An Ordinary Evening in Minneapolis

After weeks of late winter & spring away from home & away from my books & the library, spending time with my parents at the nursing home, one day last week I had a sudden desire to travel to Wallace Stevens Land.  I was apprised of a good local bookstore during the AWP invasion, James & Mary Laurie Books, & went back there & got a copy of Stevens' collected writings, and The Dome & the Rock, by James Baird (a study of Stevens' architectonic tectonics).

Wallace Stevens... what can one say.  The man is a great artist and American genius, & as representative of the "modern" as Dante is of the "medieval" or Shakespeare the Renaissance or Milton the Reformation.  Representative, that is, as a kind of quintessence or benchmark or perihelion of achievement.  Refinement, acumen, absolute originality, conscious artistry taken to the limit.  & mostly just an utter wonder to read, sparkling with vitality & intellectual force.

That (inadequately) being said, Stevens is a constant challenge to my own way of thinking.  This is part of the bracing experience of the encounter - the sense that deep down I have these qualifications which at the same time I have difficulty shaping into a proper argument.  There seem to be so many pitfalls involved in challenging a poet's basic "worldview" - it seems unfair & liable to blinders & mis-reading.

Stevens himself, unsurprisingly, encapsulated my problem for me.  As he put it in one of his Adagia : "Life is an affair of people, not of places.  But for me life is an affair of places and that is just the trouble."  Baird's study fully amplifies what an "affair of places" - of topos, of landscape, of habitations - actually meant for Stevens.  He argues that Stevens' entire oeuvre is an "amassing harmony" of coordinated elements, one Grand Poem whose form is a mighty arc, a dome built on rock - the rock of the absolute self, a post-Emersonian Adamic American imagination.  The central (& here, American) self - not king, not emperor, not God, but Man as master of reality - is the sole source of true & vital perception.  It is a sort of post-romantic Renaissance Romanticism - a disenchanted naturalism (reality) brought to life again by the human spirit (imagination).

But there's no need here to clamber down into a sort of academic gully.  The encounter with Stevens occurs, as he constructs it, only on a plane of pure poetry.  It is a master building of the absolute spirit of the unique builder - it does not stand for, symbolize, myths & paradigms, but is rather their source.

What I find challenging about all this is that my own "sense of reality" seems to be constructed intellectually (reasonably or not) on an entirely different foundation.  Stevens seems to be part of the central Emersonian spine of American thought & poetry, the tone of "self-reliance", which challenges all past tradition as out of date - because it is recognized as essentially a (continually-obsolescent) myth-making process.  The Christian tradition is a burden and oppression on the free mind & spirit of the present, the American here & now.  When Frost, for example, blends his narratives into an arc of Christian interpretations, he is folding himself under another master, he is choosing to renounce the absolute Kantian-Romantic freedom of the human mind, that categorical enlightened Subjectivity which makes the exterior world what it will.  This is the "modern" (Cogito ergo sum).

But my own mind & imagination have always seemed to trend in a counter-direction.  Stevens' imaginative "dome" is like the under-layer or the photo-negative of the freedom & exaltation of the believing Spirit.  & "life is an affair of people" is a very apt summation of the ground of this other way of seeing.  The Emersonian drive for the spirit's autonomy seems to stumble on the question of "other people" : the nature of the relation (the ratio, the Logos) we call Love.  If the "affair of persons" is a matter of intersecting arcs (rather than sole solar domes) then suddenly we have the potential to imagine "the person" as extending into infinite mystery, and of reality as a whole grounded in this very personal threshold.

Which is a view of things, by the way, which seems to correspond to some elements of traditional Judeo-Christian faith.  I think Stevens understood all this : & further exploration of his poetry will no doubt reveal (& probably has already) such undercurrents.

I like to think of my own attitude as oriented somewhere between Eliot & Stevens & Crane : accepting Eliot's "historical sense" & reverence for tradition, without falling for his reactionary & doctrinaire pessimism.  Thinking of poetry as involved in the creative re-imagining of old sacred meanings - so as to see them in the present in a changed light, a different relevance.*

But let's conclude this boring lecture & get back to Stevens now.  "The most beautiful thing in the world is, of course, the world itself."

