I've deleted ALL my YouTube poetry & music videos.

Too many mixed feelings about the whole thing.

More later on this, perhaps.


How to write about poetry.

"H.P." postscript : Neo-Acmeism?

As is usual with me, I started having second thoughts as soon as I finished the previous post ("Toward a Human Poetics"). Aside from the ponderousness and pomposity of the phrase Human Poetics, it occurred to me that all but one on the list of recommended books were produced by non-poets (that is, aside from Allen Grossman). Scholars, philosophers...

Anyway, I don't want to renounce everything I wrote yesterday. I still believe the general position laid out by these writers is aligned with poetry & the realities & immediacy involved with its making : offers a defense against determinism, abstractions, de-humanization.

But there's a problem with adding the full weight of an articulated ethic or philosophy (such as that of Levinas, or even Grossman) onto a theory of poetry; and a problem with arguing that poetic speech differs fundamentally from other kinds of language-use. I think there's one thing needful that needs to be added to that in turn, as a counterbalance. & I take this one thing from Russian Acmeism (on this, see Justin Doherty's fine book, The Acmeist movement in Russian poetry (Oxford, 1995). Or at least what I think of as an aspect of Acmeism.

I would call that one thing "inner freedom". Mandelshtam outlined what this means in an unfinished essay titled "Pushkin and Scriabin". Very basically, there is an irreducible "free play" dimension to poetry. Poets, makers of poems, are sharing in a mutual process of making (& sharing) free-standing, self-sufficient, works of art. "The word" in poetry creates its own dimensions, its own weights & balances - for its own sake.

Now if I said that this inner freedom was aligned also with a rejection or dismissal of life & the world outside of art - as in various modes of Decadence or Symbolism; or if I declared that the poetic word had no real meaning with reference to that world, no mimetic capabilities, no firm denotations - as with various modes of modernist & postmodernist detachment and autonomy - then what I would be sketching out would no longer be Acmeism.

The Acmeists boldly suggested that the free play of art, and the self-sufficiency (within its proper sphere) of the poetic word, was a normative response to certain basic normative dimensions of life and culture in general. Cultures at large produce the generative circumstances that undergird artistic freedom and its exchanges, out of their own wells of inner balance, or basic orientation toward the freedom and variety of life. That this is an idealization - that is, an idea of the normative - which artists & poets must strive & struggle to instigate & defend, is a good thing : because it means such norms are not simply determined by nature. They are the norms of the living conscience of a culture.

Maybe I'm confused & contradicting myself here. I'm not a philosopher... not a systematic thinker. What I want to emphasize is this concept of art as play. For some, this would only suggest poetry's fundamental childishness, its perpetual adolescence (in such terms Milan Kundera, in an essay of a few years back, belittled poets & poetry). But the joy of free play - like a witty rejoinder from the scaffold - can be a powerful thing : a reminder (to culture at large) of what life is really all about...


Human Poetics

Have been reading some new things... seem to be finding something of a philosophical ground for ways I have thought about poetry for some time...

ie. notions about the status of persons and real things... Levinas has a concept of ethics as the ground of philosophy, and the ground of ethics itself is the "face-to-face" encounter of self and another... that the human person is not determined or defined by language, that in fact the ethical encounter of persons is a kind of ur-language, the "language-before-language"... that poetry is fundamentally dialogical, & involved with a Bakhtinian (& Kenneth Burkean) sense of the dramatic Now...

Here's my beginner's reading list for a "Human Poetics"... (I haven't read them all yet myself!)

