Taking off where I left off a few hours ago, to retrieve Sophie from school...
We were mumbling something about critical detachment, about memory. "Tradition" in poetry.
Tradition : bit of a taboo expression, eh? Reactionary, neo-conservative, T.S.-Eliotos antique odor there.
Of course 20th-cent. Modernists revolutionized the whole notion - backward & forward, left & right. But that was already a long time ago.
When I think about poetic tradition, I see something essentially unavoidable, like "family". But this tradition is very much not a symptom of some filial-Oedipal-patriarchal-economic sense of duty. It is instead something organic, almost biological.
Watch how young poets struggle to launch collectives, find affinities, soul-mates, define themselves, test themselves against be-laureled paragons, aspire to famousness, & so on. What doesn't so much interest me here are motivating ambitions & rivalries. Rather the curious thing is the anxiety, the helplessness, of poets - confronted by the fact that poetry is this livid knot of incomprehensible, uncontrollable, inexplicable lumpish living somethung, which nobody know how to explain, correct, control, or abolish. Is like the inheritance of some arcane glob of biological (living) what-not, handed down from generation unto generation - the voodoo box of elegant poison Grandpa bequeathed us, whose Grandpa left to him, & so on, with an unreadable curse scribbled on the lid : Take Good Care of Me, Never Abandon Me, or You Gonna Die.
What are all these MFA programs for, if not that? What are all these mags about? These awards, these citations, this enormous prestidigitation of prestige? These quotations in stone? These honored dead, these beloved unread classics? Touchstones? Operatic ecstasies?
The point of the sword is immediacy. Poetry doesn't need explaining : it's like a powerful speech, it justifies itself in the persuasive dominance of its message.
All the talent of Madison Avenue is compacted here in this syllable of recorded charisma.
But actually, I don't believe all that. It's like the poetic version of a simplified, bowdlerized, philistine "American Dream" : the past is pointless; everything of value is about me, here, now. Poetry is the anti-tradition. (Here we get down to the marrow of the dumbed-down American myth.)
Great! Cool! Make America Drool Again! Great Gatsby!
Sounds pretty psychological, actually. Frazer, Sacred Wood & all. Siege Perilous. The double-bind of succession, father & son. Elongate twilight of Freud's sacrificial totem, across the "grey matter" of poetry itself. (So maybe it is a symptom, after all?)
The Great Game.
But you mentioned game... (unicorns?)... so let's reiterate : I had this hunch or notion this afternoon about "detachment".
If we think about what we love, about what's beautiful... it occurs to me that the beautiful is always overdetermined : is "meta", one way or another. What's beautiful entails, and emanates from, reflection (in both the physical & the intellectual sense).
Memory suffuses the object with feeling, identification. What we love involves reverberations, echoes (mnemonic stimulae).
So, curiously, detachment - the distancing, the psychic freedom from passionate, emotional absorption - allows memory to evoke beautiful response, because it is fused with the recognition of tragic reality (the actual distance of the past, the ineluctable remoteness of lost time).
The plangent feeling of the truth, the power of the documentary. Classic-Romantic. (Italian Neo-Realism? & then - Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Deserto Rosso.)
The hour draws on... my deep-seated hunches & haunches gettin' tired here, blog. For Augustine (& for Nicolas Cusanus) time is purely psychological. Bracketed by the soul. Begins & ends there. This is a liberating concept, on the one hand - & also an abyss.
But for Augustine (following Virgil) poetry (music) was the very strong magic of ordered time. The enchantment of syllables, framing, architecturally grounding, the sacred ineffable Now (planted, as Joyce put it, on that very void).
Proust also, echoing Augustine. Re-echoing the poets (in prose).
The frame supports the picture (Rothko colors dream into infinity). The beautiful an echo, a reflection. Sketch, abstract, icon, exemplum, imago - of the immaculate supra-beautiful.
So where does this leave poetry? Tradition?
Sounds very Symboliste. But remember : poetry is this intractable breathing spiritual animal - a stubborn problem, a dilemma - a sort of spiritual refugee, a crisis (like Roma in Roma).
Nobody can work it out in advance. But I do believe it might be possible to re-think poetry (with a capital P) somewhat as the pre-Revolutionary, post-Revolutionary Russian Acmeists did (Gumilev, Akhmatova, Mandelstam). With a sort of Cusanian (conjunctio oppositorum) passionate detachment, or critical engagement.
The paradigmatic or characteristic quality of contemporary cultural reality is immediacy. All the Faustian technological forces are concentrated on disseminating the charismatic (marketable) product. Of course there's a large element of risk involved, but this is of the essence of productive enterprise. Success is the by-word; our future well-being depends on the happy financial outcome.
By the way, I'm not against free markets, or anti-capitalist. I just believe there exists a scale of values which must mediate the struggle for economic domination, on behalf of equality, liberty, human rights, the common good, the safety net, the peaceable kingdom. There are things more important than luxury, status, charisma and sway. There is freedom. There is equality. There is justice.
Poetry inhabits this realm of universal spiritual values (see: Mandelstam on Chaadev, Rome, moral freedom). And by grappling with the chaotic force-fields of articulate speech, it establishes a free space for what the Acmeists termed "the Word as such".
This sounds like a very hi-falutin' bequest. But it's not, really. I'm looking at the tradition of the beautiful as a manifestation of the detachment of elegiac (yet strangely hopeful) realism. Of Blake's metaphysical "innocence and experience".
Social media is bursting with constant, relentless, monotonal cultural aggression, masquerading as sophistication. The little screen is inundated with seductive, screaming roadsigns. King Blurb is Trumpet for a Day.
Poetry, on the other hand, resonates with inherent doubleness. It is not what you think, it is not what you feel. It is not even what you read. It is another kind of sign, pointing toward your beating heart.
Listen to it, keeping time... like John Donne's bell. It tolls for thee.