Hiya, Sophia

Today's my birthday.  Thinking of kids, & Mom.  Wrote another poem today.  I'm always a sucker for occasional poems, especially if it's an important day like May 29th.  JFK's birthday.  Rhode Island Statehood Day.  Oak-Apple Day (Restoration Day) in England (Charles II's birthday).  The day Constantinople fell, in 1453.

Constantinople was founded on May 11th (3 hundred something) - Phoebe's birthday.  Sophie was born in August, however.  My mother hand-made a wooden bathtub boat for me, when I was 2 or 3 years old - painted blue & white, with "Sophie" inscribed on the bow.  The little boat has turned up in a few poems over the years (I wish I had a photo of that vessel).  Eventually I gave it to Elena Shvarts, the dear Petersburg poet,  & she kept on her windowsill.  Petersburg is a place for boats.  Here's Sophie in a boat, too...

& here's a poem from Ravenna Diagram, which I wrote just before Sophie was born.  So we weave these odd carpets with words... past & future...


Now daughter Phoebe’s salient belly
measures the girth of future
earth... Hiya, Sophia!
She shall be dark, but comely,

I prophesy.  & coming soon,
I reckon.  So the sweep
of Time’s straw broom
swings reaping into sunny bloom

again, again.  Let there be light
& joy, after the pain
that day – O reign,
Sophie, that day – with gentle might!

As when the heir looks out, calmly
from oaken hideaway
like Noah, into hay-
stacks of a cleanswept sea

of waving grain... I pledge allegiance
to the flag of the United
States of a merry, delighted,
omnibenevolent Pacific... O glance

encompassing – your quietude, your
equanimity!  Your rain
that slakes the level plain
of just, unjust... onion & all!

I hear the drone of universal union
peal from bells in Petersburg
& Panama... in Denver, Darling,
& Dhaka... my child... my matryoshka-lion!



Friday on the Ponderosa

We look back, we reminisce, and in the process we shape, suppress, edit, & deform everything.  For the sake of an idea or an argument, we oversimplify.  But it's unavoidable - and sometimes it's useful.  Sometimes a confusing series of events long ago can be summarized, characterized... maybe illuminated.


What is the ground of civilization?  What makes for a peaceful, free, happy & just world?  Good will toward others.  The ability to transmit as much goodness & kindness to others as we would like to receive ourselves.  The sense of universal justice.  The recognition of the dignity of persons.  The sense of responsibility toward nature & the sustaining earth.

The words alone sound Pollyanna-ish - a wishful, sentimental pablum.  But that's how it is sometimes with words.  One way to think of the poetic notion of "incarnational speech", or the idea of "the Word made Flesh", is with a moral recognition of the limitations of mere words.  "Words made flesh" are words materialized in deeds, in action.  So we have the saying "a man/woman of his/her word".  To "keep your word" is to acknowledge the responsibility for the promise of a commitment.  A covenant of words "underwritten" by deeds.


In ordinary & contemporary everyday life - and setting aside for a moment those times of real suffering and crisis -  we are made constantly aware of the friction and trade-offs and anxieties and irritations involved in our interactions with others.  Other drivers, other shoppers, other co-workers, other neighbors... the little frictions & frayings which result from opposing territorial rights.  "It's my turn to go at the stop sign."  Road rage, etc.  The spirit of community, the sense of fellow-feeling, the willingness to be flexible, to give way, to respect others.... how fragile these things sometimes seem in a competitive world of demanding, self-interested, sometimes arrogant & selfish people...

These bourgeois realities of wear & tear have their parallels in the macrocosm of politics.  We live in a country split between two major parties, whose central dividing line appears to be a dispute over the boundaries of private and public interest.  Republicans stand for liberty and small government.  Democrats stand for equality and big government.  On this disagreement over the proper territories of the private & the public, the individual & the collective, property rights & social rights, the whole country seems to be slowly grinding to a paralyzed standstill, or stand-off.

