Whither American Poetry – Part 4
Steps in a Healing Ritual
(The Poet as Myth Maker)
The poet is a little god.
Language is myth.
…everything is transfigured and is sacred and each room is now the centre of the world, tonight is the first night, today the first day, whenever two people kiss the world is born, a drop of light with guts of transparency the room like a fruit splits and begins to open or burst like a star among the silences and all laws now rat-gnawed and eaten away, barred windows of banks and penitentiaries, the bars of paper, and the barbed-wire fences, the stamps and the seals, the sharp prongs and the spurs, the one-note sermon of the bombs and wars, the gentle scorpion in his cap and gown, the tiger who is the president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty and the Red Cross, the pedagogical ass, and the crocodile set up as saviour, father of his country, the founder, the leader, the shark, the architect of the future of us all, the hog in uniform, and then that one, the favourite son of the Church who can be seen brushing his black teeth in holy water and taking evening courses in English and democracy, the invisible barriers, the mad and decaying masks that are used to separate us, man from man. and man from his own self they are thrown down for an enormous instant and we see darkly our own lost unity, how vulnerable it is to be women and men, the glory it is to be man and share our bread and share our sun and our death, the dark forgotten marvel of being alive…
The mapping of the human universe turns abruptly inward here, or rather reaches the junction of the objective real as symbol and metaphor and the subjective apprehension of meaning. Recently, mythology has come to be viewed as a psychological inflection of the dreaded metanarrative, one more means of constraining the other to terms identified and defined by the dominant controllers of signification. However, the need for this portion of the map remains as a way of ordering the universe, of making sense. As Anthony Stevens says in Private Myths, “In the unconscious we remain a primordial creature, homo religiosus, approaching the mystery of existence in quest of a religious understanding.” It is true that when reified the religious impetus has been an excuse for every atrocity the race is prone to, but what Stevens is suggesting is that the urge to understand the mystery of our being, however provisionally, is precisely and quintessentially human. In fact, our loss of a sense of the mystery at the center of our being, which I will suggest is a very recent phenomena (although in danger for decades), may well be our greatest sacrifice to the acquisition of knowledge in the logical positivist tradition¾although that loss relative to science is certainly not necessary or inevitable, which would suggest that there are other dark forces at work (i.e., the attack on meaning generally in our culture of late and the increasing power of commodities to form and define the individual, however unsatisfactorily in existential terms). It is perhaps almost a truism that in the absence of a unifying mythological system we have become fragmented creatures whose longing for “some sort of answer, a corroboration” (as Birkerts describes the reading act in a recent interview) remains inchoate and unacknowledged except in the fact of our fragmentation and the confusion it engenders.
Stevens asserts that this fragmentation is an actual split in our brains and that, the English word yoke comes from the same Indo-European root as yoga and religion from the same Latin root as ligament. Dreams, myths, spiritual disciplines and religious rituals all have the same ligamenting or yoking function…designed to tie the body, mind, and spirit together. It is not far-fetched to imagine they could have similar neurophysiological consequences that narrative, ritual, and dreams strengthen ties between the neocortex and the limbic system, yoking them together.
In other words, and any accusation as to the circular logic of etymological example is duly noted, we need a richer psychic life, including mythology, in order to heal the “schizoid dissociation” between the modern and primordial minds, “between thinking and feeling, between ego and Self.”
