Let go the superflux!

Just as in the Elizabethan age, or that of Sophocles, theater sheds oblique moonlight on the "form & pressure of the time".

So today we have the Tea Party & Occupy Wall Street, both in protest agains the status quo : the Tea Party, against a patronizing liberal consensus, which supposes every problem can be solved by throwing taxpayer money at it; the Occupy movement, against an amoral & greedy crony capitalism, piling up its own wealth without the slightest sense of mutual responsibility, compassion, or common welfare.

& also we have a new film, "Anonymous", the premise of which - that "Shakespeare" was a front man for an aristocratic ghost writer - has stirred up populist/elitist antagonism (within the little snow-globe of Shakespeare scholarship) for almost a century.
99% vs. 1%.

Moreover, the "Oxford" theory of Shakespearean authorship sends a tremor of unease through the settled layers of western literary culture. The idea shakes the historical foundations : this is one reason it is dismissed so vehemently & sarcastically. It's troubling to all sorts of grand traditions & accepted ways.

I don't have a firm opinion on the controversy one way or the other. But I will say : if the author of "King Lear" was an aristocrat & nobleman, he was an aristocrat with a pretty radical sense of the common humanity (cf. the character of the Fool) underlying all the pomp & circumstance of noble place & privilege.

So here we are in 21st century USA, split apart like old Byzantium between red & blue, right & left. Underlying both TP and OWS, however, is a protest against the status quo, on behalf of what is thought to be the ordinary people (silent majority or 99%). It's an ethical protest on behalf of the common good.

What the OWS movement has failed as yet to recognize, maybe, is that high-minded protest is not sufficient. If you are going to tear down capitalist privilege then you have to take responsibility for the consequences, you have to be prepared to govern. What the TP fails to understand, perhaps, is that neoliberalism - the true legacy of Reaganism - every (rich) man for himself - is a theory of political economy which fails the test of public ethics. It cannot provide the minimal basis of mutuality and shared responsibility which humane civilization requires in order to survive.

Maybe "Shakespeare" could assist us in finding that common ground... whoever he was.

"Poor naked wretches, whereso'ere you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O I have ta'en
Too little care of this. Take physic, Pomp;
Expose thy self to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayest shake the superflux to them,
And show the heav'ns more just."

- King Lear



Lanthanum 9.3


You slept & woke & found the earth had changed.
Cycling octaves on a muted pedal. Your voice
gone south, like William Blackstone (nice
Anglican, gone to live with Indians). Strange.

Plangent chords played on iron threads of rails
in the back of your mind (while you
bunked). From the side of your mouth, Ruth
(burbling young mother, looped in corny sky-

trails). You woke to find a January snow
at October’s end – gemstone sunlight, all
a-glint through dogwood remnants – tawny
gold, a few ash leavings – still-green lilac, O.

Green grows the still lake so, by All Souls’
Eve. I would go down into the ruby depths
with you, dogwood – where Blackstone sleeps;
step blind along yon rose-bent labyrinth (Mole’s

Way) into the sleepy heart of the country.
Like those little children walking brave (brave
) into a night of masks & terrors. Have
no fear, for I am with you
, warbles drab paltry

pigeon with rainbow throat (from near your
feet). From the emerald moss in the cleft
of the trunk, in the midst of the darkest
wood – toward that coppery sheen (iron,

serpentine) – rusty gold dust, silvery
starlight – where the volcano glows
all winter long – the hearth turns snows
to brimming tears (rivers from mountain rills).



A Carpenter's embrace

Last week I joined several friends of the late Edwin Honig, along with his sister, Lila, in a memorial tribute to him sponsored by the Brown Univ. writing program (which he was largely responsible for establishing back in the 1960s).

I read the last poem in Edwin's collection Time & Again : poems 1940-1997, a poem titled "Hymn to Her." & I prefaced the poem with some off-the-cuff remarks, things I had been thinking over in preparation for the event. Will try to summarize them here.

I met Edwin in the spring of 1971, when he was a visiting poet in my freshman 'writing" class, held at a young prof's apartment on Medway St. in Providence (I met the late Michael Gizzi in the same class). So I knew Edwin for just 40 years.

One of my favorite poets, Osip Mandelstam, had a talent for pithy aphorisms. When asked by an interviewer for a definition of the "school" of poetry from which he emerged (Acmeism), he said : "nostalgia for world culture." I think this applies very well to Edwin Honig. But with Edwin it wasn't just a matter of longing : he was busy making world culture, contributing to it, as multilingual poet and translator, as learned literary scholar. His cosmopolitanism spanned both time & space.

Edwin's global perspective had a strong impact on me, a young writer coming out of a suburban high school deep in the Midwest. But his cosmopolitanism wasn't just a matter of sophistication, of connections. I think Edwin really sensed, and believed in, and looked to the future for, a real internationalism, a humane culture transcending political, ethnic, linguistic & other boundaries. I think he wrote for this future world culture (which Mandelstam longed for too).

But what is it in particular about poetry which gives it a usefulness in this endeavor? How is it that poetry, like music, can make these crossovers & connections?

I think that poetry, when all is said and done, is human language under the sign of love : or as the Song of Songs puts it, his banner over me was love. Now the word love, in English, is a rather multivalent term... a "many-splendored thing"... So what do we mean by it more specifically, in this context?

Love - eros, agape, caritas - is a mysterious force or "spirit" which is essentially integrative, synthesizing, harmonizing, mediating, healing, and constructive. As St. Paul expresses it (in his most moving paean), "love builds up, it does not tear down." This harmonic, harmonizing force unfolds and reveals the relation between different or opposing things (heart & mind, thought & feeling, you & I, I & Thou...) - brings them into mutuality and shared being. & as anyone who has ever fallen in love can testify, this force of affinity & new relatedness can be immensely powerful, metamorphic, transfiguring : suddenly heart & mind are transposed (translated) into a new & "melodic" reality : & the whole universe seems to be transfigured along with us.

So if we say that poetry is human language under the banner of love, we are adumbrating its essentially harmonic, musical, and experiential quality. Poetry is language directed not so much toward knowledge for its own sake, an objectivity & objectification for purposes of control : rather it is essentially dialogic : it is a sharing of experience & what we know under the sign of wholeness & synthesis (both mind & heart, intellect & sensibility, thought & action).

Lately I've been thinking a lot about TS Eliot's notion of the "dissociation of sensibility" : of how the Metaphysical poets of the 17th century offered an example of some integral vitality which poetry somehow lost soon after. Edwin had an interest in that era, too. Perhaps every literary scholar of the generation coming after Eliot had to take such an interest - but Edwin brought his own special intensity to the reading of Donne, Marvell, along with Shakespeare & Jonson. & there's a metaphysical wit lurking in the last poem in Edwin's collected, which I'm going to read ("Hymn to Her").

Who is the "her" of this poem? A particular woman, perhaps. Maybe also Edwin's mother : note the emphasis on "hard labor" - Edwin was born on Sept 3, 1919 - Labor Day (his mother's own pun). And also, I think, Poetry itself, its "muse". It makes sense to me that Edwin would choose, in his closing poem, to address the theme of "poetry" itself. So the "her" of the title is both woman, or a woman, and poetry.

Now what is a "hymn"? In this case, it's another pun : the hymn is also "him" ("him to her"). A kind of love poem. And the word "hymn" has been connected etymologically, of course, to the Greek god of marriage, Hymenaeus : a hymn, in ancient Greece, was a praise song to this god, sung by the wedding celebrants on their way to or from the wedding chamber.

So we have a kind of witty conjunction of opposites, a metaphysical conceit (in embryo, anyway). We have "him & her" as both persons, and as facets of poetry itself. There are more such oppositions : heaviness & lightness, mistakenness & rightness... (the poem seems especially suffused with Edwin to me : he was a large, imposing personage in many ways, carrying a lot of heavy & painful psychological & intellectual burdens, yet one who never lost his swift lightness of mind & humor...). I love the word "bracing" in this poem. Bracing here has a double sense : as both invigorating, enlivening (awakening), and as supporting, in an architectural sense. (Edwin, whose grandfather was a carpenter in Jerusalem, who worked on the facades of temples there...). Love is the power of harmony, the bond of mutuality which makes civilization, world-renewal. Bracing. "Love builds up..." & embraces.


The load you take
is dense, backbreaking
and mistaken.

It can be otherwise:
and in full light
wholly undertaken,

the load is slim,
and to the one that
takes it, bracing --

owed to none but
for the life
that lifts awakened.


Saying & Doing, Reading & Watching, Dream & Act

Many, including myself, have posed the situation of poetry in America today as a problem or dilemma. But maybe it's more like a puzzle - a puzzle for each poet to work out for themselves.