Mine & yours.  Ours & theirs. The two parties divide the country by way of a mimesis, a magnified mirror of ourselves : ourselves at an intersection, having lost our temper.  Angry, stupid, self-righteous grumps, unwilling to give an inch.  My way or the highway... my way or the highway...

& it's all about the common good.  Except the two parties agree to disagree, since it means so much for their fundraising & public relations.


Jesus in the Gospels somewhere says you have to choose.  "No man can have two masters : you must serve God or Mammon (riches, wealth)."

Doctrinaire dogmatists of various stripes have often interpreted this in ways that serve their own absolutist political aims.  We see the same thing in the propaganda wars between extreme enthusiasts of both Left & Right.  Left dogmatists idealize the State, the Collective, the Common Good.  Right dogmatists extol Liberty, Property, & Privacy.

I'm a conservative liberal, a liberal conservative.  I hold with the "incarnational" idea that mere words & theoretical formulae with regard to political principles have to be tested & confirmed in actual, working, unspoken, normal, active life.  (I won't call this pragmatism, however, because I think that word is often used as a cover for expediency.)

It's possible to imagine a humane community of persons who, in their own ways, set aside pure selfishness (Mammon) on behalf of better, more altruistic goals (the social pursuit of happiness, for example).

Call it a global civil society.  When people are just - when they rise above their own narrow self-interest on behalf of love, charity & the common good - they work together to solve common problems.  The common good does not necessarily entail or require the surrender of property rights.  Collectivism, in general, does not serve human happiness any more than private greed does.  They  both (in opposing ways) detract from human rights & dignity.  But we all need to seek the right balance of public & private : both in our personal lives & in society at large.

Many ideological enthusiasts will certainly describe this as a lamentable form of sentimental delusion.  Maybe.  I just call it "the pursuit of happiness."

In fact the two faces of private greed & collective statism - let's call them Mammon & Cyclops - coincide in the Janus-face of Theft (like the two thieves hanging on either side of the crucified Son of Man).  "Behold, I am coming like a thief."   The current government of China, for example, has masterfully welded private greed & authoritarian collectivism into a seamless whole.  Meanwhile, of course, we in the U.S. have our own thriving cults of Mammon & Ideology, with all their down-home refinements of hypocrisy & fraud.  (Mark Twain & Herman Melville anatomized our special talents in this area 150 years ago.)  This is the world of force, not consent.  The Iron Age, not the Golden.  The Tower of Babel, not the Kingdom of God.


French thinker Jacques Rancière has an eloquent, subtle essay on the poetry of Mandelstam in his book Chair des mots (Flesh of Words).  He interprets poems from Tristia (& others) within a political-historical context, the movement from 19th-cent. republicanism & romanticism (Wordsworth), to the revolutionary 20th century.  It's about the impasse of lyric poetry in general & Mandelstam's particular (& in Tristia, definitely elegiac) "resolution" (comprehension) of this impasse.  I think  Rancière offers only a "partial" Mandelstam in this essay, which seems suffused (the essay) with a fairly pessimistic consciousness.  (Understandable, really, when you acknowledge 20th-cent. history.)

But his reading brings out elements of Mandelstam's own "program" (which R. describes as more idealistic than the poetry itself) : the Acmeist concepts of "domestic hellenism", which he traces back in part to M.'s allegiance to the Russian language itself, and its roots in Eastern Orthodoxy.  Some of these threads emerge in M.'s short (truncated) essay "Pushkin & Scriabin" : the freedom of the poetic word runs parallel to human cultural freedom generally, which is, in its "Western" manifestation, underwritten by the Redemption.  The free gift of love of the "Word made Flesh" sets art free (along with everything else) - to play "hide & seek with the Father" (but see Robert Paul's great, & rather darker, neo-Freudian interpretation of all this in his book Moses & Civilization).

