Poetry of Reality: Adding to the Stock of Available Reality

‘The art of poetry is amply distinguished from the manufacture of verse by the animating presence in the poetry of a fresh idiom: language so twisted & posed in a form that it not only expresses the matter in hand but adds to the stock of available reality.’

—John Berryman versifying R.P. Blackmur, Collected Poems

Geoffrey Hill the English Poet would comment on this passage, saying,

Now, for me, a true poem has got to end by adding to the stock of available reality. And, what is more, it seems to me a distinction which could give one an inroad into all the distinctions one needs to make between things of intrinsic value and things of intrinsic importance. That is to say, I can think of quite a number of twentieth-century poets who add to the stock of available actuality – that is to say that their poems, having been written, become part of the pile-up of that plethora of actual things with which our culture is virtually submerged. ‘The stock of available reality’ means that once this thing has been written, everything else in one’s comprehension has to adjust itself slightly around it.

—from Geoffrey Hill’s Collected Essays
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In this sense we are so immersed in a false or unreal world of doxa, opinion, and propaganda that it has become the task of the poet among others to deliver us back to the paradise of the Real. We’ve lived under the tutelage of lies Inc. for so long we’ve forgotten the world of real things. We read poets to regain this ‘stock of available reality’, shocking us out of the stupor and idiocy of the political and social ruins of modernity. Rather than adjusting ourselves to the screen worlds of the matrix, poetry opens us again to that wilderness of the untamed and untamable realm of the life of things. Poetry may not cure us, but it can make us aware of the sickness that pervades our everyday lives; offer us a way back into reality, show us the world in all its starkness rather than in the colors of our dark civilization’s broken promises.

For the darkness within…

For those who have ever felt the darkness
grow
and the demons crawl from their hate caves

the silences that shatter all dreams
and the goodness
that never sways

let this song for the darkness within
sing

She stood among the bones
mind wracked wisp
shadowing a lost fragment of her self

where gods and men have no issue
only the anguish
haunting her somber waking’s

holding the skull of her lover
under the bone moon
lifeless in her hands

crow worlds craven and distinct
of Ragnaröks long hence shattering
the remnants of this world and hers

till she feels that rage of the lonely heart
rise up and scream through her
till night awakens

breaking


©Steven Craig Hickman – 2018

 

Why do we need poetry?

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James Wright once asked in an essay on the great poet Pablo Neruda:

“Why do we need poetry?”

His answer:

“Great poetry folds personal death and general love into one dark blossom.”

This is the sense of the concrete universal and singular truth of death’s finality, combined with the abstract truth of love brought under the wings of a folding thought as in the vestiges of night the bloom of a black orchid will close in the shadows of the dawning sun. Poetry folds the cosmos into the mind, brings to us the treasures of things that barely acknowledge us. Language through poetry is a bridge to the unknown surrounding us, the vehicle of that stubborn world of sound and thought that cannot be abstracted out of things, but must lure the dark secrets into strange realms. The translations of this disturbance of things, the blindness of our mind seeking answer to the broken links between eye and stone. Even in the moment of apprehension poetry reveals only the temporal register of its unknowingness, rather than some profound knowledge at the core of its linguistic utterance. It opens us to the mystery of darkness like an orchid flowering on the edge of oblivion.

Richard Hugo (1923 -1982) Poet of the Northwest

Now I’m dead, load what’s left on the wagon
and have the oxen move on.
—Richard Hugo, The Right Madness on Skye

One of my favorite poets is Richard Hugo. Something about his world of abandoned wastelands of the Northwest with its ghost towns, lonely souls, broken worlds of survival and civilization in decay; along with the steely eye intake of the natural, almost Saga like acceptance of the way of things in all their monstrous force of impersonal and indifference, has always struck me as a poetry of the American Sublime like no other. Yet, there is the fallible, the brokenness of the poet, himself, as well. A man whose vision of nature even in his early poem Trout would harbor the truth of our predatory universe that is as well full of subtle beauty and power, and yet, without falling into the Romantic Sublime. Hugo’s poetry has a certain cantankerous obstinacy about, a vision of life and the universe that combines both a stoic perseverance and a fierce acceptance or fatalistic gesture of charm and passion for the murderous intent that exists deep within the cosmos; one that pervades the stars as much as the predatory worlds of the natural realms we share life with on this planet. An impersonal and indifferent predation, one which we as humans all too often love to ignore at our peril. For we defend ourselves against this dark truth by inventing lies or poetry, fiction, and stories that help us live as if we were the exception to the universal rule. In his poem Trout he conveys this:

Quick and yet he moves like silt.
I envy dreams that see his curving
silver in the weeds. When stiff as snags
he blends with certain stones.
When evening pulls the ceiling tight
across his back he leaps for bugs.

I wedged hard water to validate his skin—
call it chrome, say red is on
his side like apples in a fog, gold
gills. Swirls always looked one way
until he carved the water into many
kinds of current with his nerve-edged nose.

And I have stared at steelhead teeth
to know him, savage in his sea-run growth,
to drug his facts, catalog his fins
with wings and arms, to bleach the black
back of the first I saw and frame the cries
that sent him snaking to oblivions cress.

There is a certain force released in that poem, a power of metaphor and description that almost makes us believe again in language, in that ancient covenant of the word of the poet as revealer, enchanter, diviner. Poetry of such power opens up the world and exposes its inner layers darkness, offers us — not so much a window onto reality, but rather a knowing that is in excess of the objects it perceives; brining a language that goes for the juggler and shows forth the struggle of man and nature in their endless agon, a poetry that sees into things without imposing the human will upon the outer forms of existence. This sense that what is lured out of the abyss is only a fragment of the hidden force lurking there rather than some message to be deciphered. Poetry is not interpretation, but rather a dance among the stones of fire, a shamanistic enactment of vision and excess that calls down the powers, and uplifts the dark fires at the heart of existence. Poetry seeks to divine in the hidden noumenal that which can never be truly be put into words: those edges of the dark light — the aura of its nihilist tracings, without ever settling down in any one fixed form; rather showing the dance of metaphor and metamorphosis of the savage world in all its voidic glory and corruption, a movement that traces its own impersonal desires without imposing our human fantasias. If the poet’s are madmen and inveiglers of the dead they are as well the keepers of those dark images that transport us into a knowing of things that cannot be attained by some reductionary and scientific reasoning which would kill it rather than reveal its power. If the sciences have broken the atom into smithereens, the poet’s broke the etym revealing the kernel of a hidden quatum of natural power that cannot be tapped by the sciences no matter how they try to lock reality down in their hard mathemes. Hugo’s poetry does not so much capture the world, but rather releases its sparks like a hammer on flint letting the words lift if only momentarily the veil of darkness that reveals the underlying savagery at the heart of existence.

As I quoted in the epigraph Hugo’s poetry speaks of an acceptance and equanimity toward life in the universe that is neither a denial, nor a remorse but rather of a that knowing that things will go on even as we reenter the dark loam of existence. From darkness to darkness we come, we go. And while men of religion and philosophy have struggled to attain some immortal vision of escape, Hugo (like me) accepts what is here, now: the truth that this is it, the monstrous beauty and terror of our universe that gives back nothing to our questioning heart, but reveals instead a darker truth that most of us are unwilling to accept or believe but is nevertheless essential: that it is humans that seem, at least on this small planet on the edge of a small star on a minor galaxy at the edge of nothingness to be an accidental anomaly in an otherwise blank and impervious realm of process that we cannot encompass with all our linguistic or mathematical prowess; yet, must in the end neither bow down too, nor fly from, but rather see was is there to see with eyes that have been shriven of their defensive fantasies. Hugo’s poetry may fail in the end to attain such a sublime, yet it is in the indefatigable striving that is his glory and our admiration.

Hugo also wrote a novel Death and the Good Life which seems to bring out that world tapped into such men as James Crumley another Montanaite and writer of detective fiction and noir mysteries; along with another of my favorite authors of noir James Lee Burke, whose  best known for his Dave Robicheaux series, and though a native of Louisiana spends a great deal of time living up in Montana and the Northwest territories. As Kirkus says of Hugo’s work:

A strong mystery debut for poet Hugo–and for narrator-cop Al Barnes, a 17-year Seattle policeman who has opted for the quiet life as a deputy sheriff in Sanders County, Montana. All of a sudden, however, things aren’t so quiet: the accountant from the local mill is axe-murdered on a fishing trip, soon followed by the axe-murder of the mill manager. And Al himself quickly tracks down the homicidal maniac–a beautiful 6’6″” woman who hates men and is responsible for the first death. . . but not the second (she’s got an alibi)! So, clearly, someone is trying to pass off the death of mill manager Robin Tingley as one of the maniac’s series–and Al thinks he’s found the motive: lingering revenge stemming from a murder case some years back, when high-schooler Robin testified against one of his classmates. So it’s off to Oregon to interview all those old classmates (a divertingly sleazy crowd) and to focus in on Robin’s estranged (and strange) wife.

