Rapture & Poetry

My time is still unbounded.
And I have accompanied the rapture of the universe
As muted organ pipes
Accompany a woman's voice.

- Osip Mandelstam, trans. by James Greene

Until today (the day before the predicted Event) I haven't paid any attention to all the yap about The Rapture. It seems to be of more (comic) interest to the irreligious gabbosphere, than to soi-disant "people of faith."

One way to think about some statements of Jesus in the Gospels about the Day of Judgement, and what is called "the Rapture" (ie., to paraphrase : keep watch : no one knows when the end is coming : "on that day, one will be taken, and one will be left behind" etc.), is that they fall within a general Gospel/Biblical emphasis on a distinction between soul & body, spirit & flesh, invisible & visible, heaven & earth, eternity & time. Contrary to prevalent stereotypes - most of them originating with Christian monastics & preachers themselves - this distinction, in both Judaism & Christianity, is just that : a distinction, no more no less. It does not mean a denigration of the earth, the body, the visible, the flesh, etc. All these things from the latter half of the equation are to be accepted with joy & gratitude as gifts of the Creator. What the emphasis on this distinction of Spirit is meant to do is to restore the balance : to bring humanity back to spiritual wholeness & health, in a world overwhelmed by the fleeting & changing things of "this world." Thus the reminder of an End-Time - & the focus on individual alertness & awareness (ie. "let your loins be girded", for "one shall be taken & one left behind") - is again a kind of memento mori, and a reminder of the nearness (though invisible) of the "kingdom of heaven."

This is just one way (a low-key, common-sense way) to approach what is implied by the "Day of Judgement" exhortations in the Gospels. But I want to foreground this distinction (earth/heaven, body/spirit, visible/invisible) as an entry into what follows. I want to talk a little about poetry and "rapture". Osip Mandelstam points toward this theme, in the stanza above - from a late poem, written (not long before his final trip to Siberia & death) after listening (from exile in provincial Voronezh) to a recording of Marian Anderson, singing gospel music on Moscow Radio. Poets - in their visionary, enthusiastic, prophetic, charismatic, shamanic modes - have been associated with "raptures" from the beginning of time (isn't rhapsode a name for "poet" in Greek?). Plato memorably contrasted the "reasonable" discourse of the philosophers with the Muse-inspired, unpredictable flights of poets. The ancient kinship between poem & oracle was a cross-cultural given. What is involved here is the charisma of possession - of the in-coming of the God, the Divine, the Spirit : of a somatic/intellectual experience which transports the poet into a "harmonic" state, resulting in song : the expression, the narration of the holistic, visionary experience itself : Mandelstam's "rapture of the universe." We are reminded here of the apostle Paul's account of his sudden transport to "the third heaven" (ie. above the clouds, and also beyond the stars), where he saw things he could not put into words; and of Dante's journey to Paradise with Beatrice (which explicitly adumbrates Paul's confession). These are what you might call canonical examples in the history of "rapture." They are akin as well to the Gospel episode, when the disciples witness Jesus' Transfiguration - standing on the hill with Elijah and Moses - from earthly man into heavenly being.

Many people - maybe everyone, really - have experienced, at one time or another, brushes with the inexplicable : the uncanny, the marvelous, the serendipitous, the wonderful, the mysterious... the spiritual, the numinous, the holy. Encounters or events which one cannot (or will not) reduce to some rational explanation or verbal equivalent. For the rare saints & holy people among us, ordinary life, whatever it brings, is perhaps transformed into the "bread & wine" of spiritual understanding : for the rest of us, most of the time, we're O.K. if we can just stave off trouble & get through another day....

But I've had my share of such rare & extraordinary experiences. Some of them have profoundly shaped the direction my life has taken. As I've written about before - when I was about 20 yrs old (in 1972-3) I underwent a series of seismic psychological events - uncanny, charismatic experiences - which seemed to mingle faith, vision & poetry. As a result I was shaken out of my practical life and rational pursuits : I dropped out of college for three years; I hitchhiked around the country (& England) in a kind of cloud of pondering & meditation on the mystery of things. & in a sense I have never stopped seeking that understanding : in 1973 I was brought up short by a kind of rational enigma, which spurred my curiosity about metaphysical, spiritual things. But I misrepresent what I went through, if I narrate this as merely some sort of gnostic search for occult knowledge. It was really an experience of being moved & changed in the heart of my personality : morally & emotionally as well as intellectually. My life was changed.

