Pushkin & us (U.S.)

Individual poets, whatever their imperfections may be, are driven all their lives by that inner companion of the conscience which is, after all, the genius of poetry in their hearts and minds. I speak of a companion of the conscience because to every faithful poet, the faithful poem is an act of conscience. - Wallace Stevens

Have been reading interesting book on Pushkin and other Russian poets of his generation (The esoteric tradition in Russian Romantic literature, by Lauren Leighton).

Leighton explores the background in Freemasonry which, for the poets, included some knowledge & application of numerology, "cabalistics", and other esoteric codes in their poetry. She quotes Pushkin : "How fun it is to guide one's lines / with ciphers precisely row by row." & she investigates the incredibly sophisticated numerical design in Pushkin's gambling story, "The Queen of Spades". (Anna Akhmatova : "how complex, The Queen of Spades. Layer upon layer.")

But the numbers games of Pushkin and fellow poets (such as Bestuzhev, .a.k.a. "Marlinsky") were motivated not only by aesthetic "fun", but by a need for secrecy. In the early 19th century, revolution was in the air - Romantic poets (inspired by French & American models) expressed heroic aspirations for liberty, democracy, the end of autocracy.... & naturally, came up against the Czar & the secret police (cf. the Decembrist revolt, on which Leighton elaborates).

In fact, what strikes me, reading this study, is how (apparently) seamlessly knit-together were aesthetics and civics in the vocation of poet - in the poet's self- and public image. Poets were (re-)tellers of popular tales, romantic novelists, vox populi, "public intellectuals." They were also tangled up in webs of intrigue and complicity with the Czarist government, and the small (& murky) world of elite aristocracy. The oppressive might of a centralized, unaccountable government, in dialectical fashion, clarified the moral position of the liberal intelligentsia : & this continued even into the 20th century (see Mandelstam's remark - in one of his essays(?) - confirming his "sacred vow to the Fourth Estate").

I started thinking in a vague way, walking to work this morning, just how much this world of poets & literature differs from our own. Here, today, in the U.S., we tend to take political liberty for granted : the temptation is not so much in the direction of conspiracy or extremism, as toward a complacent kind of factionalism. The basic principles of government are not in question; instead, the debates are over how to apply them, and on what ethical-pragmatic-political grounds. We do not have so much a "liberal intelligentsia" as a political class, divided by party affiliation & allegiance to contrasting ideals. We have a nation polarized by partisanship, more interested in one-upping the opposition than in finding common ground. We have professional political careers maintained primarily by lobbyists & the media. Meanwhile, in poetry world, we have a sort of institutionalized "poetry class", dedicated to the idea of differentiating "poetry" as a special kind of substance and activity which requires special treatment, and distinct professional-academic institutions for its support. What is involved is a sort of abdication of the role of "poet" as free intellectual, of the poet as engaged writer.

I don't mean to assert this in order to cry "j'accuse" : I'm just as implicated in this abdication as anyone else - perhaps more so. I'm just trying to understand it. We hear the seasonal calls for more political engagement from poets and poetry : poetry should be more clear, more sincere, more virtuous, more popular. Meanwhile, in counterpoint, we have the seasonal & generational developments of special techniques & styles by means of which poetry is supposedly enabled to promote a more enlightened politics (cf., in their various ways, Language Poetry, the Cambridge School, Flarf, Conceptual Poetry...) .

Somehow I find something basic missing from both these wings of the poetry scene. Poetry is only hobbled by a dependence on either institutions or technique. Both of these approaches reduce poetry to a craft, a career, or a cabal. I tend, rather, to conceive of poetry as a gift and a spirit. The free-standing autonomy of the process of making art (& poems) is allied with imagination, a profoundly synthetic faculty of human intelligence. Yet this constellation of forces is not driven or motivated toward more autonomy (ie., indifference), but in the other direction : toward deeper participation. Here art is allied with science as free intellectual activity : and it's this essential freedom which allows art & poetry to bridge partisan divides, to question & evaluate political slogans & vested interests, to find common ground (often ironic) between supposedly bitter ideological opponents.

