SYNCHRONIZING OUR WATCHES: THOUGHTS TOWARD A MACROPOETICS
...that great poem, which all poets, like the co-operating thoughts of one great mind, have built up since the beginning of the world
– Mercier (quoted by Celan in "The Meridian")
In this essay I am going to transgress a commandment of W.H. Auden’s, by attempting to "commit/ A social science." I have already coined a word – a questionable act, unless one is very sure there is some previously unnamed thing that needs recognition.
I believe that there is such a thing. For it came as a difficult and unaccustomed thought, some years ago, that the poetic process does not necessarily stop at the borders of the poem; that poems, whole in themselves, can also be taken as elements of a larger structure, as speeches in a play which poets have been acting since the dawn of human mind, making up their lines as they go along. With this recognition came a wish that this dialogue could be more conscious, that it could have more of a presence in the world, that the voices of poets could be heard as reinforcing one another – like the voices in a fugue which, while pursuing their several paths, are yet bound up in an underlying harmony.
True, every poet must hear his or her own inner voice, and must not be deflected by political ideology or literary fashion from giving voice to his or her perceptions. However, it happens that poets do see the same things, do have similar perceptions and visions, or perceptions and visions that can be recognized as bearings on the same points. And then there is room for an act of recognition: a handshake, a publication of banns, some gesture or ceremony that has not yet been invented. To keep track of such recognitions, to invent such gestures and ceremonies and forms in which the coherency of the poetic enterprise could become more manifest – this I would like to call the social science of macropoetics.
Macropoetics has several interrelated aspects. The first is simply the practice of attention, the art of noticing these connections. One product of this practice would be a new-old poetic canon, where the central works would be those to which the most connections lead. Since the purpose of a canon is to help the next generation of writers to orient themselves, this leads to the subject of the poetic apprenticeship, the personal poetic quest, and how it would shape itself in the presence of a "macropoetic" tradition. There is the aspect of form – the ceremonies, the gestures, through which the recognition of poetic kinship would be expressed. And finally, there is the re-expansion of poetry into domains of subject-matter from which it has recently retreated.
But having coined a Greek word for an assemblage of thoughts, let me begin the exposition in the form of a story. Bear with me, reader, in my switching back and forth between personal narrative and systematic exposition, between history and geometry, between the Tao and the halakha, just as, in my own poetry, I switch between free verse and formal verse (more the latter lately, I must admit). Each way of looking at things is in some sense true, as light is both a particle and a wave, as "masculine" and "feminine" types of intelligence both have their uses.
The portal to the macropoetic domain opened to me, so to speak, in the late spring of 1967, when I was looking for a room for the summer in Berkeley. On College Avenue I passed a house that looked a neglected and had never been elegant, but whose concrete porch was flanked by two lions. These attracted me because of a detail of family history that had always struck me as "talismanic": the fact that my maternal grandfather and grandmother both had "lion" names (Cheble and Leonie). So when a "room for rent" sign appeared on the door between the lions, I rang the bell and inquired and took the room that was offered. The house was owned by an elderly man who, it turned out, kept bees in the back yard, an insect that also had talismanic connections for me. If I didn’t make the archetypal connection between the lion and the bee (cf. Marija Gimbutas’ Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, also the episode of the lion and the honeycomb in the Samson story), the connection was soon made for me by Sylvia Plath, whom I read for the first time while living there – a fellow-poet, Janine Canan, perhaps prompted by this concrete symbolism, brought me Ariel. In any event Plath’s poetry struck a sympathetic chord; and the same chord was struck, still more loudly, by the poems of Paul Celan, encountered the following autumn. Here, too, I found myself making "talismanic" connections between his work and the unwritten text of my own life (this is discussed at length in Soul’s Evidence, a memoir now appearing in installments in Bellowing Ark). This both intrigued and frightened me; it still saddens me that I was not able to express this to Celan himself, whom I met personally on one occasion. I was, of course, overawed and tongue-tied, and there is no knowing how he would have responded; but his subsequent fate, and my own reactions thereto, proved to me at least that there is really only one poetic universe, and it would be in our interest to know it.
This finding of "talismanic" connections between one’s life and the things one reads: I suspect that this occurs oftener than people admit, that the thought surfaces only to be dismissed as silly or pretentious. But this unexamined reaction presupposes a difference between poiesis and "man’s search for meaning" – to borrow the title of Victor Frankel’s book, which Janine, again, brought to me the summer after Celan’s suicide. It seems to me that the poem is nothing other than a crystallization that occurs occasionally in the course of this search, this quest. Symbolism could not occur in poetry if it did not occur in life. One’s personal symbols may, then, be something like one’s own key to the tradition.
