The Arrogance of the Poet

"The arrogance of the poet."  Has a ring to it.  Also a history.  I think of the arrogant William Blake's remark, that Milton was "of the Devil's Party without knowing it."  In other words, Milton, in Paradise Lost, expressed, perhaps unwittingly, some admiration and sympathy for the arrogant Satan he imagined.  Not that I agree with Blake's assessment : I think Milton was completely ironic about his angelic anti-hero.  But this is a recurrent motif in the operatics of poetry.  What's at the root of it?

I remember the legend (apocryphal?) of Chaucer, toward the end of his life, renouncing all his poetical works as worldly vanity.  A sort of flipside image of the traditional cultural authority awarded to poets & poetry : Chaucer's work may have been vanity, but it was also exalted as the incomparable mirror of its local world & time.

I often think in this regard of these lines of Ed Dorn :

To a poet all authority
except his own
is an expression of Evil
and it is all external authority
that he expiates
this is the culmination of his traits

Which seems an elegant encapsulization of the arrogance in question.  It's close to Emerson, & Stevens, & Coleridge, & Whitman - the idea of the poet's Adamic imagination : a primal, primary, "original" power to envision the true "order of things", and put it into words : utterly "new" words.

This is the intellectual arrogance which that proud & powerful poet T.S. Eliot strove so mightily to curb, exorcise, & transmute into spiritual humility.  We are weak mortals, sinful creatures - actually blinded by our spiritual pride, the idolatries lurking 'neath our mighty visions.  Thus spake Thomas Stearns.

The poets' characteristic bent goes back, I guess, all the way to prehistory.  The shaman, the seer, the oracle... the chanted evocations & summons of archaic ritual & magic... the cosmologies, genealogies of the gods, tales of the tribes... the ancient poets "speak" the logos of the universe in a manner analogous to the I-am-what-I-am of Genesis, who spoke & it was made.

In this arena, there is obviously an erotic, ecstatic dimension, vaunted for example by Nietzsche : the tension between the wise claritas of Apollo and the fertile eros of Dionysus.  Here Orpheus & the poets are the original rock stars - lords of the bacchanal, the goat-gods, leaders of the sacred dance...  all pretty clearly related to the famous-liminal social status of the poet (since the goat-dance is a reminder of the goatishness of Milton's proud Satan).

Are we getting any closer to the mystery here?  Don't ask me, this is just my blog.  We're looking at shards in a dusty kaleidoscope.  Let me apply some personal allegory.  Around age 16, I fell for the arrogance of poetry with all my heart.  I felt it in the New York School poets (the Big Red Book anthology, and others).  I had taken to it even earlier, in that wonderful, playful 60s anthology for schoolchildren (A Gift of Watermelon Pickle).  Poetry creates a powerful, mesmerizing, occult force-field... out of the purest, wildest, most liberated & crazy free speech.  This I suppose was a basic attitude of those times, of the generation just before mine, and of my own (I turned 18 in 1970).

& in my mild-mannered way, I lived it.  For my requisite high school senior "Chapel speech" I wrote and recited a mini-epic poem.  For my college application essays I sent... poems (& somehow got into Brown U).  In college I skipped most classes other than Shakespeare & Creative Writing.  By the beginning of my senior year I went through a full-blown Robert-Lowellish manic breakdown, complete with personal visitations by the ghost of Shakespeare & the Holy Ghost.    I dropped out of Brown, bummed around, worked (very) odd jobs, applied for a lead guitar slot with the Rolling Stones.  Came back to Brown & graduated 3 years later by the skin of my sheepskin.  Meanwhile I filled crates of spiral notebooks with poems, thoughts, plays, & so on.  I married the daughter of a poet & became a VISTA volunteer (until Reagan came along).  My last real job, before retiring (to the library), was "professional resume writer".  I have been an arrogant poet from day one.  My only humility in this regard was the knowledge that I could never combine being a poet and teaching literature, or writing.  But of course that humility too was just an expression of my arrogance.

& so how does the allegory of my life illustrate our topic here?  I think the poet cuts a figure in the world which is determined by his or her vocation.  & what is the substance of that calling?  For me it resides in this stance of undetermined freedom & originality.  The sacred Word emerges from nowhere, because it is everywhere : the divine Word is a creative act - the original creative act - of the One who uttered it.  The poet in this sense is a sort of limited & faulty imago of her Onlie Begetter.  Limited & faulty, in that we are a work-in-progress, or a work-in-mystery : that is, we see this divinity only through a glass darkly.  We are copies of an original - an original which I am happy to identify with the historical & trans-historical Jesus, with the Trinity.  (This confidence, I am lucky to say, may help protect me from the flipside of that glory - the verso to which all vainglorious poets are susceptible : that dead-end, sulfur-stinking, foolish pride, which arrogates the ultimate originality to my Self alone.)

We take joy in the freedom of the poet & of poetry, because that playful freedom reflects (if only very partially) the dignity of our human status as creatures of a Creator.  Osip Mandelstam meditated on this in his unfinished essay "Pushkin & Scriabin", where he writes that the Redemption - that historical event - liberated Western art.  How?  In the proclamation that the whole world had been saved, the redemption set Art itself free from any kind of determinism : the artist was now free to "play" like a sheep in the fields of the Lord, to play, as Mandelstam puts it, "hide-&-seek with the Father".

But there is something humble, not arrogant, about a sheep.  So here maybe we have a reiteration, in another key, of the old Greek dichotomy between Apollo & Dionysus.  Here Christ is both the host at the wine-fest, the Dionysian leader of the dance, as well as the pivot of divine Sophia, Holy Wisdom - the Apollinian moderation & measure of the cosmic Logos.  That arrogant inspired humble saint Simone Weil wrote tellingly of this process of mediation, how in this mode Jerusalem & Athens embrace, Love and Knowledge are joined as one.
Arrogant young Dionysius, ca. 1975.  (Shortly after Chris Kraemer took this photo in NY, I flew to London, to talk with Keith Richard about music & religion.)

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