One of the consequences of this - & because what I went through was all tangled up in my mind with my sense of myself as a poet, with a literary vocation - was that I was unable to return to academics & the pursuit of a career in a "normal" way. I felt I had been through something which no teacher or classroom could explain to me; moreover, I felt motivated to find a way to express what I was "seeing" & learning directly in poetry. Poetry, vision & experience seemed irreducibly entwined. And I think at least one part of the reason I've worked at a kind of low-level job in a library for 25 years, is that I needed that independence from any kind of "worldly" demands on my ability to express things in poetry. I couldn't teach writing, I couldn't study or pursue an academic degree in a "sensible" way, because the intellectual & vocational responsibilities involved would be more than I could bear. (I realize there might be other, less charitable ways of evaluating such diffidence on my part. I'm sure there are many sides to it - "character issues"... I'm explaining just one of them.)

But setting aside the autobiographical vein : what I mean to suggest is that these extraordinary events - these strange spiritual promptings (nudgings?) - have provided me food for thought now for a long time : a food which has never run out. & over the past few weeks & months I've sensed a sort of integration in my mind, of longstanding notions & new researches - connected with the long poem I've been struggling with (Lanthanum). Integration, synthesis... it's a sense of certain ideas becoming substantial, & harmonized with each other, so that they provide a sort of confirmation, a weight or substance, which I can carry around with me... in a state of mild rapture & joy!

This is really not easy to explain without degrading it in the process. I've been searching for images & rational analogues of something at the root of the poem (Lanthanum), which was an unusual dream I had a few years ago about the Gateway Arch monument, in St. Louis. I've been reading about architecture (Padovan, Proportion; Van der Laan; Smith, The Dome). I've been reading various things on the literature of the Holy Grail (Gemstone of Paradise by Murphy was especially interesting, as was an old book by Helen Adolf, Visio Pacis). I've been reading some theology, especially the Byzantine church father, Maximus the Confessor. I've been reading some physics & cosmology. From these & many other books I've been drawing nourishment, I think, for a sort of productive way of seeing, or way of understanding things in general. & out of all this there was not a single "Eureka!" moment - but a kind of drawn-out, successive, gradual, gradually-expanding & growing & strengrthening E-U-R-E-K-A !-sense... a real "rapture of the universe", as Mandelstam put it.

How can I say it? I can't. I've been trying to say it & express it & sketch it out in the Lanthanum sequence & other poems. But since tomorrow's supposed to be "The Rapture," let me on this special occasion try to articulate my own intellectual joy-glee-rapture as I seem to feel it & see it.

Murphy, in his book on the grail, sets himself the task of explaining why the poet Wolfram von Eschenbach (in Parzival) describes the grail as a "stone." He explains how the tomb of Christ was considered to be carved out of stone - to be a rock tomb. He explains that the Church began sanctifying portable eucharistic tables, so that pilgrims & soldiers could receive Communion even away from churches proper. These tables were little boxes or stands, made out of stone & gems, beautifully designed, with small hollow sections - miniature replicas of the Holy Sepulchre - which held the sanctified eucharistic bread (Christ's body). He shows how Wolfram's descriptions of the grail seemed based on such portable eucharistic containers - Murphy even discovers a specific box (in a museum in Bamberg, Germany) which he believes may have served as Wolfram's model.

The implication of these affinities is that the grail is equated with Christ's eucharistic Body : which itself (the eucharist) stems from, is part of, the body of Christ himself (in the Sepulchre, and resurrected on Easter). The Sepulchre today rests under a domed building in Jerusalem. Domical structures (as Smith relates) are a very basic & global figure for the human "home" (being a microcosmic representation - from nomadic tent structures to Hagia Sophia - of the "dome of heaven" arching over the earth). Thus we have the image of the mortal/risen Man/God - Jesus - located in the symbolic "center of the earth" (Jerusalem) - beneath the microcosmic dome-home - & replicated in a portable eucharistic "grail", available to anyone who seeks it.

