Janus-Faced Henryism

In my Janus-faced post of yesterday ("poetry is/is not a psychological double-bind"), I did not quite express the whole of the elusive notion which triggered the initial commentary.  Let me see if I can briefly get there now.

The notion itself was about doubleness : a sense that some kind of detachment or critical awareness is integral to creative art forms - including poetry - and the art-experience itself.

Pasternak once characterized Mandelstam's appearance on the Russian literary scene thus : "you entered a conversation which had already begun."  Many the poet & theorist (Plato, Lacan, Levinas come to mind) have emphasized the dialogic nature of poetry (and consciousness generally).  But the notion is perhaps idealized to some extent.  If art is a dialogue, it seems somewhat one-sided.  One partner speaks, the other listens.  One is expressive, the other is mute.  One is conscious, deliberate, rational - the other subconscious, intuitive, ineffable.  One is assertive, the other receptive.  Yin, yang.  The two halves of creation and reception play a subtle chess game : poets acknowledge dreams, intuition, inspiration, negative capability, or the Muse as the true source of their rational articulations, bringing into question : who is really speaking here?  Who listening?

Then the poet and reader (audience) replicate this original duality - another mirror of doubleness.  The poet recites; the reader listens, responds - is bored, is moved; is misled, is enlightened; is offended, is pleased...

And then, finally, the poet is also the reader.  New poetry grows from old poetry, as the complex emotional-intellectual receptors of the poet respond to achieved works of the past (impossible to overstate the chasm which lies between the poet giving birth to a new, as-yet unknown work of art, and the examples of finished poems, which represent the poet's benchmarks, models, and obstacles).

Moreover, the poet is famously characterized (Keats' negative capability) as the embodiment of receptivity : he or she "reads" not only prior literature and rival poets, but the "signs" emanating from nature and experience as a whole.

The sketch or pattern of the field we are presenting here - this notion of "detachment" as integral to creative expression - begins to appear less like a standard opposition between "poet & critic", or "intuition and intellect", and more like a dimension of aesthetic experience as a whole.

Which raises, in my mind, the question of value.  Taste, critical judgement, tradition : perhaps these are both tacit and fundamental to an era's literary culture.  What do I mean by this?  How does this follow from the previous?  I mean that if tacit reception is one half of art & poetry, as a dialogic duality, then there is more to poetic making than a simple 1-2 process of "create-disseminate".  Reception becomes a kind of fertile, intangible ground or atmosphere within which actual poems manifest.

American culture idealizes immediacy, production, re-invention.  "Make it new" becomes the paradigmatic shibboleth for the sales appeal of the stylish rebel, for the idealization of change per se.  It's a linear, one-way process.  Success = succession.  I think what I am proposing, indirectly, is a challenge to this standard arrangement.

The poem on the page is a kind of message in a bottle.  Sheer potentiality - nothing until it is found and opened and received and evaluated.  And the message itself may be in code; it may be meaningless until you find it out, you give it meaning.  It may also be allegorical - in disguise.  The obvious, the overt message may be meaningless in itself.  The poem lives in another dimension - a quintessence, a 5th element, active only in tacit reception.  The poem is, at heart, a riddle.

I guess I would like to imagine a somewhat different American poetic culture than the one we have at present.  There seems to be a kind of short-circuit driving the current machinery, which goes something like creation-dissemination-publicity-fame-awards-prestige.  What's left out here is the tacit "(reception)" bracketing both sides of the term "creation".  Maybe a healthier, simpler template for poetic culture would go something like this : (reception)-creation-(reception)-publication-(reception).  This model is not driven by ambition, professional interests, & prestige, by ulterior goals and motives.  If I were able to, I would display the latter, (reception) model as a circle.

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