Christmas thoughts

O little towne of Providence, how cloudy-gray we see thee today...  looking out the library window on the old New England ville.  I'm about the last person here, the librarian-birds have flown the coop for the holidays.

"Providence" has a futuristic ring to it, in a theological sense.  It signals a Plan, a "divine economy" at work, somehow... a thought that easily leads us sleepy sheepies astray.  Into by-ways of fanaticism or complacency or quietism (quietism is a great danger to anyone spending a lot of time in a library).

The NY Times op-ed writer Ross Douthat posted an interesting column recently, sketching out some Babel-divides in the U.S. over beliefs & worldviews.  He suggests there are three main groups of thought : 1) believers in Biblical religion, all of whom ascribe, on a variable scale, some literal & historical actuality to the scriptures; 2) "spiritual" people, who trust in some over-arching spiritual meaning in experience, but who are not doctrinaire or especially focused on the rational grounds of same; 3) secular rationalists, people who do not believe in God or the promises of religion, but who are liberal idealists grounded in the humane reason of the Enlightenment.  Douthat presents his own opinions on the viability of each of these standpoints, & then closes with this passage :

"The cracks are visible, in philosophy and science alike. But the alternative is not. One can imagine possibilities: a deist revival or a pantheist turn, a new respect for biblical religion, a rebirth of the 20th century’s utopianism and will-to-power cruelty. 

"But for now, though a few intellectuals scan the heavens, they have yet to find their star." 

Their star.  It's been pointed out in various contexts that the Christmas holiday has morphed a lot over the centuries; that the celebration of Jesus's birthday was less important to the first Christians than the Easter time, & that the commercial/Santa-Claus family holiday we celebrate owes a lot to ancient pagan seasonal get-togethers.  All true.  But I guess to my mind our version of Christmas merges with the Epiphany holiday of early January (which is celebrated as Christmas, I think, in the Eastern Orthodox churches).  After all the nativity scene in the manger has its source in the Gospel story of the visit of the Magi, the three wise men from the East, who followed the "star" (perhaps an astrological symbol) to find the divine King... ie. this is the story of Epiphany.  All those Christmas creches and mangers stem from this story.

Epiphany... I believe the word originates in the Greek for "light".  Illumination.  The wonder of a discovery.  The Magi follow the star to find... the one about whom the Gospel of John states, "in Him was light, and the light was the light of men."

I had a delightful conversation at a neighborhood holiday party last weekend, with a young Brown professor (from India) who told me she was involved in a joint Brown/RISD project to develop a symposium/exhibit next year on the circus.  It sounds like a terrific idea.  Her own area of expertise happens to be the theme of animals in modern French/European literature.  I mentioned a New Yorker article from a few years back by William Dalrymple - I think it was called "Homer in India" - about contemporary Indian practitioners of archaic oral epic poetry.  I was reminded of a passage in that essay where Dalrymple talks about the special bond between humans and animals in the "shepherd" communities which maintained this kind of traditional poetry.

Anyway, it didn't occur to me at the time, but that little chat now seems sort of appropriate for the holiday season, with the stable & the manger & the sheep & the cows & the "shepherds keeping their watch by night". 

Poets have a professional bent toward metaphors, metamorphosis.  How a poem climbs up the "stairway of surprise" (Emerson's image).  So maybe we can develop an affinity for epiphany.  This is somewhat how I understand matters of theology & religion in general.  It's about metanoia - a "change of mind."  St. Paul talks about the main aim of discipleship (it's a discipline) as a "renewal of your mind".  Renewal through focus - training the eye toward God in all things.  Of course, in the end, it's about more than that, even : it's about a complete re-orientation of the whole person, a true and radical change of heart.  But it begins with epiphany - with a light turned on.

Nothing changes, seemingly, in the round of things.  The same stupid stuff happens.  There are no wonders in the sky or sea.  Yet we experience a change of heart... our eyes open.  In some mysterious fashion, our hard hearts of stone are softened into warm hearts of flesh.  Scrooge weeps & changes his ways.  We see our own ordinary lives in a completely new light.

The star... the star in the manger... among the animals.  What I see here is a symbol, a metaphor, for the wholeness of the human image.  I mean an image of global humanity assuming our whole dignity - our wholeness - among the domesticated animals.  Because outside the manger lurk the wilder beasts : the "ravening wolf", for example.  The wolf, the dragon, the monster... an image of the bloodthirsty tyrant, out hunting for the child, the true heir - Herod, massacring the innocents.  This is the counter-image of humanity stooping to sub-humanity : to brutality, violence, fraud, oppression.  This is the false tyrant seeking to destroy the true sovereign, the whole human Image.  This is the beginning of the Good Friday/Easter tale (at the other end of the "infancy narrative").  This is the tale of humanity's unfinished business : of a world still imprisoned by our own sub-human greed and brutality, our blind heartlessness, our bent toward complacent indifference, injustice.

Can we find the wisdom of Providence?  Perhaps it's emerging despite our foolishness.  Perhaps it's a gift which we don't deserve.  A new order of things, a reign of peace and justice together.

Ross Douthat describes an American Babel-divide between secularist, New Ageist, religionist.  If I were going to address this divide in a reasonable fashion, from my own perspective, I might refer people to the 20th-century philosopher/polymath/scientist Michael Polanyi.  I find in his writings, especially his main work Personal Knowledge, very strong and persuasive explanations of the intellectual gray area and battle-ground between science and faith.  For Polanyi, all human knowledge - science not excepted - is ultimately personal.  And yet he is able to synthesize this axiom with a conviction that knowledge also retains its proper objectivity, universality, and disinterestedness.

There is a theological corollary which fits as snugly as a shepherd's cap over Polanyi's argument.  This is the "theory" (or article of faith) that the facts and qualities we experience and understand about the human person represent partial evidence of a more profound, substantial Personhood.  It's hard to deny that this proposal requires a major act of imagination, or leap of faith, to accept.  But there it is.

So if we see the "child in the manger", under "the star", among the "shepherds with their flocks"... and recognize here a symbolic image, a story, representing some more general, universal fact - that is, the vision of the divine Person shining like a light through the human person there, in the "lowly stable"... well... maybe these are some of the materials of metamorphosis, a more pervasive Epiphany... something actually Providential...


Babel / Pentecost

The students heading home, it's extra quiet in the library, I have a little more time to babble today.

The winter solstice upon us, snow on the ground, the air bright & milky.  Christmas, New Year.  I sat in the window booth with my coffee mug, watching the Providence scene go by.  Locals I've crossed paths with here since the early 70s... sometimes I recognize them.  I turned 61 last May; my adorable grand-daughter arrived in August, I'm officially a grandpa.  I'm not officially or unofficially any wiser, as far as I can tell.  "Life pierces us with strange relation." 

I look back at youth, and marvel at the vigorous perspicuity of instinct and intuition.  We simply go and do what we will at that age, the happy geniuses of ourselves.  We don't reason excessively about it (though much of that doing involves battles with/against ourselves).  Maybe I should have!

But this ain't what I planned to natter on just now.

Have been stuck & struggling with a poem-scroll I'm calling Ravenna Diagram.  Maybe I had a little insight the other day, when it occurred to me that perhaps I didn't need to scare up more images, or historical material, so much as change/amplify the modes of discourse.  "Modes of discourse" is not the best way of putting it... what I mean is the thematic frameworks, the categories of subject-matter.  This is still garbled, sorry!

I am a stubborn writer in many ways.  I try to adapt and revamp from within.  So, for example, for a long time I've tried to unify actual historical/biographical material by means of obscure allusions and imagery.  I do this on purpose.  It's a kind of "making-strange", I guess : I love it.  The puns, the multivalent words, the alien images.  It somehow helps make the poem a distinctive thing-in-itself.  Gives it heft.