As Alice Bolin said of Hugo in the Paris Review speaking of his graves poems, tells us ” It is hard not to think of the pictures of Hugo that are ubiquitous in Missoula, of him grasping a gigantic fish and cackling or standing stoic, holding a whiskey and a cigarette in the same hand. Living here and seeing him so often, you can feel like you know him. But any photo fades, and these pictures of Hugo are less reminders of him than reminders that no photo can convey what he was really like—in fact we are getting farther away all the time.” So it goes with words, no matter how we try to divine the past, to bring alive the natural which is already seeping into the dark we seem to always be tracing the pattern on the shores of oblivion that will exceed our linguistic prowess, and yet it is in that very temptation that has brought us the great poetry from Homer to Shakespeare and beyond. For in the end poetry is not so much a revelation, as it is a desperate cry in the wilderness of time that humanity existed even if only for a moment in the darkness of the scattered light that is this universe. That will have to be enough.

Yet, not all is rosy with Hugo, either. A lifelong alcoholic like his friend James Wright, Hugo seemed to allow a certain sentimentalism into his poetry that mars an otherwise powerful poet from attaining a certain excellence. Hugo married Barbara Williams in 1952, a marriage that ended unhappily when she left him in 1964; they were divorced in 1966. Many of his poems seem to reflect a bitterness and failure at the heart of his life and thought that pervade many of his unmemorable poems.  In 1963, Hugo and his wife Barbara traveled to Italy. This trip would provide inspiration for his 1969 book, Good Luck in Cracked Italian. Upon returning, he took a position as visiting lecturer at the University of Montana in Missoula. After his wife left him, Hugo endured a very tumultuous and emotionally unstable period. He had never taught before and feared that he couldn’t do it. Frequently, he took refuge in the country at the Milltown Union Bar. Many of his poems deal with this seamy side of his life, as he wallows in self-pity and misery so that he’ll catalogue a litany of waste and self-destruction in others that for the most part expose his own heart rather than the outer form of the world. As he says in The Milltown Union Bar:

You could love here, not the lovely goat
in plexiglass nor the elk shot
in the middle of a joke, but honest drunks,
crossed swords above the bar, three men hung
in the bad painting, others riding off
on the phony green horizon.

This sense that most of us are those painted figures on a phony world that has us hooked into such errors and illusions of a two-dimensional artificiality that we think we’re somehow the exception, when in fact we are the most blinded to our own drunk stupors and delusions. As he’ll say in self-accusatory tones of judgment at the end of that poem: “When the mills shut down, when the worst drunk / says finally I’m stone, three men still hang painted badly from a leafless tree, you one of them, brains tied behind your back, swinging for your sin.” One thinks of a badly tied in reminder of the ancient Christ hanging between the two thieves, and Hugo impaling himself not as Christ but as thief of life whose brains fried on alcoholic escape plans is bound and delivered to his own inner judges who will show no mercy nor salvation. As he ends it: “Or you swing / with goats and elk. Doors of orphanages / finally swing out and here you open in.” This sense that one cannot escape the self like the orphaned thoughts of freedom, but is forever closed off in one’s solitude and solipsistic narcissism bewailing one’s fate. For Hugo there would be no escape.

And, yet he would persist,  and in a poem or Last Words to James Wright who died of cancer Hugo will say: “This time, the branch is broke. In early work / you urged the criminal, derelict, / the dispossessed to run between the stars. / You wanted words to sing the suffering on / and every time you asked the words came willing.” Like many poets Wright and Hugo spoke for the dammed and forgotten, the weak and broken souls of the world for whom existence had brought neither joy nor glory, but rather much pain and affliction. As he’ll admonish his friend: “Those saints in solitary where the dirty river rolls, / they know each life clicks off and on, the off darker than a shabby habit.” This sense of the machinic aspect of process and reality, of a life that is just part of the inertia of the universe without meaning or purpose. Except that we as humans have attained something, a illusion of purpose and meaning, our poetry which is an addition rather than a subtraction from the destitution; an illusion that holds the world at bay if only for a moment. As Hugo says in the end of this poem: “Be glad of the green wall you climbed across one day. / Be glad as me. / What’s a lie between Eds? What’s one more dirty river?” If nothing saves us in the end, then at least we have those moments of remembrance, the attainment of those singular sparks of momentary existence that hover and remain even if they are those sweet lies we know as lies yet keep as remembrances of the actual and fulfilled.

In his final poem Making Certain It Goes On Hugo attains a grace and resilience that passes on if not wisdom then a spark of the flame of poetic power: “This brings us to us, and our set lines / set deep on the bottom. We’re going all out for the big ones.” In this poem that celebrates the passing of things, of change and the future, the past as a falling away that cannot be recaptured in words but is like the weary stone of a dead and “unknown fisherman” something erased and effaced in time; a fisherman who will remain anonymous after all, never having entered the social world of language and memory. Here “[t]he stone will bear / no inscription and that deliberate anonymity / will start enough rumors to keep / the mill operating, big trout nosing the surface, / the church reforming white frame / into handsome blue stone, and the community / going strong another hundred years.” The poet, too, will go under, become mere rumor and passion, mere words to be passed on and over in time as others take up the struggle, persist, an make certain it goes on. Maybe in the end it is all rumor and innuendo, a passing of words among strangers, a stone slab that no longer holds a name or answerable history, but rather keeps us guessing, keeps us striving against the age, the currents of life like fools and scoundrels, jokers and madmen; or maybe just common people of a community going on with their lives, doing what people do and have done in anonymity from the beginning. Maybe this is enough, that the rumor of an intent and a passage, an anonymous folding of thought and speech from lip to lip is all that keeps it and us going. And, of course, the disquieting question is: Is this enough? For Hugo this was the little lie between friends, the one that we pretend to pretend is true enough to keep us and hold the darkness at bay.

Short Bio

Richard Hugo was born on December 21, 1923, in White Center, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. His father, Richard Franklin Hogan, left the family shortly after Hugo’s birth; Hugo was raised by his mother’s parents. He attended public school and from a very early age took an interest in books, fishing, and baseball. In 1942, he legally changed his name to Hugo, the name of his stepfather. He volunteered for World War II, where he served as a bombardier in the Mediterranean. Hugo flew thirty-five combat missions and reached the rank of first lieutenant before leaving the service in 1945. Like other World War II poets such as James Dickey and Randall Jarrell, he would later recount his experiences in his poetry.

After the War, Hugo entered the University of Washington where he majored in Creative Writing. He studied with Theodore Roethke and completed a B.A. in 1948 and an M.A. in 1952. In 1952, he married Barbara Williams and began to work as a technical writer for Boeing, where he was employed for nearly thirteen years. A Run of Jacks, his first book of poems, appeared in 1961. Hugo was thirty-seven years old at that time. Soon thereafter, he began to teach English and Creative Writing at the University of Montana in Missoula. His wife returned to Seattle in 1964, and they soon divorced.

Hugo taught at Montana for nearly eighteen years. Rather than becoming more academic, however, his poems often celebrate the abandoned towns, landscapes, and people of the Pacific Northwest. In one of his best-known and often-anthologized poems from this time, “Degrees of Gray at Philipsburg,” he opens with the lines “You might come here Sunday on a whim. / Say your life broke down. The last good kiss / you had was years ago.”

