Michael Scharf on "Personalism"

I like the historical acuity of Michael Scharf's critique of "personalism" in American poetry, despite the fact that my perspective is about as opposite to his as one can get. I do think he has identified something deeply askew in the approach or method which turns poetry into a celebration of subjectivity without limits, as a kind of aesthetic compensation for all the limitations of actual & historical reality.

But I fork paths with Scharf when he offers a form of Marxist-historical-materialist critique as a response to the problem of the person & the personal. A hortatory & quasi-religious rhetoric insinuates itself into his analysis. We are under a moral obligation to "figure a disposition" between "possession and dispossession" - a "material site" of "mistranslation" and "struggle" - ie. it appears that Scharf's notion of the person is that of something partially determined or impinged upon by a materialist history of social struggle, and poetry, in order to mean anything, has to seek the constantly-shifting nexus or interface or locus of this set of implied obligations to the larger (& conflicted) situation.

I have no problem with the idea that individual human meaning is only discovered within a context of the shapes of time & history of the human race as a species, and the world as a whole. What I would argue is that such meaning can be explored & discovered without denying the individual human person an essential - the essential, paradigmatic role - both in history in general, and in poetry in particular.

The crux of the matter comes with an analysis of this notion of the individual human person. If we limit the concept of the person to the egocentric Self as sketched by Scharf (as part of the "mainstream" ideology of American poetics), then Scharf's critique & dismissal of such a limited concept is easy to understand. But we need, rather, to qualify & complicate our sense of the person, rather than reject a caricature of same. One could consult, just for one example, Christian Moev's The Metaphysics of Dante's Comedy, for an introduction to Dante's medieval-poetic understanding of the human self as essentially contingent : but not, as in the modern sense, contingent upon abstract or human-historical forces, but upon a relationship with a divine source in whose image man is made. The relational complexities of the (Judeo-Christian) religious vision of Man-&-God - within which the category of the "personal" is not denied, but rather supplemented & enhanced, while at the same time subjected to an ultimate ethical demand ("eternal judgement" on each individual soul) - these complex relations are part of a nexus of understanding, a viewpoint within which materialist historicism seems finally like a form of personal irresponsibility masking itself as social ethics.

I have gone into these issues at greater length in various blog posts here on Russian Acmeism & "domestic hellenism" : on the perspective emanating from Gumilev & Mandelstam (with deep roots in Byzantine Christianity) which asserted - in the face of revolutionary collectivism - a "chaste" vision of the dignity & beauty of both individual persons & distinct natural phenomena of all sorts. The early 20th-cent. debate between Acmeism & Futurism was another arena in which these basic philosophical problems polarized & played themselves out on an aesthetic/poetic plane.


Pound, Pletho, Nicholas Cusanus

Have been reading about late Byzantine culture (1300s, 1400s) & its influence on western Renaissance. Came upon discussion of Byzantine neo-Platonist (& neo-pagan?) Georgius Gemistus, or "Pletho"... & discovered a connection with another neo-pagan, Ezra Pound. History or legend has it that the late Pletho's body was removed from its tomb by his followers & re-buried in Sigismundo Malatesta's "Tempio", in Rimini (a Renaissance architectural testament to pagan revivalism). & it turns out Pletho indeed pops up in various allusions in the Cantos of Pound.

Furthermore, I discovered this morning that there is a connection between Pletho & the Renaissance Catholic philosopher Nicholas of Cusa, whose writings have fascinated me for a long time. Cusa attributed his most famous work, De Docta Ignorantia (On Learned Ignorance) to a vision he was granted while on a tempestuous sea-voyage from Constantinople back to Italy (as part of a delegation attempting to resolve the endemic conflict between Catholic & Orthodox Christianity). Well... it turns out that Gemistus Pletho was ON THAT SAME SEA-VOYAGE, and may very well have engaged in conversation with Nicholas of Cusa.

One of the deep impulses of my own long-poem efforts has been to shape a response (& challenge) to Pound's great epic (The Cantos) - driven in part by a basic disagreement I have with him over the "shape" of history itself. So this nexus of people & events - Pletho, Malatesta, Nicholas Cusanus, Byzantium, Renaissance - is really grabbing my attention... in that (as some previous blog-posts here detail) Nicholas of Cusa is an historical & philosophical figure who is, for me, a kind of equivalent, maybe, to what Pletho was for Pound...


Never suppose an inventing mind as source
Of this idea nor for that mind compose
A voluminous master folded in his fire.

He was on board ship, sailing from Byzantium
when the moment of illumination came, a flash
of light that staggered him (as happened to Paul
on the Damascus road): when he understood
there can be no ratio, no means of comparison,
no middle term, between the finite and the infinite
Thus, since God is infinite, we have no means
of knowing Him (invisible, incommensurate); so,
as Paul says, If any man thinks he knows anything,
he has not yet known as he ought to know
It follows then, for Nicholas (De Docta Ignorantia)
our proper study is, to understand our ignorance.

I think of him in Constantinople, looking up
into that limpid sphere, that massive cupola,
Hagia Sophia: gazing back at those gigantic eyes:
Christos Pantokrator, hovering there, magnificent
in lapis lazuli, translucent marble. He would
have known that, even then, all-conquering armies
of the Pasha were encroaching on the city gates;
had swept away, already, the last flimsy shreds
of once-almighty Christian Rome – history itself
grown incompatible with that triumphant
image glaring down.

I cannot know You
as You are
. But when I think of you
I think of Bruegel panoramas: there’s Mankind
(a little, furry, muddy, peasant thing – yet
at home upon the earth – its caretaker – self-
conscious, quick – inventive builder, gardener –
blind governor – your tarnished mirror);
and, as he painted in The Road to Calvary,
you hide amongst us, suffering servant, near
the center of our troubles: buried in the crowd:
one of the roughs (disguised, in camouflage,


advance review of Jaimy Gordon (ca. 1979)

I see the NY Times has discovered Jaimy Gordon. But my horse got there fustest. Here's a review I wrote for the estimable East Side Monthly (Providence) in 1979. Yes, that's 1979 : a review of 2 early Gordon works (my writing odiferous, toward the conclusion, with my own preachy-adolescent sociology... urk.... oh well, I was young then too).

Jaimy Gordon's Songs of Life

Circumspections from an Equestian Statue (Providence : Burning Deck, 1979)
The Bend, the Lip, the Kid (NY : SUN Press, 1978)

Local writer Jaimy Gordon has written two stories, one in free verse and the other in the form of a comic novella. They are like night and day, polar opposites, yin and yang. One thing they share in common is their setting - the stories take place right here in Providence. Ms. Gordon is what they call a "dynamite" writer, and at this point where the two stories meet there is an explosion, and the whole town is blown up.

Circumspections (etc.) is about the "Establishment", memorialized today by lamplit Benefit St. Back in 1860-1870, when this story takes place, the wealth strata of society was just beginning to settle back on its velvet cushions and relax into real aristocracy, just like in Europe, only more "modern." The chief protagonist is General Ambrose Burnside, one-time Governor of RI and self-proclaimed "idiot," remembered today as the architect of that great military disaster of the Civil War, the battle of Fredericksburg, and also as the inventor of "sideburns." An equestrian statue of the general stands today in Kennedy Plaza, and supports a large pigeon population.

Burnside carries on in the grand style of American polite society, managing to become powerful both financially and politically without once ceasing to be a bumbling fool. The story describes how Burnside's wife, a well-known nymphomaniac, becomes the all-too-willing subject of one of the pioneers in gynecology, one Dr. Wishey of Paris, France. The tale develops with wild comic flair, employing a number of stock elements of Rhode Island humor - ghosts, Victorian mansions, the Biltmore Hotel.

"It should be understood that by now all three gentlemen had sample extensively the opulent list of the Cafe de Paris.
The doctor said, 'Perhaps you should simply haul your ghost before a drum-head court-martial, and bang, smash, kick and throttle him to death?'
'I believe that to be hanged from the clothesline until dead is the usual treatment for ghosts,' the Reverend remarked.
'May I ask you one last question, General?' said the doctor, holding up his champagne. 'If you are not a music-hall performer, why do you wear those ridiculous sidewhiskers?'
The reverend looked up sharply at this question, since he wore an identical pair in yellow.
'Because I desire to separate the hemisphere of my mouth from the hemisphere of my brain as strictly as possible,' the general answered.
'Would that all the world did likewise!' He paused in triumph. But then the hemisphere of his mouth added injudiciously : 'Besides, I am famous all over the world for my moustaches. Who would know me without my moustaches?'
'Precisely,' said the doctor, rising to his feet, case in hand. 'And now let us proceed to Mrs. Burnside, as we have traveled 3000 miles by sea just for that reason.'"

The precision and economy of this comic tale is worthy of Gogol, allowing this RI combination of laughter/horror to assume archetypal dimensions. In the Garden of Eden, "they were naked, and were not ashamed." Here, all has fallen to utter baseness. The sense of human strength, goodness, intelligence is completely overturned. Burnside (as revealed in the flashbacks to the battle of Fredericksburg) is an absolute beast of inanity. His wife is a harlot seated on the seven hills of Providence. And the whole society is bound to the devil. The metaphor of voyeurism runs through the story ("circumspections...") which begins and ends with the characters looking through the new invention, the Stereopticon. And the minister, Rev. Augustus Woodbury, strikes a bargain with Dr. Wishey, which will allow the good reverend at last to view his own wife's private parts.

"But for him also the devil had invented a spectacle - for the contract he had made, he knew, was not with the doctor, but with the ringmaster of darkness, the Phineas T. Barnum of hell, and it was signed in ether."

Circumspections is a comedy about the established powers in society, where the whole world is bought for the price of a soul. Human nature is covered with a false veneer of gentility and pride, and sexuality becomes something one must bargain with the devil for, and view from a distance. The Bend, the Lip, the Kid goes to the other end of the spectrum. It is a free-verse story, based on real life, set in the true social center of that underworld made up of all those who, because of race or class, are excluded from that tidy genteel world. The story is set in the ACI (Adult Correctional Institution). It is about the relationship between a woman writer and a young prisoner and ex-con - their friendship, her desire to help him, her need to escape. There is no "solution" to their difficulties, no idealized illusions. But the spare honesty of the story gives it a kind of tragic pathos. The characters are not romanticized, although they create their own romantic aura. The are human beings, and one recognizes the environmental, political nature of their fate - the needless suffering and cruel punishment. And when people are powerless, oppressed, lacking any comfort from the world, then the simplest kind of friendship takes on aspects of tenderness and love. These characters are caught in a society which imprisons and separates friend from friend, parents from children. But even if they are powerless to help each other, something remains. What is that something?

To live with the Kid, the present.
To life without him, the poem.
Not that
"having emerged from the darkness of time...
(s)he understands the necessity of art"

Not for the sake of something
invariable or incorruptible
Not even to guarantee, if not the world at large,
a local & transitory buzz 'in the community of poets'
when they put her into the box

But to reply in her own nature.
Is it nature, or a deformity in nature
to need men,
but to have to escape men to survive them,
to see her own life
as inevitable as the life of an other.
Sure she is not acting,
sure that this voice of unsureness is her voice,
lost but awake in it,
she believes no other condition.

His question is, can she be real
a light year behind
the surface of her attention?

She writes the story to take you in,
a story so you can get lost in following,
so it will be painless to follow
unlike, if you have an ego, your love;
a poem because she says so,
only real, because of the lives.

