|AN ESSAY ON POETIC
To be whole is to be part.
True voyage is return.
-- Ursula Leguin, The Dispossessed
Preface: Letter to a Neoformalist Poetry Journal
I write this in response
to certain things I read in your last issue,
to statements of a formalist poetics
and a conservative politics. I hope
you will allow my writing this in verse,
which I adopt because it helps me see
the contour of my thought, and gives me hope
the reader, too, will see it. That verse can
be, inter alia, a tool of thought
is not without some bearing on the case.
First of all, letís start with formalism,
since poetry I think is at the center
of your reviewís and also my concern.
If I must choose between two monolithic
establishments, holding respectively
that formal and free verse alone can count,
Iíll go with formalism, for the reasons
youíve mentioned; but I do not want that choice;
nor do the fruits of the "new formalism,"
so far, persuade me that the outward forms
alone will get us back to the tradition.
Form in some recent poets is a hedge
bordering a neat suburban lawn,
the declaration of a territory
on which the reader is not really welcome,
only summoned to admire and envy
the air and apparatus of success.
Whereas in the tradition, formís a shell
that holds the voice of the abyss, a boat
in which the poet, and the reader with him,
put forth together on that face of that
same abyss, and not without some risk.
Nor is form always nameable in meter
and rhyme. There is the work of Paul Celan
-- here and there, scattered in the world, youíll find
readers who have the half of it by heart.
And there is Stephen Crane, whose rhymeless poems
are graven on my mind like numerals
of an invisible clock-dial, which the hour-hand
of my experience sweeps at intervals
for which I have no calculus. In short,
there is no formula for poetry.
It is the unexpected. It occurs;
to hail it you must step out of the frameworks
in which you tried to make yourself secure.
Thatís frightening (except to the extent
that one is suicidal) and perhaps
not possible, unless we have beneath us
some ultimate security, not formed
by right opinions and alliances
nor by deserving and accomplishment,
but what was given to Frostís dying tramp --
"something you somehow havenít to deserve."
Home. Mother. Human solidarity.
Which brings me to the second item on
the agenda of this letter. I must style
myself a communist -- with a small c:
I hold no brief for Lenin, Stalin, Mao,
nor for the academics you deride
(deacons of decon, parlor Marxists, builders
of intellectual ghettoes -- take Ďem all).
But nonetheless. I once began to read
The Wealth of Nations. Hadnít time to finish
but felt Iíd got the point, which thoroughly
appalled and scared me, namely the belief
that through the aggregate acts of selfishness
the common good arises. Thatís the premise
of much that calls itself conservatism
today; but I think it is not true.
The common good arises from concern
and through concerted action from concern.
Concern has its temptations, this I know.
They are painted large upon this centuryís canvas.
They all come down to the promptings of impatience,
which grasps for means that undercut the ends.
The wrongs that come in consequence are plain;
but so are those that come from substitution
of the appeal to selfishness for that
to conscience, which is consciousness of other
needs, besides oneís own immediate urge.
"A world of made is not a world of born,"
Cummings said truly; and a culture bought
and sold, is not a culture of true hearts.
Come let us reason: have you ever known
a salesman who attempted to instill
wisdom, humility, a reverent wonder
at the G-d-given world, a willingness
to sacrifice, a sense that some things are
quite irreplaceable? Such traits are not
useful to the marketer, who must
plant heedlessness, and unappeasable
hunger for what can never satisfy,
and arrogance, and envy of oneís neighbor,
to sell more things, things, things, till we are drowning
in things, and cannot see each otherís faces,
and home is wrecked by ever-tickled itches
and anger over what we cannot get,
and the body politic gives up the ghost
of wisdom. In this scheme of things there is
no place for poets -- save the one they have
at present, in the universities,
where they are schooled to draw the teeth of sense,
to play with silly ideologies
that make a travesty of good intentions --
which travesty conservatives then duly
defoliate with a certain brand of wit
compounded well to kill the pangs of conscience
and to expunge the trace of any truth
the victim had ineptly represented.
I donít wish to be seen as "anti-business."
The business of the world has to get done.
Trade and manufacture have their place,
and so has marketing -- the marketplace,
not the home, the school, or any commons;
they have their time -- the six days of the week --
days, and not nights; and not the Sabbath day.
Iím only saying: They are too much with us.
They have been suffered to encroach not only
upon the space of council, where a common
vision should have power to override
the voices of self-interest on occasion,
but on the love of friends, the inner life,
upon the very memory of the sacred.
Of course, it isnít that the borderline
of sacred and profane was ever fixed;
but like the line between the land and sea
upheaval, deposition and erosion
incessantly redraw, that line has shifted
from place to place, from time to time. Itís just
that industry has lately tipped the balance,
as Marx appears to have understood. Increase
in the complexity of process calls
for greater organization in pursuit
of profit, at the expense of older, simpler
structures that once held kin and friends together
and made the individual feel secure
enough for generosity and vision.