In 1974, Hugo married Ripley Schemm Hansen and helped to raise her children, Matthew and Melissa. In 1977 he was named the editor of the Yale Younger Poets Series. Among his most well-known books are Death of the Kapowsin Tavern (1965), Good Luck in Cracked Italian (1969), What Thou Lovest Well, Remains American (1975), 31 Letters and 13 Dreams (1977), and The Right Madness on Skye (1980). He also authored the small but influential book on creative writing, The Triggering Town. Among other advice, he suggests that a poet should “Never write a poem about anything that ought to have a poem written about it.” Richard Hugo died on October 22, 1982, at the age of fifty-eight. (from Poets.org)

 

Bloom on Whitman: Elegist for the Self

Walt-Whitman

Perhaps all that Whitman shared with Shakespeare, Goethe, and Henrik Ibsen was an implicit insight that the self was a necessary fiction, an illusion so desired that leaves of grass would sprout from the barren rock of being. A smoky taste flows but then ebbs in our reception of agonies as one of Walt’s changes of garments. Rancidity gathers, though it does not fall, and our self-vividness grows less bright. We turn blankly and discover that no direction is at home in us. … Our prime celebrant, Walt, is also our greatest elegist for the self, for the daemon errant in time’s wastages. Whitman’s art abides in nuance, indirection, gesture, subtle evasiveness, insinuation, ineluctable modalities of the visible, the signature of all things that he summons us to come and see. Shamanistic shape-shifter, Hermetic androgyne, he indeed is prelapsarian Adam, early in the morning of what has become our Evening Land.

-Harold Bloom,  The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime

In the Silences of the Night

In the silences of the night
I feel the pulse of the ancient earth,
her deep song – drumming, drumming, drumming;
the pain of life reaching out through the leaves of trees,
reaching out toward that which exists…

even in the silences life knows no boundaries.


 

S.C. Hickman ©2016

Contemporary Poets: Christian Bök

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I’m trying to treat poetry itself as a kind of “skunkworks” of literature, a kind of top-secret research facility, where we can reverse-engineer the alien technology of language itself. I believe that poetry must think of itself as kind of R&D, setting out to foment new discoveries or create new inventions.
……– Christian Bök

This is the opening salvo in a new series of posts on contemporary poets. It want be so much critical as exploratory, since I’ve as yet not read in depth many of the poets I’ll be assaying. Spotlighting the various experiments ongoing within current poetic work. Even a base awareness that such poets exist and are thriving might help others on to benefit from other fellow laborers in the craft.

I chose a look at Christian Bök because of his alliance with many of the current trends in other forms of art, philosophy, and the sciences. From what I’ve read so far of his work I see it contemporaneous with much of the work being done in the realms of speculative realism, as well as forms of new materialism. With its emphasis on sound blocks and artificial intelligence, the digital and the compositional it seems to be moving in the experimental region of the avant-garde at the forefront of our moment.

“We are perhaps the first generation of poets who can reasonably expect to write poems for a machinic audience…” says Christian Bök in his essay When Cyborgs Versify.1 He tells us that as he began writing The Cyborg Opera he began to wonder how a “poetic cyborg of the future might grow to find its own voice amid the welter of our cacophonic technology” (p. 129). He admitted to Charles Bernstein, another contemporary poet, of a certain elitism in his poetic stance, saying,

Very few people are actually willing to make the kind of commitment that’s often required to be immersed within this kind of literature, especially since there are very few material rewards for such dedication. (see On Being Stubborn)

With his roots in Dada Bök’s appellation as a sound poet run deep and have become a staple of his oeuvre. Eunoia is his best known work providing a glimpse into his univocalics, each chapter being restricted to a single vowel, missing four of the five vowels. As Darren Wershler-Henry would say of this work in his review Eunoia: The Patriarch And Incest that  Bök’s poem is “a triumph over the revolution of the human condition”:

Eunoia was not so much written by Bok as belched forth in a fit of sublime inspiration. Eunoia‘s incorporation of sensuality is in keeping with its Modernist point-of-view. As pure allegory, Eunoia was assailed for such statements; this reasoning differs radically from traditional theories of the mid 19th century renaissance of Ottoman literature.

Bök is the author of Crystallography (Coach House Press, 1994), a pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and of Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2001), a bestselling work of experimental literature, which has gone on to win the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. Bök has created artificial languages for two television shows: Gene Roddenberry’s Earth: Final Conflict and Peter Benchley’s Amazon. Bök has also earned many accolades for his virtuoso performances of sound poetry (particularly the Ursonate by Kurt Schwitters). His conceptual artworks (which include books built out of Rubik’s cubes and Lego bricks) have appeared at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York City as part of the exhibit Poetry Plastique. Bök is currently a Professor of English at the University of Calgary.2

Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkinbreak in their introduction to The Sound of Poetry / The Poetry of Sound will reiterate Samuel Jonson’s admonishment that lyrical poetry once accompanied the lyre, a musical instrument; and, that the “irreducible denominator of all lyric poetry must, therefore comprise those elements which it shares with music… it retains structural or melodic origins, and this factor serves as the categorical principle of poetic lyricism” (p. 7). Yet, we might also remember Austin Warren, who once told us that a theory of poetry worth while “falls neither into didacticism nor into its opposite heresies, imagism and echolalia. The real ‘purity’ of poetry—to speak in terms at once paradoxical and generic—is to be constantly and richly impure: neither philosophy, nor psychology, nor imagery, nor music alone, but a significant tension between all of them.”3 This sense of tension or conflict between things whether human or not is at the heart of many aspects of our current thought, which seeks to stay with those breaks, gaps, and cracks between the Real and reality without confusing the one for the other; and, realizing that above all, its our failure to grasp or understand things, to reduce them to some monocular sameness, that gives us that dynamic and dialectical restlessness we need to create and invent our futures while keeping them open and incomplete.

Bök in an interview on Wave Composition with Stephen Ross speaks of his latest work The Xenotext: Book 1, saying,

I’ve written a short poem, and then through a process of encipherment, I’ve translated it into a sequence of genetic nucleotides, which I’ve manufactured at a laboratory, and then, with the assistance of my scientific collaborators, I’m going to implant this gene into the genome of an extremophile bacterium called Deinococcus radiodurans. I’ve written this poem in such a way that, when translated into this genetic sequence, my text actually causes the organism to interpret it as a set of meaningful, genetic instructions for producing a protein, which, according to my original, chemical cipher, is itself yet another meaningful poem.

This mixture of poetry, science, experiment, operation, sound, empirical investigation all seem appropriate in a world where speculations around the disappearance of the natural and Nature have become clichés, while the artificial and the inhuman have taken on a more ominous tone in both science and art. If bacteria can replicate and produce poetry, what next? Speaking of his teaching he once asked his students “to name their favorite, canonical work of poetry about the moon landing—and of course, they can’t, because it hasn’t yet been written; but, if the ancient Greeks had built a trireme and rowed it to the moon, you can bet that there would’ve been a 12-volume epic about such a grandiose adventure. I’m just surprised that, despite the fact that the 20th Century has seen intercontinental battles and extraterrestrial voyages that would rival the fantasies found in our epic works of classical literature, poets don’t seem willing to address the discourses of these cultural activities….”. Bök unlike many poets has moved from a historical to a futuristic vision, one that might parallel our science fictional constructions:

I think that, right now, very few of us know how to be “poets of the future.”

Works by Christian Bök:

  1. Crystallography (1999)
  2. ‘Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science (2001)
  3. Ground Works: Avant-Garde for Thee (2003)
  4. Eunoia (2005)
  5. The Xenotext (Book 1). Coach House Books (2015)
  6. UBU Web offerings
  7. PennSound offerings

 

  1. Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkinbreak. The Sound of Poetry / The Poetry of Sound. University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (November 1, 2009)
  2. Christian Bök. Poetry Foundation Biography and Bio and Notes
  3. Austin Warren. Rage for Order: Essays in Criticism (1948)

 

Alain Badiou on Pasolini

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Alain Badiou will situate his discourse on Pier Paolo Pasolini between destruction and subtraction, never forgetting that it is negation that works within them both. Speaking of that Poet, Marxist and full of the innocence of the sacred, saying,

His question was: is the revolutionary becoming of History, the political negativity, a destruction of the tragic beauty of the Greek myths and of the peaceful promise of Christianity? Or do we have to speak of a subtraction, whereby an affirmative reconciliation of beauty and peace becomes possible in a new egalitarian world?1

Isn’t this our question as well? When many would bury this ancient past as dead and to be forgotten in a world where the drift of things has shifted from the monocular vision of Western Civilization to a complex and international realm of late capitalism and the lost and poverty stricken Third World what should be done? Ours is a time when the post-colonial and multicultural identity politics has brought more divisiveness than recognition, more war and strife, racial tensions, and embittered battalions of the disaffected into a world where such things as beauty and peace seem a dream of ancient utopian failures rather than the real of our political moment. Is an egalitarian vision still viable, or is it an impossible dream at our late hour?

