Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Rhapsody (and the Long Poem)

Note : This essay was included in a seminar, hosted by Norman Finkelstein, at the 2022 Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture, on the contemporary long poem and the work of Nathaniel Mackey.

There are so many simultaneous forces at play in contemporary poetry, that the attempt to make sense of them can be baffling.  It’s like gazing into a crystal with infinite facets, or watching some cybernetic algorithm spitting out riddles.  And one of the most challenging phenomena in this respect is the long poem.  Even basic labels are elusive.  Long poem?  Epic?  Narrative?  Sequence?  Serial poem?  Where to begin?

The question of form as a means toward definition is obviously pragmatic, but it can quickly become problematic.  Obviously, poets have applied formal, technical means to liberate and sharpen their work.  Critics have evaluated such innovations as criteria for registering wider political, philosophical, aesthetic aims.  Yet questions of form and chaos are crucial in ways that transcend narrow technical factors.

Revolutionary modernization in the arts over the last 150 years can be understood as an artistic response to rapid and overwhelming historical change.  Modern poets of the early 20th century were living through the seemingly violent collapse of Western social order, the shaking of previous religious certitudes about the cosmic order, and the obsolescence of antiquated literary modes – all at once.  Pound and Eliot can be seen as taking their stand in a nostalgic, traditionalist or reactionary direction; Williams and Stevens in a more existential, naturalist, and agnostic direction; but neither of these modern tendencies seemed completely relevant to poets of the postmodern late-20th century.  

Joseph Conte outlined, in a systematic way, how specific postmodern technical approaches applied new kinds of formalism – serial, aleatory, procedural – to a reality which seemed increasingly chaotic, disordered – no longer amenable to simple answers or totalizing configurations.  He juxtaposes the ambitious “epic” themes of Modernist long poems, with the more playful, heterodox and anti-hierarchical approaches of the Postmodern.(1)

Yet in my view the long poem itself exhibits inherent difficulties which are challenging in the extreme, and not amenable to merely technical solutions.  I think there is evidence of such difficulty in the very limited audience for such works.  The idea that decentered, non-Euclidean serialism is a logical reflection of a cosmic reality which denies rational, authoritative or logocentric order is in a sense self-contradictory.  What is the ontological meaning of a “logical” or “natural” response in a universe which exhibits neither?

The basic, underlying distinction between the short lyric and the long poem is this : the lyric is personal, subjective; while the long poem is didactic, thematic, and communal.  A long poem is long because it knits together disparate episodes or discourses in order to present an over-arching theme or message.  Both the modern verse epic and the postmodern serial poem combine modular elements; but the epic has a theme or story to tell, whereas the postmodern serial poem is ultimately autotelic or self-reflexive – it is the expression of the creative freedom of expression.

Such baldly categorical statements can be criticized as merely simplistic and provocative.  In their defense I would like to bring forward a little-used term, which nevertheless provides another window on the problematics of the long poem.  That term is rhapsody.

The etymology of rhapsody is very curious.  It has essentially three separate but intertwined meanings.  For the ancient Greeks, a rhapsody was a name for a long or epic poem.  It comes from two Indo-European roots meaning “to turn” – to weave, or stitch – and “song”.  A rhapsody, as opposed to a stanzaic lyric, consisted of stitched-together lines extending a story or discourse which was just long enough for a “rhapsode”, or performer, to recite at one go.

A second meaning appeared sometime in the late Middle Ages or early Renaissance.  A rhapsody was a hodge-podge – a random compendium of notes, quotes, and writings. 

The third meaning arrived in the 19th century : a rhapsody was a highly emotional, and perhaps (therefore) somewhat irrationally exuberant, musical composition.  This third meaning consequently seeped into our more colloquial sense of rhapsody or the rhapsodic, as a kind of gushing expression of joyful feeling.

A rhapsody is a epic song – woven, stitched together.  A rhapsody is a hodge-podge.  A rhapsody is a musical peak of emotion, a summation.  I find the combination of these to be a pretty good description of both the modernist verse epic, and the postmodern long poem.  

The key here for me, however, is contained in that third definition.  Because, as previously asserted, the rationale or motive force of the long poem, as opposed to the short lyric, is its social, communal context.  And the ecstatic emotion of joy – the rhapsody – is the implied or tacit goal of all long poems.  Poetry is always a mixture of, or an oscillation between, celebration and critique, praise and warning, utopia and doom.  But to achieve rhapsody in a social, communal context requires some kind of balance of these opposing poles.  It calls for wisdom, in other words.  The didactic aim; the edification of people as a civic community, as a social whole.  This is the ultimate motive for long poems, both ancient and contemporary.

But as I mentioned at the outset, the contemporary long poem is a thing of multifarious facets and forces.  One of the heuristic strengths of this tripartite concept, rhapsody, is its fusion of objective multiplicity – the stitching-together of a hodge-podge of episodes – with subjective emotion : the expressive dimension of joy, rapture.  

When Walt Whitman furled the heroism of traditional epic into the creative, poetic Self, he risked complete self-absorption, the inflation of the individualistic American ego.  Yet he endeavored to balance that with the demand for justice and equality, celebrating a national, communal democracy.  The imperfect equilibrium of these dimensions – Adamic egoism and political egalitarianism – was the engine of his particular lifelong rhapsody.  Ezra Pound, in his own way, was a rhapsode as well : the Cantos are a stitched-together “rag-bag” of historical chronicles, interspersed with moments of archaic music and mystical rapture.   Charles Olson also can be seen, in The Maximus Poems, to be shifting abruptly between these different ranges.  

Part of the impulse in all three of these poets is to assert a veritably Adamic poetic authority : the “making things new”, the naming of inchoate realities fully-imagined, and thus true, as if for the first time.  And I think this is one way to approach the reading of our contemporary in the epic/serial long poem arena, Nathaniel Mackey.  In Mackey’s vast, seemingly boundless, intermeshed sequences, we can descry the different aspects of rhapsody as so defined.  There is the endless, repetitive weaving-together of characters and storytelling, by means of twisted, patched and re-patched words – riddles, neologisms.  There is also the dimension of music and song : a constant improvisation, wavering between mournful blues and choral, resonant exaltations.  And in the far distance, there is the possible communal wisdom, the equilibrium of some collective human harmony – carved out of a jagged, exilic sense of hard-crushed endurance and persistent dignity.

