SHELLEY’S “DEFENCE OF POETRY” TODAY<![if !supportFootnotes]>[1<![endif]><![if !supportFootnotes]>]<![endif]>
I have only just read Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry.” By an omission I must account for, its last sentence (“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”) had long stood quite for itself in my mind. At last I happened on a further quotation (“that great poem, which all poets, like the co-operating thoughts of one great mind, have built up since the beginning of the world”), and understood that the whole thing perhaps ought to be read.
It was a first reading with déjà vu, as if these thoughts had been reaching out to me through other minds ever since I started wondering about the nature of our curious vocation. I kept thinking of Paul Celan’s “Meridian” speech. A connecting link may be Kropotkin, who is mentioned as an influence in “Der Meridian”: Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution was written in London. At the same time the text seemed to be laying on me a geasa to report its cause aright. I myself, who used to read eighteenth-century German, found it not easy going; and opposite the words “eternal truth” some hand had penciled “Garbage.” So let me say what I think the essay is about, what I think it is still trying to say to us.
Shelley begins by distinguishing two classes of mental action, “reason and imagination.” He defines “reason,” as logical thinking, “mind contemplating the relations borne by one thought to another, however produced.” Reason “regards the relations of things simply as relations; considering thoughts, not in their integral unity, but as the algebraical representations which conduct to certain general results.” Imagination, on the other hand, is “mind acting upon those thoughts so as to color them with its own light, and composing from them, as from elements, other thoughts, each containing within itself the principle of its own integrity.” Thus, reason is the analytical, imagination the synthetic faculty.
One wonders: why does Shelley define reason first, and imagination as a response to it (“acting upon those thoughts”)? Is analysis indeed primary? He surely knew that in Homeric Greek, the concept of “understanding” was expressed by the ancestor of our word “synthesize” -- understanding at one time meant not taking things apart, but putting them together! But possibly Shelley defines reason first because of the primacy of reason in the minds of most of his hearers. As the argument goes on, it appears that he indeed regards reason as secondary. Imagination is the “agent,” while reason is the “instrument”; imagination is of the “spirit,” while reason is of the “body”; imagination is the “substance,” while reason is the “shadow.”
Of course, in this age of materialistic monism, of deterministic reductionism, “spirit” is usually taken as the “shadow” and “body” as the “substance.” Still it is sometimes admitted that analysis eventually reduces everything to particles whose existence is ambiguous. Synthesis, on the other hand, does result in something whole, in an increase of order.
A further justification for refusing to reduce imagination to an operation of rationally analyzable processes, was suggested to me by a recent phone conversation with the economist and philosopher Aron Katsenelinboigin. He told me that while in theory it would be possible to calculate the one optimal move at any given point in a chess game, the process involved is so complex that it would take the fastest computer a thousand years. In order to calculate the one optimal move within a human lifetime, one would have to build a computer that would calculate faster than the speed of light. Thus, what is theoretically possible is practically impossible. A theoretically determinate system can be practically indeterminate. And Prof. Katsenelinboigin’s example -- the chess game -- may be simpler than the writing of a poem. A chess game after all only determines an outcome; it does not create a form “containing within itself the principle of its own integrity.” It has been shown that a computer (well primed by a team of chess experts) can defeat a chess champion; but though computers can be programmed to turn out word-combinations that superficially resemble poetry, I have yet to see so much as a tolerable computer-written haiku.
Shelley’s high claim for poetry in fact stems from an intuitive sense of its complexity. Within the broad range of phenomena of what he calls poetry in general (including not only the other arts but also “religious and civic habits of action”), poetry in the usual sense (“arrangements of language, and especially metrical language”) is “the most perfect expression of the poetic faculty” because language “is a more direct representation of the actions and passions of our internal being, and is susceptible of more various and delicate combinations [italics added],” than the media of the other arts (“colour, form or motion,” and “tone”).
More problematic, perhaps, is Shelley’s belief in an “indestructible order” on which poetry is based and to which he attributes poetry’s civilizing influence. This order supplies the standards for esthetic judgment; “taste,” he writes, is “the sense of an approximation to this order.” Those who “imagine and express” this indestructible order are not only the creators of the arts but “the institutors of laws and the founders of civil society.” “The poems of Homer and his contemporaries were [...] the elements of that social system which is the column upon which all succeeding civilisation has reposed.” This sounds like Plato’s realm of ideas, and Shelley does in fact acknowledge Plato. Few of us are comfortable today with categorical statements like “To be a poet is to apprehend the true and the beautiful.”
