this :

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice. It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one.
(- Wallace Stevens, "Of Modern Poetry")