I am reminded of Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s book Spinster, which is about the teaching process. The protagonist teaches Maori children to read by finding out which words are most meaningful to each child. By learning to read these words, the child gains a sense of power and is thus impelled to learn more words. And I also think of Kafka’s parable, "Before the Law," where it is revealed at the end that each person has a door into the Law that is meant for them alone.
This apprenticeship was a matter of sheer accident and instinct. It happened largely in despite of the teachings I was receiving in the academic and literary milieu. The academic teachers, some of them very learned and sensitive, did teach attention to a written text; but there was no place in the curriculum for attention to the text of one’s own life. Insofar as the writing of poetry was taught, it was taught as a "craft," and oriented toward a literary marketplace where one’s fellow-students would be one’s future competitors. The important thing was to seem original while avoiding a self-exposure that could incur unfavorable comment; questions of ethics, or the direction one’s life was taking, were mostly considered irrelevant. Fortunately, Berkeley in those years was also a place of psychological and social experiment, where many people were writing poetry in an extracurricular way, just to keep track of what was happening to them. Few of the poets I knew then eventually became known, but they and their words are still part of my own inner constellation.
I’d like to think that the elements which I plucked, so to speak, from the academic and countercultural milieux in the ‘60's could be combined into a macropoetic curriculum. I dream of a milieu in which it is understood from the outset that the quest for one’s place in the poetic tradition is also a quest for the meaning of one’s life, that while learning the tradition one also undergoes something like a training analysis. It is important to learn craft, of course, but in my experience craft, beyond a simple acquaintance with the form-book, is best learned by responding to the poems that have spoken to one, and by writing on occasions when there is a need for craft. Thus, as an adolescent I had learned to write sonnets by reading those of Millay; and I reverted to this form after Celan’s death, when the form became a kind of mast to which I could lash myself while around me the sirens howled.
The encounter with Plath and Celan which I’ve been alluding to rather than describing was a kind of initiatory experience, which I fell into unprepared and unguided. It was like falling into an entirely different culture. On my flight from an academic world where I had been expected to write a dissertation on Celan’s poems in the tone of one untouched by them, I stayed for a few days in the house of a very temporary commune, where I found a copy of Black Elk Speaks. Black Elk reminded me of Celan, and of Buber’s Hasidic masters. Like those masters but, alas, unlike Celan, Black Elk underwent his visionary experiences in the presence of others who knew what such visions were and who were able to help him – in a phrase that impressed me deeply at the time – to "dance your vision before the tribe." (In his book Earth’s Mind, Roger Dunsmore comments very beautifully on this communal poetics.) There must be an art of helping one another do this, that we could find again.
Under the above-described circumstances, my "initiation" caused me to talk and act rather wildly for some time, and I came out of it knowing only that I must do something about the isolation of the poet in Western society – but what? Well, I began learning Hebrew, sensing that it might be well to know something about the rabbinic culture from which Celan was only a generation away. Then, in the spring of 1973, I was offered the job of teaching a summer course in the modern novel, a genre in which I was well-read but to which I had never devoted much conscious thought. Having no other definite plans, I accepted the job, and then had to think how to organize the course – how to select from this vast domain, in what concepts to summarize it.
At this point the Macropoetic Muse said to me, "Don’t try to summarize. Just pick one novel that you think is important, and then pick others that ‘go with’ it. In the course of discussions, a coherency will appear." Which novel should I start with? At our interview Celan had said (he apparently also said this to others) that he had settled in Paris because of Rilke’s one novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Because of Malte, I contented myself with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, rather than attempting Ulysses; chose to discuss The Castle rather than The Trial. The usual choice for Proust, Combray, fitted well. I wanted to begin with Flaubert and Dostoevsky, but which of there books would fit here? An unexpected answer came: The Adolescent, a book that turned out to be extraordinarily rich and revelatory. Joyce Carol Oates’ them, which a friend had recommended the winter before, crashed the party, and an allusion in them prompted me to discuss Madame Bovary rather than The Sentimental Education. Musil’s Man Without Qualities was also on the syllabus, but was not discussed for lack of time. A student free-associated to Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, which I had read but had not thought of because its tone repelled me; it turned out to be very much a part of the configuration. As the Macropoetic Muse had predicted, coherencies did show up – to the point where the students and I felt that we were talking, not about seven books, but about one. Later I tried to fix this configuration in a manuscript entitled The Web of What Is Written (soon to be posted in its entirety on this site). Besides the above-named works, the manuscript included chapters on some texts that I thought showed alternatives to the pattern enacted in the novels: Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, Simone Weil’s essay "Human Personality," Laura (Riding) Jackson’s The Telling, Buber’s Hasidim, Black Elk Speaks, and finally a fantasy-novel – Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. In both parts of the work Celan is of course quoted passim.