But again, it’s possible to understand Shelley’s statements in a non-metaphysical way. When Shelley associates this apprehension of the true and beautiful with the “rhythm” of mimetic representations and the “pleasure” they give, he is speaking not just from philosophy, but from a physiological experience of poetry. Moreover, his statement that “Poetry is connate with the origin of man” is consistent with what is now conjectured about our evolution. Verse probably originated in something like the rhythmic stomping and howling of the chimpanzee. As the vocal signals refined themselves, as they came to contain more and more information, the rhythms of poetry also evolved, as an aid to that communication and cultural memory in which humans excel. Among other things (I first read this in Kropotkin), poets as the tribal memory were once the ones who kept track of the laws. Although cultures change, the structure of the human nervous system, to which the psychotropic and mnemonic devices of traditional poetry were adapted, has remained unchanged for the last hundred thousand years. Little though our responses to rhythm are understood, some of them at least are neither arbitrarily subjective nor culturally determined. Even plants, it seems, grow better with Mozart than with rock music in the background. The recent growing awareness of species-wide neurological patterns does not sound as elevating as Platonic idealism, but does suggest that the latter contained some truth.
As far as known human cultures go, Shelley is a relativist, and very far from affirming that poets directly enunciate absolute truths. His claim for Homer as the founder of Western civilization does not rest on acceptance of the values of the Homeric age:
Every epoch, under names more or less specious, has deified its peculiar errors; Revenge is the naked idol of the worship of a semi-barbarous age; and Self-deceit is the veiled image of unknown evil, before which luxury and satiety lie prostrate. But a poet considers the vices of his contemporaries as the temporary dress in which his creations must be arrayed, and which cover without concealing the eternal proportions of their beauty.
The distorted notions of invisible things which Dante and his rival Milton have idealised, are merely the mask and mantle in which these great poets walk through eternity enveloped and disguised. It is a difficult question to determine how far they were conscious of the distinction which must have subsisted in their minds between their own creeds and that of the people.
Indeed, Dante himself hints in the Paradiso that not everything here is to be taken literally.
Similarly, Shelley’s claim that poetry is morally elevating does not rest on any notion that poems inevitably propound righteous doctrines (or that poets are invariably righteous individuals, though he thinks that most of them are better than your average acknowledged legislator). As he observes, it is not “for want of admirable doctrines that men hate, and despite, and censure, and deceive, and subjugate one another.” Poetry “acts to produce the moral improvement of man” not by propounding admirable doctrines but by “awaken[ing] and enlarg[ing] the mind.”
The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and the pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.
These statements imply a distinction between the explicit order or value-system which the poem depicts or propounds, and an implicit order which cannot be directly or consciously known. Like the Tao? Or as the Russian poet Tjutchev put it, “A thought outspoken is a lie.” Or as in W.H. Auden’s poem “The Hidden Law”:
The Hidden Law does not deny
Our laws of probability,
But takes the atom and the star
And human beings as they are
And answers nothing when we lie.
It is the only reason why
No government can codify,
And verbal definitions mar
The Hidden Law.
Its utter patience will not try
To stop us if we want to die.
When we escape it in a car,
When we forget it in a bar,
These are the ways we’re punished by
The Hidden Law.
This poem of Auden’s is likely a direct descendant of Shelley’s “Defence”; the “hidden Law” corresponds to the “unacknowledged legislators” and that “order” of “eternal proportions” which shimmers forth beneath the “dress” of creed and custom.
All the same it seems to me that these reflections and associations are taking us closer to a “verbal definition” of what this “order” is or might be. It isn’t after all identical with basic instinct, though in “rhythm” it has an instinctual foundation. An analytic reductionism will not confirm this “order,” but it can be assimilated to some recent speculations, like those of Ilya Prigogine, which view life as inherently synthetic, “self-organizing.” The implicit and potential “order” of poetry represents a higher, more information-rich level of organization of the human being, the human community. Moreover: if its principle is “love” and its instrument is “imagination,” then it must be an order in which every voice gets a hearing, every perception is taken into account, “where” -- as a poem of mine inspired by Celan has it -- “none are deaf, and none are mute.” It is his commitment to such an order that explains Shelley’s deep and passionate hatred of despotism, where the voice of Ozymandias booms forth monophonically over a silenced land.