Maybe you can see how this particular shaping of a sense of Mandelstam's "incarnational" poetics has echoes, parallels, with the general "liberal conservative" political stance I've been sketching out here.  This was all laid out in the first (biographical) chapters of Clarence Brown's early study (Mandelstam) : the Acmeists emerged from the last vestiges of an "ordinary", church-going,  pre-Revolutionary Russian middle class.

Maybe some things come back around again...


When we reminisce about our own remote past, we select, we over-simplify.  40 years ago I went through a psychological crisis which brought on, or was triggered by, a sort of upwelling of uncanniness & inexplicable, irrational experiences.  I've written about it several times before.  I think a sort of "rational" way of analyzing that crisis would be to think of it as an adolescent vocational impasse.  I was a poet, of all things - a poet in America - & I couldn't handle it.

As a result I had an "encounter" with the Bible & Shakespeare.  You could say I was thrown back on the literary foundations of Western culture - I had to reiterate them, recapitulate them in terms of my own breakdown.  Somehow I kept my head about water - but it changed me.  The ground had shifted : you could say I became intellectually committed to the notion of a spiritual Presence or subjectivity.  Thus words to the wise like "No one can serve two masters - you must serve either God or Mammon" (along with the rest of the Bible) seemed to manifest a real "living" imprint : a personal charisma.

My "encounter" with Mandelstam a few years later had nothing irrational or uncanny about it.  I didn't feel Mandelstam's personal "spirit" drawing near.  Instead, his life & words seemed to help me actualize or realize or amend the original break between everyday reality and religious enthusiasm.  Because, perhaps, for me it all began - the crisis itself - in a specifically literary context.  It was a problem for a poet, a problem of poetry.  It was a local iteration of the story - of the Word made Flesh...


Poetry, religion, metaphysics, & all that stuff

I write about these cloudy subjects a lot.  I brood 'pon them.  It is what it is.  I yam whut I yam, as Popeye so memorably put it.

The recent essay in Coldfront proposed a literary-historical contrast & a conflict between a skeptical/ironic/disenchanted mode of poetry (exemplified by Language Poetry), and mode with an ultimately spiritual basis (ie. the "New Gnostics").  Lots of people would object to this binary set-up itself, as well as to its terms.

Lots of people will insist that art & poetry get along just fine without spirituality & religion & all that mumbo-jumbo.  Thanks but no thanks.

Those of us, however, who have some first or even 2nd-hand knowledge of what's called sin, or guilt, or bad conscience, or crime, or just plain blues & trouble, will have some sense of what moral & spiritual or psychological illness & sickness is.  From experience.  & by the same token they will have an inborn sense of the desire for relief, for liberation from same.  This is the case, whatever your diverse scientific or religious or philosophical explanations for these conditions might be.

The longing, you might say, is a desire for healing.  For wholeness.  For happiness.  For a return, perhaps, to a sense of innocence.

Some people may have not much experience with these kinds of "moral" suffering.   It seems to me that such healthy & innocent people often have an unintentionally callous & superficial attitude toward life.  But then, sometimes we need the lighter touch of vapid ignorance (& I mean that).  Not everybody is as guilty as we may be.

It seems to me that if you're an American poet, and you do subscribe to some sort of spiritual or metaphysical basis or connection underlying art & poetry, then you face one major problem or theme.  Of course I'm generalizing here : let me just say that I feel like this is a theme or a design which I myself as an American poet find important.

It's the contrast between Emerson/Whitman/Crane/Dickinson, on the one hand, and Eliot on the other.  These are just the most iconic exemplars of the polarity.  It's the divide between Transcendentalism and traditional Judeo-Christianity.

(Then you have people like Melville and Wallace Stevens : their deeper skepticism about the "spiritual" - their ironic searching orientation - puts them in a separate category.)

Emerson is the model of the Transcendental antinomian Romantic.  These are just academic tags for a stance toward reality which claims an ultimate originality.  For Emerson, traditional religion represents the primitive folktales of what has evolved into a more conscious relation between the free human mind & spirit and the "Over-soul" which is the spirit of God.  The poet celebrates the New Day Every Day of this primal, creative ecstasy.  Whitman himself was the great American poet of this generally rhapsodic state of mind.

