Friday, January 26, 2007

How to Read a Long Poem

A long poem is not like a short poem. It’s more like a novel. In his essay “Conversation about Dante”, Osip Mandelstam describes the poetic process as a sort of seismic crisis or dislocation, through which reading becomes writing, and writing becomes reading, and the reader discovers a kinship with the writer in the new reality of the text. Thus, a long poem is not a transparent film or glass placed over “the real world” : it’s a set of signals drawing the reader into an alternate reality, the fabric or texture of which is verbal, sonic, painterly... distinct.


In a classic, magisterial study, The Great Chain of Being, Arthur Lovejoy traced the history of the idea of cosmic-spiritual “plenitude”, from Plato and Aristotle through the medieval Scholastics down to the modern era. He analyzed the inner contradictions which arose in the attempt to define the nature of God : for, in order to be perfect, the Prime Mover – the infinitely powerful and good and self-sufficient, the ultimate desired subject/object of all created beings – this Being has to disperse herself, divest herself, expend herself in the full cosmic scale of finite creation. And so to know or understand or achieve God, the contemplative is drawn in two contrary directions : either the renunciation of this world, or the compassionate embrace of same. “The way up is the way down.” Different ages and personalities have emphasized one or the other (the Middle Ages the former, the Renaissance the latter).

The maker of long poems is caught in the matrix of these two impulses. There is a powerful urge to integrate the Many into One, to discover the inner rationale, the cataloging method, for the cosmic Encyclopedia. At the same time, there is the artist’s recognition that unless the artwork reflects the individuality, the quiddity of things, on every level of the “ladder” of nature, the artwork slips into pale abstraction – discourse and philosophy rather than landscape or portrait. This productive, contradictory matrix is what generates the poem’s (often exasperating) longevity.


Many religious and philosophical traditions reflect various forms of what in Christian doctrine is called kenosis : God’s self-humbling for the sake of saving the world : the King of the Universe “taking the form of a servant”. (Plato’s characterization of the god of Love as a homeless waif comes to mind.) If one considers the long poems since Wordsworth’s Prelude through the lens of this concept, one discovers an aspect contrary to their frequent evaluation as arrogant, prideful, sometimes infernal (viz. Pound's politics) exercises in egotism and megalomania. Perhaps all the long-poem efforts after Paradise Lost are marked, to some degree, with the sign of Milton’s Satan – efforts to supplant orthodox theology with a contrary, antinomian, heretical vision. On the other hand, if we can accept the notion that the basic poetic impulse participates, in some fashion and to some degree, with an overarching spiritual activity – ie., history as kenosis – then we might recognize the long-poets’ agonizing efforts as partial, imperfect reflections of that activity. Thus Pound’s obsession with economic justice, or William Carlos Williams’ efforts to advance “the local”, or Crane’s attempt at a lyrical Myth of America, or H.D.'s hellenic psychomachia, or Eliot’s enfoldment of earthly Time within cyclic Eternity (Four Quartets), or Olson’s scheme to absorb reality into microcosmic Maximus, or Zukofsky's plangent, all-absorbing interiority ("A"), or Jay Wright's West African Orphism (Dimensions of History, et al.), or (the most orthodox and explicit example) David Jones’s model of history as poised forever between Roman Empire and Catholic Mass... these 20th-century poems play out, enact, forms of literary kenosis. The poet suffers in giving birth to a cosmic totality – a totality which, as such, must reflect the complete scale (from highest to lowest, from heaven to hell, from fame and greatness to poverty and nonentity).


& I suppose it goes without saying that the poet's kenosis is representative of the creative turmoil of all writers & artists; & also stands, on a wider scale, for the ordinary mute behavior of everyone - all who express themselves in daily (serious and trivial) acts - gestures of hands, the semaphore of face and eyes.

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