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Sisyphus

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It was there, the mountain.
Like all heroes and poets,
he knew it was an impossible task;

the slow surmounting of the past,
the vein struggle against history,
the repetitions of repetitions,

endless cycles of the same;
that difference came through deceit,
through cunning and craft,

rather than some miracle of mind or talent;
genius was not some gift out of time,
but rather the temerity of the dammed

and the lucky, the one’s who persisted
against the merciless cracks in reality,
bringing gusto where the world despising

all kept to its illusive dance of traces,
those overt openings to the world unseen;
while he instead looked on in sensual glory,

silently gathering that power to succeed
where others had failed, gone over and under.
The hold on him of this task to repeat, begin again;

retry the same circuit, but differently;
open himself to ridicule, to fate, necessity;
a particular bent, an angle (some called it

a ‘conduct of life’, an ethos, a slant into things):
this alone gave him – if not hope, then fervor,
a laughter deeper than time, a quickening

to earliness; knowing that with each pass
the subtle art of inventiveness, the grooves
that marked the hill with continuity,

would sooner, than later, slide away, expose
a world beneath the mountains dark tracks;
a swerve into newness that the others had overlooked,

despised, misrecognized; responding differently
than those precursors of the mountain sublime,
he’d step cleanly through the roof of the world.


– Steven Craig Hickman ©2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.

Angus Fletcher: A New Theory of American Poetry

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Many might remember Angus Fletcher’s Allegory: A Symbolic Mode which was written in the wake of such luminary works as Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism and his Fearful Symmetry; a work on the life and poetry of William Blake. Fletcher’s work brought forward the notion of an allegory without ideas in its modernist variant, along with the traditional four-fold schemes of medieval fame.  In that study he applied a reading of works as disparate as Dante’s trilogy and Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene, giving us a glimpse at the daemonic mode of the symbolic sublime. 

One of the things I took away from Fletcher’s work on allegory was a sense as he said that “allegory, the touchstone of medieval literature and preaching, cannot fail over time to produce anesthesia, whereas metaphor, a figure of instant animation, lifts the mind to a fervor of aesthetic activity.  Metaphor as structural principle generates restless shift and flexing of sense.”1 In this sense our modern troubadours such as our Orpheus Hart Crane – with his hyperbolic sublime; and, the natural or descriptive sublime of that Lucretian Wallace Stevens. All used this notion of the metaphor of the restless and never-resting Mind that travels and travails across the far horizon of our earthly estate seeking the lost objects of the heart that must suffice.

I’m reading a work I read back in 2004 by Fletcher A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination. In it he admits that “the most factual of relations to nature give rise to a new form of transcendental, namely to gnomic expression and of immanent transcendence.”2 This notion of gnomic expression and immanent transcendence might be familiar to those who keep up with current continental thought. It’s a nice way of talking about naturalist modes of atheism without directly appealing to that name. I don’t have time to go into the full details of the book, but it offers a six-fold reading of American poetry as a cross between naturalist descriptive verse and a responsive and inquisitive, even democratic dialogue between poetry and the sciences. One that allows for poetry to begin with the circle of the horizontal, or the concept of horizon as a beginning point, which “implies the immediate boundary to any environment”. Then he speaks to the place of the poet’s herself, her “way of being in the world,” as pertaining to the ecological surround of the poet’s eye and thought. Then he uses the exemplary poetry of our gnomic poet Walt Whitman, son and ephebe of that famed New Englander Ralph Waldo Emerson. He describes Whitman’s poetry as the poetry of environmental form. He’ll connect this form to its underlying rhythm, how it shapes this dialogue of naturalist perspectives with imaginative understanding. Next he treats of that distant son of Whitman, John Ashberry as the poet of becoming or process and motion; time and its momentum or accelerating disposition and advance. Finally, he’ll develop an ethical or poetic stance which he perceives within American poetry at large, between our native strain or poetic sublime and the counter-sublime. This ethical strain he likens to the pragmatic theory of coherence. He’ll take aim at separating out our homegrown pragmatism deriving from Pierce and James, weeding out the religious and belief systems in favor of its more abstract and constant layers of doing and making.

I’ll probably come back to this in a future post to fill out the details. Definitely a work to look into if your a lover of poetry, especially its American descendants. This year I’ve been rereading most of the poetry that has meant something to me over the years. Been an exciting time to go back through many of my favorite poets. After spending so much time reading philosophers and scientists the last few years its nice to return to my poetic roots.


 

  1. Angus Fletcher. Time, Space, and Motion in the Age of Shakespeare (Kindle Locations 154-155). Kindle Edition.
  2. Angus Fletcher. A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination. Harvard University Press (March 15, 2006)

Helen Vendler: The Art of Seeing Well

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I prefer, for what I do, the classical label of “commentary” or Pater’s label, “aesthetic criticism.”
………– Helen Vendler

Been reading Helen Vendler’s new book of essays The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar and came across a passage that struck me as true to my own way of thinking and being. The notion of commentary and aesthetic criticism is something I’ve been doing for a long while. Harold Bloom calls it the “art of appreciation”. I’ve always felt a good literary critic should awaken in you a curiosity to seek out more, to know more, to challenge yourself to read and think through the specific poet, novelist, artist, etc. that has been presented by the critics essay. A critic’s task to instruct and delight, to make the work before her both interesting and alive in the reader’s mind. If she has done that she has accomplished her task, giving us a commentary and appreciation of the poet’s work and life in such a way that we walk away with more than we came with.

Vendler in the preface discusses her childhood as one of Catholic upbringing that led to its opposite through the power of questioning dogma. Again, for me – although raised Protestant, there was this early questioning of those ‘articles of faith’; those notions that one should not question, discuss, ask; as if to question the dogmas of one’s faith were to suddenly plunge one into the depths of irrationalism (i.e., “one must just accept,” “one must not question God’s veracity,”; or, “those who question are close to being won over to the devil,” – implying, for me that I was on a short leash to hell. Vendler in her personal struggle out of religion discusses how her freedom at the university gave her a change to move past her parents iron-willed Catholicism, to read those who have in literature, philosophy, poetry, etc. questioned the dogmas and found them wanting.

She discovered early on that the only place she could be alone with her self was in writing poetry. Yet, as she discovered later on in college, after escaping a Catholic schooling which left her escaping the rigid world of catechisms and morals into science she once again became enamored with literature, and especially poetry. Yet, it was until much later that she realized poetry she wrote just didn’t have that unique spark:

I much later realized that I don’t possess the Coleridgean “continual reverie” of imagination; I don’t live life on two planes at once as imaginative people do.1

What struck me was just this double-vision, this seeming strange relation we as poets have of living on two planes at once. As if we were in touch with a continuous reverie between mind and things, a dialectical relationship that flowed in-between, never resting, always moving back and forth, inside and outside, round and round through the dead traces of thought and the living truth of the moment as thought and being suddenly come together in-between the mind and thing, never quite resolved but rather proving the crack in our mind between thing and thought that is always full of contradictions. It is in that restless interval of contraction and time that the poem is born and enters that necessary movement or happening that sets the mind to work and allows for the ineffable communication to occur that is the poem. A tension between mind and thing, both paradoxical and without resolution; only the power to awaken imagination and weave the trace of life and things into a knot of energy.

I like to think of the poem as a small machine whose purpose is to awaken desire. The moment you plug-in to its power grid it gives you a jolt and sends you reeling under its dark enchantments. If it doesn’t then the poem is a dead engine in your hands. Seek out those poems that awaken you from your lethargic boredom, that send you after the lost powers of your own being, that bring you those deep reveries that empower you to live life with gusto and pleasure. Even in the difficult art of sorrow one entertains the elegiac power of one’s being revealed. Turn the key, light the fire of that poem that delivers to you your self in movement and majesty.

As Vendler says,

To understand a poem it’s necessary above all to understand its functional stylistic elements; when a scholar— without a profound knowledge of the poet’s work— swoops in on a single poem to illustrate an ideological point, he or she tends to falsify both the poem and the poet in question. There is no ready and easy way to take the measure of a lyric: it must be seen in itself and as part of an individual oeuvre and as part of a literary tradition before it can be used to support any scholarly point at all.

A critic of my sort is, I suppose, “learned” in a way— that is, she has a memory for stories, styles, and structures she has seen before, and she understands the expressive possibilities latent in writing (from the larger forms of myth and narrative to the almost invisible arrangements of prepositions and articles). She remembers the combinations and permutations of words and syntax that she has come across, and is curious about the power of new assemblages. Against the background of known structures, she recognizes and defines original ones, finding names for them and inventing taxonomies in which they might be arranged. Her “learning” resembles the “learning” of poets, which, though deeply etymological and architectonic, is often unsystematic and idiosyncratic. She often fails at the most elementary undertakings of “scholarly” life, such as remembering facts, entering polemical debates, and relating works to the political or philosophical history of their era. She has— at least I have— no capacity for broad synthetic statements.

