it depends

Quiet evening here in Minneapolis, along the River Road, by the U of M (no, this is not Garrison Keillor - he's retired).  Sarah is down with the flu (mild for now).  We spent the morning at the clinic.  I'm off the big poem momentarily (Ravenna Diagram).  The house was quiet & the world was calm (right).

Thinking tonight for some reason of Eugenio Montale.  The phrase "superior dilettantism" - from his groundbreaking essay "Style and Tradition" (I like Joseph Cary's translation of that particular passage much better than Jonathan Galassi's).

Montale was a librarian, as well as a journalist, critic & poet, so I feel some slight personal affinity there.  (Not that I was ever much of a librarian, or much of those other things either.)

As person & poet he seems to emanate a good deal of something like Keats's negative capability.  He's sort of oblique.  He doesn't assert; he suggests, he implicates.  It's very sly, but also, strangely meek.  I'm speaking of his poetry.  Out of the literary blind alleys, undertones, non-sequiturs & jokes, you sense this emanation of a cherished & familiar landscape, a way of doing and not doing things.  A landscape of music, feeling.  Lacrimae rerum.

So he's very ancient & very present at the same time (Virgil, Dante, Bible).

He tightropes between the "aulic" & the ordinary, the colloquial.  (Maybe Benedetto Croce has something to do with this...)

& he sings.  Montale aspired to be an opera singer before he turned to poetry.  Let me repeat that : Montale aspired to be an opera singer before he turned to poetry.

Montale the poet is playful & subtle.  One of his striking images is that of the chess-playing woman in Firenze, somehow eking out a spiritual victory over the (Fascist) forces all around her : his muse.  I think he would have made a very good chess player, if he hadn't gone in for opera & poetry.

But I reiterate this idea of the landscape seeping up through the poetry.  The simple vernacular of the land - beautiful & troubled, suffering.  The "earth in labor", so to speak.  The artifice of pastoral yielding gracefully to the fatal wisdom of experience (rustic Adam & Eve, & all that followed).

Not sure where I'm going with this.  I'm surrounded by old books (I am a former librarian).  Montale's "dilettantism" appeals to me.  Not simply because I could be labeled a dilettante myself, but because the concept offers an opening to what Berryman called "the freedom of the poet".

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty..." spake the old vase, & the negatively-capable Keats.  There is something uncanny about the effect of the beautiful - the wholeness, the total impression of the complete work of art, however humble.

The rustic poet speaks quietly out of the landscape, out of experience... & we recognize the truth of those sounds.  We hear (with some trepidation) the implicit judgement of their rightness, their finality.

It's a certain way of responding to reality.  Distinct, that is, at least in some respects, from the scientific, the philosophical, the theological, or the political.  It's more raw, more colloquial - & more refined, more graceful.  Don't ask me why.  (Ends vs. means.  Reality vs. theory.  Innocence & Experience.)

Think of Robert Frost at Kennedy's inauguration.  Think about that for a while.  About what they both were trying to accomplish - & how it actually fell out (in an odd, unfinished, lovable, screwed-up way).

I'm perpetually obsessed with old texts, old words... I'm a librarian, I guess.  I started out as a very with-it (in my view) late-60's hipster poet.  It's how I managed to get into Brown University, back in 1970.  Basically I was following an impulse (by way of Rimbaud & Baudelaire & ee cummings & the New York School & all the 60s novels I was imbibing).  I was making poems.  But then I underwent a religious-psychological crisis, in 1973-74 (when I was about 19).  Not that different, I imagine, from what happened to T.S. Eliot - something deflected his river from its course, and so the waves rippled relentlessly through his life & poetry.

I never liked Eliot, I couldn't stand him.  I actually reacted viscerally to the slimy sibilant sibylline sound of his verses. Some of this certainly must have been mere cultural conformism on my part (nobody liked Eliot back in the 20th century).  We can argue ad infinitum about TSE pro & con.  My point is, that despite my animus, my polar opposition to Eliot, it seems we underwent some kind of fairly similar psychological-cultural-religious crisis of conversion.

Why, oh why do I bring this up, right here in my Nobel lecture about Eugenio Montale?

I think poetry is something we don't really understand.  It comes from the deepest layers of the human psyche & spirit - dimensions that reach far backward & forward, from our very animal prehistory to a future we can't yet see.  Matthew Arnold's notion of "touchstones" gets at some clue of which he may have been unaware - something primordial, like a low iron tone or wooden knock or flute whistle through prehistoric bone.

So, if this is correct, the "vernacular" or the colloquial or the amateur or the unprofessional or the dilettantish or the rustic or the pastoral music of poetry might speak in its own way to the human condition... & possibly in such a charming manner as to reshape the public's conception of reality itself.

We need the old words right now, old words of faith & hope & charity, whether we believe them or not - because there are powers at work that deny the meaning of words per se.

My grandfather Edward S. Gould was a veteran of World War I, and led the veterans' Armistice parades through downtown Minneapolis during the 1920s.  He & my grandmother (Florence Ainsworth) lived in an apartment near the University of Minnesota, where I spent the first 18 months of my life.  Grandpa kept an old brass shell from the war in the corner of their apartment (he was an artillery captain), and over the dinner table hung a print of a famous painting, of George Washington & Lafayette, at a celebratory dance in Washington (Grandma was a member of the D.A.R.).

Grandpa & Grandma were part of the American historical panorama, the fabric.  They were ordinary people.  Grandpa would be called a racist today.  Grandma's beloved D.A.R. tried to keep Jewish refugees from Hitler out of America, and tried to stop Marian Anderson from singing at the Lincoln Memorial.  These are sad, absurd truths.

Yet what did that dance in Washington celebrate?  The experiment of American democracy; the experiment of a new people in a new land of equality.  Eventually Lafayette's dance would bump up against the reality of America's license to enslave, exploit and deceive (the America of Herman Melville's Confidence-Man).  And the Civil War would instill a pattern (freedom vs. slavery) which we have not yet resolved unto this day.

America is an experiment, an improvisation.  Yet the experiment is rooted in something quite deep : the legal concept of equity & justice, of the inalienable rights of human persons, going back before the Revolution to the jurist Edward Coke, and to his student, the pioneer-theologian-lawmaker Roger Williams.

There is something very grounded & rooted in this particular  legal concept.  It is a spiritual ground, a spiritual root.  It is the very ancient notion of Creation, of the realm of Spirit - the mantling wings of Manitou (the Thunderbird).  Martin Luther King's righteous web of mutuality... Black Elk's 6-directional diamond.

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