The New Masons

As usual, I'm immersed in a serial poem which feels like a long-term construction project.  Only the most recent in a series of long poems (I've written 8 or 9 of them in the last 20 years).  I'm calling it, for various reasons, Ravenna Diagram.  (A Venn diagram, as you probably know, is based on a simple geometrical figure describing the intersection of two circles.)  In my experience, whenever I started fiddling with numbers & geometry, a poetic project is being born.

As part of my "research" I recently discovered a book from the 80s by John James titled Chartres : the masons who built a legend (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982).  An eye-opener.  James is clearly someone with a builder/architect's background.  But he's a wonderful detective, too.  By studying the smallest changes & differences in details of Chartres' masonry & design, he's able to sketch out the individual masons/architects behind each part of the building.  There were at least 4-5 of them.  I find it marvelous how he illuminates their decisions in shaping & setting-out elements of this unbelievably massive stone structure.  He is also extremely sober, modest & circumspect in his judgements : there are no theoretical flights of fancy here.

One theme James emphasizes is the difference between the medieval artistic ethos & that of the post-Renaissance, modern era.  All these master designers & craftsmen are anonymous.  There is no cult of individual genius - no exalting of the fine artist (the sculptor, say) over the other workmen.  They work in teams.  Teams of teams, actually : each one guided by the characteristic artistry & temperament of the master mason, or team leader.

I started musing about this issue in relation to making poetry.  On the face of it, poetry today seems a typical phenomenon of that Modern individualism - maybe even an extreme manifestation, in comparison to other fields of endeavor.  I myself have certainly tried very hard to remain independent & idiosyncratic - absolutely free to do my own thing in poetry.

But if you scratch a little deeper you find traces of collective effort & collaboration in poetry.  Some poets in fact make an explicit counter-attack on individualism, forming group movements, defining their collective ethos & goals, engaging in collaborative writing projects.

I think there is a further level of collaboration, on a more implicit level.  It comes out of the poetic process itself - of reading, imitation, allusion, parody.  We model & shape our poems following, & revising, forms that have already impressed themselves upon us.  This process is in turn further shaped by collective "canon-formation" - when poets & poems enter the cultural bloodstream, moving from alien products to a kind of "second nature" (see Eugenio Montale's essay, "The Second Life of Art").

Long ago I became fascinated with the Acmeist group of pre-WWI St. Petersburg.  In many ways they were no different from the other modernist art movements springing up at that time (Futurism, Imagism, etc.).  A small group of young poets developed a shared sense of style & thematics - & sometimes formed personal friendships & alliances which long outlasted the platforms of the groups themselves.  In their early days, the Acmeists were quite formal about their activities - meeting at a long table at the prescribed time each week, reading & discussing poems with a kind of official sobriety, dedication & gravitas.  (At least that's one of the historical impressions which they left us.)

There seems a strange kind of literary eschatology involved here.  By that I mean the manifestation or instauration of an actual literary group seems to bring the implicit collective nature of art & craft to an explicit crystallization.  Something briefly surfaces which is perhaps there all the time.  Mandelstam's art of trans-historical allusive richness - & his emphasis on architecture as a prime analogue of the poetic art - are a key dimension of the Acmeist ethos.  Pushkin & Ovid are his contemporaries, Mandelstam proclaims.

There are parallels in American poetry of the same period.  John Irwin, in his massive study of Hart Crane, has brought to light the truly "Masonic" dimensions of The Bridge - the many layers of allusive groundwork laying a foundation for the song itself.  The poem is a "choral" piece, harmonizing American themes with ancient poetics (Crane clearly drawing on the "mythical methods" of Joyce, Eliot & Pound).

(As an aside, I am absolutely flummoxed by the striking parallels between Crane's mythography of Virgo, Astraea, & the Statue of Liberty in The Bridge - as outlined by Irwin - and the hidden Masonic thematics of the constellation Virgo - "the Corn Maiden" - explored by David Ovason in his fascinating book The Secret Architecture of Our Nation's Capital.  This work seems to be more than just another New-Agey fantasy-occult book.  The intricate historical scholarship is remarkable.)

We are probably only beginning to explore this new (neo-medieval?) dynamic of artistic interaction : the collective building project & the characteristic thumbprint of the individual "master".  They go together.  Meanwhile nations & cultures, along their devious, submerged, counter-intuitive, dialectical paths, go about shaping the canonical myths of the future.

Poets : builders in the high room of the Pentecostal word.

No comments: