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").

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