We, the people, need somehow to gather
the strength and vision to redraw the line,
and I would like to think that poets could
assume a leading role in such an effort
(indeed, I do not see who else could lead it),
if we could summon courage to dig in
our heels, make a stand -- ORGANIZE, in short.
If formís our forte, it seems to me we ought
to manage that, since form is just another
name for organization.
for now. If you have heard me to this point
and will hear further, in another letter
Iíll speculate how we might go about it.
This started with the word "organization,"
an uneuphonious word, which many think
ought to be farthest from a poetís usage,
pledged as we are to render faithfully
the sightings of the individual eye,
the motions of the individual mind,
wary of any call to march in step
or get involved in social machination.
Yet what is organization if not form,
and whose is form if not a poetís business?
Too, in this time the individual mind,
and soul, are under pressure from two quarters:
from the suggestions of commercialism
which purposely degrades and undermines
the will, and stuns the mind; and from the assault
of mere fanaticism, which denies
the mind, and equally perverts the will
by deifying its own will-to-power --
and both put out the individual eye.
Therefore I have undertaken to envision
how poets might get organized to stand
with more confederate minds, concerted voices
for truth and beauty and the good, to sound
a clearer note through a surrounding culture
where chaos daily seems to gain on order.
As a foundation, let me first review
in broadest outline the concrete devices
in which the craft of poetry consists,
lest I be classified with those whoíd press
the Muse into an alien servitude.
Whereas that which I see before me is
the Museís proper home, although truncated
by the ignorance of an obscuring age.
Whatís left are the foundations -- barely those --
with here and there a scattered shattered block
from fallen wall, obliterated lintel.
Muse! fiction or projection of the mind
that wants to make a whole of what it sees,
Thee I invoke, as did the ancient bards
whose skill and wisdom far exceeded mine.
O stand me and the Reader in good stead:
aid me in setting forth your deep design
and aid the reader likewise to perceive it!
I will consider rhythmic pattern first,
as grounded deepest in the human body,
the substrate of all poetry except
"free verse," that aberration of this time,
that oxymoron, planted like a virus
in poetsí brains by musephobic culture
to make them self-destruct. For when a body
lacks pulse and respiration, we declare
it dead, and draw the sheet across its eyes.thus proves the rule I seek to reaffirm.
Indeed the regular beat -- iamb or trochee,
dactyl or anapaest -- appears to mime
the pulse, as length of line the respiration,
and thence comes that the poem seems to issue
from the makerís and the readerís heart and soul.
Rhythm! great principle, not of the body
alone, but of the universe entire,
periodicities of sun and moon,
pulses of sound, of light, and those most subtle
wavelets to which the deepest sight resolves
all matter: who, except the modern poet,
disputes your sway, which the maternal heartbeat
to the fetus floating in the womb declared?
A company of marching men approaching
a bridge, fall out, to keep their tread from starting
a tremor in the steel or stone increasing
till like a catgut string the span could snap.
With rhythmic soothing hypnotists can draw
the subject down to trance, to live again
through scenes long sunk from memory, or perhaps
never enacted on the actual stage.
Those images that rise in meditation
when murmured mantrams first attune the mind
are known to each apprentice in the spirit;
and what is meditation but another
remnant and fragment of lost bardic skill?
On rhythm, then, the other elements
of poetry are based, by it aligned.
Rhyme comes to shadow respirationís contour,
alliteration underscores the pulse;
these tempos passion and mimesis vary,
inflect, as winds mildly or roughly sway
the rooted tree, but leave it in its place;
bow down the flame, but must not blow it out.
Into the mind thus calmed and thus awakened
to contemplation, epithet and name
can summon images, and visions rise.
But here the rhythmic principleís domain
is tangent to another, equally
as great, likewise ubiquitous: I mean
Association, which at every point
(most at the points of rhyme, when it is used)
the waves of rhythm touch, the way the sea
touches the sky, as long as song is made
with words. For while each word discretely names
some thing or act, quality or relation,
the named rises in memory, not alone,
but with what was contiguous and akin:
context, resemblance, origin. So that
with every word we take upon our tongues
a token of the language as a whole,
of all that world to which the tongue refers.
And as things are related in the world
in different ways (as bird and tree, as bird
and egg, as bird and reptile, bird and oboe),
so names too have their different relations
through derivation and coincidence:
dead metaphor, analogous formation,
remnant of ancient customary link,
sheer puns, that link the discontinuous
as pranksters knock unwary heads together.
We speak of metaphor and simile,
metonymy and symbol, but in truth
there is no speech that is not figurative.
True that in all this there appears no system,
no Law the names invariably obey,
but local regularities alone:
grammars one language follows -- usually,
paths that association often takes,
trends of phonetic change that mostly hold;
and -osophies and -ologies and -isms
that keep the world in order for a few,
some, a majority -- but never all.