The kind of literary activity I am idealizing can only be developed on the fertile ground of literary tradition. We have to get beyond the knee-jerk experimentalism of the nouveau-nouveau (which is profoundly shallow & uninformed), as well as from the marketable brands of traditionalism which reduce poetry to a set of learnable skills. Poetry is a gift & a calling toward engagement. Craft is inseparable from intellect & worldview, as larger, holistic dimensions. On this basis, the dignity of poetry is something sustained by the inner, moral discipline of individual poets (integrity : Stevens' "conscience"), and granted by society at large : it is not an attribute of professional networking or social cliques.


Ars Poetica

I'm making these serial Youtube videos, reading my long poem... but I suppose I'm the very opposite of a performance artist. With a contemporary performance artist, or spoken word poet, or such, the PERFORMANCE - the video, the scene, the show - is ALL : the text is merely a script. With me, on the other hand, you have (on film) only the ghost of a text. You have to READ the poem (slowly, carefully) in order to get it. To "get" it.

Does this mean I align myself with postmodern textual obsessions, "language" games? Is the presence of the author, the speaker, displaced or disembodied or rendered ambivalent etc. by the controlling "text"? No. Rather, the text is a test, a trial, a labyrinth, by way of which everything is directed toward living, breathing, PRESENCE. It's not dissembling, it's not hermetic - it's personal. It's hide & seek. I write for readers.

Lanthanum 7.24

to John D. & Mary Ravlin Gould

As every poem is a summer sum
& every sketch a project of relations ‒
two points, united by a thread (conjunctions
of silver spider-light)... so that dove-hum

in the willow tree ‒ two mourning doves ‒
is one. Tomorrow is their 60th
(is it a diamond?) anniversary ‒ skittish
Hobo’s steadfast Mom & Dad, that is :

like one limestone outcrop in the Mississippi
whose bionic hieroglyph of layered streams
lifts up an evening stillness through time’s
wrack & roar. & tomorrow will be

another promise too, somewhere ‒ such
gracefulness engaging gravity ‒ when
limestone, sunlight, mark their honeymoon
together (near St. Anthony Falls). Watch,

then, Hobo : these unions are your own.
As every moonlit strand of Ariadne
threads through blind night its charted
labyrinth (a golden coign), so Blackstone’s

lightweight coracle is welded by an arc
of molten fire : & as the monarch wanders
point-to-point, unerring, to the high cedars
of his Lebanon (in Mexico), so the little spark

of her firefly-love will wind galactic splendor
on a spindle (at the hearth of life). So light
the leafy sprinkle from its ash-tree script...
so strong the bond of almond-eyed mandorla

(birchbark-swift). Where every sepulchre
is resurrection, & every heart immures
its grail... there, in a shady arbor in
St. Louis... or Bukovina. Near where you are.



Lanthan 7.23


& so Blackstone fell fast asleep, & dreamed
of Maximus, the Enunciator ‒ hived away
in his steep prison cell, by an azure sea.
Ninefold-more-monkish monk (esteemed

by Empress Theodora for his mellifluous
mind, his clarity ‒ his charity). It was
the articulation of a honeycomb ‒ those
bees of Queen Bea (Regina Magnanimous

in amber trireme, milky dome) made it.
All in one Netherlandish night. Curviform
like windblown home or prairie ship ‒ borne
on nine wings out of a cove (by candlelight).

& the magnetic force, the gravitational pull
of the ballast (hidden below decks, below
the water line). The centripetal prow
of that golden nine-sense, dodecagonal ‒

encrypted, engraved (with royal warning).
It was the enveloping sea, the shadow
of the Argo’s grave. It was she, of the
crow (Civitas Regis Regum Omnium) thing ‒

of the seal, of the talisman. The ravens’
meal. When the sea raved, & the sky
raged, & Jonah, shivering, readied to die...
then blackbirds flew, & a cave-voice bent

Elijah’s ear down low (where servants go).
Down to the sepulchre (its empty cup)
whence that voice (like a lotus) rises up :
gray omnipresent eminence. Fire-halo.



Lanthanum 7.22


On the eve of the vernal equinox this year
the moon drew extra-near, a super-moon. We
watched it rise over the East Side ridge, gone
round ‒ heavy cream-&-honey disk, the color

of limestone. Behind the State House dome
downtown, where we were standing ‒ by the
Masonic Temple, under the Independent Man
(Roger W.) ‒ by Veteran’s Auditorium,

where we were going. For the 11th symphony
(a veteran’s number) by that shady veteran
of Stalin’s reign (not-false Dmitri) : ironic paean
to the veterans of Kremlin Square (1905, & every

year after). One cyclone-harmonic blast (intense,
excruciating). With an octave for turtledove
in-woven like pain ‒ minor keystone of
its void (of agony). Until the last bell sounds

(at last). It must be heard to be believed.
& so the moon drew near, as spring drew nigh
as once a clay chamber became a ball of sky.
As if a shadow (under pyramids) conceived ‒

as if an image of the sun were set on earth
proportionate to recessed light. The greater
with the lesser light ‒ the joy (grief, later)
of the antiphon (of black & white). Rebirth

from death. The choir sings from its honeycomb,
its fugue, its counterpoint ‒ its pain, its counter-
pane. From depths of milkweed camouflage, where
monarchs reign (a seedy Lebanon, beyond all doom).



Lanthanum 7.21


A hint of iron spring in the backbone, like
that crook in Rififi, holding up the safe.
I am coming like a thief. Enough
will be just enough, murmurs Melchizedek.

Here’s the combo, my sweet pale
omen, my Peg in a square poulet, my
palomino. Tonight’s do or die. Pourquoi?
‒ Sez that beak of a coarse cousin, mal-

adroit (sans cinema) Corsican ‒ be
. Bees cause your gemstone-blaze
(in the pink), like a happy hearth-maze
(quattro sorelli) horsing a roundelay

under a lampshade (d’accord). You’re
sweet, villain. For now. Comme tu veux.
You’ve got visitors (in the make-up room,
ma chère). So... your trip... les jeux

sont faits. What’s happenin? The key’s
in your hand, mon idiot, mon frère
(Percy?). They looks like brother & ‒
brr! ‒ oak (some hood!). C’est ma jeune fille.

Gotta practice my style o’harmonique, Sal
(this way, spaghetto). Fleurs, masques...
C’est fini. Les jeux... ‒ the ice ‒ fast!
I forgot his number... so revoir, Mel. So

long, the whole rotten bunch of you!
L’Age d’Or’s closed, for now. Here come
that black-eyed Irish clover, strummin’ her
baobab banjo. Let the bad guys go (for now).



Lanthanum 7.20


& that Henry... who was he, again?
His shoulders ached with balancing mistakes,
with stumbling around bumping into things without
looking. On his creaky Percy-fool wagon-

agate, his waning Charlie-horse... it will take
some amount of grace to set him ever straight!
Riding his windvane like a tied-on rooster, what
with a ladder of pushpins he spun & tore a door

of cork right through that lazy bull’s tin eye ‒
like a laser eye, Polly. Go lie aft, then,
mate, on your limestone bunk ‒ sigh your ashen
anthem, lonesome Lonnie, son. Why? Tell you why.

In the parallactic shade of the negative parable
you seize your shadow in the narrow mirror,
the dim back ward. & a beam from way black
yond reminds ye of what ye was capable, Abel &

Mabel, of shaping up to be. Back in the beguine.
By the birch tree scroll of river-life, the tree-
river aforetimes, even. The script was (whee!)
predictable, Zeke (wheels!) like them radiation-

spooks daubed in the cave-lobby, by the bone-
fire (near Narbonne, Guillaume). Crystalloid
lens by (drip, drop) eddy-curls (ridiculous in
celluloid). Long Curly lashes together a lone

Blackstone soul ‒ original sod-farm, Johnny ‒ her
yellow-sweet plum’s like Xanadu manna-dew by
sock-it-to-me stony crew. Meet me in St. Louie,
Suzy, Hughie... watch her glide on in. You’ll see.



