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...

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