It only remains to say that along with this serious aspect, The Bend... displays the same exuberance and sharp perception, and mastery of language, as in Circumspections... These are extraordinary books.


Lanthanum 7.2


Friends, there are these numbers in the earth
& beneath my tongue, beneath my numbers.
Sums, calculations. Baroque swan-calipers
that stand for Man-as-Everyman ‒ both

Parthian & Hellene, Roman, barbarian.
My circuit is circumference. Multiply a
squared infinity by a half-moon’s aureole
(seven weeks of Sunday lemons, plus one

half), you’ll spy the number of his name :
it is the number of a man. Blackstone,
or meteor... subject to incubation (try-
works; solvent; in the grave). This frame-

up for a buried man (or Berryman) pirouettes
on Parisian snowflake, Transylvanian tree... fine
triple-crimson snowdrop (planted to trip you up);
Karelian moth, butterfly in camouflage (knots

153 married fish; weeds lonesome sole). & so
my feet circumambulate (pilgrim-wise) this
roundabout of sister stars. A means to ease my
sorry solitude, & castaway (hence, Hen) the role

of hierophant ‒ with a sense of geometrico-
mathematical (almost) solidarity. A species-
gold, stone of the veriest philosopher (seize
the Day-Star, son
, he says). My only Palme

. Only the bent of a pent-up rib
anxious with sighs, love, gravity. Only
casual fretwork of the sun, weaving a
few figures (through handfuls of pine).



Lanthanum 7.1

So, I've reached the numerical center of the poem Lanthanum (as planned, anyway). This is poem # 145 : it's paired with the previous poem (# 144). I hope you enjoy my labors in the dust. My first poem published in Rhode Island (in a chapbook titled "Where the Skies are not Cloudy All Day", from Hellcoal Press, 1971) was titled "For March 28 Nineteen 71 (after reading Apollinaire)".


The day after Pearl Harbor Day, I glance
at an old poster on the wall. Tran-Van-Tay;
Galerie Amyot, 20 rue Saint-Louis-
en l’Isle
. 1992. Four pomegranates

on white linen, intricately bordered with a line
of aquamarine; their crimson branches sketched
in echoing blue-black. Found by chance,
roving l’Île-de-France one night (on honeymoon).

To think that you were there, too, Grace ‒
in 1918, riding a Red Cross truck (Apollinaire
already gone); your paintings afloat in a corner
of the Louvre ‒ hand & eye leaving a trace

in France. Here in RI (in Cumberland,
along the riverbank) lies Blackstone’s pearl :
the one who went to live with Indians (clamshell
pilgrim-orchardist; bookish pioneer, bookended

here). A milky mote of vision, out of
a void of solitude & loss : moonlit
circumference (divine & human) set
upon this blood-veined earth. River-trove

of rose-touched clay, that signifies
universality ‒ the light of truth that
measureth Everyman; that weighteth in
the balance all our goodness, each iniquity ‒

his pearl, his ecstasy (lunar lucidity).
Night glimmers on a ruin in Bukovina
(where Tree of Jesse, patient, waits
the Day). An omnipresent quiddity ‒

the center of your soul, & mine ‒ wry
rainbow across the wheat. Monarch man-
arc, tacking to Mexico... peregrine
Pontifex Maximus, reigning (on milky way).



Lanthanum 6.24

I've reached the projected center of this seemingly-endless poem... this is the concluding section of chapt. 6, Bk 2... the 144th poem so far. But Lanthanum is a see-saw of plans & improvisation... & I realized this morning that my grandfather John Ravlin's cousin Grace's painting called "Pink Gate" fit quite well into what I'm trying to accomplish at this stage... so here we go.


About a century ago (just 86 years before
now, to be precise) my great-grand-cousin Grace
painted a picture of the Pink Gate, in Tangiers.
What found its way through lingering eyes, your

fingers traced for us to see : feminine
seagull-panopticon, settled into soft
earth-jar. Variations on flesh-tone
theme (friable clay & palm-leaf green)

balanced on a pink gate at the center of the frame.
Not supercilious or grandiose, not superhuman,
domineering... rather, serviceable, sane.
Humane... charming. Earth, sans fear & blame ‒

clear, sun-washed. Grace... in your eye &
hand. & it was like a dream, out of sand ‒
an oasis at the center, a gate of human-
colored clay. From single minuscule seed

(infinitesimal ‒ no more than 1/137th
of a centimeter ‒ smaller than grain of salt)
buried by sluggish river, emerged the tallest,
vaulting tree. Slowly, slowly. A Sabbath-

baobab, a birchbark arc of shade. Of shade,
& shady, breezy sounds. Out of the desert
came a whisper; out of the sea, a murmur-
voice. Longstanding, ancient. Subtle braid

of sense, instinct with tensile strength
(stringèd bow drawn taut; mighty dome
aloft on wings). A pair of lips from
Jubilee ‒ Solomon’s very height & length

drawn by quizzical cubit-Queen (of Yemen).
(For accuracy.) On a limestone ridge
Grace gathered her unfolding theme : one pledge
for the whole shade-branching realm (rocked

in the bosom of her eye)



lanthanum 6.23


The sun sweeps low, a gold-vermilion eye
& the earth swings wide, to the shady solstice
& a goldfinch flutters in its rusty cage, anxious
to go. Moss-green graywing, goodby, goodby.

Rooted like Blackstone to a limestone ground
my shadow spools a single arc of longing ‒
rockbound silhouette, bent toward that Evening
Land. A simple Cézanne forest floor (dark brown,

pine-green). Homegrown Sibelius would know,
looking to the sky for her wingèd Victory,
peregrine, trailing clouds (dove-grey,
turning white... streaked with... rainbow

ringlets). Sursum corda. & my heart lifts
like an arch just above the horizon ‒ all steeled
for one strong matrix-claim, up there (rose wheel-
eye, touching treetops). Whose crosshairs shift

the lens (mandorla to mandala, eyes to rose).
To meet the earth’s deep-sounding travail (blue-
bleak)... with arms’ warm honey-amber... loving yew-
turn, bow-taut now! A chordal flame leaps, glows!

Sea-bells ring home, my soul, my soul!
& who was far, draws near... & what was fickle
desire yields place at last, to steadfast clay ‒
Love’s needful cry, the arched bow’s tinder-bowl ‒

Noah’s shipfold (two notes are one).
Low bass, high soprano. Imagination’s
advent, in the void... Beethoven’s
cure... snow-lit alcove of the Resurrection.



late night doodle

lanthanum 6.22


To walk a lonely stretch of Hope St., Providence
& try to collect myself for this endeavor
toward the center of the poem, & the earth...
to know that loneliness is of the essence ‒

yours, mine ‒ Blackstone’s, by his sole candle ‒
a poverty in the spine of things, a threadbare
shawl pulled around your shoulders... there,
in the mind’s eye. One ultraviolet mandorla

made of syllables ‒ at a lonesome crossroads
on Hope St. ‒ in the center of myself ‒ which is
(perhaps) also the center of yourself (promise
afloat upon the sea). My ship, my canoe (Rhode

Island wooden almond) ‒ straitened at last
through the narrow sluice of melancholy ‒
time ‒ your absence, my delusions ‒ O my
Lamp of Gaiety
, my only Gate. Happiness

implanted before all things, by You : this is
the original status quo, on whose behalf
stern Roger proffered his indomitable life
(still stands, on the cliff, under the rainbow’s

cat’s-eye marble ‒ foot planted on the bow, like
that gold coin from Constantinople ‒ Anthousa
with a rose, foot shod by the prow ‒ Argo);
shaded the silhouette of a continent (one

aching arc). All these figures only filigree
for simple math, & plain geometry ‒
invert the envelope of solitude, toward mercy.
My guest is smiling at the gate (waiting for me).