Eliot stands for something else.   For both Jews & Christians, the faith is, that underneath all the fables & allegories & fantastic (often literally unbelievable) twists & turns of Biblical testimony... something happened.  Something metaphysical and historical happened.  Underneath, that is, all the Freudian psychodrama and pseudo-Pharaonic baloney, there is the ineradicable and inimitable thumbprint of some inexplicable Presence.  A sacrifice was made, for all time, for the whole race of mankind.  A self-sacrifice by the ghost who said "I am what I am" or "I will be what I will be."

For the Eliotic traditionalist, the human predicament of sin and guilt & suffering cannot be thrown off so easily & heroically as the Emersonian Romantics would like to think.  We are, as MLK famously put it, bound up in a seamless network of mutuality : there is a much-suppressed history which underwrites every person's most-distinct identity, their quiddity of personhood.

Knowledge, & the pursuit of knowledge, it goes without saying, is and will be the basis for any future global humane civilization.  However, ironically, it is the pride we invest in our knowledge - our petty vainglory, our greedy chauvinism, our blind self-regard, our will-to-power - which corrupts truth into propaganda, and turns the tools of enlightenment into weapons of war.  The issues facing Plato's Atlantis are still with us.  There will be no peaceful & just civilization on earth without humility, mercy, mutual forgiveness, & reconciliation.

As you can probably tell, I am, at least on a conscious level, aligned more with the Eliot than the Emerson end of this spectrum.  But I am also an American poet - & I think unless you, the poet, share some of the iconoclastic & searching mind of Stevens & Melville & Pound & Emerson & Crane & Dickinson, then you will not be able to interpret the inheritance of traditional metaphysical & religions concepts & notions & hobgoblins with the requisite salt of originality.   You won't bring anything new to the table.  Poetry at the core is visionary, exploratory, experimental, celebratory, creative, harmonic.  It verges on the oracular.  It is not, as often in Eliot, only retrospective lamentation.  Thus we find the generative oscillation between these two poles.

So for me anyway, it's always been this nexus - this middle area of poetic thought & meditation - this uncertain no-man's-land situated somewhere in the midst of seemingly opposing States  - that I find most fertile & valuable for my own mythongeries...


Quiet Friday thoughts

The library is always quiet, but Fridays toward the end of the school year, especially so.  Lately am absorbed in very deep Freudian/anthropological book : Moses and Civilization, by Robert A. Paul.

One of the first principles in my conception of poetry : "vitalism".  By this, I guess, I mean vital in a sort of Bergsonian sense.  Text, in this schema, involves a kind of death, a sort of clinical operation : living language entombed on the stone, or the page.  Poetry works backward from this situation : it dramatizes a sort of resurrection of vital speech.  Poetry is the sign of a living person speaking or singing or telling us a tale.  It's the rhythm and the verbal complexity - the concentrated energy of these two forces - which represents or mimics the living voice.

I guess there's an irony involved here, because poetry is also a form of "encryption" : it also entombs in text this "sign" of vitality.  Maybe this irony points to the limits of human language itself.  Poetry is as "living" as words can be : but life, in the end, is a fire beyond speech... an actuality...

In my view, consciousness - let's call it "super-consciousness' for the moment - and life itself are pretty much the same thing.  We inhabit a circle of consciousness : it is the oneness, the One, beyond which we cannot step.  As Nicolas of Cusa put it in a letter to his friend Giuliano :  "The universe giulianizes in you, Giuliano."  Cusanus also talked about how human beings exist, unavoidably, in a "conjectural" cosmos.  He points to our finiteness in relation to infinity : but he posits some kind of unknowable "infinite" consciousness - another imperfect human indication of God.