Thereís no commutability of tongues,
nor necessary link of word and thing,
only the jumbled works of time and change --
in short, confusion, chaos, nothing like
the lucid stringencies of mathematics,
those scientific laws whose demonstration
is true and certain and controllable,
implying if not altogether showing
an order indescribably complex
but yet in principle predictable,
because it is consistent and persistent,
everywhere the same and for all time;
that must somewhere account for everything
that words can name, including words themselves,
in which that order never could be summed.
-- So think at least those Scientists whose virtue
is that they stand before the Universe
stripped of all will except the will to know
the Object: seeking merely to determine
what It is in itself, without regard
for those concerns that form our words, our things --
only to learn that mind canít comprehend
said whole, for it exceeds our cogitation,
but just some parts, that yield a partial knowledge
useful to those who hold the power to use it,
though keeping, like the fabled Monkeyís Paw,
an after-kick of disutility
for others, and for that configuration
of nature within which the human species
took shape, against which it has taken arms.
Perhaps one day computers will know all
when, instrumental to our instruments,
we humans beings have vanished like the fairies
or the proletarian dictatorship
(although, since knowing is a human thing,
the computers will not know but only mirror,
without the gaze which must complete reflection).
But Poets, though they cannot choose but hear
what science may relate, must first and last
measure the universe with human stature.
Their units are not meters, centimeters
(unhandy cuts the carpenter still gripes at)
nor light-years, microns, but the ell, the cubit,
the span, the inch, the hairbreadth and the mile --
or, literally, the foot, the step-and-pulse,
the measure given by the organism,
by this one life-form seeking to maintain
its life against a universe where all
falls to indifference.
Against it -- yet
concomitantly, by its leave and favor.
The poetís mind, conscious of self and world,
goes gathering and ordering the names
of things that make the world that holds the poet,
setting them so that they are held in place
by the force we moderns call Association;
others, at other times, have called it Love.
Love -- that is, not just the poetís love
for some particular thing, but the perception
that in the world among affinities
a current of attraction and delight
circulates, which by the Museís grace
poets are sometimes privileged to feel;
and it is just this touch of grace that makes
poetry, that mysterious thing so many
try otherwise to capture and define.
The vision which a Poet puts together
is, of course, always individual:
the gatherings of a given set of senses
arranged in patterns by one heartís desire.
And yet it is not and could never be
the expression of the person as a monad
to whom the Other is a volume sealed.
For words are common, and there is no poet
who is not an ear for other poetsí tongues.
Whatever sense a poet makes is made
of meanings that were made by predecessors,
as well as by todayís need and invention.
There may be sibling rivalry -- each one
would like to be the Museís only child --
but there is also kindred love, the seeing
of self in other, and the sheer delight
of point and counterpoint in their resemblings.
Likewise "anxiety of influence"
(the need to find oneís own self-definition)
is balanced by the piety and awe
the poet feels (the best have felt it most)
when contemplating their own origins --
original enough, if they keep faith
and render faithful answers to the questions
which time and place so changefully propound.
Moreover: though each poem is a world
rounded in itself, a separate planet,
there is a world beyond them which they show,
though no one poem shows it forth completely.
This is, on the one hand, the world "as is,"
as it affects or, as we nowadays
say, "impacts" the poet. At the same time,
on the As-is there falls the light and shadow
of a world that must at some time have existed
to have shaped the bardic brain. Nothing evolves,
weíre told, unless there is a function for it;
so our existence proves a former world,
a phantom world, known through our missing of it,
where words were heeded more than they are now.
That also was a world where natureís books
still balanced, and its body had not yet
given itself the grievous wound and discord
it got through and in us, the human creature.
The poetís brain, which had that world as template,
is now the template of its reprojection
into the poemís form, the readerís mind.
If all of this be so, there is yet a form
to find or make. As words build to a line,
lines to a stanza, stanzas to a poem,
the poem too is part as well as whole:
part of a great continuum of song,
of a millennial colloquy among those
best gifted to perceive and to express
in great and small things, in detail and outline,
the fate of humankind and of the planet.
Without a time, without a meeting-place,
the makers are perpetually assembled
in the hearing of the understanding heart,
the Ideal Reader, say, of all the poets.
What is to fashion is the form, the vessel
in which that Understanding can appear,
loom up, amid the whirlwinds of the present,
as a Presence, if not palpable still sensed
and capable of magnetizing thoughts,
aligning them so that they can be read
as a topography informed by one
projection, where "the roads
that go from poem to poem" (Bloomís word) are clear;
-- in short, behaving in the space between
the works, as individual mind within
the compass of its own creation:
assorting and arranging like with like,
setting each opposition in just light,
and giving to the whole, at last, a heartbeat,
a breath, of larger Being than the atoms
of humankind when scattered can believe --
"the life of all our lives," as Black Elk said.
