New poem-project happening over here.


I find fascinating the way John Michell (in Dimensions of Paradise) can describe, quite convincely (to me, anyway), how certain ancient texts conceal specific geometry problems. Plato had a sign over his Academy, didn't he, saying no one could enter who wasn't a geometer? I can imagine him assigning some of his texts (2500 yrs ago) as sort of riddles or puzzles to be worked out somewhat like Michell does. He compares, for example, Plato's two ideal cities - Atlantis and Magnesia, and shows how the former is a kind of imperfect shadow - geometrically speaking - of the latter; and that Plato meant this as a kind of emblem (or causal explanation, even) for Atlantis's corruption & eventual fall.

Michell portrays a kind of ideal Platonic-Pythagorean canon of symbolic (and actual geometric) numbers, rooted in nature and reflecting its dynamics and harmonies, and has the visionary panache to suggest that world culture needs to return, somehow, to the order symbolized this way. If he is, on some level, right - then it's possible to imagine that we are today, in a sense, living in a distorted, disharmonious Atlantis-world : and that the eccentric search for "sunken", "lost" Atlantis is a kind of search for our own lost Paradise of peace & harmony...

Some of his investigations are nothing short of astonishing. See, for example, the way he analyzes in great detail some passages in the Gospel of John, & shows how they are, again (by way of gematria), symbolic geometry problems & designs... if indeed there is something to this (which I'm sure mainstream scholarship keeps at arm's length - several cubits, anyway) the implications are mind-boggling...


As for a "new philosophical & literary culture" (see previous post today)... let me reiterate, my attitude has nothing in common with Plato's authoritarian values. I am a true egalitarian/democratic American in my bones. My political heroes are Roger Williams, Abraham Lincoln & Martin Luther King.

What I am referring to is the possibility of a new/old intellectual stance toward spiritual/poetic/scientific meaning - the reality of Mind & Cosmos...
I received a request from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences (Cambridge, MA) to publicize this week's announcement of the winners of the Academy's 2008 Poetry Prize. Here is the announcement on their website.
Since the 1970s, periodically, I've become fascinated with number symbolism, gematria. The books of John Michell, something of a New Age (& old British) eccentric, on ancient/Egyptian/Pythagorean/Platonic canons of number & "sacred" geometry. (Related somewhat to viewpoint of another eccentric author, Giorgio de Santillana - see his book Hamlet's Mill.)

Much of it needs to be taken with massive grain of salt - in particular, the notions (unsupported by much evidence, if any) of 1) superior ancient civilizations (Atlantis & such), and 2) the extrapolation of Plato's arch-conservative and anti-democratic political tendencies. (Michell's sneers at democracy, & such.)

Yet I am, as I say, recurrently absorbed with such explorations of ancient number symbolism in both Plato & the Bible - the detailed measurements of the Ark, the Temple, the New Jerusalem (Bk of Revelation), the canons of architecture in Greece & other parts of ancient world, the correspondence of harmonic ratios, numbers, names, & themes in archaic literature...

& it shows up in my poetry, especially the long projects... maybe someday these works will be understood as playful percursors of a new/old sort of philosophical & literary culture...

This is something of a Hart Crane theme (cf. "Atlantis" in The Bridge), & a Whitman & Melville stratum... it comes through in sometimes (I think) funny ways in my poems (see for ex. the role of eccentric Minnesota Senator, Shakespeare crank, & Atlantis theorizer, Ignatius Donnelly, in Stubborn Grew... if you click on this link, you see the book cover - that's Ignatius, down in the lower lefthand corner).

(I guess I've blogged on this before...)


I like this essay. Andrey Gritsman's comments on tradition, imitation & necessary originality remind me of some things in essays of terrific Moscow poet Mikhail Aizenberg.
Yes, it's interesting to (boring old) me to think that the architectural-numerical dimension started also (along with so much else) with Mandelstam. He wrote several poems about buildings, and Omry Ronen (Approach to Mandelstam) outlined some of the complex internal architecture in two of his longer odes. This is what got me started down that path. It's such a big part of traditional writing, but 20th-cent. & contemporary poets don't seem to go there much.

In writing various long poems over the last 15 years I've found that the numerical calculations & structuring are very helpful, they become part of the thinking/planning process, they mesh with the subject-matter in various ways... I find these "rhymes", which serve to synthesize my own private experience with other things...

Music - architecture - poetry. Keeps the wrangling litter-world at bay.


John Latta today takes a swipe at Wallace Stevens poem & the comments about it (including mine, I guess) over at Harriet blog.

I read his comment as, like Linh Dinh's, another period piece. In this period of spleen, suspicion & condemnations. Yes, Stevens' poem is rather flaccidly & placidly solipsistic (A = A). It's not one of his best. But I get annoyed by the moralism which disallows, with self-righteous political overtones, any expression of even momentary calm or peace. Part of what poetry (& art generally) does is hold out these expressive images of goodness & happiness. Others call it, scornfully, "quietude". Well, to hell with them. Write your happy poems.


