Tiny poets tippy-toeing through the leaves of magazines.
Good post on Kenneth Irby today, from J. Latta. Thank you, John.

Had dinner with K. Irby & several others up in Cambridge (MA) many years ago - after he read at a bookstore in Kenmore Sq. A very good reading, too. Jack Kimball was there, I think, Joseph Donahue... I pushed a pile of chapbooks on him as we were leaving, on the sidewalk... dumb of me, as usual. Early Grassblade Light, fading out somewhere out there in Kansas.


Geoffrey Hill

Have been reading Geoffrey Hill's book from late '90s, Testament of Love. Like a cello solo by Rostropovich.

Hill does in his own poetry what he seeks out, in his scholarship, in the English poets of past eras. That is, he bears witness to "the whole truth" (as poetry can reckon the whole, as a unity) in & of history. To the broken promises, the fracturings of European civilization, in the light of suffering & prophetic judgement. Sub specie eternitatis.

I didn't put that very well. Not easy to summarize Geoffrey Hill... !


Poetry, Religion... Maximus

Poetry & religion, two different things... I think of religion as social-collective behavior - a cultural phenomenon made up of countless social orientations, commitments, actions. It is belief consolidated - substantiated in social formations : ethical traditions. This is obviously not poetry. Poetry is the verbal expression of the artistic imagination (or simply, the imagination). There is no sanction or requirement for the vagaries & dreams of free imagination.

Poetry (some poetry) might be closer to theology, though. I think of theology as intellectual reflection upon (& maybe insight into) the "givens" of religious tradition. There's a range - let's call it "vision" - where such endeavors can overlap.

In the modern era, religion is often represented as irrational, oppressive, & silly. I suppose modernity could even be defined as "the critique - & mockery - of religion." Novels & various discourses since the Enlightenment abound in satires on Medieval ritual, dogma, superstition, & the general moeurs of churchgoing folk. Certainly much of the critique was (& is) indeed liberating & enlightening; but the secular ideological-political formations which then sought to replace religion resulted in the vast desolations & conflicts of the 20th-century. So who gets the last laugh, so to speak (aside from the Devil...)?

Our local hero, Roger Williams, was an avatar of a different kind of cultural equilibrium between sacred & secular. By advocating tolerance of all faiths, liberty of conscience, freedom of speech, and the separation of civil and religious Authority, Williams set the stage for the Enlightenment, and for the balance of secular government & religious freedom as we know it today. Yet Williams' Puritan innovations had deeper roots in the cultural development of the West. Even medieval Catholicism recognized that peace & order depended on harmony between the "two swords" - the two Powers of Church and State, Church & Empire. The authority of the Church was an ethical counterbalance to the power of the King : they were never fused into one. This balance of the two had a scriptural basis in the New Testament - in Jesus' command, "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, & to God what is God's". The apostle Paul, in his letters, took up this theme, when he described how God's Providence works through all things, including the State & its ministers, "for our good" (an argument often used to justify passivity & conformity in the face of State-sponsored evil : but not necessarily or entirely false, in spite of this.) It was this conception of Providence working through all things, Christian & non-Christian, sacred & secular, which informed Williams' political vision.

And one could trace this tradition back much further. It's possible to think of Judaism as a religion which is a theological reflection & critique - a re-working, or overturning - of Egyptian and Mesopotamian religion. The God of the Hebrews - the primal & universal Creator of all things, who allies himself personally, not with the rulers of mighty nations, the immortal god-kings atop their ziggurats & pyramids, but with humble shepherds & slaves. This God does not merely issue obscure demands (though He does issue demands) - but comes down to dicker & argue with his adopted people. & the main aim of this Hebrew God is to provide liberation from oppressors, & from human wrong-doing in general. So we can see the historical consequence of this basic stance of Biblical religion : a theological challenge is offered to oppressive rule. A line is drawn between sacred & secular. The authority of the divine is set up in opposition to, rather than conjunction with, the secular or theocratic power of nations. Thus the seeds of individual conscience - the ethical demand of a divine & infinite universality, above and beyond any earthly power - were planted, long ago.