Thus far we are discoursing on symbolic-religious symbols (which, taken by itself, could be criticized, I suppose, as a species of mystico-antiquarianism). So let me try to explain how I understand a sort of philosophical analogue or parallel to these symbols. And I want also to try to relate all this to poetry.

I think the human mind & imagination have an inborn orientation toward understanding. The discipline of science subjects this drive, this orientation, to the demands of analysis, experiment & proof : but the drive itself - to understand - came first. The mind - the imagination - is synthetic : aiming for wholes, for completeness, for the integration of disparate facts & experiences. The urge to wonder seems primordial to me : and what it answers, what it responds to, is an awareness of the basic difference between nothing and something. The vast universe - something - stands against nothingness, non-existence. I remember pondering these things in adolescence - but it probably starts in childhood : wondering, questioning the origin of life, of the universe.

Further, I think there is a basic consequence of this original human wondering, which is a state of what used to be called "natural piety". It is a deep and mostly-unconscious gratitude for being : an attitude of thanksgiving for the joy of mere existence, of being-alive. Of course, many things (we all know them) work to crumble & debilitate this attitude of gratitude : but this doesn't mean it's not still lurking there, beneath all our fears & disappointments. It is too basic, too primordial, to be destroyed.

Now let me try to pull some of these threads together toward some sort of conclusion. Here's what I say : the true "holy grail" is a kind of portable state of awareness. An awareness of what? A sense of an underlying harmony. What is this harmony? It is a harmony of proportion : a proportion (ratio, logos) between the human & the divine, between humanity & God. In a stance of gratitude. Gratitude stemming from an awareness of the "createdness" of the visible universe : of something born out of nothing. And not only that : but also gratitude stemming from an awareness of this central proportion itself : that human persons - in the "architecture" or "ecology" (the dome) of their lived lives on earth - represent visible images of divine Personhood. The earth, as Mandelstam, put it, is a "mansion" - & we are "God's grateful guests". This is a very basic (& fairly traditional) insight - shared by another Petersburg poet, Gumilev, & by Anna Akhmatova : it was part of the "chaste vision" of the Acmeist poetic project of the early 20th century. On this most simple foundation of gratitude or thanksgiving, the whole normative structure of civilization is seen to be constructed. It is stated most clearly in the Gospels, when Jesus explains that all the law & commandments hang on two basic commands : "To love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind & strength, and what is like unto it, to love your neighbor as yourself." This is the core activation of the most basic sense of faith in a divine or metaphysical or dream or dramatic order of cosmic reality : this is the "bread & wine" of the poetic vision of the universe - its "rapture." Under the estrangement of time, and change & mortality, this is the promise of a kind of Easter metamorphosis : a resurrection of the mind & spirit through a mysterious Approach of living Consciousness - the dramatic victory of "sacred history" - its epic plot, you might say - its "divine comedy" : the victory of spirit over matter, of immortality over death. This, you could say, is what Mary Magdalen "saw" when she found Jesus - "the gardener" - near the empty tomb. In another late poem, Mandelstam put this kind of deep rapture into words again, a poem which is one of my all-time favorites (translated here by Richard & Elizabeth McKane). The "clarity of a concept" - this is it.

To Natasha Shtempel


Limping against her will over the deserted earth,
with uneven, sweet steps,
she walks just ahead
of her swift friend and her fiance.
The restraining freedom
of her inspiring disability pulls her along,
but it seems that her walking is held back
by the clarity of a concept :
that this spring weather
is the ancestral mother of the grave's vault,
and that this is an eternal beginning.


There are women, who are so close to the moist earth,
their every step is a loud mourning,
their calling is to accompany the resurrected,
and be first to greet the dead.
It is a crime to demand kisses from them,
and it is impossible to part from them.
Today angels, tomorrow worms in the graveyard,
and the day after, just an outline.
The steps you once took, you won't be able to take.
Flowers are immortal. Heaven is integral.
What will be is only a promise.


Lanthanum 8.9


New England fog shrouds a founder’s promontory
in delicate gray-green quiet. Moist light,
kind to the eyes. Prospect Terrace : height
of land above forgetful traffic (lethal, desultory).