This is a fiction; yet a fiction can
be dramatized, be given space to be.
How then is such a space to be constructed? --
Go call the movers of the earth to level
a plot of ground close to the cityís heart,
engage the pourers of cement, the masons,
the carpenters, to build a stately house,
with many rooms, where poets of each ward
meet every second Sabbath, let us say,
to tell in measure what theyíve seen and learned
in whatsoever circles they may move,
and one great hall, where all convene at seasons --
say full and new moon, equinox and solstice --
to hear the summary of all their numbers
recited by the skillfullest among them.
Let in this place the works of every bard
who joins that company, be treasured up,
and let it be each day from dawn to curfew
a place for study and for conversation.
Each city should have such -- call it a public
utility, the same as light and power,
as needful as the courts and the police force,
if ever we hope to counter the momentum
of social forces making for decline,
and live in fairness, amity, and wisdom.
All we must do is get folks to believe it,
and that may well be possible if poets
can will this thing and work toward it together.
To have and hold in thought this citadel
of heart and mind, this Homely House, as goal
and grail, as central symbol of our hope,
would give that hope a substance, though a long
road may wind between us and that goal,
strewn with obstacles and cleft across
by chasms with no bridge or ground to walk.
(For instance, who can speak of meeting-times
in a society that keeps no Sabbath?)
But the House of Possibility requires
no probable foundation, after all;
the New Age folks do say that imaging
oneís wish can be a step toward getting it;
and once again, we are supposedly
the experts on imagination.
Holding this hope for poets, and for all,
we also can envision a poetics
consistent with this hope, eloquent of it.
One premise is already grounded here --
a preference for those traditional measures,
in which our physical and mental being
mirrors itself most constantly and truly,
and which (we see now) also have the advantage
of aiding bards to synchronize their breathing
-- con-spiracy: the rebels of the Ď60's
found the pun, but not its application --
and see each otherís visions.
To the same
end, we ought to labor to restore,
as among poets, that which makes words mean,
by virtue of which words are sometimes things:
to wit, good faith and trust. For Relaxation,
the bringer of good visions, cannot enter
where folk feel insecure and on their guard,
when theyíre afraid of blows, or sneers. They tense
themselves, and if they dream, their dreams are bad.
Let us be courteous to one another
as the attentive reader each desires,
grateful for any drop of the true nectar,
fain to deserve the gift of understanding
and slow to look the poem in the mouth;
treating with reverence the marks of sorrow,
the seals of honest intellectual labor;
each eager to shine with and through the other,
rather than at the other bardís expense.
There should be (come to think of it) a rule
that any criticism of a poem
has to be framed in verse, that all may see
whether it rise from comparable depth.
In short, the bardic discipline includes
just the same exercise of charity,
the same attention to each word of Nature,
the same commitment to examination
of oneís own motives toward a fellow-being,
which spiritual teachers everywhere
have urged on those who seek enlightenment.
This is not new; it is only long forgotten.
Consider these four lines from the Rig-Veda:
"He who deserts a companion in knowledge
Has no way left of sharing the Word.
Indeed, whatever he hears he hears in vain.
He is not disposed to be magnanimous."
See what a shiny world of faith is mirrored
on this stray bubble from a vanished stream!
(Perhaps a few conjunctions we have heard of --
the Acmeists, and those who roamed the Lakes --
still help us guess the strength of those so bound.)
I do not know the original, but guess
the word "magnanimous" is meant exactly,
as the great breath of a life more than mine
which the true poets of the past still felt,
which is not felt in the low-ceilinged cells
to which we have somehow become committed.
But if we summon up the resolution --
breathe deeply, Reader -- we shall overcome.
All causes that depend upon compassion
and upon wisdom, are bound up in ours,
and we shall find the words to drive it home.
Is this concrete enough? If not, well then,
I think that we should sign a Manifesto --
take this, dear Poet-Reader, as a draft.
Signed, it will be the first fruit of our purpose,
opening chord of a symphony whose themes
our voices will then severally develop
in various situations, reconverging
to share the Museís gifts and to report
(always in measured speech, thatís understood)
upon our efforts and our observations.
Let us accept the helps technology
can tender us: computers that will store
our volumes on the compass of a leaf;
the Internet, that working metaphor
(Muse, may we have the wisdom so to use it)
of the No-Place, the imaginary locus
where we have heard that parallels converge
and the couriers "see each other in the Word."
So, dear Reader -- fellow-Poet -- Comrade!
What do you say now? shall this be a Work?
My soloís ended, and I listen for
your voice, your entrance, hopefully restating
that it would be great fun, whatever the odds,
amid whatever breakings, to pursue
the making of our once and future world.
-- Esther Cameron