Lanthanum 7.19

to the people of Japan

This March day, dressed in grey. Hollow
melody of turtledove attends one raging
ocean of destructions. Tsunami (anguish).
Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia-flood seeps through

abandoned stony vaults. & the lovesick
poet’s flimsy heart, a frayed basket... &
that fever-priest (manic, homeless) who
sets himself on fire... brief candlestick of

guttering street flame, against what storm.
Baptized with water & with fire ‒ where is
the rock of our foundation
? voices choir...
amid such sweeping desolation. Lips form

the oval of their finis prayer (O mournful
hoopoe). There : there is the rock. The
Word. Is logos = ratio = proportion : a
portion-crumb of tears (O human imago).

We are baptized into the foaming waters
of its delta-source, straight from the rock.
Its Nile-mosaic, its covenanting ark,
its promissory arc’s rain-shrouded eyrie-

air. Its bending ligament, its last &
lasting testament, its all-encompassing
agape-argument. Its gift, its offering...
its death. Which is the death of death

itself, a last full measure of its vanishing.
Its limit-point, its form. Its grave.
For each grave is the limit of the earth.
One wave, one teardrop (harbors everything).



today's plink-plonk

Lanthanum 7.18


Blackstone, a figure for the solitary soul
sketches a synopsis for a love story. A resume
of sorts (his own). His tricksy Ariadne goes away
& leaves him with a glittering thread ‒ raveled,

tangled in a woodchip. Leading... somewhere.
Through the blind maze. A scintillant &
coruscating lifeline, like the golden ring Crane’s
father would have tossed his bursting Hart ‒ there,

under the shadow of a Mexican volcano
(mammoth earth-mound; pyramid, or tomb).
Draws him to that pine-grove’s little room
cut into rock, where the monarchs go

(defying gravity) ‒ that milkweed, milk-train,
morning trail. Blackstone’s astigmatism-
vision scratches only stick figures, clunky-
spelunky glyphs, like prehistoric spaceman

icons. An orthogonal matrix, with sunny sphere
for Shakespeare-brain... and over this, an arc,
a lens (a curvature-canoe, a rainbow-ark).
His trademark gravemarker (Osiris-bier).

He loves to draw, & he would love to draw love
into his Ariadne-armillary (armadillo-track).
Where the glittering string straightens his back
into an upright L ‒ into its almond alcove (its

refining fire). Where desire is tempered
in the habitat of mercy ‒ its just attunement
on the octave of thanksgiving, gratitude... blent
spectrum of the iris of the eye (my Ariadne-bird).



Proportion & harmony

Have been reading a lot about architecture lately. Might have something to do with the fact that ongoing poem Lanthanum emerged out of an architectural dream I had one night (about the Gateway Arch in St. Louis).

Especially Richard Padovan's great book, Proportion, and another book he translated, by the Dutch monk-architect Hans van der Laan (Architectonic Space).

Padovan bases his book on an interpretation of Wilhelm Worringer's influential 1905 book on aesthetics, Abstraction and Empathy. Very basically, the impulse of "empathy" projects the human into nature, and then models art and architecture on a reflection (an empathetic imitation) of Nature. Whereas the impulse to "abstraction" is more basic & "primitive" : humankind looks out at reality as a threatening chaos, immeasurable, and (abstract) art is a sort of escape/shelter - a means of controlling chaos through imposing order....

anyway, that's just how Padovan gets going, & organizes his review of geometry, proportion, architecture & philosophy in the West over the past 4000 yrs.... it's the opposite of the mystical-magical occult numerological "Golden Section" theorizing which has been popular...

(I'd be curious to know if Wallace Stevens read or was interested in Worringer's monograph. A lot of the modernist artists read it.)

Proportion is the key to form, whether in architecture or aesthetics generally. But do we draw proportion from nature, or impose our own orders? Padovan describes how van der Laan sets out the basic requirements for proportion (the smallest element in an ordered ratio with the whole, and with the other elements), and discovers the "plastic number" - a ratio of 1 : 1.325 (close to 3 : 4), which is proportional through a broad range of whole numbers, & thus handy for the kind of incremental design of basic structures... And this is tied in with van der Laan's very original philosophy of architecture (an "abstract" approach, in Worringer's terms) in which humankind imposes form & creates relational spaces, "homes", within the infinite & measureless continuum of natural space....