What I’ve enjoyed about Vendler is her honesty and intellectual capacity, saying what she has to say in clear and distinct prose that has all the earmarks of the great literary critic. A tradition that stems from Longinus and Aristotle to Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, John Ruskin, Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde on thru the moderns, New Criticism on to I.A. Richards, Harry Levin, R.P. Blackmur, Northrop Frye, Kenneth Burke, Harold Bloom to our day with the cross-wise poet-critics taking the stage.

When I read philosophers like Badiou who use variations on criticism of literature and poetry I’m always happy to come back to actual practicing critics who’ve learned their trade in the trenches. Nothing against Badiou, but as a philosopher he has little grasp of the wide range of tools critics have gathered over the years, and his ideological and philosophical lens cast a narrow net upon both poetry and literature leaving little for the imagination. Vendler on the other hand is not out to beat you over the head with an ideological hammer like Badiou. Hers is a fine art of reading well, one that comes with years of close and intensive appreciation of the details rather than some surface tension seeking the conceptual strategies. Philosophers focus on conceptuality leaves one dry after a while wanting more, wanting a richer and more varied form of writing and reading. What little philosophers of today read outside the discipline of philosophy proper seems to be narrowly focused on a specific range of literature and poetry, honing in on those writers that convey thought rather than image and feelings. Vendler appreciates concepts, but not at the expense of reading a poet-as-poet. There is a difference that makes a difference in poetry as in philosophy, yet the two forms approach life and thought from different needs and capacities.

Poetry brings thought and imagination into play, while philosophy attunes us to the pure conceptuality of reason, intellect, and will sharpened and distinct from imaginative literature and its poetic cousin. What a critic like Vendler sees in poetry and poets is the visible darkness latent in the structure of the poem itself, its gatherings and absorptions from life and other poetry revealed, teased out of its knotted mire. She opens the poem to desire, and thereby lets us enter its imaginative poverty. Instead of context and facts she gives us the ineffable and intransitive dispositions that shape us to those meanings we otherwise would never have known to exist. She does not give us those meanings, but rather allows us to tease them out for ourselves through that negative capacity of imagination which is poetry’s charm and eloquence.


  1. Vendler, Helen (2015-04-20). The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar (Kindle Locations 203-204). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

Edwin Arlington Robinson

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Rereading Edwin Arlington Robinson can be a cause for celebration. His voice is distinct and full of that quiet ferocity that quickens the mind. As in his poem on George Crabbe:

George Crabbe

GIVE him the darkest inch your shelf allows,
Hide him in lonely garrets, if you will, —
But his hard, human pulse is throbbing still
With the sure strength that fearless truth endows.
In spite of all fine science disavows,   
Of his plain excellence and stubborn skill
There yet remains what fashion cannot kill,
Though years have thinned the laurel from his brows.
Whether or not we read him, we can feel
From time to time the vigor of his name  
Against us like a finger for the shame
And emptiness of what our souls reveal
In books that are as altars where we kneel
To consecrate the flicker, not the flame.1

Harold Bloom would say in his usual laconic exuberance of Robinson: “It is not that Robinson believed, with Melville, that the invisible spheres were formed in fright, but he shrewdly suspected that the ultimate world,
though existent, was nearly as destitute as this one. He is an Emersonian
incapable of transport, an ascetic of the Transcendental spirit, contrary to
an inspired saint like Jones Very or to the Emerson of “The Poet,” but a
contrary, not a negation, to use Blake’s distinction.” (Poets, 239) Which is only to say with Nietzsche – that he was in love with fate’s, “amor fati”. The Love of Ananke or Necessity gathered his flickering flame into its dark knot.

We know that he received his first Pulitzer Prize in 1922, followed by two more in 1925 and 1928. In his time he was considered the greatest living American Poet. T.S. Eliot was barely recognized and Wallace Stevens was just embarking. Hart Crane had yet to make his mark. Even the likable and cantankerous Robert Frost was still a spellbound poet of the wilderness of New England. While William Carlos Williams was in his early years as a doctor. So many great poets of that era: Marianne Moore, H.D., Elizabeth Bishop… a feast in the world of landscape and the mind’s proclivities.

Beyond the favored poems of “George Crabbe,” “Luke Havergal,” “The Clerks, along with the remarkable “Credo,” “Walt Whitman” (uncompleted or abandoned), and “The Children of Night” we have the darker tones of Robinson’s later years influenced by Emerson’s late essays in Conduct of Life: “Eros Turannos” and “For a Dead Lady,” both of which even now convey an almost Frostian tone as they waver between a full blown love of Ananke (“Fate”) or Necessity and the Orphic Seer’s deep and abiding essays on “Experience,” and “Fate”.

But I admit a weakness. To me the poem that I keep returning to is “Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford”. It’s a little too long to add to this short post, yet I leave a little of its lustre as a singular spark of its power to raise the dead among the dead:

He’ll not be going yet. There’s too much yet
Unsung within the man. But when he goes,
I’d stake ye coin o’ the realm his only care
For a phantom world he sounded and found wanting
Will be a portion here, a portion there,  
Of this or that thing or some other thing
That has a patent and intrinsical
Equivalence in those egregious shillings.
And yet he knows, God help him!
Tell me, now, If ever there was anything let loose  
On earth by gods or devils heretofore
Like this mad, careful, proud, indifferent Shakespeare!
Where was it, if it ever was? By heaven,
’Twas never yet in Rhodes or Pergamon —
In Thebes or Nineveh, a thing like this! 
No thing like this was ever out of England;
And that he knows. I wonder if he cares.
Perhaps he does.… O Lord, that House in Stratford!

What he said of George Crabbe might be said of him as well:

In spite of all fine science disavows,   
Of his plain excellence and stubborn skill
There yet remains what fashion cannot kill,
Though years have thinned the laurel from his brows.


 

 

  1. Robinson, Edwin Arlington (2015-01-21). Delphi Poetical Works and Plays of Edwin Arlington Robinson (Illustrated) (Delphi Poets Series Book 46) (Kindle Locations 1992-2000). Delphi Classics. Kindle Edition.

Between Badiou and Valery: The Poetics of Subtraction and Dissemination

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I like those lovers of poetry who venerate the goddess with too much lucidity to dedicate to her the slackness of their thought and the relaxation of their reason.
…….– Paul Valery, The Art of Poetry

Paul Valery makes the point between philosophical language and the poetic utterance in his essay The Poet’s Rights over Language stating that for poetry to remain distinct and at variance to the transitive power of intellect and its propositional expediency it must “preserve itself, through itself, and remain the same, not be altered by the act of intelligence that finds or gives it a meaning“.1

Yet, none other than Alain Badiou will tell us that poetry is receding into the ether, disappearing among its own forgotten traces, that culture and civilization are no longer tempted too the feigned art of secular gnosis, the untapped light of its disquieting thought.

Poetry, alas, is receding from us. The cultural account is oblivious to poetry. This is because poetry can hardly stand the demand for clarity, the passive audience, the simple message. The poem is an exercise in intransigence. It is without mediation, and thus also without mediatization. The poem remains rebellious – defeated in advance – to the democracy of audience ratings and polls.2

One wonders if Badiou is ridiculing the democratic impulse, or bewailing the fact that we’ve all become morons unable to decipher the difference between poetic language and the mass mediatization of reality that seems so pervasive in our degraded civilization of Rock stars and Hollywood Prima donnas. Badiou like a good Platonist seeks the Good Life elsewhere, somewhere between the purity of the matheme and the condition of Love.

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Alvin Feinman: The Poetry of Loss and Begetting

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Harold Bloom once spoke of his friend Albert Feinman saying of his first book of poetry that its “central vision is of the mind, ceaselessly an activity, engaged in the suffering process of working apart all things that are joined by it”. 1 I was surprised that his poetry seems hard to find now. I remember years ago reading through his early works and thinking how powerful his vision is. The late Reginald Shepherd on his blog has some information and tribute to this fine poet we should remember. I noticed his complete poetry will come out July 2016. I look forward to it. Shepherd citing Bloom relates this poetry as “a tragedy of the mind, victim to its own intent, which is to make by separations”. Shepherd says Feinman like Yeats was a poet of the mask, but that his masks were “more alive than the great mass of mere faces”.

Below is one of my favorite of his poems, Pilgrim Heights with its self-deprecatory irony, its knowledge of poverty or lack that spurs us on and outward – “unable to bless”; and, the tonal quality of the Mind’s light caught between “blade and tremor“, “stillness and glare” where the fatal kenoma, the vastation of emptiness resides out beyond the “sea’s eternal licking monochrome“:

Pilgrim Heights

Something, something, the heart here
Misses, something it knows it needs
Unable to bless—the wind passes;
A swifter shadow sweeps the reeds,
The heart a colder contrast brushes.

So this fool, face-forward, belly
Pressed among the rushes, plays out
His pulse to the dune’s long slant
Down from blue to bluer element,
The bold encompassing drink of air

And namelessness, a length compound
Of want and oneness the shore’s mumbling
Distantly tells—something a wing’s
Dry pivot stresses, carved
Through barrens of stillness and glare:

The naked close of light in light,
Light’s spare embrace of blade and tremor
Stealing the generous eye’s plunder
Like a breathing banished from the lung’s
Fever, lost in parenthetic air.

Raiding these nude recesses, the hawk
Resumes his yielding balance, his shadow
Swims the field, the sands beyond,
The narrow edges fed out to light,
To the sea’s eternal licking monochrome.

The foolish hip, the elbow bruise
Upright from the dampening mat,
The twisted grasses turn, unthatch,
Light-headed blood renews its stammer—
Apart, below, the dazed eye catches

A darkened figure abruptly measured
Where folding breakers lay their whites;
The heart from its height starts downward,
Swum in that perfect pleasure
It knows it needs, unable to bless.


 

  1. Harold Blooom. The Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition.  (University of Chicago Press; First Edition edition (1971))

Percy Bysshe Shelley: Imagination of an Atheist

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I seem as in a trance sublime and strange
To muse on my own separate fantasy,
My own, my human mind, which passively
Now renders and receives fast influencings,
Holding an unremitting interchange
With the clear universe of things…

– Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni

Mont Blanc gives us the Shelley who’d recently been kicked out of Oxford along with his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg for publishing the scandalous pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism (1811). On a road trip in France he’d stopped off at the Hotel in Chamonix and Montanvert and caused another grand episode in scandal back in his homeworld of England when he signed the register “Democrat, Philanthropist, and Atheist”. Egalitarian, lover of human kind, and defiant unbeliever: a son of the ‘radical enlightenment’ (Johnathan Israel). A poet of that revolutionary process, which effectively overthrew all justification for monarchy, aristocracy, and ecclesiastical power, as well as man’s dominance over woman, theological dominance of education, and slavery.

The notion that the Mind itself would become the site of the Sublime which Longinus once described as consisting “in a certain loftiness and excellence of language, and that it is by this, and this only, that the greatest poets and prose-writers have gained eminence, and won themselves a lasting place in the Temple of Fame”.1 This notion of loftiness and excellence of language would come under the rhetoric of eloquence in later ages, a high-style that would lift up and register the hyperbolic and metaphoric over the literal and mundane, the symbolic and mental icons and images over the realist embellishments of naturalism. Freud would subsume it under the concept of the Uncanny.

Yet, during the age of the Romantic Philosophers and Poets the notion of eloquence would align itself with naturalism and imagination against Enlightenment Reason. Burke would separate the sublime and the beautiful saying they are mutually exclusive. Burke suggested ugliness as an aesthetic quality rather than beauty (a Platonism staple) in its capacity to instill feelings of intense emotion, ultimately creating a pleasurable experience. Burke would emphasize the effects rather than the causes of the Sublime, emphasizing the physical pain and pleasure effected not upon the mind but upon the passions of the body. This would revise once again that age old battle between materialism and idealism with a difference, that now the battle would take place in the human Mind itself rather than on its objects; an effect of the object upon the mind’s passions rather than as cause of an Idea constructed by the Mind. For two hundred years we’ve been playing out this battle in ever more darkening confrontations until the very power of Mind itself and the Subjective

Consciousness that once was the glory of Romantic Imagination has vanished into the recesses of the neurosciences and speculative philosophies of our own dire era. If I go back to Shelley its because he above all worked through many of the dilemmas of our own era, with its skeptical and ironic deconstructions as well as its atheistic tonalities of Gap and the Real. It was the British Romantics rather than the German Romantics that provided a difference that makes a difference. The work of Goethe, Novalis, Heine, Hölderlin followed a different path than that of Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats and their heirs. This is not the place to trace and compare the two worlds. Rather I want to take up the singular work of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

One difference comes quickly; that between Coleridge and Shelley. Coleridge, a bookish traveler, had lifted a statement from the poetess Sophie Christiane Friederike Brun and used it in his own, saying, “Who would be, who could be an Atheist in this valley of wonders!” Coleridge who would abandon his pagan youth of poetry for the mantle of Christian priest and critic tries unsuccessfully to ironizes Shelley’s atheistic impulse. He was speaking of Mont Blanc. Shelley on the other had actually travelled to this location, so was speaking of what he’d actually seen with his embodied and material eyes. This marking of the Hotel’s register was a pointed attack on the kind of poetry that seemed unoriginal and marked by a complacent and sentimental quality rather than the freedom from the past that Shelley’s sublime was seeking to convey.2 Jaeger on whom I rely for this aligns Shelley’s vision with what Jonathan Israel in his voluminous history of the Enlightenment termed the ‘radical enlightenment’. Here Shelley opposed his mentor William Godwin by relying on a poetics that believed the “only way to grasp mental revolution is through the mediation of the outward scene” (Jaeger).

One remembers Wordsworth in the 1805 edition of the Prelude saying:

Imagination – lifting up itself
Before the eye and progress of my song
Like an unfathered vapour, here that power,
In all the might of its endowments, came
Athwart me! I was lost as in a cloud,     
Halted without a struggle to break through;
And now, recovering, to my soul I say ‘I recognize thy glory.’
In such strength Of usurpation, in such visitings
Of awful promise, when the light of sense
Goes out in flashes that have shown to us
The invisible world, does greatness make abode,
There harbours whether we be young or old.
Our destiny, our nature, and our home,
Is with infinitude, and only there…3

In the above the natural scene all but disappears before the power of the Mind and Imagination as if to say the world is nothing, infinitude is all. Against such vaporous wanderings in the invisible Shelley would have us rather see in the natural world itself the reflection of Mind and Imagination rather than to either annihilate the world or to cut ourselves away from the world in some solipsistic inner-world of experience.

Jaeger brings up another point that before actual atheism appeared in the tracts and pamphlets of apologists it was first a construction of refutation among detractors who used the argument of atheism to refute not those who disbelieved in God but rather as straw man to further their own apology for God’s existence. Ultimately it would be Descartes on geometric method, designed and implemented to combat the very habit of scholastic disputatio that had constructed atheism as a rhetorical position. One could further say that it was from Descartes that the divide between scientific consensus as centered in the institution was contested with the securing of knowledge coming under the banner of cognition and the cognitive rather than dogmatic institutionalism. It was also in this era that religion itself came under the naturalists eye as if it were one more thing among things to be scrutinized, tabulated, compared, and analyzed; as if it were a natural object in the world with a history and a multifarious existence and plurality.

Jager will cite David Berman’s authoritative History of Atheism in Britain where the notion of atheism became available because the frame of religion and its background had shifted allowing the two to be separated and critically appraised for the first time since the Greeks and Romans. Whereas in the age of the Church the notion of beliefs was invisible, a part of the very fabric of one’s existence in the world, now the notion arose that people began to understand themselves as agents who have beliefs. Beliefs were objects one had and could be thought and reasoned about; one could distance oneself from one’s beliefs and think through one’s relations to these once firmly held notions. As Jager says:

Concerned with policing thoughts and boundaries, doctrinal belief gradually disinvested in the social whole and withdrew from the network of activity, practice, community, and routine where religious thoughts had been embedded. Largely the product of a zealously reform-minded Christianity, this process of disenchantment ushers us into the modern secular age. (ibid.)

As William Blake would remark on this turn of events in which the Epicurean Freethinker’s arose out of the very frame of Christian apology as a negation that took on the aura of a new secular belief system bounded by Reason and Imagination.