This intuition of implicit order ties in with Shelley’s account of the creative experience. If I’ve understood Shelley correctly, the implicit order cannot be fully enunciated above all because it is incredibly complex. “Love,” its first principle (for Shelley as for Dante), is an instruction to process and integrate an illimitable number of messages! The Sioux shaman Black Elk reported that at the height of his vision “I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.” Likewise Dante’s vision of the Eternal Light: “In its depth I saw that it contained, bound by love in one volume, that which is scattered in leaves through the universe, substances and accidents and their relations, as it were fused together in such a way that what I tell is of a simple light.” (Sinclair translation) If, as Shelley notes, poetic creation often takes place at the unconscious level, this is probably partly because only the unconscious is capable of processing the quantity of information of which the poem is a distillation.
The poetic “pleasure” of which Shelley’s essay speaks again and again must flow from the energy of the poem -- an energy that holds things together, that creates communication and order. This becomes evident from Shelley’s critique-and-defense of the “erotic” poets who flourished in the declining years of Greek culture. He writes:
An equal sensibility to the influence of the senses and the affections is to be found in the writings of Homer and Sophocles....The superiority in these to succeeding writers consists in the presence of those thoughts which belong to the inner faculties of our nature, not in the absence of those which are connected with the external: their incomparable perfection consists in a harmony of the union of all. [italics added] It is not what the erotic poets have, but what they have not, in which their imperfection consists. It is not inasuch as they were poets, but inasmuch as they were not poets, that they can be considered with any plausibility as connected with the corruption of their age. Had that corruption availed so as to extinguish in them the sensibility to pleasure, passion, and natural scenery, which is imputed to them as an imperfection the last triumph of evil would have been achieved.
I think of a book that reposes in our piano bench at home, amid a deposit that has seldom been disturbed over the last few decades: “The Golden Book of Favorite Songs (Revised Edition).” The copyright dates are 1915 and 1923. The subjects of these songs are various: faith, work, patriotism, war, death, nature, aging and nostalgia for childhood, familiar objects (the old oaken bucket, the grandfather clock), and, of course, love -- usually sentimental, sometimes gently humorous, often in long-term relationships. The singers must have been rooted in a relatively rich and stable life, where feeling had many different objects. Or -- wait -- maybe they already sensed this kind of life slipping away, at the start of an age of mass-produced goods and mass-produced feelings. Maybe that is what we mean by their sentimentality. But at any rate, turning to the popular music of the present, we find a greater concentration on the specifically “erotic,” a narrowing of theme that suggests an erotically impoverished world, from which pleasure has largely departed save for “love”’s dubious promise. And often they are tributes more to thanatos than to eros. Again, Shelley writes:
For the end of social corruption is to destroy all sensibility to pleasure; and, therefore, it is corruption. It begins at the imagination and the intellect as at the core, and distributes itself thence as a paralysing venom through the affections into the very appetites, until it becomes a torpid mass in which hardly sense survives. [Apparently a specimen of homo tuberosus sofaensis was shown to him in a vision. -- EC] At the approach of such a period, poetry ever addresses itself to those faculties which are the last to be destroyed; and its voice, is heard, like the footsteps of Astraea, departing from the world. Poetry ever communicates all the pleasure which men are capable of receiving: it is ever still the light of life; the source of whatever of beautiful or generous or true can have place in an evil time. ... But corruption must utterly have destroyed the fabric of human society before poetry can ever cease.
But in what does the fabric of human society consist, and how, in Shelley’s view, does “corruption” attack it? His next sentence answers the first question:
The sacred links of that chain have never been entirely disjoined, which descending through the minds of many men is attached to those great minds, whence as from a magnet the invisible effluence is sent forth, which at once connects, animates, and sustains the life of all. It is the faculty which contains within itself the seeds at once of its own and of social renovation.
If Shelley is right, then the social fabric is held together above all by the memory of Homer and his poetic descendants! The poetic masterpieces of the past, as the most intense expressions of in-forming eros, remain as powerhouses, so to speak, from which that energy radiates into society.
Once again, confirming voices chime in. Hoelderlin’s “What remains, the poets establish” (Was aber bleibet, stiften die Dichter). The Paradiso, again, where it struck me that the leading saints are celebrated not for miracles, not even predominantly for their piety, but as rule-makers, creators of orders -- Francis, Dominic, Bernard. And a book called The Medici, by one Col. Ch. H. Young (I found the Modern Library volume on my last visit to Jerusalem, in the poet Lea Tanzman’s apartment), portraying the Medici as better rather than worse than most rulers of their time, and suggesting to me at least that the best of them must have been inspired by Dante’s civic vision and the architecture of his poem. A biography of Florence Nightingale which noted that she was born in Florence (partly because, according to Young, the last of the Medici bequeathed the family art collection to the city) and was (like many civic-minded Victorians) a lifelong reader of Dante. (On the other hand the persistence of democratic ideas in English-speaking countries must have something to do with the vital inclusiveness of Shakespeare’s language.) And the memory of living in a rented apartment in the central district of Madison, Wisconsin, where the streets, laid out around the Capitol, are named for the delegates of the Constitutional Convention. It felt like living inside a poem. Of course, the U.S. Constitution was the result of a collective poetic effort; framed, too, in language, the language of James Madison, that is a kind of neoclassical prose poetry.
