2.28.2009

* Note to the friendly people who "follow" this blog : I'm sorry I can't display your links on the main page. It's because this is an old blogger template, which does not handle the "followers" function. But I can see you're following (on my dashboard). I appreciate your interest.
New Lanthanum.

2.27.2009

Lately have been dwelling (in a very inconclusive way) on the relation between poetry & the poet-as-person. Actually this started a week or so ago, I think, with an odd sort of "involuntary memory" of Proust. Proust just popped into my mind, out of nowhere. & then a few days later I was having this slight memory, which seems to recur every few years, of being absorbed in reading French poets (Rimbaud, Baudelaire) in high school. Sitting on this kind of outdoor porch, barefoot, with a paperback & a french dictionary. & then have been thinking more lately about an old manuscript of mine (currently under consideration by a publisher), which combines prose & poetry - a memoir-fiction & the poems that came out of it.

Anyway, what am I rambling on about here? Vague thoughts lately about the public figure or dramatic impression that a poet makes in today's culture(s). The "public career", the image, the impression. Exactly how poets emerge (so variously) into public view. & what all this has to do with the poetry itself.

Forever, it seems, I've behaved as a kind of purist - trying to avoid any "extra-literary" manipulation of public taste. No po-biz for me. No chumming up with potential supporters among more-established poets. No cliques. No careerism. "Pure" in that I see all that as diluting - corrupting, even - any honest, disinterested appreciation of the work itself.

I still feel that way. But I'm starting to think there is a kind of gray area between the poet & the work - which is the dramatic figure the poet cuts in society. Basically, this involves the relation between the poems and the author's presentation of personal experience (autobiography, identity). This is not necessarily solitary or narcissistic, if the presentation of that experience has a moral-historical dimension - a critical dimension.

Anyway, I'm wondering how much culture demands not only poems, but poets. Poets whose articulation and transmission of their individual history - their own sense of their historical situation and context - is felt as necessary by culture at large.

Not sure if this makes any sense. In a way it's a sort of chicken-&-egg dilemma. There's no public interest, if the poems are not forcefully magnetic in their own right. But perhaps the dramatization of the poet's experience - the poet's self-dramatization - is a necessary part of that magnetism. (Geoffrey Freidin's interesting book on Mandelstam, A Coat of Many Colors, dwells on this issue of the "charismatic" element in Russian poetry.) If culture is one big drama - if all the world's a stage, & history is a play ("Everyman") - then perhaps culture demands (on some semi-conscious level?) the poet as representative figure.

I suppose Emerson had something to say about that. & Walt was listening. (& Robert Frost - look at the carefully-designed folksy figure he cut in the world!)

My wondering has to do with what all that has to do with poetry-making itself? & where do I fit into all that? (Here's "Henry", folks - trying to dig himself out of 100 yrs of Impersonality!!)

There has been the insistent playing around with autobiography as a kind of iconic literary re-enactment - the Berrymanish "Henry" chronicles; Stubborn Grew as a version of Rabelais... But thinking of my (unpublished) memoir-poetry mix - I'm wondering whether somehow the autobiographical offers the (potential) public a (potential) entrance into my poetry : a way to finally apprehend its existence - to enjoy it for what it actually is (in its own proper context & milieu)...

(It's definitely a comedy, all right. Call it Wishful Thinking, or something like that.)

Heck, what a huge kermuffle this issue has been over the last 100 yrs. The modernist demand for objectivity, impersonality - the sense that the making of a work of art is unfinished or illegitimate if it doesn't transcend the personal. There are libraries full of books on artistic subjectivity, identity, personality, impersonality...

2.26.2009

2.25.2009

Tomfoolery for Lent over at Lanthanum.
New post over at Plumbline.

2.24.2009

2.23.2009

some new Lanthanum.
David Orr on "greatness" in poetry.

Orr regularly comes up with interesting insights. But don't we already know what greatness in poetry involves? Where's the mystery, here?

The in-house poetry scene is like a 24/7 Academy Awards show, everybody wondering who's on top, who (if anybody) is any good this year.

But literary force & greatness do not depend on the scene, the status quo, current opinion. Greatness shifts all the markers.

