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.

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