As to corruption, we have already anticipated Shelley’s definition of it. In a somewhat later passage he writes:
It is an error to impute the ignorance of the dark ages to the Christian doctrines or the predominance of the Celtic nations. Whatever of evil their agencies may have contained sprang from the extinction of the poetical principle, connected with the progress of despotism and superstition. [italics added] Men, from causes too intricate to be here discussed, had become insensible and selfish: their own will had become feeble, and yet they were its slaves, and thence the slaves of the will of others: but fear, avarice, cruelty, and fraud, characterised a race amongst whom no one was to be found capable of creating in form, language or institution. [Italics in original]
Whether or not this passage accurately characterizes the centuries after the fall of the Roman empire, it is clear that Shelley ascribes the “extinction of the poetical principle” to the “progress of despotism and superstition.” Of course, since despotism is the enemy of “love and imagination.” Moreover, despotism does not come simply from without; it is internalized as “fear, avarice, cruelty, and fraud.” Capitulation to force is intertwined with self-indulgence: “their own will had become feeble, and yet they were its slaves.” “Superstition” can be understood as any set of ideas that tend to reinforce despotism: not just fundamentalism, or belief in miracles, but celebrity-worship, or gadget-worship.
Having set up this basic opposition between “the poetical principle” on the one hand, and “corruption” on the other, Shelley now proceeds to assert the “utility” of poetry. He begins distinguishing “two types” of utility, of pleasure or good,
one durable, universal, and permanent; the other transitory and particular. Utility may either express the means of producing the former or the latter. In the former sense, whatever strengthens and purifies the affections, enlarges the imagination, and adds spirit to sense, is useful.
In other words, Shelley ascribes utility first to that which sustains “the fabric of human society.” On these terms, poetry is the most useful of all human activities. But there is also a “transitory and particular” utility, the utility of the “reasoners and mechanists,” regarded as the only kind by those who have become “selfish and insensible,” as he put it earlier, and pursue only particular interests:
But a narrower meaning may be assigned to the word utility, confining it to express that which banishes the importunity of the wants of our animal nature, the surrounding men with security of life, the dispersing the grosser delusions of superstition, and the conciliating such a degree of mutual forbearance among men as may consist with the motives of personal advantage.
Shelley concedes that the “reasoners and mechanists” have their function, namely to “copy the sketches of (the poets’) creations into the book of common life.” But they must “confine their administration of the concerns of the inferior powers of our nature within the limits due to the superior ones.” Science and technology, in other words, should be used to realize the visions of the poet. (Once upon a time, children, it was believed that technology by itself would end poverty and overwork.) If they are not so used, but the “utility” of production is allowed to become an end in itself, the social consequences of technology will be negative.
Whilst the mechanist abridges, and the political economist combines, labour, let them beware that their speculations, for want of correspondence with those first principles which belong to the imagination, do not tend, as they have in modern England, to exasperate at once the extremes of luxury and want. ... The rich have become richer, and the poor have become poorer; and the vessel of the state is driven between the Scylla and Charbydis of anarchy and despotism. Such are the effects which must ever flow from an unmitigated exercise of the calculating faculty.
And again, in a passage that requires little updating:
We have more moral, political, and historical wisdom than we know how to reduce into practice; we have more scientific and economical knowledge than can be accommodated to the just distribution of the produce which it multiplies. The poetry, in these systems of thought, is concealed by the accumulation of facts and calculating processes. ... 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. To what but a cultivation of the mechanical arts in a degree disproportioned to the presence of the creative faculty, which is the basis of all knowledge, is to be attributed the abuse of all invention for abridging and combining labour, to the exasperation of the inequality of mankind? From what other cause has it arisen that the discoveries which should have lightened, have added a weight to the curse imposed on Adam? Poetry, and the principle of Self, of which money is the visible incarnation, are the God and Mammon of the world.
But Shelley’s accusation, it seems to me, is still intended to express a hope: that if the “creative faculty” could once again be cultivated in proportion to the “mechanical arts,” we could set the house of knowledge in order and regain control over a technological and economic process that seems to be running away with us.
