Grain of Lanthanum (for Father's Day)


On the last day of spring (already sultry
as July) I would make a little summa-
testament, for summer. As you crumble
a humble clod of earth, in memory

of your local Rome (marking its boundary)
or walk with weatherbeaten gardener around
the blackened iron fence of some New England
family plot - as you linger in the shade there

where uncut grass of tumbling gravestones
marks the locus tribes & nations meet
at end of time - all that sown wheat
of long-gone fathers (embattled Blackstones,

Lincolns, Washingtons) - there
where covenants of every hamlet find
their mirror in a lightning eye-in-hand,
primordial - you'll hear the thunder,

finally - a voice inside the thunder.
& it will be only wheat... rustling out of
the chest of that familiar gardener (whose step
you keep). The voice of your own, your only father,

gentle & kind; the voice you've forgotten
& never forget
. Coming back out of the grass
as Lazarus, or Berryman - for those almond eyes
(light brown) that call him from oasis-grotto -

from the wide wave of Union, everlasting.
Like silkworm shrouded in its tomb... like that
butterfly - a monarch-outline, light & sweet
but yellow-black - the plowman's pilot, floating


6.20.10 (Father's Day)


the stone in the well

This morning, lying on favorite couch (that looks out east porch window), getting ready to go to work, looking over notes for ongoing Lanthanum project, my thoughts about the nature and design of this poem seemed to grow more clear. About its theme & purposes. Of course I've had shifting notions about it from the beginning - sometimes clear, sometimes fuzzier - but this morning felt like a little more of a breakthrough. Curious that this would happen so soon after yesterday's post here, about the (rare) qualities of good, strong poetry - how ongoing (plot, theme, ornamental) threads sometimes coalesce, reach their acme or peripeteia.

Almost 40 years ago I wrote this curious poem, with the epigraph about a Byzantine church. & (as noted on this blog before) I think sometimes a poet will (understandably) forecast, unconsciously, future developments - a sort of embryonic "prophecy" of the themes & subject-matter to come. & this poem I think relates not only to a lot of the writing I've done since that time, but to the possible insight I had this morning about Lanthanum.

The poem (Lanthanum), as I've mentioned before, is a sort of "dream song" which emerged about an odd dream I had one night about the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, MO (a monument I've never seen, & never previously given much thought). The structure began to magnetize & collect certain themes, symbols, ideas... among them being :
- my long-term fascination with Hart Crane's poem The Bridge;
- the affinities I find (imagistic, stylistic, architectural, thematic) between Crane's poetry & the work of Russian "Acmeist" Osip Mandelstam;
- my desire to write a poem which synthesizes the American long poem's more national, "New World" impulses (in Crane, WC Williams & others) with the larger & older context of Western or world culture & traditions (as in, say, Auden, Yeats, Eliot, Pound, David Jones..., as well as Mandelstam & other Russian poets) - here the St. Louis Arch (in Eliot's birthplace) would stand for a kind of fusion of Old & New Worlds;
- a movement forward from the long poems I've already written, such as Forth of July, with its focus on the Mississippi (what the French called the "St. Louis River") - & in this context making connections with my own biography, & the whole "John Berryman", dream-song dimension;
- the desire to center this synthetic context within a certain Rhode Island (Providential) framework, where the worldview of pioneers like Roger Williams & William Blackstone - a magnanimous fusion of sacred & secular, religious & political freedom - finds its echo in the incarnational theology of Orthodox monk Maximus the Confessor (& so winds back into an affinity with the Russian poets)...

but what I sensed in particular this morning was how the poem's trajectory (& perhaps my whole 50-yr trajectory as a poet) finds itself illuminated or clarified by a single analogy : that is, the analogy between the American tradition of egalitarian political democracy (which as Tocqueville describes, grew out of New England town-meeting political independence & co-responsibility) and the theological concept of a world civilization based on a shared equality before God. In aesthetic terms, the latter has an application in the Russian Acmeist notion of "chasteness" : that is, the poet with "chaste" vision recognizes the inherent dignity & beauty of each & every unique created thing - each thing's beautiful "right to be itself". & this Acmeist vision in turn is very close to Whitman's ecstatic "democratic" celebration of the "union" of all things in creation. Thus, with all this in mind, it's possible to see how the trajectory of a nation's democratic principles & values might find their future justification in a broader, global concept of global civic equilibrium & normative world civilization - a peaceful world civil society (a new, more universal version of Dante's vision of a "Rome where Christ is Roman"). & this would be the ambitious project for a poem to remember, illustrate & celebrate.