These are very partial and sketchy illustrations of how the dimension of rhapsody enfolds the making of long poems – merging themes and episodes with human emotion; setting aside the formalist rhetoric of technical gimmickry, with its inherent manipulative detachment.  The motive for extended long poems, as noted, is public, ceremonial, communal – and the means involve the inward substance of poetry itself : an articulate confidence in affirmation, a rhapsody of ripened wisdom.

1)  Conte, Joseph M., Unending Design : the Forms of Postmodern Poetry.  Ithaca, NY : Cornell Univ. Press, 1991.

Epic Finish

Note : This essay was written as a submission for a seminar at the 2022 Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture, hosted by Norman Finkelstein, on Nathaniel Mackey and contemporary long poems.  (Note : this particular essay was not included in the program.)


Chief Iffucan of Azcan in caftan

Of tan with henna hackles, halt!

Thus opens Wallace Stevens’ “Bantams in Pine-Woods” : a 10-line take-down of his giant rivals in American poetry – Eliot, Pound – with their abstract blasts, their canonical pronunciamentos.

Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat!  I am the personal.

Your world is you.  I am my world.

Nevertheless, here we also find a faint echo of Walt Whitman (both “kosmos” and “simple separate person”).  And according to Michael Bernstein(1), there is genuine fortitude in the way Pound answered the detachment of Symbolism – and its surrender of poetry’s communal values to prose fiction – with the example of Whitman.  Pound certainly admired the novelists; but he felt poetry manifested something more vital : the passionate affirmations of the creative spirit itself, as opposed to fiction’s clinical analytics.

The Pound vortex resonates with a thematic parallelism, a rhyme of dimensions.  Chronological time, historical development, and the pilgrim’s progress of the epic hero, reinforce each other, suspended amidst a mythical journey.  This pattern amalgamates quest, chronicle, and diary – drawing readers along wide-rambling, spun-out trails : Cantos, Paterson, Maximus Poems.

Yet there is a recurrent critical perception of something unfinished about this epic project.  Joseph Conte, in Unending Design(2), would supplant modernist aspiration toward totality with postmodern serialism – aleatory, improvisational.  This contrast recalls the ancient rivalry between Virgil – epic, imperial – and Ovid, with his “continuous song”,  his Metamorphoses.

Yet these binaries are quite porous.  On the one hand, Whitman tried to rake together his Leaves, reducing it to 52 sections – yet its prospect is an “open road”.  Pound envisioned a method for magisterial totality – but suggested an incapacity to “make it cohere”.  Williams tacked on a late fifth chapter to Paterson, to present some enfolding resolution.  On the other hand, the serialism of “modules” is actually applicable to any structure, closed or open.  Think of the framing trellises in Berryman’s serial Dream Songs : line, stanza, song, part, book.  Moreover, the alleged openness of serialism can be quite linear.  Like music rooted in a key, the droning of an open string, there is repetition in the most aleatory series : the continuity of the poet’s voice, the composer’s hand.  Robin Blaser’s notion, cited by Conte (3), that serial poems are closer to “natural” successions of time and seasonal change, is a mode of naturalism or realism, imposed upon an ideal of postmodern form.

Closure – the sense of fulfillment, of seeds ripening to fruition; the beauty of beginning, middle and end – these processes are not static, but continuously unfolding.  Shakespeare, like Pound, also borrowed shiny bits of (British) history, and fitted them into a dramatic series, each with its emphatic finale – yet foreshadowing the next play.  Old legends become radiant gists, enlivened by the pathos of embodied players.  “But the art itself is nature”, Hamlet notes.  Themes radiate allusively through such “closed” forms, echoing in the mind after the play is done.  

Crane’s Bridge appears, among modernist epics, the odd one out.  The poem’s diurnal framework (modeled on Joyce’s Ulysses?) encapsulates a series of American myths – a quasi-Shakespearean panorama in microcosm.  It also shapes a miniature quest : returning whence it began, to the rail of the bridge-grail, with metaphysical hosannahs at the end.  Unlike its rivals, The Bridge satisfies an aesthetic desire for wholeness, amplitude, finish.  It is compact, with that particular strength of compositional integrity – producing a pleasing after-effect, despite its weaknesses.  It hovers somewhere between the mythical ironies of Ovid and the imperial determinism of Virgil – a plangent equilibrium.

A forgotten masterpiece of literary criticism is Roy Harvey Pearce’s Continuity of American Poetry(4).  Pearce set the long poem firmly at the center of his story.  His schema is based on two conjoined ideas.  First, the essential role of the American poet is a struggle on behalf of creative imagination, against a fundamentally anti-poetic reality.  And second, Whitman made a discovery pivotal to this enterprise : he dared write a completely new kind of epic, which replaced the traditional adventures of a representative, semi-divine paragon, with a new hero for the age of democracy – the poet in person, the creative Self.  The epic task is simply the embattled making of the poem.  

Thus Pearce portrays the situation of American poets as a tension of overlapping resistances.  First, there was the Puritan resistance to medieval Christianity, based on a fervor for Scripture alone.  Then followed an upsurge of antinomian spiritualism, at the edge of Puritanism – a veering to the limits of its own creed (Quakerism is one  example).  Then evolved the fusion of Transcendentalist and antinomian impulses, in the writers of the American Renaissance (Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson) – and finally, the fully-formed resistance of American poets, armed with these spiritual weapons, to the ambience of anti-poetry in the wider culture – the transactional, pragmatic, workaday world of Enlightenment America.  In sum, the spirit of Transcendentalist poetry – and even more so, paradoxically, of the Symbolists’ progenitor, Edgar Poe – was a struggle for the imagination against anti-poetic reality.  

So, with Leaves of Grass, epic becomes the heroism of egalitarian vision… until the 20th century, when forces of scientific positivism and industrialized society consigned that vibrant legacy to Whitman’s lesser imitators.  At which point, according to Pearce, Pound and Eliot set a dialectical “counter-current” in motion.  Not the egocentric celebration of the Self, but its renunciation; not the defense of equality but its critique, on behalf of tradition.  Ultimately, not democracy, but monarchy – or Confucian dictatorship.

