Michael Scharf on "Personalism"

I like the historical acuity of Michael Scharf's critique of "personalism" in American poetry, despite the fact that my perspective is about as opposite to his as one can get. I do think he has identified something deeply askew in the approach or method which turns poetry into a celebration of subjectivity without limits, as a kind of aesthetic compensation for all the limitations of actual & historical reality.

But I fork paths with Scharf when he offers a form of Marxist-historical-materialist critique as a response to the problem of the person & the personal. A hortatory & quasi-religious rhetoric insinuates itself into his analysis. We are under a moral obligation to "figure a disposition" between "possession and dispossession" - a "material site" of "mistranslation" and "struggle" - ie. it appears that Scharf's notion of the person is that of something partially determined or impinged upon by a materialist history of social struggle, and poetry, in order to mean anything, has to seek the constantly-shifting nexus or interface or locus of this set of implied obligations to the larger (& conflicted) situation.

I have no problem with the idea that individual human meaning is only discovered within a context of the shapes of time & history of the human race as a species, and the world as a whole. What I would argue is that such meaning can be explored & discovered without denying the individual human person an essential - the essential, paradigmatic role - both in history in general, and in poetry in particular.

The crux of the matter comes with an analysis of this notion of the individual human person. If we limit the concept of the person to the egocentric Self as sketched by Scharf (as part of the "mainstream" ideology of American poetics), then Scharf's critique & dismissal of such a limited concept is easy to understand. But we need, rather, to qualify & complicate our sense of the person, rather than reject a caricature of same. One could consult, just for one example, Christian Moev's The Metaphysics of Dante's Comedy, for an introduction to Dante's medieval-poetic understanding of the human self as essentially contingent : but not, as in the modern sense, contingent upon abstract or human-historical forces, but upon a relationship with a divine source in whose image man is made. The relational complexities of the (Judeo-Christian) religious vision of Man-&-God - within which the category of the "personal" is not denied, but rather supplemented & enhanced, while at the same time subjected to an ultimate ethical demand ("eternal judgement" on each individual soul) - these complex relations are part of a nexus of understanding, a viewpoint within which materialist historicism seems finally like a form of personal irresponsibility masking itself as social ethics.

I have gone into these issues at greater length in various blog posts here on Russian Acmeism & "domestic hellenism" : on the perspective emanating from Gumilev & Mandelstam (with deep roots in Byzantine Christianity) which asserted - in the face of revolutionary collectivism - a "chaste" vision of the dignity & beauty of both individual persons & distinct natural phenomena of all sorts. The early 20th-cent. debate between Acmeism & Futurism was another arena in which these basic philosophical problems polarized & played themselves out on an aesthetic/poetic plane.


Pound, Pletho, Nicholas Cusanus

Have been reading about late Byzantine culture (1300s, 1400s) & its influence on western Renaissance. Came upon discussion of Byzantine neo-Platonist (& neo-pagan?) Georgius Gemistus, or "Pletho"... & discovered a connection with another neo-pagan, Ezra Pound. History or legend has it that the late Pletho's body was removed from its tomb by his followers & re-buried in Sigismundo Malatesta's "Tempio", in Rimini (a Renaissance architectural testament to pagan revivalism). & it turns out Pletho indeed pops up in various allusions in the Cantos of Pound.

Furthermore, I discovered this morning that there is a connection between Pletho & the Renaissance Catholic philosopher Nicholas of Cusa, whose writings have fascinated me for a long time. Cusa attributed his most famous work, De Docta Ignorantia (On Learned Ignorance) to a vision he was granted while on a tempestuous sea-voyage from Constantinople back to Italy (as part of a delegation attempting to resolve the endemic conflict between Catholic & Orthodox Christianity). Well... it turns out that Gemistus Pletho was ON THAT SAME SEA-VOYAGE, and may very well have engaged in conversation with Nicholas of Cusa.

One of the deep impulses of my own long-poem efforts has been to shape a response (& challenge) to Pound's great epic (The Cantos) - driven in part by a basic disagreement I have with him over the "shape" of history itself. So this nexus of people & events - Pletho, Malatesta, Nicholas Cusanus, Byzantium, Renaissance - is really grabbing my attention... in that (as some previous blog-posts here detail) Nicholas of Cusa is an historical & philosophical figure who is, for me, a kind of equivalent, maybe, to what Pletho was for Pound...


Never suppose an inventing mind as source
Of this idea nor for that mind compose
A voluminous master folded in his fire.

He was on board ship, sailing from Byzantium
when the moment of illumination came, a flash
of light that staggered him (as happened to Paul
on the Damascus road): when he understood
there can be no ratio, no means of comparison,
no middle term, between the finite and the infinite
Thus, since God is infinite, we have no means
of knowing Him (invisible, incommensurate); so,
as Paul says, If any man thinks he knows anything,
he has not yet known as he ought to know
It follows then, for Nicholas (De Docta Ignorantia)
our proper study is, to understand our ignorance.

I think of him in Constantinople, looking up
into that limpid sphere, that massive cupola,
Hagia Sophia: gazing back at those gigantic eyes:
Christos Pantokrator, hovering there, magnificent
in lapis lazuli, translucent marble. He would
have known that, even then, all-conquering armies
of the Pasha were encroaching on the city gates;
had swept away, already, the last flimsy shreds
of once-almighty Christian Rome – history itself
grown incompatible with that triumphant
image glaring down.

I cannot know You
as You are
. But when I think of you
I think of Bruegel panoramas: there’s Mankind
(a little, furry, muddy, peasant thing – yet
at home upon the earth – its caretaker – self-
conscious, quick – inventive builder, gardener –
blind governor – your tarnished mirror);
and, as he painted in The Road to Calvary,
you hide amongst us, suffering servant, near
the center of our troubles: buried in the crowd:
one of the roughs (disguised, in camouflage,


advance review of Jaimy Gordon (ca. 1979)

I see the NY Times has discovered Jaimy Gordon. But my horse got there fustest. Here's a review I wrote for the estimable East Side Monthly (Providence) in 1979. Yes, that's 1979 : a review of 2 early Gordon works (my writing odiferous, toward the conclusion, with my own preachy-adolescent sociology... urk.... oh well, I was young then too).

Jaimy Gordon's Songs of Life

Circumspections from an Equestian Statue (Providence : Burning Deck, 1979)
The Bend, the Lip, the Kid (NY : SUN Press, 1978)

Local writer Jaimy Gordon has written two stories, one in free verse and the other in the form of a comic novella. They are like night and day, polar opposites, yin and yang. One thing they share in common is their setting - the stories take place right here in Providence. Ms. Gordon is what they call a "dynamite" writer, and at this point where the two stories meet there is an explosion, and the whole town is blown up.

Circumspections (etc.) is about the "Establishment", memorialized today by lamplit Benefit St. Back in 1860-1870, when this story takes place, the wealth strata of society was just beginning to settle back on its velvet cushions and relax into real aristocracy, just like in Europe, only more "modern." The chief protagonist is General Ambrose Burnside, one-time Governor of RI and self-proclaimed "idiot," remembered today as the architect of that great military disaster of the Civil War, the battle of Fredericksburg, and also as the inventor of "sideburns." An equestrian statue of the general stands today in Kennedy Plaza, and supports a large pigeon population.

Burnside carries on in the grand style of American polite society, managing to become powerful both financially and politically without once ceasing to be a bumbling fool. The story describes how Burnside's wife, a well-known nymphomaniac, becomes the all-too-willing subject of one of the pioneers in gynecology, one Dr. Wishey of Paris, France. The tale develops with wild comic flair, employing a number of stock elements of Rhode Island humor - ghosts, Victorian mansions, the Biltmore Hotel.

"It should be understood that by now all three gentlemen had sample extensively the opulent list of the Cafe de Paris.
The doctor said, 'Perhaps you should simply haul your ghost before a drum-head court-martial, and bang, smash, kick and throttle him to death?'
'I believe that to be hanged from the clothesline until dead is the usual treatment for ghosts,' the Reverend remarked.
'May I ask you one last question, General?' said the doctor, holding up his champagne. 'If you are not a music-hall performer, why do you wear those ridiculous sidewhiskers?'
The reverend looked up sharply at this question, since he wore an identical pair in yellow.
'Because I desire to separate the hemisphere of my mouth from the hemisphere of my brain as strictly as possible,' the general answered.
'Would that all the world did likewise!' He paused in triumph. But then the hemisphere of his mouth added injudiciously : 'Besides, I am famous all over the world for my moustaches. Who would know me without my moustaches?'
'Precisely,' said the doctor, rising to his feet, case in hand. 'And now let us proceed to Mrs. Burnside, as we have traveled 3000 miles by sea just for that reason.'"