Recurrently in my poetry (esp. in Lanthanum) the figure of "Maximus" shows up. This could be taken as an allusion to Charles Olson's epic persona of the same name, but I'm referring to another Maximus : Maximus the Confessor, a Byzantine theologian. This Maximus was enmeshed in controversies over the Trinity and the nature of Christ's Person, with which Orthodoxy, centered in Constantinople, was engaged for centuries. A profound & creative thinker, Maximus synthesized Greek philosophy & Christian faith, to produce an affirmation of the Orthodox sense of the union of divine & human Persons. That the universal Godhead would manifest on earth as a particular human person was a mystery, a conundrum & a scandal from the very beginning - a scandal involving first of all the splitting apart of Judaism and Christianity, & then, within Christianity itself, at least a thousand years of polemics over its exact meaning (& of course, those debates have not yet concluded).

But poetry per se is not so formalized (logical) or realistic (descriptive) as theology claims to be. Poetry, as an (artistic) end in itself, is to some extent free from the claims of realism and denotative meaning. It's more concerned with modelling or representing "possible" realities : and in doing so, poetry is able to express deeper, more elusive, less systematic, more subtle layers of sense, feeling & experience. These "free, unsponsored" dimensions of psychic & emotional life themselves reflect back on the formal, "official" records of history, & dogmas of religion, & assertions of ideology, the oppressive superstitions of hide-bound culture. & that "reflecting back" is the substance of poetry's immemorial radicalism : the prophet's challenge to arrogant priesthoods, the poet's rebuke to overweening state authorities, the critique of "realism" offered by the imagination.

But protest and politics aside... I see a sort of harmonic affinity between theology and poetry, in the likeness between : 1) Maximus' synthesis of divine and human consciousness within the form of the Person - ie. the whole reality of experience is keyed to a human scale, and 2) the Petersburg/Acmeist poetic tradition of Gumilev, Akhmatova, Mandelstam - hewing to Mandelstam's idea of poetry as "domestic hellenism" : the humanizing, civilizing, & domesticating of life on earth with a "teleological (human) warmth." Both represent an architecture of existence based in confidence : a deep confidence in "Providence", in the eventual working-out of "faith, hope & charity" (history as Redemption).


The letter in a bottle

Have been reading Paul Celan again, in Michael Hamburger translation. Like his introduction, too. Was led back here again after looking at a couple books by Michael Eskin (on Levinas, Bakhtin, Mandelstam, Celan).

Feel strongly about all the Celan poetry. Even the early poems - with sort of a generic Surrealist/Trakl/Rilke/expressionist flavor (in translation, anyway) - really get to me. The early poems emanate something from adolescence - an atmosphere...

The later poems speak more clearly & simply, even in their difficulties... want to look into some aspects of Jewish messianism... & there is Celan's love for Mandelstam. Eskin quotes a letter saying that with Mandelstam he had a sense of "walking with the truth" (my inexact trans. from memory) as with nothing else - a brotherly feeling, an inspiration... & I know what he's talking about. I went through a very similar life-changing experience with Mandelstam (long before finding Celan).

Mandelstam wrote a famously (in "On the Interlocutor") about poetry as rooted in dialogue - but a conversation with an unknown reader in the future (the reader Celan felt himself to be). He likened the poem to a message in a bottle, tossed in the sea... & whoever finds the message is that unknown friend, that interlocutor...

It's a sort of "poetics" - the sense that the poet (in & through the poem) is speaking directly to you - you - whoever you are - are the destined recipient, who was meant to find it...

& this idea has a personal meaning for me, since my whole vocation in poetry pivots on a strange series of events way back in 1971-72, when I was 19-20 yrs old (which I've sketched out in various places on this blog, but should try to write up more thoroughly someday) - a disorienting psychic "encounter" with Shakespeare, when I had the uncanny experience of suddenly being addressed in person - across time & space - by Shakespeare himself, through his Sonnets - that I was the destined recipient.... an event so strange & actually frightening that I felt compelled to drop poetry altogether, to change my college major (from English to History), & eventually to start reading the Bible, as a sort of counterweight to what seemed to be moral/psychological disintegration - which decision only led me to even more shattering psychological (inner) experiences & uncanny synchronicities... - I became the loco-locus, the psychological carrier, of a sort of symbolic agon between those two primal literary Powers (Shakespeare, Bible)... so that eventually I had to drop out of college completely, for about 3 years, & wander hitchhiking around the US & London with Bible & guitar...