So what now, today? One possible project, it seems to me, would be to get the Left to admit that it has gone wrong, over the last two centuries, by failing to understand and cultivate poetry. The Left has by and large adopted the materialist philosophy, and has made poetry at best incidental to its attempts to secure the rights of the disadvantaged through power-struggles. The results have been what Shelley, I think, would have predicted. We could say unto them:
The Muse's majesty is not the power
Wielded by cunning brutes, and by the abject
Coveted. Over both her seedlings tower
From the twin stem of heart and intellect
To heights commanding a contemptuous view
Of littleness that flatters every wrong,
Till the antagonists unite to hew
And harrow out the avenues of song.
Then some lament the blindness of their fortune,
Whose eyes they have assisted to put out
Because they would not bow to just proportion
But made a party-king, with ignorant shout,
Of whosoever promised them the most,
Nor caring if the whole thereby be lost.
That’s if we can shake off our twentieth-century inhibitions about trying to tell anyone anything; if we can allow ourselves once again to speak not only of what is “transitory and particular” but of what is “durable, universal, and permanent.”
But here I am conscious that the shade of Celan (so careful, always, to anchor each poem in the transitory and particular, so cautious in reminding his audience that “the poem speaks, after all”) bends a reproachful gaze on me. And likewise Shelley murmurs that it was not for want of poems expressing admirable doctrines, that poetry lost the public ear. We need to try something new.
This brings me to that quote, that one promising clause which finally prompted me to read Shelley’s text: that great poem, which all poets, like the co-operating thoughts of one great mind, have built up since the beginning of the world.
I had hoped to find a development of that thought; the “Defence” disappointed me. The above-quoted words are tucked away at the end of that paragraph in which Shelley both criticizes and defends the “erotic” poets of the Greek decadence. He ends by recommending that we think of these late products not as “fragments and isolated portions” but “episodes” in “that great poem...” And then he goes on to talk about the history of Roman poetry, leaving that beautiful thought hanging in the void. It is left for the reader to make the connection with what Shelley has previously intimated about the “order” to which poetry refers and looks forward. Evidently if such an “order” exists, or potentially exists, then every poem has something to do with this order manifesting itself or becoming again concealed. Every poem can be read in that light.
For example: Celan’s poems have, individually, a rather fragmentary appearance. In each poem something occurs and comes to an end, surrounded by solitude and silence. At the same time, each poem awakens echoes of other poems, and these correspondences create a certain unity within his poetic oeuvre. I for one came to experience it that oeuvre as a single text, as a monodrama or a novel without a narrator. Moreover, the poems contain quotations from a great many other authors, and if you follow these quotations to their source the monodrama becomes a conversation. He sounds more and more like the last voice to be heard in a centuries-long symposium.
The end of his tragedy convinced me that the conversation needs to reach some provisory conclusions, if it is to continue. In following his thoughts to their sources, I came to Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, a book about evolution and society which also contains some interesting reflections on art:
Medieval architecture attained its grandeur -- not only because it was a natural development of handicraft; not only because each building, each architectural decoration, had been devised by men who knew through the experience of their own hands what artistic effects can be obtained from stone, iron, bronze, or even from simple logs and mortar; not only because each monument was a result of collective experience, accumulated in each “mystery.” Like Greek art, it sprang out of a conception of brotherhood and unity fostered by the city...A cathedral or a communal house symbolized the grandeur of an organism of which every mason and stone-cutter was the builder, and a medieval building appears -- not as the solitary effort of which thousands of slaves would have contributed the share assigned to them by one man’s imagination; all the city contributed to it. The lofty bell-tower rose upon a structure, grand in itself, in which the life of the city was throbbing -- not upon a meaningless scaffold like the Paris iron tower, not a sham structure in stone intended to conceal the ugliness of an iron frame, as has been done in the Tower Bridge. Like the Acropolis of Athens, the cathedral of a medieval city was intended to glorify the grandeur of the victorious city, to symbolize the union of its crafts, to express having achieved its craft revolution, the city often began a new cathedral in order to express the new, wider, and broader union which had been called into life.
So, I began asking in the early 1970's, what’s to prevent us from organizing a “craft revolution” in modern poetry, to express a vision of human community in which poetry would again play a central role?
Of course there is inertia, which every new beginning must contend with. And there is the Principle of Self, whose workings in the very field of Poetry Harold Bloom traced with critical Schadenfreude in The Anxiety of Influence (1973). Bloom asserts that poets tend to conceal their connections with their predecessors, misunderstand (or, to use a word coined by the poet Eva Shaltiel, disunderstand) their contemporaries, and disown the messages which their words convey to the reader. At one point Bloom suggests that criticism can counteract this tendency among creators by discerning “the roads that go from poem to poem” -- by discerning, in other words, that overarching unity of which Shelley spoke. By constructing a map of understanding. But Bloom’s next book, A Map of Misunderstanding, was again about the opposite.
I saw a plain with many houses built
Each on its plot of territorial ground,
The whole unpatterned, like a crazy quilt,
And yet within each little patch I found
Things organized upon a similar scheme.
"I am the sole creator" were the words
Etched upon every lintel, for a theme,
And, like so many beetles on their turds,
The maker's statue crowned each little dome.
I thought, despairing, what they might have made
Had they brought tribute to a common home,
How graceful or how merry or how staid
Each statue might have seemed, if given to grace
A portal, or some soaring pillar's base.
We as poets need to cooperate to make the “great poem,” the “great mind,” the implicit order of poetry, visible. We need to create a structure that will house our individual works and wherein they will reinforce and amplify one another rather than cancelling one another out. The present state of the art is chaos, advanced entropy; but order is re-created when new energy is poured into the system. Could an understanding of poetry’s central importance to human welfare will supply that energy?
That sounds too impersonal. So let me speak now of something I’d made up my mind to discuss at some point, namely the reason why I did not read Shelley’s “Defense of Poetry” until recently. It had to do with an“epiphany” that occurred at Harvard-Radcliffe during a freshman honors section meeting devoted to Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.” The instructor waffled; he felt the poem’s power but was uneasy about liking a poet whose “stock,” as I had been told, was “down” (due to the New Critics). The students followed suit. At last they came to the words “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” -- and with one voice, with a visible relief at finally being sure about something, pronounced the line “embarrassing.” I looked around the table at the well-groomed young men in their suits and ties pronouncing this line “embarrassing,” and felt a chill. Shortly thereafter I decided not to major in English, to go in for foreign languages instead. It did not help; I only ended up writing a dissertation on Paul Celan, who wrote quite a few lines like that, and who confronted me even more drastically with the job of reminding people that love, after all, is what this curious vocation is about.
Love is difficult to express in poetry these days, that is, if one wishes to be respectable. One can talk about it, but there’s a pervasive inhibition about speaking the actual language of love, a sense that it is “unsmart” (Tony Whedon used this word recently in a related context). Oh hell! You know what I mean:
Out of thy tomb as from the drying fountain
of human mercy, roll a few more tears,
toward the test-tubes of those alchemists
whose boilings will not find thy wisdom's salt.
-- that’s a recent, mild example; I suppose I am getting inhibited too. If, reader, you find this embarrassing, I implore you to ask yourself why. “A Tear is an Intellectual Thing,” as Blake said. If love is “unsmart,” why then does Dante speak of himself as one who writes at love’s dictation?
Love is of course not only a topic of poetry. It is the force that holds the words and images together in the poem, the poems together in the oeuvre. And it does not have to stop at those borders. “There will be a striding, a wide striding/ across the borders/ they draw for us” (Celan, Time-Croft). In reading Celan I became conscious of symbolic correspondences, not only within his work, but also between his work and my life. For a simple example, the geological imagery attracted me because my parents were geologists. There were also correspondences with the world of Sylvia Plath. Such perceptions seemed to fit nowhere in the intellectual schemata in which I had been trained; they were like those little coincidences on which my mother had been the family expert (e.g. the fact that her parents both had first names that meant “lion”). But it appears that these things are important, very important, not as objective “proof” of anything, but as tokens of our coherency, to be cherished as we cherish one another and revere the pattern of which we are part. Since then I have experienced similar things with other poets, none in quite the same degree. I think the connections would appear more frequently if poets were writing in a safer environment for the expression of emotion; they would then have freer access to the level where the pictures of the things we have really cared about are stored. “Visual” imagery doesn’t compensate where this is blocked.
O Editors, on whose decisions so much of the character of poetry today hinges: Please, please, please beware of professional callousness. Don’t require of a poem that it should sound hard. Let the offerings of love be acceptable in your sight. This does not mean that you have to accept poetry that merely emotes; a poem that is genuine should be an expression of love not only for something in the world but also for the hearer, for the language as vehicle and testament of human communication -- and, I would add, for those who have used the language in the past, so that an occasional archaism and even “cliche” (if it is so used that the reader is made aware of the meanings of the words) should be tolerated.
