Poetry & kitsch

Sent this comment to the 2nd in a series of long posts from a work-in-progress by Daniel Tiffany, conveyed by Don Share at his blog (Squandermania) :

"Very interesting subject.... & Mr. Tiffany covers a lot of ground, reconfigures a lot of received notions about kitsch.

Not sure I would want to identify the "poetic" so directly with the values of kitsch, however. Kitsch - in the sense of a mindlessly-manufactured product of mass commercial appeal, which reproduces (simulates) authentic art - ie. the binary kitsch/art - seems analogous to Coleridge's binary fancy/ imagination, in that the products of fancy are somewhat superficial & calculated rhetorical ornaments - frills, let's say - as opposed to the organic-formative-substantial structures of imagination. And for Coleridge the synthetic (as in "synthesis", not "artifice") power of the imagination to unite disparate aspects of experience into meaningful intellectual wholes is the essential mode & purpose of poetry. Poetry exhibits a vivid vitality which stems from its emotional empathy with that which is depicted - powers of ethos & pathos which are absent from many streams of analytical prose.

This whole discussion might well be framed by attention to an incisive study of 40 yrs ago by Harold Fisch, Jerusalem and Albion. Fisch begins with a critique of Eliot's rendering of the famous "dissociation of sensibility". The real split between poetry and prose occurred BEFORE the 18th-cent. flowering of bourgeois literature, which is the period of Tiffany's focus. The split began under the impact of dual 17th-cent. phenomena : 1) Baconian scientism, with its suspicion of language in general and of rhetoric and poetry in particular, and its desire to supplant them with a mode of "pure" scientific observation; 2) Puritan iconoclasm, with its emphasis on virtuous "plain speech" as opposed to the snares of flowery rhetoric, luxurious poetry. As Fisch demonstrates, when Baconian scientism melded with Puritan suspicion of language, a tremendously powerful anti-poetic animus was infused into the intellectual-cultural make-up of English-speaking society : an ironic situation which involved the elision or avoidance of the main stream of poetic sensibility and eloquence (the King James Bible). The repercussions of this fundamental divide are in very clear evidence in the stance and ideology of William Blake, for one example, with his "prophetic" attacks on Locke & Newton, etc.

This, it seems to me, is the locus of the real battle between poetry and prose, even today : it has less to do with the maneuvers of "fancy" (kitsch) than with the ontological (& social) status of the imagination."


Lanthanum is a Book

New edition of Lanthanum now available : Books 1 & 2. Larger print, easier to read, with introduction and extensive explanatory notes. Restoration of world civilization, at no extra charge.


Grossman, Lerner, Maximus & all

The Poetry Foundation's Yak Disseminator highlights an interesting interview. Ben Lerner emphasizes his debt to the writings of Allen Grossman (my fellow Blake School graduate of previous generation) : a basically tragic perspective, mourning the limits of art, language & poetry, and the gap between Paradise and life as we know it. Lerner apparently finds a way to make this deeply ironic worldview work for him.

I've only read parts of Grossman's book (The Long Schoolroom) - it's on my desk, actually : but the reason I've left it unfinished is I find myself almost immediately resisting and disagreeing with his formulations. (Interesting that Grossman years back wrote a seminal short essay on Hart Crane, a poet whom Grossman clearly cares for as deeply as I do myself.)

I'm fundamentally an optimist - a comedian (in Dante's sense) rather than a tragedian. In my "Acmeist" world, wholeness - intellectual, spiritual, physical, historical, moral, cosmological - trumps division, irony and brokenness. Am reading again in Byzantine theologian Maximus the Confessor (as I try to get ready to work on the 3rd & final book of the poem Lanthanum), and encountering some clear cogitations on the nature of difference (distinction). For Maximus, difference does not automatically entail complete division, separation, or antagonism. Differences can co-exist, be harmonized. His thought in this vein is basically folded into an anthropology rooted in the concepts of divine Creation and Incarnation. The divine and human are dual and distinct, but are united "without confusion, without separation" in the incarnate God-Person. This unity is at the core of all the cosmic arrays of difference, of individual & species, of many & one.

In this perspective, an "Acmeist" poetics might acknowledge sharp distinctions between word & thing, art & life, poetry & truth - while at the same time remaining open (hopeful) to the possibility of their real coherence, their harmony.


