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

A DISSOCIATED WRITING PROGRAM (OR, THE QUIDDITY OF THINGS)

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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.”)

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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)