So I'm focused on presenting a real historical argument or message in Ravenna Diagram.  It is analogous to painting a big historical panorama - but using elliptical, obscure means.  A patchwork or mosaic.  At the same time, I'm trying to give the sense of a journal, a journey, a pilgrimage - for that is, really, what these long ongoing poems are about.  They are incremental records of a trip (Whitmanesque notion).

My point here is that is new quasi-insight might help me past an impasse : the daily discouragement and lack of confidence, the loss of purpose.  It's the feeling of pointless irrelevance which attacks me sometimes.  It's the impasse resulting from a desire to communicate yoked to a confusion about the means.  But my insight was this : I have the capacity to address more directly certain philosophical/political/cultural problems, if I can manage to branch out a little from the narrow, iconic-historical symbolism (my usual modus operandi).

I haven't put this too well, and it isn't what I meant to talk about.  But it is somewhat related.  This notion of combining and coordinating and harmonizing different modes and levels of discourse and subject-matter is not just a private writerly problem.  In fact the compositional problem is merely a minor analogue to one of the basic problems facing the world at large.  Let's call it the Babel problem.

The Babel problem is not the fact that the peoples of the world speak different languages.  It's that the human family cannot even agree on the grounds of reasoning together.  Our modes of discourse are at odds : our philosophical/ideological priorities are at war with each other.

If, for example, I want to speak on a theological level - about, say, the character and "personality" of God, or about the premise of transfiguration and eternal life - I am confronted immediately by skepticism grounded not in theology but in ethics or politics.  Thus I am opposed (in my own inner debates, as well as in dialogue with others) by arguments like : "How can you take seriously these vaporous notions, these purely speculative claims, when we are confronted every day with massive injustice, oppression, suffering and violence?"  So here we have a conflict between disjunctive terms, of subject-matter at cross-purposes.  We can't even approach serious disagreements within these intellectual frameworks - say, the contradictory worldviews of various religious faiths - because those frameworks themselves are tangled up with more immediate political disputes and world power-struggles and rivalries.  Religious concepts and language are applied, not in order to open channels between the human and the divine, or to liberate and help people in their troubles, but in order to form more cohesive factions (us versus them), or to solidify political/economic oppression by means of manipulative slogans.  The games of group identification and mob control are the prime instruments of this planet's exploiters and oppressors.  They say to themselves : Let us trouble the community, let us disrupt civil society, let us set our group against theirs, let us point the finger, preach enmity and war : and we will thereby gain wealth and power

Thus the Babel of a world stymied by violence and exploitation struggles to remain in place.  We can't agree on topics for discussion, much less on any conclusions.  In this situation it seems important to keep in mind the underlying global unity of the human race.  Which reminds me of a certain saying in the New Testament.  I can't even recall the proper context (such a proper babbler am I!), but it goes something like this : "I say unto you, every sin shall be forgiven, except the sin against the Holy Spirit.  This cannot be forgiven."  What does Jesus mean here?  Here's my take on it.  The Holy Spirit is elsewhere called the Spirit of Truth, the Advocate.  I think Jesus is emphasizing that, underneath all the contingent differences, Goodness and Truth are one.  They are one for all mankind.  Thus when someone calls goodness evil, or causes suffering in the name of God, they are betraying Truth itself.  Cloaked in the mantle of goodness, they tyrannize over others.  The sin against the truth cannot be forgiven because the lie itself must first be broken and dissolved.  Only once this has happened, & only then, perhaps, may the personal consequences for the sinful soul be addressed.

I could be totally off on this reading, I admit : I'm just babbling here.  Thinking that the human species as a whole is endowed with conscience, the knowledge of right and wrong (if that conscience has not been eroded or mangled).  Meanwhile, simultaneously, our narrow hearts and minds eagerly grab onto answers and solutions : code words and simplistic dogmas, organizing principles which are mere myths, mere tools of oppression.  Narrow-minded bigotries, selfish and proud chauvinisms, politic greed.  Partisan rancor.  Guile & bile.

So the Gospel story of Pentecost - when the Holy Spirit descended as tongues of flame, and everyone suddenly understood each others' languages - seems symbolic of a new order of agreement.  An untangling - by means of universal truth - of the discords of warring discourses.

So now I'm sputtering out of time & steam here.  To sum up : I've been looking at this parallel between the confusions within an ongoing poem, and the Babel-anarchies of human discord.  I haven't even gotten to the theme that lurks behind these ruminations : the seasonal marvel of Christmas and Epiphany.  Poetry, at the root, is about metamorphosis and wonder : it is a celebration, a song of rapture.  Whence comes this rapture?  The glimpse of an infinite, ongoing, eternal, indestructible, everlasting human resurrection - a breaking-in of cosmic Love - beyond all our doubts and dreams.  A Christmas miracle, right in front of us all. La vida es sueno (sings the poet)...


The Arrogance of the Poet

"The arrogance of the poet."  Has a ring to it.  Also a history.  I think of the arrogant William Blake's remark, that Milton was "of the Devil's Party without knowing it."  In other words, Milton, in Paradise Lost, expressed, perhaps unwittingly, some admiration and sympathy for the arrogant Satan he imagined.  Not that I agree with Blake's assessment : I think Milton was completely ironic about his angelic anti-hero.  But this is a recurrent motif in the operatics of poetry.  What's at the root of it?

I remember the legend (apocryphal?) of Chaucer, toward the end of his life, renouncing all his poetical works as worldly vanity.  A sort of flipside image of the traditional cultural authority awarded to poets & poetry : Chaucer's work may have been vanity, but it was also exalted as the incomparable mirror of its local world & time.

I often think in this regard of these lines of Ed Dorn :

To a poet all authority
except his own
is an expression of Evil
and it is all external authority
that he expiates
this is the culmination of his traits

Which seems an elegant encapsulization of the arrogance in question.  It's close to Emerson, & Stevens, & Coleridge, & Whitman - the idea of the poet's Adamic imagination : a primal, primary, "original" power to envision the true "order of things", and put it into words : utterly "new" words.

This is the intellectual arrogance which that proud & powerful poet T.S. Eliot strove so mightily to curb, exorcise, & transmute into spiritual humility.  We are weak mortals, sinful creatures - actually blinded by our spiritual pride, the idolatries lurking 'neath our mighty visions.  Thus spake Thomas Stearns.

The poets' characteristic bent goes back, I guess, all the way to prehistory.  The shaman, the seer, the oracle... the chanted evocations & summons of archaic ritual & magic... the cosmologies, genealogies of the gods, tales of the tribes... the ancient poets "speak" the logos of the universe in a manner analogous to the I-am-what-I-am of Genesis, who spoke & it was made.

In this arena, there is obviously an erotic, ecstatic dimension, vaunted for example by Nietzsche : the tension between the wise claritas of Apollo and the fertile eros of Dionysus.  Here Orpheus & the poets are the original rock stars - lords of the bacchanal, the goat-gods, leaders of the sacred dance...  all pretty clearly related to the famous-liminal social status of the poet (since the goat-dance is a reminder of the goatishness of Milton's proud Satan).

Are we getting any closer to the mystery here?  Don't ask me, this is just my blog.  We're looking at shards in a dusty kaleidoscope.  Let me apply some personal allegory.  Around age 16, I fell for the arrogance of poetry with all my heart.  I felt it in the New York School poets (the Big Red Book anthology, and others).  I had taken to it even earlier, in that wonderful, playful 60s anthology for schoolchildren (A Gift of Watermelon Pickle).  Poetry creates a powerful, mesmerizing, occult force-field... out of the purest, wildest, most liberated & crazy free speech.  This I suppose was a basic attitude of those times, of the generation just before mine, and of my own (I turned 18 in 1970).

