Good morning, everyone. I am standing on my head as I type this. Thank you, thank you, please hold your applause, thank you.
In yesterday's (10/15) comment box at Ron Silliman's clubhouse, I made some comments about poetry as a subset of an extra-poetic realm one might call Paradise or the kingdom of heaven. These occasioned some conjecturing with myself as I walked to work this morning (fine October day here in New England).
I had written that poetry offered something of a "seeming short-cut (only seeming)" to that realm. But bumbling along the street this morning, it occurred to me that this "offer" stems from a mistaken or incomplete perception. It also occurred to me that these are deep issues which are beyond me & over my head for the moment.
Anyone who doubts that these are serious issues in poetry need only read Dante's Purgatorio, where the trip to the earthly paradise takes place in large part through conversations about poetry; the love-ballads of Dante's troubadour models are sketched as seductive "pauses" (or illusory short-cuts) on the difficult road to well-being. Or read his Vita Nuova for that matter, where writing poetry moves through an adolescent phase wrapped in narcissistic "love of love", to a kind of soul-saving endeavor, the writer's only (desperate) means of articulating a response to the beloved's death, & the truth about mortal and immortal life.
Poetry, it would be hard to deny, is a "seductive" mode of speech in any context, a mode that achieves its affects through pleasure. Poetry cults are founded on the seeming short-cut (to somewhere) it thus provides. Yet perhaps it can be shown that poetry also works on its readers more stringently, in the area of Pound's logopeia. The overall beauty of a poem perhaps rests in a balance of forces, an achieved rest which holds these forces in equilibrium : poetry/not-poetry, beauty/truth. In this kind of classicism, the effect of a poem is not ultimately seductive : in fact, by renouncing rhetorical seduction, by presenting a disinterested, independent balance of forces, the poem offers a model of health & healing. It does not take the place of paradise, but models the distance to its attainment.
It's funny to be thinking these thoughts in the context of RS's next daily message (10/16), which outlines quite coherently a sobering perspective, which definitely has an earthly paradise in view, blocked by forces of economic stagnation-tyranny leading to injustice. Silliman emphasizes the power of creative iconoclasm & innovation present in artistic activity as a model for response to hegemonic (& hyper-modernizing) injustice.
In my view (this morning anyway off the top of my head) this is o.k., but there are a couple problems with it. The first is that life-experience cannot be reduced to shifts and power-plays in the realm of political economy. The refusal to participate in such reductivity is one of the prime purposes of artistic activity. In & by this refusal art reveals the complexity that politics always simplifies. The second problem is related to the first. Through the free imagination, art represents the way that moral force is manifested by human beings; by the same token, a moral act is an act of imagination. There is a categorical breakthrough here which allows the free human spirit to assert an "authority" not bound by exterior necessity, violence or force. This imaginative freedom, of course, also allows for the danger of Faustian pride or egocentric withdrawal from the struggles of life. But the freedom of the spirit is also perhaps the only way that the essence of human nature & human dignity is expressed in the world.
This is the source of the problem I have with utilitarian, sociological, political gambits for "improvement" of & through the arts. There is no technical solution, which is what Ron seems to invoke in his call for artists to harness innovation for the betterment of the world. The moral imagination is not subject to innovation : it's a matter of commitment unto death, under circumstances no one can predict.