Orr glances toward this, but not very decisively. & surprisingly he quotes Samuel Johnson, equating greatness with "exquisiteness in its kind" - which seems pretty limited as a defining characteristic.

As I see it, the great poets command a kind of cultural-artistic force field, a magnetic power - which intrudes upon and fuses with the history of their people in toto. With them, biography becomes fate. Suddenly events are no longer ruled by chance, but are transformed into a drama (of mind, art, originality). Reality is personalized through the medium of the work.

This may sound Romantic. It's not. It applies in every era. Poetry doesn't depend on philosophy or criticism; the poet's critical faculties (along with the imaginative) are fully deployed in the creative process, making possible an artistic microcosm, within which everything is filtered & shaded by the poet's vision. As Nicholas Cusanus wrote, with regard to the creative human personality : "The world giulianizes in you, Giuliano."

It seems to me there are 3 characteristics, displayed by the great poet, which determine this unusual situation :

1) A powerful, synthetic intellect, able to grasp wide spheres of life & discourse, and translate them into a new, unique order.
2) A strong will, determined to engage with the world, with its most difficult practical, moral & theoretical cruxes, riddles, problems. A dramatically-engaged personality.
3) An original, masterful combination of artistic talent and sensibility.

Such people don't come along every day.

p.s. but let me be clear : I'm not a believer in Supermen, Ubermensch (literary or otherwise). I'm pretty much with TS Eliot on Tradition (& Individual Talent). A poet becomes great through a sense of allegiance & service to a larger, older world (of art, of history). "The greatest among you shall be your servant."
I see Ron Silliman's already got a negative "brand name" for the Plumbline School ("plumbers"). He's always been good at marketing, brands & pigeonholes.

2.20.2009

Joseph Hutchinson had some comments on the Plumbline School today.
You get older, you just want to simplify... (when you're not trying to escape). I'm thinking about the "less is more" theory of poetry.

The person standing in front of other people, offering a kind of song... & yet even simpler, more stripped-down. Sometimes "through clenched teeth" (as Montale, I think, put it).

A spoken song, a kind of modulated speaking-chant. It's only words. It's not "an experiment". It's not high-falutin' bells & whistles. It's not "conceptual". It's not a "movement". It's not a speech, it's not a play (though it can be like a soliloquy). It's not a comedy routine. It's not a joke.

Everything is concentrated in the flow of speech, the diction, the statement, the image.

All this seems wonderfully figured in Mandelstam's comparison of poetry to a modest, unremarkable gray pebble - which contains, hidden within, a "terrifying density".

I used to think by this he meant all the baroque architecture of allusion and echoing of past poets & poems, the dense subtlety. That may have been part of it. But I think he was also trying simply to characterize the medium of poetry in general : how (unlike more complex media, like music, painting, architecture) poetry rests on this razor-thin, almost-insensible impression of verbal sound/meaning. Poetry inhabits that very thin ledge between the material (of art) & the intellectual (of thought).
Definition of a dogmatist : you dish it out, but you can't take it.

A good boxer rolls with the punches (& also learns from others).
New post over at Plumbline (TSE, Metaphysicals)
Fine bit of Latta-coffee today.

2.19.2009

Something new in Lanthanum. I wonder if anybody will get it...

I'm setting my face like flint and writing everything possible against the messages in this month's Poetry Magazine... from one end of cute & flavorful lyrics (they are pretty good, actually, for the most part) to the other end of stylish anti-manifestos... What the heck, they've rejected my poems 3 times in the last 6 months - my poems, which are pure plumbline(!!!)
Curious thing... I just discovered (reading a bio in this month's Poetry magazine) that Elena Shvarts, whom I've been out of touch with for a while, has a new book out from Bloodaxe Books, in England. The title is Birdsong on the Seabed. & it makes me wonder : is she taking the title from this poem, which she addressed to me (it was originally published in Russian, in a book of hers in St. Petersburg - this is my own, probably-inaccurate translation) :

To the Poet Henry Gould in the City of Providence

At your time's perihelion
the bird-clock sings.
Strange hours on the wall - as
if Keats devised their workings.
When, over there, an owl
hoots, representing midnight,
here a raven drops a crust
beside my windowpane.
I myself am on the wane -
needle-thin, grown accurate,
wheezing over cheap tea in winter
sunlight, a pudgy nightingale.
He, in deep dark, without hope
- poet left alone with his icon,
still-ineffable loving brother -
offers his Promised Land…

Over the ocean, two birds feed
halfway - and where they salute,
fallen rooted to the sea-floor,
a pearl aches - ripening
under the hard bark of the waves.