Harold Kaplan / Poetry, politics, culture : argument in the works of Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and Williams (Transaction Bks, 2006)

Michael Eskin / Ethics and dialogue : in the works of Levinas, Bakhtin, Mandel'shtam, and Celan (Oxford UP, 2001)

Daniel Schwarz / The case for a humanistic poetics (U. Penn., 1991)

Allen Grossman / Against our vanishing (conversations with Mark Halliday) (Rowan Tree Press, 1981)

Emanuel Levinas / Entre Nous (Columbia UP, 2000)

Here is Levinas, as quoted by Harold Kaplan in an appendix to his book :

"My view is opposed to the tendency (in)... contemporary philosophy that prefers to see man a simple articulation or a simple aspect of a rational, ontological system that has nothing human in it; even in Heidegger, the Dasein is ultimately a structure of being in general, bound to its profession of being, its "historic deeds of being", its event of being....
"Similarly, in certain trends in structural research, rules, pure forms, universal structures, combinations which have a legality as cold as mathematical legality are isolated. And then that dominates the human..." [think Foucault, etc.]

As Kaplan argues, the philosophical and theoretical trends that Levinas is criticizing have consequences for poetry; whenever the human person and the person's inner freedom, and inner ethical stance with regard to another (in which both persons in the face-to-face dialogue have substance, validity, actuality) - whenever these dimensions are dismissed, or subject to a determinist reduction of one kind or another (cultural, political, natural, etc.) - then poetry, and persons, are no longer there...


Poetry, religion, humanism

My life may manifest a spiritual dimension. It may involve a spiritual search. I may indeed be, off & on, a sort of hermit cum rabbinical student, mulling over obscure passages of ancient texts for secret, personal or contemporary meanings. I may make a confession of faith; in fact, I believe I am a Christian of some sort.

But none of these beliefs or attitudes will alter my firm sense of poetry as something utterly secular - "non-denominational", universal, and perfectly human.

Although I'm not a philosopher, I think there's a philosophical basis for this position, which actually accords with my sense of Christianity. But that's not why I hold this position. Yes, I hold with some kind of quasi-Aristotelian sense of the quiddity, the utter distinctiveness, of individual things; I hold that this applies as well to individual persons; and my understanding of poetry is that it involves the most distinctive, characteristic, imaginative utterances of individual persons, out of their unique times & places.... but the fact that this view accords well (I think) with Christian notions of the person is not why I think of poetry this way. In other words, I don't have to justify my understanding of poetry by an appeal to my religious faith.

Poetry is an expression of primordial human character; of personhood; it is the "voice" of the essential human face. This is why I can support the position of someone like Harold Kaplan (see previous post), a committed "secular humanist" if there ever was one; there is no contradiction. What this shared position does oppose, I think, are some of the trends in art and cultural theory which, while they are "postmodern", were prefigured (as Kaplan demonstrates) in forms of modernist "culture criticism" & literary practice, produced, in different ways, by Eliot & Pound (along with many others).

My sense that poetry is, in a fundamental way, a form of free and undetermined imaginative creation, grounded in a distinct and individual human gesture and stance toward reality, does not sit well with current views that stem from post-structuralism, the New Historicism, etc. These prevailing ideologies influence contemporary poetic style & technique - witness the successive waves of experimentalism which reduces poetry to language, to text, to formulae, to chance operations, to pastiche, to de-personalization, to agit-prop, to "documentary", etc. etc. etc. Even the so-called "hybrid" poetries represent a concession to the prevailing theoretical winds.

Let me quote again from that "humanist" Osip Mandelstam (his essay "Word and Culture") :

"'There are epochs that maintain that they are not concerned with singular human beings, that human beings must be put to use, like bricks, like mortar... Assyrian prisoners swarm like chicks under the feet of a gigantic Tsar; warriors personifying the power of the state inimical to the human being shackled pigmies with long spears, and the Egyptians are dealing with the human mass as if it were building material... But there is another form of social architecture who scale and measure is... man... It doesn't use human beings as building material but builds for them... Mere mechanical grandeur and mere numbers are inimical to humankind We are tempted not by a new social pyramid, but... by the free play of weights and measures, by a human society... in which everything is... individual, and each member is unique and echoes the whole.'"

