Notes on Poetry #1

It may be that every single assertion about poetry in general, poetry in the abstract, can be contradicted by another assertion. Poetry is as multifaceted as the language and speech from which it grows. Moreover, the word "poetry" itself suffers from many types of overuse (my own type very much included).

With these caveats... here goes, anyway.

Poetry is the blossom, the fruit, the harvest of the ear. Much has been made of its roots in imagery, dreams, the visual imagination. But every landscape "seen" in poetry is a vision interpreted by the ear. My first thought is of the immense quiet of the forest. The delicacy of muted signals and rustlings of small birds and animals, within that enveloping near-silence. The title of Eliot's book of essays, The Sacred Wood, comes to mind. Poetry sets itself apart, distinguishes itself, by means of protective rings (like a bird's nest) of quietness, hiddenness, remoteness.

I don't mean to suggest any kind of hermeticism or passive withdrawal from the brash, noisy parade – the tense moral battles – of time, history and humanity. No : rather poetry absorbs, reflects and transfigures all that loud aggressive vitality – by means of its superior powers of the ear. And these powers are rooted and refined in the vast, remote, "woodland" habitat – the quietness of the word.


Back to the future of blogging ?

I'm very belatedly trying to edit and update HG Poetics. Working on my "Blog List" sidebar, I've deleted some old or unavalaible links – and surprised to find that an extreme few of my longtime comrades from the Blogging Era are still there. Will try to explore what they're saying and doing. I've also updated the links to available HG books. Meanwhile I will ponder how to make HG Poetics more alive and interesting to Vexillologists, Poetry-Loving Expert Technicians, Distant Interlocutors, and other Readers of the Future.


Advent Found Poem (found just now)


       courtesy of Dennis Overbye & NY Times (12.8.20)

Slight threads of Agnes Martin

touch their way across a night sea.

The universe is a shade too bright.

more very faint galaxies or star clusters

     contributing to the background light.

The most likely explanation, he said…

    a less exciting possibility… “we messed up

    and missed a light source or camera

    artifact that we should have figured out.

    This is what I worry about the most.”

But how dark is dark? …the measurement

    had a 5 percent chance of being a fluke.

       “Your distant neighbor eating leftover turkey

    at three in the morning is not going to

    wake you up at night from the glare.”

A leafless oak with its arms thrown out

like a knot of knots in the arctic wind

– thin memory of warmth (hearth,

heartbeat).  Presumably, in an infinite

    static universe, every line of sight

        ends at a star, so shouldn’t the sky appear

    as bright as the sun?  But astronomers

    now know… But how dark is dark?

        2 sigma – far cry from gold standard

    for discovery of 5 sigma… zoomed past

Arrokoth, formerly Ultima Thule

(7.14.2015).  We imagine a manger

in drear December.  One ox-eyed

bare exile, burbling in a steaming barn

beneath caved-in roof… placid beasts, 

primitive smiles.  In the Darkness

    of Empty Space, Unexpected Light.

From the human heart steps the King

    of Fools… now her serene lowliness

nurses the Emperor of Poverty in peace.



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.


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).


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.