What pleases me about this "clarification" is how it seems rooted in my longtime poetic debt to Mandelstam & the Acmeists : it shows a continuity of purpose in my writing over many years. The long poem partly rooted in both Longfellow & the Kalevala (& Mandelstam's "Karelian birches" - so close to Petersburg) circles back on its trans-American trans-Siberian, Mandelstamian-Nabokovian origins. Mandelstam's first book Kamen ("Stone"), was an anagram for Akme (in allusion to Acmeism). My first book (1979) was also titled Stone. Through this "Blackstone" vision I am reaching toward the "Akme" of a shared world worldview.


One fine day...

& then one fine day the Main Idea, the "first idea", the primal idea, the True Idea, the Only Idea (for hedgehog or fox) will swim into your ken... - the idea Walt Whitman sketched very brightly in "Song of Myself"... that is, the idea of God as character, as a character like yourself, as consciousness - that day when the surprising Creator-out-of-Nothing is revealed as Person, in the likeness of... with heart & soul & mind & strength...

& on that day everything that follows from this Thought will slowly unroll before your eyes... & you will see that Reality & Cosmos & Experience are framed for you, proportionate to you... & you will recognize (with the "chaste" eye those Russian Acmeist poets Gumilev & Mandelstam insisted upon) that the Earth is our "God-given palace", and the Heaven is our "limber, everlasting habitat", our traveling Gypsy caravan... & we are playing a part in a mighty Play... as the old wild Irish bard Yeats cried out :

Death and life were not
Till man made up the whole,
Made lock, stock and barrel
Out of his bitter soul,
Aye, sun and moon and star, all,
And further add to that
That, being dead, we rise,
Dream and so create
Translunar paradise.

& you will understand how God has arranged so that all the sacred writings & all history & all nature will be epitomized & tied up in the ineffable & unbreakable flesh-knot of a single human Person.... crowned "king" of creation... which is really the beginning (Alpha & Omega) of the crowning of you yourself - to lay all history & religion & wisdom & time & destiny & nature at your feet - you... Person... & so, like a child at last (without drugs or spells or amulets or idols) you will finally walk into God's true Kingdom, always beholding the face of your Father (& mine)...

Rarity in Poetry

Most things we say in general about poetry turn out to be wrong. Nevertheless, I'd hazard to say that, in general, to make a good poem is a rare & intermittent thing, an occasional occasion. This holds true even (perhaps especially) for scriptomaniac obsessive versifiers like me.

Now why is this so? I began thinking about this today after looking over some recent parts of a work-in-progress, & realizing that they were stronger than some other adjacent parts. I was wondering what made them stronger... & in this particular case it seemed to me that the poem itself had meshed a certain theme & a certain way of expressing it, so that it began to resonate or sing in a way that seemed to overflow or surpass itself...

- here the immediate analogy for me is music : when you hear a passage in which the various threads that have been going on in their strenuous workaday way suddenly blend together into something surpassingly beautiful or moving, surprising... that is, the various directions in which the piece was secretly moving finally reach their crux or climax - the harmony toward which they were tending all along...

& another interesting aspect of this, to me anyway, is that these superlative strong passages often (perhaps always) involve an element of recollection. That is, the piece is beautiful because, somehow, it reminds you of something you already knew or felt or heard before. There's an echo of past music (or past poetry) or something in your own memory & experience which mysteriously returns, in this work that moves you - as if something came back from the past or the dead & was, by this new work, justified (or provided with a new sense). So harmony (in part) is about emotional & intellectual (& aesthetic) resolution.

Well, these high points or strong points or poems don't happen every day. & to experience them seems to reinforce the distance between actual, discrete, achieved works of art, and all the feverish vanity & seeking & triviality & philistine noisemongering of that pervasive self-enclosed salon-world fishbowl, where we chit-chat & squabble about poets & poetry & fame & pecking-orders & po-biz in general....


Henry & ol' Bluejay

A commenter to previous post criticizes me for not being "weird enough". Have a feeling he doesn't really know much about my poetry. Note the lens of Native American & Siberian shamanism, that focuses my longest poem, Forth of July. See the syncretism of Christianity & other aspects of traditional Western culture through that lens (for an example, here's a passage from Grassblade Light, the central book of Forth of July, which was published in Jacket magazine, once upon a time. It's about "Blue-J").