Maybe it's not so much a problem of institutionalization - MFA programs, official & semi-official authorization mafias (MFA = MAFIA). & maybe it's not so much a problem of politics (blue poets in a rageful red world). Maybe, in fact, it's something more mundane and technical : like the disconnect between poetry as a reading experience and poetry as a performance. There's a slight gap or dissonance there, which, if unacknowledged, just maybe grows into a sort of malignancy (sounds scary, Henry!).

Because reading is a pure & exquisite pleasure, for some. More than that : it's an exercise of the mind & imagination. We read : & a whole imaginary psychic theater leaps up into cognizance, the boundaries of our inner world are lapped in a tingling metamorphosis. It is possible we haven't yet acknowledged the silent resistance, even resentment, of the reader for the performer. The poet who performs his or her work with dazzlement & panache might just possibly be felt to be taking away something from the reader. (This kind of theory really pleases the bad actors & readers among poets out there, like me.) This might be the source also of the amused contempt in which the idea of "poetry reading" is held by many. The poet is out of place reading his/her poem out loud.

What's the "solution" to this problem? TS Eliot had an idea : the verse play. (This was something which occurred also to the Elizabethans - folks like Marlowe, Shakespeare... you know.) For Eliot, dramatic poetry was the telos of intelligible "objectivity" in verse.

Ben Mazer is aware of this, I think. His little verse play "City of Angels" has come in for some carping & sniping - but it got some people's attention. Why? First of all, because Mazer has a real gift for verse. & secondly, because he's pioneering in this direction - this corn maze, this labyrinth which has wrapped itself like a snail shell around the gap between poetry and performance (between word & deed).


Wings of the Dove

Poetry is no more sacred-holy-divine than any other phenomena. Language is powerful, but communication - signs, semiosis - involves a wider range of verbal, non-verbal semaphor.

Nevertheless one dimension of a poet's intent might be to evoke, express, represent, or transmit a sense of the sacred : an intelligible model of reality under the aegis of what is holy. In this case poetry might serve as a medium for the fulfillment of such an intention.

Poets in past times have marked this distinction (between secular and sacred). There are, for example, John Donne's love lyrics, on the one hand, and his divine sonnets, on the other; there are his verse satires, and his verse meditations (on last things).

Recently while working on a book review of some recent poets, I had occasion to reconsider TS Eliot's famous theory of a "dissociation of sensibility" in literary style, which he claimed took place in the early 17th century. Some reading in literary historians Harold Fisch (Jerusalem & Albion) and Charles Nicholl (Chemical theatre) has confirmed my view that something like this dissociation did actually take place, and that it was part of a larger shift in Western thought : a disenchantment, a desacralization of Nature. To put it baldly : the new scientific rationalism excised "Spirit" from Nature. God was the remote machinist who turned on the switch, but that was the limit of his involvement in what followed, which was fully explainable and determined by mechanical, material causes.

It was a convenient intellectual move for the purposes of dissection. But then poetry, in this view, was lumped into the inevitable collateral damage : rendered obsolete, mythical : mere verbal mystification, sleight-of-hand : a marginal hobby, serving strictly sentimental ends.

Nevertheless, I like to think this preeminently modern worldview - this mechanistic rationalism - has not had the last word. Standing, I hope, as a writer who aims to instill an opposing perspective into poetry, I vote for spirit and consciousness over the discourses of materialism. In this I am not at all opposed to science per se, which I hold to be a spiritual vocation in its own right; but I hold for the over-arching presence of a mysterious spiritual reality, an intellectual architecture which frames and upholds the physical universe.

Poetry, in this view, is a kind of intellectual play, which is analogous to the play of Nature as a whole, in its character as Creation-from-nothing. It is the Sabbath rest of human thought - abiding in a sense of the mystery of life and human civilization shaped toward graceful, happy, and ultimately victorious ends.

This is not always an easy way-of-seeing to grasp and keep hold of : it can seem strange, otherworldly, or simply naive and ludicrous, to modern "realists". But as it happens I find it more realistic to believe in a cosmos which is spiritually grounded in consciousness, a form of universal "soul" or personhood, which manifests itself (a flowering) in multiple planetary histories as the Ur-Drama of compassionate self-sacrifice and graceful redemption. This is the "holy grail" and "philosopher's stone", the "light" in light of which all things take on a new and vital aspect. And it's the theme of many poems & songs. I'm trying to sketch out one version of a sense of never-ending Vitality - the source of a kind of unstoppable, unceasing spiritual joy, even hilarity. Death is not the end; death is that over which an infinite, eternal Spirit is victorious.