This powerful reversal sparked another resistance, by Crane, Williams, Moore, Stevens, et al. – a return (characteristically, individually) to antinomian roots.  Stevens, for Pearce, represents the high terminus of this struggle : a quasi-philosophical endeavor to enunciate completely humanist grounds for imaginative freedom – without any need of divine sanction.

Pearce’s model offers what he calls an “inside story” of American poetry.   And this scenario of resistances exudes a faint scent of its own mythical meta-drama.  Here are reverberations of archaic kingship, duels around the sacred oak; shades of the enfeebled Fisher King, expecting the Grail; Stevens’ cock-fighting bantams, each with its own idiom for the emblematic hero.  Berryman, lying in his Minneapolis sickbay, mourning absent friends and old masters… Pound, incarcerated across from the Capitol, kowtowing to towering icons of the past (Dante, Homer).  Finished.  

But then, what is ever finished in American poetry?  The hero?  The self?  Our only king is Martin Luther King.  And perhaps today, in our time, the musing, crooning, abiding Nate Mackey is – to anagrammatize – America’s “native son of the Key, son of the K.”


We have offered a neat picture of epic as finished object, as rounded totality.  “Literature is hero-worship”, propounded Pound; his Cantos present a transfer of American egoism into a Dantesque summa of world history : a parade of iconic, “factive men”, culminating in the bloated corpse of Mussolini – the dictator as sacred victim.  And we have framed epic as a reiteration of the rivalry of mythical kings.  But what does that rivalry concern?  Ultimately it was about a woman.  “Who will have the succession?” cries Pound, in Canto 80.  It was about woman as royal consort, generative mother.  It was a succession crisis : who shall continue the line?  Who shall be Queen Bee, Queen Mother?  Robert Graves, of course, with H.D., Robert Duncan, and Ted Hughes, delved into this implicit primal matter.  The neatness of my outline obscures an underlying false consciousness, rooted in male narcissism.  There are other voices, left out of my scheme : Dickinson; H.D.; Joyce; Zukofsky; Neidecker; and more recently, Lisa Robertson; Lissa Wolsak; Rachel Blau DuPlessis.  Each of these offers more feminine versions of cultural heroism.  Finally, perhaps a more fruitful way to approach the poetry of Nathaniel Mackey might be under a Zukofskian, rather than Poundian, aegis.  Power is turned inward, into song; history is raveled and unraveled, like Penelope’s tapestry, or Anansi’s web.  And the duel for success – for succession – stretches into an infinity of suspense : a questioning ambivalence, a teetering see-saw, a ship (loaded with abandoned children, exiles from Atlantis).


1) Bernstein, Michael AndrĂ©, The Tale of the Tribe : Ezra Pound and the Modern Verse Epic.  Princeton, NJ : Princeton Univ. Press, 1980.

2) Conte, Joseph M., Unending Design : the Forms of Postmodern Poetry.  Ithaca, NY : Cornell Univ. Press, 1991.

3) Conte, Joseph M., “Seriality and the Contemporary Long Poem”.  Sagetrieb, 11 (Spring-Fall 1992), pp. 35-45.

4) Pearce, Roy Harvey, The Continuity of American Poetry.  Princeton, NJ : Princeton Univ. Press, 1961.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Reading Gabriel Gudding

Link to review of two books by Gabriel Gudding, first published in Critical Flame.

Stuart Blazer's Ruffled Surf

Link to a poetry book review of Stuart Blazer, first published in Critical Flame.

Jerusalem & Albion

Link to a poetry book review of John Beer and Ben Mazer, first published in Critical Flame.

An Amateur Defense of Poetry

What follows has no footnotes, no scholarly apparatus. Just my own faulty memory and groundless, amateur speculations.


When did poets begin writing "defenses"? My guess is that Philip Sidney's was one of the first, in Elizabethan England, around 1600. The Renaissance (or post-Renaissance) was in full swing, the Reformation was underway, the Enlightenment would be arriving soon. The Middle Age of faith was giving way to the Modern Age of reason & science. Prose was splitting off from poetry. Prose leaned toward facts, practical utility, rational argument, scientific evidence and explanation. Poetry leaned toward Art & Beauty (in caps), toward the emotional life, the life of the spirit, toward everything that could not be quantified & examined with objective detachment. The "defensive" stance, signaled by essays like Sidney's, represented a reaction against new pressures brought to bear on the traditional role of the poet-as-seer, as bearer and enunciator of ancient & communal knowledge - an immediate kind of understanding, outside the frameworks of rational argument or scientific proof. & I would say the division, the polarization, between the rational & the poetic approaches came to a head, was crystallized, in the shift from the discursive rationalism of the Restoration poets, to the imaginative vision of the Romantics (epitomized & defended perhaps most stoutly by Coleridge & Blake, with some help from Wordsworth).


But why does any of this matter now? The Romantics were a long time ago. Modern and Postmodern thought found other & seemingly more relevant ways to challenge any simplistic versions of rationalism or scientific positivism. But perhaps that is the crux of the problem. Poets have relinquished the debate to philosophers, physicists, biologists, commentators, theologians... to everybody except poets themselves. A defense, then, would have to involve a re-assertion, a new expression, of the cultural-intellectual authority of poetry. & poets themselves are variegated into all sorts of distinct groupings based on style, or on poetic theory, or by specific ethnic-cultural-historical-linguistic identifications. Often it is claimed that there is no such thing as poetry, only poetries. An intellectual defense such as I am suggesting, then, sounds like a tall order.


There will be no "return to Romanticism." But there might possibly be a return to something more venerable than the Romantics : a sense of poetry as matrix of cultural understanding, as source of vision. It seems to me that there are ways to step tentatively in this direction, from various points on the circumference. So here I will toss around a few hunches in that regard.


We could start by thinking of poetry as a kind of living monument or textual distillation of a culture's language. This is not a popular notion in these times. The focus today is on the immediacy of vernacular engagement : people find odious the idea of poetry as a kind of textual crypt of language. Yet something in the back of the mind nags every real poet like a guilty conscience : the language we speak is objectively beautiful; thus poetry ought to build lasting containers, expressions, exemplifications, of that language. Poetry ought to seek both the exquisite & the necessary - the best verbal equivalents of both experience & thought.