In The Necessity of Atheism Shelley’s borrowings, references, and allusions offer a crash course in free-thinking radicalism completely in line with the narrative of atheism as intellectual heroism. He’ll cite Michael Scrivener’s Radical Shelley and Martin Priestman’s Romantic Atheism which martial the influx of Lucretian metaphysical materialism from the Renaissance onward as the leitmotif underlying the radical enlightenment project that came late for Shelley. Jaeger sees in Shelley’s inscription of “Democrat, Philanthropist, Atheist” the radical enlightenments stance of egalitarianism, love of humankind, and the occupation of atheism in the realms of State and Society displacing the ancient régime and religion. “What if atheism were not about cognitively held beliefs or nonbeliefs but about postures, arrangements, dispositions, embodied techniques, or disciplined actions?” asks Jager. In other words what if atheism was a way of life, an active form of life rather than like dogma a set of beliefs one could dispute or qualify? What if atheism were one’s mode of being in the world not some carefully reasoned belief system one adhered too and preached on Sunday to a congregation?

In fact Jager will use the analogy of Occupy to describe Shelley’s use of atheism in his poem of Mont Blanc:

But if the “occupation” of atheism is instead about how one organizes one’s  time, then a different set of concepts comes into focus. For occupations, understood temporally, involve the entire self in the organization of experience. And they centrally concern what one does with one’s body—how it is trained, organized, and adjusted, what experiences it pursues and cultivates, what experiences it forecloses on—and what potentials it activates. (ibid.)

The notion that atheism occupies one’s time, space, life as a mode of being in the world rather than a set of beliefs of concepts in one’s mind presents a notion of embodied action rather than Idea. Rather than an idealism of the Idea Jager is implying that Shelley’s was a poetry of event and action, of the enactments of bodies in the world rather than mental reflections in the Mind. As Jager tells us the point Shelley was making is to picture what it might be like to be a part of an “embodied collective, a communal voice louder than the sum of its individual parts”. This is closer to those materialists like Badiou and Zizek who seek the a collective subjectivation. As Badiou remarks there is only one political subject. This is the subject that demonstrates the Real of fraternity. In other words, a true political subject is someone who identifies with the collective “we” of a truth-procedure which posits equality. This subject is not so much opposed by a reactionary subject, as opposed by the inertia of an existing regime. A political subject thinks collectively. It cannot stop thinking collectively for long enough to name or define what it is doing. (Alain Badiou and Politics)

Of course such an unthinking collective subject seems a contrary construction of Badiou’s materialist subjectivist discipline rather than a natural object in the world. Almost as if Badiou had constructed such an object as an example of his Platonic matheme much as Descartes once announced the cogito whose evaluations of res extensa or outer-sense and the inner-sense of res cogitans would form a dualistic and embattled system. Badiou seeks a stable concept that can like set-theoretic form an embattled line against the big Other of either God or Nature. Shelley would not worry about either, but would enter a dialogue of the unknown that wavered and oscillated in the Void between; neither harboring one or the other as a ballast against themselves.

One remembers Shelley’s third section of the Mont Blanc where he describes the wilderness as having an inhuman voice:

The wilderness has a mysterious tongue
Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild,
So solemn, so serene, that man may be,
But for such faith, with Nature reconcil’d;
Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood
By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.

Here the poet tells us that it is the outer form of the mountain itself as natural process, voice, and utterance which repeals those religious and disputational “codes of fraud and woe” that few understand, but that the wise and great and good seem to decode through careful perusal and critique, as well as empower through the passionate and informed potential of the body’s own embodied life in action and being. Shelley’s was a naturalist’s atheism – part skeptic, part materialist-idealist that took the outer form of things as symbol and icon of the truth revealed not as Idea but as being in its multiplicity as both potential and possible action and event.

Yet not a city, but a flood of ruin
Is there, that from the boundaries of the sky
Rolls its perpetual stream; vast pines are strewing
Its destin’d path, or in the mangled soil
Branchless and shatter’d stand; the rocks, drawn down
From yon remotest waste, have overthrown
The limits of the dead and living world,
Never to be reclaim’d.

Here the emptiness of existence, the blankness of things, Mont Blanc follows Lucretius in registering the entropic decay of everything into that final tomb beyond which nothing moves, and all is loss. Before the power of this impersonal universe of death and necessity nothing triumphs, not even men:

The race
Of man flies far in dread; his work and dwelling
Vanish, like smoke before the tempest’s stream,
And their place is not known…

And, yet, in this darkness at the unknown limits of time and thought something exists, a power: “The secret Strength of things / Which governs thought…”. Is this ‘Strength of things’ that of Will or Mind? Is Shelley of the camp of Nietzsche and Bataille, or of those who impose the Idea from German Romantic philosophers on through phenomenology and beyond?

In our time the battle between materialism and idealism seems to situate itself over the gap between Mind and the Real. Where as Idealism seeks to suture the Idea onto the Real whether in subjective, naturalist, or objective Idealisms; materialism seeks to maintain the gap, crack, or blank space between reality and the Real perturbing or disturbing thought just there where things get stuck, obstructed from reflecting either their potential or their active truth. Is this war between perspectival motions in philosophy a Mobius strip that returns upon itself like the Mind upon Mont Blanc?

And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind’s imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?

 


 

  1. Longinus (2009-10-04). On the Sublime (Kindle Locations 282-283). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.
  2. Colin Jaeger. Unquiet Things: Secularism in the Romantic Age ( University of Pennsylvania Press (November 6, 2014))
  3. Wordsworth, William (2004-09-30). The Prelude: The Four Texts (1798, 1799, 1805, 1850) (Penguin Classics) (p. 240). Penguin UK. Kindle Edition.

Ars Poetica: Shelley and Neruda

pablo_neruda_by_m_behroozi

Can we have a non-ideological poetry of the oppressed? One that is no longer aligned with the outmoded idealism-as-materialism, or inverted Hegelianism of Marx and his descendants? Can we divest ourselves of the theological conceptual matrix  implicit within Marxism? Badiou followed Plato into a mathematical philosophy of subtraction, while those like Zizek and Johnston seek out a philosophy of the Void and Life. Materialism is itself in a state of confusion these days. Meillassoux in his speculative materialism speaks of a god(s) that might one day arise from hyperchaos. De Landa and the new materialists seek a vitalization of matter in the post-Deleuzian flux. Where does poetry fit in? Below I take a look at that skeptical idealist Shelley whose secret history of the cyclic poem of humanity pervades us still; and, that of the Marxist poetics of the ‘impure poetry’ of Pablo Neruda who fused earth and politics in a collective poetry of people and land.

Even yesterday when I was reading Badiou’s essay Poetry and Communism on Lana Turner what struck me sadly is how even this late and belated defender of materialism is mired in Platonism and Rousseauism. I wrote a post of it. Of course in the essay he is speaking of Paul Eluard where Badiou tells us that “for him, as for Rousseau, humanity is fundamentally good natured, with a good nature that is being destroyed by oppression through competition, forced labour, money. This fundamental goodness of the world resides in the people, in their obstinate life, in the courage to live that is theirs”. In another place he’ll say of Eluard’s poetry:

This is what we can call poetic communism: to sing the certainty that humanity is right to create a world in which the treasure of simple life will be preserved peacefully, and that, because it has reason on its side, humanity will impose this reason, and its reason will overcome its enemies. This link between popular life, political reason and confidence in victory: that is what Eluard seeks to confer, in language, upon the suffering and heroism of the Spanish war.

This whole notion of a new world, an Adamic world of simplicity based on reason, popular imagination, and the confidence of the Good Life. Idealism pure and innocent, but hopeless. Yet, Rousseau was not totally to blame for this erroneous conclusion which seems to have become a part of the false mythologies surrounding his life and writings.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, like Shaftesbury, also insisted that man was born with the potential for goodness; and he, too, argued that civilization, with its envy and self-consciousness, has made men bad. In his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Among Men (1754), Rousseau maintained that man in a State of Nature had been a solitary, ape-like creature, who was not méchant (bad), as Hobbes had maintained, but (like some other animals) had an “innate repugnance to see others of his kind suffer” (and this natural sympathy constituted the Natural Man’s one-and-only natural virtue). It was Rousseau’s fellow philosophe, Voltaire, objecting to Rousseau’s egalitarianism, who charged him with primitivism and accused him of wanting to make people go back and walk on all fours. Because Rousseau was the preferred philosopher of the radical Jacobins of the French Revolution, he, above all, became tarred with the accusation of promoting the notion of the “noble savage”, especially during the polemics about Imperialism and scientific racism in the last half of the 19th century. Yet the phrase “noble savage” does not occur in any of Rousseau’s writings. In fact, Rousseau arguably shared Hobbes’ pessimistic view of humankind, except that as Rousseau saw it, Hobbes had made the error of assigning it to too early a stage in human evolution. (wiki)

As A.O. Lovejoy will relate it for Rousseau, man’s good lay in departing from his “natural” state – but not too much; “perfectability” up to a certain point was desirable, though beyond that point an evil. 1  The point Lovejoy makes is that for Rousseau the remedy was not in going back to the primitive but in reorganizing society on the basis of a properly drawn up social contract, so as to “draw from the very evil from which we suffer [i.e., civilization and progress] the remedy which shall cure it.” (ibid.)  So it was the notion of civilization-as-progress that Rousseau and Hobbes were against as if the civilizing and educational process could legislate and mandate the Good Life.

