10.26.2020

Synthesis & first principles in poetry

 My "theory" of poetry, how I think about poetry in general or in the abstract, is idiosyncratic and fundamentally improvised.  I don't have a system or a rationale which I can advocate for or teach, as objective or universally relevant.  Nevertheless I feel the urge to organize my thoughts and defend my own practice.  Blogs are exquisitely appropriate for this kind of off-the-cuff table-talk, aren't they?  Sure, Henry.

And inevitably I'm bound to repeat myself.  I've been blogging along here for years.  Sorry about that.

I think poets are usually drawn to poetry as part of a general attraction to literature, an affinity for reading and words, a responsiveness to art and music.  And I think this "general attraction" is part of an even more basic and universal human adherence to the good and the beautiful aspects of life as a whole.  We are drawn magnetically to works of art even as they present the most tragic, painful and horrible dimensions of experience - because these works of art lend these dimensions some kind of meaning and order.  The love of art is a facet of an even more basic love of life itself - which partakes of a kind of shared sacred awe reaching back to the origins of the human race (and maybe before that).

The making and experience of poetry is part of this magic circle of a very primordial sense of awe.  The poetic Word is free, dynamic, holistic and sacred, because it partakes of this powerful aura of a sort of ontological First Principle of reality - the "ground", the source.

By no means would I wish to suggest or have anything to do with a sort of Heideggerian mystagogy or irrationalism.  But I feel that, precisely because poetry is linked with this very basic and universal, this "anthropological" first principle - an innate sense of awe before the wholeness, oneness and power of life - it therefore aligns with the universality of reason, logic and science.  Reason (as Fichte, Brightman and of course many others have argued) is both analytical and synoptic.  We analyze to apprehend and distinguish; we synthesize to understand.  Poetry is no different.  What poetry adds to this rational and philosophic drive toward comprehensive understanding is a kind of aesthetic reflexivity.  Poetry's vivid, personal, expressive verbal enactments of communication both represent and embody, simultaneously.  This extra layer of reflexivity, reverberation, and self-consciousness accounts for the intense configurations of poetic speech (Mandelstam's crystal of "terrifying density").  

As I understand it, poetry gives voice to a subjective, and inter-subjective, dimension of reality.  It is not opposed to science as such; but it suggests and evokes this awe, this attitude of humility toward the fundamental mystery of life.  As such it is vitalist, holistic, and personal - and it presents an image of reality as a whole which corresponds to these qualities.  The struggle of the Romantic movement, to transcend the discursive rationalism of the Enlightenment, presents one of the historic enactments of this duality (subject and object, detachment and wonder, poetry and prose). 

I recognize the perhaps absurd anachronism of these principles.  But with respect to my own poetic development, one of the issues or themes that I have found so fascinating and generative is the American history of the encounter between a colonial worldview, on the one hand, rooted in both Puritan piety and revolutionary democracy based on Enlightenment ideals, and a Native American worldview, rooted in very archaic notions of just this sense of pious awe before the vital spiritual unity of life.  And I began to delve into the "anthropological underside" of my own faith tradition, and recognize affinities with primordial myths and rituals played out across the globe, from which the Native American beliefs represent one branch, and the various sources of the "Old World", another.  So I sense that underlying the tragic conflict and the criminal inhumanities of that American history, there is this basic spiritual encounter, to be understood on an intellectual, philosophical, plane as well as a purely political or historical level.

Anyway, this notion leads into some of the thematic sources and ideas which undergird my lengthy journeys through the realms of the "American epic" or long-poem mode.

& now it's late, I must hit the sack - good night.

10.18.2020

Continuity of American Poetry


In 1961 cultural historian and Americanist (& specialist in New England Puritanism) Roy Harvey Pearce published a book, The Continuity of American Poetry.  Clearly a labor of love, the work is a meticulous and passionate appraisal, unfolding a kind of American pantheon, from the Puritans to the mid-century moderns - with a special focus on the "long poem" - culminating in a juxtaposition of Eliot and Stevens, as representing two fundamental modes or "basic styles" - the "Adamic" and the "mythic" imagination.  Both modes hinge on Pearce's central insight : that the specifically American literary challenge (or quandary) has to do with an American urge to manifest a new, democratic concept of "Man" (in the species sense) - in the midst of a raw, pioneering, Puritanical, pragmatic culture which was (in most ways) strictly "anti-poetic".