"La vida es sueno."  Life is a dream (as the title of the classic Spanish Renaissance play by Calderon has it).   We humans burn the brief candle (as the cliche has it), and then we go into the vast Beyond, the Space which so frightened Pascal.  We leave home & family & loved ones behind, or so it seems.

But dreaming leads to waking, too.  We can conjecture another door opening, into something on the other side of this "all the world's a stage."  (I'm loaded with these old chestnuts today.)  The mind peers into its own unknown.

Robert Paul's Freudian analysis talks about how the myths & rituals of ancient religion resonate with universal human stresses & emotions - unconscious for the most part, primitive childhood loves, hates & fears, translated and transferred & suppressed.  The rituals resonate psychologically, and channel these infantile anxieties - loves & hates - into cultural order, meaningful covenants which stabilize societies.  Cultures live on as they keep faith with their own conceptions of reality.  In a Freudian pattern, Paul rationalizes metaphysics.  It's a necessary knowledge, but it may have its own limits...

I think one can assent to this kind of necessary knowledge, regarding the subconscious motives & patterns of the human psyche, and yet retain a kind of metaphysical, even religious vision.  This sounds like a contradiction... but as Whitman put it, "very well, I contradict myself."

If life is a dream, then life is also a "stage", a theater.  So let me ask the oldest, deepest question once again : how did all this Something come from Nothing?

If life is consciousness, then life is personal.  The Ariadne-thread in the labyrinth leads from the human guilty (& ritually-repetitive)  knowledge of the Mosaic law (in Freud's & Paul's terms, the Oedipal fantasy of a primal murder of the tyrant-father-pharaoh)... the thread reaches back to its life-source, seeking for life itself, seeking for reconciliation, for love, for peace.  It gradually ("prophetically") universalizes itself, in the dramatic imago of the angry, jealous, kindly, just Heavenly Father.... until the Messiah is revealed, or reveals himself.  And dies ("Oedipally") and lives again, & "goes to the Father" - becomes one with the Father.  & lives forever, beyond death.

So goes the plot, in my reductive sketch.  The plot of supreme Authority, of the humble King over all kings, the Father of all fathers... a very male story here, obviously : a psychological symbolism for the "maturation" or "integration" of the adult person... in a civilization...

I think of hunters, herder/shepherds, and farmers.  These primitive three.  I think of the Garden of Eden, and of the resurrected Jesus in Gesthemane, mistaken by Mary Magdalen for "the gardener".  Shepherds, nomads, are the median between the other two, maybe.   Prehistoric hunters honor & respect their prey, but the prey is "foreign" to them, an enemy.  For ancient herders, on the other hand, the animals are in a sense part of the family.  Nomads, paradoxically, don't go anywhere : they are always with their extended family.  This gives to the act of killing or murder a special psychological horror, since it resonates more closely with the Freudian (Oedipal) unconscious.

I think of the Jewish shepherds, brooding, pondering for centuries, reliving the sacrifice of their familial animals... while becoming a 20th-century holocaust to another culture, which had become a mob of psychotic hunters.  Those they killed were only "strangers" to them.  The shepherds become the "lambs of God" themselves... in this unspeakable tragedy.

Cain, the son of Adam, was a farmer - & the first murderer (of his brother).  The sin of Adam - cast from the Garden - is brought immediately to this tragic extremity.  From Eden... to murder.

Hunters.... shepherds... gardeners...

In my myth, the human Person - the Everyperson of a global humanity - looks beyond the violence of Man himself... back to the origin of origins.... the cosmic origin of all things.  It is, as the old Book tells, a "creative" Reality.  It is a dream made out of nothing.  And it is an infinitely wonderful and amazing and generous dream : a Cosmos emerging out of sacred Fire.  It's given us a garden to tend together, this gem, this emerald, set in a silver sea...

 This is where real justice begins : in a metaphysical thankfulness.  Which is why Jesus taught that "love God with all your heart" and "love your neighbor as yourself" are joined : the vertical, the  horizontal.  +


Article in Coldfront Magazine

(This is my second blog post about this.  I deleted the first one, which was certainly impassioned, but a little over the top.)

Coldfront magazine published an article of mine a few days ago, about the New Gnostics group of poets, here.  Ed Foster, an old acquaintance from Hoboken Russian-American poetry conference days (late 90s), edits Talisman magazine and recently ran a special section featuring the writings of the NGs.

I guess there are strengths and weaknesses in shaping an essay which foregrounds a history of rivalry between (mostly male) poetry collectives or schools.  This is what I do, framing the spiel on a contrast between the NG's and the Language Poets.  As it happens, I am currently reading a lot of psychoanalytic writings about the Bible & other literature.  History in general seems to be made up in large part of violent struggles based on (mostly male) Oedipal & pre-Oedipal fantasies - mythical stories -  about objects of desire (Mom, women, slaves...), and domination of rivals for same.  Very primitive, very adolescent, very subconscious...

So I can see why poets - especially female poets - might sigh with boredom & despair... deja vu all over again...

It's got me thinking, vaguely, though, about the region of poetry & the imagination... the middle region, the realm that Wallace Stevens liked to call "sense"... which art & poetry inhabit.  Where the intellect & the reason are fused with feelings, emotions... the "affective" responses to experience.  Poetry limns this region & helps us grasp where we are... the sense of words in poetry is multivalent.

Moreover, this brings in the whole question of the relation between the human imagination - the "vision thing" (as the 1st Pres. Bush so demotically put it) - and our knowledge of reality, our worldview.  There is no denying that poetry down the ages has been a platform for synthesizing and ordering a culture's "sense" of the world it inhabits.  And because this is true, it seems that there will inevitably be clashes of worldviews, battles over the orientations of basic belief.  Believe it or not, the stakes are high in this regard.  They are high, even if we wish they weren't - because part of us wants poetry to be a day of rest, a playful Sabbath-day, from ideology and fact.  We want the poet to express an idiosyncratic liberation from all fixed ideas and cultural shibboleths.  We want the poem to be free (& fun).

As my article sketches out, there are these incidents of forking paths : disagreements over how poets employ language, how they ring variations on past poetry.  I think, speaking as generally & basically as I can, that the story of the "contretemps" between Barrett Watten and Robert Duncan, and between Ed Foster & Charles Bernstein - this "event" - may have been motivated primarily by two different attitudes toward the "language of poetry".

(An aside : it would be interesting to reconsider the role of Louis Zukofsky in this regard.  He was apparently the occasion of the original disagreement between Watten & Duncan : & his work can be seem as greatly overlapping & over-shadowing both "schools".)

Simply put : for the Language Poets, the "word" is a Saussurian system of binary signals.  Words are bundles of potential meaning-signals.  if we "turn off" the meaning-function, we detach ourselves from hegemonic, oppressive ideologies & political structures; we create a new anarchic space of purely textual freedom.

For the New Gnostics, on the other hand, words retain their more traditional aura or ambience.  They can never be merely counters or linguistic codes, because words themselves are dwelling-places of affective memory and cultural-historical meaning.  In other words, there is the assumption of some over-arching, if implicit, meaning-architecture - which is not to be "switched off", but rather "turned on", intensified.

The encounter between Watten & Duncan seems emblematic in many ways.  I see it as a sort of a clash of two worlds : Duncan's mythic-archaic-shamanistic-magic-Romantic realm of the traditional Imagination, as opposed to Watten's modern, post-modern, disenchanted, ironic, intellectual Rationality.

My current readings in psychology and psycho-history underline for me how King Oedipus still reigns over the world of human imagination.  We live out myths without knowing it, sleepwalking down familiar paths marked out by the natural rhythm of pre-conscious fears & desires.  Art still has to discover its own lanterns, its own ways through this human labyrinth, toward some kind of liberation.  Both the Langpos & the New Gnosts were, & are yet, engaged in such searching & making.