*

I will have to get ahold of that book, & find out! p.s. the "bird-clock" she refers to is an Audubon Society singing clock (with different bird-calls for the hours), which I sent over to her, & which she seemed to enjoy. (I had to keep sending her battery replacements. & a new clock, after her apartment fire.)

*

p.s. next day : I WAS WRONG. Wishful thinking. Got ahold of the book. Title comes from an earlier poem by ES.
Michael Theune has joined the Plumbline School. He's the real deal, as critics go : does his homework.

2.18.2009

Good article by Louis Menand about Donald Barthelme in New Yorker this week. But in the interest of the biographical profile Menand sort of skims the literary-historical issues. He's genial that way : the calm relativist explainer, the generalist table-talker. About "the idea of aesthetics" (as something fundamentally conceptual, & optional) rather than simply aesthetics.

According to Menand, as long as there were standards, there was still a distinction between art & non-art, art & commerce. So-called high art could absorb low art, & vice versa - & there were interesting crossovers. But with Warhol & many others, gradually there were no more standards, no more distinctions. Whatever passed for art, was art. Menand, diplomatically, seems to offer no judicial opinion here.

Modernism occupies sort of a snowbound peak, between Victorian Popularity (Tennyson, Kipling, Longfellow) and Postmodern Popularity. Rejecting the former, defeated by the latter. But the elitism of Modernism was based on an idea of the aesthetic in which the commercial has been refined away (read, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Mallarme, Rimbaud). The aesthetic impulse is, rather, something so universal & basic (a Kantian category) that it requires no PR, no middleman. Eliot's notion of the "permanent" captures this perfectly. Indeed, Kant captures this perfectly (Critique of Judgement) in the idea that our aesthetic judgement is instinctive. We are drawn to the beautiful naturally. It's not a question of the intellect or the will. Hence the ease with which mediocre art succeeds - it wins people over with a mere (but clever) gesture toward the beautiful.

Taste = informed, educated instinct.

Modernism set itself up for this defeat. In the process of self-purification, it became its own idol (endless Borgesian mirrors of self-reflexive processes). It lost touch with its roots in unrefined experience.

The problem with the postmodern rejection of this distinction (between beautiful & ugly, original and imitation, real & ersatz) is that it denies both the instinct for the beautiful, and the critical-creative process by which art flows from it (the beautiful), & crystallizes it (in new forms, art works).

So, in a sense, neither modernism nor postmodernism was fully successful. Stevens : "the imperfect is our Paradise".
plum lines (early poem, ca. 1970)

A SUCCESSFUL EGG HUNT


keep reminding me
that the weather needs no weathermen
and cats have no masters: they
don't need wisdom either.
tell me again:
the inside of a plum is warm-blooded
and constantly melting.


I have received your messages of love -
as they leave your lips
they dissolve my skies.
More new things over at the Plumbline School today.

2.17.2009

Added something new again at the Plumbline.
Some interesting new posts by Matthew Schmeer over at the Plumbline School.

2.15.2009

Funny Valentine stuff over at Lanthanum.

2.14.2009

New post over at the Plumbline today.

Happy Valentine's Day, all you lunatics, lovers & poets.

2.13.2009

Mikhail Aizenberg - I really like this poet. I think what he says about poetry is so thoughtful & deep, & mostly rings true. It gives one pause, & that's as it should be. & I like his poems too.
A few new random memories over at Random Henry (quiet here at work today). All the real poets are at AWP, so I might as well reminisce.

2.12.2009

I posted something new over at the Plumbline School today.

2.11.2009

& so begins Lanthanum, book 2.

J.H. Stotts walks the Plumbline.
The Plumbline School is a-growin'.

I changed the wording in the header from a "fellowship" to a "convocation". I like the word fellowship, but I can see how it might have (unintended) sexist connotations. In other words, I hope some poets of the fair sex will be joining us soon.

2.10.2009

New post over at The Plumbline School.

2.09.2009

The latest Lanthanum. This is the conclusion of Chapt. 1.
Some new Lanthanum.

2.07.2009

Conjunction of opposites = the best people are completely anonymous.
Unknown to the world.

(Believe me, I am most certainly not talking about myself.)
New Lanthanum today.

Also some new memoranda over at The Plumbline School.

2.06.2009

Poet Joseph Duemer, longtime long-distance interlocutor, has joined The Plumbline School, as a contributing member. & he actually owns a plumbline. I'm thrilled!
I'm putting my money where my mouth is. Want to join the Plumbline School, for real? Want to be a BeeP? Sign up here.
Further investigation proves I was mistaken about Charles Olson's notion of the "middle voice". This has less to do with a level of diction or manner, than with a mode of grammar, drawn from Greek originally, in which the verb is between active and passive, & the subject of the sentence is also its object. There are several fascinating google links on this topic. And there may be a tangential relation between Olson's notion & what I've been trying to get at with this notion of "middling" (both ideas are looking for a center of balance).

But the first axiom of The Plumbline School might be -

Poetry = a Happy Medium.
Let's see then... what's a good po-biz moniker-brand for what I've been blagging about today? The school of understated, middling, normative, transparent, direct, inclusive, comprehensive, objective...

- how about the Plumbline School... !!!???

Bards o'th' Plumbline. The BPs. The BeePs.

Who wants to be a BeeP with me?

Here's an early (primordial) BeeP work.
In 1864, during the grinding horror of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse battles, Lincoln was reading Macbeth. He quoted these lines to one of his aides :

"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing."

I ran into this last night (reading an old book by Bruce Catton - A Stillness at Appomatox - which I'd randomly pulled down).

Fleeting thought, then : now there is a benchmark for a "school of poetry"!

How so? Actually, it goes back to something Chas. Olson once wrote, about "the middle voice". Imagine a club of poets who strenuously seek & study this middling manner. An antidote to mannerism, that. An antidote to extremes - of wheezing bloat, of anemic shallow nerviness....

This is actually a recurrent theme in my decades-long bloggology.

A middling, modest, understated manner. An unassuming, midwestern manner. What's its value? Limpid clarity, simplicity, pointed directness, efficiency... all these writerly effects put to the service of objectivity, capaciousness. An inclusive poetry of wide range, able to glom onto all kinds and levels of phenomena & discourse.

Objective
in the sense of disinterested, as I mentioned yesterday : that is, capable of presenting a scene, without hectoring the reader about it one way or another. Letting the reader gradually enter the poet's trap. Because there is an understated or unspoken argument - but you have to discover it yourself. It can be ambivalent, ambiguous, duplex, many-sided. As such, it achieves its realization : a free-standing work of art, a poem.
Feisty Johnny L is out there battin' flies, again. The acid test of labelling, Brand names vs. careful scrutiny. The limits of poetry-cliques, pigeonholes, & PR.

I'm with him, to a degree. But nobody listens to me, anyway. The polemics are about street cred. Poets as urban sharps, Baudelairean, Marlovian, nervy, antsy. What would F. O'Hara say????? Zipped up in leather jackets, emitting japes & quips. Very Modern. Very New San Fran Yorky. What's so funny!!!???? Schoolyard gravel. Who's the coolest now???? All them sons of bounty jumpers.

I like the idea of "slow poetry", too, because it seems an antidote to some of the caffeindish fakery. But not for the reasons Dale Smith argues for it. The communitarian sky is falling!!! Baraka, Olson, Dorn - at some deep level, these blokes are humorless. Faint mustard glow of the fanatic in the eye. Dorn's sarcasm is sour. School of Ez, I guess.

2.05.2009

CREDO

The world has always been full of random verbal noise. However, starting about a century ago, the volume seems to have steadily increased.

A poem, on the other hand, is surrounded by a kind of silence, like a town just after a very heavy snowfall. This is because a poem is a kind of distillation - the precipitation or extraction of an essence (from within the noise).

The judges & critics of poetry should be on the lookout for these distillations. They are the actual poetic record or canon (recognized or not) of their times.