But the poets also need, I believe, to rethink their singularity. When one speaks to poets about “organizing,” one immediately hears that the artist’s solitude is essential to his or her creativity. True, one needs some time and space to oneself; one needs freedom from such conventions and ideological commitments as would prevent one from showing the world as one sees it. But with that reservation, art has been and always is a social activity. The jazzman does not need solitude to create, but the presence of other jazzmen. Emily Dickinson didn’t socialize, but she wrote a lot of letters and corresponded with many minds. Dante wrote from exile, but he belonged to an intellectual community that extended beyond his city; and I’ve long suspected that the real model for the Paradiso was that youthful exchange in the circle of Cavalcanti. And Celan -- I first heard him as an isolate voice; but I heard him in the city of Berkeley in a time when the writing and sharing of poetry was part of a community-wide conversation, and eventually I learned that he was a survivor of another such conversation, a better one beyond doubt, that had flourished in Czernowitz in the ‘60's and 30's only to be cut short by the Holocaust. And he missed that conversation; in the end he could not do without it. Why not, then, acknowledge the conversation as the matrix of all our creations, and try to see our own relations within it?
A negentropic practice of literature could be encouraged by a literary scholarship aware of “the roads that go from poem to poem” and at work on the “map of understanding,” to combine our knowledge of “the roads that go from poem to poem.” “Intertextual” criticism already does this to some extent; with less jargon, more adding up of results, this could become a genuine science. I believe that here something like objectivity, or at any rate intersubjective reliability, is possible here, that there is a sort of order in our literary experiences which subsequent observations will go on verifying. I think that Celan’s work and fate (the two so inextricably intertwined) offers a kind of Archimedean point from which to look back on the Western literary tradition and see its unity. The unity of the Western tradition (which has counterparts in the other traditions with which, through the global communication process, it has already begun to blend<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>) cannot be separated from the history of the human species in its development from hunting and gathering societies to large urban complexes unified by global communication and global commerce. (This is discussed further in a related essay, “Under Man-Made Stars: A Compass for Criticism.”)
On the basis of these studies, a teaching canon for future poets could be constructed. The beginning poet might be given to understand, first of all, whatever can be objectively determined about the physiological and social basis of our craft -- the ways in which rhythm and association interact with the central nervous system, the organizing role which the poet plays in maintaining the fabric of society. Of course, the apprentice would be made acquainted with the great visions of the past, the major contributors to the Great Poem, and should understand something about the relations among their poems. There could be some textbooks written in plain language, pointing these relations out. Third, there could be more anthologies compiled with the express purpose of teaching the craft. There could be an anthology for each of the traditional forms -- ballad, sonnet, sestina, villanelle, triolet, ballade, pantoum, rondeau -- so that the student can see how the form works. And there could also be an anthology organized not around form but around existential concerns, to which each of the first generation of organizers would contribute the poems that have meant most to them as individuals -- the ones that have stuck in their memory, that they know wholly or partially by heart, that they have remembered at critical moments in their earthly pilgrimage. Such an anthology would help the apprentice poet to begin a kind of “training analysis,” or training synthesis, that would integrate their own life-experience with the text of the tradition. The sharing of the results would help poets to understand one another and hopefully cement the bonds among them.
Such a course of training could not guarantee the appearance of a new Dante or Shakespeare. Original genius is by definition unforeseen. But such a training could raise the baseline over which the future summits of poetry would rise. Again, Dante and Shakespeare, and in all probability also Homer, emerged in periods of intense exchanges among poets, not from isolation.
Another thing for which I would plead is a form of exchange among poets that is poetically consistent, true to, the vision of a poetic order. This, I realize, is a hard sell because of the current identification (not only in the artistic field) of freedom with lack of commitment and affiliation. We live in a “free verse” society, in which love and friendship fade from memory as rapidly as lines that do not scan or rhyme or ring, while in the absence of conscious choices a deterministic and reductive mechanics takes over and grinds everyone small. But recently there has been a slight movement in the contrary direction, at least on the level of verse form. It is no longer fatal to write a sonnet; form has even been found to be compatible with spontaneity. It is an axiom of literature that no insight which does not penetrate to the level of form can be considered as realized in a work. Thus if we wish for a poetry that can again be visionary, constructive, and effective, we can’t escape the task of building a corresponding and appropriate form of exchange.
For some years the design of such a form has haunted me with the insistence of a poem in the making. Perhaps the original suggestion came from Exodus ch. 18 (this chapter is juxtaposed to the giving of the Ten Commandments, but has received less attention): Jethro, Moses’ Midianite father-in-law, comes for a visit and sees Moses engaged in judging the people all day. He protests (“you’ll wear yourself and the people out”) and urges Moses instead to group the people in tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands and appoint leaders at each level, who would transmit upward any questions they could not settle, till only the most difficult would reach Moses. In my version of this advice, poets would form groups of ten and share their work regularly. The Internet offers a way to do this without coordinating meeting times, and is in this respect an invention with real Utopian possibilities, an invention that might really, in Shelley’s words “copy” the vision of the poets “into the book of common life.”