Elena Shvarts

Here is a link with some photographs and a short video from the funeral of Elena Shvarts.


i.m. Elena Shvarts

I was very sad to learn, late last night, that Elena Shvarts has died. I have a little icon of St. Michael in front of me, on my desk, which she gave to me on a visit to Providence once. We were in the habit of exchanging small things. I have a Peter the Great cigarette box... a little ceramic Russian bell... & I once gave her a treasured little blue-&-white painted toy bathtub boat, christened Sophie, which my mother had made for me as a child. For a long time I liked to think of it in her apt. window in Petersburg (before the terrible building fire, in which the little boat & many of her manuscripts went up in flames). I also gave her one of those Audobon "bird clocks", in which different birds sing the hours,because she had been so interested in the one we have in our kitchen here in Providence...

Elena also wrote some things in poems & stories about me, & I wrote some things about her... it all began years ago when I read her book, "Paradise" (put out by Bloodaxe Bks). Afterward I wrote a short & simple poem in response... & then to my utter wonderment discovered that a Providence friend of mine, Tom Epstein, was a close friend and literary collaborator with Elena. He was able to hand deliver my poem to her, in Petersburg.... & thus a friendship began. (I wrote a little about that long ago in a short essay in the magazine Witz).

Poetry, as I am learning these days from the philosopher Emanuel Levinas, is about Saying back to a sort of primal mutual co-responding, a language of loving commitment to another, or an Other... an unspoken love-gesture & suffering commitment, at the beginning of all things. & this is the substance of Personhood, & a sort of inner, secret joy of the universe... & for me this encounter with Elena Shvarts not only re-affirmed, & set a living seal upon, my longtime absorption with Russian poetry - but it represents a sort of partial acting-out or playing-out of what Levinas et al. are saying... I write this not in pride, but humility & gratitude.

So I wrote this simple imperfect poem today, a chapter in Lanthanum. & I am sad that I will not see Elena again. But maybe in some other life, some other form, someday...

in memory of Elena Shvarts

A wet March wind blows through this twilit day.
And two days ago, you were still on earth;
but not for long. A last soft breath... a yellow
moth through the blackened cypress frame of bay

window... gone. Once you were only a name
to me, far off there in Petersburg -
a name for shining black - & whispered
words, changed in translation. Your poem

touched me, then : its Russian humor,
humorous remorse, wry welcome to
life's dangling, ramshackle ways - the hobo's
leaking wounds, all the scrap iron of this early

spring weather... & so you leave me now,
dangling here : never able to read you
in the original, as I was rarely able to see you
in person, zdyes. Yet there's no wedding vow

so solemn and substantial as the flight
of those frail verse missiles we launched
across an Atlantic of salty estrangements -
since what began as mumbles in the night

found its embodiment in flesh. An echoing
embrace of free bird-sounds - feathered
& traced on curving flute-bone - tethered
in harmony... as if we were never going

to say goodbye. On chilly Prospect Street
one bold forsythia has launched light-petals
of sunny praise... harbinger of such mettle as
a woman figures, limping toward the vernal vault.



Back to Lanthanum 57

Trying to get back to writing Lanthanum again (& here). Out of my sluggish slough of slugs of accidia. This is really my best poetry ever (of course, I may be biased). I hope I can find the energy to write Book 2.

I'd like it to be read in the context of Sibelius. Wave upon wave, that's what it's about. There's a Finland (Karelian, to be exact) dimension to this. Finnegans Wake, Karelia, Mandelshtam, & the MN pike that never got caught. Am I being coy? My mother had her first drink (sherry) in Longfellow's house, in Portland, Maine. I lost a fish to a northern pike once - tore the bass right off my hook.