The book arrived on the cusp of change - when the clashing perspectives of (for just one of many examples) Eliot, Stevens, WC Williams and Marianne Moore were crystallizing in separate canonical camps (New Critics, Projectivists, Objectivists, etc.), and when a younger generation was about to scramble the checkerboard - Robert Lowell's Life Studies, the Beats, the New York School.  And it left out so much (just about any poet who was not white & male, basically - with very few exceptions).  These are some of the probable reasons that Continuity of American Poetry has fallen into oblivion.

Yet Pearce's Continuity has a powerful logical backbone.  Its central argument makes for an impressive coherence, a cohesive intellectual synthesis.  The argument might be bowdlerized thus : American history is rooted in New England Puritanism.  The Puritans' forthright adventure into the wilderness, armed with their Protestant, separatist focus on Biblical scripture rather than ecclesiastical authority, set the tone for the pious, devotional, anti-poetic emphasis on Man's utter depravity - on the complete vanity of worldly hopes - and on Man's total moral abasement and dependence on divine grace.  These touchstones of belief and worldview ensured that the writing of poetry would be at best a devotional exercise, at worst a worldly & possibly heretical hobbyhorse.  This basic attitude did not foreclose the writing of Puritan poetry : Edward Taylor, Anne Bradstreet and others still found ways to harp in the wilderness.  Yet its main consequence was to set in motion - by opposition - what became the major mode of American poetry : the antinomian, anti-devotional, egocentric, "Adamic" imagination.  What began with the prophetess Anne Hutchinson's exile from Boston, led to Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, and all their heirs : the American poet's declaration of independence from any and all European shackles or constraints.

Pearce's depiction of the 20th century involves a dialectical reversal.  Robert Frost is the exemplar of the American antinomian impulse reaching its rueful cul-de-sac; he is the sage of diminished expectations, the voice of disenchanted Adam.  Pound and Eliot initiate a counter-thrust : not the poet as creative Adam, but poet as passive, memorious Tiresias.  Surrendering the futile, failing human ego to the mythic and post-mythic absolutes of traditional faith, Man is reconciled to eternity (see Eliot, from The Waste Land to Four Quartets).

Wallace Stevens, then, for Pearce, represents the culmination of the American No, in thunder to this powerful impulse (via Poe, Eliot & Pound) to reject Whitman's democratic America and its Adamic imagination.  Stevens, in a sense, formalizes the modern, existential vision of human dignity without the Modernist "myths" of God or gods.  He declares and celebrates the sufficiency of the human imagination - in the face of the harshness of material Nature and an intuition of unknowable, alien Mind - and seeks heroic joy & praise in the midst of the storm (there's something very Beethoven about this poetic Mozart).

I've left out Pearce's forecast that future generations would find a way through this either/or.  And I've left out one of the main threads of his thesis, having to do with the development of the American long poem (Whitman-Pound-Crane-WC Williams) as the expression of a completely new form of epic : a tale in which there is no exemplary, legendary, semi-divine epic hero, but in which the poet is the hero, the speaking protagonist, of the new American (& cosmic) imagination - shaping a new vision of human dignity rooted in complete equality : Everyman and Everywoman at the center of reality.

And reading this book puts me face-to-face with my own posture in this field, as a longtime practitioner of the "long poem".  Looking for reinforcements, I've been reading a short book (proceeds of a lecture) by Edgar Sheffield Brightman, from 1925 : Immortality in Post-Kantian Idealism.  Brightman was a philosopher of the "Boston Personalist" school (out of Boston University) - one of Martin Luther King's intellectual influences.

One of the things Brightman asserts is that our beliefs and opinions regarding the immortality of the human person are inseparable from the general cultural ground or worldview out of which they manifest; they are incomprehensible if simply abstracted in isolation.  This is of a piece with his characterization of human reason and logic : he follows the German Idealist philosopher Johann Fichte in proposing a dual architecture of rationality - understanding (analysis) and reason (synthesis).  Both are necessary : we analyze experience in order to synthesize its meaning as a whole, as an organic, living entity.  

This approach - holistic, organic, synoptic - seems to me to be of the essence with regard to poetry.  Poetry is the living speech of living men & women, shaping holistic representations of actual experience.  

Wallace Stevens celebrates this imaginative synthetic human essence with great probity and power.  Yet I have to disagree with him with regard to his most basic postulates.  I stand with the Boston Personalists with respect to theism & a-theism.  

So with poetry, and the vision of poetry,  I feel I am floating somewhere there between Eliot & Stevens, Pound & Crane, & Berryman.  The Personalists argue that the synthetic human imagination, and the organic wholes of full understanding and rationality, encounter a Reality suffused with creative Mind and Purpose; that individual persons do not create the Universe ex nihilo, but reflect and complete that cosmic synthesis in the working-out of their own free destinies - and thus fulfill the graceful purposes of the Creation from in the beginning.  Persons are not dissolved into the One, but manifest it - personally.  And this manifest human dignity - this imago Dei - is the ultimate synthesis of nature and spirit.  So we are not, pace Stevens, existential isolatos, lost in an immeasurable and incalculable natural chaos or storm.  Nor are we superhuman ("major Man") masters of our fate.  Rather we are caught up in Martin Luther King's cosmic "web of mutuality" - a universe of (hopefully) immortal life, moral conscience, and truth, which undergirds and underwrites human dignity and freedom in mortal time and history.

It's getting late, so I will close up here.  (This post is really a throwback to the old bloggy table-talk of HG Poetics days of yore).

8.11.2020

Uncomfortable Dreaming

Serves me right - after my glib gab here yesterday about dreams, la vida es sueno, etc. - that last night I would wake up at 3 a.m. after a dark & troubling dream that stirred my conscience.  Jealousy, violence, remorse... strange symbolism of the heart.

"The heart is desperately corrupt"... says the prophet Jeremiah.

Lay awake thinking about the dream for a long time.

My comments in yesterday's post about holism in literature, philosophy, theology - and about the Union, and the common good, sought through the civic faith of Gorski's "American covenant" - were undercut a little by my own dream last night.  I lay there pondering things about which perhaps the Puritans and Roger Williams also meditated late at night.

The separation of Church & State, or Williams' (& others') distinction between the "two tables" of the Mosaic law (the sacred and the civil codes) perhaps grows logically out of a real, a factual, distinction, between a person's spiritual life - the life of the soul - and the collective social life we organize and share.  Between religion & government; between spirit & flesh.  Perhaps there is this deep and actual dividing line - in the midst of all the seamlessness of vision, the oneness of nature, and the unity of the common good toward which we strive together.

For me the problematics and contradictions of this situation are almost irresolvable and impossible to figure out.  Because, as the animale compagnevole, we obviously do not live our lives alone; we are born into relations with others; our very selves develop in these deep relationships.  Yet many (including Roger Williams, for example) would argue that true religion is about the individual soul's relationship with God.

Perhaps one solution is to suggest that the solitude of our relation to God is also the pivot of our personal liberty, and the foundation of our moral responsibility (freedom and responsibility being the very spine of personal selfhood).

We can understand, in this context, how the absolute transcendence of the Hebrew God stands as the basis, the historical origin, of moral freedom and human equality.  Not that moral freedom and equality did not previously exist in various kinship bands and human cultures beforehand; but the Hebraic covenant so to speak articulated this reality in stone, in the midst of empires and states devoted to sacred kings and unlimited, divine royal power.