The precision and economy of this comic tale is worthy of Gogol, allowing this RI combination of laughter/horror to assume archetypal dimensions. In the Garden of Eden, "they were naked, and were not ashamed." Here, all has fallen to utter baseness. The sense of human strength, goodness, intelligence is completely overturned. Burnside (as revealed in the flashbacks to the battle of Fredericksburg) is an absolute beast of inanity. His wife is a harlot seated on the seven hills of Providence. And the whole society is bound to the devil. The metaphor of voyeurism runs through the story ("circumspections...") which begins and ends with the characters looking through the new invention, the Stereopticon. And the minister, Rev. Augustus Woodbury, strikes a bargain with Dr. Wishey, which will allow the good reverend at last to view his own wife's private parts.

"But for him also the devil had invented a spectacle - for the contract he had made, he knew, was not with the doctor, but with the ringmaster of darkness, the Phineas T. Barnum of hell, and it was signed in ether."

Circumspections is a comedy about the established powers in society, where the whole world is bought for the price of a soul. Human nature is covered with a false veneer of gentility and pride, and sexuality becomes something one must bargain with the devil for, and view from a distance. The Bend, the Lip, the Kid goes to the other end of the spectrum. It is a free-verse story, based on real life, set in the true social center of that underworld made up of all those who, because of race or class, are excluded from that tidy genteel world. The story is set in the ACI (Adult Correctional Institution). It is about the relationship between a woman writer and a young prisoner and ex-con - their friendship, her desire to help him, her need to escape. There is no "solution" to their difficulties, no idealized illusions. But the spare honesty of the story gives it a kind of tragic pathos. The characters are not romanticized, although they create their own romantic aura. The are human beings, and one recognizes the environmental, political nature of their fate - the needless suffering and cruel punishment. And when people are powerless, oppressed, lacking any comfort from the world, then the simplest kind of friendship takes on aspects of tenderness and love. These characters are caught in a society which imprisons and separates friend from friend, parents from children. But even if they are powerless to help each other, something remains. What is that something?

To live with the Kid, the present.
To life without him, the poem.
Not that
"having emerged from the darkness of time...
(s)he understands the necessity of art"

Not for the sake of something
invariable or incorruptible
Not even to guarantee, if not the world at large,
a local & transitory buzz 'in the community of poets'
when they put her into the box

But to reply in her own nature.
Is it nature, or a deformity in nature
to need men,
but to have to escape men to survive them,
to see her own life
as inevitable as the life of an other.
Sure she is not acting,
sure that this voice of unsureness is her voice,
lost but awake in it,
she believes no other condition.

His question is, can she be real
a light year behind
the surface of her attention?

She writes the story to take you in,
a story so you can get lost in following,
so it will be painless to follow
unlike, if you have an ego, your love;
a poem because she says so,
only real, because of the lives.

It only remains to say that along with this serious aspect, The Bend... displays the same exuberance and sharp perception, and mastery of language, as in Circumspections... These are extraordinary books.


Lanthanum 7.2


Friends, there are these numbers in the earth
& beneath my tongue, beneath my numbers.
Sums, calculations. Baroque swan-calipers
that stand for Man-as-Everyman ‒ both

Parthian & Hellene, Roman, barbarian.
My circuit is circumference. Multiply a
squared infinity by a half-moon’s aureole
(seven weeks of Sunday lemons, plus one

half), you’ll spy the number of his name :
it is the number of a man. Blackstone,
or meteor... subject to incubation (try-
works; solvent; in the grave). This frame-

up for a buried man (or Berryman) pirouettes
on Parisian snowflake, Transylvanian tree... fine
triple-crimson snowdrop (planted to trip you up);
Karelian moth, butterfly in camouflage (knots

153 married fish; weeds lonesome sole). & so
my feet circumambulate (pilgrim-wise) this
roundabout of sister stars. A means to ease my
sorry solitude, & castaway (hence, Hen) the role

of hierophant ‒ with a sense of geometrico-
mathematical (almost) solidarity. A species-
gold, stone of the veriest philosopher (seize
the Day-Star, son
, he says). My only Palme

. Only the bent of a pent-up rib
anxious with sighs, love, gravity. Only
casual fretwork of the sun, weaving a
few figures (through handfuls of pine).



Lanthanum 7.1

So, I've reached the numerical center of the poem Lanthanum (as planned, anyway). This is poem # 145 : it's paired with the previous poem (# 144). I hope you enjoy my labors in the dust. My first poem published in Rhode Island (in a chapbook titled "Where the Skies are not Cloudy All Day", from Hellcoal Press, 1971) was titled "For March 28 Nineteen 71 (after reading Apollinaire)".


The day after Pearl Harbor Day, I glance
at an old poster on the wall. Tran-Van-Tay;
Galerie Amyot, 20 rue Saint-Louis-
en l’Isle
. 1992. Four pomegranates

on white linen, intricately bordered with a line
of aquamarine; their crimson branches sketched
in echoing blue-black. Found by chance,
roving l’Île-de-France one night (on honeymoon).

To think that you were there, too, Grace ‒
in 1918, riding a Red Cross truck (Apollinaire
already gone); your paintings afloat in a corner
of the Louvre ‒ hand & eye leaving a trace

in France. Here in RI (in Cumberland,
along the riverbank) lies Blackstone’s pearl :
the one who went to live with Indians (clamshell
pilgrim-orchardist; bookish pioneer, bookended

here). A milky mote of vision, out of
a void of solitude & loss : moonlit
circumference (divine & human) set
upon this blood-veined earth. River-trove

of rose-touched clay, that signifies
universality ‒ the light of truth that
measureth Everyman; that weighteth in
the balance all our goodness, each iniquity ‒

his pearl, his ecstasy (lunar lucidity).
Night glimmers on a ruin in Bukovina
(where Tree of Jesse, patient, waits
the Day). An omnipresent quiddity ‒

the center of your soul, & mine ‒ wry
rainbow across the wheat. Monarch man-
arc, tacking to Mexico... peregrine
Pontifex Maximus, reigning (on milky way).



Lanthanum 6.24

I've reached the projected center of this seemingly-endless poem... this is the concluding section of chapt. 6, Bk 2... the 144th poem so far. But Lanthanum is a see-saw of plans & improvisation... & I realized this morning that my grandfather John Ravlin's cousin Grace's painting called "Pink Gate" fit quite well into what I'm trying to accomplish at this stage... so here we go.


About a century ago (just 86 years before
now, to be precise) my great-grand-cousin Grace
painted a picture of the Pink Gate, in Tangiers.
What found its way through lingering eyes, your

fingers traced for us to see : feminine
seagull-panopticon, settled into soft
earth-jar. Variations on flesh-tone
theme (friable clay & palm-leaf green)

balanced on a pink gate at the center of the frame.
Not supercilious or grandiose, not superhuman,
domineering... rather, serviceable, sane.
Humane... charming. Earth, sans fear & blame ‒

clear, sun-washed. Grace... in your eye &
hand. & it was like a dream, out of sand ‒
an oasis at the center, a gate of human-
colored clay. From single minuscule seed

(infinitesimal ‒ no more than 1/137th
of a centimeter ‒ smaller than grain of salt)
buried by sluggish river, emerged the tallest,
vaulting tree. Slowly, slowly. A Sabbath-

baobab, a birchbark arc of shade. Of shade,
& shady, breezy sounds. Out of the desert
came a whisper; out of the sea, a murmur-
voice. Longstanding, ancient. Subtle braid

of sense, instinct with tensile strength
(stringèd bow drawn taut; mighty dome
aloft on wings). A pair of lips from
Jubilee ‒ Solomon’s very height & length

drawn by quizzical cubit-Queen (of Yemen).
(For accuracy.) On a limestone ridge
Grace gathered her unfolding theme : one pledge
for the whole shade-branching realm (rocked

in the bosom of her eye)



lanthanum 6.23


The sun sweeps low, a gold-vermilion eye
& the earth swings wide, to the shady solstice
& a goldfinch flutters in its rusty cage, anxious
to go. Moss-green graywing, goodby, goodby.

Rooted like Blackstone to a limestone ground
my shadow spools a single arc of longing ‒
rockbound silhouette, bent toward that Evening
Land. A simple Cézanne forest floor (dark brown,

pine-green). Homegrown Sibelius would know,
looking to the sky for her wingèd Victory,
peregrine, trailing clouds (dove-grey,
turning white... streaked with... rainbow

ringlets). Sursum corda. & my heart lifts
like an arch just above the horizon ‒ all steeled
for one strong matrix-claim, up there (rose wheel-
eye, touching treetops). Whose crosshairs shift

the lens (mandorla to mandala, eyes to rose).
To meet the earth’s deep-sounding travail (blue-
bleak)... with arms’ warm honey-amber... loving yew-
turn, bow-taut now! A chordal flame leaps, glows!

Sea-bells ring home, my soul, my soul!
& who was far, draws near... & what was fickle
desire yields place at last, to steadfast clay ‒
Love’s needful cry, the arched bow’s tinder-bowl ‒

Noah’s shipfold (two notes are one).
Low bass, high soprano. Imagination’s
advent, in the void... Beethoven’s
cure... snow-lit alcove of the Resurrection.



late night doodle

lanthanum 6.22


To walk a lonely stretch of Hope St., Providence
& try to collect myself for this endeavor
toward the center of the poem, & the earth...
to know that loneliness is of the essence ‒

yours, mine ‒ Blackstone’s, by his sole candle ‒
a poverty in the spine of things, a threadbare
shawl pulled around your shoulders... there,
in the mind’s eye. One ultraviolet mandorla

made of syllables ‒ at a lonesome crossroads
on Hope St. ‒ in the center of myself ‒ which is
(perhaps) also the center of yourself (promise
afloat upon the sea). My ship, my canoe (Rhode

Island wooden almond) ‒ straitened at last
through the narrow sluice of melancholy ‒
time ‒ your absence, my delusions ‒ O my
Lamp of Gaiety
, my only Gate. Happiness

implanted before all things, by You : this is
the original status quo, on whose behalf
stern Roger proffered his indomitable life
(still stands, on the cliff, under the rainbow’s

cat’s-eye marble ‒ foot planted on the bow, like
that gold coin from Constantinople ‒ Anthousa
with a rose, foot shod by the prow ‒ Argo);
shaded the silhouette of a continent (one

aching arc). All these figures only filigree
for simple math, & plain geometry ‒
invert the envelope of solitude, toward mercy.
My guest is smiling at the gate (waiting for me).



Retro-Futurism & its Children


In an early essay, Mandelstam wrote : "for an artist, a worldview is a tool or a means, like a hammer in the hands of a mason, and the only reality is the work of art itself." On the face of it, an eminently modernist sentiment. On a similar branch, Wallace Stevens, in "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words", writes : "... above everything else, poetry is words... A poet's words are of things that do not exist without the words." Yet for both these poets, "worldview" stood for something more : call it "reality", call it "truth", call it "history", it is that dimension which exists distinct from, and in tandem with, poetry itself. For both of these poets, the relation between poetry and "worldview" helped determine the poet's attitude or stance within/toward the wider culture - & this was something both of them took very seriously. What is the role of the poet? What (if any) is the social sanction for poetry? For Stevens, these questions prompted a sustained, even relentless search for understanding. For Mandelstam, they underwrote his forthright, polemical stance toward the "worldviews" which grounded contemporary Russian literature & politics : his commitment to Acmeism vs. Futurism, to "unofficial" vs. "official" writing, to intellectual freedom vs. loyalty to the State.

In today's America (as in yesterday's) we sense an absolute allegiance to the values of success, achievement, superiority, wealth, fame... We are a nation of driven, workaholic strivers, a people obsessed with those mechanical short-cuts to bliss known as "gadgets." We are surrounded by tall wobbly ladders of rules, protocols, steps, points, scores, levels, etc. etc., which everybody is eager to either follow or circumvent. In fact the rules offer themselves as intriguing & ambivalent amalgams of both obedience & circumvention. Kafka would understand. Lots of contemporary novels are structured around such Janus-faced rules. The only rule this nation descended from the Puritans seems to have forgotten, is an unambiguous one, a rule those Puritans held sacrosanct : to keep holy the Sabbath; ie., to rest from striving, to sit still, to be, simply, thankful for existence...

I don't exempt myself from these typical American obsessions (or demonic possessions). I'm just as driven as the next scurrilous wannabe-squirrel. But I'm interested in how "worldview" coalesces with "poetry" in forms which sometimes offer resistance. I am skeptical of the culture of MFA networks & "workshop" self-improvement; I am equally skeptical of the worldviews suggested by literary experimentalism & the busy, much-loved avant-garde. Both trends seem finally indistinguishable from the culture of hard-driving lemmings I have described. MFA systems offer poetry as something measurable & objective, a professional "field" one can pursue, step by vocational step, like a degree in law or engineering. Experimentalism promotes the aesthetics of the gimmick. We see this trend across the spectrum of literary publication, from the New Yorker to the tiniest lit-zine. This is the poetry of the one-shot deal, the hit, the gag, the stunt : its presence is pervasive, its technical versatility & wit are irreproachable & immediately "winning" (the whole aim, after all, is to be winning). The style involves speed, cunning, sarcasm, transparency, readability, immediacy : conversely, it downplays depth, feeling, continuity, profundity, complexity, irony... & because it draws on a now-traditional (& predictable) set of alienation-effects and scandalous subversions, I would christen this omnipresent set of techniques "retro-futurism".

On the other hand, there is also a mode of resistance to the frantic polemical side-taking in poetry circles, which might be summarized as simply anti-theory . This is the strategy of the deliberately-inclusive, the dogmatically-uncritical and non-judgmental, the Big Tent approach, the cowbell "Come an' Get It!" communal-table method, the "just poetry, no ideas" attitude, the "just paint, no Cubism" mantra. No such thing as good or bad in art. The trouble with this entire approach is that it morphs so seamlessly into its opposite : the "this is what we're having for dinner so just eat it!" answer to all questions of value & taste. Do you really want to read this lousy poetry? With its shrunken, tattered & abused vocabulary, its second-hand & obvious ideas, its shallow or non-existent feeling? Its essential crudeness, its vulgarity - its aggression, its assault on human dignity? Is this what you want? This is the meal awaiting you in the Big Tent, friends. I think that underlying the all-inclusive, non-critical mode is a fundamental aestheticism : a set of art-for-art's-sake assumptions, a kind of monochrome vision, which cannot recognize the basic dialectic of art & worldview (which so absorbed Mandelstam & Stevens).


Art & worldview. I have asserted their importance, their necessity : so where do I stand myself in this regard? But I have rambled at length & with much incoherence & tedium, elsewhere, on the subject of my own worldview : so here I will just suggest a possible avenue of pursuit.

Eliot, Pound, Stevens : Medieval, Renaissance, Modern. As if in this trio we have a kind of exemplary recapitulation of the history of the West. Eliot the medieval man : for whom the measure of Man is only to be found in her relationship with God. Eliot's God is in many ways remote & elusive, and he compensates for this by emphasizing the objectivity of dogma, the absolute quality of both the articles of faith & the cultural traditions for which they are the foundation. Pound the Renaissance man : for whom "Man is the measure of all things." In such a situation, calm, peace & stability are elusive, & Pound compensates for this by emphasizing the objectivity of Nature, and the supremacy of the men of inherent power & natural wisdom (Malatesta, the Founding Fathers, Confucius...). Stevens the modern : for whom nature is fundamentally immeasurable & mysterious, and therefore Man-within-nature must imagine her own order (since order is to be found nowhere else).

These are obviously over-simplifications. All three poets remain elusive themselves, their attitude & work can be read from all three cultural-historical "positions" (& more). As for my own worldview, I think I oscillate between something like Eliot's & something like Stevens' sense of things. What Stevens suggests - & which essentially modifies both Eliot's and Pound's tendency toward dogmatism - is the key role of the imagination : the imagination of the human species as a whole, as a kind of unity. In this Stevens descends directly from that earlier trio of poet-thinkers, from whom both Eliot & Pound took pains to distance themselves : Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats. What both Stevens & Eliot, in their greatest work, share with Coleridge & Wordsworth & Keats, is a recognition of the shaping power of the human mind within experience : that we live, as the Renaissance thinker Nicolas of Cusa wrote, in a "conjectural" world, a world of fundamentally human shaping. "The Word is Psyche," as Mandelstam put it. As for my own worldview, maybe I stand closest to Nicolas of Cusa, then : for this was someone who could synthesize & integrate both : 1) a Renaissance sense of the powers of the human mind, and 2) a recognition, an acknowledgment, of a loving relationship with a universal God, the ultimate ground of all existing things, who is also a "personal" Spirit (of whom Man is the "image & likeness").