Benign stone Roger leans from his avant-canoe.
Lifts hopeful beneficent hand... mimes the blind
seer’s foresight (insight). What’s in the mind
of Providence this morning? What borne anew

out of this misty-rusty matière, downstream
from piney swamp to Delta confluence?
Sign of the seal of the human arch : immense
message parked in a rushing homing pigeon’s light-

beam coda. Government be upon his shoulder,
warbles a sere Nazir : the servant-gardener,
the burden-carrier, kindly Samaritan : where-
ever two or three are gathered together
... &

where you must go, I shall go too... these
are substance of a dovecȏte-code. Now I hear
the mournful drone of the milk train coming ‒
where the delta mingles Memphis garbage-boys

& the low hum of harmony of things. Matrix
of all unacknowledged goodness... sweetness
deep down there, Gerard (by George). Just
is. Who finds a footnote (horseshoe, asterisk)

(Aaron’s budding divining rod) will frame the
nonsense of those mumbling lips’ menorah-
tree. A metamorphosis of monarchs’
flight... limestone river-tomb burst into flame.



Lanthanum 8.8


Unseasonable cool of this Providence weather.
Relentless gray clouds riding like the sea
against Labrador cliffs (far north, remote). If
we could dive, like Jonah, through the quicksilver

substance ‒ this galactic dream-stuff (through
this curtain of mirrors)... if we could ponder
the formula, like a thirsty Maximus, deeper
& deeper, to the quintessence of truth... &

say it ‒ where the 32 and the 1 make a perfect
33... through the cloud-shimmer of bass chords,
high notes... the whole 88 ‒ then that primordial,
irreducible Whatness would be... the actual Subject

of the Poem (the regal Word, the living One).
& it would be a Someone in disguise ‒ Peter
on tour ‒ paisan, gardener, ever-loving father-
brooder... shady Melchizedek (his bread & wine).

* * * *
* * * *
* * * *
* * * *

It would be a version of yourself, a shadow
of you : the greater portion of the Great
Proportion ‒ snowy mantle of the ratio.
A you made perfect lovingkindness (how

I do not know). As when a loving father
turns back to his child with a radiant look
to help him along the fearsome path he took
himself, long ago... here it is ‒ the farther,

farthest, deepest gate, my son, my son... &
out of the cold limestone & the rocky tomb
you emerge, Lazarus, Jonah, JB ‒ home at
last amid garden air... the eyes of Magdalen.



Lanthanum 8.7

i.m. Bernard Greenhouse

The dogwood’s white cascades, under cool gray skies
like a mantle of foam across the terraced branches
‒ a petal-waterfall, or flocks of small white doves
that drift (as if one thought) on the evening breeze.

This shapely tree gives the suggestion of a dome
or movement of a cello, or a sturdy Greenhouse
(wrapt about his Countess). Where the whispers
of the sounds are born ‒ in young leaves, at home

on high. Only the bright thread of a glissando
lathed on a painful knot ‒ low note, Ruby ‒
rubato now, legato. It is the law of to be
or not to be
‒ the covenant with sorrow, Micky...

Alessandro... Absalom (my son, my son).
The everlasting boy is rabid for the sceptre,
now ‒ the crown of righteousness, the scimitar
of justice (make it right!). Roland, his chanson

for Charlemagne. & who will wear the crown?
Jason’s chasing Ariadne through the labyrinth
forever... lust & revenge pile up the plinth
of a putrid catafalque. The doves are gone.

On an almond retina, their silent flight, into
gray twilight of a late-born spring. She is
your alloy of steel, bumpkin; your mosaic law
woven hidden in the wave... your Sheba-rescue.

Who is, was, always there. Like that tiny figure
(Rex Artus) threaded through the iconic mish-
mash of a tall window (Otranto). Yon wished-for,
once & future tolling surf (étoile Jeanne d’Arc).


Lanthanum 8.6


When Hobo finds himself in rehab (a kind of harbor,
built on hardy cross-braced beams of honeycomb-
light) he makes a marvelous recovery, some-
how : harbinger of things to come. His neighbor

in the adjoining cave (one Lazarus, a gardener
from Lazicum) has seen it all before
but every time he wonders all the more. He
taps a whisper through the wall ‒ Did you see her,

Hobo? She saw you
. Who? Madeleine,
your steadfast friend. Came each day, to wait
& watch beside your bed. Maybe you’ll celebrate
Thanksgiving with her after all
. Thanks, cave-man,

mumbles Hobo (to his wall of stone). I’m still
in fragile health
, he thinks (132 ailments just
now under his belt) yet healed I am, trust
me. Am hale & whole... one life left to fulfill

The hospital (St. Magdalene) was planted in a park
one sabbath-day, once long ago (the specific date
no one remembers). From his bed, the late
reprobate looks out the window, tracing the arc

of a swallow’s flight : a bird built for the sky,
he thinks, as I was shaped for the clay.
Soon enough it will be Memorial Day
he sinks toward sleep again. Never to die,

never to die
... he watches his mother whittle
a baby boat for little Frisbee the leprechaun, &
letter its name on the bow (Sophie). Someone
will find it
, she says to him - someone very far...




Imagine you hiked up a song-path, pilgrim
following the beeline of a pearl-gray lamb’s-
wool cloak. Your GPS (like an eye-in-palm)
her phantom form ‒ one of the seraphim.

Into a crystal cave ‒ mouth of stalagmites,
candlelit. Night beehive, star-dome ‒
underground. Where dreams come from,
and memory... a jumble of anthracite

riven with iron threads. & she leads you on
as if blindfolded, like a magnet ‒ & you hear
the rustle of an unknown stream, somewhere
out of your own past (far-seeing, unforeseen).

It is an everlasting realm, she whispers,
turning halfway round ‒ where you were
before you were
. A crystallographer
might understand : this crypt of aquifers,

this sky beneath a tomb (of petrified wood)...
& then I saw the petroglyphs, the writing
on the wall. Just one stick figure, hovering
beneath one dented arch ‒ an O for head,

an M overhead ‒ sketched with a crayon
of scarlet fire (edged with maroon & plum).
What does this mean? I whispered. Thumb-
print of an almond stem
, she murmured ‒ one

burnt bud about to flowe
r. From the dark baobab
of joy ‒ under the streambed where we followed,
singing. Then I turned too ‒ beheld the cave-
mouth burst with light... muttering Rahab, Rabbi...


Lanthanum 8.4


This patchwork poem could never be the whole
for which it was the hoped-for, hopeless emblem
‒ yet the Gateway Arch, that lofty steel amalgam
planted one night in my sleep, is just a symbol

too. For something greater, yet less visible;
more actual & omnipresent; ungraspable
except by some unmerited mercy, unpredictable.
Your own lambent grail ‒ a beehive vestibule

(mindful, heartfelt). The proud, the cold
cannot approach that fiery source (so near,
so quiet, listening) ‒ their hearts not here,
not there. Close by... shading a foretold

epitaph ‒ tattooed onto that breathing cenotaph
(carved across th’embarkèd lid of an amber
mandorla-circumference). Melek or Malakh or
Molokha-Regent, Prince du Mille Lacs or Laughing-

Water-Duchess ‒ borne away (bear with me) on
a barge (near White Bear Lake, upper Mississippi).
Toward your own delta of displaced memory,
the ripple-texture of the stream (up, down)

& the ragged willow branch that plows, unfazed,
against the current (knots of driftwood, flotsam,
slipping past)... its creaky-curving arm
in a gentle bend over the riverbend. Dazed

by its flickering implications, the summer sunlight
in a radiant matrix, moving with the water...
Love’s little ensign-sepulchre or Frisbee-spider
scoots for shore. Ridgeline. Cahokia sunset.



An Amateur Defense of Poetry

What follows has no footnotes, no scholarly apparatus. Just my own faulty memory and groundless, amateur speculations.


