11.10.2010

Between Eliot & Stevens (or Bard & Bible)

My own way out toward the future involves a confidence in the spiritual role of the poet. - Wallace Stevens

When I was around 20 yrs old, in the early '70s, at the height of the brief "Jesus freak" era - a sometime-communal monastic-peripatetic neo-Christian version of the broader countercultural/hippie "youth movement" - I went through a religious/psychological breakdown that radically & permanently shifted the direction of my life. For me this happened in a kind of bell-jar solitude : I wasn't "converted" by anyone (I was already a lapsed Episcopalian). Rather it was a quasi-literary experience - a sharp, spasmodic reaction to reading Shakespeare's sonnets & the Bible, at a time when I was very vulnerable to both depression & manic enthusiasm... & by the same token, open to new ideas.

I'm not trying to explain away or psychologize, reductively, what happened to me : far from it. In that weird crucible I started morphing into the religious believer I am today. As such, I can in some ways identify with the stance of T.S. Eliot. When I reflect on the 35 years or so of brooding, meditating & writing (about God, religion, tunafish & the cosmos) which followed that crisis, I think I can say that my way of responding to those events & ideas has basically been the that of a poet, a poetic response. I have tried to think my way into a perspective in which poetry is an expressive medium & imaginative force which is especially empowered to articulate and give access to a spiritual vision or version of reality; & often on this blog & elsewhere I have argued for such a position. I've often & in various ways asserted that the harmony & internal coherence & self-sufficiency - the integrity - of poetry, offers a kind of analogy for a view of reality as meaningful "creation" or dramatic, Providential event. I've advanced (often vaguely & confusedly, I admit) the idea that a restoration or renaissance of a kind of humanism is possible : a synthesis which balances faith and reason (the reunion of "Athens and Jerusalem"). I've argued that poetry represents the vital consciousness - personal, passionate - which can get buried & displaced beneath the abstract determinisms of other modes of discourse.

Nevertheless... I need to add a caveat to all of this. Despite my personal "credentials" of religious belief & experience, & my resultant affinity with Eliot's (often-maligned) stance - this general position does not quite give the whole picture. I want to be able to say that my view of poetry draws as much from, say, Wallace Stevens or Hart Crane, as it does from Eliot. Not out of some national chauvinism or American nativism (as in W.C. Williams) : but rather with respect to Stevens' & Crane's sense of poetry, which is ultimately closer to the Romantic poets than to the high Moderns (or perhaps closer to Yeats than to Eliot).

I'm not sure how best to explain why I need to add this reservation. But I believe in the integrity and dignity - even the primacy - of poetry as such. I think this dignity & integrity is grounded in the wholeness of the human imagination itself, and the artistic/aesthetic constructs (Stevens' "fictions", Crane's "vision") which the imagination produces. An analogy here, from the religious life, might be between, on the one hand, a person's inward, nourishing and active faith - expressed in concrete acts of devotion & discipleship - and on the other, the merely verbal formulae of dogmatic belief. Poetry inhabits, of course, a verbal realm : but its whole labor is, in a sense, (as Frost famously put it) to make its "saying" equivalent to "deeds" : to fill mere words with the passionate concreteness & authenticity of lived experience. In this way, "blind" poets, attentive to the obscure workings of the imagination (their "muse"), produce those beautiful & accurate representations which do justice to reality : which is a kind of blessing - culture bringing nature to fulfillment. & this imaginative-creative process occurs within its own sphere : rather than being subservient to received dogma, it lends meaning to religious assertions. It acclimates & complements revelation. Some remarks by Matthew Arnold (so liable to Eliot's derision) seem apropos :

"[Religious language] is approximative merely, while men imagine it to be adequate; it is *thrown out* at certain realities which they very imperfectly comprehend. It is materialised poetry, which they give as science; and there can be no worse science than materialized poetry. But poetry is essentially concrete; and the moment one perceives that the religious language of the human race is in truth poetry, which it mistakes for science, one cannot make it an objection to this language that it is concrete... Everything turns on it being at realities that this... language is aimed." [from the Preface to God and the Bible]

Now I would hesitate to assent to this paragraph myself, in toto : I think Arnold magnifies "science" in typical 19th-cent. fashion, while at the same time weighing religious discourse too lightly on the scale. Religious thought itself - say, in Aquinas or Augustine or Maximus the Confessor - gets beyond the dry scaffolding of dogma, and approaches the particular (& I would say humanist) "accuracy" of philosophy. Nevertheless I think Arnold's basic point is central and worth defending : religious language is both approximate.and poetic. (& one can see what a close affinity this shows with the stance of Northrop Frye.)

Here I would like to gesture toward the intellectual stance & figure cast by that Renaissance humanist/Catholic priest, Nicolas of Cusa. In Cusanus' philosophical essays and dialogues, one finds a playful excitement at work, stimulated by the sharp recognition and celebration of the power of the human imagination - scientific, philosophical, aesthetic & religious all melded together in one activity of Mind. Cusanus was writing at the crest of Renaissance humanism, when translations of ancient Greek philosophy (Plato, Aristotle & others) exerted a powerful influence : his own philosophical writings seek to find that logic which can balance the human and the divine - the ineluctable certainties of divine order, with the equally stubborn fact that we live in a "conjectural" world : ie. a world bounded by the limitations of our own imaginative reach & constructs. Even our notions of God are human "conjectures", which bump up against the ineffable mystery - as well as, for Cusanus, the historical facticity - of God's presence & manifestation (in the Incarnation).

This notion of "conjecture" - close to Giambattista Vico's later views on human history as a playing-out of consciousness, a cultural construct - allies itself with a sense of the ongoing project & projections of the human imagination, as expressed in the fictional shapings, the representations, of poetry. & here we are drawing very close to Stevens' central obsessions concerning imagination & reality - the logical grounds for his "supreme fiction".

So I want to think of my own work in poetry as standing somehow within a field shared by both Eliot and Stevens, where poetry is a distinct, secular, universal & human phenomenon, with its own independent basis and raison d'etre & sphere of activity : & yet where poetry is also capable of expressing the substance & pith & concrete values - as well as the uncertainties & mystery - underlying & surrounding the verbal summae of historical belief & dogmatic testimony.

1 comment:

Allen said...

To write poetry, or to create art generally, and to reflect upon it both personally and in context of a wider extent, is a difficult undertaking. Your introspective reflections provide thoughtful and surprisingly useful analysis. Surprising only because they seem so personal, yet indeed they derive from a pure (artistic) source. Okay, put pure in scare quotes. Your work deserves to be studied.