A totalitarian state is not required in order to apply reductive and determinist theories of existence and human being to the realm of aesthetics. That is exactly the era we have been living through for the last several decades.

In another place, Mandelstam wrote (quoting roughly from memory) : "in such conditions, Man must become the hardest thing in the universe : harder than diamond." In my view it is from this crystalline, ineluctable center of the human heart & mind - from the person - that poetry proceeds.


p.s. : & sure, I can be accused of (& dismissed for) my own polemical over-simplifications & reductivity. The self is complex; poetry is social; the self is constituted in relation with others; poetry is fundamentally dialogical; etc. Yes to all that. But I did not say the work of art is simply identified with the self. The art work sustains a dialectical relation with its maker : it is a form of synthesis, of proportion - of balancing opposing forces... shaping a unitive image of resolution. "Out of the quarrel with ourselves, we make poetry," wrote Yeats (I'm paraphrasing from memory).


Harold Kaplan, Michael Eskin : poetry & humanism

Have been reading terrific book by Harold Kaplan, Poetry, politics and culture : argument in the work of Eliot, Pound, Stevens and Williams (Transaction, 2006). Despite the horrendous proofreading of this text (full of typos), I couldn't put it down.

When you think everything (& too much more) has been said about the "great Moderns", along comes a prof. emeritus (born in 1916) with a new reading. Kaplan creates a context for the differing worldviews, personalities, aims & styles of these four, and in the process re-establishes the threads connecting poetry with culture at large. The seriousness with which these poets themselves understood poetry as the expression of a culture's sensibility & self-consciousness - its inner "rage for order" - also reverberated in their differing political worldviews. Kaplan contrasts Stevens & Williams, as poets who allied the imagination with the American project of "democratic humanism", with Eliot & Pound, whose sense of 20th-cent. world crisis led them in authoritarian directions.

This in itself is obviously nothing new : but on the basis of this fundamental difference Kaplan provides a wonderful discernment & insight into the poets & their poetry in detail.

I think there is something valuable in the synthetic perspective offered by Kaplan, as in that of another scholar Kaplan points toward (in an appendix), & with whom he shares affinities : Michael Eskin (whose book on Mandelstam/Celan/Grunbein/Brodsky - Poetic Affairs - I just finished reading). There is something valid & useful in Kaplan's Stevensian emphasis on the centrality of the human imagination, in connection with Eskin's (drawing on the philosophy of E. Levinas as well as Mandelstam) focus on the inevitably dialogic, personal & human substance of poetry. I have a hunch there is some solid ground here for (re-)shaping a contemporary sense of the poet's & poetry's place in the world. Moreover, Kaplan's searchings into the status of imagination and personhood seem directly relevant to all the current polemics about experiment & style, making & speaking, artifice & authenticity, & what (if anything) distinguishes poetry from other arts & activities...

Wrote a poem a few years ago when I was thinking about this basic contrast (say, Eliot/Stevens). Called "Fragment from Purgatory" (published in Dove Street)


Mandelstam, by way of Michael Eskin

[posted also at Plumbline School]


In an appendix to his book Poetic Affairs (on Paul Celan, Durs Grunbein, Joseph Brodsky, and the kinship each poet shares with Osip Mandelstam) Michael Eskin deftly draws together some logical threads of Mandelstam's "Acmeist" poetics :

1. aesthetic : "Mandelstam's notion of the 'living word' ties in with the overall Acmeist endeavor to create 'an organicist poetics... of a biological nature' - a poetics predicated on biology and physiology, on 'the infinite complexity of our inscrutable organism,' and on the basic notion that a 'poem is a living organism'" [Poetic Affairs, p.139]. More than that : "The breathing, moving human body is the ultimate ground of poetry. The 'poetic foot,' Mandelstam notes, is nothing but 'breathing in and breathing out.' The poem is literally animated into existence by 'the breathing of all ages' to the extent that it is the articulation of the breathing, moving bodies of countless poets 'of all ages' [ibid.].

