Orphic Memos is a cicada in the trees.



Orphic Pronunciamentos

The old skinny bards in the old skinny days never sang without accompaniment; they all plucked or bowed a little stringed catgut thingamajig, playing off their yowling verses. In doing so, they shored up the effect of art : they framed their speech within its magic circle, they distinguished it, set it apart. Set apart : a holy thing. Filled with dangerous charisma & spiritual mana : the word set to music.


We have heard that poetry is the art of the word. But what is art? A kind of order, an ordering. A framework. In time (beginning, middle, end) & space (perspective, view). An ordering, itself ordered toward one end : the beautiful. Ordered by means of, what? Vision (a kind of inward vision, involving all senses). "Beauty is truth, truth beauty..." mumbles Keats's urn. Art is an ordering, an orientation, toward the manifestation of that pre-existent beauty (natural and spiritual).


Poetry manifests harmony in the forms of polyvalent rhythm. Not just the rhythms of ordinary speech or patterns of words & lines : these staccato elements are upheld on deeper sound-waves, sea-surges of verbal flow - dialectical turns & counter-turns, suspense & procession, gradual or sudden unfoldings & appearances. & underlying these are yet more vast & mysterious organic changes, imponderable circuits of time itself - life's emotional cycles (say, the films of Satyajit Ray or Jean Renoir...).


When they twanged their thingamajigs & yodeled the myth of Orpheus, those skinny old bards entered an echo chamber. Self-reflexive (how postmodern!). The myth of Orpheus the Singer was the story of themselves : taming the wild beasts, enrapturing everyone with sweet melody... descending even unto Hades to fetch back dear Eurydice... child of Apollo, torn apart by unreasoning (Dionysian) Maenads... Yet this myth also reflected back another way, onto Myth itself : for what is myth, if not a kind of ritual orientation? A harmonizing activity, meant to resolve chaos into order, to humanize life, make it intelligible - by means of words, stories? Myth in general has an orphic dimension. So in the story of Orpheus these dual reverberations overlap and intertwine.


The God of the Torah and the prophets is also a kind of Orpheus, in medias res (& before all things). Creating an ordered cosmos by his word, his "Let there be..." As is the Christ of the Gospels, who says "Heaven & Earth shall pass away, but my Word shall not pass away".... who after Good Friday descends Orpheus-like into Hell, to liberate imprisoned souls. Renaissance poets (Ariosto, Spenser, Milton), in all their furry & bejeweled verbal elegance, made much of this blended Yahweh-Jesus-Orpheus. & Dante, following the call of Beatrice from Hell to Paradise, played Christo-Orpheus Redivivus to the glittering hilt of heaven.


& someday some inspired scholar might penetrate to the unity of Shakespeare's oeuvre... tap the spine of his deepest motive... & Hamlet's play-within-a-play-within-a-history-play within the play of History will reveal a certain Orphic ambience... & we, who are the mortal, sinful audience, outside the magic mirror of the Tempest, might recognize Prospero as a type of Orpheus-in-reverse : not so much descending into Hell, but calling to us, calling us back to, that echoing, heavenly Island of well-tempered sounds...


Those scrawny ancient minstrels, whether Jew or Greek or otherwise, provided metaphors, analogies for experience in general - for Everyman & Everywoman. Thus the descensus ad Inferos, the Harrowing of Hell, by Orpheus- and Jesus-Hero, presented an icon, an exemplary tale : reverberated with unspoken (or unspeakable) dimensions of human life. Such as, the well-known Fall of Man. We know, intuitively, that both as individuals and as a species we have fallen away, we have lost something, we have forgotten some early heaven, we have drifted from eternity to mortality. & the Hero who climbs down to Hades & redeems its pitiful denizens is the saving (self-saving) dream of Man, of Species-Man, Everyman : to climb from the nightmare of history & become the rightful Gardener of the planet : to fulfill the deep-sown mission of humankind itself, the ultimate human telos...


The scent of Orpheus (pine-boughs?) hovers around Modern poetry too (both an explicit & implicit presence). Eliot set the tone with "The Waste Land", that desiccated nowhereville in extremis, in direful need of a redemptive Word (shantih). Pound & Crane followed & divagated in their different ways. But the Greco-Christian Orpheus was never simply an Apollonian savior, heroic, powerful & glorious; he was tainted with blood & passion & Dionysius. The Christian "descent into hell" was not just a nekuia : it was also a kenosis : a humbling, a shedding of divinity & glory. Jesus-Orpheus as Suffering Servant. & I note an echo of this (kenotic) theme in the 20th-cent. long poem - the poem of shards & local facts & glittering fragments, the "grab-bag", the Whitmanish loping & limping life-poem, the wayward processions & unfinished works-in-progress, the poetry of dissociated bits & pieces, humiliated poets... it's a mode of Everyman-kenosis : the shattering & scattering of the Orphic Word, of the Son of Man, into the grimy, glimmering wasteland of forlorn & chirping backgrounds & back alleys... (think David Jones here).