But let me return to last night's dream.  The heart is desperately corrupt, the prophet cries.  Between the mind's dutiful bookkeeping and the heart's passions lies a wide dark gulf.  I woke from my disturbing dream with this thought : true religion is the soul's remorseful conscience, seeking the intercession of the Spirit, the mercy of God, because there is no other help.  John the Baptist at the river's edge, for example, demanding only personal simplicity and true repentance.  The universal "high priest" is essentially a healer of souls.

This spiritual dimension is personal.  It is an otherness, distinct from the public, civic, political sphere.  The two dimensions are obviously intertwined in each of our lives, and in all our cultures, societies, nations - yet they are distinct.  The two tables of the Law.  "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's".  Roger Williams, among others, believed in "natural law" - that human beings are naturally endowed with the conscience to determine right and wrong, and the ability to organize themselves in societies dedicated (however imperfectly) to liberty and justice.  The fact that people of all faiths and cultures are so endowed, whatever their denomination or confession,  is the prime basis for religious liberty and political tolerance.

I don't know if I've been able to express myself very clearly or well here this morning.  What struck me as I lay there thinking over the dream was a sense of contrast between our public and politically-charged debates about cultural and religious issues, our disputes over differing group demands, rights, and powers, one the one hand - and the inward spiritual dimension of "true religion" on the other.  Conscience, belief, reasoning, searching hearts, inwardness, and personal acts of repentance, humility and charity : these are religion.  "Do justice, and walk humbly with your God".  It's not about political maneuvering, bickering, and social power.  Those things are part of the civic world, the secular table of the Law.

8.10.2020

New Antidote for Deracination

After a super-natural lightning-&-thunderstorm over Minnesota last night, today it's very clear and quiet here in Minneapolis.  My family is happily up in the woods; I'm staying home to care for my 92-yr-old mother, who's lying a-bed in hospice now, nearby.

I used to blog on HG Poetics A LOT.   Now that Ravenna Diagram is a done thing - finished, packed, booked - I'm someways at loose ends.  Feeling the predictable anxiety for the poem's future, its reception (or non-).  And trying to live with this awkward new rhythm of NOT writing the absorbant river-poem every day, NOT swimming along in its echoes, memory maps, feedback chicken coops... where to now, Mr. Hen, Mr. Chicken Bones?

Feeling my marginal non-presence, as ever.  I don't write much criticism, I don't write many book reviews, I'm not in the professional set-ups.  In some ways the MFA structure encourages the membership of poets among the intelligentsia, the knowledge workers - professors, scholars, journalists, scientists, etc.  There are certainly some benefits in that regard for literature.  But with the professionalization comes a modicum of climate control, opinion moderation, careerism, bureaucracy...  Deracination.

Yet poetry is one possible antidote to spiritual deracination.

Am re-reading Philip Gorski's fine book American Covenant.  Subtitled a history of civil religion from the Puritans to the present.

Gorski sees democratic republicanism (as in republic with a small, non-party-affiliated "r") as representing the growing, changing, developing civil religion of the United States.  Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln are its chief prophets.  The civil religion understands history in general, and American history in particular, not as circular (as with social conservatism), nor as linear (as with social progressivism), but as a spiral - by which people draw inspiration from the principles and ideals of the past, so as to move forward toward a more just and perfect future Union.

Such democratic republicanism requires from each a personal tempering and restraint of private passions (whether for fame, or pleasure, or success, or wealth, or domination), on behalf of the res publica, the common good.  But this worldview is optimistic about such a process, since the view is grounded in a concept of human nature as fundamentally and naturally social.  We do not achieve our best selves or ultimate good in solitude; Man, as Dante put it (following Aristotle), is the animale compagnevole - the "friendly animal".

Gorski sketches out the main philosophical antagonists to our "civil religion" of civic republicanism : 1) religious nationalism - ie. the idolatry of the Nation, the nostalgic (Confederate) blood and soil, cloaked in apocalyptic or narrowly literalist Biblical fundamentalism; and 2) radical secularism, the absolute separation of all religious belief and feeling from the civic sphere, on behalf of various strands of Lockean neo-liberalism, atomized libertarianism, or progressive scientism.  He outlines in detail the complex shifts in the growth of these beliefs, and their political effects, through American history.