I think a poem is an act of balance, equilibrium - a conjunction of opposites. Both. Unique and common; original and final; personal and universal; individual and representative. It is both sui generis and an example of a class, a period. It is new and old. It is experimental and traditional.

We laugh and deprecate anthologies, canons. But they are part of the critical and self-critical labors of the culture from which they emerge. The point is to form your own true canon out of all these efforts - and in spite of them.

A poem, as an act of equilibrium, is also a display of a positive kind of disinterestedness. In this sense, a poem should show, not tell; imagine, not lecture. If it is going to lecture - and some poems must - it should provide authentic poetic evidence (in terms of both style and exempla) for its arguments. A poem should reveal something - and let the readers exert themselves (to draw their own conclusions).
I suppose my previous post could be seen as utterly insane hubris.

Au contraire. I would suggest that one of the central, if unspoken, raisons d'etre for literary cliques & groupings & movements is to provide a security blanket against the Grand Tradition, the Only Real Club : Poetry-At-Large. Poetry simple. Poetry per se.

Then again, I'd be too cynical (& simplistic) if I thought this was the only motivation. Sometimes poets gather together in order to resist some way of writing which has worn out, lost its usefulness or vitality.

But maybe what has grown stale in our own day are some modern/postmodern tendencies themselves. I'm thinking of some of the more purist & extreme manifestations - those which reject not only traditional modes or styles, but basic grammar and syntax, basic rhetorical means, literary history itself. They want to re-invent the wheel solely by means of their own jargon and polemical-ideological armature.

I know I'm batting a straw man here, to some extent. But the magazines & blogs are full of idioms or styles which seems basically a-historical. & one of the theoretical (or subconscious, maybe) justifications for this state of affairs is the notion that old = bad, traditional = irrelevant, new = good, assertion is better than deference, ignorance is OK as long as it's got flair...

The group I want to belong to would not only express an affinity for that aforementioned pantheon of literary greats (& others), but also devote itself to a comprehensive scrutiny of, & a loving involvement with, the long & complex history of poetry itself. There is a perennial "need for roots".
... but what club would have me, anyway? I want to be in the group with Donne, & Marvell, & Mandelstam, & Akhmatova, & Dante, & the Psalmist, & Celan, & Dickinson, & Whitman, & Melville, & Shakespeare, & Chaucer, & Langland... I want to drink some mead-grog with them (& Johnny Keats, of course) in the afterlife, at the clubhouse...

That's my affinity group. Why don't you join mine?
Some second thoughts on poetry groups (see post of yesterday) :

I wrote previously that, with regard to groups, "the historical record is not promising". Yet without the shared interest, the mutual support, of associations of poets, like the "dolce stil nuova" circle around Dante, it's hard to imagine how a full realization of individual talent (for ex. in Dante's case) would have happened. The same goes for Shakespeare's emergence out of the milieu of London verse drama. There are counter-examples (what "school" nurtured Emily Dickinson?) - but these may be more rare. Even Whitman emerged out of groundwork laid by Emerson & Transcendentalism.

Obviously the history shows a variable range of phenomena with regard to group movements. No two have been exactly the same. There are also, I suppose, these concentric rings of influence and affinity - say the smaller, distinct collectives and associations within the general scene of so-called experimental/avant-garde poetry. Maybe somebody has written an anatomy of these groups (American Poetry Wax Museum?).

I don't know, at the moment, if there exists a poetry scene or group into which I would fit or feel comfortable (or they with me). There was an interesting op-ed piece in the local paper today (Providence Journal), by David Brussat, a frequent contributor on local (& international) architectural and preservation issues. Brussat displays a visceral scorn for architectural modernism in all its expressions - sees it as a threat to classicism, beauty in general, and the local historical architecture in Rhode Island. His polemics can sometimes seem narrow-minded and tiresome - any building that shows modern or postmodern tendencies or pizazz comes in for heaps of criticism. But I was struck by his feature this morning, on an Egyptian architect of traditional, "classical" bent, who had just won a prestigious award. (I don't have the paper handy at the moment - will look up the architect's name.) The architect apparently synthesizes Western, Eastern, & Islamic traditions in an effective way.