Celan 1 December

Read a few poems by Paul Celan at lunchtime. Experienced that mysterious & very special Celan-effect : the sense that out of extreme frailty come words of great strength & encouragement. Not so much for the poet himself, but for the reader. Reminded me of that phrase in one of the letters of his namesake, the Apostle (himself quoting the prophets somewhere, I guess) : "my strength is perfected in weakness."

So often it seems Celan's addressee is Mandelstam. Not only in the book Die Niemandsrose (which is saturated with Mandelstam). But say for example in this poem from the book that followed, Atemwende - the poem which begins "IM SCHLANGENWAGEN...", which Michael Hamburger translates as follows :

the white cypress tree,
through the surge
they drove you.

But in you, from
the other wellspring foamed,
on the black
jet remembrance
dayward you climbed.

I think this poem can be said to be addressed to the victims of Hitler, the victims of the 20th century. But I surmise there's also a specific subtext here, a poem of Mandelstam's (one from Tristia), which begins "Upon a sled laden with straw." The poem sketches a scene of the "young Tsar" being taken away on a sled or wagon, in the midst of his persecutors, to execution.


lanthanum 6.21


November’s end. Near-nadir of the year.
Ash-pallor in the light today, lunar ‒
enveloping leafless branches. Cold &
colder. Green-sapphire earth, grown sere.

Only this thread of moonlight, spider-light ‒
evasive zig-zag, lightfoot rodent-scuttle.
Skittering, shuttling... a whisper-tunnel,
underground. Toward zero. Midnight.

One shell of shimmering almond-coracle...
the point of its stern set where two wheels
converge, invisible, secret. Where twin keels
are buried, married ‒ merged there, coeval

with the prologue of the universe. Mirror-
image of gam-bowling prow (perpendicular
to the earth, oriented to the North Star) ‒
bent rainbow, magnetized, centripetal ‒ your

listening soul, attuned to one slow Providence.
Of each & all. The earth. Just like the calm
rotation of a sunflower ‒ great circus-thronging
brow turned toward its source, its provenance ‒

this planetary history of recollection, memory,
entails recovery at last ‒ when self-effacing
servants in disguise (that humble Robin-rabbi &
his Madeleine) join in one almond, tout-monde joie...

O my soul. Such pallid daylight lingers in
palladium tree-limbs (haunted, hunted).
Anthousa, Flora, Rose... summer’s glinting
traces. Cemetery Ridge. Green fingers.



Metaphysical Acmeism : Man's Place

This terse early poem by Mandelstam expresses a central insight of the Russian Acmeist worldview :

Let the names of imperial cities
caress the ears with brief meaning.
It's not Rome the city that lives on,
it's man's place in the universe.

Emperors try to rule that,
priests find excuses for wars,
but the day that place falls empty
houses and altars are trash.

"Man's place in the universe." In my stray thoughts I return to this concept again and again, as if it might conceal a sort of secret key of enlightenment. A touchstone. No, let me be more forthright : I think it does offer such a key. (Roger Williams, in the introduction to his pamphlet A Key into the Language of America, wrote : "A little key may open a box, where lies a bunch of keys...")

How to put this, so as not to spoil & ruin it with Henryesque banality...

I think in order to grasp what I'm trying to explain, one has to spin several conceptual frisbees simultaneously. The first is a notion about the nature of God. We have to accept, provisionally, the axiom that God, though certainly mysterious & unknowable & incomprehensible, must be understood, if understood at all, in terms of mind & consciousness & personhood. We cannot grasp, reasonably & common-sensically, how this can be so : but we must accept the idea that our only pathway to a provisionally-accurate notion of God, is by way of an extrapolation from what we do know about mind & intelligence. The door to understanding the divine goes through our sense of conscious personhood. A phrase from the Gospels comes to mind : Jesus says, "God is Spirit, & those who worship Him must worship him in spirit & truth."

The second notion or axiom which we must provisionally accept, is related to the first : that is, the idea that Man (humankind) is made "in God's image & likeness." If you (conceptually) overlay this second notion across the first, you might catch the image that comes to my mind : that we can glimpse God, the mysterious invisible Original One, the "Ancient of Days," through the human person as we see her (Blake's "human form Divine").

The third (& again, related) notion we have to entertain, provisionally, is sometimes extremely difficult to comprehend, much less accept. It is a specifically Christian notion : the idea of the incarnation of God in Man, in Jesus. What this says to me, among other things, if one can accept it, is that the universal God chooses to make himself a microcosm in the form of a human being, and in this way, join the divine with the human in a new synthesis. When in the Gospels Jesus insists that I am the Way; I and the Father are one; I am the Beginning and the End, etc., I find that one way to understand these claims is that by means of the Incarnation, God has not only created Man in the divine image, but God has in a sense set a permanent seal of absolute fulfillment on the whole order of nature & time & history : has shaped the entire scale of nature around this manifestation of the place of the unique human person within it. So we draw near to God, or God draws near to us, within the framework of the distinct person, the individual, the self... you & me. Through becoming this "microcosm", God has entered the inward marrow of each person, the inward subjective life of each individual self & soul. How? He has, ceremonially, sacrificially, & humbly-regally (as a kind of servant), joined us - become like us. (See Mandelstam's unfinished essay "Pushkin & Scriabin", for his thoughts on how this idea, the Christian notion of Redemption, provided the underlying sanction for the "joyful freedom" of Western art ; Man's playful game of "hide & seek with the Father.")

So keeping these three basic notions or axioms in mind, we go back to Mandelstam's verses :

It's not Rome the city that lives on,
it's man's place in the universe.

Now with this new background, the verses suggest a deeper substance. The dignity and stability of human culture, which Mandelstam & the other Acmeists affirmed, is grounded in something like this threefold background, where through the dignity of the human person shines, as if through a transparent screen, the majesty of the divine. That normative equilibrium which is the aim of civilization, that grounding of human history in hope & renewal, is underwritten by a metaphysical sense of a Providential order, a comprehensive global goal - in order to return to which, mankind must struggle, re-orient, & self-reform.

As I was walking to work this morning, I was pondering these things... some thoughts formulated... it occurred to me that it is a basic wonder & miracle, how out of stellar fire eventually came water, as if out of a cosmic Sahara emerged an oasis. And we humans dwell in the midst of this strange wonder. The Gospels tell of how John the Baptist baptized the people with water, for purification & repentance : an ancient symbol for such; through water of baptism people washed away their evil deeds in repentance & forgiveness, & entered upon a new life, a new relation with God & their fellows. But then, the Gospel say, Jesus came along, saying, "John baptized you with water; but the Son of Man comes baptizing with Spirit & fire." So what does this suggest to me, as I'm walking along to work? That the "fire" with which the Son of Man baptizes is that primal fire out of which the whole creation emerged, the stellar fire, the solar fire. In this case, the actual stellar fire is a kind of parabolic metaphor for the intellectual fire of the divine Word : a fire of light & enlightenment, which opens & burns the mind out of its habits, mythologies & preconceptions - back to the source, the origin of its being : the living intellectual force of a light which makes persons no longer "children of men", but "children of God." Like Jesus, the newly-baptized becomes a fiery microcosm, taking her place in the midst of a cosmos made for her.

This is a beginning, then - a beginning-anew of everything. Further, to be "baptized with Spirit" suggest to me that the one baptized by fire is thus fused & conjoined with everyone else so baptized, so as to share this dignity & enlightenment & freedom which belongs to all the "children of God" (as in the scene of Pentecost, when the Spirit descends on everyone in the room in the form of a flame over their heads, & immediately they understand each other's differing languages...).

I find this scenario, this way of seeing things, rather intellectually stimulating, to say the least. Theology or metaphysics can be exciting, thrilling - though you wouldn't know it from most modern & contemporary depictions of religion over the last 200 years or so. We are steeped in doubt & disillusionment... but not always in the poets. When you read Whitman or Blake or Hopkins or Dickinson or Gumilev or Mandelstam on these ranges of dream & speculation, you find a different tune.


lanthanum 6.20


So the year tends toward its own dregs. Nigredo
for alchemist, those last pale yellow lozenges
‘gainst midnight arms of prehistoric elms.
Shadowy, nigh-horizontal sunlight. So.