When did poets begin writing "defenses"? My guess is that Philip Sidney's was one of the first, in Elizabethan England, around 1600. The Renaissance (or post-Renaissance) was in full swing, the Reformation was underway, the Enlightenment would be arriving soon. The Middle Age of faith was giving way to the Modern Age of reason & science. Prose was splitting off from poetry. Prose leaned toward facts, practical utility, rational argument, scientific evidence and explanation. Poetry leaned toward Art & Beauty (in caps), toward the emotional life, the life of the spirit, toward everything that could not be quantified & examined with objective detachment. The "defensive" stance, signaled by essays like Sidney's, represented a reaction against new pressures brought to bear on the traditional role of the poet-as-seer, as bearer and enunciator of ancient & communal knowledge - an immediate kind of understanding, outside the frameworks of rational argument or scientific proof. & I would say the division, the polarization, between the rational & the poetic approaches came to a head, was crystallized, in the shift from the discursive rationalism of the Restoration poets, to the imaginative vision of the Romantics (epitomized & defended perhaps most stoutly by Coleridge & Blake, with some help from Wordsworth).


But why does any of this matter now? The Romantics were a long time ago. Modern and Postmodern thought found other & seemingly more relevant ways to challenge any simplistic versions of rationalism or scientific positivism. But perhaps that is the crux of the problem. Poets have relinquished the debate to philosophers, physicists, biologists, commentators, theologians... to everyone except themselves. A defense, then, would have to involve a re-assertion, a new expression, of the cultural-intellectual authority of poetry. & poets themselves are variegated into all sorts of distinct groupings based on style, or on poetic theory, or by specific ethnic-cultural-historical-linguistic identifications. Often it is claimed that there is no such thing as poetry, only poetries. An intellectual defense such as I am suggesting, then, sounds like a tall order.


There will be no "return to Romanticism." But there might possibly be a return to something more venerable than the Romantics : a sense of poetry as matrix of cultural understanding, as source of vision. It seems to me that there are ways to step tentatively in this direction, from various points on the circumference. So here I will toss around a few hunches in that regard.


We could start by thinking of poetry as a kind of living monument or textual distillation of a culture's language. This is not a popular notion in these times. The focus today is on the immediacy of vernacular engagement : people find odious the idea of poetry as a kind of textual crypt of language. Yet something in the back of the mind nags every real poet like a guilty conscience : the language we speak is objectively beautiful; thus poetry ought to build lasting containers, expressions, exemplifications, of that language. Poetry ought to seek both the exquisite & the necessary - the best verbal equivalents of both experience & thought.

But to accept that challenge is to be confronted with considerably difficult consequences : for it means that new (or perhaps old) thematic demands are applied to poets & poetry. The "beauty of language" is not just sound-music, not just elegant wit & ornamentation. There is also the profound dimension of meaning & thought - forsaking which, poetry has already relinquished any claim to cultural authority.

To meet these demands, however, poetry brings to bear some surprising strengths. Because a poem is a kind of playful, seemingly-purposeless end-in-itself, it is capable of modeling the ends of things : forms, shapes, distinct entities, in their particularity, their integrity, their wholeness : in their identity as ends. The integrity, the self-fulfillment of things is echoed, modeled, sanctioned by the harmonious, inherent integrity of poems. This is a specific kind of verbal modeling (Aristotle called it mimesis) which is peculiar to poetry.


For Blake & Coleridge, Wordsworth & Whitman, Keats & Dickinson & others, poems are the verbal distillation of human acts of imagination. Imagination is a specific faculty, a power of the human mind : essentially a power of invention & synthesis. The human power of invention is likened (especially by Coleridge) to a supernatural creative Power (the origin of reality itself, as a cosmic whole, in the divine "I Am"). The problem that these Romantics had with the rationalism of the Enlightenment (Voltaire, Rousseau, Locke, et al.) was what seemed to them a split between mind & heart, mind & soul, mind & spirit - between the reasoning, analyzing, abstracting mind, & the inspired imagination - its "sacred" representations of the whole of life, of life as wholeness.

The modern development of free-standing scientific rationalism, as the centerpiece of human thought, meant the inevitable sidelining of the imagination, and hence of the purpose of poetry and the role of the poet. These are, of course, far from new ideas! But I think they represent the fundamental cause for the essentially ornamental & trivial social status of poetry in the contemporary world. It is, in sum, a question of two things : 1) the growing alienation of poets themselves from a sense of poetry as a distillation of the best (most memorable) language of their culture; and 2) the historical shift from imaginative (verbal) modeling of truth, to its rational analysis & (mathematical) verifications.