Thus, as a first "assignment" after the initiation, I had been led to address the task of canon-building. The works that I chose, taken together, were like a recurring dream. The complex of novels was unified, like each of the individual novels, by a common symbolism; the same situations kept recurring. This was partly a matter of direct or indirect influence – I was really talking about a family of novels, whose later writers had been aware of the earlier ones. Most of them point backwards to Dante’s Commedia (a central reference point for the major poets of the twentieth century as well). Proust, Joyce and Kafka all regarded Flaubert as the "master" and had been more or less influenced by Dostoevsky; Rilke is sui generis, but he too refers to Flaubert; Pynchon’s novel is rife with allusions to Joyce, Kafka and Rilke; Oates refers to Madame Bovary, though the main source of them is not literature but, according to the author, the actual life-story of a woman who certainly does not seem like an "Oates character." them serves as confirmation that The Web of What Is Written is about things that really happen to real people. Of course, the configuration is not closed; any number of other works can be "associated into" it.
The canon I am proposing is an associative complex, rather than simply a collection of "great books," though many of the central works are also part of the "great books" collection. The associative canon, like a dream or novel, is unified by a central concern, namely a wish that the poetic imagination might be employed in creating something like a true "earth household," a modus vivendi that would be happier and more "sustainable," as they say, than present arrangements. In the works I have cited, introspection on the craft of writing takes place – in this light. ("In the light of U-topia," as Celan put it in "The Meridian.")
A group of poets with this canon as background would have a common understanding of the forces that come into play when one writes and shares poetry. They would be spared much confusion, and would be better able to recognize both obstacles and allies, and to be generally – to use a word underlined by Celan, Simone Weil, Mandel’shtam, and Dante – "attentive."
In "The Meridian," Celan writes: "The poem is solitary. It is solitary and on the way." Yet through his citations of and allusions to Buechner, Lenz, Mercier, Kropotkin, Landauer, Schestow, Pascal and others – citations that are not mere display, but show that he has had experiences that helped him understand their words, that he has grappled with their questions and understood their positions – he creates the sense of a common poetic space, within which each one traces his or her own path, but attuned to the others and with a sense (he plays on the multiple meanings of Sinn: sense, meaning, direction) of a possible convergence.
In the years after Celan’s death I kept seeing poems in literary magazines that seemed like reflections of him, and at one point collected these into a small anthology called "Convergent Vision." Later, in the house of the late Dr. Israel Chalfen, the biographer of Celan’s early years, I saw a pencil drawing by Gisčle Celan-Lestrange, likewise made in the ‘70's, entitled "Toward a Center." It consisted of scattered dots that congregated more densely in the middle, in a shape vaguely reminiscent of Breughel’s Tower of Babel; if it were not for the title one could not decide whether it is aggregating or scattering. The drawing is very like Celan’s oeuvre as a whole. Whether it is a gathering or a scattering is up to our interpretation and decision.
Some lines by Hoelderlin, another of Celan’s teachers, come to mind:
The individual practice of attention – as Celan demonstrates it in his poems, and expounds it in the Bremen speech and "The Meridian" – is not enough. This was, to me, the lesson of Celan’s terrible fate. (Those who see suicide as an acceptable artistic gesture, were of course not troubled by it.) Celan’s social position was untenable in one way that many have noticed: the language in which he felt compelled to write bound him to an audience for which he could feel no trust, and separated him from the community of his origin. But his situation is not fundamentally different from the dilemma of any poet who feels that he or she speaks of sacred things (i.e., things that require trust among those who handle them) – and who can only speak of them to a marketplace.
Unsupported by social arrangements that recognize the sacred character of poetry, he was simply too vulnerable. In his early years he seems to have attempted to form alliances with other poets – the dedications of several poems are the trace of this – but, for whatever reason, these alliances do not appear to have lasted. This must have been at least part of the reason why he was unable to "gather yourself, stand" as he wrote in a late poem. Celan suffered a mental breakdown and committed suicide; others have survived, but at the price of muting the voice of the heart and sacrificing the possibility of vision.
