Verbal Promontory

Integritas, consonantias, claritas : dimensions of beauty, according to Thomas Aquinas.  In James Joyce's translation : "wholeness, harmony, radiance."  Claritas : radiance, brilliance, intelligibility.

The work of art - if it's a thing of beauty, then it's a "whole" thing, an integral thing, a distinct, whole something.

Beginning, middle, end.  Shape, design, coherence.

Philosophers, of course, have chewed over aesthetics forever.  "Our aesthetic response is subjective, but the beauty to which we respond is universal."  Or so one argument goes.

And humanity displays something called "common sense" - sensus comunis.  We share sensibility (response to experience) and understanding (comprehension of same).  Whether or not these are "transcendental" or somehow otherwise determined.

Philos. 101.

Why am I going on like this?  I have ten minutes before I leave the building.

Poetry is one of the modes of human art-making.  We make whole objects, which manifest their own integrity, their coherence, their radiance.

The poet's sense of history differs slightly, perhaps, from that of the historian or the philosopher.  Because the poet responds especially strongly to the aesthetic dimension of a poem - no matter when the poem was produced.  Poets, of course, may have a more or less acute critical sense (say, of the social/existential/political differences between today and 200 B.C.) - which can affect their responses to poems of past ages.  But I think there is always a basic (or maybe residual) artistic response to the "poem as such".  This is why they (the poems) keep getting translated anew.  There is something integral which inheres in them.

I have to shut down now.  So why am I going on like this?  I have no general advice for writers (all those would-be poets in Seattle this weekend).  But for me, the adventure of making poems has a lot to do with responding - in my own stuff - to miraculous writings of long ago (or not so long ago).

Claritas, radiance, intelligibility... there is always hope for the sensus comunis of world civilization.  But maybe we need the detachment from the gamesmanship (our own, & our crowding contemporaries).  We need to sense the objectivity of art, and find our own mode of detachment.

I have built a sort of stony promontory in words.  It's lonesome out here.  But I'm hoping it will last, after the cookie-cutter parade has passed on by.


Concert for school & community center near Clarksdale

I'll be performing at this benefit concert in March with my son-in-law, Khaled (as "The Islanders").  Please join us - should be fun.


The Paradigm

Imagination is the irrepressible revolutionist.
- Wallace Stevens

Toward the end of the last century, the mind of the West (if you can call it that) showed forth the lineaments of a void of nothingness, an abomination of desolation.


First philosophy did away with God; then it was Man's turn.  Goodbye to humanism, goodbye to the human...


Fatalists all : Lacan, Althusser, Foucault, Barthes, De Man, Derrida...  Mankind is the toy of unconscious linguistic rules and structures of control.  The idea of freedom is meaningless.


Of course, without freedom, there is no struggle whatsoever, no point.  Pointlessless was the great moral alibi.


I suppose one could concede that these theorizers were struggling at least to convey a truth : but it's the truth of the fixed idea, the reigning mantra, the "control" itself.


Since the imagination was either the autotelic master of its own domain (modernism) or the abject scapegoat of parodic cancellations (postmodernism), ambitious poets could choose from a wide range of phony genres, methodologies, attitudes, etc.  It was an expanding market at the time.


Beckett, Pynchon, D.F. Wallace... after Kierkegaard & Sartre, a plangent pessimism about the human condition became ingrained in culture.  Then appeared the neo-Nietzschean option : structuralist anti-humanism (see above).


Language Poetry, Flarf, Conceptualism... the poets strummed variations on seductive discourses emanating from the shambles of Western thought.


Meanwhile the hawkers continued hawking their wares.  Poetry is a special case.


The new paradigm will somehow rebuild what was destroyed, without going back...


I imagine the imagination will be recovered, on behalf of both mankind and God.


It might be a new kind of geometry.  The imagination will emerge from human freedom again, just as Kant envisioned; yet mankind will not displace God.  Perhaps there will be a new Trinitarian concept.


God will allow humanity the freedom to imagine Her.  But imagination is one thing, an actual encounter is another. (God, after all, is HOLY : while Woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips.)