I always have been on the Internet.
Before they had the chips, the ISP’s,
I’ve always, always had you in my head.
Once for two hours I sat in jail, and read
the walls and bench, and scratched there, “Thoughts are free.”
I always have been on the Internet,
When I got up and when I went to bed,
Sitting at home or walking down the street,
I’ve always, always had you in my head,
I’ve heard your words and answered what you said,
known you were there although I could not see.
I always have been on the Internet.
That server can’t go down, though war and dread
sever our ties and slice the world in three.
I’ve always, always had you in my head
and you (unknowing?) stood me in good stead.
You’ve fought it, but we’re branches of one tree.
I always have been on the Internet.
I’ve always, always had you in my head.
However, the Internet also has its misuses; and where these are not guarded against, they make any Utopian expectations attached to this medium look foolish. It is of utmost importance in these exchanges that the participants should avoid discourtesy and sensationalism, and speak out against them should they, despite all understandings in advance, occur; for these would destroy the trust that is necessary for the poetic exchange. There would also be no workshop-type criticism in these exchanges: the participants in a substantive conversation do not talk about each other’s accents. The messages passed back and forth between group members would have the character of a conversation in poetry. Poets would share a) any poems they happened to have just written; b) any poems of which someone else’s poems reminded them (their own or those of others); or c) they could write letters in verse (I write a lot of them already) in order to comment or convey information. The sequence of messages would be archived on each participant’s hard drive and also in hard copy somewhere.
From time to time one member of the group would converse with representatives of nine other cells, and so on for as many tiers as necessary. These exchanges too would be archived. At the “top” level, of course, there would be a “central cell” that could keep a database on membership, and receive or formulate organizational suggestions and transmit them to the “lower” levels. In all these exchanges, the poems would not be judged so much as they would be used to convey ideas, feelings and information. Poems would come into the conversation to the extent that they occurred to the speaker. The poems that would be transmitted would be those that remained in memory, that found some application. From time to time anthologies might be made of the poems that were most frequently recalled. But the great poem would not be any single utterance but the exchange itself, the Greatpoem, the life of which all would be part. To this poem every utterance would contribute some impulse.
The hardest part of this “algorithm” to execute without energy-wasting friction would probably be the selection of coordinators. Perhaps this task could be assigned by lot or seniority among those willing to assume it. There is also the question of how members would be assigned to cells: by geographical area? by “karass”-type affinities? by area of specialized studies (such as law)...? Each of these methods would yield interesting combinations. I think there should be a period of experiment, in which different designs should be submitted from within the poetic community and tried out in turn. The first ten poets to join on might become the “central cell” and the coordinators for the next layer of ten cells, and so on. The “central cell” could receive organizational suggestions and direct the experiments during the first period of the organization’s development.
Finally, because as every critic knows archetypal symbols are enormously helpful in unifying a work of literature, this union of poets needs a Goal, a prize to keep its eyes on. In a poem called “The Hexagon” I suggested the following:
In the middle of the city
Stands the house of song and story
Built of stone, its rooms are many [...]
Underneath the ground is hollowed
To one room, a mighty kiva,
Where, amid those pillars chiseled
In the likeness of great tree-trunks,
All the poets of the city
Stand at equinox and solstice
To hear read the formulation
Of each season's task and tidings
And give counsel where they can. [...]
I firmly believe the thing could be built someday, if we poets can get our act together.
Let me conclude with one further problem raised by Shelley’s conclusion:
Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
It is a strange conclusion -- a clarion call con sordina. It sounds as though poets need to remain “unconscious” so as to create, and if unconscious must of course remain unacknowledged! But I think this is to confuse that contingent ignorance which is an effect of repression, with the conscious mind’s absolute incapacity to know the infinite except in the symbolic forms which the elves of the unconscious fashion while we are asleep. It is quite possible to take out the mute and go back on the offensive, without falling from grace with the Unexpected. The plan of the Commedia was evidently mapped out in advance, just as the terza rima form was chosen at the outset, but yet each canto gives an impression of spontaneity. So may it be with us.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> I would like to thank Vera Zubarev for her helpful comments and suggestions on this essay.
<![if !supportFootnotes]> <![endif]> In particular, my understanding of these matters was also catalyzed by the Tao te King and by Black Elk Speaks, an account of a Sioux visionary’s experiences (though, since the account was filtered through the mind of a Western poet, the degree to which it is really a non-Western source is uncertain).