But to accept that challenge is to be confronted with considerably difficult consequences : for it means that new (or perhaps old) thematic demands are applied to poets & poetry. The "beauty of language" is not just sound-music, not just elegant wit & ornamentation. There is also the profound dimension of meaning & thought - forsaking which, poetry has already relinquished any claim to cultural authority.

To meet these demands, however, poetry brings to bear some surprising strengths. Because a poem is a kind of playful, seemingly-purposeless end-in-itself, it is capable of modeling the ends of things : forms, shapes, distinct entities, in their particularity, their integrity, their wholeness : in their identity as ends. The integrity, the self-fulfillment of things is echoed, modeled, sanctioned by the harmonious, inherent integrity of poems. This is a specific kind of verbal modeling (Aristotle called it mimesis) which is peculiar to poetry.


For Blake & Coleridge, Wordsworth & Whitman, Keats & Dickinson & others, poems are the verbal distillation of human acts of imagination. Imagination is a specific faculty, a power of the human mind : essentially a power of invention & synthesis. The human power of invention is likened (especially by Coleridge) to a supernatural creative Power (the origin of reality itself, as a cosmic whole, in the divine "I Am"). The problem that these Romantics had with the rationalism of the Enlightenment (Voltaire, Rousseau, Locke, et al.) was what seemed to them a split between mind & heart, mind & soul, mind & spirit - between the reasoning, analyzing, abstracting mind, & the inspired imagination - its "sacred" representations of the whole of life, of life as wholeness.

The modern development of free-standing scientific rationalism, as the centerpiece of human thought meant the inevitable sidelining of the imagination, and hence of the purpose of poetry and the role of the poet. These are, of course, far from new ideas! But I think they represent the fundamental cause for the essentially ornamental & trivial social status of poetry in the contemporary world. It is, in sum, a question of two things : 1) the growing alienation of poets themselves from a sense of poetry as a distillation of the best (most memorable) language of their culture; and 2) the historical shift from imaginative (verbal) modeling of truth, to its rational analysis & (mathematical) verifications.


Is it possible today to counter these two trends - to rebuild, in a new mode, some of the intellectual confidence of, say, a Blake or a Coleridge? Many poets, in very distinct ways, have certainly made the effort. My own sense is that there is no method, no workable approach built on rational discourse or stubborn will-power. I think back, rather, to Wallace Stevens' notion, expressed in many of his poems & prose "adagia", that individual written poems are merely traces of something larger, more pervasive - some "poetry" inherent in the marrow of life itself. Poetry is thus some kind of basic aspect of "nature" or of the human, which comes to the fore by its own power - the faculty of imagination somewhat in Coleridge's sense. The human mind synthesizes experience - its ultimate or "authorized" expression - not in discursive prose tracts nor in mathematical formulae - but in poetic invention, the insight of the human imagination, the vision of the whole. The All (though of course poetry, being pervasive, is also visible, lurking, active, in prose & science & mathematics too).


& I predict that as historians, anthropologists, archaeologists & scientists persist in digging through the deep layers of human origins and the history of the planet, they will discover more & more evidence of the imaginative leaps of the human mind, which have emerged even in prehistory, to visualize & foresee amazing, "incredible" phenomena of the future (the vast, galactic, cosmic future), which we today find difficult to conceive or conceptualize.

Why Poetry, by Matthew Zapruder

A review of Matthew Zapruder's book Why Poetry was published in Rain Taxi #89 (Spring 2018).  Here's a link to the issue's table of contents.

Equipment for Living, by Michael Robbins

A review of Michael Robbins' Equipment for Living : on Poetry and Pop Music, published in Rain Taxi online edition, Winter 2017-2018

Saturday, May 10, 2014

"I gather the limbs of Osiris" : Notes on the New Gnosticism

Wrote an article about a group of poets who call themselves the New Gnostics; it's been published in Coldfront magazine, here.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Conceptualism.... blah


I have this animus against the "Conceptual Poetry" phenomenon.  It's not reasonable, it's not informed, it's just a visceral dislike.  My attitude reminds me of my attitude back in the '90s toward Language Poetry.  It's not fair, it's just there.  So, being so terminally bored by the ponderous pronouncements of Kenneth Goldsmith & Vanessa Place - bored enough not to read much of it at all - I probably have little light to shed on this matter.  But I just thought I'd vent a little.

The whole movement seems to stem genetically from philosophical discourse.  The attitude of amused contempt displayed by the Conceptuals toward ordinary "poems" seems similar to that of Plato.  Plato's worldview was fundamentally binary and divided.  Mind was separate from Body; the material Cosmos is an imperfect reflection of the perfect, immaterial, transcendent, shaping Ideas which formed it.  Poetry, that unaccountable verbal what-not, that irrational chaos, that disturber of Plato's perfect (authoritarian) Philosopher's State, was to be dismissed, shunned, outlawed.

The Conceptuals don't want to outlaw poetry.  But they seem to have a parallel bias toward intellectual constructs over actual works of art.  Their progress through the authorizing institutions of Poetryland resembles Plato's dream of a philosophical coup, a take-over of ordinary this-world governance.  King Kenny & Queen Vanessa, the Conceptual Royals, institute their theoretical reign over the last tattered vestiges of the post-Romantic "lyric I".

Plato considered art to be fundamentally a matter of imitation, a mirror (a tarnished mirror).  But it's possible to conceive of other framing analogies.  One does not have to accept Plato's dualistic cosmos, split between matter and mind.  Instead, one can imagine a more holistic universe, an "incarnational" cosmos, in which mind and body, spirit and matter, may indeed be valid ontological distinctions - but not irreconcilable divisions.  Reality may be less like a system, and more like a story.  Poetry may be less like a mirror, a reflection, and more like a building - a construct rising out of the primal process of naming.  The act of giving a name to something involves more than reflection, mirroring.  Wallace Stevens called poetry "the sanction of life".  I think this gets closer to essence of the process of verbal shaping and ordering, its final purpose, than Plato's formulae.