The image of poetry projected here is strikingly reminiscent of the ecstatic "speaking-in-tongues" event on the day of Pentecost, as described in the New Testament : poetry here is akin to the descent of the Holy Ghost, by means of which people from "all lands" begin speaking together, each in their own languages, yet mutually understanding each other.* Poetry is a physiological embodiment, shared "inscrutably" across time & space.

2. ethical : The Acmeist movement developed in the early 20th century as a dialectical response to the otherworldliness of Russian Symbolism. Eskin explains : "'Acmeism is not only a literary phenomenon,' Mandelstam notes in 1922... This new ethical force... consists first and foremost, in the reversal of the Symbolist denigration of the real, phenomenal world of the here and now... Mandelstam emphasizes the world's very reality and materiality as the Acmeists paradigm and horizon...
"A love for the here and now, for 'all manifestations of life... in time and not only in eternity' - a love for this world and this reality, for one's 'own organism,' for one's singularity, cannot fail to bear on sociopolitics. What kind of sociopolitical setup will foster and secure the possibility of this kind of Acmeist existence?... Mandelstam lays out his own sociopolitical vision:

'There are epochs that maintain that they are not concerned with singular human beings, that human beings must be put to use, like bricks, like mortar... Assyrian prisoners swarm like chicks under the feet of a gigantic Tsar; warriors personifying the power of the state inimical to the human being shackled pigmies with long spears, and the Egyptians are dealing with the human mass as if it were building material... But there is another form of social architecture who scale and measure is... man... It doesn't use human beings as building material but builds for them... Mere mechanical grandeur and mere numbers are inimical to humankind We are tempted not by a new social pyramid, but... by the free play of weights and measures, by a human society... in which everything is... individual, and each member is unique and echoes the whole.'" [ibid., pp. 139-140]

Eskin notes how this stance had consequences for Mandelstam's personal fate, & which was echoed by Brodsky in his remark that the poet "is a democrat by definition" (& here we further note the shade of Pushkin, standing behind both Mandelstam & Brodsky).

Finally, Eskin reiterates Mandelstam's supremely dialogical concept of poetry. M's famous essay "On the Interlocutor" likens the poem to a message in a bottle, set afloat on the sea toward an unknown friend/reader in the future; when conjoined with the charismatic ("Pentecostal") sense of poetry outlined above, we understand that each reader, each one of us - when we truly encounter a poem - has become the intended recipient of the message. We are conjoined - in a kinship of friendly dialogue & companionship, across the sea of time & space - with the poet in person.

[*Note : these references to the Pentecost are my own interpolations, not not discussed in Eskin's text.]


& how would I relate all this to our Plumbline?

I feel a sense of weight : of the earthly weight of material things, and the weight of lived experience. & I relate this first of all to all those dimensions of poetry which remain unspoken : the submerged portion of the iceberg, so to speak : all the overtones & undertones & inexplicable feeling-tones & hidden meanings & unknowables which help give a poem its resistance, its resonance, its own specific gravity. & further, I relate this to living specificity and particularity, that vividness and local accuracy which are part of the glory of poetry - a synthetic brilliance of referential & evocative vision : faculties of Mandelstam's "infinite complexity of our inscrutable organism." These are dimensions which weight the "middle path" of our plumbline : tied deep down in the heart of faithful utterance, Wallace Stevens' "spirit of poetry" as the "companion of the conscience." & then I think of all this as impelling the poet to strive for a poetry that can speak... like this :

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice. It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one.
(- Wallace Stevens, "Of Modern Poetry")
New posts today over at the Plumbline.


The Plumbline School is perking up a little...


Downloading HG

My poetry books are out there now as inexpensive ebooks. For the time being, you have to download Adobe Digital Editions in order to open them. This is free software. It basically provides ebooks in pdf. format, which preserves the layout (all those stanzas!) & images.