Imagine that alchemist, that Blackstone-monk
with rusty scales, takes measure of the earth
entire. In Bruegel-twilight, crepuscular serf-
surf ‒ inch-line of frost-crystal, along a trunk

of winter iron. Sanctioned, authorized & liable
for the fate of the whole round wobbly pear.
In trust (light apples in hand). A solitary-planetary
& dou-doughty deed, O rotund Prospero (fragile

island, Ariel). Where sophists, pharisees &
patchy politicians (pirate-parasites) declaim
a claim ‒ then let the moody gardener (Jaimie
or Sam) stand up, & (halting) speak ‒ cry clear

for all to hear. For the commonweal, the spiritual
union (weightless lightwing over the battlefield).
There’s more Horatio in your philosophy, field
sparrow ‒ more heavenly earth, most punctual

stool-pigeon. The king (his name was numbered)
the king must die. Hard to conceive the rune
who’s most yourself : singular substantial royal
Person, triple-crossed (cross-haired).

Decorated (on the Niger River). Like a constellation
now... tickle-tingling primordial spinal Milky Way
(ancestral habitat-belfry of fire). One Bukovina
baobab ‒ goldfinch in eld elm tree (the sun).


Harriet Poetry News Update

Don't tell them you heard it here first, because you know they won't believe it : it's already all over the blogosphere and beyond. Yes, as William Carlos Williams famously put it, "It is difficult to get the news from poetry, but robots die miserably every day for lack of what is found there."

We're talking about (as if you didn't know) the new Wallace Stevens robot from Google-Mattell. Launched in a Paris subway this morning, the Stevens robot walks and talks like the real thing : suited-up immaculately in a Brooks Brothers Executive Special gray plush 3-piece, topped by a natty fedora, our virtual insurance-man slash poet will likely bamboozle you just like it did us. "He" even throws in a few choice French phrases to go with his sophisticated yet philosophical & streetwise banter. Press a small button behind his left front cufflink, and he will recite "The Snow Man"; press the right-hand cufflink, & he'll do some cool riffs from "Ordinary Evening in New Haven." Not!

Here's the link (hot off the cuff, haha!). But don't tell them we sent you.


The Skim Milk Masquerade

Experimentation unites a willingness to improvise, to take the plunge, with a painstaking care for the most minute shadings, variations from the norm. In other words, experiment may not seem "experimental."


What if the truth...

What if the truth is ultimately relational. I don't mean relative : I mean what if truth is ultimately a relational situation between "subjects" (ie., "persons").

In other words, what if truth at the deepest level is in some sense alive : bound to consciousness & choice, living growth.

In other words, imagine a cosmos in which there is indeed a God : & yet the essence of this cosmos is freedom. So that this God can be said to have given the entire cosmos to Man - the entire cosmos, including the freedom to attend to God or not, conceptualize God or not, believe in God or not, love God or not...

In other words, what if human consciousness is truly "god-like", universal : in that we live in it, and we make our own reality out of it. & God simply says, "come & see me if you like."

This is a sort of Renaissance notion of the range & reach of human powers & capabilities, I think : & it set the groundwork for Modern thought & culture. Except Modernity is sort of haunted by a guilt feeling about God, a repressed anxiety stemming from the choice to deny & reject the possibility of this very non-demanding & un-assertive God : this God who simply waits for us to show up, if we feel like it.

"I am the Way, the Truth, & the Life... no one comes to the Father but by me..."

p.s. Maybe one of the paradoxical consequences of this general idea would be to "demythologize" some aspects of traditional religion. Because we would be able to recognize more clearly just how much of what we think we understand & believe about God & metaphysical things, has its source in the human imagination - its ability to project and model its own images of mysterious reality. This acknowledgement does not necessarily deny God's existence or even action upon & within the world : but it is a recognition of the range & extent of the powers of the human mind. (This line I'm taking simply expands upon previous remarks about Nicolas of Cusa & Wallace Stevens...)


Between Eliot & Stevens (or Bard & Bible)

My own way out toward the future involves a confidence in the spiritual role of the poet. - Wallace Stevens

When I was around 20 yrs old, in the early '70s, at the height of the brief "Jesus freak" era - a sometime-communal monastic-peripatetic neo-Christian version of the broader countercultural/hippie "youth movement" - I went through a religious/psychological breakdown that radically & permanently shifted the direction of my life. For me this happened in a kind of bell-jar solitude : I wasn't "converted" by anyone (I was already a lapsed Episcopalian). Rather it was a quasi-literary experience - a sharp, spasmodic reaction to reading Shakespeare's sonnets & the Bible, at a time when I was very vulnerable to both depression & manic enthusiasm... & by the same token, open to new ideas.

I'm not trying to explain away or psychologize, reductively, what happened to me : far from it. In that weird crucible I started morphing into the religious believer I am today. As such, I can in some ways identify with the stance of T.S. Eliot. When I reflect on the 35 years or so of brooding, meditating & writing (about God, religion, tunafish & the cosmos) which followed that crisis, I think I can say that my way of responding to those events & ideas has basically been the that of a poet, a poetic response. I have tried to think my way into a perspective in which poetry is an expressive medium & imaginative force which is especially empowered to articulate and give access to a spiritual vision or version of reality; & often on this blog & elsewhere I have argued for such a position. I've often & in various ways asserted that the harmony & internal coherence & self-sufficiency - the integrity - of poetry, offers a kind of analogy for a view of reality as meaningful "creation" or dramatic, Providential event. I've advanced (often vaguely & confusedly, I admit) the idea that a restoration or renaissance of a kind of humanism is possible : a synthesis which balances faith and reason (the reunion of "Athens and Jerusalem"). I've argued that poetry represents the vital consciousness - personal, passionate - which can get buried & displaced beneath the abstract determinisms of other modes of discourse.

Nevertheless... I need to add a caveat to all of this. Despite my personal "credentials" of religious belief & experience, & my resultant affinity with Eliot's (often-maligned) stance - this general position does not quite give the whole picture. I want to be able to say that my view of poetry draws as much from, say, Wallace Stevens or Hart Crane, as it does from Eliot. Not out of some national chauvinism or American nativism (as in W.C. Williams) : but rather with respect to Stevens' & Crane's sense of poetry, which is ultimately closer to the Romantic poets than to the high Moderns (or perhaps closer to Yeats than to Eliot).

I'm not sure how best to explain why I need to add this reservation. But I believe in the integrity and dignity - even the primacy - of poetry as such. I think this dignity & integrity is grounded in the wholeness of the human imagination itself, and the artistic/aesthetic constructs (Stevens' "fictions", Crane's "vision") which the imagination produces. An analogy here, from the religious life, might be between, on the one hand, a person's inward, nourishing and active faith - expressed in concrete acts of devotion & discipleship - and on the other, the merely verbal formulae of dogmatic belief. Poetry inhabits, of course, a verbal realm : but its whole labor is, in a sense, (as Frost famously put it) to make its "saying" equivalent to "deeds" : to fill mere words with the passionate concreteness & authenticity of lived experience. In this way, "blind" poets, attentive to the obscure workings of the imagination (their "muse"), produce those beautiful & accurate representations which do justice to reality : which is a kind of blessing - culture bringing nature to fulfillment. & this imaginative-creative process occurs within its own sphere : rather than being subservient to received dogma, it lends meaning to religious assertions. It acclimates & complements revelation. Some remarks by Matthew Arnold (so liable to Eliot's derision) seem apropos :

"[Religious language] is approximative merely, while men imagine it to be adequate; it is *thrown out* at certain realities which they very imperfectly comprehend. It is materialised poetry, which they give as science; and there can be no worse science than materialized poetry. But poetry is essentially concrete; and the moment one perceives that the religious language of the human race is in truth poetry, which it mistakes for science, one cannot make it an objection to this language that it is concrete... Everything turns on it being at realities that this... language is aimed." [from the Preface to God and the Bible]

Now I would hesitate to assent to this paragraph myself, in toto : I think Arnold magnifies "science" in typical 19th-cent. fashion, while at the same time weighing religious discourse too lightly on the scale. Religious thought itself - say, in Aquinas or Augustine or Maximus the Confessor - gets beyond the dry scaffolding of dogma, and approaches the particular (& I would say humanist) "accuracy" of philosophy. Nevertheless I think Arnold's basic point is central and worth defending : religious language is both approximate.and poetic. (& one can see what a close affinity this shows with the stance of Northrop Frye.)