& in my mild-mannered way, I lived it.  For my requisite high school senior "Chapel speech" I wrote and recited a mini-epic poem.  For my college application essays I sent... poems (& somehow got into Brown U).  In college I skipped most classes other than Shakespeare & Creative Writing.  By the beginning of my senior year I went through a full-blown Robert-Lowellish manic breakdown, complete with personal visitations by the ghost of Shakespeare & the Holy Ghost.    I dropped out of Brown, bummed around, worked (very) odd jobs, applied for a lead guitar slot with the Rolling Stones.  Came back to Brown & graduated 3 years later by the skin of my sheepskin.  Meanwhile I filled crates of spiral notebooks with poems, thoughts, plays, & so on.  I married the daughter of a poet & became a VISTA volunteer (until Reagan came along).  My last real job, before retiring (to the library), was "professional resume writer".  I have been an arrogant poet from day one.  My only humility in this regard was the knowledge that I could never combine being a poet and teaching literature, or writing.  But of course that humility too was just an expression of my arrogance.

& so how does the allegory of my life illustrate our topic here?  I think the poet cuts a figure in the world which is determined by his or her vocation.  & what is the substance of that calling?  For me it resides in this stance of undetermined freedom & originality.  The sacred Word emerges from nowhere, because it is everywhere : the divine Word is a creative act - the original creative act - of the One who uttered it.  The poet in this sense is a sort of limited & faulty imago of her Onlie Begetter.  Limited & faulty, in that we are a work-in-progress, or a work-in-mystery : that is, we see this divinity only through a glass darkly.  We are copies of an original - an original which I am happy to identify with the historical & trans-historical Jesus, with the Trinity.  (This confidence, I am lucky to say, may help protect me from the flipside of that glory - the verso to which all vainglorious poets are susceptible : that dead-end, sulfur-stinking, foolish pride, which arrogates the ultimate originality to my Self alone.)

We take joy in the freedom of the poet & of poetry, because that playful freedom reflects (if only very partially) the dignity of our human status as creatures of a Creator.  Osip Mandelstam meditated on this in his unfinished essay "Pushkin & Scriabin", where he writes that the Redemption - that historical event - liberated Western art.  How?  In the proclamation that the whole world had been saved, the redemption set Art itself free from any kind of determinism : the artist was now free to "play" like a sheep in the fields of the Lord, to play, as Mandelstam puts it, "hide-&-seek with the Father".

But there is something humble, not arrogant, about a sheep.  So here maybe we have a reiteration, in another key, of the old Greek dichotomy between Apollo & Dionysus.  Here Christ is both the host at the wine-fest, the Dionysian leader of the dance, as well as the pivot of divine Sophia, Holy Wisdom - the Apollinian moderation & measure of the cosmic Logos.  That arrogant inspired humble saint Simone Weil wrote tellingly of this process of mediation, how in this mode Jerusalem & Athens embrace, Love and Knowledge are joined as one.
Arrogant young Dionysius, ca. 1975.  (Shortly after Chris Kraemer took this photo in NY, I flew to London, to talk with Keith Richard about music & religion.)


i.m. Nelson Mandela


Winter fog like cold sea-spray
filters through Providence.
Mystifying substance
of an ember hope (Isaiah... hey

ey yo).  Long northern nights tilting
toward Pearl Harbor,
India Point (spare
rose gyroscope).  Melting

through ice barricades, at last
(27 years, gone
into light).  Some yarn
entangles history – a mast

for Admiral Nelson (constellation
of a heaven-yard).  The ship!
Bound for that whisper-
signet... Southern Chris-Craft, spun

yonder (with Gandhi, MLK –
whorl, Milky Way). Blessed
be they who finally kissed
the sky (tall Eureka-tree

nursing Po’s Eridanus, and
the other three).  There is
a gemstone, set beneath this
coffin (folded in a flag)... grand

father of fathers, king of kings,
your little almond tree
of ripe humility
is peace-weaver tonight.  Blessings.



Princeton's Osip Mandelstam archive

Check this out.... amazing collection of digitized images of original manuscripts and papers of Osip Mandelshtam, with material also from Nadezhda Mandelstam & others.   Includes the "Voronezh Notebooks" ms....  Happy Thanksgiving!

Jesus thoughts

Today I give thanks that I'm not a prominent bishop or theologian, pressed to take "positions" and provide pastoral guidance on every moral issue of the day.  Some of the moral questions of the day seem truly murky to me - but that might just be me.  I'm just glad to be a lowly layperson poet & blogger; I don't have to engage - not "professionally", anyway - in the high profile debates among clergy & theologians & scholars.  I feel sort of the same way about not "teaching" poetry or poetry-writing.  It's a very honorable and important thing to do - to spread the knowledge and appreciation of good writing and literary history - but I'm glad I don't have to do it professionally.  It leaves me some freedom to write whatever I like, however I like - eccentric as it may be sometimes.

Writing this after post here yesterday in praise of a book I'm near finishing, by Anglican theologian N.T. Wright, called Surprised by Hope.  It's a summary (for a general audience) of his interpretation of the Christian doctrine of the Resurrection.  I'm finding it extremely cogent and fascinating, much in line with my own vague intuitions about these matters.  Wright argues - as I have too, in a way, here on HG Poetics - for the historical concreteness and actuality of the mysterious actions of Jesus, despite the fact that much of that actuality remains shrouded in inexplicable darkness.  He urges a shift away from what he calls a neo-Gnostic attitude (prevalent in some fundamentalist strains of American Protestantism, as well as in mainstream and Catholic medieval traditions) : an otherworldly division between spirit and flesh, between the destiny of "this fallen world" and an individual's eternal soul.  Wright brings back into force the Hebraic and Gospel understanding of the "kingdom of God" as a restitution of divine sovereignty in this world : a "setting right" of the whole cosmos, a true victory over death - starting with the "new creation" of Jesus' bodily return to life (in a new, & different, "spiritual" body - Paul's "glorified body").  This is what he means by theological Hope : that Christ's victory over the cross is meant to transform completely our sense of reality and human history.  By believing, we are not simply "saved" from this planet into some eternal soul realm : we are conjoined to save the whole planet - make the cosmos worthy again of its transcendent, creative origin.

I'm summarizing inadequately what seems to me a very acute and far-ranging presentation, with which I almost completely agree.  So I posted a brief comment about it here yesterday, including links to the book, and a link to Wright's Wikipedia biography.  This was before I actually read the Wikipedia entry.  There I learned that Wright has been described as an advocate of "Christian mortalism" - that is, a theology which dissents from a belief in a sort of "detachable" immortal soul.  Wright argues that a dependence on this kind of spirit-body split goes back, not to the Gospels, but to Plato and the Gnostics, and that this very ancient tendency has led to a sometimes complacent, otherworldly individualism, when it comes to grasping Christ's prophetic message and challenge.  As far as that goes, I think he's correct : but I would never be able to accept something termed "Christian mortalism".  This is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  I think the power and freedom of the human soul depend to some extent on our sense of the soul's cosmic "sovereignty" over time and space. I'm reminded in this context of Vladimir Nabokov's playful parable, in his novel Bend Sinister, of the human soul's inherent dignity - when he has his main character, the old professor Adam Krug - who is embattled and persecuted by an Orwellian parody of a dictatorship - "rescued" from his torment and tormentors by the "transcendent" author of the novel himself.  I'm also reminded of this statement of Jesus, in one of the Gospels, which goes something like : "Fear not those who can harm the body, but not the soul : rather fear Him who can destroy both body and soul in hell!"  This seems to me like a pretty clear distinction between the two dimensions.

I do like and find fascinating Wright's notion that the "kingdom" of God" is not "up there" in the stars somewhere : but is a hidden dimension of our own earthly timespace, which occasionally makes its presence felt on earth (which we experience as divine grace, angelic intervention, miracle, & related phenomena). This is, obviously, very fertile ground for the literary imagination...

But I was also troubled to learn that Wright, as a prominent Anglican bishop (now retired), took part in the Lambeth convocation or conference of a few years back, and argued against the blessing of homosexual unions, and against the ordination of openly gay clergy.  This, to me, is one of those murky areas of social morality where judgement seems very difficult.