The source of poetry's strength is its freedom.  Not license or egotism, but moral freedom.


Moral freedom is a limb of conscience.  The poet's freedom appears under the aegis of truth.  We trust the poem because we recognize its authenticity - we hear it ring, so to speak (as in Mandelstam's "gold coins of humanism").


This freedom branches from something like Sartre's notion of the phenomenology of the image.  The image is purposeful - the creation of a phantom form.  Not for illusion's sake, but to say something to us.  The freedom of the beautiful image engenders a kind of absolute joy.


The spontaneity of the image is allied to the underlying dramatic essence of reality.  All the world's indeed a stage : poetry grasps this, and offers, not discourse, but an event.  And this is, moreover, where poetry & history coincide.


Angst of postmodernity : hegemony of the pervasive, manipulative, vacuous, dehumanized, amoral, inauthentic image.  But poetry is conscience, presence, authenticity.  The poet utters (somehow!) an authentic image.


Kant's transcendent imagination may be universal and a priori : but in order to create, the little light bulb over your head must still switch on.


Sartre, by way of his disenchanted, pessimistic phenomenology, explained just how frail, ephemeral, abject, solipsistic, unreal - yet motivated, conscious - are the mental "images" we construct (every moment of our waking/dreaming lives).


Yet (absurdly enough) the poet, Plato's ethereal, winged creature, foolishly shares those most vulnerable, abject phenomena - those useless dream-images - so that we understand them, a little... recognize ourselves in them (enthusiastically, reservedly, begrudgingly).  This is what the poet does (all day & night).


"And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us... full of grace and truth."  (The Word we imagine... conceptualize... perceive.)


Like a dream, the muse, a moment of blessed grace, Proust's involuntary memory... from the deep.  (I think Kant said so himself : imagination is rooted in the unknown depths of the soul.)


I have a hunch that Wallace Stevens pondered, confronted and resolved in advance almost all of the cruxes of the postmodern impasse.  (Imagination and reality, artifice & truth...)  Almost all of them.


...& David Jones solved the rest.


Poetry signals consciousness & presence : personal, human, divine, and in relation (to its interlocutors, its crossroad, its time & place).  That relation, essentially, is Love.


Whence comes the special freedom & authenticity of poetry?  The short answer (pace, Military-Industrial Writer Complex) : poetry is not for sale.


Not for sale.


An escapee from the kingdom of Mammon.


Mammon, planetary heir-apparent : controlling both authoritarian & democratic systems (China, Russia, USA).  Mammon, burning up the earth : the idol of human greed.


This is the short answer.  But there is a more precise answer.  Poetry's freedom, to repeat, proceeds from conscience, per se.  In other words, its substance is an innate, ethical response : compassion.


A sigh is the sword of an angel king


Love, love... Valentine's Day.  The main legend (and it is only a legend) of the first St. Valentine portrays someone whom we would call a "prisoner of conscience".  Jailed, and eventually executed, for his religious activities by the Emperor Claudian, the hagiography tells how Valentine sent a note (or notes) to a loved one, signed "your Valentine".

We are quite familiar with prisoners of conscience these days.  Think of the young Iranian poet Hashem Shaabani, recently tortured and hanged for speaking out against abuses of power.  Just one example among thousands.  The globe today, a battlefield of exploitation, fanaticism, brutality and violence.

Sad thoughts on Valentine's Day.


I was never much for philosophy.  The teachers, textbooks put me in a drowse.   When you don't really study a subject, it's likely you'll produce banal travesties of ideas which have been stated (or refuted) with greater exactitude and force in years or ages past.  In other words you won't discover or relate anything new.

Have been playing catch-up, a little bit, reading a very absorbing book by Richard Kearney, The Wake of Imagination.  Explores the changing notions of "imagination" through the history of Western philosophy, from ancient/classical Greek and Jewish thought, through the Middle Ages, into the modern age (Kant, Romanticism, Existentialism... to the present).

My knowledge of German idealist philosophy has not really been knowledge at all, just sketchy third-hand references (say, in texts on Coleridge's philosophical background).  Kearney's book puts aesthetic issues in the larger context. 

Kant was pivotal : the origin of Romanticism.  His theory of the imagination - so radical that he himself drew back from it (in the revised 2nd ed. of Critique of Pure Reason) - shifted the ground in a fundamental way.

Ancient philosophy was rooted in theology.  Plato's idealism was structured around the assertion of a universal Being, a first principle, the cosmic Logos, the source of reality in a divine realm of living Ideas, a transcendental Mind.  In similar (though not congruent) fashion, Jewish monotheism asserted a transcendental, invisible Creator- and Sustainer-God.  The imagination, for both cultures, was corroded by sin and revolt : for Judaism, the heart's turning away from its source led to destruction; for the Greeks, feeble mortals required the aid of a rebellious Titan, Prometheus (avatar and scapegoat for all human capability).

The Medieval era synthesized the legacy of Athens and Jerusalem, but the basic theocentric cosmic design remained.  The human imagination was a fallible instrument, a likely source of (moral and intellectual) error.

The Renaissance, followed by Reformation and Enlightenment eras, began the transposition from theocentric to anthropocentric worldviews.  Kant revolutionized philosophy by bringing this slow development to a theoretical summation.  The imagination was the vital center of human being, the root of both experience (perception and sensibility) and knowledge (intellect and understanding).  Moreover, the imagination was transcendental : not in a theocentric sense of divine, or heavenly, but in the sense of prior or formative.  Imagination shapes all human knowledge and experience : we, in this sense, make our world.  The "logocentrism" of a prior, exterior cosmos no longer holds : Man is the origin of his/her own reality.

Kant himself drew back from some of the epistemological consequences of his own critique.  But his most radical position was the basis for the entire Romantic movement. Human creative subjectivity was now the world-fashioning source of all experience; the ultimate order was rooted in the human mind.

The history of western philosophy since Kant is a tale of the shattering of Romantic idealism.  Naturalism, Existentialism and the various strains of Postmodernism express the belief that, although God is no longer relevant, and human consciousness is the center of experience (just as Kant asserted), nevertheless, that consciousness is faced with an external actuality, a real world of chance and meaninglessness, which is beyond human comprehension or control.  The mind's constructs are fictions, founded in nothingness (Nietzsche, Sartre).  Creative idealism is not a source of nobility, but rather of moral evasion and betrayal (Kierkegaard, Marcuse).  We may recognize God's presence only in the absurd, by an irrational leap of faith (Kierkegaard, again) - everything else is rationalization, complacency, bad faith.  There is only heroism and fellow-feeling in the stoic acceptance of our mutual fate, in a random, absurd cosmos (Camus).  Symbolism and Modernism attempted to salvage aesthetic experience by constructing an autotelic world of art; but the shadow (or the joke) of the actual world (of injustice, pain and absurdity) always impinged.

This then is my rough, amateurish travesty (courtesy of R. Kearney) of the philosophical background to our own time, the Postmodern era.  Maybe you can characterize Postmodernity as the absorption of both the lessons of 20th-century history, and of existentialist thought.  The autotelic engine of the modernist imagination broke down about 50 years ago.  The strongest intellectual trends which replaced it involve either various modes of historicism or historical materialism, or various forms of neo-Nietzschean thought.  Derridean deconstruction, for example, is a sort of parodic Platonism, a Plato in an inverted mirror.  The cosmic Logos of rationality is inverted by universal non-identity, by a rational structure of irrationalism (very Nietzschean in spirit).  Even the disillusioned heroism of Existentialism is rendered impossible, since the human imagination is no longer merely absurd or futile, it is not itself.

