Walking around Ravenna Diagram

Ravenna Diagram, the project I've been engaged with for the last few years, begins with a poem called "Potter's Whirl".  That poem was set in motion by small ceramic plate my mother made many years ago, featuring a pale pink starfish with a background of stars & rays - sort of a cosmic little dish.

You could say this poem is an introductory pointer toward the shape of Ravenna Diagram as a whole.  The "diagram" in question is actually a kind of Venn diagram, with two interlocking spheres centered, respectively, on the contemporary here & now, and on Dante Alighieri's presence at the end of his life among the Byzantine structures & mosaics of Ravenna (Dante completed his Divina Commedia there, and is buried in Ravenna).

It's meant to be a kind of juxtaposition of Modern & Medieval mind & culture, or a synthesis.  The Venn diagram also points to the underlying worldview of the western Middle Ages : a concept of Incarnation, which is itself a sort of Venn diagram, melding the human and the divine.  In the poem, this worldview or philosophy is represented in part by the figure of Maximus the Confessor, a Byzantine monk whose writings on the Trinity had a deep impact on the thought-world of the 12th-cent. French cathedral-builders, as well as on the Byzantine Orthodox church itself (see Otto von Simson's monograph The Gothic Cathedral for more on this).

I think of my Dante juxtaposition as a sort of 90-degree tweak.  While the Divine Commedia climbs vertically (up & down the ladder from Earth to Heaven), Ravenna Diagram works on the horizontal - set upon the "flat plate" of the American Midwest, & seeking this-world ramifications and consequences of a spiritual worldview (the eschatological meaning of "Providence", for example).

I sense that the poem actually gathers mass & energy in the same way that my mother shaped her plates and bowls from lumps of wet clay turned on a potter's wheel.  The making of ancient, medieval and Renaissance poetry was enmeshed in such "ring structures" - their unity welded by numerologically-concentric rings of design.  This process is something I've been pursuing over several long poems & several decades of work.  The chapters & books of Ravenna Diagram turn on their own centers, which in turn are linked by motifs surfacing in the corresponding or parallel "numbers" (ie. the 14th poem in Book 1 will find echoes in the 14th & nearby poems of Books 2-9+).

One of the strange effects for me of this process is that the individual units or poems will foreshadow each other in advance.  Here's how it happens.  My general method is to read through the aligned or corresponding "numbers" of the previous books before setting out on the next poem.  Thus if I'm writing # 27 in Book 10, I will read through the previous #27s in Books 1-9, seeking a general orientation.  Then I will proceed to write #27.  The odd thing is this : when I then turn to composing #28, and proceed to read all the previous #28s, I discover that what I'm reading has already been foreshadowed by what I've just written (#27).  It's sort of a double motion, planned/unplanned.

If this sounds convoluted, my apologies : the basic idea is that the large poem is structured on a series of rings, growing slowly outward, like a tree.  It's a massive ceramic plate - shaped by clay lips (a sort of "whisper gallery").  Or a maze, a labyrinth - a slow, spiraling pilgrimage one has to walk.

My constant companion in this seemingly endless project is a shadow of doubt & frustration.  There is no acknowledgement in the literary world for what I'm engaged with here.  The silence is absolute.  It's like I'm traveling in a separate or private universe, on an irrational fool's errand.  There is a vast chasm between creation & publication.  I have no prestige, no powerful advocates.  Ravenna Diagram goes out there on HG Poetics, with occasional forays into literary magazines (for which I'm extremely grateful).

I've written before about the motivations for blogging the poem. Basically I find that the blog is an appropriate way to present a long, serial, diaristic, processual work, which sometimes interacts with signal holidays or public events.  But the disadvantages are many.  Moreover, I have a very old & very bad habit of self-publication - which doesn't sit well with many people, especially prestigious academics, book reviewers & editors.  This greatly limits my access to the larger literary scene.

But I want to suggest that there is another, more fundamental dimension to this poetry thing I am acting out at such great length.  & that is that I am attempting to express a radical worldview, a sort of philosophy with my work.  The intellectual pivot of all these poetic ring structures is a challenge to the modern & postmodern era as a whole (an intellectual challenge).

One might see this coming with a poem structured on a parallel to Dante.  Eliot & Pound, in their own ways, did something similar.   But I'm not at all a neoconservative or revolutionary-authoritarian Modern, as they were.  My intellectual allegiance (if I have to choose models) is closer to Hart Crane & James Joyce.  Or to some of the visionary dimensions in Mandelstam & Yeats.

I believe in a new Age of Faith : but one in which faith itself is understood also in a new way.

Poetry, in my view, is a mode of expressing the vitality, goodness & beauty of Reality as a whole : as an End, as a Creation, as a living, breathing multivalent Sign of a supreme loving Consciousness.  This view need contradict neither human free will nor scientific objective reason (theory & evidence).  But it is rooted in this sense of faith : this joyful apprehension of a benevolent purpose in cosmic nature (call it divine "Providence").

I can only call it Faith, because it is incommensurate with simple verbal arguments or logical verifications.  But I do think this is what Jesus meant when he spoke of "going back to the beginning", or about faith as the root of all active accomplishment, or when he characterized God the Creator as Love.   This faith is really not that different from the "primitive" faith of archaic human cultures - that all goodness descends from the One Great Spirit, from the "Manitou" who is the source of all blessings.  We are talking about the root meaning of the general social-behavioral attitude we call "good faith", "good will".

This way of putting things will strike many as not "new" at all.  I agree : I'm not up to the task here in prose.  Hence the need for poetry.  Ravenna Diagram is circling very slowly around a new sense of "Incarnation" - something emerging presently, out of the here & now, out of the clay of Big Muddy, like an infant emerging from the womb, or Jonah from the whale.  An Incarnation which expresses and confirms (forever) an inherent thankfulness-for-being; a celebration of its own existence, a happy end-in-itself.

The foregoing sketches out a vision - not unrelated to that of the Russian Acmeist poet Nikolai Gumilev.  A "chaste" vision, of the inherent beauty & blessedness of all things; of the harmony of the cosmos as one fundamental, & fundamentally victorious, Dream-reality.

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