In the spring of 1971 I realized, with a shock that unhinged me for a while, that all this concerned me personally. At this remove in time the main thing that puzzles me is: why was I surprised? But there may be some psychological barrier to the idea of a common poiesis. Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence relates this barrier to the Oedipus complex, and I think he may be right, if one adopts the view of the Oedipus complex which Erich Fromm expounds in The Forgotten Language, to which an Orthodox rabbi free-associated in a conversation with me some years ago. (Whereas Bloom emphasizes the "Oedipal" conflict between the father and son, Fromm sees the "Oedipus complex" as an expression of adult longing for the childhood world of love and solicitude.) The obstacle to this is not the father as rival but the imperative of conflict that seems to rule the adult world. I come back to the idea of some sort of pedagogy or spiritual midwifery, by which poets who had passed that narrows could help pull others through it, into a mental space where the sacred trust among speakers is (re-)established.
Most of what I have written since then has been addressed to this task. I have tried to assemble groups of poets, and I have also tried to envision an organizational form. In 1975, at the start of one organizational attempt, I wrote down the poem which I perceive as the center of my own work:
The language of this poem seems far from Celan’s. Yet some months later, when the collection of Celan’s last poems (Zeitgehoeft) appeared, I received some assurance that I had correctly divined the way he wanted to point for others, even if he was unable to walk it himself. The second-to-last poem is as follows:
("But each shall bring a thread.") And his very last poem ends:
("Faces from which we need not hide our face.")
Celan’s life-work ends with the invocation of one of the oldest of social forms, a form which creates a sacred time. Within that time, "work" is forbidden. "Work" is legally defined by the prohibition of many concrete acts, such as buying, selling, writing, cutting, tearing, sowing, reaping, building. But one is also supposed to cultivate a certain Sabbath mood, a mood of peacefulness and joy. Supposedly, in welcoming the Sabbath, one receives an "extra soul," which departs at Havdalah, the ceremony that returns one to weekday reality. Around the time that Zeitgehoeft came out, I read Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book The Sabbath, which quotes a midrash according to which the original light of Creation was a light by which one could see from one end of the world to another. When the First Human sinned, this light was hidden, but it can still be seen on the Sabbath. Reading this, I had a sense of recognition; I felt that I had seen Celan’s poetic landscape in just that light.
The kind of openness that Celan’s poetry demands can evidently only come about within some kind of structure. "How but in order and in ceremony/ Are innocence and beauty born," as Yeats put it. "Structure" is often felt as a constraint, but the poetry of the ages bears witness that it is possible to express one’s personal views within the constraints of structure. To envision the "keeping of the Sabbath" as at least a goal (to be pursued as best one can in this 7/24 world) is to draw at least the outline of a framework within which the sacred exchange might take place. The Internet of course opens new possibilities by allowing people to meet in forums to which each person contributes in the time available to him or her.
My own first attempts to convene a meeting of minds in real time suggested to me a second kind of formal measure (actually a very ancient one that has been frequently revived in the "counterculture". In order to avoid tensions over who should speak next and fruitless "debates" where people attack each other’s positions instead of reporting from their own, it is helpful for participants to speak in turn, without interruptions, and for a fixed length of time (five minutes seems to be the right measure). Whenever people relax into this procedure, the results are moving and significant. Of course, this procedure can only be carried out in small groups – twelve seems to be the maximum. Next, I envisioned some regular liaison between groups, a tiered structure such as Jethro suggests to Moses in Exodus 18, or possibly an interlocking structure, with each person being part of at least two groups– someone with a better head than I have for scheduling problems might be able to work out the ideal scheme. Again, the Internet opens new possibilities. An Internet counterpart of the meeting I’ve described would be a forum in which participation is limited to ten or twelve and all contributions would have to be in poetic form (no "workshop"-type criticism of the type Joseph Salemi have both lambasted on Expansive Poetry and Music Online, in which judgment seems to preclude understanding). Again there could be some form of regular liaison among the groups.
Beyond the agreement to participate in a formal structure, the "macropoetic" association would not require uniformity of opinion among its members. Nor would any voice be officially representative of the association. The social effects would flow from the presence within the community of this kind of deliberation, from the resonance of voices that speak as individuals, but as individuals aware of one another.
Such an association would, I think, want to keep track of its "proceedings," archiving the poems brought to the meetings and anything else the members wanted the association to keep. With computer storage, this would not be difficult.
But storage ultimately requires a locus in space, and so it would be important to establish a "poets’ house" in as many communities as possible, with meeting-rooms for groups of poets and for larger assemblies, as well as computer rooms. The house is an archetypal symbol of the mind as well as the community. Even as a mental image a poets’ house can help poets to orient themselves, serve as a beacon of "convergent vision." In 1993 I developed this image in a poem called "The Hexagon."
The organization, as said, would be the "form" of the "macropoem." Just as sonnet form can help one to state a thought in the most pointed and impressive fashion, so the organization would be a pointed and impressive statement of the transpersonal nature of poetic thought.
