Notes Toward & So On

The imaged Word, it is, that holds
Hushed willows anchored in its glow.
It is the unbetrayable reply
Whose accent no farewell can know.

These big yak sessions about where poetry is going next, they are, which, a sucker for, I am.

Definitions of various critical notions - such as Image, or Symbol - change over time. Symbolism, as inherited from Poe and Baudelaire and Mallarme and the Russian Symbolists, was tinctured with something approaching allegory : the radiant, outlined image or symbol was an earthly representation of some intellectual, spiritual, supernal substance.

The modernist movements of the 20th century were strongly marked by a rejection of Symbolist-Romantic spiritualism, vagueness, emotional blur. The emphasis was on positivism, the strict isolation of art & poetry within their own autonomous spheres, reductionism in notions of "true (scientific) statements", etc.

Aesthetic developments shared in these trends. Thus the Hulme-Pound push for imagism carefully limited the image to a concrete, isolated representation of some actual thing, or the yoking of two isolated things so that they resonate as an isolated (metaphorical) third thing. The New Critics, strongly influenced by the categorical scientism of I.A. Richards, isolated the poem within its own "autotelic", self-referential aesthetic sphere.

Nevertheless, there were counter-trends at work. Eliot, in his critical writings, and especially in Four Quartets, promoted a notion of imaginative synthesis, in which poetic language united the intellectual & the emotional in the image from "outside" (his "objective correlative"). Stevens, the quasi-Romantic, quasi-Symbolist, turned around and around his central, productive metaphors - simultaneously uniting and distancing the beautiful and the real, "poetry" and "life". & remember Marianne Moore's apothegm : "imaginary gardens with real toads in them".

But perhaps the most substantial counter-example was offered by Hart Crane. Of all the American modernists, Crane learned the most from James Joyce about the properties of symbolic language. Just as Joyce grounded his symbols in the steady, all-round gaze at concrete reality (Dublin, Ireland), so Crane centered his (double) vision on something both actual and metaphorical : the Brooklyn Bridge. In this way, the poetic symbol emits a double resonance : toward actuality, on the one hand, and toward a universe of metaphorical similitudes, echoes, and meanings, on the other. The verbal symbol is grounded in actuality. Similarly, Joyce's early notion of "epiphany" draws the symbol out of the "quiddity" - the substantial reality - of each particular thing. (Similar to GM Hopkins' notion, 50 years earlier, of the radiant things of the world speaking their essential nature - which is, that is, to speak themselves.)

One way of thinking about the progress of American poetry after 1950, is as a search for an adequate idiom to represent reality, on the one hand, and discover the unique, particular purpose for poetry, on the other. A hunt for the Grail, or wild goose chase.

The New Critics developed a kind of 20th-century neo-classicism, by focusing solely on the internal properties, the strictly aesthetic rhetoric, of "the poem itself". The Confessionals broke that mold, liberating poetic form and bringing into the poem vast areas of "experience" : but at the price of setting a whole new mold or mask in place - the anecdotal egoism of personal narratives & psychodrama, which only reinforced more general currents of American exceptionalism and narcissism. The "Deep Image" poets explored the character of symbol and image more directly : but limited to a narrow range of Jungian-Surrealist "subconscious" material - another layer of psychologism. The Beats took their breakout from New Critical traditionalism in the direction of counter-cultural adventure narratives, which exhibited literary-generic limitations of their own. The Olsonian Projectivists and Black Mountain poets took adventure narrative to another level of psychic-spiritual development - toward zen, Jungian-occult Christianity, and other forms of poetic nature-&-cosmos mysticism. The NY School executed a balletic inversion of New Critical practice : the poem retained its playful aesthetic independence - but now it was grounded, not in the morose narrativity of the Confessionals, but in the plangent de-centering of the "I", and a plunge into an American sort of "high-pop" aesthetic pleasure principle : the firmness of the literary symbol always somewhat undermined by the talky, self-deprecating persona of the Whitman-O'Hara-Ashbery narrator (talking-rambling in the foreground, rather than the Eliotic disinterested background). The language poets and post-avants executed their own kind of inversion, this time turning around the anecdotal narcissism of 70's free verse by systematically dissolving both "subject" and "object" : dislocating entirely the logic of meaning, syntax, rhetoric. What was autotelic, for the New Critics, on the level of the poem itself, became totally opaque, for the language poets, on the level of individual words, since, for the language poets, poetic "language" was reduced to a kind of denatured "thing", without any external correlatives or consequences whatsoever. This was a radical move, both in a political and an aesthetic sense : but it was part of a wider trend in postmodern philosophy, heavily indebted to Nietzsche, Derrida, and other theorists of the dislocation of discernible meaning. With language poetry we come to a kind of terminus to the notion of "epiphany" or "objective correlative" or Coleridgean sensual-intellectual symbol, since the word (in language poetry) no longer has symbolic capability : in fact, the "language word" actively disrupts consistent representation.

The wild goose chase of post-WW II American poetics, while not finding what it sought, in a sense offered a glimpse of a profile of what remained undiscovered. Only a new, "post-postmodern" mentality or worldview will ground a new style or poetics. My guess is that critical appraisal of new work in poetry will be based on the nature and status of the image or symbol, understood in a new way. An image, or verbal picture, is already a symbol of what it represents. Often the most radiant or vibrant images are metaphors - ie. they apply a contrast or similitude, in order, first of all, to add force to the impression of the thing portrayed, and secondly, to imply a web of meaning (between the two parts of the metaphor, and among all the other things these parts imply or resonate with). This web of resonant interconnections is the symbolic order of the poem. And when the original image is an "epiphany", in the Joycean-Cranean sense - ie., grounded in the apprehension or experience of actual things and natural processes - a symbolic resonance is generated on yet another level, the poem gains in substance and objectivity. The metaphorical double (or perhaps four-fold) vision of the "earthly symbol" is the "bridge", in Crane's sense, or the "rose", in Eliot's (incarnational) sense, to poetry's essential utterances. It may also provide a bridge between the distinctive dialect of American poetic idioms, and the broader stream of (worldwide) poetic tradition.

By focusing on the sensuous-intellective presence or "weight" of an image-complex, or the overall symbolic resonance of the poem, critics will no longer be hampered by a narrow emphasis on the performing personality (stylistic mannerisms, cuteness, cleverness) - the "stand-up comedy" feel of much contemporary verse; nor will they be subjected to the mystagoguery of serious postmodern "experimentalism", which drowns symbolic representation in discontinuity, abstraction, and literary pretense - a combination of overt intellectuality, depleted sense-perception, and emotional shallowness.

No comments: