Synthesis & first principles in poetry

 My "theory" of poetry, how I think about poetry in general or in the abstract, is idiosyncratic and fundamentally improvised.  I don't have a system or a rationale which I can advocate for or teach, as objective or universally relevant.  Nevertheless I feel the urge to organize my thoughts and defend my own practice.  Blogs are exquisitely appropriate for this kind of off-the-cuff table-talk, aren't they?  Sure, Henry.

And inevitably I'm bound to repeat myself.  I've been blogging along here for years.  Sorry about that.

I think poets are usually drawn to poetry as part of a general attraction to literature, an affinity for reading and words, a responsiveness to art and music.  And I think this "general attraction" is part of an even more basic and universal human adherence to the good and the beautiful aspects of life as a whole.  We are drawn magnetically to works of art even as they present the most tragic, painful and horrible dimensions of experience - because these works of art lend these dimensions some kind of meaning and order.  The love of art is a facet of an even more basic love of life itself - which partakes of a kind of shared sacred awe reaching back to the origins of the human race (and maybe before that).

The making and experience of poetry is part of this magic circle of a very primordial sense of awe.  The poetic Word is free, dynamic, holistic and sacred, because it partakes of this powerful aura of a sort of ontological First Principle of reality - the "ground", the source.

By no means would I wish to suggest or have anything to do with a sort of Heideggerian mystagogy or irrationalism.  But I feel that, precisely because poetry is linked with this very basic and universal, this "anthropological" first principle - an innate sense of awe before the wholeness, oneness and power of life - it therefore aligns with the universality of reason, logic and science.  Reason (as Fichte, Brightman and of course many others have argued) is both analytical and synoptic.  We analyze to apprehend and distinguish; we synthesize to understand.  Poetry is no different.  What poetry adds to this rational and philosophic drive toward comprehensive understanding is a kind of aesthetic reflexivity.  Poetry's vivid, personal, expressive verbal enactments of communication both represent and embody, simultaneously.  This extra layer of reflexivity, reverberation, and self-consciousness accounts for the intense configurations of poetic speech (Mandelstam's crystal of "terrifying density").  

As I understand it, poetry gives voice to a subjective, and inter-subjective, dimension of reality.  It is not opposed to science as such; but it suggests and evokes this awe, this attitude of humility toward the fundamental mystery of life.  As such it is vitalist, holistic, and personal - and it presents an image of reality as a whole which corresponds to these qualities.  The struggle of the Romantic movement, to transcend the discursive rationalism of the Enlightenment, presents one of the historic enactments of this duality (subject and object, detachment and wonder, poetry and prose). 

I recognize the perhaps absurd anachronism of these principles.  But with respect to my own poetic development, one of the issues or themes that I have found so fascinating and generative is the American history of the encounter between a colonial worldview, on the one hand, rooted in both Puritan piety and revolutionary democracy based on Enlightenment ideals, and a Native American worldview, rooted in very archaic notions of just this sense of pious awe before the vital spiritual unity of life.  And I began to delve into the "anthropological underside" of my own faith tradition, and recognize affinities with primordial myths and rituals played out across the globe, from which the Native American beliefs represent one branch, and the various sources of the "Old World", another.  So I sense that underlying the tragic conflict and the criminal inhumanities of that American history, there is this basic spiritual encounter, to be understood on an intellectual, philosophical, plane as well as a purely political or historical level.

Anyway, this notion leads into some of the thematic sources and ideas which undergird my lengthy journeys through the realms of the "American epic" or long-poem mode.

& now it's late, I must hit the sack - good night.


Continuity of American Poetry

In 1961 cultural historian and Americanist (& specialist in New England Puritanism) Roy Harvey Pearce published a book, The Continuity of American Poetry.  Clearly a labor of love, the work is a meticulous and passionate appraisal, unfolding a kind of American pantheon, from the Puritans to the mid-century moderns - with a special focus on the "long poem" - culminating in a juxtaposition of Eliot and Stevens, as representing two fundamental modes or "basic styles" - the "Adamic" and the "mythic" imagination.  Both modes hinge on Pearce's central insight : that the specifically American literary challenge (or quandary) has to do with an American urge to manifest a new, democratic concept of "Man" (in the species sense) - in the midst of a raw, pioneering, Puritanical, pragmatic culture which was (in most ways) strictly "anti-poetic".

The book arrived on the cusp of change - when the clashing perspectives of (for just one of many examples) Eliot, Stevens, WC Williams and Marianne Moore were crystallizing in separate canonical camps (New Critics, Projectivists, Objectivists, etc.), and when a younger generation was about to scramble the checkerboard - Robert Lowell's Life Studies, the Beats, the New York School.  And it left out so much (just about any poet who was not white & male, basically - with very few exceptions).  These are some of the probable reasons that Continuity of American Poetry has fallen into oblivion.

