Conceptualism.... blah three

This annoyance with Conceptual Poetics... could it be because I'm jealous?  Doubt it.  Because I'm secretly one of them?  Possible, I guess.  I certainly like to speculate & natter on endlessly about "poetry", as every reader of this blog already knows.

Walking along Morris Ave. on my way to the library on a brilliant mid-May morning, I asked myself what is my concept of poetry?  And I thought, I conceive of poetry, and art generally, as a sort of disk, or circle.  A circle, in turn, can be conceived as an infinite series of congruent half-circles, each bounded or held together by an invisible straight line (its diameter), the center point of which is also the center of the circle as a whole.

Follow that?  The half-moon shape of a semi-circle resembles a bridge, or a bow held taut by a bow-string.  This circle, then, is a round of infinite half-moons or bridges.

The bow held by the string is an ancient metaphor for metaphor.  For Metaphysical "wit" : the yoking-together of contraries (night and day) in harmony (think of Hart Crane's symbol of his Bridge :  "power in repose").  Harmony is the mean between extremes : the force that makes peace between warring opposites, the magic alchemy which transmutes difference into complementarity.

Of course this is a fundamental aesthetic concept, underlying some of the great monuments of Modernist poetry (Crane's Bridge; Eliot's Chinese vase, in Four Quartets, still moving in its stillness, "at the still point of the turning world").

But then of course the time of modernism has passed, and postmodernity is here.  The atrocious 20th century has eroded modernism's idealizations, its heroic icons of order and power.  We recognize the irrational violence, the sense of global/cosmic displacement, the total futility of human grandeur as never before.  Violent History (gloomy Spengler's metier) is the master frame - bracketing all our rusty icons, our ideals, of what is good and pleasant to behold.

But I'm not surrendering my magic circle, my secret totem, my spell.  We only need to expand the two prongs of these moon-calipers, to enclose a wider, deeper spectrum of opposing forces.  Art is meshed in a circle with Life - the circle of human seasons, of birth and death, weakness and strength, suffering and joy.  We try to remember and seek to re-establish that Golden Age which lingers somewhere in the heart of a happy child - out of an equilibrium of natural life, the shelter of the family house, the "dwelling", the tent, the dome (a circle of circles).  These speculations are only another illustration of the worldview of Russian Acmeism - Mandelstam's notion that poetry is fundamentally a form of "domestic hellenism", a means by which mortal Man on earth surrounds herself with "teleological warmth"- makes himself at home.  It lingers in Joseph Brodsky : "Man was put on this Earth for one purpose : to make civilization."  Art sinks back, sinks its foundations, into the deeper circle of normative life, the most basic "golden mean", our shared well-being.  And a metaphysical hope remains in the poetic work of "naming" : the nominative, inventive, perspicuous, originary act of joining word and thing.   Adam, in the beginning, gave names to every creature.  The poet, in the end, brings this process to fulfillment, a flower in bloom - its rose window, circling in stone...  the Word does not merely represent : the Word establishes (anew).

So I recall Emily Dickinson's aphorism for her poetic work : "my Circuit is Circumference".


Joseph Hutchison said...

Henry, I follow your blog silently because I like the way you "think out loud," subjectively, humanistically. I'm posting a comment just to say that your antipathy (and mine) toward Conceptualism springs, I think, from its being anti-humanistic and anti-intellectual. It's all about systems, really the failure of systems, rather than individual creativity (both of which realities—individuality and creativity—it manages to deny). Mandelstam, in one of his notebook poems, responded to the system that was about to murder him: "Ah. I am I. Reality is reality." To which the Conceptualist says, "I am a side-effect of outside forces. Reality is a projection of my meaningless desires." Now seriously, who in his right mind would embrace this kind of crap? It's as if a taste for irony led one to cut out and eat one's own heart. Conceptualism deserves more than annoyance: it deserves unremitting mockery of the kind we generally reserve for "reality" TV stars and politicians—the tribe Conceptualists represent in academe.

Henry Gould said...

Thank you, Joseph. Yes, there's an underlying contest for freedom & humane values, where & when Mandelstam always speaks up. & if, to the contrary, your logic, the "realism" of your worldview, must deny the substance of these values, and demean the human image... But I would like to avoid mockery, I guess, since it seems so prevalent everywhere, & recent art & literature are already so bloated with self-mockery.