Is it possible today to counter these two trends - to rebuild, in a new mode, some of the intellectual confidence of, say, a Blake or a Coleridge? Many poets, in very distinct ways, have certainly made the effort. My own sense is that there is no method, no workable approach built on rational discourse or stubborn will-power. I think back, rather, to Wallace Stevens' notion, expressed in many of his poems & prose "adagia", that individual written poems are merely traces of something larger, more pervasive - some "poetry" inherent in the marrow of life itself. Poetry is thus some mysterious yet basic aspect of "nature" or of the human, which comes to the fore by its own power - the faculty of imagination somewhat in Coleridge's sense. The human mind synthesizes experience - its ultimate or "authorized" expression - not in discursive prose tracts nor in mathematical formulae - but in poetic invention, the insight of the human imagination, the vision of the whole, the All (though of course poetry - being pervasive - is also visible, lurking, active, in prose & science & mathematics too).


& I predict that as historians, anthropologists, archaeologists & scientists persist in digging through the deep layers of human origins and the history of the planet, they will discover more & more evidence of the imaginative leaps of the human mind, which have emerged even in prehistory, to visualize & foresee amazing, "incredible" phenomena of the future (the vast, galactic, cosmic future), which we today find difficult to conceive or conceptualize.


Lanthanum 8.3


The frail ancient splintering dogwood over my head
(with its iron band-aid) leafs its white lightning now;
has been with me, swaying above me, bough on
bough. Steadfast curve, sky-rib’s brisk veer aft

toward homestead (victory at last). Unspoken
presence. Longing’s compass. My voice whispers
ash down from another tree (sea-green conifer) &
yet another (almond mandolin). Gray wind-token, or

memoir of memoirs. The song-turtle (its gypsy-dom)
dove deep. The turtle dove deep. Dove deep,
Jonah ‒ into the blind sea-night, where moon-pearls
keep, & gemstones shine like eyes, stars... dove

home, sang home. Its mark, its Orient (bull’s-eye).
Home in its shell at the center of the earth
(Jerusalem). Whose bending womb was berth,
Jerusalem : a-traveling home (nostalgic guy

in Babylon, who’s gal’s in Galilee). The creaking
murmur of this familiar tree ‒ my friend, my
pining amber (sap-glow in the cosmic dark). Why
seven years of waiting, Rachel? My heart breaking.

Why this menorah, shining fifty more long years?
To make an anthem for our wandering land.
Was it not we that wandered, Ruth? I’ll stand
beside you
. So the song filled up with tears.

So the voice came from bottom of the sea
& height of sky; its sounding laughter
only echo of a secret smile (my daughter).
Eyelash semaphores dove, alight... look, see.



Lanthanum 8.2


A baby half-moon (pale, spooked) winks up there
behind a wispy pane of clouds. Centered just
over the Mayday dogwood ‒ its phosphorus
petal-crosses branched in flaring armada-

wings, like Inca footbridges (through shady
Andes). Not the stringy spans themselves
but sign language (quipu for crossing over).
Toward that aerie, dove, darker than any

Crystal Cave, loftier than Milky Way;
through the posh, lost bole of a cosmic
cranium, abaft the train-hoot of a tragi-
comic orb (half-&-half confusion-whorl).

These are some of the advantages
of standing on earth. At confluence
of physicists, them calibrated dalliance
(haruspicatin’ on a livid prune). Plumbs

a mental multiplex, sans doubt. I wonder
if they vegetate too much? Unhealthy
habits ossify braincells, somebody
sermonized this morn (on the radio)

and it’s not like they don’t know what they’re
on about
, reports BBC. Hey folks! There’s
money in know-how
! proclaims Spokes-
person Numero Tweetie ‒ pure air

for sale
! Yet the moon is loaded with dust,
noted rotten prophet. Iz not for sale
. & we keep walking toward that hail
of atoms, Josh ‒ wh-why? Moon or Bust.



Odd High Formalism

As the talking wheels of American Poetry World wring their hands over various issues (including hand-wringing), and gaze up at the unanswering blue sky crying "whither Poetry?" and such, I would like to outline, briefly, my prediction - not prescription, but prediction - for the general shape of the future, based on the general shape of the past. The past and future of American poetry lies with OHF, or Odd High Formalism.