Reading Gabriel Gudding

I've written a review of Gabriel Gudding's first 2 books, now out in Critical Flame; also forthcoming in Jacket #39.


Henry on TV

YouTube is a sort of cinema verite. I have to try not to overdo it, recording things late at night, etc. Thus I risk failing to do justice to the poems. So I deleted 2 recent broadcasts. But the thing has sparked my interest... going to try to airwave just one a day for a while. I have enough poems to outlast Bonanza at that rate. Stay tuned! Share them with your friends! Be the first on your block!


Henry heads back to TV Land

I've been reading some old poems on YouTube this morning.


Henry's model train set (keeps going in circles)

My toy model choo-choo quatraining all these years has become what amounts to a literary habitus. It feels natural, it flows. But it could be just a bad habitus. The slippery, shifty rhyming & repetitions... the over-musicality... the cloudy indications... I'm seeing it in the light of Gumilevian Acmeism now.

Gumilev's emphasis on the word itself - not "music" - as the basic building block of poetry : the word, with its meanings - "Romance" (Mediterranean) clarity & irony, as opposed to "Germanic" northern gloomy-serious mysticism... might be seen as a criticism of the way I write, maybe. Maybe, I don't know.

The pull to keep doin' what I'm doin', only make it stronger - as opposed to really breaking out - is very, very strong... because I'm afraid of losing my knack, forgetting how to play. & I'm in the middle of another long ambitious poem (Lanthanum). If I could do both - keep doin' and branch out - I would. It's a question of mental fortitude, flexibility, inspiration, time & strength... God, soon I'll be doin' "old man's poetry", if I'm not already.

Maybe I'm just good at building birdcages for myself. Or just plain cages.... where I sit & yowl & yodel to myself....

Gumilev on poetry

Strange how some Petersburgians seem to affect me, recurrently, over stretches of time, creating these turning points. That is, I think about Mandelstam & his work all the time, but then there are these more pivotal occasions... now, reading some of Gumilev's critical writings (in an old Ardis Press bk I had hanging about : Nikolai Gumilev, On Russian Poetry) has set me off again... feel like rethinking, reshaping what I'm trying to do in poetry. Shaking things up a little, if possible. Try new things.


Justin Doherty on Acmeism

"...there is an unchasteness of attitude in both the doctrine of "Art for life," and that of "Art for art." In the first case, art... has value only to the extent that it serves goals extraneous to it.... In the second case, art becomes effete, grows agonizingly moonlike..." - Nikolai Gumilev, "The Life of Verse" (tr. by D. Lapeza)

For 30 years or so, ever since I happened upon a book of Mandelstam's selected poems in a local bookstore, I've been fascinated with his work & that of other Russians he led me to : Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Gumilev, Brodsky... I think I've delved as deeply into it as someone who works in an academic library, & never gets past the beginner stage of learning Russian, can possibly delve... & then I come upon something new, & I realize how much I haven't really understood. Justin Doherty's excellent book has had this effect : The Acmeist movement in Russian poetry : culture and the word (Oxford UP, 1995).

One of the things this study has done is lift my perspective beyond a focus on Mandelstam, toward the underlying principles of the group of Petersburg poets with whom he affiliated. Acmeism grew out of various practical associations, especially the so-called "Guild of Poets" - who convened regularly in semi-formal meetings to read and discuss each other's work. This friendly proximity helped foster a kind of professional outlook - a "guild" mentality - which in turn helped the poets to establish some common principles, seen as grounding characteristic, universal elements of poetry, and allowing for a degree of critical objectivity.

I can't adequately paraphrase or even summarize Doherty's book. All I can do is try to point toward some of these salient principles. Nikolai Gumilev, one of the founders of the Acmeist group, can be credited with formulating them, while Mandelstam further elaborated their implications. Here's my rough sketch :

1. The Acmeist movement appeared in Petersburg around 1910, as a critique of the then-reigning but waning Petersburg phenomenon, quite accomplished & sophisticated, known as Symbolism. Russian Symbolism took a mystical view of art and poetry, proposing a categorical divide between the material and the noumenal or spiritual worlds; poetry served as a kind of cultic & mystagogic pathway from the debased world of time and the senses, to a supernal spiritual world of Beauty and Eternity. Poetry was equivalent to gnosticism : a way of knowledge. The Acmeists, on the other hand, committed themselves wholeheartedly to the real, visible, ordinary world of living things, time, and space. They firmly rejected Symbolism's otherworldliness, as well as its amalgam of art and cultic spiritualism.

