I've started reflecting out loud, in a slapdash way, on Ravenna Diagram, an ongoing work-in-progress, comprising a certain diaristic sequence of poem-segments, some of which have appeared on this blog, and which are collected into an incremental design of chapters and books.
The first two postings under this heading ("Defense of a Diagram") might give the impression that the poet in question (that would be me) is merely filling out a pre-existent didactic pattern, standing on a very narrow, marginal, & maybe obsolete theological/confessional set of beliefs.
I hope the reader would be freed from such assumptions by simply encountering some of the poems themselves. The life of any poetry is deeply bound up with improvisation, contingency, surprise : as Whitman said of Leaves of Grass, it's a kind of language experiment. Perhaps paradoxically, poetic language (as Osip Mandelstam argued) is much more primal & "raw" than prose. It is "the cry of its occasion" (Wallace Stevens). It is a kind of verbal embodiment or model of actuality (the closest linguistic approximation to "incarnation"). Thus, within the dramatic entity which is the poem, any & all kinds of verbal signs, propositions and abstractions are tested in the (poetic) field. It doesn't matter, in the end, what the argument is, what the doctrine, what the theology, what the cultural tradition - if it doesn't manifest as actual poetry.
So part of the "drama" of what I'm trying to do here is the suspense of a geste. The poet takes on a difficult task : & can she do it? Can she make it work? Can she cross Mandelstam's "two strands" of the "poetic material" - the subject-matter with the verbal medium itself?
What I'm attempting - & have been working at for a long time (say about 35 years) - is an adventure in vastness, enormity, & grandeur. The long, long, long poem, the epic. Melville's American "anti-Bible" (Moby Dick) - Pound's "tale of the tribe" (The Cantos) - these are models. Ravenna Diagram was preceded by a number of earlier such works from my hand : In RI, Island Road, Stubborn Grew, Lanthanum, et al.
Thus there is a genre, a mode, a literary context, and a history (a tradition, you might say) which helps to place what I'm trying to do. There are many other poets working this vein, in one way or another. (Robin Coste Lewis' "Voyage of the Sable Venus" is a recent, celebrated example.)
But what spurs me on? Is it some kind of character flaw - obsessive-compulsive behavior? Megalomania? Competitive, rivalrous overdrive?
Not really, I think. The motive gets back to the question of the "argument" or the over-arching theme. A work of literature has a specific gravity - heavy or light, depending on the poet's skill and the gravitas of the theme. The Idea, the First Idea. The one who attempts the epic must have something to say, something urgent to get across.
At root, poetry is a spiritual activity. "A Tear is an Intellectual Thing / And a Sigh is the Sword of an Angel King" (Blake). Spirit and conscience guide the creative freedom of the artist. As such - as a spiritual activity - the poet & the poem make absolute claims about the "nature of things." Thus I have harped repeatedly, on this blog, in many different ways, that poetry is the most adequate (& thus accurate) verbal representation of Reality as a whole, as a wholeness.
These notions lay a burden of obligation - a "burden which is light." The inherent suspense, the drama of the poet's geste, is to prove worthy of these claims, in the fulfillment of the work. What is your definition of poetry? the interrogator asked Mandelstam, hoping to catch him in some kind of Soviet fallacy. The poet's sense of being right, he replied. You can actually hear Mandelstam's conscience speaking there - his feeling of obligation to express the inner rightness of his vision.
So no, with Ravenna Diagram I am not filling out a simple pre-ordained ideological pattern. Rather, I'm exploring a mystery - trying to express what little I can see of the underlying nature of things. That this involves an historical sense seems basic to my own interest.
If one is proposing a metaphysical or theological way of interpreting experience, then one can sketch out a plain model of vectors or intersecting lines of force : history, time, the divine (the spiritual), the personal (subjectivity), poetry, and the history of poetry (tradition). & if one is willing to conceive of Jesus (in the manner of David Jones) as the point in timespace where Man (humankind) and the Divine intersect "in the order of signs"... as the living template or paradigm of every human person - then "the historical Jesus" - or the "Jesus of poetry" - is where all these vectors coincide. Obviously, not every reader of poetry is going to be prepared thus to conceive the nature of things! But that's part of the joy & thrill & suspense of the enterprise : how the strange encounter is tested & plays out in the poem itself. One need not accept the doctrine (inchoate, mysterious & confused as it is) in order to enjoy the song.