The Conceptuals would like us to believe they have a special theoretical angle on poetry.  They apply a pseudo-radical tactic :  debunk the hoary Romantic concept of poetry, as subjective, lyric expression, by attacking the notion of personal identity itself.   Replace composition with the functionalism of meaningless, evacuated "text".  They might do better by recognizing that poetry is an integral activity which surpasses its own (or the philosophers') theoretical abstractions.  The Romantic theory that lyric expression is the essence of poetry - a theory which also stems from philosophical speculations, in this case those of J.S. Mill - may be long out of date.  But their attempt to replace poetic "substance" by theoretical concept, combined with an attack on personal subjectivity itself, seems more like a promotional gimmick than a real change in poetry or poetics.


It's fun to think about poetry, which presents a lot of mysteries, conundrums.  It's fun to talk about it.  But making it is something else.  The activity of making poems resists theoretical frames & boxes.  Take, for example, the postmodern thesis that the lyric Subject is an illusion, a mirage of false consciousness driven by repressed class-historical-material forces, or by a mis-perception of the de-centered insubstantiality of the Real.  Yet, au contraire, what the actual labor of making poems reveals to the maker, is that the poem is the outcome of a personal struggle with an unaccountable something or someone other than the "lyric I".  And the very process of dialectical making - this struggle - tends to carve both poet and "other" into high relief - to bring on a greater intensity of conscious presence or being.  The process itself becomes primary : a process which involves the shedding or transformation of abstract preconceptions of every kind.

Poetry is conceptual by the very nature of its medium, language - so the phrase "conceptual poetry" is redundant.   But the "concepts" in poetry are secondary.  The primary power of poetry resides in names : the originary soundings of enunciation, evocation, expression.  The words, that is, the beginning and end of the poem, do not "represent" things : they establish things.   The dualisms of mind and body, thought and action, spirit and matter are transmuted within a sort of explanatory harmonics : earth is (figuratively speaking) transported to heaven.  Prose and poetry, innocence and experience, are not divided, but implicated with each other, woven together in unbreakable knots.

There are a lot of anti-poetic forces at work within American Poetryland.  There have been for a while.  Groups with agendas to promote at the expense of actual poetry.  But poetry is a stubborn, resistant, ineradicable thicket of laborious making.  It will not be undone by superficial theoretical make-overs.  Notions like the "obsolescent lyric Subject" are glib reductions from a much more complex actuality.  Strong poetry actually builds on the "I" of the solitary lyric - branches out from this seed into more expansive forms - dialogue, satire, narrative, epic, drama...  The whole ancient "wheel of Virgil" (eclogue/georgic/epic) still awaits contemporary fulfillments.


This annoyance with Conceptual Poetics... could it be because I'm jealous?  Doubt it.  Because I'm secretly one of them?  Possible, I guess.  I certainly like to speculate & natter on endlessly about "poetry", as every reader of this blog already knows.

Walking along Morris Ave. on my way to the library on a brilliant mid-May morning, I asked myself what is my concept of poetry?  And I thought, I conceive of poetry, and art generally, as a sort of disk, or circle.  A circle, in turn, can be conceived as an infinite series of congruent half-circles, each bounded or held together by an invisible straight line (its diameter), the center point of which is also the center of the circle as a whole.

Follow that?  The half-moon shape of a semi-circle resembles a bridge, or a bow held taut by a bow-string.  This circle, then, is a round of infinite half-moons or bridges.

The bow held by the string is an ancient metaphor for metaphor.  For Metaphysical "wit" : the yoking-together of contraries (night and day) in harmony (think of Hart Crane's symbol of his Bridge :  "power in repose").  Harmony is the mean between extremes : the force that makes peace between warring opposites, the magic alchemy which transmutes difference into complementarity.

Of course this is a fundamental aesthetic concept, underlying some of the great monuments of Modernist poetry (Crane's Bridge; Eliot's Chinese vase, in Four Quartets, still moving in its stillness, "at the still point of the turning world").

But then of course the time of modernism has passed, and postmodernity is here.  The atrocious 20th century has eroded modernism's idealizations, its heroic icons of order and power.  We recognize the irrational violence, the sense of global/cosmic displacement, the total futility of human grandeur as never before.  Violent History (gloomy Spengler's metier) is the master frame - bracketing all our rusty icons, our ideals, of what is good and pleasant to behold.

But I'm not surrendering my magic circle, my secret totem, my spell.  We only need to expand the two prongs of these moon-calipers, to enclose a wider, deeper spectrum of opposing forces.  Art is meshed in a circle with Life - the circle of human seasons, of birth and death, weakness and strength, suffering and joy.  We try to remember and seek to re-establish that Golden Age which lingers somewhere in the heart of a happy child - out of an equilibrium of natural life, the shelter of the family house, the "dwelling", the tent, the dome (a circle of circles).  These speculations are only another illustration of the worldview of Russian Acmeism - Mandelstam's notion that poetry is fundamentally a form of "domestic hellenism", a means by which mortal Man on earth surrounds herself with "teleological warmth"- makes himself at home.  It lingers in Joseph Brodsky : "Man was put on this Earth for one purpose : to make civilization."  Art sinks back, sinks its foundations, into the deeper circle of normative life, the most basic "golden mean", our shared well-being.  And a metaphysical hope remains in the poetic work of "naming" : the nominative, inventive, perspicuous, originary act of joining word and thing.   Adam, in the beginning, gave names to every creature.  The poet, in the end, brings this process to fulfillment, a flower in bloom - its rose window, circling in stone...  the Word does not merely represent : the Word establishes (anew).

So I recall Emily Dickinson's aphorism for her poetic work : "my Circuit is Circumference".


Blah, blah, blah...  not sure how much longer I can yoke these contraries (Concept & Blah) without giving us all the blahs.  But I think of things, walking to work, so I'll try to note it down.

Taking a long (wide?) view, Conceptual Poetics, Uncreative Writing, etc. may be irremediably trivial : yet it's curious how the concept, in connection with poetry, necessarily leads to the nearby endeavors of Literary Criticism.  What is poetry? has been the question.  As it happens I've been wading through a magisterial tome which used to be required reading for every English major, M.H. Abrams' The Mirror and the Lamp.  A historical study of critical theories of poetry, focused on the Romantic era, but analyzing it as one phase in a development stretching back to Plato and forward (for him) to the New Criticism of the 20th century (his own era).  And maybe beyond (I'm less than half way through).