*p.s. reminder to self : it was the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam who enabled this attitude for me.  Mandelstam's own utterly nonpareil poesie der poesie is yet comparable with Stevens.  The neo-classicism and traditional Judeo-Christian grounding of Mandelstam's & Gumilev's Acmeism resonates with Eliot.  & yet Mandelstam's Dante - in his famous essay "Conversation about Dante" - is not Eliot's paragon of the medieval mind, but rather a kind of playful "futurist" - a voice from an earth to come.  Thus Mandelstam allowed me to find a way between the antipodes of American modernist poetry, and has been a taproot for my own branching these past 35 years.


Henricus Poeta Australopithecus

America (US) is such a great and good and democratic nation.  Walt Whitman says so.  Our literature today is produced en masse while following the fairest, strictest ethical protocols, using the most objective measures within completely standardized procedures of agonic literary contests, academic accreditation, absolutely appropriate recognition and financial underwriting.  The Program Era has proven to be incredibly productive in terms of nurturing and supporting vastly diverse and talented young poets from all walks of life, who go on to publish widely, teach consistently, and interact with their audiences in healthy & socially-approved ways, applying the multifaceted dimensions of literary & creative methodologies in ever-new permutations of lyric and experimental modes of poetry.

Our powerful, thriving literary scene here in contemporary America only throws into sharper contrast the debilitated condition and existential cul-de-sac of Henricus Poeta Australopithecus (or HPA).  Some critics have suggested that one motivating factor for the problematics of HPA is a possible high-count percentage of Neanderthal DNA in this primitif-naif pre-Program Era poet's genetic inheritance.  Such indeed might account for the sadly hilarious exponential series of multiple social disconnects between HPA's view of his own rightful position in the literary sphere, and his actual degenerate, debased, humiliated, outcast, leprous, persona non grata, laughingstock non-status within the professional literary communities of our great land.

HPA has more than once been captured on video cursing his own Muse as "that stubborn hag", and indeed his professional career, if one can call it that, has been punctured and punctuated by extreme forms of masochistic counter-intuitive, illogical, unreasonable and self-defeating acts.  Let us list just a few of the more egregious examples here in roughly chronological order :

1. HPA had the gall to begin writing poetry in the mid-1960s, before MFA programs became widely established.  He "started writing" on his own at the age of 14 or so, "inspired" by the likes of ee cummings and Guillaume Apollinaire.  For his undergraduate college application essays, he sent poems (the nerve!).  Throughout his career, he has repeatedly objected to the notion that MFA programs are necessary - he sometimes even claims they are inimical to literature!  He has been heard saying he could never teach poetry!

2. HPA has frequently been heard proclaiming, in a variety of terms & tones, that there is something sacred, miraculous, uncanny, autonomous, prophetic, socially-challenging, shamanic, different, authoritative, and world-shaking at the core of art, the beautiful, and poetry - & that poetry is sometimes a peremptory calling to step outside the boundaries of a society's customary norms of literary authorization.  He has been heard to claim that poetry is a gift and a miracle and that no one will authorize, approve, or judge it - that, au contraire, poetry itself will be the judge.  O the arrogance!

3. When HPA was a young collegian of 19 yrs or so, back in the early 1970s, he renounced poetry - because he believed that the ghost of Shakespeare had tried to communicate directly with him - through The Sonnets!  Overcome by spiritual fright, HPA fled from the irrational abyss of this event, abjuring the art (like Prospero) for about 5 years - during which phase he successfully found God, ran a food coop and became a VISTA volunteer!  He traveled to London on a dime - in order to join the Rolling Stones & convert them to Christianity!  He bummed around the United States, a young Jesus freak!  All this while the literary compeers of his generation were assiduously pursuing advanced graduate degrees!

4. HPA has published most of his poetry...  himself!

5. HPA has the strange illusion that literary tradition is a holistic entity, a sort of human organism subsisting in Time, history, & cultural memory.  Thus he began in the early 1980s to absorb the lessons of Eliot, Pound, Mandelstam, Brodsky and other outmoded "neo-Classics" - with the idea that democracy is beautiful for civil society, but that poetry is the dimension of the individual, the spiritual, the soul.  He repeatedly quotes Mandelstam, that arch-foe of the social order of his time : "The Word is Psyche."  Poetry, for HPA, is clearly a sort of Neanderthal fire-ceremonial : the engravement of the eternal Spirit in all its power upon the passing pageant of eras & centuries.  He sits by his Classical fire-pit & mopes, while America freely & rationally produces an infinite array of poetic bouquets of the never-ever-changing New Wheel.  He is a hopeless reactionary!