For me, being heterosexual, homosexuality has always been something of a puzzle, an "otherness".  What I do know is that all persons have instinctual sexual drives, and that sexuality is an inalienable dimension of our life in this body.  I also know that marriage, in its true sense, involves a vow of commitment and faithfulness which is made on behalf of the whole person, and the whole life of the persons who make such a vow.  If we believe that homosexuality is some kind of illness - some kind of physical or psychological diversion from the "normal" or "good" path of human sexuality - then I could understand the difficulty that religious authorities would have in consenting to bless or sanction the actions of those exhibiting such "symptoms".   On the other hand, if we consider homosexuality to be a phenomenon on a much wider scale of norms and normality - if we think of it as one among other forms of instinctual sexual drives - then it becomes harder to pass judgement on it as abnormal or morally wrong.  The Catholic Church and the Anglican communion, at present, are striving not to "pass judgement" on the instinctual drives themselves - but only on those who express such drives in action.  For many churches and denominations, sexual activity outside marriage is to be curbed, shunned, even condemned.  Thus, for them, it seems, homosexual activity would be on a par with adultery or pre-marital sex.

Obviously, the churches - despite maintaining a source of spiritual authority and moral exhortation, in the call to people to abjure all kinds of worldiness and idolatry (whether of riches or vanity or worldly honors or materialistic obsessions or sexual hedonism) for the sake of God's cosmic holiness, and one's own spiritual wholeness - the churches are always going to have a few problems imposing their moral strictures on the private lives of ordinary adult human beings.  If the Church is going to insist that those of homosexual inclination forsake all homosexual activity, then, to be fair, the Church is going to have to insist just as strongly on the ban on all sexual activity outside of marriage and procreation.  This is a worthy call to holiness, perhaps; but it will be hard to implement in practical terms.

As I say, these questions are not for me to resolve : I confess the strong sense of not having all the information necessary to make a moral judgement in this area.  But based on the limited sense of things I do have at this time, it seems to be most probable that homosexuality is not so much an illness as a part of a broader spectrum of human sexual orientation.  As such, and keeping in mind my previous description of marriage (as a vow of personal commitment in human wholeness), I have the feeling that the wisest and most charitable course would be to honor and bless those people who, of whatever harmless sexual orientation (& I underscore harmless), desire to make a personal life-commitment to another person whom they love.  This seems to be the dominant position of the American Episcopal church also - the church in which I was baptized and confirmed long ago.  I admit that in the long run I could be very wrong - morally mistaken - on this point; but that is my present belief on this subject - contra Bishop Wright, apparently.

*Late-night-thoughts (postscript) :

The original, apostolic Gospel, as I understand it - going back to John the Baptist - presents conversion as the watershed : to be reborn, to "die to the world, and to live in the Spirit with Christ".  It's a matter of complete moral re-orientation : away from selfish (temporal, earthbound) desire, and toward the realm of God's eternal dimension of love and grace.  Both John the Baptist and Paul the Apostle bore witness that, in this new life of the Spirit, our former worldly arrangements are completely abrogated, transformed; & that, in this situation, it's better simply to wait for the grace of God - to accept patiently (as infants in the new life) whatever present situation in which we find ourselves.  Yet, at the same time, to renounce all allegiance to our former unregenerate ways : to provide no allowance for the world, the flesh, the devil.  In this context - one of ascetic renunciation - the condemnation of homosexual activity is understandable.  Profane, "unnatural" behavior becomes the representative symbol (the scapegoat, in a sense) for all forms of hedonism and lust.  Thus to ask for sacramental sanction for homosexual unions, or to offer episcopal authority to "openly gay" clerics, appears to contradict or offend the foundational principles of the church.

This constellation of spiritual belief and principle seems, on superficial grounds, unanswerable : in such context, the notion of "gay marriage", for example, is already beyond the pale.  Yet there is an answer, a counter-argument.  If indeed there is a diversity of inborn sexual orientation, as an inherent fact of human nature - then Christian baptism, and the new life it represents, should be able to redeem the whole spectrum of biological drives.  In other words, one who is born with a homosexual orientation should be enabled (through the Redemption) to enter this new life, along with any other child of God.  The harmony of the individual conscience with God's will takes many forms, none of which we are authorized to judge (since such grace is ipso facto beyond judgement).  So, if people born homosexual hear the call of baptism and rebirth, and re-order themselves to the commitments of this new life, who are we to pass judgement?  If they choose to enter into a loving, spousal relationship in the light of God's grace, who are we to outlaw them?  If they are called to serve God in his church in a clerical vocation, who are we to deny?  If indeed there are distinct, innate human sexual orientations, which develop in various patterns, then God will certainly find a way to lead them all into the great communion - not separate from the rest, but subject to the same ascetic, spiritual rule and moral judgement as everyone else.

It all comes down to the question of nature.  If Dante is right, and homosexuality is contra naturam - a willful abrogation of God's natural law - then it deserves condemnation.  But, on the other hand, if homosexuality is one ordinary, innate dimension of nature, one variation of a norm (a norm of physical, "fleshly" desire, as opposed to spiritual law) - not a matter of rebellious, quasi-demonic human will - then it  will be transformed and redeemed along with the rest of human nature (the whole sum of human folly).  I don't know the answer to this question (of innate nature).  But this is how I would frame a preliminary (imperfect) response.


Logos in the River

I seem to have lost the habit of blog-rolling here.  Long intervals of silence (preserving thousands of digital trees, no doubt).  May be an opportunity to recollect, review some of those simple basic ideas or axioms which come to me when I try to think about poetry.

Poetry is an expression of harmony.

What is harmony?  Music offers the most obvious example : a concord of differing sounds, a combination of sometimes opposing elements in a new whole which is pleasing, beautiful.  But music is not the only manifestation of harmony.  In fact music, poetry and the other arts present different facets of some kind of deeper concord, inherent in reality.  In this respect I think of the mythical Apollo, the Greek god responsible for music, poetry and medicine.  I think of Osip Mandelstam's conviction that poetry is somehow connected with the healing arts.

The harmonics of poetry offer a sort of means of entry into the harmony of reality.  I think this is what Wallace Stevens was pondering when he wrote those gnomic sayings (the "Adagia") which counterpose poetry itself with the "poetry of life" or "the poetry of reality".

Poetry differs in kind from prose.

Such an assertion has led to all sorts of academic quibbles about the "prose virtues" of poetry, the "poetic qualities" of prose, the values of "prose poetry", etc.  Yet, in the end, poetry differs in kind from prose.  And what constitutes the difference is the presence of harmony.  The integral concord manifest in poetry is not present in prose.  Prose is transitive, in that its essential purpose is to "carry over" specific meaning(s) from writer to reader.  Poetry is intransitive, because, in the very process of its appearing, poetry "embodies" meaning under the aegis of harmony.

The contrast between prose and poetry is like the difference between a crowd of people congregated at a subway stop, deep in conversations with each other (or with their cell phones), and the person at the same subway stop who suddenly bursts into song.

Poetry is a powerful force.

The substance of poetry's power in human culture is also rooted in this dimension of harmony.  Its particular embodiment of the logos, or harmonious order of reality as a whole, shines out as a sort of epitome or quintessence or summation of the power of human language in general.  Such an "idealistic" principle has been criticized from various directions.  Aesthetic purists question the simple fusion of what is seen as a demonstration of supreme artistic autonomy and freedom, with any encroachment of a broader "reality principle" (despite the poetic guise such a principle takes on here).   Such a notion of poetry's potential power is also questioned by cultural traditionalists : the pitfalls of Romanticism, solipsism, antinomianism, or irrationality always shadow any personal expression of poetic "vision".  In response to this objection, a passage from Wallace Stevens comes to mind : "The whole race is a poet that writes down / The eccentric propositions of its fate."  In this regard, poetry simply distills and epitomizes the general poetic activity of the human mind.  "Mankind the Maker" lives by the conjectural utterances which give shape and meaning to experience.  Dante's "ben del intelletto" (the good of the intellect) is the summit of human understanding : and such understanding is shared by means of our verbal capability - by means of the Word.