What struck me about Brussat's argument was its conservative, "Burkean" character. Traditional architecture is based on natural canons of form and local, vernacular styles. 20th-cent. modernism/postmodernism, on the other hand, is a deracinated, revolutionary, pedantically academic & rationalist imposition of ugly, dehumanized, arrogant and impractical theories.

It occurred to me that my off-&-on polemics on behalf of a "world tradition" in poetry (see the AIEE! Poetry jag & many other comments here) take a somewhat similar stance toward the "avant-garde" movements in poetry. Does this put me in the same box with the 90s New Formalists, and the New Criterion crowd? I don't think so. When I look back at my "trajectory" over the last 20 years, it seems to me I am precisely a "liminal" figure (internal emigre!). It's kind of like an MC Escher drawing : if you look at my work from one direction, it's in the modernist, experimental vein : if you look at it from another direction, it's conservative and traditionalist.

So where's my "group"? Nobody's asking me to join.

2.04.2009

Hello Lanthanum.
Some pretty good polemical battles shaping up over at Dale Smith's habitat, what with John Latta parallelogramming & Kent Johnson slamming, & the objects of their vitriol holding fire for the moment...

Latta has an powr'ful sharp hawk's eye, & barbed tongue, and steady historical empiricism (let's look at the actual poem-stuff, folks), & very often it all hangs together quite effectively. I find the stentorian venting of A. Baraka & some of the quoted Dorn (& can see how it appeals to Kent & Dale) not to be such great poetry, however...

But that's not the main issue here, I guess. The poems & the macho-honcho neo-Pound/Olsonian attitude are imperfect, but what's under contention is the nature of poetry, poetic style itself, & the concomitant stance/role of the poet these days.

We are living in the after-years of an effervescent wave of 80s-90s savvy neo-formalism, as Latta points out. The epic-prophetic poetry of social conscience & public speech has always scraped against the grain of this mode.

The Language Poets had a certain political attitude, combined with a poetic style dedicated to a multiplex effacement : 1) the effacement of the logic of syntax and argument (individual words and paratactic/isolated sentences do not add up to a "statement" of any kind); 2) the effacement of the personal, of a poetry of individual testimony; 3) the effacement of the concept of world-tradition in poetry (this went the way of the other 2 effacements, like the baby with the bathwater). The academic poet-stylist-scholars who took up their methods merely instaurated & extended the "elliptical" formalism of this postmodern moment.

But these & like criticisms have been made by me & others many, many, many times before over the last 10 years. The problem of "groupuscules", the explicit definition of shared goals & methods, seems like one of the thorniest dang hornets' nests in US poetry. I keep thinking this morning that this whole thing needs to be looked at from a new angle. But what that angle is yet I'm not sure.

There does seem to be this inherent, inescapable Teapot Battle, in our poetry, between The Serious and The Blithe. How this happens & how it turns into a Battle is a very complex problem.

One factor is the constant ambient drone of mediocre poetry of every school : because facile, superficial verse lacks the depth & the subtlety to synthesize, to combine the serious & the blithe (or comic). So we have these vigorous noisy feather-fights between Queen Berenice & the Neanderthal, neither of whom are actually producing poetry of much consequence.

Another problem is Polemical Absolutism. It's a kind of one-eyed Cyclopean threat. Poetry is basically centered in the eye of the mandala... dialectics, context fade out. Manifestos are written. Soapboxes are erected. Complaints & caterwauls are registered on various websites. But they are raised up on stilts, which are planted in very thin air - since the threads binding poet to fellow poets to audience to tradition to culture at large seem very tenuous, amorphous, accidental. Poetry is taken too seriously or not seriously enough. We do not know where to draw the line (if line is necessary) between poetry as a profession, a vocation, a kind of public office, and poetry as a right & legacy & inner romantic artistic disposition of every ever-lovin' human being in the whole wide world.

Meanwhile we have a frail, tender kind of established path for professional poets, which leads from MFA training to the professional obstacle course - the struggle for publication, awards & recognition, the search for scarce teaching positions & grants... it's sort of like fundraising is to politics : after a while you wonder if you might not be losing touch with the public at large... & all the blogs (like this one) are out there chatting & babbling & reminding you that you are a poor weak worm of a professional academic creative writer, just tryin' to get along...

But I'm probably mulching over a non-problem, here - since the sifting, evaluating role of journals & magazines & poetry presses is still actual & real to some extent. Let's try to get back to what seems to be the main problem at hand. Let's assume we have contemporary poets who have achieved a certain level of skill - who are successful at getting some poems in print, anyway. I mean, let's focus on them. With these people in mind, we ask : is there a meaningful role for collaborative group dynamics, & the formation of explicit aesthetic goals & literary principles? If so, what should be the guiding, general principles of such activity?

I can't really answer these questions right now. I can only throw out a few ideas off the top of my head.

First, it seems to me that if a group were to form, it would have to form on the basis of an understanding that this is a group of individuals. Collaborative poetry - poetry written by more than one person - is a different kettle of fish. Obviously it's a legitimate & I suppose fun thing to do, but I'm more interested in defining the possible characteristrics of a group of poets with shared goals but individual practice.

Second, I think if a group is going to bother to agglomerate itself for some kind of public effect, it needs to take its didactic role seriously. It's not out there for pure self-promotion : rather, the purpose of its shared activity is to disseminate, by teaching, a certain way of understanding what poetry can be. So the goal would be, curiously, not to strive constantly for new & more powerful & more exciting forms of "attention" from others. The goal would be to clarify, with progressively greater accuracy and effectiveness, those specific principles of praxis and style which they value & admire. In other words, the group would be a critical and self-conscious project of literary development.

The historical record for such activities is not very promising. I think of the Florentine circle around Dante & his friends & predecessors - the "dolce stil nuovo" - which itself grew out of the troubadour tradition and Sicilian poetry. Or the Russian Acmeists, who stemmed from the Symbolists by way of Annensky's idiosyncratic difference. What I mean by "not very promising" is that the challenge of writing well is inevitably a process of differentiation and individuation. The principles of the group prove, eventually, to be not stringent enough - to be inadequate and even counter-productive to the poet (like Dante) who has outgrown them. The dangers of every group & group method are : 1) success breeds inertia; and 2) groups become ingrown, solipsistic - they write for each other rather than straining to reach the reader-at-large, Mandelstam's "interlocutor of the future".

Here in the US we seem to have a situation where, first of all, the organs & institutions of the writerly profession, such as it is, militate toward production and publication, rather than group analysis and critical development. Groups, as a consequence, fail to take themselves seriously enough; the investigation and modelling of basic praxis-principles gets muddled with public relations, turf wars, & petty gamesmanship. Groups remain amorphous, and pretty much dismissed & ignored by "successful" published poets. The American cult of the Individual casts suspicion and contempt on group efforts - they are merely "abstractions" and "verbiage". (For the most part, unfortunately, this is only too true.)

Again, it seems to me, if an effort at group-formation appears valid and necessary to certain poets, the essential preliminary effort would have to involve an honest search for truth : a careful, self-critical, patient examination of realistic goals, capabilities, principles, contexts. What seems valid in today's poetry? How do we want to go about trying to write it ourselves? What, if any, are the aesthetic-literary principles that we think undergird our practice? How should we go about defining and conveying these principles to others?

The total answer to all these is problems is, of course, AIEE! Poetry (just kidding).

2.03.2009

Additional Lanthanum.
As far as finding the "necessary" poetry, the Acmeists - Mandelstam, Akhmatova - often expressed a trust in the people at large to find it & value it. Russia is famous, in fact, for this sense of an "organic" literary culture - the high cultural value placed on literature & poetry.

But it's probably not so simple - certainly not a model easily transposed to these United States...

- if it works out, maybe, again, it's a synthetic process. The ultimate judgement resides both with the poets themselves, and with the people, the ordinary reader, the culture at large. There is some kind of conjunction of opposites between the vocational keepers of the flame, the maintainers of literary standards & taste - & the "common reader".

There is, nowadays, a lot of suspicion & angst on all sides about this particular conjunction of opposites. ("Official verse culture". The semi-Loyal ("post-avant") Opposition. Mass media. "Dumbing-down." MFA Industry. etc. etc. The worries.)