6.  In the late 90s, at the dawn of the internet era, HPA dove foolishly head-first into the online squabbles of various poetic schools - & succeeded in offending and insulting everybody!  He became known as a motor-mouth "commentator" - someone to be snubbed and derided for his clownish & unseemly behavior in the poetry community!  & thus his literary "career" careered along, on its inexorably downward trajectory!

7.  At some point in the early 1980s, HPA took an interest in the epic and the "long poem"... woe unto him!  That cess-pit of failed eccentricities - the "long poem"!  O HPA, your infallible instinct for the unachievable, the unrealistic!  & to think he actually thought he was bringing the "American long poem" to a kind of apex, fulfillment & recapitulation!  To think that Forth of July or Lanthanum might represent any kind of benchmark or accomplishment!  What was he "thinking"?  The industry is not looking for outriders, my friend!

8.  HPA was the heir of a bygone era.  His time is long past.  & yet he persists in his endless reiterations of oblique & gnomic (rhyming!) ekphrasis - his latest hobbyhorse being, unsurprisingly, that backwater archive of obliterated glory, the city of Ravenna.  Dante lies in his grave there, & HPA conjures his ghost, like an idiot caveman doodling graffiti on his private mental wall.  No wonder no one in America will publish him! Read through this list of embarrassments & obloquy - this plethora of antic foolishness - & you will see why!  This man belongs in lock-up, like his goofy sidekick in Stubborn Grew (what was his name?  Bluejay?).

Recently a certain poetry publisher in far-off Australia expressed preliminary interest in actually publishing a sort of retrospective collection of HPA's poetic follies of half a century.  There must be something in the Aussie water.  Well, all power to them.  This man is not fit for America - perhaps they can find some use for him in the former continental penal colony.  We wish the Australians the best of luck - & with this warning : HP Australopithecus is a deep-dyed villain & Neanderthal.  Hopefully the authorities in Sydney, Melbourne & the other southerly nodes of civilization & public order will keep this in mind.


Notes on the way

My days are mostly spent in a semi-darkened room in a nursing home in St. Paul, in a chair next to my father's bed, where he lies very quietly, almost immobile, usually silent but still quite cognizant.  Often my mother sits in a chair on the other side, reading a book or reminiscing, trying to understand various things.  I'm a long way from Rhode Island, my wife, my bookshelves, scribblings.  But it seems to help to sit next to my father, sometimes take the hand he reaches out, to show me his grip is still strong.  I'm not thinking very clearly or energetically these days.  I'd like to get back to my poems.  But I do experience amorphous globular sub-thoughts, now & then.


The moral law is universal, it has to do with the human in a personal sense.  And therefore I myself, as an individual, am responsible not only for my own actions, but also for their repercussions, their consequences, their effect on my own soul.


"Soul" as a term does not carry much weight or bear much prestige within the "high civilizations" of our time.  There are so many sophisticated doctrines which appear especially devoted to explaining it away.  & yet psychology as a mode of thought still seems to retain some vestigial authority.  Psychologists used to be called, in popular parlance, "soul doctors".


Conscience is a modality of soul, a faculty of mind, which is responsible for the orientation of the person toward justice and righteousness.  The soul is immortal and conscience is its guardian.


The soul is a dimension of the individual person.  History is a pantomime of conflicting allegiances and group identifications, a struggle for power - drawn with stock figures and broad strokes, like a commedia dell'arte melodrama.  But "what shall a man give for his soul?"  Or what they used to call "our sacred honor"?  Your conscience?  This is where the real battles are won & lost.  Jesus said it another way, too : "The kingdom of heaven is in your midst, but men do not see it."


Sometimes I think the most profound saying is this : "As ye sow, so shall ye reap."  The "quality of life" is planted not in the newspaper or the headline news, but rather in your own soul : your actions and their results.  "As ye sow, so shall ye reap."  "Give, and you shall receive."


"Wisdom cries out in the streets..."  I read it today in the newspaper.  A Turkish Armenian, thinking about the 1915 genocide and the denials which followed it, is quoted as saying (& I paraphrase from memory), "Life used to be about persons, what they did, good or bad.  It didn't matter so much what group you came from or what religion you professed.  It was about people - the people you knew and lived with, good and bad.  But now you are judged by what group you come from."