Poetry is an end in itself.

If poetry is indeed a powerful cultural force, which can breathe with great impact across the times and spaces of human culture, how then could it also be an end in itself?   Again, we go back to this dimension of inherent harmony.  If the poem is not a pleasing whole, if it does not please and gratify its audience for its own sake, if it is not in some sense gratuitous, then it is not really poetry, but something else (prose, pose, propaganda...).  The radical aspect of this situation is that poetry's wholeness, its graceful self-sufficiency, is a reflection of its origin in the harmony of reality itself.  Thus every time we are gratified by the concordant beauty of a poem, we are reminded of the "sabbath" dimension of the entire cosmos : the mystery of its creative, gratuitous, playful, beautiful, ex nihilo Presence.

Poetry is personal.

We are veering toward some Coleridgean Romantic mystagoguery here... but I am going to proceed inexorably in that direction.  If we look back at modern and postmodern trends in poetry, we find periodic efforts to resist or contain the "personal" - mere self-expression.  Eliot with his "impersonality" and "objective correlative" and tradition; Pound with his precise, quasi-scientific Imagism; the New Critics with their ideal of aesthetic autotelism; the Language Poets with their theory-driven abolition of individual expression; the Flarfistes with their techno-travesty of same... all these efforts sought to limit the futility and powerlessness - the pathetic, abject character - of the "personal poem".  In the absence or decay of cohesive social bonds, their programmatic projects sought some kind of comparable socialization or group authorization, through the application of shared methods and communal styles.

But poetry is ultimately a union of opposites.  In the poem, the personal and individual comes into a harmonic concordance with the social, the communal, the traditional.  What was creative, inimitable and unique comes to be seen as iconic, necessary and shared.  What was an artifact becomes a quasi-natural object.  Shakespeare's "trademark" style, the thumbprint of his personal voice, comes to suffuse the works of his maturity - no matter how saturated they are, simultaneously, with generic models and communal design.

This concordance of the personal and the public also reveals, for me anyway, a theological subtext.  We come back to the notion of a cosmos which is manifest ex nihilo - a gratuitous, galactic wonder.  We return to the centrality of the personal : whether understood on the level of the individuality of each human person, or in the projected sense of a conjectural Person - a cosmic mind-matrix, an Ancient of Days - from Whom all our personal experience proceeds.  

Yet it does not follow from this that all poetry must be individualistic, "confessional".  In fact the incalculable fusion of personal and universal which radiates from the greatest poems is the outcome of some kind of laborious intellectual and moral wedding, welding : a chemical, alchemical bonding of poet and people, of poem and the age.  This is the high path tread by the great poets of all cultures.

Well, this probably doesn't cover all the simple axioms which I maintain... but enough for now, I guess.


Preface to Lissa Wolsak

Just a reminder... here's a recent essay on this fabulous poet, & her book, Squeezed Light.



Writing is a method of engraving (as the makers of cuneiform scratches & hieroglyphs & prehistoric wall graffiti understood).  Lots of writers, philosophers, critics, theorists, poets have carved deep ruts in the clay covering this theme, of course.  Monuments outlasting bronze, & all that.  "That in black ink my love may still shine bright." (Shakespeare, Sonnet 65) 

The writer is a cave painter too, with his or her own private grotto.  We cast our voices into the shady well, wait for faint echoes.

I'm jotting this down here today as a kind of complaint, though I have nothing to complain about.  It's just that I feel pressured by the noise of the journalism of poetry - the constant roar of ambitious young author-seekers, the rusty screech of the Fame ferris wheel.  As if writing is all about what lies in front of us, now.  Whereas it sometimes seems to me the mob of scriptorians has it all backwards.  Writing & poetry are not for now, for the daylight.  They are an imaginary escape from the daylight and its noise.  They form a sort of alternate dream-space.  Maybe some explorer will chance upon it centuries later - but for the time being it's not available, there is no public access.  Writing is a sort of revenge against the way things are.

Understood : this is a pretty defeatist-elitist attitude.  A bad attitude. Self-defeating.  The useful poems of social uplift will never emerge from this attitude (though maybe Isaiah's three years of public nakedness in prophetic protest is a sort of photo-negative of what I mean).  Mayhap.  Anyway, it's just a feeling.  Poetry is a sort of scar tissue, a tattoo scratched in pain, a long time ago.

Or possibly I'm just discouraged, & resentful.  Bad boy, Henry.

I think of the Bible in this way, and of the haunted authors of the Gospels.  They understood the Bible as the great whale - Melville's gargantuan palimpsest of scar tissue - layer upon layer of memoir and misprision, hint & double-meaning.  & then they - the Gospel writers - tied it all into a knot : the knot of a God-man.  A haunted Personage.... the Person as telos - as ultimate, cosmic "end" (purpose & finality).  Jesus was the "antitype" of all the scrawled prefigurings of the Bible, generation after generation.  The strange fruit of a long memory.  This is the Christian argument, anyway (debatable, of course).  And we are all - all persons, everywhere - minor local antitypes of the high Divine Antitype.

I wish there were, I guess, a critical-philological room somewhere, to get away from the noise of ambitious, aspiring "social media" poets (I'm one of them).   Some occluded garden, very private.  Eugenio Montale's rustling backyard. Very Gongorismo.

Maybe poetry likes to evade all our surveillance systems, promo-megaphones.  Maybe the muse is off the grid.


American Scene

Walking to work this morning, I started sketching out very haphazardly some general comments on the "situation of poetry" in the United States.  An heir's fool-land, if there ever was.  Then I get into the office & learn that a fine, much-loved, old-fashioned poet of Ireland, Seamus Heaney, has died.  Rather put the kibosh to my nascent burbling.

But since it's a quiet day here before Labor Day weekend (Edwin Honig was born on Labor Day, in 1919), maybe I'll ramble on anyway.

With so much marvelously shallow, vulgar & pretentious nattering "about" poetry now, on Twitter, & Facebook, & social media et al., it seems a crime to add to the noise.  But I have a long record of such criminal foolishness here on HG Poetics myself, so I might as well continue scrounging in my rut.

A shibboleth about contemporary American poetry : it's balkanized, divided into camps, a babel of quarreling discourses.  & the cliche-corollary is that poets themselves are to blame : their petty vanity & narcissism, their "arty" personalities.  I disagree.  I think there are more impersonal social-historical factors in play, which tend to push the "situation of poetry" in America to the edge of disorientation.

Being a poet in vast, open-society America is more confusing than difficult.  Compared to the American scene, the traditional role of the poet in, say, Paris, London, Dublin, Berlin, Rome, or even Moscow/Petersburg, seems rather uncomplicated.  In those places, if you are talented, intelligent, bohemian, perhaps politically forthright, you will fit right in : you will be recognized for what you are, you will find a place at the cafe table.

It's different here.  Without getting too schematic about it, let me suggest some of the clashing dimensions involved.

First, you have a nation which is deeply "prosaic" in its bones.  Anti-poetic in many ways.  It goes back to the practical, pragmatic character of an immigrant, invading people, engaged with a wilderness, whose real natives (the Native Americans) are not them.  The American land in this sense is a kind of stepmother, rather than motherland, to the newcomers.  Secondly, it goes back to the very old Protestant-Puritan mind... the struggle to distance that mind from its medieval/Catholic roots.  The doctrine of "sola scriptura" (Scripture only) had a sort of dual impact : first, an intent focus on the written word (always good for poetry); second, a tendency to build whole cultural forms & communities - the forms of Protestant fundamentalism - around heterodox interpretations of the Bible.  What this meant was that the scriptural culture of the Bible become so important, so central, that secular expressions of art became exiled, somewhat suspect.  So for poetry, we have sort of a double exile from our own environment : the stepmotherly native earth, and the doctrinaire Puritan inheritance.  (This is not intended to judge or to blame the Puritans, who are my own ancestors : it is only a very reductive abstraction, for the sake of argument).