Speaking of Renaissance poetics... I am back deep into ancient/medieval number symbolism & gematria again. Might help me get out of my creative slump. I am reminded, reading things like Medieval Numerology (ed. Surles; Garland Press, 1993), of some things I was up to in Forth of July & earlier work. Influence of books by the likes of Alastair Fowler, John Michell.

Mathematics can actually advance composition. The symbolic symmetries of numbers. This is a huge dimension of pre-modern poetics, which we have simply buried out of sight. One of the most exciting discoveries of writing poetry, for me. It's in Melville (see Viola Sachs' book, Game of Creation). It's in my work! I'm not sure where else. (I'm sure it's in Crane.)

Forth of July is possibly the beginning of a kind of medieval push-back or resurgence of some kind. Maybe someday it will be understood as such. A labyrinthine-baroque cathedral, a counter-modern-American architectural wonder... meant to be seen as distinct from what anyone else is doing these days...

essentially an Acmeist project (Mandelstam : poet as builder). In fact I originally got into Alastair Fowler et al. by way of a study of ring-structures in Mandelstam's odes.
Re-reading some parts of Crane's Bridge. The picayune dismissals of Logan & Kirsch, like those of their predecessors in this vein, just miss the point. Someday when I get my act together I will write that essay about this. Yes, he is uneven, sometimes bathetic, sometimes bombastic. But when he is good, he is simply head & shoulders above anyone else. He is the genius of These States. In the section titled "The River", for example.

How does he do it? Marianne Moore called him "erudite". This is very apt. I think Crane better than all the rest absorbed lessons of Renaissance poetics. He mastered the measure of a rich pentameter. When he added this, first, to his native musical talent, and 2nd, to his sense of mythos (the symbolic plot - the "myth of America") - then what he accomplished in 45 or so pages is equal to what Olson or Pound did in 600 pp. of musical "notes"... (but it's not just 3 things... there's the essential 4th thing - that Platonic-demonic-orphic enthusiasm, that boldness, that inspired-fiery "afflatus"...)

Crane's work sets him in a small group, with Melville, Dickinson, Whitman, Poe... maybe Henry James, Hawthorne, Eliot, Stevens, a few others... the true original American masters...


Reading F.M. Cornford, Principium Sapientiae : the origins of Greek philosophical thought (1952). Nice short (apparently unfinished) book, full of fascinating ideas & information. On the origins of philosophical (non-mythical, pre-scientific) world-pictures. How they differ from the mythical; but tracing their roots back to the mythical. On the kinship & differences between poet, seer (or prophet) and sage - their common origination in the shaman. Explores Plato's view of the rivalry between poetry & philosophy. Explores affinities between Greek, Hebrew & Mesopotamian (Sumeria, Babylon) myth & ritual. Leans toward theory that the origin of mythical anthropomorphism of the gods lies in ritual : the rituals of sacred kingship. The king was the representative of the sacred, of cosmic order - the magic governor of seasonal change and spring renewal of fertility, crops, wildlife. Much myth involves succession of old & new kings (seems aligned with Frazer here). Remarkable stuff on comparative cosmogonies of early civilizations.

With this background, you can possibly understand Christianity as a synthesis or resurgence of : 1) Platonism - the transcendent Being, the One, the Mind which creates its model (the Universe); 2) Hebraic monotheism; 3) mythical sacred kingship. For believers, how you interpret the representation of the "sacred king" - Christ - would, I guess, determine, in part anyway, the character or rationale for your belief. Is Christ's (moral, spiritual) authority understood in a sort of archaic-magical sense? Or is Christ the "Everyman" - the anti-king - the antithetical (egalitarian) "king" of kings? Is Christian belief & practice a sort of re-enactment of spiritual kingship, or the transvaluation of same? (As you can probably guess, I lean toward the latter. I think Biblical religion from the beginning was a kind of semi-ironic transvaluation of the ancient Egyptian & Babylonian forms of sacred kingship.)

As for poetry - Cornford relates pre-Socratic & Platonic views of the poet as marked primarily by enthusiasm. Poetry differs from prose in that it is inspired, enthusiastic. Inspired by the gods, the poet sings beyond ordinary human capability, of things unknown (even to the poet). Seer, poet, & sage were originally all encompassed by the shaman. With the development of urban civilization and large political entities, the shaman's role is somewhat displaced by communal kingship ritual; the shaman becomes priest or adviser to the king; the roles of sage (present, wisdom), poet (past, memory), and seer (future, prophecy) are differentiated.


This time of year, with the low light & the wayward leaves, I can get into a northern, Minnesotyish, Bruegelish, medievalish, unheimlich-gemutlich state of mind... noticed recently that the opening poem in Berryman's Collected is a take on Bruegel's "Hunters in the Snow". (Berryman & Henry : 2 sides of a Minnesota nickel.)