Lanthanum 8.24


In Evening Land near Minnehaha Falls
in August at beginning of the end of summer
when chirring crickets commence their Sumerian
eulogy in 7/9 time when the walls tumble

& the multiplex day a monarch butterfly
skitters down too into night’s monotone
(one late cicada out of the gloom) when
weaving swallows metamorphose into bats (high

up across the wistful pastel) & back again
then you’ll behold curious figures interlace
merge in a waltz of compass arcs across a
sixfold stone rosette out of Iran or Babylon

on an old stone sepulchre in Haifa (or Jerusalem)
between Jachin Boaz the two tall twin
amphorae (clay mimicking limestone) with a fan
of peacocks preening astride each funereal rim.

In Romania’s gold haze Czernowitz, Bukovina
the unmarked graves bend stoop with grass
of hot dog days under leaf-light shade (mass-
ive). & your imaginary friend (baobab, the

noman’s rood) becomes friendly little bird,
or tree (goldfinch, almond) tipping his eye
your way like a Chaplin hat or prairie (sigh)
all in one day, one night as soldiers slumbered

between night & day under milkweed portal
your starry canopy or wisdom-dome Hagia
Sophia in Cleopatra-coracle, light Cahokia
canoe or Memphis barge (small portable grail)

only some garbage truck, rumbling down 44
while the monarch waits on the balcony
near the microphones fate’s falconry
winging along toward Mexico (high cedar air)


Lanthanum : draft for an introduction

Short poems are usually better off on their own, without preliminary paraphernalia. But before asking a reader to plunge into the trackless Siberia of a work in verse that runs for hundreds of pages, if not miles, it might help to offer a brief survey of the territory.

Lanthanum is a work-in-progress, and I can’t predict where it will tend – but the poem is designed numerically around the number 57 (the atomic number of the element lanthanum), and at least in terms of simple length, this volume represents about 2/3rds of the whole – two books out of a projected three. And so I believe there are a few general things which can now be said about it. First, the poem has a narrator (the poet) who discourses in his own voice, but also assumes brief masks or personae, or speaks through (or by way of) distinctly different persons : Hobo, Maximus the Confessor, Roger Williams, William Blackstone, Berryman’s “Henry”, etc. Second, these splintered personae are aspects of a general ambience, at the poem’s opening, of loss, loneliness – as of a situation in which the speaker is missing a close friend, a companion, a beloved person. This predicament is never really clarified or explained : but in a literary sense it parallels the dilemma outlined by Dante in the Vita Nuova and Divina Commedia, or, going further back, the plot of the myth of Orpheus : in which the poet has lost a beloved person, the personal embodiment of love – and he must come to terms with that, and he goes on a journey to do so.

To some extent the poem itself is that journey. There is a mutual enfoldment of “orphic” song (lyric) with plot (narrative), of medium with message. In this way poetry offers a promise of healing through its own constructive elaborations : the “muse” becomes the imaginary friend who replaces the lost real friend. Obviously there is a real danger here of withdrawal into empty solipsism (literary, psychological) : yet there is also the possibility that poetry might become a proving ground for intellectual and spiritual resources beyond mere psychic substitution. This, after all, was the “comic” theme of Dante : that the loss of the beloved’s physical presence entailed the poet’s self-examination, a moral-philosophical struggle with the real nature of love itself. Something of value might emerge from suffering; what seems lost might be restored.

Obviously to speak of one’s work in the same breath with Dante’s is the extremity of foolish impudence. There is no point of comparison between Lanthanum and the epochal Divina Commedia. The latter is a didactic poem, in which the whole elaborate and fabulous architecture of medieval thought is brought to bear, toward the end of re-orienting the individual and culture as a whole toward everlasting goodness. Ezra Pound once famously complained that modern poets (and modern humanity generally) no longer have access to Dante’s Scholastic blueprints. And we don’t – at least not directly. Much of what was dogma now reads like myth; much that was taken for history has since become fable; what was understood as science looks now like dream. One cannot read Lanthanum and find anything approaching Dante’s encyclopedic morality play. The effort here is more primitive, basic : to investigate how poetry can re-intepret experience, the substance of things, in its own terms. The title (Lanthanum) is evocative of this aim : the reference is to something elemental, that is, number 57 in the periodic table of elements. Lanthanum : a rare earth which is actually not rare at all; named by its discoverer after the Greek word for “secret, hidden, overlooked;” of which one practical application is as part of a compound used in innovative road surfaces, in order to draw particulates out of the atmosphere (“clearing the air”).

I began writing this poem in December 2008. A few months later, in spring 2009, I had an extraordinary dream, which seemed to help focus and crystallize my intentions. The dream came out of absolute nowhere : I was looking at the Gateway Arch monument in St. Louis, Missouri. Now I have never seen the Gateway Arch, and prior to this dream I had never given it a moment’s thought. So the dream impressed me : it appeared to offer an implicit confirmation of some pathways I had been following in poetry for years. I have long been fascinated with structural frameworks for poetry, the technical and thematic analogues offered by mathematics and architecture. The origin of this interest lies in my affection for the poetry and life of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. Mandelstam, along with fellow Petersburg “Acmeists” Nikolai Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova, constructed an approach to poetry which offered a kind of architectonics of gratitude-for-existence. Gumilev called it “chasteness” : a moral conscience, a fundamental respect for unique and living phenomena on earth – as they are, humble or grand. Poetry, music, architecture share in this fundamental harmonics, transversing time and eras in somewhat Proustian/Bergsonian fashion. And in my explorations of these poets, I found affinities, both stylistic and conceptual, with the work of Hart Crane – whose long poem The Bridge offers a similar “architectonic” worldview : a paean to reality, grounded in material/historical particulars, on the one hand, and in a kind of cosmic-orphic optimism, on the other.

So my dream of the Arch served to confirm these compositional motives and directions. But Lanthanum is not only a reiteration of Acmeist or “New American” themes. The poem emerged before the dream, and its motives are deeper and more obscure than any enthusiasms I might have for fellow poets. The “plot” as previously sketched still shapes the song : an attempt to discover and come to terms with the deepest strata of love, reality, experience : an attempt at recovery (in all senses of the term). So the Arch begins to resonate for me : to serve as a sort of magnet, a multifaceted cluster-image of something at the spiritual root of time, history, life on earth. Something substantial and enduring, under the violence and suffering on the surface of things.

These are some of the dimensions of the versified wilderness up ahead. I won’t try to characterize my personal style, which is full of games and puns and secret allusions; such things intrepid readers will have to dig out of obscurity on their own. I am grateful to all of you, my readers, intrepid or not – and I hope you find something rewarding in these woods.


Lanthanum 8.23


They are always with you, ghosts in the shade
of the raven-knife – sprigs of the innocent,
personal sketches. Though death was sufficient.
They no longer suffer the human hell we made

for them (for ourselves) on earth. They
will not be transmuted by sublime Concept;
they are your brothers, sisters, & you wept
too late – the stain cannot be washed away.

Their water & wine run down into clay
glimpsed in an arc-light (everlasting form).
Their hope & sorrow are your paradigm –
their almond bark a sheepdog gate. A way.

It floats in the tattoo of an evening rain
that ripples like wind through the hair
on your arm echoes the few spare
notes of milk train waning over prairie

Where the motes gather & lost letters
raven-black on yellowed onionskin
outline of a cherished face on wooden
outside wall in Voronetș a potter’s eyes

light blue a painter’s olive-green the dove’s
grey deeps the ocean-sigh gull-cry oils,
in the mosaic mish-mash, the what-all
collage under almond ash oak-leaves’

deep shade those philosophic walls of a tree-
the wisdom-loving love of Love (that
cricket-Magdalen a summer prodigy hove-
to ancient cicada in dying dogwood) free



Lanthanum 8.22


The peaceful evening out of which the poem comes
or maybe doesn’t – the special quiet of the poem’s
own hum imposed upon squawky cacophonics (home
street home
) of yon triple-deckered, cumbersome

dronopolis (I mean the poem of Providence)...
the quiet of homesick willow-violin, its wayward,
solitary hobo tune... what’s at the heart of it,
Edward? Figment of sister-dove flown hence,

mayhap – melodifying on her spiral Jonah-horn
between the dry ribs of a dead grey world-whale
somewhere (my heart, my heart). Hear, O Israel!
The chariot of Elijah & the steeds thereof – worn

like a bracelet round her Sabbath-tambourine!
Waltzing menorah! Footstep of Shekinah,
... ancient familial concert-pal... J-
bird (furtive, always in flight). Has-been

Hobo’s will-be (again... again). ‘Member her...
Like a dream of the Gateway, she comes
from nowhere, some new whirr : freedom’s
Imago : quick-change artist (Shakespearean

erector set) : as if Earth were born anew
from flash of sympathetic lightning (Imago,
) : as if all be splendor... & what do you
make of it, Horatio
? A mortal debt last narrow

bed a love poured out like wine, like blood
at apex of the Sparrow Hills, one harrowing
hill at base of skull unknown, unknowing
lamp lambent, surrounded by fire (bluebird)



What's new?