One consequence of this, & a phenomenon which seems ubiquitous today, is the strenuous effort by poets and the "poetry community" to compensate for this ingrained dissonance - by trying to acculturate poetry to America programmatically.  There are all sorts of efforts to win over the general public to poetry : the foremost at the moment being the multifarious projects of the Poetry Foundation, which seems bent on injecting poetry into the veins of America (perhaps using some special inoculation needles supplied by Lilly Pharmaceuticals).  More importantly, the constellation of MFA degree programs in Creative Writing are there to encourage, to jump-start a decent cultural presence for poets & poetry in this nation of engines & rust.

Then there is the massive horde of established American poets, and the many public institutions and awards which honor them.  We have Poets Laureate, we have the Societies and the Medals, we have the prestigious magazines which publish the honored, great, well-known poets, who've been around now for decades, whom we all know & love, & repeatedly praise, quote, emulate.

Then, of course, we find yet another confusing element & factor of the current scene : what I would call the "establishment-experimentalists".  These are the heirs of modern & post-modern waves of the European avant-garde, the believers in progressive, politically-charged poetry, the inventors of ever-new and ever more-scintillating technical innovations - poured forth as from some chemistry lab on the top floor of a Madison Avenue office suite, directly into the English departments of our major universities.

So we have this huge jumble of contrastive factors and forces in play.  On top of this we have hundreds, maybe thousands, of quite talented and devoted poets, whose actual work gives the lie to any reductive bracketings or explanations - mine or anyone else's.  They are makers of original art, good poems.  They will not be judged by me, or anyone - will not be pigeonholed.

So much confusion - can't get no relief! mopes Bobbi Dylan Hendrix.  And the most bewildering dimension of this scene emerges with the nagging sense that, underneath all the promotional & organizational & advocational & educational efforts on behalf of American poetry in America, there is... still something missing, some essential element.  What is it?

Here's my suggestion.  At the deep root of American culture lies a problem, not a solution : an unresolved conflict, a subliminal unease.  Thus the situation of poetry and the poet in America is Janus-faced, as if resting on the razor of a double-edged sword.  America's attitude toward poetry is a cloudy reflection of America's relationship to its native land (the American soil).  It will never be "fixed" - it will never be "solved" - it will never be "celebrated" - not finally, not completely, anyway - without an agon, without a dramatic struggle.  America does not want to be comfortable with its poets and its poetry - because America is not (yet) comfortable with itself.  Thus, "established American poets" is a kind of awkward oxymoron.  "America's best-loved poems" has a somewhat hollow ring to it.  The game is not over.  The drama is not foretold - it is unfolding.  Poets and poetry are a part of this historical mystery : but their role is excruciating, unsettled.  And this is a reflection of the "trouble in mind" at the heart of the national experience.  It is a work-in progress : an unwritten poem.  The great iconoclasts of the American Renaissance - Whitman, Melville, Dickinson, Poe - understood this in their bones, expressed it in their work.  & they are our true inheritance, signs pointing the way (into the wilderness).


Reply to Curtis Faville

It's gratifying to find Curtis Faville's thoughtful, articulate response to one of my squibs (Note contra Conceptualism),  posted at his blog Compass Rose on July 29, 2013.  As an ordinary poet, who's been laying such eggs & thinking about them since way back in 1959, I often feel like an amateur wilderness crying out in a scholastic voiceland.  The footnotes are pre-programmed, the silence is collegiate.

Curtis begins agreeably enough by stating that he doesn't disagree with me.  It's only at the end of his post, in the final paragraphs, that reservations emerge. 

He first outlines, clearly and persuasively, some basic factors, which have befuddled countless artists & critics : ie. the cultural watershed represented by World War I, and the subsequent character of such phenomena as modernism, avant-gardism, conceptualism.  These have all played into debates over recent "Conceptual Poetry" (the Harriet blog tallied several contributions, here ).  Kent Johnson, Calvin Bedient, and Keston Sutherland have questioned the credentials of the Conceptualists, as in any sense new, radical or revolutionary, since much of the work seems intent on re-presenting conceptual moves which are actually 50 or 100 years old.  It may be the case that Conceptual Poetry, in the U.S. at least, is merely an academic phenomenon : an attempt to spoof what are understood to be outmoded and parochial Creative Writing shibboleths, centered around methodologies of the "personal lyric voice."  In other words, a little game of petty provocations, carried on in safety 'neath yon high-walled ivied gates.  But this critique, true or false, is not the focus here.  Curtis is addressing something more substantial, ie., the geometry of relations between sensibility, concept, technique, and art object.  This within a context both historical and ontological : the tension between tradition and change.

In his closing three paragraphs, Curtis gets at the crux of his reservations about my piece.  He defends the "conceptual" as inherent in all art.  As poet David Jones emphasized, art is a "fitting together" of things into a whole - an activity which only homo sapiens/homo ludens, among earth's creatures, appears to have both intellect to conceive, and free will to accomplish.  "Concept" stems from the shaping, inventive imagination : yet, as Curtis writes, "All art is technical."  Here he is revising my note's perceived derogation of technical craft.  Conceptualism, in Curtis's view, is a kind of lever of renewal and change : one of the tools of expression, a sort of making manifest or self-conscious what is already integral to any art work (ie., technique).

Finally, he asks : "Would it be possible to write a poetry or paint a picture unconsciously?--living within the dream of language or within the known colors and shapes of our reality?  Possibly.  But we cannot not know what we know."  Well put - and it reads like a riposte (probably unintended) to my own follow-up statement (Natural Poetry).

I provide all this inadequate paraphrase, as a way of gathering my own sense of things by way of reply.

Curtis argues that conceptual art, in general, is a practice of standing outside accepted and traditional modes & purposes of art-making - treating these traditional processes with detachment - in order to invent something new, to see what we've always seen with new eyes.  In this endeavor, experiment is indeed a kind of quasi-scientific operation.  Such art can be understood as participating in, and representing, the scientific and industrial revolutions of modernity in general.  It is this very participation which grants avant-garde/conceptual art its authority : it is relevant, it is realistic with regard to modern conditions.

All this I find impossible to quarrel with.  It states the modern case.  But in order to present my sense of things, I must, ineluctably it seems, stand outside the "progressive" theory of modernity.  Art, again to follow David Jones, is a "making of signs" - the shaping of some significance out of its materials.  But poetry, then, is a making of signs out of signs : the art of the word.  And words, ultimately - in their fullness (which is poetry) - cannot be alienated from the human speaker who shapes, evokes and voices them.  In this view, poetry is the "art of arts" : for a sign made of signs returns to, is seamlessly bound up with, its maker.  Paul Celan explored this mysterious reflexivity, this circular labyrinth, in a complex, jocular short story "Conversation in the Mountains" : a conversation about, among other things, how poetry, finally, is detached from the very "alienation effect" which Curtis describes as the hallmark of modernity.  Poetry becomes, in this sense, a kind of art beyond art : circling back to nature, to our common "sensibility" - to the human/divine spirit - to the ghost in the machine.

Osip Mandelstam, as usual with me, comes to mind : he put this more gracefully in a poem from the very dawn of the "Modern movement" (1910), titled "Silentium".  Here's the final stanza, translated by Robert H. Morrison :

Remain foam, Aphrodite,
and, word, turn back into music,
and be ashamed, heart's heart,
poured out from fundamental life!