But the path of history is with the 99% of traits we all share as humankind, not the surface distinctions we make and the lines we draw between skin colors, nations of origin, religious proclamations, ethnic traditions... the sentimental patterns of parochial pride.  Ban Ki-Moon, the U.N. Secretary General, pleaded for more such universal understandings and actions in a recent & passionate speech to the National Press Club.


The notion of human freedom is grounded in a metaphysical or cosmic sense.  The idea of "the kingdom of heaven" is an intellectual idea, a kind of Euclidean proposition.


Kingship is archaic, traceable perhaps back to the primates.  A figure of authority, a powerful person, a charismatic figure, a scapegoat, is the personification of cosmic wholeness, the Origin, the Source.  The tribe gathers around this conduit of otherwise uncontrollable fates and life-threatening dangers.


I see the Bible as threading back to a very archaic rivalry between the nomadic tribes of herdsmen, on the one hand, whose life is based on relatively simple choices under an open sky, and close kinship - and the early royal empires, based on the agricultural revolution and the expansion of political dominion.  Kingship vs. kinship.  The nomads domesticated animals so they could carry their food with them; the kings domesticated human herds to grow their food for them.  These different social structures had implications for their thought-worlds.  Abraham was guided by his personal God to leave home & head for a certain place.  This would not happen in Pharaonic Egypt.  For the Egyptians, God was always mediated/disguised by the divine Ruler and his ceremonies.


Life is lived in the individual soul, the outcomes of our response to the whisper of conscience.  Sovereignty belongs to the Origin, the Creator, the "ground" of our being.  Moral freedom, what Roger Williams called "soul liberty".   Of course these notions have implications for the social & political formations we have made on earth.  I see a future world of civil society, rooted in free peoples, aware of their rights and willing to sacrifice so that every person shares the same dignity.  Not judging and condemning one another, but showing tolerance and mercy, as befits the love which gives life to the roots of the soul itself.


"Children of God."  "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."


The "glory" of the Artist who fashions the cosmos is manifest in the everyday good works of her children.  As Jesus puts it in the Gospels, "Wisdom is justified in all her children."  So the spinning planet produces flowers... in my homespun soul-dream.


Après le AWP


I happen to be living temporarily in my hometown, Minneapolis, living in a motel with a giant golden styrofoam Gopher (Univ. of MN mascot) in the lobby.  This happens to be a few blocks from the SE Mpls neighborhood, by the U of M & the Mississippi & Tower Hill, where my family on both sides have lived for about 150 years now, ever since George P. Gould, my great-grandfather, married the daughter of a riverboat captain named Jacob Lawrence, who's name was Jessie Ophelia.

I'm here, as I've written/blogged already, because my father John Gould is in hospice, on his deathbed, & he & my mother can use some help, & because I'm able to be here (thanks to my wife primarily), & because I want to be here.

& as it happens there was a massive gathering of poets in Minneapolis this weekend.  The annual Associated Writing Programs Conference (AWP) was convocated at the splendid & immense convention center, wherein converged at least 10,000 literary people, hundreds of publishers, & so on.

So for a couple days I shuttled between the nursing home in St. Paul & the fervid, spontaneous & scheduled festivities in Minneapolis.  Twin Cities.

I discovered a good bookstore (James & Mary Laurie Bks) & a good performance space (Pow Wow Grounds).  I heard some beautiful poetry, met some wonderful people in person, bought a few rare (& new) books.

For a long time I used to mock the AWP conferences - on principle, I thought.  I was devoted to the concept of the writer as absolute free agent : of the poet as semi-divine being, entrusted with the sacred voodoo of the Word.

Actually I'm still devoted to that concept.  It's just that now I think everybody at AWP is committed to the same thing.  It's just that everybody else there has their own particular necessities & difficult aims to attempt to accomplish, duties to fulfill.  Devotions which are perhaps at odds with my own, but no less absolute.

How boring!  But life, friends, is boring.


Which brings up Berryman, which brings up Henry....

