All poetry is super-conceptual

Today I was handling some materials for the library's digital archive, & happened upon a quote from Sol Lewitt (from this paper):

"When an artist uses a multiple modular method he usually chooses a simple and readily available form. The form itself is of very limited importance; it becomes the grammar for the total work. In fact, it is best that the basic unit be deliberately uninteresting so that it may more easily become an intrinsic part of the entire work. Using complex basic forms only disrupts the unity of the whole. Using a simple form repeatedly narrows the field of the work and concentrates the intensity to the arrangement of the form. This arrangement becomes the end while the form becomes the means."

Instantly I felt he was talking about things that happen with me in the world of long poems.  The "form is of limited importance, it becomes the grammar for the total work".  The stanza, the mathematical structures of different parts... they are basically simple, and become a sort of second nature - allowing things to take form in unexpected directions.

I went into the stacks to skim some of Lewitt's art work (in catalogs).  They have an unassuming, graceful quality : not imposing, but creating designs which encourage exploration.  Mental constructs.  Some, in the photos, also seem a bit too much like miniature replicas of the giant glass buildings behind the park scenes & public settings.  Maybe a little cold.  You have to bring your own happiness, if you have any.  But I like what I saw.

Reducing visual art to a conceptual presentation poses some problems for the artist, which may be the opposite of those confronting a poet.  All poetry is already super-conceptual.  It's not a matter of reducing the expressive content & the physical materiality to a concept.  "The Word is Psyche," as Mandelstam wrote.  A spoken or written word is nothing but the whisper of an idea.  A word is a packaged message - & a message is a concept-in-transmission.  A hidden, perhaps infinite, conceptual realm (of meanings) hovers around and through the sound & feeling delivered in the poetic utterance.  The problem for the poet is to project that psychic realm in a concrete image (or structure of images).  The word is a spiny, feathery milkweed seed... in what soil will you plant this?  & will it actually produce a milkweed, eventually (with monarchs arriving)?  Or will it remain merely the dried-up husk of an idea...

The visual artist constructs forms in space (got that, kids?).  Poetry builds conceptual spaces out of invisible messages : speech, sound, time.

Lewitt's white geometries rest with calm elegance in the grass.  They are always now (though they may recall prior constructs, progenitors).   Poetry also strives to be now : but in the very process, calls "now" into question.  How so?

I think there exists a primal ur-concept, which underlies & grounds all the conceptual artifice, all the constructions of poetry.  But what this ur-concept actually is, is hard for me to describe...

Mandelstam's "the Word is Psyche" gets close, though.  Ezra Pound, in "The Spirit of Romance", wrote this : "The study of literature is hero-worship. It is a refinement, or, if you will, a perversion of that primitive religion."  This also seems apropos, somehow.  Our own personal reception of poetry - that "refinement" somewhere hidden in the obscure corners of our own psyche, of our sensibility - rooted maybe in our initial enthusiasm for our mother's bedside stories, or the children's hymns we sang in church, or our first adolescent encounters with particular poems - is bound up somewhere with our state of being in the world as a whole : that is, with the ways in which we relate to and respond to other people and to experience throughout our lives.  There is no escape (& no need for escape) from the "subjectivity" of this dimension : it is inherently personal (just as it is inherently a process of communication, of shared experience).

I understand Pound's "hero worship" as the reader's sense of the distinctly personal & historical origin of the poem he or she reads.  It is not ours : it is that poet's world.  & as we read, we sense how the language of the poem represents both a comprehension of, & a resistance to, that very rocky other world which the poet conveys.  So when we encounter, say, the mournful music of a poem by Leopardi, or the fiery sparks let fly by Dickinson, or the profound equilibria in Shakespeare, it's not simply the "words themselves" or "the language" which compels our devotion - it's the intuition of another person, another poet, offering us their whole world in the manner of a friendly storyteller.

So maybe the ur-concept has to do with some kind of human frame which is the preconception for every work of (verbal) art.  All poetry is conceptual, indeed.  But more than that, all poetry is super-conceptual : because there is a mysterious someone who is signalling to us behind, before, beneath the words themselves.

Poetry is the transmutation of time and history into this strange - yet heimlich, affectionate, humane - mode of presence & exchange.  You have to listen carefully for that rich music - from a shade, from a time-dimension, beyond the flat, denatured idioms of utilitarian discourse (& all its "social media").  (Yes, it might just be a shade, cast by the musical intonations of your mother's bird-voice, once upon a time, warbling that story about Frisbee, the tiny explorer, as she sits nearby on the bed, as you fall asleep...)

Mandelstam, from a late poem :

But in caressing books, in children's games,
I shall rise from the dead to say:
the sun!

No comments: