Friends, this is a diary, a journal, a record of stray thoughts, not some kind of formal essay or academic discourse. I guess that's obvious to everyone... I just want to reiterate this apologia, since today I might really wander in my ramblings.
Tomorrow, 12.21.2012, the ancient, subtle Mayan calendar goes into rewind. But the world ended last week for 28 people - children, teachers, a mother, and one young suicidal murderer. A whole town and nation have been draped in mourning black. Tomorrow the bells of the National Cathedral in Washington (epicenter of a new gun-control movement) will ring 28 times - once for each person, once for each of these violent deaths.
Maybe - we can only hope - this traumatic event will signal a new era, marked by stronger curbs on these killing machines.
Forgive me now for a seemingly detached, arcane aside. The number 28 became important to me this year, in the course of composing and finally finishing a long poem, Lanthanum.
Numbers in ancient times and cultures had a symbolic, even aesthetic value, which has been replaced in the modern era by an emphasis on pure calculation (mathematical, scientific, statistical...). But poetry is (or can be) a kind of throwback to old days - when "numbers" was a synonym or term of art for verse, when counting and rhythm were essential to poetry and mnemonics. In the early '90s my own work was inspired by Alastair Fowler's studies of numerology in ancient, medieval and renaissance poetry. I became fascinated with the symbolic/artistic potential of the "architectural" design of poetry. The process of number-design seemed to go hand-in-hand with the other elements involved in writing a long poem (theme, plot, etc.).
Symbolically, 28 is a "moon" number - a pattern of the lunar (monthly) calendar. This may partly explain the centrality of this number for some Native American tribes : Black Elk, for example, emphasized its importance, noting how the circular tepee used in Dakota Sun-Dance ceremonies was always constructed with 28 poles.
Quite a bit of my poetry has been influenced by Native American legends and concepts. The cross-cultural amalgam, in the long poem Forth of July, of "Orpheus-Dante-Jesus-Bluejay-Juliet-J" was shaped to re-tell the story of a descent/ascent to hell/heaven, and a journey into the interior of both the mind and the American continent. The "Jay" punningly combines Jesus, Juliet, and "Bluejay", an orphic trickster-figure from Northwest Coast Indian mythology.
Lanthanum carries on with many of these themes and symbols. The poem culminates in a kind of Dantean "rose wheel" mandala-figure, shaped by the conjunction of two circles, forming the geometry of a mandorla, or vesica (often used in ancient and medieval art as an ornamental border or alcove-shape around Christ, Mary, or the saints). The merging of 2 circles represents the wedding of contraries, the hieros gamos, the joining of earth & heaven, the synthesis of opposites : Lanthanum narrates or unfolds such a visionary process by way of both symbolic images and numbers.
Lanthanum is one of the elements of the atomic table - #57. It is a rare earth (not actually so rare). The poem Lanthanum is itself designed using this number, and its "factors" : ie. the basic building block of the poem is a strophe or section of 28 lines (the 4-line quatrain stanza, times 7). The mandala design is built on a pattern of 28-1-28, with the "1" in the center representing the pivotal figure of synthesis (the "wedding number"). The climax of the poem is a visual (concrete) symbol of the mandorla, with the words "Jesus Christos" in a crosswise pattern inset within. The shape also mimics the "catenary" arc of the Gateway Arch monument in St. Louis - ie., a mandorla prong rooted in the earth, at the center of the North American continent. The same mandorla or vesica design, rendered as a 3-dimensional octahedron, outlines the form of a diamond shape - the same shape drawn by the traditional Native American ritual offering of the peace pipe to the six directions.
There are a lot of complex elaborations on this basic numerical design, in the poem Lanthanum. Since finishing this long-term project, in July 2012, I have been struggling to find my creative bearings and direction for further poetry. One of the paths I've begun to follow involves an intensification of the methods and patterns I've used before : ie. I'm working on a loose series of poems patterned on a quatrain stanza of 28 syllables, in poems of 7 stanzas (or 28 lines).
I am very aware how abstruse or pedantic all this might sound. Where is all this symbolic numerology coming from? To what exactly is it relevant?
In one sense, all this is an outgrowth of my own activity as a poet over the last 40 years. And the process of welding personal, national, and religious symbols together in poems has roots in my own psychic/aesthetic experience. In a way I look back on my life as one long, very slow, very incremental, very hesitant and halting, process of spiritual conversion. Maybe it's my own sort of interior Dantean journey through hell, purgatory and paradise. It began around 1972 : at age 20, I had already been a poet for several years. In 1972-73 I went through a psychological breakdown and spiritual crisis - a "conversion experience" - which changed my whole moral orientation, yet which was also very intimately tied up with poetry (and the poetry of the Bible : the poetry of Jesus-the-poet, the Nazarene, the Nazir : chanting, proclaiming his original parables). And the slow, incremental labor on these very extended, journey-like poems - their structuring around numerical-geometrical-symbolic numbers - can be seen as a creative process of drawing, or illustrating, or symbolizing the growth of a personal worldview of time, history - what is human and divine. My poetry is a response to world history, and a response to my personal experience, and a response to the tradition of American literature - all in one. Lanthanum, for example, is a kind of synthesis (welding, wedding) of America and Europe - centered in "St. Louis", between Melville & Crane on the one hand, and Henry Adams & T.S. Eliot on the other : between Notre Dame and the Gateway Arch. And it attempts a renewal, a re-visioning, of Dante's effort - to weld together Man and God, earth and heaven.
The slow, stubborn constancy of this particular approach to poetry has not been taken seriously by my contemporaries. But what can I do? That's not my business. I've basically lived in my creative workshop for the last 25 years. I've disseminated and published my work as best I could, under the circumstances : it's here & there for anyone who takes an interest. Maybe someday my work will gain a readership, and a place in the story of American poetry : I can't say. I just keeping doing what I do, under antithetical conditions.
So concludes Jesus Thoughts (28) : my Jesus-poetics of the number 28. (But there's much more to this, secretly squirreled away in my poems : numbers, dates.... 5.28, 5.29....)