Probably involves "saving" (preserverant) miracles here & there, now & then. (Our Holy Exemplars, Sts. Herman & Emily, for example...)
Maximus the Confessor (through the helpful lens of Hans Urs von Balthasar) - Maximus, as thinker & theologian, was continually articulating points of balance or synthesis between covalent aspects of things - soul & body, intellect & sense, individual & class or species, God & creation... without imposing hierarchies of value (higher & lower, in a Platonic or Gnostic sense). Prefiguring the worldview of Nicolas Cusanus almost 1000 yrs later, with his concept of the "conjunction of opposites". A kind of festal-conjugal sense of nature & reality - how things are bound into unities while yet retaining their individual integrity; how the vital process of mediation - almost in a geometrical sense - simultaneously joins two contraries, and emphasizes their mutual distinction. In this his writing seems to show a powerful singleness of vision : his philosophical cosmos is truly centered on the Incarnation (the God/Man - a union of two natures, divine & human, "without confusion") as the ultimate point of reference for all these syntheses.

Maximus this morning got me thinking about how we conceptualize contemporary poetry (at least in the windy polemical blogosphere I inhabit)...

What if we thought about it as always a conjunction of opposites - in the sense that a poem simultaneously personalizes and generalizes the common experience of life & events?

The "necessary" poem always filters experience through a particular, unique intelligence & sensibility - & yet, at the same time, it articulates something shared in common. Reality, by way of poetry, is mediated by the person - it is always the world transposed into the poet's world. Yet it's a world we ultimately recognize, value - for our own use & delight.

& maybe the necessary reader & critic (& poet) of our time will be a master of scrupulous and discerning judgement. The one who, in his or her mind, also maintains a kind of balance or synthesis between poetry, on the one hand, and general history & culture, on the other - so that this critic, through discernment & taste, will help us find the really necessary poetry. Seems like a tall order. One would need a large threshing floor and a very fine broom.

2.02.2009

I had trouble sleeping last night, thinking about whether anyone over in Russia would notice this poem or understand what I'm doing here. Not many Americans will understand what I'm doing here (you'd have to be something of an Acmeist, I guess).

(Also, it was written on the night of Superbowl Sunday (I skipped the game). Which connects it, in a distant way, with Brodsky.)
Tiel Aisha Ansari has some thoughtful comments about my recent AIEE! manifesto-blast, here. I think she & I probably do share a certain recognition of a spiritual dimension, which has its effects on art.

I do however have mixed feelings, or a sense of caution, about the relationship between religion and art. In fact it's been a kind of see-saw or conundrum in my thinking for a very long time. I basically gave up writing for many years due to a sense of incompatible goals in this area, and it took me a long time to re-integrate & feel more at ease with the (non)symbiosis of the two dimensions. I'm sure many more secular-minded fellow poets find me not cautious enough, by far.

One the one hand, I believe there are spiritual things which cannot simply be "said" or formulated in the abstract. They have to be known in an experiential way (I'm not referring to any specific or particular experience or way, here). Secondly - just as I believe in certain universal constants of experience and human nature, regardless of one's conscious beliefs - so I think art - like science - has its own semi-autonomous field of action. The field of beauty, or aesthetics. This semi-autonomy allows for the tremendous variety and distinctness of creative makings of all kinds - and for me this variety is a key part of that "beauty" itself. So basically I am a kind of "humanist", I think, as Nadezhda Mandelstam formulates it - while at the same time I am a "believer".

p.s. I regret that some of the AIEE! manifesto seemed turgid to this reader. The turgidity was (to a degree anyway) tongue-in-cheek. The manifesto was subtitled an "extended goof" (that doesn't mean it's not meant seriously, on a certain level). But, oh well... maybe it's turgid anyway. Not everybody has an appetite for this kind of "windy discoursing".

2.01.2009

New Lanthanum. This perhaps shows a little bit of that adolescent salty attitude I referred to in previous post, if you know what I'm talking about.

(Sometimes, all the old themes & scattered impulses seem to reveal a faint path ahead... unexpected correlations & meetings of things I care about... the poem taking shape, almost on its own...)

& here it is, translated into Google-Russian.

New Random Henry reminiscences over there, too.
I wonder if this galoot could ever regain that fresh tang of social criticism which seems to radiate from those old high-school poems... ?