Weird is as weird does. Like many a "shamanic" type (charismatic), I have to live at certain a distance from socializing (po-biz et al.), & strictly limit my daylight behavior to regular routine (i.e. I mean, going to the library every day for 25 yrs...). (I say this only partly tongue-in-cheek.)

But read it in my poetry. Not many do (they're too busy decorating the tombs of their ancestors).

Or hey... consider the "Berryman's Henry redivivus" theme. (All the way to the operatic "Hen-scratchin'-on-the-dump" Finnegans-Wakean finale to Stubborn Grew. & happy Bloomsday to you!) Oh, I'm just gettin' started with weird...


Rethinking (HG) Poetics

Having just heard this very morning about a conference at Columbia (Rethinking Poetics), I might possibly be able to attend some of it (be passing through NYC tomorrow). But just in case I can't, & because it's a quiet day here at ye olde library in ye olde Providence, I thought (& re-thought) I would do a little top-o'-th'-heading about Poetics right here, right now. A diary entry, of where we stand at the moment, lacunae & befoggeries & etc. inclusive.

As that Henry who tried valiantly to join the Rolling Stones, back in yon mythical 1970s.... & the poet Henry whose Major Cat Opusses have been for the most part ignored & dismissed by his fellows & peer cats... squirreled away & corner'd as yet he is in the fastnesses of the Rock (Rockefeller Library)... you might say Henry am the Stone the Builders Reject'd, poetickally speaking....

But all that aside... I can say my ponderous thinking rumbles & leans more & more toward an overwhelming apprehension of Personhood - of full human consciousness & sensibility & heart & soul - as the inalienable ground of Reality. Forgive me friends & fellow travelers if 1) this sounds like me repeating myself, and 2) this sounds like a truism.... all I can say is that it becomes more & more my frame of reference with relation to the purposes of Poetry (& thus my poetics). I think of this Personhood as including God - & by that I mean one of the consequences is that this Personhood within which we live & move & have our being is both individually subjective, unique, distinct, and shared, universal, objective... & I understand this is not something easily packaged & explained by logic, nevertheless I affirm it...

Can such a worldview prevail without constraining & hampering our human progress, our science & knowledge, & the objectivity thereof? I believe it can so prevail : in that the Reason which we share as a human birthright need not confuse Religious or Philosophical explanations for Scientific problems, nor will Science necessarily explain away Religion... (herein I do not wish to expound the arguments in favor of this assertion, & yet I hold it to be true...)

& here the special avenue for Poetry opens up... for Poetry is characteristically & forcefully representative of Reality as lived, as experienced... as human Drama : so that our special avenue takes a winding Turn about itself, it curves. By this I mean that Poetry is especially concordant - as dramatic personal expression - with the dramatic personal nature of history & experience in toto. This sounds, I know, like a tautology : but if you think of language as a kind of expressive limb or tool, adapted to its circumstances the way the shape of a boat is adapted to the watery element, then we can say that poetry is language adapted to the dramatic dimension of reality.

But we loiter here yet in a realm of generalities. How does all this apply (if it does) to HG's poetry, & the "poetics" of its making?

Personal.... dramatic. But I have a sense - reinforced of late by re-readings in the work & biography of John Berryman - that art & poetry are not really very dramatic as long as they remain detached from, or in denial of, their entanglements with the larger flow of world-time : of History (with regard to humanity generally) & of Memory (with regard to one's own life with & among others), & of the place where History & Memory conjoin... & of the ways we interpret - & by interpreting, shape - these things together. I, Henry, can't say what my own poetry will mean to others - only that it is those others, not Henry, who will respond to it & shape its meaning - for them, & for the future. This is not to deny my own paramount responsibility for shaping art according to my own best lights (such I would never want to deny, anyway!). It's only to say that it is in recognizing the shared nature of our time & history, that we discover the actual meaning(s) or themes of that work we are trying to accomplish. We leave a track, we make a mark... which perhaps participates in the free growth of understanding... of humankind's self-understanding... isn't this what cultural & artistic labor is about?

On the other hand, such labors will never be of much use to anyone if they don't exude a scent of original free play : if they are not of value in & of themselves, as themselves. Because this inherent value rhymes with & affirms the inherent value of all things & experience, of the universe itself. This is the artist's bond, the octave harmony, with reality as original Creation, the Dream out of Nothing...