For Abrams, the interesting thing is how the history of critical theories about poetry (in the West, anyway) reveals a procession of world-views, of philosophical eras, of chapters in the "Western mind", which determine in every way the specific aesthetic notions - about poetry and art in general - of each era.  Abrams develops a simple diagram, with "the Work" (the poem) at the center, from which arrows extend in 3 directions - "World", "Audience", "Poet" - which correspond, respectively, to 3 succeeding approaches to poetry : Mimetic, Pragmatic, Expressive.  (These in turn correspond to particular leading theorists : Plato/Aristotle for the mimetic; Horace and the neo-classical authors of the 18th century for the pragmatic; and the Romantics for the expressive.)  A fourth theoretical mode, which corresponds to the "Work" alone, Abrams calls "Objective".  I haven't gotten to those chapters yet, but I think he's referring to 20th-century Modernist and New Critical approaches, which highlight the integral, autotelic, self-contained "objectivity" of the work-in-itself.

Still awake, dear blahdom companions?

You get a sense, reading Abrams, of poetry as an ongoing, curious phenomenon, a puzzle, a conundrum, around which thinkers down the centuries have tried to attach their conceptual pincers.  With only partial success ; the thing remains a riddle, and what critics say about it often says more about assumptions and enthusiasms of their own era, than about this elusive what-not itself.  And the pattern of Abrams' argument seems to be leading toward some kind of crux, or cul-de-sac, since if you walk through his historical chart geometrically, you see a kind of swirl or spiral, of theories - absorbing the outer three in succession (imitative, pragmatic, expressive) and then turning inward to the center, to the last element, the Work itself (objective theories).  Where do we go from here?

Should we ask Helen Vendler?   Harold Bloom?  The Academy of American Poets?  A.W.P., maybe?  or the Poetry Foundation?  I asserted previously in this little series that poetry does more than represent reality - it (somehow) establishes same.  But I want to distinguish this phenomenon itself from its professional American expert establishers of literary establishments.  Poetry tends to get buried under the eager thundering of its mobs of advocates, all trained in their various ways to integrate literature into society, to promote the arts, to laud, praise and p.r. its established practitioners under compost piles of laurels and mountains of award grants.  It's a gradual smothering process out of which swarms of compost-insects rise and dance and do battle (winners & losers & bettors & publicists & kibbitzers).  Bye-bye, poetry.  Hello, symposia, festivals & funeral orations.

Much has changed in the 70 years or so since M.H. Abrams composed his subtle summa of Romantic poetics.   The critical ground has shifted, or given way completely.  Postmodernity rejects the unproblematic essentialism of all critical terms.  History and cultural identity are relativistic, contested fields of competing discourses.  The New Critical icon of the "poem itself" shattered and crumbled quite a while ago.  Ron Silliman, the Language Poet, for example, pronounced that "there is no such thing as poetry - only poetries."  So-called avant-garde programs (Flarf, the Charles Bernstein Unit, Uncreative Writing, etc.) are structurally self-corroding, designed and promoted through tongue-in-cheek technique.  Sincerity is for simpletons.  In a sense, these theory-driven or concept-based movements (arm-in-arm with most of the sub-critical poetries at which they poke fun) dramatize the hollowing-out of traditional literary criticism - dancing on its grave.

So... ?  Abrams' spiraling template ends (I'm guessing) at the summit of the "Work".  The poet's job used to be to imitate Nature in a wise & pleasing way (Mimetic).  Then it evolved into an Horatian mode of rhetorical suasion - leading readers to Goodness by way of Charm (Pragmatic).   Then the Romantics came along - resurrecting a neo-Platonic (Plotinian) spirituality, replacing the attenuated Deism of the rationalist Enlightenment with a new enthusiasm, grounded in the lamp of divine Imagination (Expressive).  Finally, once the ruinations of industrialism and war put paid to Romantic ideals, new forces of reactionary/revolutionary Modernism arose, grounded in the autotelic power of the Work itself (Objective).  Then at last came the great deconstructive fibrillations of the late 20th century.  & here we are.

Versions of all five of these approaches are still with us.  The whole Coliseum of professional American literary praxis continually justifies itself through apologetics based on some or all of these critical angles.  (Mimetic : " Poet X provides an excruciating but finally enthralling account of what it's like to live in Y."   Pragmatic : "Poet J reminds us, with moving memories of home, that we need to return to our roots."  Expressive : "Poet Q is a magician, an alchemiste du Verbe - revealing a wonderworld of fantastic visions."  Objective : "Poet Z is an uncompromising formalist, who cannot be tagged with any of the current labels. Neither traditionalist nor experimental, her austere, formidable style is literally incomparable."  Postmodern : "Poet M. unravels poetry from his shoelaces down, and builds it up again - as video.")

Yet poetry, the thing itself, slithers along like Montale's eel, some subterranean life-force, beneath the flimsy fabrications, the droning roar of the pros of the status quo.  Some of the most gifted 20th-century poets, including Stevens, Crane and Berryman, struggled against the complacent New Critical dicta regarding the autotelic "poem itself".  They were searching for some firmer sanction.  Stevens, often portrayed as the paragon of a neo-Romantic sublime (Bloom) or as a master of the self-pleasing, self-sufficient work of art (Vendler), might instead be understood as someone engaged in a relentless, rather tense intellectual struggle to find a justification for his work, for the making of poems.

Poetry and worldview : I think we can say these depend on each other.  But maybe the poet doesn't so much articulate or express a worldview, as respond, obliquely, to the existent worldview, the reigning zeitgeist.  And maybe within this response are encrypted some intimations of futurity - of a future human ambience, or common sense of things, which hasn't happened yet.  Thus when I proposed that the poetic Word not only represents, but establishes, maybe this could be understood in this kind of future tense.  Here I'm reminded once more of Emily Dickinson....

I dwell in Possibility--
A fairer House than Prose--
More numerous of Windows--
Superior--for Doors--

Of Chambers as the Cedars--
Impregnable of Eye--
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky--

Of Visitors--the fairest--
For Occupation--This--
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise--

Monday, November 26, 2012

Wiman's Mandelstam (and Mine)

Here's a link to my Critical Flame review of Stolen Air - a book of versions/translations of Osip Mandelstam, by Christian Wiman.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Rapture and Poetry

My time is still unbounded.
And I have accompanied the rapture of the universe
As muted organ pipes
Accompany a woman's voice.

- Osip Mandelstam, trans. by James Greene

Until today (the day before the predicted Event) I haven't paid any attention to all the yap about The Rapture. It seems to be of more (comic) interest to the irreligious gabbosphere, than to soi-disant "people of faith."

One way to think about some statements of Jesus in the Gospels about the Day of Judgement, and what is called "the Rapture" (ie., to paraphrase : keep watch : no one knows when the end is coming : "on that day, one will be taken, and one will be left behind" etc.), is that they fall within a general Gospel/Biblical emphasis on a distinction between soul & body, spirit & flesh, invisible & visible, heaven & earth, eternity & time. Contrary to prevalent stereotypes - most of them originating with Christian monastics & preachers themselves - this distinction, in both Judaism & Christianity, is just that : a distinction, no more no less. It does not mean a denigration of the earth, the body, the visible, the flesh, etc. All these things from the latter half of the equation are to be accepted with joy & gratitude as gifts of the Creator. What the emphasis on this distinction of Spirit is meant to do is to restore the balance : to bring humanity back to spiritual wholeness & health, in a world overwhelmed by the fleeting & changing things of "this world." Thus the reminder of an End-Time - & the focus on individual alertness & awareness (ie. "let your loins be girded", for "one shall be taken & one left behind") - is again a kind of memento mori, and a reminder of the nearness (though invisible) of the "kingdom of heaven."

This is just one way (a low-key, common-sense way) to approach what is implied by the "Day of Judgement" exhortations in the Gospels. But I want to foreground this distinction (earth/heaven, body/spirit, visible/invisible) as an entry into what follows. I want to talk a little about poetry and "rapture". Osip Mandelstam points toward this theme, in the stanza above - from a late poem, written (not long before his final trip to Siberia & death) after listening (from exile in provincial Voronezh) to a recording of Marian Anderson, singing gospel music on Moscow Radio. Poets - in their visionary, enthusiastic, prophetic, charismatic, shamanic modes - have been associated with "raptures" from the beginning of time (isn't rhapsode a name for "poet" in Greek?). Plato memorably contrasted the "reasonable" discourse of the philosophers with the Muse-inspired, unpredictable flights of poets. The ancient kinship between poem & oracle was a cross-cultural given. What is involved here is the charisma of possession - of the in-coming of the God, the Divine, the Spirit : of a somatic/intellectual experience which transports the poet into a "harmonic" state, resulting in song : the expression, the narration of the holistic, visionary experience itself : Mandelstam's "rapture of the universe." We are reminded here of the apostle Paul's account of his sudden transport to "the third heaven" (ie. above the clouds, and also beyond the stars), where he saw things he could not put into words; and of Dante's journey to Paradise with Beatrice (which explicitly adumbrates Paul's confession). These are what you might call canonical examples in the history of "rapture." They are akin as well to the Gospel episode, when the disciples witness Jesus' Transfiguration - standing on the hill with Elijah and Moses - from earthly man into heavenly being.

Many people - maybe everyone, really - have experienced, at one time or another, brushes with the inexplicable : the uncanny, the marvelous, the serendipitous, the wonderful, the mysterious... the spiritual, the numinous, the holy. Encounters or events which one cannot (or will not) reduce to some rational explanation or verbal equivalent. For the rare saints & holy people among us, ordinary life, whatever it brings, is perhaps transformed into the "bread & wine" of spiritual understanding : for the rest of us, most of the time, we're O.K. if we can just stave off trouble & get through another day....

But I've had my share of such rare & extraordinary experiences. Some of them have profoundly shaped the direction my life has taken. As I've written about before - when I was about 20 yrs old (in 1972-3) I underwent a series of seismic psychological events - uncanny, charismatic experiences - which seemed to mingle faith, vision & poetry. As a result I was shaken out of my practical life and rational pursuits : I dropped out of college for three years; I hitchhiked around the country (& England) in a kind of cloud of pondering & meditation on the mystery of things. & in a sense I have never stopped seeking that understanding : in 1973 I was brought up short by a kind of rational enigma, which spurred my curiosity about metaphysical, spiritual things. But I misrepresent what I went through, if I narrate this as merely some sort of gnostic search for occult knowledge. It was really an experience of being moved & changed in the heart of my personality : morally & emotionally as well as intellectually. My life was changed.

One of the consequences of this - & because what I went through was all tangled up in my mind with my sense of myself as a poet, with a literary vocation - was that I was unable to return to academics & the pursuit of a career in a "normal" way. I felt I had been through something which no teacher or classroom could explain to me; moreover, I felt motivated to find a way to express what I was "seeing" & learning directly in poetry. Poetry, vision & experience seemed irreducibly entwined. And I think at least one part of the reason I've worked at a kind of low-level job in a library for 25 years, is that I needed that independence from any kind of "worldly" demands on my ability to express things in poetry. I couldn't teach writing, I couldn't study or pursue an academic degree in a "sensible" way, because the intellectual & vocational responsibilities involved would be more than I could bear. (I realize there might be other, less charitable ways of evaluating such diffidence on my part. I'm sure there are many sides to it - "character issues"... I'm explaining just one of them.)

But setting aside the autobiographical vein : what I mean to suggest is that these extraordinary events - these strange spiritual promptings (nudgings?) - have provided me food for thought now for a long time : a food which has never run out. & over the past few weeks & months I've sensed a sort of integration in my mind, of longstanding notions & new researches - connected with the long poem I've been struggling with (Lanthanum). Integration, synthesis... it's a sense of certain ideas becoming substantial, & harmonized with each other, so that they provide a sort of confirmation, a weight or substance, I can carry around with me... in a state of mild rapture & joy!