There are also distinct, perhaps more "positive" trends - the paradoxes of Lacanian psychology (desire grounded in the imaginary presence of another) or the tentative affirmations of Levinas (ethics grounded in an unknowable divine Interlocutor).  The landscape is appropriately confusing.  But the history of imagination seems to present a central plot.  The ethical/ontological fences around the imagination - whether Judaic, Platonic, or Christian - were knocked down.  The formative capacities of the rational comprehension of experience are faculties of human subjectivity.  Man assumed many of the ordering functions once assigned to God.  Then, in Acts Two through Four, the authority of that human subjectivity was thoroughly dismantled.  Relativity in all modes reigns supreme (block that metaphor!).


Professional philosophes & knowledgeable people must forgive the howlers embedded in the above.  It's my naive subjective take on a wonderful book (Wake of Imagination) which I haven't finished reading.  But what is my response to the basic plot, so rashly hammed together here?

I'm going to improvise.  It's Friday afternoon.  (There will be no rationally-secured syllogisms, unfortunately.)

The mind : is it a lamp or a mirror?  It's a lamp in a mirror (as in a lighthouse).

Kierkegaard's extremity seems rooted in the idea that God is strictly unfathomable, that the paradox of the God-Man is inherently absurd.  More than absurd : it is abjection, it is scandal.  He believes in God, but it requires a leap of faith to even begin to believe.  There is no synthesis of reason and faith.

Yet I can hear the distant trumpets of affirmation in both Kant's optimism and Kierkegaard's pessimism.  Kant affirms mankind's noble freedom and power; Kierkegaard sets a limit to human pride and self-delusion.

Kant's transcendental imagination, capable of fusing sensibility and understanding, and logically prior to experience, is like Aristotle's definition of the soul, but in a modern mode.  Kierkegaard's iconoclastic leap of faith, his anguish reaching out a hand, is an intuition of the ultimate ground beneath the scintillating, shuttling clay of Mind.

That ultimate ground (or firmament) is Love.  Under the aegis of love, we can comprehend the conjunction of logical opposites, the "absurd" incarnation of the God-Man.  And here is when we need to remember : the imagination is only a faculty, a power, a capability, of a more fundamental entity : the Person.  The imagination is not yet the "form of forms" - the person comprehends this form in an integral totality.

It is this assertion, combined with a recognition of the historical actuality of Jesus, the God-Man, which allows us to build a synthesis of experiential reality on solid ground.  How so?

The mind is both mirror and lamp.  We must apply the lamp, in order to see ourselves (less darkly) in the mirror.  What does Jesus himself, that historical individual, say about God?  Jesus suffuses the "concept" of God in personhood, relationship, love.  We cannot see God, we cannot understand divine infinity : yet, using the lamp, we can form a conjecture, construct an hypothesis.  This is beyond Kierkegaard's absurd leap in the dark.  Yet it's not merely abstract philosophizing.  We acknowledge the irreducible historical actuality of the particular human person; at the same time, we hypothesize the benevolent personal nature of the divine source of all experience.

Christianity proposes a Trinity.  In the Gospels, Jesus is "anointed" Son of God under the auspices of the Holy Spirit (in the form of a dove, the ancient symbol of love).  Jesus, in his "official" role as Messiah and Son of God, posits a Father-Son relation of absolute authority.  But the Holy Spirit is a legitimate third Person in this design.  The Holy Ghost is designated as "the Spirit of Truth" in the Gospel of John.  And the Truth is made known to us only gradually.  What if we think of the "monarchical" design of monotheism as an imaginative projection, a partial figuration of something more complex?

I speculate that Judaism developed in a dialectical opposition to ancient monarchy (Egyptian, Babylonian).  The kingship of Yahweh is an anti-kingship.  The "royalty" of Jesus is another twist in the pattern.  Jesus is the anti-king : the servant of servants : the humble, the rejected one.  Jesus is the human being who overcomes all the violent powers of worldly kingdoms.  He is killed - and rises from the dead.  He is the ultimate sign of life defeating death : of the actual Power lurking in the human soul (and in the human imagination).  Everyman as spiritual hero : God as the author of divine tragicomedy.

How can God be personal?  Observe the vast dark cosmos of galaxies.  How can God be personal?  Use your imagination.

We think we know what "persons" are, don't we?  We depend on them : they are the most integral entities we know (starting with our own subjectivity, and that of all those persons who affect our lives).  Yet we see as in a glass, darkly.