Perhaps the crux of all this, the most interesting thing to me, is that matrix where the inexorable movement of time & History are fused with creation and free play. I see this symbolized in the ancient practices of Sabbath & Jubilee & Thanksgiving. I see this as the deepest root of the cosmopolitan global civilization - that peace on earth, that normative & ethical world civic society - the great goal toward which all the manifold labors of humanity on earth - all the terrific struggles & sacrifices - are pointing. The poet is the Maker : mixing & combining materials : & what are these materials? The matters of memory and conscience. The fond memories & memories of pain & loss, the crux of guilt & remorse, & the slow, slow soul-growth, out of self-bound greedy delusions & distractions, toward ripeness, maturity, true freedom... all these personal & dramatic testimonies (the substance of poems) which give shape to our apprehension & moral valuation of what is happening right Now - our contemporary world, the world for which we bear responsibility. In this articulation the poet holds forth self-judgement & the judgement of times & nations - held to the benchmark of that coming Jubilee.

More & more I recognize this world civilization as an expression of the human universals - borne out by & stretching beyond the concrete experience of every different nation & tribe on earth. This is why I assent, for example to Tocqueville's notion of the coming of Democracy upon the world as a sign of divine Providence : it entails the self-recognition of Everyman, of the Biblical "Son of Man" - that World-Person, that humanity, of which each of us (male & female, Jew & Greek, black & white etc. etc.) has a share in the full dignity thereof. We are living it already. There is no dividing wall, except that of the personal soul & conscience, for which in its choices & actions we bear sole responsibility; & all those choices & actions are carried out in the light of common sense, of shared universal reason & truth, & in the bond of responsibility we have, in our weakness, with the weaknesses of one another. "The high shall be brought low, & the low shall be lifted up, & all shall be made a level plain." That's the prophecy.

Now poetry can be seen in this light as the dramatic expression of the essential drama of the earth, as history unfolds - a drama which no other form of discourse can adequately model or perform. & maybe this is part of the dignity of poetry, & why cultures look to it to say what verges on the inexpressible : so that we may know it, & have it, & recognize it, & admit to it, & live it, & share it, & celebrate it. "The Word is bread & suffering", wrote Mandelstam. Or Stevens : “The whole race is a poet that writes down / The eccentric propositions of its fate.”
Deleted previous post (on Frank Kermode's book on Gospel of Mark). It had its points.... but these issues are far too deep & complex... emotional... to deal with in the rather glib & programmatic way I did there.


I think this photo was taken around 1975, in NYC, in Chris Kraemer's & Susan Soto's loft on Houston St. (the WTC outside their window)... where I stayed for several weeks (months?) before going over to London (to try to join the Rolling Stones.... !). Chris was taking photographs all over the place with his big old-fashioned b&w glass negatives... buildings, bridges, lots of portraits.... & doing carpentry & cabinet-making (with which I tried to assist a little & earn my keep)... Susan then an up-&-coming fashion designer, the loft always a beehive. (Chris & I went to high school together back in MN.)

Democracy in America

This New Yorker article by James Wood got me reading Tocqueville's Democracy in America, one of da many books I was sposed to read, way back... been on my shelf for about 30 yrs...

& it's inspiring many deep thoughts which I canna articulate at this time.... you gotta believe me... I'd like to be blogging more actively again, but many things both inward & outward push against it these days...

Pondering Tocqueville's "providential" sense of the advent of the mighty power of democracy, & in its American incarnation (& I use that word advisedly in this context). T's view stems in part from his understanding of Christianity : ie. in God's eyes all human beings a'being equal, with inalienable dignity & rights as genuine (though sinful) children of, made in the image of, same. & this spiritual (theological) equality T. sees as borne out in history by the destruction (by the power of Equality) of artificial distinctions of class & inherited social privilege, and the assumption (everyone's inherent right), by a great variety of means, of the skills, knowledge, & determination necessary for liberty. The establishment of township democracy in New England villages, based not so much on material self-interest as on a radically egalitarian set of beliefs about spiritual & civil authority (cf. Pilgrims, Puritans, Roger Williams, etc.) - all this T. understands as offering evidence of the divine shaping of human history (divine providence).