This is really not easy to explain without degrading it in the process. I've been searching for images & rational analogues of something at the root of the poem (Lanthanum), which was an unusual dream I had a few years ago about the Gateway Arch monument, in St. Louis. I've been reading about architecture (Padovan, Proportion; Van der Laan; Smith, The Dome). I've been reading various things on the literature of the Holy Grail (Gemstone of Paradise by Murphy was especially interesting, as was an old book by Helen Adolf, Visio Pacis). I've been reading some theology, especially the Byzantine church father, Maximus the Confessor. I've been reading some physics & cosmology. From these & many other books I've been drawing nourishment, I think, for a sort of productive way of seeing, or way of understanding things in general. & out of all this there was not a single "Eureka!" moment - but a kind of drawn-out, successive, gradual, gradually-expanding & growing & strengrthening E-U-R-E-K-A !-sense... a real "rapture of the universe", as Mandelstam put it.

How can I say it? I can't. I've been trying to say it & express it & sketch it out in the Lanthanum sequence & other poems. But since tomorrow's supposed to be "The Rapture," let me on this special occasion try to articulate my own intellectual joy-glee-rapture as I seem to feel it & see it.

Murphy, in his book on the grail, sets himself the task of explaining why the poet Wolfram von Eschenbach (in Parzival) describes the grail as a "stone." He explains how the tomb of Christ was considered to be carved out of stone - to be a rock tomb. He explains that the Church began sanctifying portable eucharistic tables, so that pilgrims & soldiers could receive Communion even away from churches proper. These tables were little boxes or stands, made out of stone & gems, beautifully designed, with small hollow sections - miniature replicas of the Holy Sepulchre - which held the sanctified eucharistic bread (Christ's body). He shows how Wolfram's descriptions of the grail seemed based on such portable eucharistic containers - Murphy even discovers a specific box (in a museum in Bamberg, Germany) which he believes may have served as Wolfram's model.

The implication of these affinities is that the grail is equated with Christ's eucharistic Body : which itself (the eucharist) stems from, is part of, the body of Christ himself (in the Sepulchre, and resurrected on Easter). The Sepulchre today rests under a domed building in Jerusalem. Domical structures (as Smith relates) are a very basic & global figure for the human "home" (being a microcosmic representation - from nomadic tent structures to Hagia Sophia - of the "dome of heaven" arching over the earth). Thus we have the image of the mortal/risen Man/God - Jesus - located in the symbolic "center of the earth" (Jerusalem) - beneath the microcosmic dome-home - & replicated in a portable eucharistic "grail", available to anyone who seeks it.

Thus far we are discoursing on symbolic-religious symbols (which, taken by itself, could be criticized, I suppose, as a species of mystico-antiquarianism). So let me try to explain how I understand a sort of philosophical analogue or parallel to these symbols. And I want also to try to relate all this to poetry.

I think the human mind & imagination have an inborn orientation toward understanding. The discipline of science subjects this drive, this orientation, to the demands of analysis, experiment & proof : but the drive itself - to understand - came first. The mind - the imagination - is synthetic : aiming for wholes, for completeness, for the integration of disparate facts & experiences. The urge to wonder seems primordial to me : and what it answers, what it responds to, is an awareness of the basic difference between nothing and something. The vast universe - something - stands against nothingness, non-existence. I remember pondering these things in adolescence - but it probably starts in childhood : wondering, questioning the origin of life, of the universe.

Further, I think there is a basic consequence of this original human wondering, which is a state of what used to be called "natural piety". It is a deep and mostly-unconscious gratitude for being : an attitude of thanksgiving for the joy of mere existence, of being-alive. Of course, many things (we all know them) work to crumble & debilitate this attitude of gratitude : but this doesn't mean it's not still lurking there, beneath all our fears & disappointments. It is too basic, too primordial, to be destroyed.

Now let me try to pull some of these threads together toward some sort of conclusion. Here's what I say : the true "holy grail" is a kind of portable state of awareness. An awareness of what? A sense of an underlying harmony. What is this harmony? It is a harmony of proportion : a proportion (ratio, logos) between the human & the divine, between humanity & God. In a stance of gratitude. Gratitude stemming from an awareness of the "createdness" of the visible universe : of something born out of nothing. And not only that : but also gratitude stemming from an awareness of this central proportion itself : that human persons - in the "architecture" or "ecology" (the dome) of their lived lives on earth - represent visible images of divine Personhood. The earth, as Mandelstam, put it, is a "mansion" - & we are "God's grateful guests". This is a very basic (& fairly traditional) insight - shared by another Petersburg poet, Gumilev, & by Anna Akhmatova : it was part of the "chaste vision" of the Acmeist poetic project of the early 20th century. On this most simple foundation of gratitude or thanksgiving, the whole normative structure of civilization is seen to be constructed. It is stated most clearly in the Gospels, when Jesus explains that all the law & commandments hang on two basic commands : "To love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind & strength, and what is like unto it, to love your neighbor as yourself." This is the core activation of the most basic sense of faith in a divine or metaphysical or dream or dramatic order of cosmic reality : this is the "bread & wine" of the poetic vision of the universe - its "rapture." Under the estrangement of time, and change & mortality, this is the promise of a kind of Easter metamorphosis : a resurrection of the mind & spirit through a mysterious Approach of living Consciousness - the dramatic victory of "sacred history" - its epic plot, you might say - its "divine comedy" : the victory of spirit over matter, of immortality over death. This, you could say, is what Mary Magdalen "saw" when she found Jesus - "the gardener" - near the empty tomb. In another late poem, Mandelstam put this kind of deep rapture into words again, a poem which is one of my all-time favorites (translated here by Richard & Elizabeth McKane). The "clarity of a concept" - this is it.

To Natasha Shtempel


Limping against her will over the deserted earth,
with uneven, sweet steps,
she walks just ahead
of her swift friend and her fiance.
The restraining freedom
of her inspiring disability pulls her along,
but it seems that her walking is held back
by the clarity of a concept :
that this spring weather
is the ancestral mother of the grave's vault,
and that this is an eternal beginning.


There are women, who are so close to the moist earth,
their every step is a loud mourning,
their calling is to accompany the resurrected,
and be first to greet the dead.
It is a crime to demand kisses from them,
and it is impossible to part from them.
Today angels, tomorrow worms in the graveyard,
and the day after, just an outline.
The steps you once took, you won't be able to take.
Flowers are immortal. Heaven is integral.
What will be is only a promise.