Here I would like to gesture toward the intellectual stance & figure cast by that Renaissance humanist/Catholic priest, Nicolas of Cusa. In Cusanus' philosophical essays and dialogues, one finds a playful excitement at work, stimulated by the sharp recognition and celebration of the power of the human imagination - scientific, philosophical, aesthetic & religious all melded together in one activity of Mind. Cusanus was writing at the crest of Renaissance humanism, when translations of ancient Greek philosophy (Plato, Aristotle & others) exerted a powerful influence : his own philosophical writings seek to find that logic which can balance the human and the divine - the ineluctable certainties of divine order, with the equally stubborn fact that we live in a "conjectural" world : ie. a world bounded by the limitations of our own imaginative reach & constructs. Even our notions of God are human "conjectures", which bump up against the ineffable mystery - as well as, for Cusanus, the historical facticity - of God's presence & manifestation (in the Incarnation).

This notion of "conjecture" - close to Giambattista Vico's later views on human history as a playing-out of consciousness, a cultural construct - allies itself with a sense of the ongoing project & projections of the human imagination, as expressed in the fictional shapings, the representations, of poetry. & here we are drawing very close to Stevens' central obsessions concerning imagination & reality - the logical grounds for his "supreme fiction".

So I want to think of my own work in poetry as standing somehow within a field shared by both Eliot and Stevens, where poetry is a distinct, secular, universal & human phenomenon, with its own independent basis and raison d'etre & sphere of activity : & yet where poetry is also capable of expressing the substance & pith & concrete values - as well as the uncertainties & mystery - underlying & surrounding the verbal summae of historical belief & dogmatic testimony.


lanthanum 6.19


Gloom (November womb-life). In a place
of recollection (planetary memory).
Heavy Earth’s own pregnant melancholy
(seeded with strange hope). Odd, disused

periplus ‒ a roundabout sea-path, secret.
Across a square of wakes, curled within one
figure 8... & then another week... & then...
old greenface U.S. Grant’s halfway to a scent

of Lincoln lilac (O some crimson-violet-rainy Day
ob Jubilee
). Only oscuridad of goldfinch poverty ‒
shrouded in a seaman’s net from a Black Sea
caravel ‒ modeling its humble bow (Mare

Nostrum) & the milky dome on the promontory
where they waited for the black sail or the white.
It’s only Everyman in disguise (on Milk Street)
play-acting the nostos-turn of Noah’s triple-storied

ark. It’s where we live (in a history
of human expectancy). So set your compass,
Columbus, to the Orient ‒ this is a dress
rehearsal for the New-Found Land (so very

histrionic, Hamlet!). The orchestra is in the pit,
they’re tuning up the instruments ‒ with an iron
fork shaped like a horseshoe (set in a limestone
mound, or salience). Pitched to a perfect fit

of attunement, in the universal key (b-flat) ‒
the milky, misty chord of galactic circling fifths.
Seeded for farming, lapsarian un-luxury... manifest
just as a Robin meets the sea-blue eyes of Marion (fiat).



Had a dream the other night

Down Around Angola - take 2

Down Around Angola - take 1

lanthanum 6.18


Unreadable gray sky. November twilight.
Remnants of maple finery, moss-green & gold.
Season of low eaves, rain... a conjectural world
comes into threadbare focus (iron-wrought

urn). The human stance is listening. A listing
balance, tenuous : tightrope & gyroscope, bold-
tentative : to trust, to verify : to say, We hold
these truths
, & yet to cry, Where is thy sting,

O Death? At the apex of wisdom’s honey-
dome, the pendulum rests, revolves... where
we acknowledge that edge of knowledge (hair’s-
breadth line, irrational number). Beneath a sea

of flickering mirrors (Marmara). Elliptical,
elongate compass rose, risen through bifocal
lens ‒ All-Man mandala (kindly universal
individual) ‒ a human tuning-fork (humble,

endless). So play that wedding number again,
Jonah, with your indescribable grey-eyed bird’s
floating accompaniment. Needs to be heard
now, amid the grinding bass of minor flattened

reds, blues ‒ the rival teams, insiders &
outriders ‒ rubes & snobs (both arrogant)
who murmur in Byzantium. Parse that elegant
passage to more than indigo, my little Indian

summer violet; for the matrix of this fractured
maze is like your nutmeg orchardist, at home.
Nestled twixt Athens, Jerusalem ‒ Ithaka, Rome...
St. Maggie in a peasant scrim (unseen, unheard).



Rusty Russian Bells

No-Name Poetry : or, The Word As Such

A poet walks onto an empty stage, facing a silent audience. He or she has no amps, no electric ukelele. No Power Point, no video. No advertising, no campaign signs, no brand names. No back-up singers, no celebrity emcee. No award ribbons, no academic certificate or graduation cap. Sometimes not even a microphone. No status symbols at all.

The poet stands in a small circle of light and silence. & then he or she begins to read (or recite or chant) some words - a little scary, almost embarrassing in their nakedness & solitary singularity.

This is one way that poetry upholds the dignity and integrity of speech, of a language : by celebrating the word as such(1). Our language, our speech - set apart within its own distinct circle - thus manifests the art which is most proper to itself. In poetry, language reveals its interior structures & proportions, its specific gravities, its particular aesthetic values. & in doing so, it dignifies all speech & language, both the artistic and the everyday. (This is one of the meanings of Wallace Stevens' epithet, "Poetry is a sanction of life.")

I would like to see thinking & talk about poetry today move away from, resist, those forces which tend to push it toward commercialization, toward hybridization, toward triviality & ephemeral gratification, toward sensationalism, toward crude & crass anti-intellectualism, toward brandings & rankings & the philistine chatter borrowed from sports & showbiz, toward reactionary or nihilistic mass-pop culture, toward the servile mimicry of more fashionable arts & pastimes, toward the fakery of pseudo-movements & academic jargon-campaigns, etc. etc....

& I am suggesting that the best & most powerful way to express such resistance is to remember & recognize that poetry - poetry per se, authentic poetry - is the art of the word as such. When poetry shows the courage to stand alone, in all its humility & naked simplicity, it enacts the integrity & dignity of the language at large. & in so doing, it keeps culture alive.

(1) "the word as such" : a key notion in the aesthetic formulation for the Russian Acmeist movement of the early 20th cent.



All Souls' Day Bells

Po-biz Blues

Howlin' at the Harvest Moon

Strike Zone Blues

My tiny labor union at the Brown Library is in contract negotiations. Last night I had a little musical brainstorm, & got out the electric guitar, which has lain dormant for a couple years.... & YouTube is very seductive...


Lanthanum in The Equalizer

Michael Schiavo published chapter 4 of Lanthanum in The Equalizer today. I like the format, the design. Here's the information. Thank you, Michael!


Reunion in Byzantium

T.S. Eliot's famous concept, the "dissociation of sensibility", articulated a benchmark for Modernist poetry : the new writing would seek to overcome that split between thought & feeling, reason & experience, sense & sensibility in literature, which was in part a consequence of the Enlightenment (see his essay, "The Metaphysical Poets").

Since at least the Romantic era, up to our own day, overcoming this basic division has been a project not only of the arts, but of certain sectors of science, social science, psychology & even politics. The dissociation of thought and feeling in literary style shares broad parallels with myriad polarities : theory/practice, reason/emotion, mind/body, intellect/sensation, thought/action, idea/thing, conscious/subconscious, human/animal, divine/human, male/female... and one could delineate the central motivation for numerous intellectual and socio-political agendas in the overcoming of one or another of these basic binaries.

Central strands of ancient thought, on the other hand - both Greek philosophy and Hebrew religion, for example - insisted on the substantial actuality of, and necessity for, these basic polarities. Even with a "monistic" thinker like Aristotle, for whom polarities and distinctions were perhaps more epistemological than ontological - that is, they were abstracted aspects of actual whole & unitary objects of knowledge - such differences were nevertheless necessary for an adequate comprehension of the thing itself. For Plato, for the Biblical writers, reality was grounded in a central borderline : between intellect and sense. The intellect was aligned with the invisible and eternal : mind, soul, God or gods, changelessness, eternity, universality, Ideas. Sense was aligned with all the related polarities : body, movement, animality, change, things, mortality.

Eliot's career can be seen (in simplified fashion) as following a certain trajectory : beginning with a literary allegiance to the Metaphysical poets, motivated by a literary strategy (to overcome the "dissociation" in style); and culminating in a personal conversion to Christianity, and the development of a sort of neo-medieval vision of the restoration of European culture in toto. As such, his path can be seen as a recapitulation of the historical arc of ancient thought in general. For the central polarity between intellect and sense culminated, in the ancient world, in Byzantium : in a theological elaboration (and defense) of the Christian announcement.

What that proclamation amounted to was this : there is an infinite distance between the invisible Creator and the creation he has made; there is a fundamental distinction to be drawn between divine intellect and mortal sense. Man divided himself from God by an original act of will : a turning from his intellectual source of being (God) to the things of sense (the material world). God, out of love for Man and his creation, intervened : becoming Man himself, in the Person of his Son. The Incarnation - and the person of Christ - is the matrix of union for all the polarities, the center of human time and space. In the divine-providential process, the world-historic drama enacted by the Trinity, intellect and sense, mind and body, thought and feeling, mind and heart, sense and sensibility, one and many, order and chaos, wholeness and contingency, part and whole, male and female, individual and community.... all these polarities are reunited and harmonized - as Maximus the Confessor put it - "without separation and without confusion".

We are some distance from Byzantium, today. For many, these concepts no longer have any meaningful reference in reality : they are allegorical, mythological formulae. This is understandable. Most of the words we read, the signs we apprehend, skim by in a sort of abstract streaming.... only actual experience strikes us as whole, as real. And we are rather far from the actualities, and the thought-worlds, of Palestine in the time of Emperor Augustus.

Our scepticism (or incomprehension) is also understandable from another, theological, angle, if you will. As Maximus might have put it (much more elegantly) : created things cannot, by their own capacities, comprehend that which created them. The basic division between intellect and sense - and its resolution by divine action - is essentially a mystery, illuminated for us by revelation (divine grace).

Again, I realize I am using concepts and terminology many would find terminally obsolete. My own ability to explain anything is hobbled and strictly limited. I can only (metaphorically) raise my hands, shrug my shoulders at my own incapacity. Can only say that I, along with some others, find personal, existential, experiential meaning in the scriptural record of long-ago events. I find testimonies from ancient & mythological ages which echo and ring with events from my own life, with the thoughts & feelings that arise in my own mind and heart. I find believable the radical & fantastic idea that consciousness, in its mysterious depths, rests at the foundation of the entire cosmos : we don't so much know anything, as we are known. In such manner, I guess, I have experienced, to some limited degree, the reconciliation of polarities, the overcoming of dissociations. And I continue to try to relate & express these experiences in my own fashion, in the belief that what I have experienced is not strictly private or personal or unique or inimitable, but rather is part of something real for all. As that metaphysical poet-preacher John Donne put it : "no man is an island..."


Equal to October

Michael Schiavo keeps on keepin' on, with his mighty interesting poetry dissemination project, The Equalizer. Happy to say a big chunk of Lanthanum will be featured there next week, in issue #13.




Fundamental problem for the intellect (& for science, & for the academy, & &...) : God is not reducible to an object of knowledge.

This is where poetry (& art, & music) can help, since poetry too is irreducible to "objective-descriptive" language.

But poetry per se is not the all-in-all either (as Dante affirmed, in the Purgatorio), though such be the fond wish of many.

You need both : the objective & subjective, the impersonal & the personal...

But finally, language & knowledge, as ends in themselves, are insufficient.

God, let's say, is holy. Yet approachable.


Maximus (in the shadow of Maximus)

My poetry is rooted in Osip Mandelstam, & perhaps culminates in Maximus the Confessor.

Hans Urs von Balthasar (love the sound of that name), the Swiss Catholic theologian, wrote a groundbreaking study of Maximus about 50 yrs ago (Cosmic Liturgy).

Maximus shows up often in the poem Lanthanum.

Brooding on Michael Gizzi's sad-princely fate, perhaps... I had a (rare) moment of psychological introspection yesterday... it struck me that maybe I had been struggling for a long time - COMPLETELY subconsciously - with an inner image of my father. Not my real - gentle, infinitely patient, kindly - father... but the American father who hates poetry, all the arty (sissy, useless) stuff. It struck me that my belligerent/parasitic attitude & behavior toward all sorts of perceived "authorities" in Poetryland, over the last 2 decades, might have something to do with this inner anxiety/conflict about the poetic vocation itself (in the good ol' USA) - something rather Oedipal (Sigmund in the house?)...

Yet I'm sure, in fact I know, there is a dimension - let's call it divine Providence - where the useless freedom of art & poetry, and the active discipline of spiritual devotion, and the innate good will of ordinary people, and the philosophical light of a cosmic vision of reality - are all harmonized and redeemed. A hidden spiritual dimension of ordinary Providence...

& my shifty erratic trip - from Ashbery to the "Shakespeare event", from Jesus-hitchiker days to Mandelstam, from anti-poetry to the Borges-library, from Elena Shvarts & Joseph Brodsky to Hart Crane, all the rest... - finds meaning in this direction...

The Equalizer

A new poetry dissemination venture, produced by Michael Schiavo. A big job - new issues every other day through October, delivered to your in-box in pdf. format. Nicely designed. I'll be in there around Halloween. Congratulations, Michael -

The Equalizer


Gizzi & Gould, ca. 1983


Have been reading some of Michael Gizzi's old Burning Deck books (ones I can find).

From that day on Medway St. (spring of 1971), at the young assistant prof's apt. (wish I could remember his name), with Michael & Honig, Cloutier & me & other students... I felt a faint sort of kinship/rivalry with Michael Gizzi.

& after that, for 40 years, we crossed paths occasionally...but always with this brotherly sense (hello, old pal)... up to last spring (2010) at Tazza. & later this summer, walking by on Prospect St... "almost didn't recognize you," he said/I said...

What happened, Michael? I don't know...

Sense, from your Burning Deck books, of someone approaching Ezra Pound... trying to deal with the dualities, the contradictions... remaking the jocular vernacular Americanisms, in your OWN way, displacing Pound's... for so many conflicted painful reasons... pain is the name of the game.

for Michael Gizzi

Verbatim, an ancient little review of mine (replete even then with the obligatory Mandelstam references), which was published in a local neighborhood paper (the East Side Monthly) on Dec. 6, 1979.


Avis, or (The Replete Birdman), by Michael Gizzi
Burning Deck, 1979

Rhode Island is the home of Burning Deck Press, a small press maintained by Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop, who design and print each book themselves. Burning Deck publishes some of the most handsome poetry books found in the world today. Their emphasis on fine craftsmanship has had an influence on writers in the area, and one might go so far as to say that something like a "Providence style" has grown up centered around Burning Deck. Several local poets share certain means of approach (though it would be wrong to try to define them too strictly.) Their work is part of the effort to express an American idiom as opposed to an English, Continental, or classical style - that effort which was given its famous ambiguous send-off by Whitman. But these poets seem to owe more to Emily Dickinson, in terms of precision, neatness, observation, and the joy of expressing the single, almost random word, as opposed to the "theme." They also owe something to William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and other contemporary inheritors. Single words or very short lines are spread over the page - poetry's visual aspect is very important - giving a staccato effect similar to jazz improvisation or bird-talk, which is often very successful in capturing colloquial American speech. Historic European poetry emphasizes the intense weight of the line of poetry, whereas this American style delights in a scattering effect spreading over the page, and the timbre of the sound is more important than the melody (again, as in jazz or birdsong). Finally, in discussing this general Providence style, one cannot neglect to mention a curious, quirky humor, expressing some kind of Providence state of mind as well as the jokes embedded in the language itself.

This general approach seems to be a perfect vehicle for Michael Gizzi in his most recent book, Avis. Avis is Latin for "bird" (as in aviation, aviary, etc.), and the book among other things celebrates an evolutionary and poetic emergence of a "bird-man." Mr. Gizzi, who in his occupation as a tree surgeon spends a lot of time out on a limb, speaks from first-hand experience (poets also, as Gizzi proves, are among the feather'd tribe).