Yet Pearce's Continuity has a powerful logical backbone.  Its central argument makes for an impressive coherence, a cohesive intellectual synthesis.  The argument might be bowdlerized thus : American history is rooted in New England Puritanism.  The Puritans' forthright adventure into the wilderness, armed with their Protestant, separatist focus on Biblical scripture rather than ecclesiastical authority, set the tone for the pious, devotional, anti-poetic emphasis on Man's utter depravity - on the complete vanity of worldly hopes - and on Man's total moral abasement and dependence on divine grace.  These touchstones of belief and worldview ensured that the writing of poetry would be at best a devotional exercise, at worst a worldly & possibly heretical hobbyhorse.  This basic attitude did not foreclose the writing of Puritan poetry : Edward Taylor, Anne Bradstreet and others still found ways to harp in the wilderness.  Yet its main consequence was to set in motion - by opposition - what became the major mode of American poetry : the antinomian, anti-devotional, egocentric, "Adamic" imagination.  What began with the prophetess Anne Hutchinson's exile from Boston, led to Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, and all their heirs : the American poet's declaration of independence from any and all European shackles or constraints.

Pearce's depiction of the 20th century involves a dialectical reversal.  Robert Frost is the exemplar of the American antinomian impulse reaching its rueful cul-de-sac; he is the sage of diminished expectations, the voice of disenchanted Adam.  Pound and Eliot initiate a counter-thrust : not the poet as creative Adam, but poet as passive, memorious Tiresias.  Surrendering the futile, failing human ego to the mythic and post-mythic absolutes of traditional faith, Man is reconciled to eternity (see Eliot, from The Waste Land to Four Quartets).

Wallace Stevens, then, for Pearce, represents the culmination of the American No, in thunder to this powerful impulse (via Poe, Eliot & Pound) to reject Whitman's democratic America and its Adamic imagination.  Stevens, in a sense, formalizes the modern, existential vision of human dignity without the Modernist "myths" of God or gods.  He declares and celebrates the sufficiency of the human imagination - in the face of the harshness of material Nature and an intuition of unknowable, alien Mind - and seeks heroic joy & praise in the midst of the storm (there's something very Beethoven about this poetic Mozart).

I've left out Pearce's forecast that future generations would find a way through this either/or.  And I've left out one of the main threads of his thesis, having to do with the development of the American long poem (Whitman-Pound-Crane-WC Williams) as the expression of a completely new form of epic : a tale in which there is no exemplary, legendary, semi-divine epic hero, but in which the poet is the hero, the speaking protagonist, of the new American (& cosmic) imagination - shaping a new vision of human dignity rooted in complete equality : Everyman and Everywoman at the center of reality.

And reading this book puts me face-to-face with my own posture in this field, as a longtime practitioner of the "long poem".  Looking for reinforcements, I've been reading a short book (proceeds of a lecture) by Edgar Sheffield Brightman, from 1925 : Immortality in Post-Kantian Idealism.  Brightman was a philosopher of the "Boston Personalist" school (out of Boston University) - one of Martin Luther King's intellectual influences.

One of the things Brightman asserts is that our beliefs and opinions regarding the immortality of the human person are inseparable from the general cultural ground or worldview out of which they manifest; they are incomprehensible if simply abstracted in isolation.  This is of a piece with his characterization of human reason and logic : he follows the German Idealist philosopher Johann Fichte in proposing a dual architecture of rationality - understanding (analysis) and reason (synthesis).  Both are necessary : we analyze experience in order to synthesize its meaning as a whole, as an organic, living entity.  

This approach - holistic, organic, synoptic - seems to me to be of the essence with regard to poetry.  Poetry is the living speech of living men & women, shaping holistic representations of actual experience.  

Wallace Stevens celebrates this imaginative synthetic human essence with great probity and power.  Yet I have to disagree with him with regard to his most basic postulates.  I stand with the Boston Personalists with respect to theism & a-theism.  

So with poetry, and the vision of poetry,  I feel I am floating somewhere there between Eliot & Stevens, Pound & Crane, & Berryman.  The Personalists argue that the synthetic human imagination, and the organic wholes of full understanding and rationality, encounter a Reality suffused with creative Mind and Purpose; that individual persons do not create the Universe ex nihilo, but reflect and complete that cosmic synthesis in the working-out of their own free destinies - and thus fulfill the graceful purposes of the Creation from in the beginning.  Persons are not dissolved into the One, but manifest it - personally.  And this manifest human dignity - this imago Dei - is the ultimate synthesis of nature and spirit.  So we are not, pace Stevens, existential isolatos, lost in an immeasurable and incalculable natural chaos or storm.  Nor are we superhuman ("major Man") masters of our fate.  Rather we are caught up in Martin Luther King's cosmic "web of mutuality" - a universe of (hopefully) immortal life, moral conscience, and truth, which undergirds and underwrites human dignity and freedom in mortal time and history.

It's getting late, so I will close up here.  (This post is really a throwback to the old bloggy table-talk of HG Poetics days of yore).