Not "New Formalism," a 90s movement which called for a return to formal rhyme and meter and received forms (sonnets, sestinas, etc.). The generally reactionary attitude of that trend inhibited more profound experiments with form : as long as we went back to the good old tennis net so sadly neglected since Robert Frost's day, poetry would revive... no.

Nor do I refer to the formalism of the professional avant-garde, primarily represented by the descendants of the NY School, the Language Poets, and various offshoots of experimental Modernism. The formalism of these groups was terribly overshadowed by two influential & contradictory notions drawn from 20th-century philosophy and "theory," namely : 1) reality is constituted by language, and 2) language does not, cannot, really represent or refer to anything outside itself. It's not hard to see where such ideas might lead with regard to poetry : straight into very formal but also highly-mannered self-enclosed & solipsistic literary entities ("language poems" & such).

The perceived ailments & frailty of contemporary American poetry - it's academic effeteness, its anemic detachment from the larger, living world, its introverted fishbowl solipsism & narcissism, its loss of a public audience & the ordinary reader, etc. & so on - might be remedied by a clearer recognition of the main tradition in American poetry, which is none other than... Odd High Formalism.

What is the nature of Odd High Formalism? Here I can only sketch its main elements in a minimal way. Perhaps the best way to understand OHF is to consider the kinship between poetry, music, and public dancing. An era's leading styles of social dancing are paralleled in its poetry. A generation ago, in a series of books, Alastair Fowler analyzed the design properties of Renaissance poetry - combining number mysticism, seasonal or calendrical measures of time, the occasional thematics of major holidays, public events or persons. Poems were shaped to mimic the stately, ceremonial movements of social dancing. Think, on the other hand, about today's social dancing styles : mostly anarchic wiggle, bump & jump. & though fancier, more formal dancing seem to be making a comeback, it is still mostly limited to individual dancing couples, rather than the elaborate group dances of the past. And anarchic wiggle & hop seems like a pretty fair description of the formal approach of much contemporary poetry.

The poet launches into the poem : the audience or reader has no idea where it's going in a formal sense. It's free, it's experimental... it's of the moment, it's raw, it's real... these are the current values. Poetry wants to blend in with the prosaic activities of the world around it. It wants to be liked for blending in. But it will never be liked on this basis : it will only be held in slight contempt. Odd High Formalism accentuates poetry's difference from prose and ordinary life, by lifting its intricate and elegant formalities to another, higher, more intense dimension. Not a dimension of obscurity or elitism : rather a realm of highly-articulate order and elegance. The world of hip-hop and rap is closer to the ancient and Renaissance sense of poetry than anything being produced by the mainstream poetry factories. One may reject the hip-hop artist's often bleak, violent, selfish, cynical and misogynist worldview, yet still learn from hip-hop's focus on formal differentiation and intricacy (the meter, the rhymes, the word-play) - its separation from prose.

Most of the really great American poets of the past have been Odd High Formalists : that is, they have developed a highly-ordered & articulate formality which easily distinguishes itself from prose of any kind. It is inventive, personal, and suited to its own unique aims, rather than patterned on traditional schemes for tradition's sake (hence its "oddness"). Think of Marianne Moore's sui generis formal patterns; Elizabeth Bishop's elegant & playful designs; Emily Dickinson's construction of a poetic universe within a strict and minimalist formal pattern; Whitman's careful development of his own unique cosmic-bardic metrical form and manner; Melville's re-invention of the philosophical travel poem; Poe's highly-mathematical and calculated sense of poetry's rhythmic/tonal mesmerism; Hart Crane's re-invention of the Pindaric praise-song; John Berryman's manic formalism in the Dream Songs... the list could go on for pages. What these poets have in common is a bold - almost extreme - conception of poetry as an intense, highly-differentiated formal dance of sound, meaning, theme, occasion. The OHF poetry of the future will set a new standard of difficulty. This is not a poetry that will "blend in" easily with the prose world : it will be very much harder to write than what is offered at present in schools & literary communities. It will have to distinguish itself - by its formal qualities - from prose. It will have to offer a very high and strange dancing music, a relief - both from prose and from the mannered allusive theoretical academic obscurities which passed for "difficulty" in the last century. Only American Odd High Formalism will set the measures of the dance to come.