Greetings, old-time friends. Once more I am ensconced in my usual way station in Elkhart, Indiana, on the road again between Providence & Minnesota. Pleasant spring rain falling outside open motel window, sound of U.S. 80 & robins in background. On the turnpike I try to turn off the radio, re-invigorate ancient gray matter with thoughts down usual off-ramps & blue highways. Today (between Mercer, PA & Elkhart) the Great Mind bent its mighty focus yet once more to Poetry - what it means, & what the heck I'm doing there...
Struck once again by the sense of being so off the grid, off the contemporary map. This is not another complaint about neglect. What I mean is that my personal pointe-de-vue on the whole dang subject seems to be so idiosyncratic. This itself is probably an error on my part; I'm not as solitary as I imagine. But it feels that way here in mid-America at the moment. Poetry as a contemporary cultural phenom in the U.S. appears in some ways to have "matured" : it doesn't have to explain itself or account for itself. In fact, it can't - it's too pervasive, shifty and diverse. It just is, and being just itself, has embedded itself (to a small distinct degree anyway) as a part of the present scene & structural interface of society (come again?). Poets are those who react to the common life in the form of poems, and they are accepted & sometimes appreciated for that. Thank you, America. No, thank you, Poet.
But this is not my approach or situation. Gradually over decades it seems like my track has led through certain landscapes of poetry as a world tradition, and through the channel of what we call the "long poem", to a place where for me poetry & thought, poetry & worldview, have become entangled. & the worldview feels "embattled". This I admit could be evidence of a fatal mis-step or pitfall - one has the sense that "embattled" could just be a way of either missing something (a failure of imagination) or avoiding something (say, the Reality Principle so to speak). But then again, maybe not, maybe not. As Mandelstam told an interviewer once who asked him (pertly) for a definition of poetry : "It is the poet's sense of being right."
So I'm driving west on U.S. 80 this morning, and once again for the millionth time am sketching out very provisionally, while trying not to back-end any giant trucks, what is the whatness of it all...
Have been reading of late in the remarkable anthropologist Roy Wagner (Symbols that stand for themselves, et al.). Wagner's a very provocative thinker, a sort of cross between Spengler & Bergson & Hocart. He rejects the Saussurian/structuralist concept of "the sign", & folds language into a more fundamental symbol-making human process, essentially a dialectical means of joining "microcosm & macrocosm" (word & image) to shape human culture(s). His background study was in New Guinea; he traces how marriage rites & death rites etc. hold society together, while at the same time evolving into these strangely self-standing & self-canceling & totalizing myths (a process he calls "obviation"). Wagner loves little charts, & I do too. These dialectical diamond shapes or octahedrons which illustrate the strangely diagrammatic shifts in a culture's self-definition & worldview. Then he does the same for the Modern and Medieval West, seen as a long-playing chronological working out of these culture shifts between a God-centered balance ("the eucharist") and a human-centered system (Descartes, "I think therefore I am"). I'm drastically oversimplifying. Wagner also has this very thought-provoking perspective on the nature of Time - there are these "now" epochs of human time, self-defining, which are distinct (as Bergson's & Spengler's ideas are distinct) from the "clock-time" which we manage & which manages us (really a convenient abstraction of the "epoch" into measurable "coffee-spoon" space).
Please consider the previous paragraph as a digression. But Wagner's dialectic schema of Medieval & Modern (think Henry Adams) is interesting for a poet working on a vast mental project titled Ravenna Diagram (think of a venn diagram overlapping "now & then"). Wagner's "eucharist-centered" Middle Age, however, is shifted or complexified in my own way of thinking. Neither theism in general nor the Abrahamic religions are pure products of Western civilization (in Wagner's neo-Spenglerian sense). Their roots lie elsewhere, which suggests that their ultimate fruits might also. They are not fully "explained" by the Medieval/Modern dialectic.
Please consider the previous paragraph as a second digression. Hey, I'm digressing because my worldview is embattled!
I'm tooling down U.S. 80. I see a vague sort of diamond shape or octahedron in my mind. These are the facets of a worldview or a vision which perhaps underwrites what I think of as poetry, or my motives for making it. There is a vanishing point at the end of this road, where all the facets meet.
1. One facet let's call "consciousness". Consciousness itself I think of in terms of a kind of infinite regress or vanishing point. We have the immense incomprehensible material universe, of burning stars & some other phenomena, whirling & whirling in vast rings. & we have consciousness. Everything material is filtered through this human lens, this mirror of comprehension. So the material world is terrible & humbling... yet it is known only in the mind. This inward infinity comes to bear no matter how solid the outer phenomena. The mind is unavoidable : it's "always there". This is a mystery.
2. Another facet : "something from nothing". That Henri Rousseau who wrote Genesis narrates a deity who "speaks" the cosmos from nothing (how He did this on certain "days", when days weren't invented yet, is part of his charm). But it's the principle of the thing that counts. However it happened, the underlying idea here is of the visible cosmos as a consequence of some shaping, forming architectural aim. This leads to the third facet, which is
3. "the beautiful". Natural beauty & the harmony of planetary growth, along with the distinctive beauty of distinct things, along again with the "spiritual"-moral beauty of certain true renderings of human actions (love, freedom, kindness, devotion, selflessness, originality, etc.)... these are understood as ends in themselves. The phenomena we call beautiful are encountered in a dimension which remains undefined by scientific causality. I know I'm being sloppy here but I'm writing from a motel & scribbling this diamond cartoon in the most provisional way.
4. "the incarnational". This facet follows from a very basic Trinitarian triangle at the edge of our diamond. The "I am" of consciousness who stands mysteriously behind (in a creative mode) the visible universe is here mirrored in person. Adjacent thus to the previous facet, the divine-human person is recognized in the form of the beautiful as an end-in-herself or -himself. History, time, & cosmos take on the outline of the person, as a kind of natural fulfillment of creation. But this is only the Alpha, the beginning, leading to
5. "the providential". Let's go back to the previous remark noting that Judeo-Christianity is rooted outside & prior to the history of the West. An almond tree grows in Galilee. In the Biblical sense, the historical act of Jesus on earth was represented as a provisional fulfillment of the more ancient "promise" of the Promised Land. & we can read the Jewish destiny here as itself a representation of the destiny of the species and the planet as a whole. As a whole (holism is important). "Divine providence" declares that the whole earth, the planet as a whole, will "return" to that future, promissory state of being a peaceful & blessed home (the promised land). This is the promised end for which the Messiah performs his role.
6. The "familial". But such a vision implies a regeneration of "familial love" in the broadest sense - a kind of moral & spiritual reform of the person & the community. A renewal motivated by a sense of the whole, the purpose of life & the beauty of the cosmos.
7. which brings us back again to "creation". The most basic, most foundational root idea is that of creatio ex nihilo. This way of thinking of reality, most deeply considered, leads the mind to joy. This spark of light, this sense of reality as conditioned by an order of love, is the whole ground of a peaceful response, a normal "gratitude for existence" (Joseph Brodsky's phrase). So the facets meet at their matrix, the vanishing point.
Now this kind of thinking today is "embattled", as I said. I'm not going to battle over it here, though. The reader may take it or leave it. For me, in any case, this general view of things enacts a kind of pivoting dance with poetry as an activity, an art. The joy of poetry is an expression of the joy of this worldview. This is the substance of poetry's difference from prose. The difference is harmony : some kind of cosmic harmony.