Despite my disclaimers, the problem remains that I am offering, as a ground or argument for the poem, a worldview which perhaps 70% or more of contemporary readers will find puzzling, mystifying, off-putting, deluded, or simply wrong.
Yet there's something worthwhile in setting out on a journey against such long odds. Intriguing, anyway.
Let me elaborate, then, a little more - a mini-defense within my Defense. I have suggested (with Pound, Hart Crane, et al.) that the American epic is a "poem containing history". The historian, of necessity, approaches the chaos or illegibility of human history with some kind of epistemological lens or measuring implement.
My particular lens is a form of theological vision. (Some personal history laid the groundwork for this stance : I've written about it elsewhere on this blog.) Previous efforts are part of the same song, in different modes. The most recent poem, Lanthanum, parallels what I'm doing now, with changes. In Lanthanum the idea was to find a place within American poetry to juxtapose and reconcile the American with the European, the modern with the medieval, T.S. Eliot with Hart Crane. That poem circles around the Gateway Arch Monument in St. Louis (at the geographical mid-point of the continent, and Eliot's birthplace) - as a national-poetic symbol analogous to Crane's Brooklyn Bridge.
But what was the motive for juxtaposing modern & medieval? It's basically the same impulse that motivates Ravenna Diagram : a particular way of seeing, an ontology of the nature of things, a model of human destiny on earth.
Roger Williams, the Rhode Island founder and prophet of religious toleration, is a pivotal figure for me, standing at the border between medieval and modern. His message is still vital. It provides a key with which to reconcile the sacred and secular, spirituality and civic liberty, the individual and the social, the one and the many.
The "medieval" mode assents to a spiritual concept, the Christian article of faith that Jesus was the living synthesis of human and divine - God and Man in one person.
The "modern" mode recognizes the limitations of theological vocabulary. It acknowledges that what we mean by the "historical person Jesus Christ" may not (or not easily) be recognizable or acceptable to others, that the process of understanding one another across diverse human cultures and ideologies and experiences and forms of knowledge is ongoing, and utterly complex.
The task for this poet is to express the crux of this dichotomy or interface. It is also to make claims and propositions about the nature of things - & celebrate the consequences.
A poem including history from a Christian perspective has its modern precursors (Eliot and David Jones among them). Jones I find particularly appealing for a certain optimistic tenderness, for which one searches in Eliot mostly in vain. His message is the "good news" : but it involves of necessity a translation or transfiguration of secular history into a pattern of spiritual meaning. Christ is the pivot of earthly time - the Good Shepherd who lifts the human soul a little bit out of this world, from time to eternity.
Obviously, the notion of a divine manifestation has repercussions for any theory of history. This is where poetry brings its special visionary powers of enthusiasm to bear. We could suggest an analogy between the translation from secular to sacred time with the transmutation of prose to poetry. "If you are willing to accept it."
But I also see a "poem including history" as having special obligations to that very prosaic reality which underlies the mystic icons of spirituality. It is by way of a nekuia or the kenosis into the depths of the local, the temporary, the accidental, the mortal, that we discover the terms of shared experience - across religious and cultural differences. This is the only path to shared understanding, a recognition of the kinship of experience, and the universality of truth. It is only though this journey into the earth of details that new vision, new perspectives on old realities, is made possible. The ground of actuality beneath "the historical Jesus" is still being excavated. Our own, contemporary historical and cultural orientations continually react with newness to the unpredictable discoveries of ancient "artifacts". The old is made new; is seen in a new light.
Again, I don't want to work at cross-purposes and defeat my own aims. Ravenna Diagram is more than a "Jesus meditation", as anyone can see who bothers to explore it. It's epic aspirations involve articulating a specifically American poem; this requires voicing a perspective on our land, people and history which echoes back and boomerangs within this larger, more global sketch (the theological framework). It would be incumbent on anybody writing such a poem to attempt no less, if she wants to be heard, or say something of value to an American audience. Thus the American literary background is part of the design of Ravenna D. I am writing within the thematic and modal context of Eliot, Crane, Olson, Pound, and many others, who have traveled these regions before.
& herewith (I hope & believe) concludes my fourfold, flat-footed Defense of a Diagram.
Roger Williams at Prospect Terrace (Providence)