Retro-Futurism & its Children


In an early essay, Mandelstam wrote : "for an artist, a worldview is a tool or a means, like a hammer in the hands of a mason, and the only reality is the work of art itself." On the face of it, an eminently modernist sentiment. On a similar branch, Wallace Stevens, in "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words", writes : "... above everything else, poetry is words... A poet's words are of things that do not exist without the words." Yet for both these poets, "worldview" stood for something more : call it "reality", call it "truth", call it "history", it is that dimension which exists distinct from, and in tandem with, poetry itself. For both of these poets, the relation between poetry and "worldview" helped determine the poet's attitude or stance within/toward the wider culture - & this was something both of them took very seriously. What is the role of the poet? What (if any) is the social sanction for poetry? For Stevens, these questions prompted a sustained, even relentless search for understanding. For Mandelstam, they underwrote his forthright, polemical stance toward the "worldviews" which grounded contemporary Russian literature & politics : his commitment to Acmeism vs. Futurism, to "unofficial" vs. "official" writing, to intellectual freedom vs. loyalty to the State.

In today's America (as in yesterday's) we sense an absolute allegiance to the values of success, achievement, superiority, wealth, fame... We are a nation of driven, workaholic strivers, a people obsessed with those mechanical short-cuts to bliss known as "gadgets." We are surrounded by tall wobbly ladders of rules, protocols, steps, points, scores, levels, etc. etc., which everybody is eager to either follow or circumvent. In fact the rules offer themselves as intriguing & ambivalent amalgams of both obedience & circumvention. Kafka would understand. Lots of contemporary novels are structured around such Janus-faced rules. The only rule this nation descended from the Puritans seems to have forgotten, is an unambiguous one, a rule those Puritans held sacrosanct : to keep holy the Sabbath; ie., to rest from striving, to sit still, to be, simply, thankful for existence...

I don't exempt myself from these typical American obsessions (or demonic possessions). I'm just as driven as the next scurrilous wannabe-squirrel. But I'm interested in how "worldview" coalesces with "poetry" in forms which sometimes offer resistance. I am skeptical of the culture of MFA networks & "workshop" self-improvement; I am equally skeptical of the worldviews suggested by literary experimentalism & the busy, much-loved avant-garde. Both trends seem finally indistinguishable from the culture of hard-driving lemmings I have described. MFA systems offer poetry as something measurable & objective, a professional "field" one can pursue, step by vocational step, like a degree in law or engineering. Experimentalism promotes the aesthetics of the gimmick. We see this trend across the spectrum of literary publication, from the New Yorker to the tiniest lit-zine. This is the poetry of the one-shot deal, the hit, the gag, the stunt : its presence is pervasive, its technical versatility & wit are irreproachable & immediately "winning" (the whole aim, after all, is to be winning). The style involves speed, cunning, sarcasm, transparency, readability, immediacy : conversely, it downplays depth, feeling, continuity, profundity, complexity, irony... & because it draws on a now-traditional (& predictable) set of alienation-effects and scandalous subversions, I would christen this omnipresent set of techniques "retro-futurism".

On the other hand, there is also a mode of resistance to the frantic polemical side-taking in poetry circles, which might be summarized as simply anti-theory . This is the strategy of the deliberately-inclusive, the dogmatically-uncritical and non-judgmental, the Big Tent approach, the cowbell "Come an' Get It!" communal-table method, the "just poetry, no ideas" attitude, the "just paint, no Cubism" mantra. No such thing as good or bad in art. The trouble with this entire approach is that it morphs so seamlessly into its opposite : the "this is what we're having for dinner so just eat it!" answer to all questions of value & taste. Do you really want to read this lousy poetry? With its shrunken, tattered & abused vocabulary, its second-hand & obvious ideas, its shallow or non-existent feeling? Its essential crudeness, its vulgarity - its aggression, its assault on human dignity? Is this what you want? This is the meal awaiting you in the Big Tent, friends. I think that underlying the all-inclusive, non-critical mode is a fundamental aestheticism : a set of art-for-art's-sake assumptions, a kind of monochrome vision, which cannot recognize the basic dialectic of art & worldview (which so absorbed Mandelstam & Stevens).