As for Berryman, Henry & that medievalish feeling, see (my hypertextual sonnet sequence)...
Joseph Harrington has been running an interesting monologue for several days on poetry and history... & I've been adding my 2 cents...


Re-reading yesterday's post, I see I made a sort of Harold-Bloomian slip. The one poem of that group which displays an oceanic sense of vastness is, of course, Hart Crane's Bridge. That's maybe one reason Crane is a favorite & was a model for me.


Thinking this morning about the long poem, Forth of July. Finished 8 years ago.

The poem was written within the context of other American long poems - Paterson, Maximus, "A", Cantos, The Bridge... and also with older epics in mind.

Maybe one of the distinctive qualities of Forth of J is how it conveys an impression of vastness. I don't think you find this so much in the other poems, despite their wealth of allusions & references. Pound writes with a kind of notation, a lightning-like shorthand. Maximus, perhaps, has something vast in quality, but Olson retains that sort of Heraclitean gnomic notation-style he gets from Pound. & Zukofsky displays a kind of incantatory music... but my poem has a different sense of space. A midwestern, Great Plains, oceanic sense...

I am sort of proud of this. The three "books" of the poem - Stubborn Grew, The Grassblade Light, July - are 3 distinct large panels, but they circle back & around each other; there's a directional flow as well. The middle book, Grassblade, is made with 7 chapters - like enormous singing frescoes, each one unique, but fitting together.

This oceanic vastness, this sort of singing joy... this is what I wanted to convey. It's a big vast happy poem. July, the 3rd book, is a sort of galactic explosion (fireworks).


I think at the root of what I am trying to do in poetry, over all these years, is an effort to express a special kind of spiritual joy, or joy in the spirit - and point toward its origins or foundations. It was a joy or exuberance I recognized immediately in Mandelstam, who has been like the Virgilian guide to me over decades. But it has its true origins in mysterious Christian charismatic experiences stretching back almost 40 years now.

I am trying to provide, in my poetry, both a literary-artistic model and a kind of poetic-rational-historical basis or argument or explanation or defense, for a way of understanding life. The spiritual joy has to do with a belief in the divine presence and work in the world and in history : the kind of brotherly-sisterly joy and charity which has its root in God, in Christ. A belief in the drama of earthly history as a whole : which is a kind of heroic-georgic restoration of the earth and mankind to a right relationship with God, the source, the creator. A belief in the ultimately personal, conscious and unified character of this dream we call life. In this view, God is Person, not in a sense that limits the divine to what we experience in an ordinary human sense - but rather in a way that lifts our own conception of what the personal and the Person might be to a higher, inter-personal, trans-personal, relational, spiritual and mysterious level. The fundamental work of this Person is compassionate healing, forgiveness & restoration - lifting us from our scattered narrow desires toward wholeness, the integration & healing of life as a whole. And history is the working-out of the restoration of the earth by the dramatic intervention of the "divine" in history. The confidence in this dramatic play-script of history is one of the streams feeding that sense of spiritual joy.

This is not to say, by any means, that the poem, Forth of July, is just some kind of religious tract... In fact the reader may find it difficult to square my general statements of purpose with the actuality of the poems. In my view, that's all to the good - since the work is primarily a record of artistic making, a grappling with poetry itself.


Rambling around in obscure reaches of library these days... hellenism, Greeks & Jews, Athens & Jerusalem, Alexandria, Clement of same, Simone Weil, geometry, numerology, mythology, ollyology (the ology of olive oil)... book by Marcel Detienne, Masters of truth in archaic Greece, about shift from myth to philosophy & changing role of poet... interesting comments on growth of philosophical-rational thought... something I'd never heard of, the idea that egalitarian-civic public space emerged originally from the social relations of warrior caste - how they would sit in a circle & take turns speaking from the center, planning strategy as a group of (relative) equals, managing division of spoils from the center of the circle... - this pattern contrasted with the culture of sacred kingship and mythical, divinatory shamanism in support of sacred sovereignty... Simonides as the first "modern" (professional, entrepreneurial) poet...

- basically I am always searching for my own understanding of religion & history, struggling to comprehend differing ways of seeing things... with my own biases & leanings... (for me it's a "professional" problem, as a writer)... & what all this has to do with the speech of the poet, the role of poetry in culture now... perennial riddles & problems around poetry & politics, writing, art and practical rhetoric - the poet, the philosopher, the saint, the priest, the scholar & the hobo... & the polis... & Time, Truth (aletheia), Reality... & the music of the inexpressible...

there's an interesting essay-monograph by Anne Carson, putting Simonides and Paul Celan side-by-side... title escapes me at the moment...

& speaking of poetry & politics, long ago I related a tale about Simonides in old-fashioned poem, titled "Water Mirror", here. This was published on the op-ed page of the Providence Journal, Rhode Island's newspaper of record.