One has to try to get "inside" this theological perspective, where we are witnesses (in time) to God's "overthrowing Kings & Powers" (Rog. Wms.) on behalf of "the Son of Man". Of course such n'all had more obvious bite back when democracy was still rivaled by monarchy & other forms of autocracy, back then.... (or is it really only back then)? (I think of Melville's famous apostrophe in Moby Dick - "O Democracy!" - when he describes God grabbing old backwoods Andrew Jackson out of nowhere and throwing him on a horse to lead the new nation...)

More to come, maybe.... am just getting into first chapters. Relishing T's introduction, with its geographical sweep (North America made of 2 massive planes, one shifting toward the Arctic, the other in the vast bowl of the middle, between the 2 mountain ranges.... with the tipping point at the source of the Mississippi (originally called the "St. Louis" by French explorers), up there in Itasca, MN... I stepped over that particular brook, when I was 10 or so...)


p.s. (later) I know all kinds of intellectual dangers lurk in this direction (I mean reading theological signs in history). Such as national chauvinism, American exceptionalism... not to mention the legion of devils in the details (of practical politics).

Details like : Wall Street thieves bloated on the dough of the people; politicians conniving to throw more of it to rich & powerful & greedy special interests (be they industrialists, Masters of War, lobbyists, union bureaucrats, &, lest we forget, themselves); professional demagogues, media moguls & cynical factionalists, making a quick buck serving a coating of propaganda over real injustices & suffering; fat complacent satisfied American vulgarians, supremely content just as long as they get quite a bit more than their fair share; all the vain drones of political self-righteousness, suffocating the American earth beneath the bad breath of their yammering shibboleths & self-flattering cliches... we could all go on.... O Democracy! O Populism!

For the time being I'll just claim my valid & registered poetic license. The poetry of a culture is analogous to the memory & sensibility of an individual person. In an Augustinian sense (I guess), Time itself is a function of human memory & its intellectual/interpretive sensibility. We live in a fleeting Now; the past no longer exists, except on board the good ship Memory (Mandelstam's "funeral barge") & its truthful recall; & the future we make depends on the substantiality (or not) of that truthfulness.

At least this is one way to look at it. Then again, I'm not completely ruling out angels & time travel, either (cf. certified poetic license again). The muse of memorious poetry plays with her inheritance like a child with a toy boat (cf. Heraclitus).



It happens. I'm working on a poem. Like a lot of them lately, this one involves illness & recovery, death & rebirth. There's a bit about someone in a hospital - I mention "Room 132". (I'm thinking of Beethoven's late quartet, opus #132, the hymn of thanksgiving for his recovery from illness - among other things.) I finish the poem, & I'm so happy with it I send it off to a magazine. I pick up Berryman's Dream Songs, which I've been reading lately - flip by chance to Part III, which comes immediately after the "opus posthumous" section, & in which "Henry" comes back from the dead. There's a title on the 1st poem : "Room 231".

HG on GG

Reading Gabriel Gudding - first appeared in Critical Flame - has been published jointly by Jacket magazine.


Henry & Berryman, Berryman & Henry H.

Silence reigns at HG Poetics. Wuz happening?

Still working on long poem, Lanthanum. Rather than posting to the web, I'm sending it out in pieces to magazines.

Finally actually finished excellent Paul Mariani bio of John Berryman (Dream Song). (Must have started reading this about 20 yrs ago.) & have been delving into Berryman's work more closely.

He seems so different from me (his personality) in almost every way. Where he is tortured, I am calm. Terrible childhood, happy childhood. When he is fiery & mercurial, I'm subdued & detached. (He is "bored Henry" - I'm just... boring.) Different brands of negative capability, maybe. Where he struggles & works hard, I am complacent, lazy (everything comes easily, & always has). Well.... & he's famous, & I'm.... - might be a relation there.*

I note a few odd parallels & connections, however. Minneapolis. He lived at 33 Arthur Ave. in his last years, just a few blocks from where my parents have lived, early & late (I grew up on Arthur Street, myself). He jumped off the Washington Bridge on my grandfather's birthday, a few blocks from his house. Toward the end of his career (& life), he experienced charismatic religious experiences. This happened to me at the outset of my poetry "career." He taught at Brown briefly, a couple years before I arrived. & Edwin Honig assigned me the task of organizing the memorial reading there in his honor (1972).

& then there's the Huffy Henry factor...

*though some people might disagree with this self-assessment. My wife, for instance, would probably call me a nervous melancholic obsessive scribbler.