Natural Poetry

Today, July 29, 2013, marks the advent of a new Poetry University, which I am founding this morning, and which is established on the following simple principle :

The "poetry of life" is the origin of poetry.  Poetry is innate, pre-existent, both in reality and  imagination.  Fossil poetry, mute poetry, visual poetry, sound poetry, verbal poetry... the poetry of experience, of history, of tragedy, comedy, of shame, glory, of sin, redemption... the poetry of fantasy and invention, of newness, oldness...

- it's all there.  You won't "learn how to write" by appropriating certain academic or anti-academic techniques.  Poetry pre-exists : it hovers in the shapes of all things & events.  La vida es sueƱo.  The poet taps into it.  As Edwin Honig phrased it, in a brochure for the national Poets-in-the-Schools program, back in the 1970s : "Poetry is a buzzing in the air.  It's everywhere.  Poets listen to that sound, and write it down." (rough quotation from memory)

The Old Masters understood this.  The old Hebrew & Chinese poets & prophets understood.  One does not "learn" poetry as a set of techniques.  Instead, one becomes attuned to it : one must be found worthy to express it.   "Woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips!" cried the prophet.  This is the ethos of the poet in a nutshell.  In fact every sort of education is ultimately rooted in this moral-spiritual sense.  The learning is not an acquisition : it is a benevolence, a mystery.  & this is also the ethos, the groundwork of humane civilization as a whole.  Poetry inheres in actuality : so prepare yourself, poet, to be worthy to express

Some lineament or character,

Some affluence, if only half-perceived,
In the poverty of their words,
Of the planet of which they were part.

- Wallace Stevens, "The Planet on the Table"


Note contra Conceptualism

While the literary circuits of the nation are mostly on vacation, the pro/con debate over the value & credentials of Conceptual Poetry has been heating up of late.  Calvin Bedient just published an impassioned attack on Conceptualism; others, in defense, look to Marjorie Perloff's sophisticated essay from 2011.

With much of Bedient's erudite slam I agree : the approach of Goldsmith, Place, Perloff ("the conceptualist's conceptualist") et al. feels like a systematic shut-down of the emotional dimension of literature.  The trouble is, Bedient's argument tends to emphasize the supposed dichotomy between thought and feeling in poetry, upon which the Conceptualist movement constructed itself in the first place.

I think there might be firmer ground on which to make an argument.  The limitation, as I see it, in both the theory and practice of the Conceptualists, is very similar to that of its predecessors, Flarf and Language Poetry : all three were (and are) mere theory, mere practice.

By this I mean that Conceptualism reduces and reifies the art of poetry into a craft, which uses materials (words) and techniques (mostly theft and mimicry).  And by reducing poetry to a system of techniques, the essential thing slips through their fingers.

And just what is this essential thing?  The imagination.

Perloff, in her essay, writes in shockingly condescending cadences about the young would-be poets attending a White House celebration of the arts : they have no language!  they speak in cliches!  She criticizes their mentors for offering the illusory path of "self-expression", and a utilitarian notion of poetry (serving purely functional notions of social welfare).  Her solution to these philistine embarrassments, however, is purely technical : teach the kids to parrot the language of their betters; show them how to shape interesting collage-works out of the shards of verbal material.

There is a submerged desperation here, since the whole platform of the Conceptual movement requires the denial of the individual creative subject, the person - and of the human imagination, which (as Coleridge made clear long ago) is that synthesizing power, capable of harmonizing thought and feeling, concept and emotion, experience and its interpretation (or judgement).

I think Perloff's problem, and that of the Conceptualists generally, is a very American difficulty, shared to some extent by all of us.  We tend to reduce every problem, in no matter what sphere of existence, to a technical issue.  We are a nation of the quick fix (from duct tape to the war in Iraq).  Thus the problem of poetry is merely a question of how we are going to define what language is, rather than something more deeply rooted, more stubbornly contradictory - say, for example, how the human imagination comes to grips with the painful riddle of individual & collective, self & society, history & soul.

"The poetry doesn't matter", wrote TS Eliot, in a line from Four Quartets.  Paradoxically, I think Eliot meant something very similar to what Wallace Stevens meant by "The whole race is a poet that writes down / The eccentric propositions of its fate." ("Men Made Out of Words")  What matters is the inherent capability of human beings to respond imaginatively to reality - and thus to comprehend it, to survive in it, maybe even to "prevail" (in Faulkner's sense).  Communication follows vision (be it visual, aural, tactile, the whole sensorium) - not the other way around.

It will undoubtedly be argued that Conceptualism is itself a creative, imaginative, inventive new development of the art form - a fresh challenge to hackneyed styles in the sentimental, individualist, "lyric" mode.  But you can't have it both ways.  The techniques of the Conceptual poets - and the obsession with technique itself - are structured around a denial of poetry's pre-existence - its inherent givenness - in the dream-life of the human imagination.  "In dreams begin responsibilities."  And "we are such stuff as dreams are made on..."

Set against this "concept" of poetry, the Conceptualists come across as purveyors of technical tricks and gimmicks, quack doctors, hucksters, promoters, (very) used-car salesmen... familiar figures... the real American philistines.


Occasional poem : on (the former) St. Henry's Day


Backyard evening, noticed by
mosquitoes – little winged
lancers (rusty, tinged
with ragged tears).  St. Henry’s

Day, ex domicile (Jardin
des Mousquetiers).  Boom,
boom.  Little room
on high (full of eaglets’ din).

Level with me – let us speak plainly
now.  Fluked in a net
among flags, words – let
this servant-surf unroll.  Mary,

your wide fling-sponge... cathedral
hecatomb of feral
air (on fire).  All
shall be welcome here (the moral

of the tale) – even the big-eared
rabbits of San Francisco.
This is America, you know.
A 51st state-of-mind’s geared

toward Port-au-Prince : tres
riche tresses are hers,
her sails soft whirrs
(hummingbirdings)...  Say,

Juan Fernando... those stars...
ringed round a beam
en face... trireme?
Isis barge?  Rainbarrel, house?



Conceptualism... blah four

Blah, blah, blah...  not sure how much longer I can yoke these contraries (Concept & Blah) without giving us all the blahs.  But I think of things, walking to work, so I'll try to note it down.

Taking a long (wide?) view, Conceptual Poetics, Uncreative Writing, etc. may be irremediably trivial : yet it's curious how the concept, in connection with poetry, necessarily leads to the nearby endeavors of Literary Criticism.  What is poetry? has been the question.  As it happens I've been wading through a magisterial tome which used to be required reading for every English major, M.H. Abrams' The Mirror and the Lamp.  A historical study of critical theories of poetry, focused on the Romantic era, but analyzing it as one phase in a development stretching back to Plato and forward (for him) to the New Criticism of the 20th century (his own era).  And maybe beyond (I'm less than half way through).

For Abrams, the interesting thing is how the history of critical theories about poetry (in the West, anyway) reveals a procession of world-views, of philosophical eras, of chapters in the "Western mind", which determine in every way the specific aesthetic notions - about poetry and art in general - of each era.  Abrams develops a simple diagram, with "the Work" (the poem) at the center, from which arrows extend in 3 directions - "World", "Audience", "Poet" - which correspond, respectively, to 3 succeeding approaches to poetry : Mimetic, Pragmatic, Expressive.  (These in turn correspond to particular leading theorists : Plato/Aristotle for the mimetic; Horace and the neo-classical authors of the 18th century for the pragmatic; and the Romantics for the expressive.)  A fourth theoretical mode, which corresponds to the "Work" alone, Abrams calls "Objective".  I haven't gotten to those chapters yet, but I think he's referring to 20th-century Modernist and New Critical approaches, which highlight the integral, autotelic, self-contained "objectivity" of the work-in-itself.

Still awake, dear blahdom companions?