Walking to work today I passed the fine sculpture "Orpheus Ascending," by Gilbert Franklin, at the RI School of Design. Orpheus clutches his lyre, while Eurydice, led by Hermes, heads back to Hades. The lyre was Orpheus' bardic thingamajig : the lyre, the frame of sound, the scaffolding of harmony, which accompanies & merges with the word in poetry. (Muse+Word = Music.) Hermes plays a key role in this story : messenger, communicator, mediator between realms (heaven, earth, underworld). If Orpheus represents beauty, art & Apollonian order, and Eurydice the (lost, repressed, imprisoned?) feminine spirit, Hermes stands for the occult connections & affinity between differences, opposites, antagonists. In Franklin's work, we behold these three at the point of tragic disjunction (yet united by another "lyre" - the shell of form underneath their feet). The title, "Orpheus Ascending," strikes me as somewhat ironic : Orpheus stretching up toward heaven, ready to crow like a rooster (in a major key), is by this very action separated from Eurydice and Hermes, moving away and down (on a minor chord). Or is it the tragic irrevocable chord itself that Orpheus strums, as he makes the fatal (human) mistake - a failure of faith (turning to see if Eurydice's still there).


We have pointed toward notions of art as an achievement of harmonious order - of finish, completion, fulfillment; a kind of labor, which rests on the most natural and instinctive human (aesthetic) responses to beauty in general, beauty pre-existent in nature. But our contemporaries may (rightly) be skeptical of such notions : in fact all the flummery about Orpheus, mythology, Jesus-Orpheus, & so on, might be seen as laughably irrelevant to the manifold existential crises of the present day. We inhabit an age of science, disenchantment, a knowing disillusionment : so what's the point of all this archaic play-acting, these mystifications? And our skeptic will likely be well-trained and steeped in such doubts - since a strong, perhaps the strongest, current of thought, since 1914 at least, has been thoroughly Nietzschean, Dionysiac, iconoclastic. A notion of art as order is viewed with great suspicion (& not without basis, considering how such a notion was distorted and manipulated by fascism, Stalinism, etc.). 20th-century art was largely anti-art: self-contradictory, enmeshed in a struggle with its own processes, repudiating any claim to its own autonomy or authority, cannibalizing and parodying its own backgrounds... Paradoxically, however, when we remind ourselves of this central struggle - between icon and iconoclasm, between Apollo and Dionysius, between harmony and force, between order and chaos, between "beauty" and "truth" - we inevitably restore the relevance of the now-maligned, diminished side of this battle (the Apollonian, the Orphic). The "return of the repressed"....


We have suggested a sense of the Orpheus myth as self-conscious, self-reflexive. Orpheus is the "type" not only of the myth-maker, but of myth itself, when myth is considered as the basic expression of human (poetic) imagination. In the story of Orpheus the poet steps forward onto the stage, like Shakespeare playing Hamlet's father, or Hitchcock strolling through his films. Orpheus is poetry's "play-within-the-play." Again, the chorus demands : the relevance of all this for today? Well, take a look at the August 2010 issue of Poetry magazine, in the essay there by Tony Hoagland. Hoagland recasts and re-imagines the too-familiar "binary" of the American poetry wars, between "mainstream" and "experimental" (& all the other brand-names for same), as an issue between two essential approaches : poetry as an art of : 1) "perspective" or 2) "resistance." For these terms, read, respectively : Apollonian or Dionysian. What we have here is a very ancient duality dressed up in today's terminology. What we have, at root, is an inner struggle within art : between a sense of beauty as order, finish, fullness, completion - and a contrary sense of beauty as invigorating, enlivening, liberating, aleatory, chaotic. & just as in the realm of politics, the ideological partisans (of both sides) resist any mediation of this polarity, any proposed resolution of this conflicted conundrum. Orpheus, with his temperate, well-tempered lyre, continues to be torn apart by joyfully inebriated Dionysians : harmony opposed by, & opposing, force (say, since May 29th, 1913 - & the first performance, in Paris, of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring).


The (late) Plumbline School (before it got derailed by a Dionysian) was seeking that temperate Apollonian chord.


The goods on Quietude

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of The Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

- T.S. Eliot, "Choruses from the Rock"


Lanthanum 6.5


Oriented to the center, then, and through
the eye of a needle ‒ threaded with junkyard
wool, black-white, grey… a cast-off loaded
with canards, castaways… your slander-

ship… your malady, milady (hubby-
hearse). & if I could mumble your tomb
open, little junkman's wing ‒ if I could hum
your name ‒ Red, Rube or Ruby?

‒ roseate as early raisin, ripe as grape
or turnip from heaven (purple-grey) ‒
I'd be home free. I'd be in Ithaca,
Itasca today ‒ I'd be ship-shape.

Only light, weightless light, Archimedean light
in a trice, through the eye of a bee.
Honey-light, glowing (you'll see, you'll see)
lifting a double-bass through brass fishnet

of wayward tears, years… (yours).
So we spin through the eye of hexagram-
hurricane, my dear ‒ 'twixt cherubim-
leavings, leaf-wings, pendulous

angle-bowers ‒ abeam every wandering
birchbark in creation. Drawing water,
bailing bale… rainwater, eye-water…
air & water & fire for the pottering

King of J (your ornery ancestor).
Who's coming back. Through that ring
of steadfast, bifoliate flame ‒ Love's singeing
Lincoln-leaf (O dove-cast mistress-master)



Lanthanum 6.4


To encounter the stranger, to welcome the guest,
to enlarge the circle ‒ a constituent element
of civilization at large ‒ the fundament
of more primordial union. & this was a test

of mettle for many characters, native & settler ‒
all particular tongues & colors, whorled
in clay… into a goldenrod sham Hamlet, moored
in Venice, Tunis. Queequeg's tattoo (vespered,

fluted in Nantucket, scored for ten fingers
with the Sign of Man, whispered
alive again ‒ the skin of his forefathers
saved by the skin of his teeth)… earth-tinctured,

all. Sparse sketches from memory
of prehistory ‒ a time when builders were
delvers, weavers, spider-wise ‒ somewhere
beneath exuberant & bracing armatures ‒ See

through my hand
! wind mutters from the mound.
Midway, mid-continent… magma-lamp
in Maggie's palm ‒ the magisterium (tent-camp
& camel-dome) of deserted garden (Eden, found).

Labyrinth of fingertips. A whorl of star-
embossed flesh ‒ pent Quaker grandmother,
earth-patching grandfather ‒ the dance-patter
of partners in a pattern-wheel (a potter's far-

flung chariot of fire). & your ache
behind the eyelids is a rainbow-streak
of so many spirits round about you : Jake,
Jonah & (tender, tending wing)… hums, wake.



Words & Logos

There are the words in poetry, and then there is the Word. There is the written poem, and then there is the poet, the person - behind the poem, with the poem. There are mountains of texts, and then there is the Word-made-Flesh, the enacted word, the word which someone "stands by". There is the "tradition of the new," the Modern - stretching back to the Renaissance, if not before - and then there is a Way - a way which involves a resistance to novelty for its own sake : a resistance motivated by a different sense of history, a different kind of commitment. T.S. Eliot's curious and much-maligned path through poetry represents a mode (imperfect, bigoted, misguided as it was) of this "way." Welsh poet David Jones represents another example of this resistance. John Berryman was turning (returning) this way, at the end of his life.

You can focus on poetry as pure aesthetics, and you can ground your aesthetics in the modern, the contemporary - the continuous revolution of the new-for-its-own-sake. But this narrow focus represents a version of idolatry. There is another, more substantial newness which stems from the action of the Word - of the spiritual word, of the word-beyond-art, the encompassing Word - a word manifest in actual persons, substantial history.

Does this mean that we must devalue the dignity of poetry-in-itself? Must we simply harness aesthetics to more ideology, another overpowering "belief system"? Isn't this to fall into yet another (neo-Puritan, "iconoclastic") trap? Not necessarily. Because the encompassing Word-made-Flesh itself contains a dimension of creative ("incarnational") wholeness and inherent self-fulfillment. The notion (deriving from the Word) of the cosmos as a complete and beautiful creation provides the analogy which justifies the inherent value of art. But when we replace this central, primary analogy - the analogy of the imago Dei - with the concept of the autonomous centrality of Art and the Artist, we nullify the basic relationship between divine and human, spiritual and material, creator and creation. The "Logos" is this ratio - this (human, superhuman, personal) relationship.

This may sound like a strange sort of antique philosophy : but its strangeness is simply a reflection of our cultural amnesia. We have forgotten everything : in its place, we frantically pursue the "new" like hamsters on a flywheel.


"Typology" is not what you thought it was

Reading deep book, very valid & valuable.... (the 3 V rating) :

Events and their Afterlife, by A.C. Charity.

Some Myths of the PIC (Poetry-Industrial Complex)

1. The text of the poem = the poem. Therefore I am free to skim, browse, delete, copy, etc.

2. Since Poetry is One Thing, Poets are One Social Group. Networking is important!

3. Since there is No Such Thing as Poetry, but Only Kinds of Poetry, Poets are Many Social Groups. Networking is important!

4. Gossip about the lives & careers of poets is more interesting than poetry.

5. Poetry is an Autonomous Art Phenomenon which can and should Change the World.

6. A poem is simply a jazzy way to write things down fast.

7. Poets are born rebels, with the seared consciousness of life's evil & pain. Not to mention hip. I want to be like them.

8. Poetry is really very simple. Who are these people who keep claiming it's so difficult? Elitist duffers.

9. Poetry is about celebrating & partying together.

10. Language is meant to be abused in poetry. That's what poetry is for, duh.

11. As Plato tells us, the poet is a light & winged soul, fragile, mercurial. They should not be expected to think or behave like ordinary people.

12. If I don't get it right away that's the poem's problem. Bye.