Defense of a Diagram

This blog has mutated over the years.  I've grown less glib, or less articulate; more disengaged from various fizzy cyber-corners of Poetryland.  I've narrowed my range, posted a lot of poems - starting with bits of the long poem Lanthanum, and lately from the current obsession, Ravenna Diagram.

These changes are certainly due in part to my getting older (I'll be 29 in 2024). Moreover, the last year has been full of changes.  I'm no longer a busy little drone at work in that marvelous academic library at Brown University.  I'm no longer in Providence.  My father passed away in May; suddenly I'm back in my home town (Minneapolis) after a 45-year absence - back in the midst of family.

Back when, in illo tempore, when I was a swimmy sub-sub-librarian-cormorant, I came upon a good book by Jonathan Kertzer, called Poetic Argument.  The argument of the Argument was that scholars had neglected an essential dimension of poetry - its logic, its argument.  A good poem becomes an organic ding an sich (or however it goes), a living body, knit together on the strong bone structure of its argument - the thing it wants to say.

This is not a very popular approach these days.  In fact it hasn't been since the days of the Restoration poets and critics (Pope, Johnson et al.).  The Romantics, the Symbolists, & the Moderns who followed, each for their own reasons, shunned the whole notion of an apparent or explicit "argument" for a poem.

"To justify the ways of God to Man" - Milton's great Argument in Paradise Lost - was paradigmatic.  Milton's ghost leapfrogged the Restoration era, hovering over Keats, Wordsworth & the other Romantics; but apparently a more basic aesthetic dictum - show, don't tell - became the rule.

Argument becomes implicit, or unnecessary.  Poetry becomes a matter of unique short lyrics; the strong poet is someone with a distinct, original manner, style, voice, siren-call - transported across a variegated splendor-garden of anthology anthems.  Anthems, not themes.

But there's something fuzzy and logically suspect about a poem that lacks the spine of proposition/evidence/conclusion.  This is the area Kertzer explores.  Unfortunately, since I read the book at least 15 years ago, and I no longer work in an academic library, I will have to leave further investigation of the details up to you, dear reader.

At this point, let's try turning the tables on me.

What, then, pray tell, is the "argument" of Ravenna Diagram - that most obscure & obliquely wayward divagation I've been imposing upon loyal perusers of this blog now for several years?

Ah, this is a hard question you pose me, Queen Sheba.

The poem had its roots in a barely-conscious impulse, not an idea.  But one is naturally curious about these emotional surges, these elusive kicks from the Mare of the Night; it's like being drawn by a will o'the wisp.  An obscure longing, a memory of the ancient flame... something like that?  Proust's muffin...

Why did I feel this unreasonable affinity or attraction for the swamplands around neglected, very ancient churches in Ravenna, Italy?  Was it seeing Antonioni's great 60s film Deserto Rosso, set in the industrial wasteland of the Ravenna coast?  (Or beautiful Monica Vitti, its crazy lead?)

I'm not positive why, even after 2-3 years - but I'm beginning to see the outlines of my own argument.

First, let's remember : the Moderns too, and the Romantics - even the Symbolists - had their "arguments", their themes, their worldview.  Authentic poetry is an expression of conscience, wrote Wallace Stevens (inexact quote from memory).  And conscience is conscientious : the human conscience defends and articulates an idea of the truth - a sense of how things really are, and how they should be.  Pound had an argument.  Joyce had an argument.  Eliot, Stevens, even Hart Crane had their arguments. Frost had his "lover's quarrel with the world".  Marianne Moore was famously forthright in her demonstrations.

I have a hunch one reason my poem (Ravenna Diagram) is so extravagantly indirect, is because its argument is so hazardous and powerful.  It's almost impossible to enunciate.

Imagine a poem so radical and earth-shaking that it requires the most extensive grounding in local & personal historical circumstances - offered as a kind of evidentiary documentation.  But more than that : offered as a kind of poetic mimesis of a reality which cannot be "described" in any other way.

This sounds like mumbo-jumbo, I guess.  Charles Olson in a cardigan sweater.

Let me try to sketch out or improvise a kind of diversionary illustration.  One of my postulates is that poetry & literature are deeply allegorical, while at the same time historically-grounded and aesthetically-symbolic.  In other words, it's not an either-or choice : the poet can do both at once.  The Bible is playfully allegorical; it is also a semi-historical chronicle (or a parody of a chronicle).

So, allegory.  If I imagine Dante toward the end of his life (he died age 57), in the backwaters of Ravenna - engaging (as local pedagogue & litterateur) with his compassionate patrons & students; maintaining his family; secretly plotting (through the greatest poetry ever written) his return to Florence... & trying to finish up the Paradiso... & gazing at those ancient (even then) & Bach-Beethovenish magnificent transcendent mosaics hidden in the Ravenna churches of San Vitale & Sant'Apollinare... (some scholars have attributed specific imagery in the Paradiso to these artworks)...

Apollinaire... Apollinare...

The argument of Ravenna Diagram is an historical-poetic argument, paralleling those of other American practitioners of the ambitious longish epic mode (Whitman, Pound, Crane, WC Williams, Olson, Zukofsky, et al.).

An historical-poetic argument, you might say, comes across these days as a sort of shamanism : anybody claiming such pompous verbal authority (in this world of science, social media & journalism) must be a real throwback.

Let's say I'm moving slowly toward making that argument.  I think it's going to be a very unorthodox kind of Orthodox theorem.  (One of my earliest poems points in that direction.)

The awe-inspiring mosaics hidden like pearls in the shells of old churches of Ravenna represent their own theological argument : they are excrescences from Constantinople, the 1000-year theocracy where Christos Pantocrator reigns in golden, glittering, everlasting spiritual splendor (think Yeats' Byzantium).

Maximus the Confessor is my favorite theologian, even though his anti-Jewish polemics are hateful to me, & depressing.  Maximus had his limitations (this was the 5th century) : but he also loved (an intellectual love), & was philosophically astute (visionary).

He's my favorite, because his powerful dialectic comprehends and makes sense of the Orthodox theology of the Trinity.  Now I realize this sounds like a very specialized, pedantic hobbyhorse.  Yet the capacity to make an argument for a Trinitarian anthropology &/or metaphysics has implications, has consequences, for all the other preconceptions and postulates we happen to harbor about our own existential situation, and about reality in general.

If the Trinity is real, then the appearance of a particular human person, an individual, in the vast desert expanse of human history, has a certain spiritual meaning which otherwise would not obtain.

In other words, if God-as-Spirit became Man-as-Person, then suddenly reality-in-general has become, somehow, spiritually Personal.

Ravenna Diagram, the poem, is, in one sense, an extrapolation from Hart Crane's The Bridge.  As The Bridge tried to make an argument for Cosmic Consciousness as the ultimate ground for the Platonic Beauty which inspires epic (American) poetry, so Ravenna Diagram follows the last steps of Dante toward a quasi-Dantean poetry of (American) spiritual consummation.

In my argument, such a consummation would have to be grounded in the actual historical process : thus I look toward various bridge-supports or foundational strata in order to "support" this theme.

The most basic foundation rests in mimesis, Aristotle's paradigm of poetic art.  Thus I try to "mirror" (anthropologically, so to speak) my own historical vectors with the vectors of the "historical" Dante and the "historical" Roger Williams and even the "historical" Jesus : I stretch threads of affinity between these actors - each of them propounding elements of the whole argument.

What is this great argument, then?  "God is Spirit, & those who worship Him must do so in spirit & in truth." (Gospel of John, roughly)

Check with Black Elk (or Manitou) on that.

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