poetry continuum

Next project may be some kind of essay, responding to the discussion around Marjorie Perloff's article on the Conceptual poets, and Matvei Yankelevich's response, & so on.  The effort to inject Russian avant-garde/Futurist/Formalist models and theories into the American milieu has a pretty long history.  The Language Poets expressed an affinity for same.  Perloff's critical formulae have an oddly recherche quality, and Yankelevich echoes that to some extent : they both set up the personal MFA-workshop lyric as the great stumbling-block to literary advance, the middle-brow bourgeois anti-intellectual mainstream conventionality which must be demolished and overcome.

I have an ongoing, longstanding problem with this maneuver... I remember arguing about it often on the Buffalo Poetics list back in the 90s.  My problem is that I identify with the contrasting poetics and worldview of the Russian Acmeists.  Of course there were crossovers and overlaps and collaborations between these two (or three or four) tendencies in 20th-cent Russian poetry - yet the basic contrast is there.  And I'm repeatedly impelled to try to articulate it, to re-draw that line.  For me it gets to the character of one's most basic sense of what the art of poetry is, is for.

Is art, is poetry, a radical detachment from experience - a permanent "making strange"?  Are the roots of art in the alienation effect - of consciousness detached from unthinking life?  This it seems to me is a fundamental article of faith among the modernist and postmodern avant-garde.  Even the efforts of Dada and similar movements to disintegrate the special status of the art object, to merge art with everyday life, seem to be rooted in an act of disjunction : of shock, of breakage.  The avant-garde seems tinged with violence at its core.  The Futurists' concept of "the word as such" really means the word uprooted from its origins in the whole continuum of a language (the history of words, of syntax, of rhetoric, of representation, of dialect... and of meaning).  Words were to be treated as things : not living things, but material - in other words, available (in an ethical sense) for artistic manipulation by force.

The Acmeists' shared sense of their vocation (I mean Gumilev, Akhmatova, and Mandelstam, primarily) and of the nature of poetry is strikingly different.   The best word I can think of to describe this attitude is "continuum".   The "word as such" - for Gumilev, for example - is God.  Such an equation implies the whole panorama of Western cultural history.  The word - words - exist in a continuum : of speech, of sentences, of philology, of cultural history, of time, of theology... and of past poets and poetry.  You cannot tear off a piece of language by violence without harming the continuum.  As Mandelstam put it : "the Word is bread and suffering".

As I see it, this is a fundamentally "incarnational" concept of poetry.  We don't know words as detached self-sufficient entities : words are inflected and shaded by their presence in the poems of the past.  Words have a history in flesh and blood, and continue to appear there, in the matrix of human conflict and strife : not as instigators of more shock and violence, but as avenues for mediation and reconciliation (peacemaking, healing).

I think there's a mystical dimension to all this.  In the Acmeist sense of the "word as such", an aesthetic equilibrium arises which is really rooted in the unity of experience and representation, of intellect and sense, of word and flesh.  Union, oneness, harmony.  This is something I hope to explore more fully in another essay.

No comments: