Having just heard this very morning about a conference at Columbia (Rethinking Poetics), I might possibly be able to attend some of it (be passing through NYC tomorrow). But just in case I can't, & because it's a quiet day here at ye olde library in ye olde Providence, I thought (& re-thought) I would do a little top-o'-th'-heading about Poetics right here, right now. A diary entry, of where we stand at the moment, lacunae & befoggeries & etc. inclusive.
As that Henry who tried valiantly to join the Rolling Stones, back in yon mythical 1970s.... & the poet Henry whose Major Cat Opusses have been for the most part ignored & dismissed by his fellows & peer cats... squirreled away & corner'd as yet he is in the fastnesses of the Rock (Rockefeller Library)... you might say Henry am the Stone the Builders Reject'd, poetickally speaking....
But all that aside... I can say my ponderous thinking rumbles & leans more & more toward an overwhelming apprehension of Personhood - of full human consciousness & sensibility & heart & soul - as the inalienable ground of Reality. Forgive me friends & fellow travelers if 1) this sounds like me repeating myself, and 2) this sounds like a truism.... all I can say is that it becomes more & more my frame of reference with relation to the purposes of Poetry (& thus my poetics). I think of this Personhood as including God - & by that I mean one of the consequences is that this Personhood within which we live & move & have our being is both individually subjective, unique, distinct, and shared, universal, objective... & I understand this is not something easily packaged & explained by logic, nevertheless I affirm it...
Can such a worldview prevail without constraining & hampering our human progress, our science & knowledge, & the objectivity thereof? I believe it can so prevail : in that the Reason which we share as a human birthright need not confuse Religious or Philosophical explanations for Scientific problems, nor will Science necessarily explain away Religion... (herein I do not wish to expound the arguments in favor of this assertion, & yet I hold it to be true...)
& here the special avenue for Poetry opens up... for Poetry is characteristically & forcefully representative of Reality as lived, as experienced... as human Drama : so that our special avenue takes a winding Turn about itself, it curves. By this I mean that Poetry is especially concordant - as dramatic personal expression - with the dramatic personal nature of history & experience in toto. This sounds, I know, like a tautology : but if you think of language as a kind of expressive limb or tool, adapted to its circumstances the way the shape of a boat is adapted to the watery element, then we can say that poetry is language adapted to the dramatic dimension of reality.
But we loiter here yet in a realm of generalities. How does all this apply (if it does) to HG's poetry, & the "poetics" of its making?
Personal.... dramatic. But I have a sense - reinforced of late by re-readings in the work & biography of John Berryman - that art & poetry are not really very dramatic as long as they remain detached from, or in denial of, their entanglements with the larger flow of world-time : of History (with regard to humanity generally) & of Memory (with regard to one's own life with & among others), & of the place where History & Memory conjoin... & of the ways we interpret - & by interpreting, shape - these things together. I, Henry, can't say what my own poetry will mean to others - only that it is those others, not Henry, who will respond to it & shape its meaning - for them, & for the future. This is not to deny my own paramount responsibility for shaping art according to my own best lights (such I would never want to deny, anyway!). It's only to say that it is in recognizing the shared nature of our time & history, that we discover the actual meaning(s) or themes of that work we are trying to accomplish. We leave a track, we make a mark... which perhaps participates in the free growth of understanding... of humankind's self-understanding... isn't this what cultural & artistic labor is about?
On the other hand, such labors will never be of much use to anyone if they don't exude a scent of original free play : if they are not of value in & of themselves, as themselves. Because this inherent value rhymes with & affirms the inherent value of all things & experience, of the universe itself. This is the artist's bond, the octave harmony, with reality as original Creation, the Dream out of Nothing...
Perhaps the crux of all this, the most interesting thing to me, is that matrix where the inexorable movement of time & History are fused with creation and free play. I see this symbolized in the ancient practices of Sabbath & Jubilee & Thanksgiving. I see this as the deepest root of the cosmopolitan global civilization - that peace on earth, that normative & ethical world civic society - the great goal toward which all the manifold labors of humanity on earth - all the terrific struggles & sacrifices - are pointing. The poet is the Maker : mixing & combining materials : & what are these materials? The matters of memory and conscience. The fond memories & memories of pain & loss, the crux of guilt & remorse, & the slow, slow soul-growth, out of self-bound greedy delusions & distractions, toward ripeness, maturity, true freedom... all these personal & dramatic testimonies (the substance of poems) which give shape to our apprehension & moral valuation of what is happening right Now - our contemporary world, the world for which we bear responsibility. In this articulation the poet holds forth self-judgement & the judgement of times & nations - held to the benchmark of that coming Jubilee.
More & more I recognize this world civilization as an expression of the human universals - borne out by & stretching beyond the concrete experience of every different nation & tribe on earth. This is why I assent, for example to Tocqueville's notion of the coming of Democracy upon the world as a sign of divine Providence : it entails the self-recognition of Everyman, of the Biblical "Son of Man" - that World-Person, that humanity, of which each of us (male & female, Jew & Greek, black & white etc. etc.) has a share in the full dignity thereof. We are living it already. There is no dividing wall, except that of the personal soul & conscience, for which in its choices & actions we bear sole responsibility; & all those choices & actions are carried out in the light of common sense, of shared universal reason & truth, & in the bond of responsibility we have, in our weakness, with the weaknesses of one another. "The high shall be brought low, & the low shall be lifted up, & all shall be made a level plain." That's the prophecy.
Now poetry can be seen in this light as the dramatic expression of the essential drama of the earth, as history unfolds - a drama which no other form of discourse can adequately model or perform. & maybe this is part of the dignity of poetry, & why cultures look to it to say what verges on the inexpressible : so that we may know it, & have it, & recognize it, & admit to it, & live it, & share it, & celebrate it. "The Word is bread & suffering", wrote Mandelstam. Or Stevens : “The whole race is a poet that writes down / The eccentric propositions of its fate.”