April 2010 ushers in the conjunction of National Poetry Month with the vast and bulbous Associated Writing Programs (AWP) Conference (in Denver this year), and so, under the lights of such stars, we non-attenders and outsiders are tempted to assess the national state of the art. But the first question is, is there such a “national state”? Should we call it “America” or “the United States,” or neither? I’m going to use “America” and “American” here for the sake of convenience. But simply deploying a name is not enough : you have to prove the name corresponds to something in nature. Presently we Americans are enduring a time of extraordinary divisions, partisan disputations, multiple balkanizations, political and economic stress, upheavals and dislocations, war and terrorism, (man-made) ecological threats, poverty, uncertainty, change and anxiety; is it possible even to speak of a single American nation and culture anymore?
I’m not going to try to answer that question directly. My interest here is in the character of poetry, especially American poetry, now – another vast and diffuse and elusive phenomenon; it seems the only proper way to begin talking about that subject is to try to describe the limits of one’s own perspective and method of approach. My method and perspective in this essay are going to be deliberately eccentric. I’m going to look at our subject through the lens of a single critical concept, which was articulated just 100 years ago by a Russian poet in St. Petersburg, a founding member of the fleeting Russian literary movement called “Acmeism” – Nikolai Gumilev. The concept or hermeneutic tool was something he called “chasteness.” Gumilev identified chasteness with a general sense of the integrity of individual, actual things in the world. The concept has religious, Biblical roots (the earth and universe are a creation, which God “saw was good” : the divine is present through God’s “incarnation”), but it is primarily (in Gumilev’s hands) a philosophical idea, with cultural and artistic consequences. Chasteness is akin to Joyce’s aesthetic of the “epiphany” : the artist’s sense to recognize, and to express, the brilliant, distinct particularity of individual things – their quiddity.
The philosophical roots of Gumilev’s notion are clearly planted in Aristotle. Aristotle’s intellectual modesty – that is, the essential humility of the scientific investigator, empirical, inductive – allowed for the substantiality of distinct things, for the “concrete universals” of poetic representation. In Aristotle’s Poetics, the integral wholeness of dramatic plot (beginning, middle, end) undergirds the unique architectonic of each work of poetic art, which in turn mirrors the chaste and distinct integrity of the matter which it represents.
It is indeed the architectonic dimension of Gumilev’s Aristotelian approach which seems particularly interesting and potentially fruitful. Like an Escher drawing, or a series of mutually-supporting vaults, this notion of chaste integrity bridges the distance between the distinct integrity of the poem, and the normative qualities of human experience, the ethos, which it expresses, guards and celebrates. It is an exercise in equilibrium. And there was (and is) a democratic or egalitarian aspect to this projected ethos, since, as Gumilev put it, chasteness represents the inherent dignity of each person and thing, as it is : that is, its right to be itself. (As Mandelstam wittily put it, Acmeism celebrated the “beautiful Law of Identity : A = A.”)
So then – how do we apply this imported Russian aesthetic concept to contemporary American conditions? As noted above, we inhabit a time of particular storm and stress, of ideological polemic and conflict, of multiple challenges to any claim to authority or consensus. But the Gumilevian/Aristotelian idea of chasteness/integrity, when used as a lens, brings surprising things to light. First of all, it can possibly justify our concern for a specifically American poetry, in that, by the law of “epiphany” and chaste integrity, every culture has a unique history – a particular set of circumstances, characteristics, traditions, choices, events, which go into defining its quiddity. To base one’s approach on such a quasi-scientific, disinterested method is to push back against both ends of the current spectrum of polemics : that is, one the one hand, against neo-classical formalists and traditionalists, who center the norms of poetry in English, and the richness of culture per se, in the great works of past times and places; and on the other hand, against the anti-historical and anti-traditional relativism of the postmodern “permanent revolutionaries.” Our poetry, in such “chaste” light, will be seen as inevitably the expression of a distinct culture and nation (which will also, of course, inevitably include its own set of borrowings, hybridities, endurances, etc.).
