Poetry, religion, humanism

My life may manifest a spiritual dimension. It may involve a spiritual search. I may indeed be, off & on, a sort of hermit cum rabbinical student, mulling over obscure passages of ancient texts for secret, personal or contemporary meanings. I may make a confession of faith; in fact, I believe I am a Christian of some sort.

But none of these beliefs or attitudes will alter my firm sense of poetry as something utterly secular - "non-denominational", universal, and perfectly human.

Although I'm not a philosopher, I think there's a philosophical basis for this position, which actually accords with my sense of Christianity. But that's not why I hold this position. Yes, I hold with some kind of quasi-Aristotelian sense of the quiddity, the utter distinctiveness, of individual things; I hold that this applies as well to individual persons; and my understanding of poetry is that it involves the most distinctive, characteristic, imaginative utterances of individual persons, out of their unique times & places.... but the fact that this view accords well (I think) with Christian notions of the person is not why I think of poetry this way. In other words, I don't have to justify my understanding of poetry by an appeal to my religious faith.

Poetry is an expression of primordial human character; of personhood; it is the "voice" of the essential human face. This is why I can support the position of someone like Harold Kaplan (see previous post), a committed "secular humanist" if there ever was one; there is no contradiction. What this shared position does oppose, I think, are some of the trends in art and cultural theory which, while they are "postmodern", were prefigured (as Kaplan demonstrates) in forms of modernist "culture criticism" & literary practice, produced, in different ways, by Eliot & Pound (along with many others).

My sense that poetry is, in a fundamental way, a form of free and undetermined imaginative creation, grounded in a distinct and individual human gesture and stance toward reality, does not sit well with current views that stem from post-structuralism, the New Historicism, etc. These prevailing ideologies influence contemporary poetic style & technique - witness the successive waves of experimentalism which reduces poetry to language, to text, to formulae, to chance operations, to pastiche, to de-personalization, to agit-prop, to "documentary", etc. etc. etc. Even the so-called "hybrid" poetries represent a concession to the prevailing theoretical winds.

Let me quote again from that "humanist" Osip Mandelstam (his essay "Word and Culture") :

"'There are epochs that maintain that they are not concerned with singular human beings, that human beings must be put to use, like bricks, like mortar... Assyrian prisoners swarm like chicks under the feet of a gigantic Tsar; warriors personifying the power of the state inimical to the human being shackled pigmies with long spears, and the Egyptians are dealing with the human mass as if it were building material... But there is another form of social architecture who scale and measure is... man... It doesn't use human beings as building material but builds for them... Mere mechanical grandeur and mere numbers are inimical to humankind We are tempted not by a new social pyramid, but... by the free play of weights and measures, by a human society... in which everything is... individual, and each member is unique and echoes the whole.'"

A totalitarian state is not required in order to apply reductive and determinist theories of existence and human being to the realm of aesthetics. That is exactly the era we have been living through for the last several decades.

In another place, Mandelstam wrote (quoting roughly from memory) : "in such conditions, Man must become the hardest thing in the universe : harder than diamond." In my view it is from this crystalline, ineluctable center of the human heart & mind - from the person - that poetry proceeds.


p.s. : & sure, I can be accused of (& dismissed for) my own polemical over-simplifications & reductivity. The self is complex; poetry is social; the self is constituted in relation with others; poetry is fundamentally dialogical; etc. Yes to all that. But I did not say the work of art is simply identified with the self. The art work sustains a dialectical relation with its maker : it is a form of synthesis, of proportion - of balancing opposing forces... shaping a unitive image of resolution. "Out of the quarrel with ourselves, we make poetry," wrote Yeats (I'm paraphrasing from memory).


Jon said...

I was rereading Emerson's essay The Poet by the fire this weekend and thinking that if a creative writing teacher assigned this text to her students and said, 'now go out and see if you're a poet, according to Emerson' or something like that, that the teacher would be considered insane and incompetent. And how i love this essay! and how it says everything I believe about poetry. To strive for anything less (because who can achieve it?) is to degrade poetry to something ordinary, if not contemptable.

Henry Gould said...

I'm with you there, Jon.

I feel like I've got both an Eliot & an Emerson inside, perpetually arguing with each other. A big part of my ponderous pondering has to do with reconciling Emerson's sense of human "originality" (the creative power of that ol' American "self") with Eliot's sense of an underlying "sacred history" of life & the world.

But that's just me...