Kant's imagination is transcendental, a priori, like Aristotle's soul.  Yet I'm saying the imagination is a faculty of a more integral entity (the Person, the "incarnate" soul).  Why is the soul incarnate?  Why do persons exist?  Because our life, our world, is caught up in a kind of obscure drama.

Imagination : Persons :: Faith : God

This is an imperfect diagram.  What I'm trying to suggest is that, just as the imagination is a transcendental faculty of persons, who are embodied, individual, existential actors - so faith is a transcendental act of such integral persons.  It's transcendental, in that this act of choice, of commitment to a hunch, cannot really be explained.  Not merely an absurd leap, however - but a reasonable hypothesis, grounded in gathered evidence, synthesized by the imagination's own sensibility & understanding.


Stolen Air

I put this up a few days ago, and then had second thoughts. But after a protest from Chris Kraemer, I worked on it a little more, & here it is again. This is the original video. The revised poem is printed below.

          STOLEN AIR
                                               to Yevgeny Vitishko

         There are many in Athens who’d rather not hear you
         speak, Olympian.
         Plato, perhaps.  And Putin.
         Judges in Sochi (policemen, too).

         Go back to your Sunday tea, they pray.
         Give it a rest.  Poetry
         in polite society
         is not taken seriously – & hurray

         for that! expound the hoi-polloi.
         Punctiliousness is de rigueur
         whatever that means.  Sure,
         it’s about stuff that matters... oh boy.

         Show me the riot.  What’s your game?
         Causeries des chimps.
         Gambling works – hence the
         full Monty (my life, sorry).  Shame

         on innocence, or chumps.  Sex
         is Pharaoh’s mask, Yahweh’s unisex,
         anyone who genuflects
         otherwise... go figure!  What next?

         A naked lancer skims toward Thermopylae.
         Naiads flank across frozen
         lake.  Siberian ozone...
         Pyrrhic destination, puppy.  Hey,

         my soul’s on fire.  Let’s put ‘em there,
         where they won’t cause no trouble.
         All’s Romany rust or ruble,
         Homs, seriozhne.  Griots vein stolen air.



MAGNUS, a children's book

Several years ago, my mother wrote and illustrated a wonderful children's story, called "Magnus".  Now it's out in book form.  And all author income from any sales that may happen will be donated to projects advancing children's literacy and reading.


A few heretical thoughts about poetry

Am reading a scholarly tome titled Reading Dante : the pursuit of meaning, by Jesper Hede (Lexington Bks, 2007).  He's following in the steps of another little-known Dante scholar I like, named T.K. Seung (Fragile Leaves of the Sybil).  Seung's book is a profound contextual study of the Divine Comedy; Hede builds on Seung's insights, and finds most of previous commentary on the great poem to be greatly flawed.  For Hede (and Seung) the Divine Comedy is an organic whole, and that wholeness is rooted in Dante's message - his "argument", in Milton's sense - the fundamental writerly purpose of the poem, the morse code Dante aims to impart : a message which suffuses and sheds light on each and every element of the poem, large and small.

This appeals to me, and not only because of its explanatory power.  It rings true for me personally, when I consider my own situation, my own compositional problems and dilemmas.  I feel that I have written and write long poems, not just because I'm an obsessive masochist, or a megalomaniac, or in order to compete with the other long poem writers... I write them because the form seems congenial to the enunciation of a certain, particular message (my message, to you).

And yet this attitude seems heretical today : it goes against several reigning dogmas of poetry.  Here's a short list :

1. Poetry is essentially a work of art; thus its ethical (or other) messages are not so much extraneous, as marginal to its main purpose - which is to please us with an aesthetic effect.

2. Anyone who pretends to be in control of a literary message is hopelessly deluded by false consciousness, essentialism, individualism, egocentrism and logocentrism.  Language is an untraceable phase-shift, inherently absent and de-centered.

3. Authorial intention is all well and good, but the final meaning of any work of art is determined by the historical circumstances which engendered it in the first place.  Thus the poet's well-meaning attempt to tell us something is really doomed to failure, a temporary, Pyrrhic victory at best.

4. Any poet who tries to browbeat me with a "message" is going to lose me right off the bat.  I have only contempt for a poem which has "designs" on me (this from Keats, no less!).

5. Contemporary poetry is primarily a generic phenomenon.  We are relentlessly reminded of this every day by the critical theorists of the avant-garde (Conceptualism : "Poetry is..." etc.), by the academic community ("Modernism represents the coalescence of Poetry with Nietzschean-post-structural blah-blah of Late Capitalist blah-blah..."), by the MFA programs ("Where do you want to take your poetry?  How do you want to sharpen up your style?"), and, finally, by the entire multifarious publishing/arts-advocacy world, absolutely replete to busting open with social media promotions for the lovable wondrousness of "poetry" in toto, for the magnetic poetry scene per se, for poets as charismatic exemplars of the cool, the hot, the hip... and with trendentious, pop-critical comparisons (blurbs) about this or that poet's status in relation to "poetry" in general, etc.

Here I just want to make a few complaints about #5 above.  What if the Dante scholars are right?  What if the greatest single poem ever written is determined, in every aspect of its form, by a specific message?  And if the Divine Comedy is such a phenomenon as they suggest, then what about all the lesser poems trailing before and after?  Would there not be some smidgen of Dante's poetics detectable in all these other poems, or at least some of them?

And if that is actually the case, then I think we have to consider this possibility : that the most important quality of a poem is that which makes it absolutely distinct from every other poem.  If the poet's message shapes its form, its design, its aesthetic effects, then, we must admit, poetry in a "generic" sense becomes a little less central to the whole enterprise.  If the transmission of a message is the guiding, leading motive for the poet's entire effort, then wouldn't the intepretation and reception of this message take precedence over the celebration of its aesthetic effects and qualities?

Might it not be better to focus on what this poet is trying to tell me, rather than on how this poet fits into a certain aesthetic pantheon or academic celebrity hall or community club of "poetry lovers"?  (After all, he or she might have an important message for me : so important, in fact, that my fingers tremble... my whole being shivers... & I'm unable even to press the "like" button on Facebook!)

I don't really have an answer to these rhetorical questions : I ask them because, perhaps, they raise interesting problems.  One way out, I suppose would be the Wallace Stevens solution : the message of poetry is poetry itself.  A tautology here becomes the occasion for gorgeous meditations on poetic sense and nonsense, the beauty and the terror.  Stevens is possibly the greatest 20th-cent. American poet.  But he doesn't have an "argument" to make, outside of poetry itself, the way Dante does.  And despite the fact that Dante does retain such an "extraneous" argument... he makes poetry.  He makes great poetry.

Is it possible that all of us - teachers, publishers, poetry activists, all - have somehow skewed the whole scene, by foregrounding our generic "ideas about the thing", rather than hewing closely to the distinct, inimitable "thing itself"?


p.s. Contra McLuhan, then, it's not "the medium is the message" : rather, the message shapes the medium.  Does this mean I subscribe to the blunt maxim of Charles Olson & Robert Creeley, that "form is never more than an extension of content"?  No (despite the fact that, in the current hothouse climate, I appreciate the spiritual, unpretentious anti-poetry of the heirs of Projectivism - still alive in the pages of Kenneth Warren's underground zine, House Organ).  Olson's dictum projects a Modernist-Brutalist ambience, like some blank institutional architecture of the '60s.  As I see it, the message - the "content" of poetry - proceeds from an area in which the emotional, the perceptual, and the rational are fused together - harmonized - at an extremely high temperature.  This amalgam is only adequately represented in a "form" which is equally subtle, crystalline, complex.  We can feel the power of certain climactic lines in Aeschylus, or Sophocles, or Dante, or Shakespeare, or Dickinson, or Whitman, or Blake - the message comes across - only because the poet has produced a comprehensive, harmonious measure - capable of bearing that unique smoke-signal's affective weight.