Seth Abramson compiles a grand list of some of the wee corruptions of the literary profession (Poetryland version), here. A good-intentioned list of good intentions gone awry, I guess. I remember thinking & saying similar things (if not so well) 10-15 yrs ago.

But then I suppose the alchemists of olde also had their array of petty schemes & self-serving vices, their egotisms & narcissisms & jivings & trimmings, in their day... but what we remember is that they were simply wrong most of the time - that their theories were based on myths, not scientific reasoning & experiment.

& I get the feeling today's poetry scene is much like the alchemy scene of yore... some underlying askewedness puts all those petty corruptions in the shade. I can imagine a literary culture that repents of, and washes itself clean of, all the vices on his list - purifies itself morally - yet still fails to produce any good art or poetry. It makes me think of Joseph Brodsky's provocative & Promethean assertion that ethics is determined by aesthetics. I don't really hold with this, either - but what if the fundamental problem is a failure of imagination? What if we are living in the deep shadow of the mythos-styles of the late 19th and 20th century - or a conservative reaction against these styles - resulting in the manufacture of cultural cliches on an industrial scale? I'm thinking of the shadow (the great Poe-ish raven-shadow) of the Baudelarian anti-hero & flaneur-dandy : the Dostoyevskian underground man : the Camusian Rebel : the Joycean/Svevoian Chaplinesque shlemiel. We inhabit an age of the pop-culture glorification of the anti-hero & the anti-heroine, oe'rtopped with an epicene academic culture of creative 'writing" designed to memorialize the same (our wild youth) in award-winning verse & prose.... & how does a culture with such a pre-installed & -approved Mythos - a zeitgeist, a worldview - how does such encounter the authentic, the real, anymore? This I would like to know.

I wonder if artists need to turn back to the "new" - but not the packaged & certified Modern, Postmodern, or Pre-modern new - but something actually.... different.... a vision of life based on a different set of philosophical grounds, a new architectonic, or an old made new (really new)... I actually think Hart Crane & Wallace Stevens, in their different ways, were searching for these grounds, this newness : but I'm showing my old biases there, I guess...


Lanthanum 8.21


A whiff of old earth-smell after belated rain
leads me back to August, winding down
in Mendelssohn. Light fluttery bell-sound
of Heidi-piano... cicada sawmill-drone (against

the grain)... a slip of willow in his hand
will guide blind Hobo back to wavebent limbs
over the riverbank (yonder, where WW swims
in a dream that is no dream). A promised land

that slumbers yet beneath catastrophe – where
Melchizedek climbs from Cahokia mound
with bread, wine... where every Charlie chap &
Harlequin finds Pulcinella, somehow (near

edge of tsunami, by Heartbreak Ridge, under
petrified gaze of cratered power plants). How
can it be? The soul survives, the heart (slow,
slow) regenerates – these will not surrender... &

so today (in this RI holdout of veteran memory)
shall be no longer V-J Day, but Victory-of-J
– the Victory of J : kingfisher-melody,
furled seashell-game, Euphrates boat-shanty... for

a dream is a dream of Everywoman, Everyman –
unaccountable & indestructible; & this life
is tailfin of an ocean-mind (bride-wife
of buried ghost-Jonah); its denouement began

one night (a thousand years ago) when
a jay-pianist of Voronetș blue (perched, hidden
on an almond branch) let spout her siren-
88s (at a young fellow in far-off willow). Amen.



Lanthanum 8.20


A Sunday rain soaks this recumbent spine
of Providence ‒ old town like a sleepy dinosaur
that would be lofty bird. Fine water-veil for
Iowa Isis, Osiris paddleboat ‒ some sabbath-mind’s

own fancy daydream (liberation, Jubilee).
Key to the highway ‒ like a roadside icon
leaning home. Faint inkling, rosy Rubicon,
rounded square beneath bus-shelter Milky

Way. Above that crossroads’ lowly drop
of martyr-blood, not far from Memphis ‒
Martin’s bull’s-eye witness, crosshairs
of a brooding sentience. At the top

of the tentpole of Polaris, the shrouded gate
of a third heaven ‒ architectonic of glimmer-
sense ‒ moss-grey intuition ‒ willow’s wonder-
branch. Out of Solaris ocean-mind, the frigate-

harbor of the human form. Just a sketch,
an outline of an understanding (sympathy)
hidden in wisdom-submarine (highly holy) of
an oscillating universe. A thought, a touch ‒

a mason’s 20-20 hand ‒ bent on restoration,
reconciliation, joy. Soul-victory is innocence,
. That sign of love-swelled sentience,
a rood-sign planted over galaxies. Bus-station

by the frozen cemetery, near the river... at
the fringe of the veil of definitive quid. A
rain-wrought mandorla crowning your head.
Yours, mine ‒ equal, always. Elemental Fiat.