Yet, the notion of “perfectability” of Man is itself another of those Protestant inheritances  we need to expunge. All of our moral and ethical notions need to come under scrutiny and as Nietzsche once concluded we need a full and complete revaluation of values in our time. Does the poet have a place in this process of revaluation? Shelley the poet, skeptic and Platonist had his own issues, yet his defense of poetry still brings with it one of the most powerful truths – that poetry is about invention; in fact, that it is “inventive and creative faculty itself” (Shelley, Defense of Poetry). As Shelley in an opportune moment states it:

We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life; our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest. The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave. (see Defense of Poetry)

Here he is critiquing Immanuel Kant’s notion of finitude and the circumscribing of the limits of thought, etc. The notion that we are bound to our own limited notions and slaves of our facticity. German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) discusses facticity as the “thrownness”  (Geworfenheit) of individual existence, which is to say we are “thrown into the world.” By this, he is not only referring to a brute fact, or the factuality of a concrete historical situation, e.g., “born in the ’80s.” Facticity is something that already informs and has been taken up in existence, even if it is unnoticed or left unattended. As such, facticity is not something we come across and directly behold. In moods, for example, facticity has an enigmatic appearance, which involves both turning toward and away from it. For Heidegger, moods are conditions of thinking and willing to which they must in some way respond. The thrownness of human existence (or Dasein) is accordingly disclosed through moods.

Shelley against facticity would offer the inventive faculty, Imagination, saying that it reproduces the “common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being. It compels us to feel that which we perceive, and to imagine that which we know. It creates anew the universe, after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration”. For Shelley poetry was about change and transformation, about disturbing the minds and awakening the sleepers from their lethargic enslavement to facticity. To do this he felt that the “most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry. At such periods there is an accumulation of the power of communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature”.

For me the key is in this “accumulation of the power of communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions”, which aligns well with much of Nietzsche, Bataille, and others who investigate the power of active willing, of that excess and wastage, of communication and reception. One must counter all these idealizations with a materialist practice that as Pablo Neruda once sang to us brings us those “banging of objects that call without being answered”:

Between shadow and space, between garrisons and virgins,
endowed with a singular heart and fatal dreams,
impetuously pale, withered in the forehead
and in mourning like an angry widower every day of my life,
oh, for every drink of invisible water I swallow drowsily
and with every sound I take in, trembling,
I feel the same missing thirst and the same cold fever,
an ear being born, an indirect anguish,
as if thieves were arriving, or ghosts,
and inside a long, deep, hollow shell,
like a humiliated waiter, like a bell gone a bit hoarse,
like an old mirror, like the smell of an empty house
where the guests come back at night hopelessly drunk,
and there’s an odor of clothes thrown on the floor, and an absence of flowers
—or maybe somehow a little less melancholic—
but the truth is, suddenly, the wind lashing my chest,
the infinitely dense nights dropped into my bedroom,
the noise of a day burning with sacrifice
demand what there is in me of the prophetic, with melancholy
and there’s a banging of objects that call without being answered,
and a restless motion, and a confused name.

– from Ars Poetica, Pablo Neruda – (The Poetry of Pablo Neruda)

Here the poet delivers us a poetic testament in the tradition of Lucretius and Ovid that shifts us between darkness and the emptiness, between the void between things and the subtraction of being from nothing. Here the poet is the conduit for that which is in process of farewell, an elegiac and nostalgic wisp of that restlessness and confusion that is the world in all its burning and prophetic clamor. Yet, the poet is keeper of this knowledge – of earth in its never-resting motion and its sensual and experiential materiality; its physical and mimetic, mirrored powers and dispositions. All this density drops down from an ‘eternity of death’ (Eluard) where the poet “hopelessly drunk” in time receives the dead wisdom of ancient poets and makers who would reinhabit the house of the living poetry with communication, with messages of other days “burning with sacrifice” in an excess and exuberance of the common life of earth. The demand of poetry for Neruda is that it awaken the “banging objects”, – the voices of the oppressed, the excluded, the forgotten of the world who “call without being answered” to a new time, a new collective life in love and liberty. Here in the poetry of our residence on earth comes the “restless motion” of a “confused name” – a name that will know itself as the victory of a retroactive nostalgia from the future that lives in the present triumph of collective necessity. (Badiou)

Neruda’s poetry was seeking  a project for an anti-modernist strategy, ‘Toward an Impure Poetry,’ targeting the elite aesthetic modernisms of Wallace Stevens, Juan Ramon Jimenez, Octavio Paz, and others: ‘Let that be the poetry we search for: worn with the hand’s obligations, as by acids, steeped in sweat and in smoke, smelling of lilies and urine, spattered diversely by the trades that we live by, inside the law or beyond it’ (Neruda 1961, 39). But this is not naive empiricism or vulgar pragmatism. What Neruda accomplished in this ‘impure’ craft is the discovery of ‘anticipatory illumination,’ or, in Ernst Bloch’s words, the Marxist poet ‘makes the world become aware of an accelerated flow of action, an elucidated waking dream of the essential’ (1996, 88). In the artistic dream-work, absence and presence are articulated in a productive synthesis. Rene Jara calls Neruda’s quest for the presence of what is absent, that call for a more intense life, the key to the principle of composition in his major works: ‘The world takes on form through a mechanism of contiguities and displacements that arises from the polyvalence of worlds and the constitution of an alternate symbolic process that springs from a preconscious figurative plane prior to the semantics of definition’ (1992, 149). (see A People’s Poet)

Ultimately Neruda would say of his craft and poetry: So let no one worry when I seem to be alone and am not alone, I am nobody and I speak for all…”. He tells us he is of another order of poetry and poets:

Perhaps my destiny is different
My militant fighter’s chest
moved me toward guerrillas in the government

to gain with the ardent patience
of truth and the working class

the Law of the poor.

  – from The Sea and the Love of Quevedo

 Maybe this is what we need now in our dire moment, a militant poetry, a fighter’s poetry that moves in the motion of the restlessness of things and people, that seeks out the ‘Law of the poor’ and the ‘patience of truth’ that comes with a deep solidarity among the working classes of the world united by a poetry and voice of awakening to change, real change. But one that is no longer bound to vanguards and elite intellectuals, but rather of the people and their struggles round the world to create a world worth living in rather than this hellish paradise of the rich and tyrannical archons of a fetid wealth system of systematic accumulation without expenditure.

Against the poetry of the Sublime and Solitary Neruda offers the base materialism of “human connections” where poets and our “earthly struggles” share the common way of men, women, and children walking alongside each other in the struggle to create a new life among equals and friends, brothers, sisters, and comrades sharing in the destiny of things. We do not seek some ‘other’ world, some elsewhere beyond. No. We seek only to retake what is the common world of all, rather than the property of a few. We empower the multitudes and the multiplicity of humans in solidarity to live in acknowledgement of this monstrous universe, not to cower before it or fear it but to know it as it is rather than to change it into what it is not. We are not Idealists seeking estrangement from the world, but are materialists seek to live and exist in the universe on its terms without the support of some big Other (i.e., God or Nature). Not some pie in the sky idealism of afterings and more-than-human knowledge of some divine order; but, rather of the common life of the world – of men and things, the place we live and breath in, now and always.

Liberty is your own forest
dark brother, don’t lose
the memory of your sufferings…

 – from Canto General, Toussaint L’Ouverture


 

  1. Originally published in Modern Philology, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Nov., 1923):165-186, Lovejoy’s essay was reprinted in Essays in the History of Ideas. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, [1948, 1955, and 1960], is also available on Jstor