Jesus Thoughts (18) : fragment of anti-matter

I started this series with a response to the work of John Meier, A Marginal Jew - his 4-vol. investigation of what we know about "the historical Jesus."   Reading, play-acting, daydreaming about history have been part of my life since childhood.  My parents bought for my brothers & me all those Random House and American Heritage series of history & biography for young readers, & I loved them all.  In 7th grade I wrote the script for a school pageant based on George Washington's (Christmas) crossing of the Delaware (in which I played, conveniently, the "narrator").

As a teenager, fiction & poetry pushed aside somewhat this early interest, but it never really went away.  After all, literature and history are inseparable...

In the early 1970s I went through a pretty extreme set of moral/psychological experiences, which amounted to a kind of spiritual awakening, and also led, gradually & partially, back to my roots, in a family of mainstream 60's midwestern Episcopalians.

Part of my writerly evolution, through the 70s and early 80s, led to an encounter with the Cantos of Ezra Pound & the "long poem" (epic?) modes of W.C. Williams, Olson, Crane, Zukofsky, & David Jones.  At the same time, I was soaking up exotic lyric radiations from Osip Mandelstam & other Russians (Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, et al.), along with Celan, Montale, many others.  I was responding to these poets while struggling to find my own way - it was difficult for me to achieve a manner & tone which felt right (we are talking about a 20-year struggle).

To oversimplify : it seems the example of Mandelstam helped me integrate my spiritual point of view with a path back into poetry & art; while at the same time, the model of the epic, the "long poem", offered models of how to integrate history - factuality, time, concrete world events - into poetry : melding together my original focus on both literature & history.

I apologize for the long-winded back story.  But it leads to a question about the place of the poet - the poet's "office".   When I started exploring American stream long poems, I came up against a roadblock.  On one hand, my "re-conversion" experience - including reading the Bible, & many related works - had given me a changed sense of history.  Now, for me, world history was ultimately challenged by, pivoted upon, the life & message of the historical Jesus.  World-time is crossed with a deeper dimension.  On the other hand, American poetry was divided between the stream represented by Pound - American, modern, and in many ways anti-Christian, and the stream represented by Eliot, who promoted a worldview rooted in European culture and a medieval, authoritarian mode of Christianity : anti-democratic, and thus in many ways anti-American.

Of course to pivot everything on Pound & Eliot is a distortion of 20th-cent. poetry : but I think it can be said that any approach to the American long poem "containing history" cannot avoid these two.  And, considering my background as I've sketched it here, a simultaneous attraction-repulsion may be understandable.  They stood in my path.

Then I discovered a kind of mediating affinity between the harmonic, imagistic mode (& the American, democratic affirmations, contra both Eliot & Pound) of Hart Crane, on the one hand, and Mandelstam.  So Crane's Bridge offered a concrete bridge in my efforts to synthesize all this poetic "information."  & gradually - over about 25 years, through about 8 different book-length "long poems" - I worked into my own, less derivative expression.

The basic mystery of "divine intervention" in history (to put it baldly) : the key questions of being & reality, the riddle of truth, remain.... like a well or plumbline in the midst of time.  Now I think the Welsh poet David Jones - with a very different style, & in a different way - may have been on a parallel track.  There is a Poundian Cantos-effect emanating from Jones's long poems : yet his underlying vision is closer to my own : that is, we see the personhood of Jesus as spiritual crux, irreducible crossroad, unavoidable.  Like Mandelstam's epithet for poetry : "The poem is a stone fallen from heaven / No one will judge it."

So now for me poetry is like air from the future... wine of the Jubilee.  That wine of which the Son of Man will not partake until He comes into his Kingdom.   The Kingdom of God, & of children, & Humankind... which reigns through the Word like Hart Crane's Christ-Dionysius.  ("I am the vine, & ye are the branches...")   Or in many of the deep dark cryptic poems of Celan ("He was washing the world...").

But what I say or do in poetry is of no interest to the American scene.  From top to bottom, from New York to San Francisco, I do not matter to them.  I'm basically invisible, a sort of anti-matter.  Not to be taken seriously.  A type of internal exile, in a literary gulag which operates by some other set of interests & values.  I don't say this lightly, or with anger, either : it's probably a good thing.  Silence & solitude leave room for independent work.  Meanwhile, they just don't see me, or hear me.  Maybe someday they will.  A few years ago I tried to put some of these issues relating to Pound & Eliot within a "Dantesque" frame, as figures in Purgatory, on board a ship.  Whitman and Edwin Honig make cameo appearances, too.

– so we moved along the bank upstream,
   and where the river bent in a broken circle
to the left, beheld a busy municipium:
welter of gleaming glass and flickering steel
   resembling vast shuttlings of water bugs
(chaotic, breaking apart the smooth still
surface into myriad coarse shags
   of garish noise).  Then my eyes shifted
to the river itself, and picked out a brig
there – hermaphrodite, trim, she drifted
   with peculiar motion, perpendicular
to the flow.  At prow and stern were lofted
pennants (princely St. George at the fore,
   and aft, a black-green, jumbled image
fusing, it seemed, some fasces with a star).
Upon the poop, a gaunt man in a rage
   stood, yapping imprecations toward the bow,
whereat a lank chap, dignified with age,
responded languidly (voice diffident and low).
   Apparently, they each commanded wheels,
and piloted the ship as if to go
both ways at once – causing the luckless keels’
   erratic laterality (crosscurrent,
at cross purposes).  I turned to him, whom eagle’s
perspicacity once lifted to the firmament
   on high.  Stern and melancholy then
he gazing, spoke.  “Throughout the Occident
once reigned supreme in poetry, these men –
   their tandem sway the ultimate authority.
In talent matchless, their forceful mien
bore down all before them.  Yet, perdie,
   an overweening awe for ordered rule
(drawn, I blush to say, from De Monarchia!)
caused them to miss that inlet whence the whole
   sweet cataract of liberty descends;
and so you see them, netted in such moil
of turbid aimlessness.”  “And yet,” contends
   me – “if there be contempt for duty,
honor, justice, loyalty –  neither high lands
nor low – no fear of that sublimity
   called holy – what remains, but feud and die?
What path leads out of universal enmity –
that peevish self-engorged impiety
   which desolates the vernal countryside
with fattened castles – that blighted antipathy
to common good, which makes the cities bleed?”
   My dear guide, pensive, murmured then:
“Remember this (your elder teacher’s screed
of long ago):  Freedom builds within,
   or breaks your bones.”  And on that note
I glanced upriver – glimpsed the leonine
white crown, the heavy shoulders, the stout
   birch staff, the hiking boots – the veteran’s
cap, askew – the slouching, musing gait –
pioneering through cane reeds, alone –

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