Pondering (in the shower, on way to work, etc.) next week's events with A. Ballardini.
We'll be reading in libraries (RWU, John Hay). Yesterday visiting British poet John Cayley orchestrated a performance piece in my library, via linked computers, called "Impositions" - involved chanting, singing alphabetical algorithms - very unusual ambience for "the Rock"...
the poet in the ancient matrix of texts...
reminded me of the also-ancient, generative duel between the poet and writing, texts. (I've tried to deal with this before.) Poetry's roots in oral performance and personal presence set up a kind of rivalry with the more-distinct separation of speech & text represented by prose. cf. Whitman on/in Leaves of Grass : "this is no book... but a man". There must be a rhetorical term for this kind of exaggeration - certainly a paradox, anyway. Of course, it is, in fact, a book you are holding in your hand... but Whitman's statement - his persuasive, beguiling poem generally - plants a doubt in the reader's mind.
So I was thinking about this, and then about Pound's Cantos. Pound set himself as the heir to Whitman. With the "beak of his ego", as Olson put it, he attempted to bring old documents, old texts to life - by setting them in vivid, poetic juxtaposition. The poet setting the "beak" of his person within the dry nothingness & vast wastes of history & historiography - & in so doing, identifying himself with the lifegiving Osiris or Orpheus - bringing the millennial vision of springtime renewal into earthly history. This is how Pound set out to "re-do" the epic task of the epic poet, in the path of Homer & Dante.
& he saw his approach as specifically marshalling the special rhetorical powers of poetry, in order to challenge the displacement of the epic role in literature, from poetry to prose fiction & other forms of prose discourse.
So I was thinking about some of this this morning, in relation to the talks & readings I'll be giving with A. Ballardini. Back in the early 80s, I started to glom onto these special long history-documentary poems - Pound, Williams, Olson, David Jones, & others. They had an immediate appeal to someone like me, who has been avidly reading history since early childhood (I remember that big terrific Random House series for young people - the "We Were There" books, the history of science books - which I devoured when I was about ten or so).
& I started walking in that path, of the long history-epic poem. & now, due to Anny's translation/interpretation of In RI, I'm starting to think of these things in the context of translation. If poetry, in its rivalry with prose, is manifested under the sign of embodiment - of personal presence - how does this relate to translation, & specifically to In RI?
Just as there is more than one way of considering translation, there is more than one way of considering presence or embodiment. A. Ballardini provides an example of 2 types of translation, as I've noted previously - linguistic (English into Italian), and conceptual (text into interpretation - ie., her essay on the poem).
The Bible, correspondingly, offers at least two kinds of presence - both of them hovering near the sign of translation. In the King James version, Elijah, when he rides his burning chariot into the sky, is "translated" into heaven. Secondly, in the New Testament, there is the paradigmatic event of Pentecost, or Whitsuntide. Here, the ghostly presence of the Third Person of the Trinity is manifested by an explosion of translation - the famous "speaking in tongues", when the disciples from many nations saw flames flickering over each other's heads, and, though speaking in many languages, immediately understood each other. (This is a representation of the dual aspect of translation - linguistic & conceptual - fused together.)
We could say that this narrative of personal (or Personal, or supra-personal) presence - ordering and translating language into a new efficacy - is analogous to the role of poetry, in which personal presence manifests, vivifies and celebrates linguistic meaning.
So I was thinking of these things this morning, and of how A. Ballardini's attention and understanding of the text of my poem to some extent brings it to life; just as a poetry reading brings text to (celebratory) life.
In the context of In RI, we are talking about the epic tale of a "hero" (Roger Williams) who was, in many ways, both the product and the agent of translation. The new "counter-state" of Rhode Island, for which founding he was most responsible, was in a sense the outcome of a clash between the medieval & renaissance culture of autocratic state and enforced civil religion, on the one hand, and the radical, anarchic power of the newly-vernacularized Scripture on the other. When ordinary people could read the texts for themselves, forces of liberation were set in motion : forces which Williams, perhaps more effectively than anyone else, marshalled on behalf of the actualization of real political liberty. (p.s. some scholars have suggested that the term Williams used to identify RI as a "sanctuary state" - defining it as a "refuge" - might have been borrowed from an old report, in Italian - the first European description, by explorer Giovanni da Verrazano - of Narragansett Bay as a pleasant "refugio".)
So I was thinking about these things... and also about the title of the poem, In RI - which has a sort of double meaning. You see it in many medieval & renaissance paintings, as an inscription printed by the Romans over the crucified Jesus. Here is a counter-symbol, the polar opposite of that of Pentecost : an authoritative text inscribed over a dead body. At end end of her essay, A. Ballardini quotes an email I sent her in this regard :
"[The poem] is political. About founding a "counter-state", based on rights and popular sovereignty, which themselves in turn depend upon human empathy, fairness, openness, solidarity. Thus the title "In RI" sort of telescopes two things: an abuse of judicial language, and a special place (RI). By the abuse I mean the inscription 'IN RI' written by the Romans over Jesus' crucifixion. They had a procedure of writing the crimes of the condemned in this way, on the very instrument of execution. 'In RI' stood for 'king of the Jews', thus accusing Jesus of rebellion vs. the Roman state (actually a sort of stand-in for Barabbas). The political foundation of that "special place" (Rhode Island), through the agency of Williams, effects a sort of reversal (in world history) of the type of injustice represented by the inscription "In RI" (a mirror-image of the founding of Rome in Virgil's Aeneid...)."
So... anyway, I've been thinking about the role of poetry & the poet, in the context of a centuries-old literary predominance of prose. & how these varied elements of presence & translation - embodiment & ghostly transposition - are somehow activated by poetic performance...