What a hard time I had of it on Thursday night at the Rain Taxi Walker Art Center Extravaganza.  There I was, in the heart of Minneapolis postmodern ultra-coolness, trying with gaucheness in extremis to interest some of the swimmingly hip poets with whom I was barely acquainted to allow me to get up on stage that night - & read a section of a long poem in honor of my father, John Gould.  Excess of Quixote.

The coolness of the Walker is like an icicle - a Popsicle, to be exact.  A prophet is not honored in his own country.  I used to gather wild grapes in the swamp NW of the Walker as a boy.  I shook hands (in a line of Boy Scouts)  in the football field next door with Hubert H. Humphrey.  I took part in school plays (& suffered terrible anxiety cramps) with the girls of Northrop School, at the Women's Club (just across the famous Ashbery Bridge).  Yet that Thursday night (April 9, 2015, 150 yrs after Appomatox) I was the humiliated outcast, persona non grata.  No one wanted to hear about it.  You don't jump up on stage at the Walker Art Center with the likes of Ann Carson (who actually handed me her book for free).

Nevertheless I read my poem eventually - on a more fitting occasion, the following evening (Friday, Apr. 10).  I was at the Laurie Bookshop on 3rd Ave N., with the Station Hill / Geo. Quasha / Kimberly Lyons / Vincent Katz / Burt Kimmelman / Pierre Joris / Nicole Peyrafitte / Martha & Basil King / Elizabeth Robinson / Sam Truitt / Laynie Brown et al. crowd.  Beautiful bookstore.  After refusing to add me to the schedule, they grudgingly allowed my rude interruption ("one more poem!") at the tail end of the reading - & applauded my recital.  Mission accomplished.  I'm grateful to those characters, poets all.


Why was I so obsessed about doing this self-abasing, humiliating Henry thing @ AWP?  Because the time was right.

On April 10, 1998 - exactly 17 years before - I finished the long poem Stubborn Grew.  It was Good Friday that year.  In the closing passages, there is a recapitulation of everything that went before - but put through a sort of Finnegan-Wakean Irish phase-shifter.  Then suddenly the voice of my father breaks through : he addresses me, directly, elegiacally - & the poem ends.  You can read it here.  I wanted to read this passage in honor of my father this weekend, & I was very stubborn about it.... & so it came to pass.

In that passage, the persona of my father speaks about my (Henry's) "crown", and that he must "go to Jerusalem".  This is part of the Shakespeare ambience (see esp. the chapters "Ancient Light" and "Shakespeare's Head").  In Henry IV pt 2 there is a climactic scene where the young Prince Hal, visiting his dying father (Henry IV), puts on his father's crown ahead of time... & his father catches him at it.  Meanwhile his father is dying... regrets never having fulfilled his vow to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem (to repent for usurping Richard II's throne)... & then is carried into the Jerusalem Chamber, where he expires.  This is all there, at the close of Stubborn Grew.

Last Friday I was "Henry" - Berryman's, Shakespeare's - fulfilling my own strange little vow, reading my elegy in honor of my dear father...  "when men least think / I will".


Good Friday, looking west

There's a good view of the Minneapolis skyline from my mother's new senior apartment in St. Paul.  Looking westward, a vast pink sunset over the skyscrapers, where my father John Gould used to flourish.  Looking east, a full moon.  Strange times here; taking care of my father in hospice during the day; by night, reading an odd, semi-convincing book about Edward de Vere ("Shakespeare" by another name, by Mark Anderson) - of the Oxford School of Bardolatry.  Turns out the Earl was born on my father's birthday, April 12th - which he is now inching toward, & might possibly reach.  The fatherly aspect of the author of The-Artist-formerly-known-as-Shakespeare's (Prince?  Hamlet?) Sonnets had a decisive impact on my own obscure biography, just as the rebellious/dutiful decision to become a "poet" seems to epitomize our see-saw, tentative balancing act with my own father.  I am now keeping vigil, I am attending & caring for him, from whom for a long time it seems I found ways to keep my distance.  Yet I am so happy to be here with him now, my great kind meek wise father.

I finished the long poem Stubborn Grew on a Good Friday in 1998.  You can read the grand finale (along with the rest) at this link - it's pretty good, I daresay.  Toward the end, the voice my father suddenly breaks in, to talk to me.  It's pretty good.  It's all tangled up in roses & Henrys & Shakespearean mysteries, too, which you can read about further here... "how stub born grew the / rose."