What does this have to do with poetry?   In my view, poetry reflects certain implicit habits of mind and philosophical stances, which are motivated in part by the poet's ongoing commitment to and absorption with the creative process.  This view is certainly partial, debatable and not acceptable to all (or perhaps even many) poets; but my firm sense is, that poetry is allied to the mentality of holism, synthesis, continuity, unity.  The creative process is an intellectual or logical search for integration, the correlation of disparate or contradictory parts into wholes.  The vision of poetry is an effort to abstract a seamless representation from life itself - without tearing or disrupting the seamless experience of reality itself.  Normative human life is an incomprehensible ongoing seamless whole; art is a partial moral and intellectual comprehension of that life, through a clear mirror.  "My circuit is circumference," writes Emily Dickinson.

I've tried in my own long poems (most recently Ravenna Diagram) to represent life as a living wholeness, a wholeness of living Mind or Spirit.

La vida es sueno : life is a dream.  Such an idealist-romantic stance is at odds with the materialist or analytical approach of philosophical skepticism.  To put it in a nutty nutshell : my sense is that the primitive spiritualism of archaic humanity is allied with the theological commitments of major religions : we inhabit a cosmos of living Mind, of spiritual Personhood.  A position which underlies - rationalizes - all the traditional faith commitments regarding life-after-death or resurrection.  La vida es sueno : this is my own "dream song".

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players...

Back to blogging... ?  I guess I will leave it at that for now.  Good night !


7.15.2020

Ides of July



MARBLE TOY

On this defunct St. Emperor Henry’s Day
the cavaliers of Christ broke down the walls
massacred the cityfolk, & found
the Holy Sepulchre.  & it was empty.
His midget kingdom was a bit of ground
6 ft. x 6.  Beneath Jo’s linen palls
that Body slept, 3 nights… then slipped away.

So Earth corrals the sun again (at mid-July).

Old Henry rotates his lugubrious clay
like cenotaph, or marble toy.  Through hells
of blinded crowds – mesmeric crown
for snobbish mobs, heartless autocracy –
deracinated tribes, bent for destruction.
So humankind spins round its Book of Kells
by fiddlehead bronze… on heaven’s way.

                                                          7.15.20


5.01.2020

magnolia blooms



MAY-MONTH

Again, the quiet of a cloudy day
in Minneapolis.  May Day
in quarantine.  This is the day
maidens in flowery garlands would ply

their threads around the blossoming May-
pole.  Hobo is not Falstaff, I say –
he is the King of May;
a blooming almond be his rod of sway.

*

Meanwhile, archaic Hen the Rain King
by circuitous path hath circled
back to River Road.
His early neighborhood – passing

his mother’s house, her father built
– that Master of Grain Elevators
(Ravlin, J.H.).  His crop rotator’s
resting now.  River-tongues will gather silt.

An old man hoists his memories
upon his back.  Their weight,
grown heavy, will grow light…
Grace is a salty providential breeze.

I hear the whisper of her crane-
bone flute – the drone
of one trompette marine…
Guillaume’s grande dame will rise again.

*

& I sense Osip’s revolving sisters,
melding gradually their
sarabande.  Rose flowers
share circumference (O lento tenderness).

*

I never want to leave this house.
Orioles sing in the forest
under their shade palimpsest…
(oaks’ rattling snare-susurrus).

*

A fresh breeze brings the May-month in.
The sisters ring their double wreath.
The young hawthorn on Fisher St.
is blooming pink.  The almond

in her dark eyes glows, her smile
of Sheba-Shekinah… the lady
of the Song of Songs (spry
tree of Galilee, in Rhody Isle).