2. A key defining term for Acmeist poetics is : integrity. Gumilev used a special word for this : "chasteness", or "chastity". We can speculate on his motive for this terminology : integrity (which he also used frequently) has primarily either a structural/physical or a moral sense; "chasteness", in Gumilev's usage, involves these aspects, but perhaps also adds an aesthetic element, a sense of beauty. What did the Acmeists mean by this? As a consequence of their rejection of Symbolism, they affirmed the inherent value, the wholeness of things : that is, of natural life, of language (the "Word"), and of poetry itself. "Integrity" meant that all these things had a "right to exist", and, as Gumilev put it, "on a higher level, a right to be of service to others" [inexact quote from memory]. Thus an acceptance and affirmation of life-on-earth displayed an ethical dimension, and under the umbrella of this overall stance of affirmation, a fundamental equilibrium was established, between the freedom of poetry to be itself, of value in itself, on the one hand, and, on the other, the inherent value of life & culture at large. The two realms were distinct, symbiotic & complementary, all at once.

3. Acmeism, from the Greek "akme" - the acme : perfection, fulfillment, flowering, wholeness... these qualities had more than an ideological or quasi-philosophical reference. For Gumilev and his associates, wholeness and fulfillment had a specific meaning for poetics. The approach was basically Aristotelian, with a strong emphasis on poetry's organic (living) wholeness. Gumilev built on Aristotle's sense of the poem as displaying a unity of beginning-middle-end, of proportion of parts & whole; he developed an "anatomy" of the poetic word with analogy to the systems of the living human body. & this focus on the organic qualities of poetic language helps distinguish such language from other kinds of discourse. The Acmeists began to build a series of interlocking "wholes" of this kind, into a synchronic sense of joyful "philology" - the expression of the poetic Word as a shared effort within a single world tradition, an "Hellenic domesticity" (Mandelstam) crossing all barriers of time & space - centered on the human, and human culture - as sanctioned, reflected, guaranteed by the freedom of the "Word".

4. Acmeism also displays a "reflexive" dimension : standing between Russian Symbolism and Futurism, they thematized (in the poetry itself) the special quality of poetic language as self-fulfilling, as of inherent value. The material of poetry was the living Word. Whereas the Symbolists subsumed poetic speech under the "higher" dimension of music, and the Futurists reduced language to the equivalent of a physical material, something to be smashed, split & distorted at will - the Acmeists accepted the simple denotative meaning(s) of the word as the core, the substance of its value. The inherited language of a culture was to be affirmed & loved along with all other things (in Gumilev's "chaste" vision); the shaping power of art worked in tandem with the given world of nature, not in isolation or alienation. To repeat : this clarity & firmness of expression, the recognition of the akme or beauty of the living language as such, became the bond which united the free & independent sphere of poetry with the actual & ethical world at large. Gumilev & the other Acmeists, again, called this state "equilibrium" (or "integrity") : a synthesis of ethics & aesthetics.

These are just a few very basic aspects of the Acmeist movement. What this suggests to me - as it has for years - is that these concepts, & this attitude, have relevance and application for poets today. We can learn from their shared sense of an objective standard - a "judgement about poetry", as Mandelstam put it. We can learn from their affirmation of the (meaningful, beautiful) Word, and the "world of which it was a part" (W. Stevens); we can learn from the complementarity they discover between the equilibrium of the poem and the normative ethos of civilization, the "teleological warmth" of "domestic Hellenism." The Acmeist's "judgement of poetry" is also a judgement of our own poetry, and the poetry being produced around us now...

Nikolai Gumilev, Anna Akhmatova, & their son Lev, ca. 1913