The eccentric propositions of its fate.
- Wallace Stevens
My wife Sarah & I have been enmeshed in a drawn-out campaign to pack our belongings & sell our house & make a move out of Rhode Island, back to my home town (Minneapolis). We're vacating this place & buying my mother's house.
"Home to his Mother's house private return'd." So ends Milton's mini-epic sequel to Paradise Lost (that is, Paradise Regain'd).
His mother's house. Milton's Jesus goes home, after his confrontation with Satan - back again, out of poetry & mythology, to his mother's familiar house, encrypted somewhere in the archaeological past, in the disputed chronology of an actual, historical Nazareth...
In an interesting study first published in 1950, titled The Nazarene, Eugenio Zolli traces this epithet for Jesus not so much to his native village, but to the term "Nazir" - which he refers not only to the sect of holy men called Nazirites, but also, etymologically, to one of its meanings in Hebrew : "singer, poet".
The past many months have been relatively changeful & tumultuous for me, the meek little library worker inured to Brown-mouse quiet, books, walks, silence, routine. I made these choices at least 25 years ago. I didn't want to teach. I didn't want to be an activist anymore. I didn't want a high-energy job. I wanted to read & write.
Did I have the moral-political grounds to make this choice, to have such an option? I don't know. I was responding to what felt like a calling, a vocation.
The fact that I'm even sitting here noodling these ruminations is due to the aforementioned disruptions of my usual mode. I'm trying to revive the productive state of mind, which I've been unable to do for a couple weeks at least.
It really is a kind of trance state. Not so much irrational as sponge-like, responsive - yet focused on certain landmarks or compass-readings. Ravenna Diagram, the big canvas I'm working at, does indeed have its own sort of structural foundation or center of gravity. The "trance" process is aligned with that. "The way, when we climb a mountain, / Vermont throws itself together." (Stevens)
I don't yet understand my fate, in Stevens' sense (see epigraph above). Maybe I'm blind, a sleepwalker. Maybe I inhabit a solipsistic ego-bubble. But I don't think so (at least not quite yet). It is hard to avoid the doubts, the undermining of self-confidence, when the reception for one's labors seems effectively nil, sums up to zero. Is this evidence of my mistake?
I try to grasp the self-designed blockades to such reception. There are all sorts of personality issues as well as problems related to the work itself. Regarding the former, I haven't helped myself. I am introverted & shy. I over-compensate with an internet poet-persona I started to manifest in the late 1990s - often annoying, iconoclastic, provocative. I do not swim with the schools, I don't "network" very well. I do not teach writing. Yet I have become something of the typical online self-promoter - self-publishing book after book... understandably, this does not sit well with fellow poets & editors.
But I have tried to get published in journals. It has been an uphill battle. It seems likely that, with regard to reception, the issues with the work itself are the more determinative.
I've been writing poetry for nearly 50 years! The hegemonic critical mantra about "two American poetries" - mainstream and postmodern/avant-garde - has always been a waste of time. I've liked neither Language Poetry nor New Formalism. I've been engaged longtemps with the long poem - as Berryman was, & others. Berryman is not considered part of the "experimental" wing, which seems ridiculous to me (see Brendan Cooper's book, Dark Airs, on this whole question).
Unlike Berryman, in the early 1980s I got absorbed into a mode of elliptical "telling it slant", sourced in the radiant music of Osip Mandelstam. I found analogues for this approach in both Pound and Hart Crane. It took me 20 years to elaborate my own manner in this general field.
Such obscurity & obliquity is probably one of the rocks piled on my personal blockade to reception.
Probably a bigger rock, though, has to do with the worldview, the preconceptions.
But enough about me! Let's get back to the trance state. What is my trance? Who is my "muse"?
I think maybe my writing telegraphs on a frequency out of range for many. The preconceptions & background are too abstruse or occluded.