You get a sense, reading Abrams, of poetry as an ongoing, curious phenomenon, a puzzle, a conundrum, around which thinkers down the centuries have tried to attach their conceptual pincers.  With only partial success ; the thing remains a riddle, and what critics say about it often says more about assumptions and enthusiasms of their own era, than about this elusive what-not itself.  And the pattern of Abrams' argument seems to be leading toward some kind of crux, or cul-de-sac, since if you walk through his historical chart geometrically, you see a kind of swirl or spiral, of theories - absorbing the outer three in succession (imitative, pragmatic, expressive) and then turning inward to the center, to the last element, the Work itself (objective theories).  Where do we go from here?

Should we ask Helen Vendler?   Harold Bloom?  The Academy of American Poets?  A.W.P., maybe?  or the Poetry Foundation?  I asserted previously in this little series that poetry does more than represent reality - it (somehow) establishes same.  But I want to distinguish this phenomenon itself from its professional American expert establishers of literary establishments.  Poetry tends to get buried under the eager thundering of its mobs of advocates, all trained in their various ways to integrate literature into society, to promote the arts, to laud, praise and p.r. its established practitioners under compost piles of laurels and mountains of award grants.  It's a gradual smothering process out of which swarms of compost-insects rise and dance and do battle (winners & losers & bettors & publicists & kibbitzers).  Bye-bye, poetry.  Hello, symposia, festivals & funeral orations.

Much has changed in the 70 years or so since M.H. Abrams composed his subtle summa of Romantic poetics.   The critical ground has shifted, or given way completely.  Postmodernity rejects the unproblematic essentialism of all critical terms.  History and cultural identity are relativistic, contested fields of competing discourses.  The New Critical icon of the "poem itself" shattered and crumbled quite a while ago.  Ron Silliman, the Language Poet, for example, pronounced that "there is no such thing as poetry - only poetries."  So-called avant-garde programs (Flarf, the Charles Bernstein Unit, Uncreative Writing, etc.) are structurally self-corroding, designed and promoted through tongue-in-cheek technique.  Sincerity is for simpletons.  In a sense, these theory-driven or concept-based movements (arm-in-arm with most of the sub-critical poetries at which they poke fun) dramatize the hollowing-out of traditional literary criticism - dancing on its grave.

So... ?  Abrams' spiraling template ends (I'm guessing) at the summit of the "Work".  The poet's job used to be to imitate Nature in a wise & pleasing way (Mimetic).  Then it evolved into an Horatian mode of rhetorical suasion - leading readers to Goodness by way of Charm (Pragmatic).   Then the Romantics came along - resurrecting a neo-Platonic (Plotinian) spirituality, replacing the attenuated Deism of the rationalist Enlightenment with a new enthusiasm, grounded in the lamp of divine Imagination (Expressive).  Finally, once the ruinations of industrialism and war put paid to Romantic ideals, new forces of reactionary/revolutionary Modernism arose, grounded in the autotelic power of the Work itself (Objective).  Then at last came the great deconstructive fibrillations of the late 20th century.  & here we are.

Versions of all five of these approaches are still with us.  The whole Coliseum of professional American literary praxis continually justifies itself through apologetics based on some or all of these critical angles.  (Mimetic : " Poet X provides an excruciating but finally enthralling account of what it's like to live in Y."   Pragmatic : "Poet J reminds us, with moving memories of home, that we need to return to our roots."  Expressive : "Poet Q is a magician, an alchemiste du Verbe - revealing a wonderworld of fantastic visions."  Objective : "Poet Z is an uncompromising formalist, who cannot be tagged with any of the current labels. Neither traditionalist nor experimental, her austere, formidable style is literally incomparable."  Postmodern : "Poet M. unravels poetry from his shoelaces down, and builds it up again - as video.")

Yet poetry, the thing itself, slithers along like Montale's eel, some subterranean life-force, beneath the flimsy fabrications, the droning roar of the pros of the status quo.  Some of the most gifted 20th-century poets, including Stevens, Crane and Berryman, struggled against the complacent New Critical dicta regarding the autotelic "poem itself".  They were searching for some firmer sanction.  Stevens, often portrayed as the paragon of a neo-Romantic sublime (Bloom) or as a master of the self-pleasing, self-sufficient work of art (Vendler), might instead be understood as someone engaged in a relentless, rather tense intellectual struggle to find a justification for his work, for the making of poems.

Poetry and worldview : I think we can say these depend on each other.  But maybe the poet doesn't so much articulate or express a worldview, as respond, obliquely, to the existent worldview, the reigning zeitgeist.  And maybe within this response are encrypted some intimations of futurity - of a future human ambience, or common sense of things, which hasn't happened yet.  Thus when I proposed that the poetic Word not only represents, but establishes, maybe this could be understood in this kind of future tense.  Here I'm reminded once more of Emily Dickinson....

I dwell in Possibility--
A fairer House than Prose--
More numerous of Windows--
Superior--for Doors--

Of Chambers as the Cedars--
Impregnable of Eye--
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky--

Of Visitors--the fairest--
For Occupation--This--
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise--


Conceptualism.... blah three

This annoyance with Conceptual Poetics... could it be because I'm jealous?  Doubt it.  Because I'm secretly one of them?  Possible, I guess.  I certainly like to speculate & natter on endlessly about "poetry", as every reader of this blog already knows.

Walking along Morris Ave. on my way to the library on a brilliant mid-May morning, I asked myself what is my concept of poetry?  And I thought, I conceive of poetry, and art generally, as a sort of disk, or circle.  A circle, in turn, can be conceived as an infinite series of congruent half-circles, each bounded or held together by an invisible straight line (its diameter), the center point of which is also the center of the circle as a whole.

Follow that?  The half-moon shape of a semi-circle resembles a bridge, or a bow held taut by a bow-string.  This circle, then, is a round of infinite half-moons or bridges.

The bow held by the string is an ancient metaphor for metaphor.  For Metaphysical "wit" : the yoking-together of contraries (night and day) in harmony (think of Hart Crane's symbol of his Bridge :  "power in repose").  Harmony is the mean between extremes : the force that makes peace between warring opposites, the magic alchemy which transmutes difference into complementarity.

Of course this is a fundamental aesthetic concept, underlying some of the great monuments of Modernist poetry (Crane's Bridge; Eliot's Chinese vase, in Four Quartets, still moving in its stillness, "at the still point of the turning world").

But then of course the time of modernism has passed, and postmodernity is here.  The atrocious 20th century has eroded modernism's idealizations, its heroic icons of order and power.  We recognize the irrational violence, the sense of global/cosmic displacement, the total futility of human grandeur as never before.  Violent History (gloomy Spengler's metier) is the master frame - bracketing all our rusty icons, our ideals, of what is good and pleasant to behold.

But I'm not surrendering my magic circle, my secret totem, my spell.  We only need to expand the two prongs of these moon-calipers, to enclose a wider, deeper spectrum of opposing forces.  Art is meshed in a circle with Life - the circle of human seasons, of birth and death, weakness and strength, suffering and joy.  We try to remember and seek to re-establish that Golden Age which lingers somewhere in the heart of a happy child - out of an equilibrium of natural life, the shelter of the family house, the "dwelling", the tent, the dome (a circle of circles).  These speculations are only another illustration of the worldview of Russian Acmeism - Mandelstam's notion that poetry is fundamentally a form of "domestic hellenism", a means by which mortal Man on earth surrounds herself with "teleological warmth"- makes himself at home.  It lingers in Joseph Brodsky : "Man was put on this Earth for one purpose : to make civilization."  Art sinks back, sinks its foundations, into the deeper circle of normative life, the most basic "golden mean", our shared well-being.  And a metaphysical hope remains in the poetic work of "naming" : the nominative, inventive, perspicuous, originary act of joining word and thing.   Adam, in the beginning, gave names to every creature.  The poet, in the end, brings this process to fulfillment, a flower in bloom - its rose window, circling in stone...  the Word does not merely represent : the Word establishes (anew).

So I recall Emily Dickinson's aphorism for her poetic work : "my Circuit is Circumference".