Lanthanum 8.19


These gray clouds loitering, chary with rain
& that drop of red, far off in a black walnut
like a cardinal point, figure my inward Orient
on goldfinch ground (of flighty song, & pain).

You love the earth... so trust the magnanimity
(shady grey bran, intellectual) that formed it ‒
forms it, unaccountably, on All Souls’ Night :
this light-sped masquerade, spirit-birthday

frisbee’d on high, beneath a frosty brow
of Milky Way (insouciant, happenstance &
milkweed monarchy). Night wake of Argo-
salience... Europa-trail (scarred Voronetş blue).

& the signs in the sky, the prong in the earth
are only emblems of a sweet conception,
lamb-lamps of a fiery warmth ‒ your heart’s
limehewn scriptorium (wavy mandorla-berth).

O my little tree of Jessie O., adrift
in your shaky-leaf experience... your flow’ry
shallop-shell, your thunder-coracle... O be
at ease there in your honeycomb, left-

over wreath of empty hands
... O bee
at ease. Here in woodlands of Bukovina
an ear can hear you still, steadfast cicada
(near rainbent eyelash-hull of almond-tree).

The throaty pigeon-maudit pecks at a bread-
crust (rarified coot of everyday gray stone);
she’ll watch for that gardener again ‒ the one
who looks for her (amid the veteran dead).



Lanthanum 8.18


From Cahokian mundus in heartland, soaring
up a Finnish ladder (lofty thought-swerve)
to the finish line. Candelabra, spinal-nerve...
red leaves, rain-skimming back to commingling

clay. Like that vine planted on Jacob’s dream-
limestone, on the way from Padanaram ‒
after wrassling with a light-bermed, harum-
scarum heavyweight... meet the extreme

bow-taut communion (eyes, tears). Of sense,
intelligence. Here. Hear. Only here ‒ inhering
in your heart. So the mandala-rose coheres,
nearing... looms, beginning (woven-fine parlance).

This grail, this spousal, this conjunction ‒
plainchant of YHWH-shade, keening ‒ your
turtle-ghost, who haunts us, here & there...
sad-merry morsel, Everyman : Louis’ royal

unction-prayer (inward, homeward). Bare.
There are as many spirit-trails into this wood
as there are feet to walk them : the neighborhood
is infinite : but the way is narrow, drear ‒ your

own (lead-Lenten plumbline). Shaking off
the grave, the gravity, is not for Icarus,
but Israel (after the last sacrifice,
the burial). 12 gates to the city, O

my Lord
. So, after 12 moons & a year
of doubtful drought, this double prong (folk-
tuning tong) leaps as a willow branch (divining,
rude) in my hands ‒ an eye in my hand. Here.



Lanthanum 8.17


On a coign of Prospect & Waterman, near
bird-peak of Providence (Roger’s palace)
a crew of masons rectifies the balance
of Tuscany belltower ‒ Carrie’s sheer &

spousal sepulchre (Love is Strong as Death).
No pizza-tilt worktable here. We must aim
for the perfect. Orthogonal. Cusa’s Game
of Spheres
‒ spiritual akme. Starry zenith

of Einstein-wand (here, there... hear).
Heart’s hyper-geomancy requires no less;
its subtle foreknowledge, its feeling-sense
scans horsehair-spectra (near, far... near).

Why? Cuz th’hairspun plats of Prov’dence
depends on youse ptahticipation, Haht ‒
one global splinteling (careening charity)
dubbed on the brow of deep-down river-

sentience. Its voice a whisper, whole &
holy (wholly whole, by golly) from strum-
circadian, Circassian cicada-circus ‒ sum
of circles of the sun. One baker’s dozen

(almond buns). Get off the pogrom,
Oddity ‒ evening urns its bleed. Your
own. Settle up accounts with the fore-
crawdads (Mam’ship) for the fleet I AM

is faster than a canefield smartphone
(sliver-horn of mirror-Mammon) &
more real, churl. Under an amplified
sand viol... Rosie Oasis (swell-photon).