There is one further dimension of "macropoetics" to explore, namely the reclaiming of territory from which poetry has retreated in recent times. These days there exists a notion, seldom questioned, that poetry should not be "didactic." Of course, poets have always felt obliged to make the poem pleasurable to read. Dulce et utile – note the order. But it is only in the last century that the "utile" has been definitively dropped.
This, to my mind, is self-destructive. For if one drops the claim that poetry is useful, the chances of someone’s finding it sweet are also diminished. There are activities to which people gravitate naturally (like sitting on the sofa in front of the television) and things that they may do at first even with some reluctance and repugnance, for the sake of utility, and then come to enjoy (like exercising, or reading poetry). Someone who doesn’t believe poetry is useful has no incentive to make that effort of concentration which the poem demands. Moreover, when we advocate for things like the establishment of a poets’ house, we can best demonstrate the effectiveness of poetic language by *using* it. By reviving the tradition of Hesiod and Lucretius and Dante and Pope, we shall become better able to plead our own cause.
For poetry really is useful as an expository device. If you ever have trouble organizing ideas in prose, try blank verse. That is how my environmental epic, The Consciousness of Earth, began. I felt, when the blank-verse prologue suddenly flashed into shape out of a nebula of prose, as though I’d just reinvented the wheel in some culture where the wheelwright’s craft had inexplicably been forgotten.
Biologically speaking, the ability to write poetry didn’t evolve only as a way of transcribing personal impressions and perceptions and emotions, although doubtless there has always been an element of personal display. But above all, poetry evolved as a technique for summarizing and recording the perceptions of the group. The poet is very much a product of group selection, delegated to think and feel for the community as well as him- or herself. Those who are inconvenienced by the presence of thought in the community would like very much to push us into various solipsistic corners, but we shouldn’t let them.
At the close of this exposition, I would like to return to its beginning – to that early encounter with Celan and Plath. Why were precisely these two poets the portal-figures to the macropoetic domain? Couldn’t I just as well have been entranced by Berryman and Sexton, or Frost and Millay, or the Brownings?
One thing that Plath and Celan have in common is that both are Oedipal mourners, having each lost a deeply-loved parent early and in a terrible way. (Plath’s father apparently refused treatment for an illness that would have been curable; Celan’s mother was murdered by the Nazis.) For both of them, loss of the loved parent makes the world into a wasteland.
Throughout this writing, the conclusion of Plath’s "Sheep in Fog" has been going through my mind:
And in Celan’s "Black Snowflakes" the mother’s voice speaks of "the world that will never grow green, my child, for your child." In both of them there is a sense of being radically exposed. Yet at moments this becomes a sense of radical freedom:
Compare these lines from Plath’s "Gulliver" with Celan’s references to the "step" that is an "act of freedom," the extraplanetary excursions in The No-One’s Rose.
This very personal sense of deprivation, abandonment and exposure correlates with negative perceptions about the state of the world. In Celan’s case this seems obviously understandable – although, in the shadow of his Holocaust experiences, his discomfort with post-Holocaust culture is often overlooked. In Plath’s case the connection is less obvious. Yet her first breakdown began in a close encounter with commercial culture, as an intern at Mademoiselle. This encounter with dehumanization may have had as much to do with the "Holocaust" imagery in her poetry as paternal abandonment.
The sense of "orphanhood" must also have something to do with the way in which both use language. Both of them have a trick of making each individual word stand out as if it was the only word ever spoken, alone in the silent waste of the universe.
The instinct to produce this effect must be part of the reason why both abandoned traditional form after a formal apprenticeship. Abandoned it, more or less: there is a kind of crying out for form, a sense of form approaching and never quite arriving, in the amphibrachic meter of Celan’s broken-up lines, in Plath’s off-rhymes, and in a kind of "crystalline" organization that seems to happen from the poem’s center. The formal poem "shelters" the word, whereas in free verse the word is out in the open. The style of both Plath’s and Celan’s work dramatizes the exposed position of language, of human consciousness, in a universe that was, as Celan put it in "Conversation in the Mountains," "not thought up for you and me."
But in Celan’s work, especially, the "stepping-off" from the world is also the search for the Archimedean point. There is an invocation of a kind of global consciousness, an encompassing solicitude. Something like the "universal parenthood" Schell invokes in The Fate of the Earth:
Perhaps the association of poets I am trying to start would mean a formal acknowledgment of this "universal parenthood."
In any event, I hope that this note on Plath and Celan makes it clearer how their work could evoke a wish to produce, not only more poems, but also an overarching form, within which poetry could develop under more favorable conditions, gathering strength to speak to the world at large.