This morning, lying on favorite couch (that looks out east porch window), getting ready to go to work, looking over notes for ongoing Lanthanum project, my thoughts about the nature and design of this poem seemed to grow more clear. About its theme & purposes. Of course I've had shifting notions about it from the beginning - sometimes clear, sometimes fuzzier - but this morning felt like a little more of a breakthrough. Curious that this would happen so soon after yesterday's post here, about the (rare) qualities of good, strong poetry - how ongoing (plot, theme, ornamental) threads sometimes coalesce, reach their acme or peripeteia.
Almost 40 years ago I wrote this curious poem, with the epigraph about a Byzantine church. & (as noted on this blog before) I think sometimes a poet will (understandably) forecast, unconsciously, future developments - a sort of embryonic "prophecy" of the themes & subject-matter to come. & this poem I think relates not only to a lot of the writing I've done since that time, but to the possible insight I had this morning about Lanthanum.
The poem (Lanthanum), as I've mentioned before, is a sort of "dream song" which emerged about an odd dream I had one night about the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, MO (a monument I've never seen, & never previously given much thought). The structure began to magnetize & collect certain themes, symbols, ideas... among them being :
- my long-term fascination with Hart Crane's poem The Bridge;
- the affinities I find (imagistic, stylistic, architectural, thematic) between Crane's poetry & the work of Russian "Acmeist" Osip Mandelstam;
- my desire to write a poem which synthesizes the American long poem's more national, "New World" impulses (in Crane, WC Williams & others) with the larger & older context of Western or world culture & traditions (as in, say, Auden, Yeats, Eliot, Pound, David Jones..., as well as Mandelstam & other Russian poets) - here the St. Louis Arch (in Eliot's birthplace) would stand for a kind of fusion of Old & New Worlds;
- a movement forward from the long poems I've already written, such as Forth of July, with its focus on the Mississippi (what the French called the "St. Louis River") - & in this context making connections with my own biography, & the whole "John Berryman", dream-song dimension;
- the desire to center this synthetic context within a certain Rhode Island (Providential) framework, where the worldview of pioneers like Roger Williams & William Blackstone - a magnanimous fusion of sacred & secular, religious & political freedom - finds its echo in the incarnational theology of Orthodox monk Maximus the Confessor (& so winds back into an affinity with the Russian poets)...
but what I sensed in particular this morning was how the poem's trajectory (& perhaps my whole 50-yr trajectory as a poet) finds itself illuminated or clarified by a single analogy : that is, the analogy between the American tradition of egalitarian political democracy (which as Tocqueville describes, grew out of New England town-meeting political independence & co-responsibility) and the theological concept of a world civilization based on a shared equality before God. In aesthetic terms, the latter has an application in the Russian Acmeist notion of "chasteness" : that is, the poet with "chaste" vision recognizes the inherent dignity & beauty of each & every unique created thing - each thing's beautiful "right to be itself". & this Acmeist vision in turn is very close to Whitman's ecstatic "democratic" celebration of the "union" of all things in creation. Thus, with all this in mind, it's possible to see how the trajectory of a nation's democratic principles & values might find their future justification in a broader, global concept of global civic equilibrium & normative world civilization - a peaceful world civil society (a new, more universal version of Dante's vision of a "Rome where Christ is Roman"). & this would be the ambitious project for a poem to remember, illustrate & celebrate.
What pleases me about this "clarification" is how it seems rooted in my longtime poetic debt to Mandelstam & the Acmeists : it shows a continuity of purpose in my writing over many years. The long poem partly rooted in both Longfellow & the Kalevala (& Mandelstam's "Karelian birches" - so close to Petersburg) circles back on its trans-American trans-Siberian, Mandelstamian-Nabokovian origins. Mandelstam's first book Kamen ("Stone"), was an anagram for Akme (in allusion to Acmeism). My first book (1979) was also titled Stone. Through this "Blackstone" vision I am reaching toward the "Akme" of a shared world worldview.