Have you ever found yourself, of a morning, standing in a field bordering a stand of trees, listening to the birds? These flying creatures have an incredible way of creating and melodifying open space. Birds are true architects, building with musical charts the entire forest - their nests huddled in the branches being but the sexual-familial nexus. Their work goes on in the cities as well - being, as the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam said, "the first sprouts of a virgin forest that will cover the site of modern cities." Poets are also builders, as again Mandelstam says, poets are "those who, inspired by the spirit of building, do not like cowards renounce their own gravity, but joyously accept it in order to arouse and exploit the powers architecturally sleeping within." The first thing a poet builds is a pair of wings, thus becoming the wings, rather than the antennae of the race - these wings being more structurally necessary than anything developed at Houston space center.

I would like to quote extensively from Avis, for the Gizzi-bird coves a wide expanse of the wilderness of birdman nature. Here is just a short bit to give the reader a taste :

The number of points of light
Is indeed
Very large if not
I am aloft w/my vision, aloft everything
Seems to tree
Or perch
The winged and leafy of one lung
Are alike
And upon every branch sits a consort
Of singers so that every
Tree shows
Like a 'musicke roome'

Any extensive reading of Avis lends weight to the ancient theory that words themselves were originally handed down to mankind one-by-one by a Big Divine Bird, something between a condor and the common English sparrow. The language and style has a kind of baroque formality, but everyday speech is baroque. And it is a new kind of formality, an American metric. There is something in this style, an echo of the dancing precision of the Elizabethans and metaphysical poets of the Renaissance. This combination of down-to-earth American humanity (descended from W.C. Williams), and a winged Renaissance dancing quality, forges a link between poetry and the best popular folk and medieval music, the heart of the common harmony. In conclusion, I hope my review has succeeded in expressing my opinion that Michael Gizzi's Avis is no ordinary "cheep thrills."

*unfortunately I'm not able to replicate the spacing of the original lines.... the alternate lines, up to "Or perch", should each be indented a couple tabs.

Michael Gizzi

Sad today, late September, while the sun is shining. Can't really believe Michael Gizzi has died. ??

A brotherly, friendly, funny writer, a startling poet I kept crossing paths with, over the centuries. In the spring of 1971 we took what was the first "writing class" for both of us. Traded a lot of poems. He was a poet who worked as a TREE SURGEON, which impressed me (the college freshman)...

10 yrs later, I'm delivering supplies to local food coop on Camp St., suddenly Michael Gizzi, of all people, jumps out of a car to say hello, girlfriend beside him...

7-8 yrs after that, we're sitting in on another class together, this one the special Ezra Pound centennial seminar, at Brown...

in the 90s, the 00s, I run into him at readings in Boston & Providence... abbraccio, handshakes... have a drink with him & Robert Creeley's widow, down at Tazza reading last spring... our mutual friend Jim Chapin & I do some blues beforehand... they seem to like the harmonica-playing...

recently (a few weeks ago) bumped into him again, out walking on Prospect St. (with her)... 40 yrs goes by...

seems too soon to leave now, Michael...


Epic might be personal

Another interesting and insightful diary-entry from John Latta : this one on an essay on New American Poetry by Canadian writer Brian Fawcett.

Fawcett's critique of Charles Olson's epic "imperialism" & megalomania, while not exactly original, sounds (from Latta's excerpts anyway) well-put, and hard to deny. Yet it seems to me you lose something if you reduce Pound's & Olson's epic ambitions & projects to mere egotism & ideological grandiosity. Epic ambition is in part a search for epic wholeness : that vast multiplicity-in-unity - ancient epic's synthesis of history, poetry, & cosmic vision - bringing all experience (or at least the symbolic image of same) into the microcosm of a shape, a work of art. What from one angle looks like the shadow of megalomania, narcissism & totalitarian thinking - all the basically ugly & atrocious elements of these poets' vainglory - can, from another angle, be recognized as rooted in the basic shaping impulse of art : what I have tried to describe elsewhere as the ("Acmeist") humanizing, or personalizing, of reality. I see this as a primordial artistic task, going back to the archaic shamans : the function of providing a sense of order in the cosmos through dramatization - giving meaning to experience, and order to chaos, through "playing it out."

Olson & Pound both took this high-priestly role in some dark & demagogic directions. Totalism, totalitarianism are inherent dangers of any search for wholeness through art. & we should be careful not to romanticize the irrational, self-aggrandizing impulses of same. Yet this humanizing/dramatizing/synthesizing/visionary/epic dimension is fundamental to poetry. (Classicist Charles P. Segal has explored the ambiguous duality of the poetic "pharmakon" - delusive drug or visionary guide? - in a number of studies.)

& with this in mind, I guess Pound's self-effacing disciple in the "long poem", Zukofsky, can be seen as their alter(ed) ego : so many maximus-pounds of anti-gravity. Foreshadowing, in "A", the objectification of "language" to come...


local origins of elegy

"This peculiar dance is given to a stranger, or strangers, whom [the Iowa] are decided to welcome in their village; and out of respect to the person or persons to whom they are expressing this welcome, the musicians and all the spectators rise upon their feet while it is being danced.

"The song is at first a lament for some friend, or friends, who are dead or gone away, and ends in a gay and lively and cheerful step, whilst they are announcing that the friend to whom they are addressing it is received into the place which has been left."

- George Catlin (quoted on p. 1 of An Archaeology of the Soul, by Robert L. Hall)

Beauty will save the world

There's a dialogue between Ange Mlinko & author Iain McGilchrist in the October 2010 issue of Poetry. McGilchrist, a sort of cross-disciplinary brain-scientist/literary scholar, published The Master and his Emissary, a new meditation on right/left brain differences (shorthand : right brain = holism/synthesis/emotion; left brain = definition/analysis/abstraction). Mlinko & McGilchrist explore some of the implications for poetry of McGilchrist's work.

This dialogue appears around the same time as Elif Batuman's lengthy review of Mark McGurl's book The Program Era, on the impact of creative writing programs on British & American fiction-writing (which I haven't read). Both Batuman and McGurl address the academic divide between MFA programs and the other academic disciplines (humanities & sciences) - the split, generally, between "knowledge" and "creativity."

All of which makes me consider the possible connection between the two. Is the MFA/humanities divide a symptom of a deeper distinction between two dimensions or functions of the mind?

I wonder if this old conflict between knowledge & creativity, or what used to be called science & art, has something to do with an absence in our civilization of a philosophical ground in aesthetics - of a viable ontology of Beauty. The ancient Greeks (Plato, Aristotle) had a notion of beauty as musical harmony, rooted in natural proportions, which they were able to synthesize with ethics and metaphysics - natural beauty had its analogue in moral rectitude. The Middle Ages, in turn, synthesized the knowledge of nature with the metaphysics of divine creation, so that all intellectual investigation & knowledge was believed to have its origin in God, and its end in wonder & mystical contemplation. But disenchanted naturalism of the Modern era was rooted in a scepticism about the metaphysical grounds of knowledge. Scientific truth was opposed to the superficial ("accidental") illusions of beauty. Thus the ground for aesthetics no longer existed.

Postmodernism & deconstruction, stemming from Nietzsche & Heidegger, attempted to dismantle the hegemony of scientific positivism by means of a sort of language-oriented but anti-rational vitalism, centered in a notion of poetry & art as displacing scientific reason. Hence postmodern literary Theory pushed a sort of intellectual wedge between American MFA programs, on the one hand, with their "naive" devotion to self-expressive creativity, and traditional academic disciplines, with their "naive" roots in "logocentric" rationalism. Yet postmodern Theory's anti-rational propositions were destined to fall by the weight of their own self-contradictions - and thus the contemporary scene seems to have returned to a strange state of intellectual dispossession, with echoes of 19th-century naturalism & scientific positivism emerging in the contemporary devotion to brain science and reductive biological determinisms.

"Beauty will save the world," famously reported Dostoevsky. Perhaps a new metaphysics, able to discern purpose & meaning in the mysterious phenomena of art and beauty, will tend somehow toward the fulfillment of that prophecy. & I suppose at the center of the chessboard will have to be a new challenge to the deeply-rooted modern-positivist doctrine - that beauty is a surface illusion, floating over a structure of what are simply forces : of non-human, abstract, cosmic physics, and of amoral, remorseless biological nature. Keats's taciturn (but stubborn) urn long ago set all the pieces into play :

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

- Grace Ravlin (Venice, 1908)