*

The gawky prehistoric gingko
Granddad planted is
still there (at 1615).  Its
golden Memphis fans billow

in breezes off the Mississippi.
The asphodel, acacia…
the acorns greening, high
over the house… & now I see

her – cartwheeling across a field
like some sapling tornado!
Sophie or Pocahontas?  O
that Gravesend kid – her diamond shield

my royal seal!  Her acorn coracle
my Isis barge – her eye
my Argo’s midnight sky!
Across the Black Sea of a world-debacle

shining (congruent) one American ray –
my Henry-church, our 
Churnagogue… one flour-
cattedrale – out of spiritual clay!

*

Like simple San Fran in Frisco
he crost himself, at height
of orange Golden Gate –
where Juliet booked… O

her last, self-cancelled flight.  & Henry
built a rude crossroad
in old Rhode Eye.  Sold
on Roger’s fine distinction – worldly

profiting & holy soul-seeking be not
the same.  Yet they are wed
by law-abiding God
into a single providential knot –

that normative & innocent new world
as old as children underneath a tree
chanting together of a chaste reality
where Love is as the Ocean – pearled

in tides of light (beneath the moon,
beyond the moon).  This charity
stands like a tall pine tree,
from earthy root up to invisibility… one

Union of pure dream-substantiality;
good will, reflected in the hearts
of humankind – with all our arts
in-woven there (O graceful tapestry).

*

The little magnolia on River Road
by Granddad’s elegant abode
unleashed her winter load
of fluttery wings (Primavera mode).

Persephone, Eurydice go underground
& Beatrice to the sky…
a grain of wheat must die
so spring’s magnolia blooms abound.

May Day… the worker bees unite.
The earth itself is in labor
fired in the kiln of Evermore.
Communion loaves of clay ignite.

Everything spins in the green matrix.
Liberty & justice, equity
& equilibrium… an origami
fold of love & intellect – deep Genetrix

a whirl of fiery faery feet – Elohim
twirling on galactic rim
with ocarina Jonah-hum,
to glaze the grail-stone with her hymn.

Sophie was making rivers on the patio,
& found a black-brown woolly bear –
small furry embryonic caterpillar
searching for a leaf to call ground zero.

Henry was looking for an oak-bole too.
At end of May, at Pentecost,
on Dante’s birthday, JFK’s… lost
Restoration RI zone?  Hagia Sophia? – YOU.

5.1.20

4.30.2020

on long feet



LIGHT RABBI

Calm evening at the end of April.
Wisdom of the ancients
unity of changing constants.
A continuum… a synthesis… a will

to find a meaning in the whole;
a portion of instinctive
gratitude – the urge to live
unfolding origami in the soul.

We dwell beneath an aegis of benevolent ideas
like clouds (reflecting sunlight,
bringing rain).  & everything
will be all right, my father said – his palm

over my flooding eyes.  This the providence
of sparrows & tall kings –
of all those feathered things
that soar so bravely into turbulence.

So then… who’s your imaginary friend,
Henry?  That loony Hobo
drifting from his local slough
down to the Gulf of Mexico?  Just a bend

in the river?  See thou, Hart says
touches a key, perhaps.
After the world-collapse
he’ll still be burbling his sabbath-sense;

planting a tender middle C
between Ocean & me
where clay & sea
are cleft at last, to rescue Thee 

                *

– the clé to my ecclesia, Julie – 
a soft glissando pour l’église
from San Francisco to Louise
(grey Dolphy surfacing beside me).

& if reality is simply a supremely poetic idea
then the Imago of images
is like a seed of peacefulness –
a still point (painted on a bowl in Cahokia)

or that eye-in-hand Hobo held out to me
the wad of river-mud
Rabbi patterns for the blind
saying, Ephphatha… (gently, gently).

Everything has already been redeemed
& an orb rests in Hobo’s eye
with dewfall of memory
& earth-pangs for the not-yet-dreamed.

Everything rising with the soeur-coulombe
the sister-dove, the Jonah-Joan
the twin, O my beloved one
light Rabbi hopping through the gloom

on long feet   heading for the nest
on crest of wave
that vertical canoe-nave
pronged   at heart of Southern Cross

6 tracks of Black Elk diamond
ghost dance of Rio del
Espiritu   sprung up
for you & me   out of dis April pond

4.30.20