I'm finding all this very interesting, anyway, in relation to compositional & thematic aspects of poetry... & I am trying to connect it with other not-so-architectural dimensions of Lanthanum....

like the theological musings on the status or ontology of the human Person.... Maximus, & all that. A trinitarian, incarnational theology sets up a relational situation, a kind of family kinship or resemblance, between God & Man, Father/Son & Spirit.... so to make it possible to unite the notion of "Man is the measure of all things" ("I say unto you, the Son of Man is coming at the right hand of Power"... Jesus says somewhere) - but not in a disproportionate, arrogant stance : rather in proportion with the other Persons of the trinity.... the Image and the Substantial....

More later, maybe. There's a connection in all this with my Mandelstamian & Acmeist leanings. OM's "domestic hellenism" is about the Word as an architectonic that "humanizes" the earth, makes it fit to dwell in.... Gumilev's "chaste vision" is an embodied kind of sense of proportion & harmony....


- & having digested as best I can the great syntheses in Padovan's multidisciplinary work (Proportion) - science, philosophy, architecture - I find my response is a sense of mystery, a recognition of the limits of human knowledge.

The book itself is really built like a large structure, a cathedral... on the simple ground of an essential contrast : between 1) the empathetic/Platonic attitude - which finds its human reflection in the (numbered) order of Nature, & understands human intellect as a union (or reunion) with the order of nature - rooted in memory (the mind as a blank slate on which impressions appear); and 2) the abstract/Aristotelian stance, which recognizes a fundamental break between inside and outside, human and natural, & understands the intellect as inherently active, formative, creative : what we know is what we make. Padovan shows how these fundamental stances return as leitmotifs through Western history : so the development from Locke to Berkeley to Hume exhibits a sort of dead-end for both empiricism and idealism - until Kant reasserted the human mind itself as formative agent of nature, experience, reality...

Padovan returns & grounds these abstract heights of western thought to the most basic & primitive human activities (building, shelter), by connecting a notion of the human intellect as active, form-creating (out of Aristotle & Kant), with van der Laan's sense of architecture as the basic human building-impulse. We know what we make, and what we make is a separate living-space (by way of walls) within the infinite space of nature : and in doing so setting up a ratio or proportion between the measured & the immeasurable, the inside & the outside.

Again, though, what I come away with from this reading is a sense of mystery, of the limits of knowledge per se. Because I understand the fundamental contrast - between Plato & Aristotle, idealism & empiricism, number & irrational space - as irresolvable on a purely intellectual or epistemological or abstract level. For me, all this is Athens : there is another & greater binary or contrast at play : with Jerusalem. As I understand it, the dimension represented by "Jerusalem" is the Hebraic-Christian understanding of personal, subjective consciousness & existence as the very marrow of reality : life. We live in an irreducible, inalienable cosmos of Persons : and the true proportion which maintains all life (which "created" the cosmos) is based not on knowledge or mathematics, but on love. This is the mediating "song of the turtledove" which is heard in our land (Song of Songs, which is Solomon's - the figure of wisdom).

Thus we inhabit, yes, something architectonic - filled with "number, weight & measure" - but also something more than architectonic, more than abstract, more than is found in your philosophy, Horatio. We participate in a fundamentally dramatic occasion : life on earth, life in the universe. A life rooted in kinship with one another, with relationship, with persons : where the ultimate harmonies & proportions are transposed to the ethical sphere, to the dimensions of love, to the plummet of the human heart.


Hart Crane's The Bridge is suffused with, & structured by, something like this kind of "dream-architectonics." I think my daughter Phoebe's photo on the cover of Lanthanum (taken from a bridge over the Mississippi, a few blocks from my parent's house - both sides of the family have lived in this area for 3-4 generations) evokes this dream-sense too.