Why am I writing about "Ravenna" (if I am, even)? Ravenna was an outpost of Byzantium. It is a nest of amazing mosaics, towering icons - an outlier from Hagia Sophia and Byzantine Orthodoxy. But for me, in my poetry, this is a kind of meta-icon for something else. It leads back to the "Russian" roots - in Mandelstam, in Acmeism.
But those roots too are like the upper layer of a psychic puzzle-box. Why Mandelstam? Why Acmeism? Why Nabokov?
Orthodox Christianity - one aspect of which includes "iconophilia" - is bound up in my mind with the purposes of art, for one thing. It is incarnational. The theological dimension includes a commitment to the divine embodiment in the human - their fusion in the process of overall cosmic purpose, the "plan" of the whole. Art is a limb of Creation in general - a bloom, the flower of flowerings.
Dante is buried in Ravenna. Pound is buried in Venice. Rimini sits on the Italian coast between these two. The complex here is a way of symbolizing something perpetual in poetry - something tying together Dante & medieval Italy with Pound and contemporary America (by way of the "long poem").
But why do this? Here we get down to another layer of the archaeological dig.
Why Christianity? Why incarnational, etc.? This is the 21st century, after all!
Jesus, the "nazir", the poet, the singer, may be the eternal 2nd Person of the Trinity : I'm not going to go into that here. My focus is on the "Jesus of history" - the real individual who acted and spoke & made claims & taught, suffered, died.
Jesus had charisma. I think it was founded on his confidence in the divine goodness. No one, ever, has expressed more serene joy & love for the "Author" of life, the source. St. Francis tried to replicate this spirit, & perhaps came closer than anyone else. But Jesus expressed it first and most firmly.
"Home to his Mother's house private return'd." What shall we say is represented by "his mother's house"? I would say Judaism itself, the historical people & faith. The Jews are & have been many things, but perhaps most signally they have been a people of the Word. Poets. The Psalmist & prophets sang of the promises of their God - promises of a land of milk & honey, of an era of peace & safety & abundance. These words were crystallized in writings, encased like scarabs or butterflies in exact & exacting speech, which drills through centuries & eras like the point of a diamond - the hardest thing on earth.
Literalists & fundamentalists & sectarians (of many Abrahamic strains) try to reduce it to their own stingy formulae. They don't understand, they do not grasp the message. It is a global human message, representing the whole earth, Earth as a whole.
So, Henry! Here we go with another preacherly rant. No wonder you have no readership as a poet!
The matrix of Ravenna Diagram is a Venn diagram. It is Henry, the American poet, writing in America, now, at one point of the Venn design (of double circles). It is Jesus, the Jewish poet, singing in Galilee & Judea, at the center of the second circle. The mandorla in which they overlap (the middle of the Venn diagram) is poetry itself - epic poetry, long poems, on the track of Dante (who finished his Paradiso in Ravenna).
Poetry is one mode of spiritual metamorphosis, of transfiguration. In this case the epic poem is a vehicle for transmuting history into an expression of divine purpose. Reality is henceforth framed by the personal : that is, by the human person, who experiences & interprets the given & its meanings. Prose is the "objective" and impersonal : poetry is the ecstatic and personal.
Poetry is essentially affirmation, the praise song of the "nazir".
Obviously this is far too much baggage for most readers, editors. It certainly has to be proven by the work itself : no amount of explanation will suffice.
Why must Henry pile Pelion on Ossa to establish such a Baroque or Gothic superstructure for poor little ol' poetry? My enthusiasm must scare people. Literary folks like to sit back & evaluate, which is only right.
It's simple, really. I had an encounter with "the Word", back around 1972. I was around 20 years old. I was burned, I was branded, by Gospel fire. The Word sinks its tongs into you - the word of the old desert, going back to prehistory. The proverbs, the parables drive like nails into your conscience. Yet the meaning proves true. It is enough to transfigure life on earth - it is Milton's "divine Providence". For poetry has its lion-claws, too - digging down through the sediment of time & shifting cultures, of languages and nations. They might be one & the same, these nails, these claws.
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