Art & worldview. I have asserted their importance, their necessity : so where do I stand myself in this regard? But I have rambled at length & with much incoherence & tedium, elsewhere, on the subject of my own worldview : so here I will just suggest a possible avenue of pursuit.

Eliot, Pound, Stevens : Medieval, Renaissance, Modern. As if in this trio we have a kind of exemplary recapitulation of the history of the West. Eliot the medieval man : for whom the measure of Man is only to be found in her relationship with God. Eliot's God is in many ways remote & elusive, and he compensates for this by emphasizing the objectivity of dogma, the absolute quality of both the articles of faith & the cultural traditions for which they are the foundation. Pound the Renaissance man : for whom "Man is the measure of all things." In such a situation, calm, peace & stability are elusive, & Pound compensates for this by emphasizing the objectivity of Nature, and the supremacy of the men of inherent power & natural wisdom (Malatesta, the Founding Fathers, Confucius...). Stevens the modern : for whom nature is fundamentally immeasurable & mysterious, and therefore Man-within-nature must imagine her own order (since order is to be found nowhere else).

These are obviously over-simplifications. All three poets remain elusive themselves, their attitude & work can be read from all three cultural-historical "positions" (& more). As for my own worldview, I think I oscillate between something like Eliot's & something like Stevens' sense of things. What Stevens suggests - & which essentially modifies both Eliot's and Pound's tendency toward dogmatism - is the key role of the imagination : the imagination of the human species as a whole, as a kind of unity. In this Stevens descends directly from that earlier trio of poet-thinkers, from whom both Eliot & Pound took pains to distance themselves : Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats. What both Stevens & Eliot, in their greatest work, share with Coleridge & Wordsworth & Keats, is a recognition of the shaping power of the human mind within experience : that we live, as the Renaissance thinker Nicolas of Cusa wrote, in a "conjectural" world, a world of fundamentally human shaping. "The Word is Psyche," as Mandelstam put it. As for my own worldview, maybe I stand closest to Nicolas of Cusa, then : for this was someone who could synthesize & integrate both : 1) a Renaissance sense of the powers of the human mind, and 2) a recognition, an acknowledgment, of a loving relationship with a universal God, the ultimate ground of all existing things, who is also a "personal" Spirit (of whom Man is the "image & likeness").


Celan 1 December

Read a few poems by Paul Celan at lunchtime. Experienced that mysterious & very special Celan-effect : the sense that out of extreme frailty come words of great strength & encouragement. Not so much for the poet himself, but for the reader. Reminded me of that phrase in one of the letters of his namesake, the Apostle (himself quoting the prophets somewhere, I guess) : "my strength is perfected in weakness."

So often it seems Celan's addressee is Mandelstam. Not only in the book Die Niemandsrose (which is saturated with Mandelstam). But say for example in this poem from the book that followed, Atemwende - the poem which begins "IM SCHLANGENWAGEN...", which Michael Hamburger translates as follows :

the white cypress tree,
through the surge
they drove you.

But in you, from
the other wellspring foamed,
on the black
jet remembrance
dayward you climbed.

I think this poem can be said to be addressed to the victims of Hitler, the victims of the 20th century. But I surmise there's also a specific subtext here, a poem of Mandelstam's (one from Tristia), which begins "Upon a sled laden with straw." The poem sketches a scene of the "young Tsar" being taken away on a sled or wagon, in the midst of his persecutors, to execution.