Such might be viewed as a statement of the obvious; but then, lost in our byzantine labyrinth of literary jargon, polemics, and the Emperor’s ever-new clothes, sometimes the obvious becomes the necessary. Moreover, Gumilev’s concept rhymes to a striking degree with something very characteristic of American poetry : the sharp-eyed, down-to-earth affection for, and attention to, things-in-themselves. Robert Frost rendered this strain (out of Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson) memorably and perhaps best : “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.” In his introductory essay to the very popular (and still in print!) mid-20th century anthology, the Mentor Book of Major American Poets(1), Edwin Honig focused on the fond attention to particulars – the confluence of humble, everyday reality and poetic metaphor, in imagery – as the defining characteristic of American poetry (beginning with the Puritan poet Edward Taylor, and growing stronger from there). Imagistic realism, by itself, is an insufficient measure of American poetry (or any poetry) as a whole (in the same way that the Imagist movement of the early 20th-century had inherent limitations); however, when subsumed within the more general concept of integrity (as presented by Gumilev, Aristotle, Joyce), the architectonics of a national literature begin to become visible again (in outline or sketch) through the polemical mist.
In a recent study of Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and Williams(2), Harold Kaplan projects a similar sense of American poetry as integral and distinct, by contrasting Eliot’s and Pound’s attachment to traditional European cultural authority, with Stevens’ and Williams’ bent toward democratic humanism. Without referencing the Acmeists, Kaplan describes how Stevens’ notion of human “nobility” was part of an effort to define the social purposes of poetry in relation to more general ethical norms – that is, grounded in a similar “chaste integrity” of persons and things. (Interestingly, in an appendix, Kaplan underlines an affinity between the argument of his book, and a study by Michael Eskin, on the ethos and poetics of Emanuel Levinas, Paul Celan, and… Osip Mandelstam(3)). The integrity of both things and poems, according to Kaplan (and Levinas), is underwritten by the fundamental integrity of persons : and this ontology has consequences for theories of literature – for the status of reading, writing, language and meaning. Kaplan outlines a philosophical realism, grounded not in systemic abstraction, but in a sense of reality that begins, ends, and centers in consciousness – the reflective, affective, ethical, and expressive consciousness of the human person. Again, this affirmation of the distinct personhood of authors and readers is in harmony with what we have called the American (and Acmeist, and Joycean) affirmation of the chaste integrity of things-in-themselves – things, including art works.
Things, including poems. Rather than carry these proposals further into the realm of polemic, here I only want to suggest that such polemic might prove necessary, eventually. By this I mean that the more deliberately one defines the characteristics of an American literature, the more inevitably will disagreements follow – since we inhabit a contentious democratic culture, subject to change, growth and decline. Furthermore, as a critical perspective is articulated, its application to actual works (by both critics and poets) becomes more self-conscious and differentiated. The more it becomes possible to see the outlines of a particular poetic phenomenon, the more one begins to distinguish between the inherently aesthetic and the ideologically (or otherwise) tendentious. What I believe Gumilev’s Russian Acmeism(4) and Kaplan’s American humanism offer us are the beginnings of a “way of seeing” our own poetry – as independent art, grounded in imaginative freedom, in the substantial dignity of persons, and in the quiddity of things.
1) Mentor Book of Major American Poets, ed. by Oscar Williams and Edwin Honig (NY : Signet, 1962)
2) Kaplan, Harold. Poetry, politics, and culture : argument in the work of Eliot, Pound, Stevens and Williams (Brunswick, NJ : Transaction, 2007).
3) Eskin, Michael. Ethics and dialogue : in the works of Levinas, Bakhtin, Mandel’shtam, and Celan (NY : Oxford Univ. Press, 2001)
4) For an invaluable study of Acmeism and the poetics of Gumilev and Mandelstam, see : Justin Doherty, The Acmeist movement in Russian poetry : culture and the word (Oxford Univ. Press, 1995)