In the absence of a dominant religious paradigm, which I am certainly not suggesting we attempt to reattain, the concern over myth as controlling metanarrative becomes less poignant, or at least the dangers are more subtle (but I will discuss more of this below). In fact, the impetus for the creation of myth as psychological function remains in spite of the discrediting of an overarching myth system and is thus less a function of conformity and perhaps as radically individualistic an act as humans are capable:
In the context of a traditional mythology, the symbols are presented in socially maintained rites, through which the individual is required to experience, or will pretend to have experienced, certain insights, sentiments, and commitments. In…creative mythology, on the other hand, this order is reversed: the individual has had an experience of his own—of order, horror, beauty, or even mere exhilaration— which he seeks to communicate through signs; and if his realization has been of a certain depth and import, his communication will have the value and force of living myth¾for those, that is to say,
In the absence of a dominating organizing system, individual experience, as it is recognizable by other individuals as a poignant assertion of being, becomes the basis for the stories, poems, and vignettes that lend insight into the human condition, that tie the abstract intellect to the primal brain where the mystery is enacted. In Campbell’s words, the individual becomes the “ultimate mythogenic zone,” and consequently our postmodern mythology is dynamic but meaningful¾that is, the small mythology we currently have in our culture of surfaces. As recently as the early 1970’s Charles Altieri could say in an essay in Boundary: “The postmoderns…take myth as essentially a condition one lives in, a way of experiencing, and not as a way of ordering and comprehending experience. The sacramentalizing functions of myth, its powers of creating a numinous present, are far more important than its structural and structure creating properties” (“From Symbolist Thought to Immanence: The Ground of Postmodern American Poetics”). However, in the face of a lost sense of life as meaningful, or at least of language as sufficient to convey what meaning we are privy to, and in the face of our increasingly material conception of the human as but neurons and electrical impulses guiding an unwieldy boat of meat, not to mention our diminished sense of the radical subject as actor on the world stage let alone the stage of the universe, poets presently tend to give us little pictures, to give us the domestic mundane, the tiny deaths of the everyday as mere event, one step beyond sterile statistic, if those deaths are mentioned at all. The poet as myth maker must “create…a dynamic pattern, seeking to integrate consciousness with action…emphasize [the] reconstructive attempt to present a ‘vision of the path toward the integration of spiritual vision into social reality’ ”(Werner quoting Carol Christ’s Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest). Contrary to Altieri’s assertion, beyond a sense of one’s own numinous being the poet as mythmaker must make sense of his/her relationship to that mystery as it is manifested in his/her experience and do the race the favor of offering up a vision for both experiential exploration and critical analysis.
However, the tendency for myth to rely too heavily upon previously constituted, and therefore baggage laden, archetypes is well taken. Rachel Blau Duplessis, in her discussion of the feminist mythic sensibilities of several poets (Rich, Levertov, and Rukeyser chiefly), offers a useful distinction. She argues that the most effective poems that achieve the level of myth “are nonstatic and nonarchetypal…historically specific inventions… [and are compatible with these poets’ deconstructive commitment] to the rupture of sequences, ‘the splitting open and delegitimation of constituted stories.’ ” What she suggests is that our new mythology rely upon prototypes as opposed to archetypes. The former, she says, are original, model forms on which to base the self and its action¾forms open to transformation and forms, unlike archetypes, that offer similar patterns of experience to others, rather than imposing these patterns on others… . A prototype is not a binding, timeless pattern, but one critically open to the possibility, even the necessity, of its transformation. Thinking in these terms historisizes myth.”
This is the human story made manifest in the experience of the individual as a creature of the historical moment rather than as a product of the egoistic “I” laboring under the illusion of the importance of its own presence on the tiny field of the domestic. This is the human story as “the integration of the spiritual and the social, of the personal and the political, [and] is itself a radical act” in the face of the primary urge to deconstruct currently operative in much American poetry (Werner). It is also a process of self-renewal that is continual in light of the tendency to reification (i.e., by any readers so inclined, but also the poet him/herself) and subversion by the dominant discourse. Rather than being a codification of a controlling ideology, the poem as myth is offered as a dynamic and provisional saying that is nevertheless a proof of the meaning of human existence.
Although a conscious reconnection of what has been split asunder is itself a radical performance, unlike the cognizant and hyper-purposeful mapping of the human universe discussed previously, sometimes the poet as mythologizer, like the shaman as protopoet in Rothenberg’s assertion, has a unifying vision thrust upon him/her. This is the model of the poem as reenactment of being and the mystery at its center as it is subconsciously inflected by the poet’s position in time. It is a function of the poet standing not only at the nexus of language and experience and, paradoxically, of a conscious attempt to come back from the collision of history and cognition and the phenomenological carrying a dynamic artifact, an experiential touchstone, for others:
For we move—each—in two worlds: the inward of our awareness, and the outward of participation in the history of our time and place… . Creative artists…are mankind’s wakeners to recollection: summoners of our outward mind to conscious contact with ourselves…as spirit, in the consciousness of being. Their task, therefore, is to communicate directly from one inward world to another, in such a way that an actual shock of experience will have been rendered: not a mere statement for the information or persuasion of a brain, but an effective communication across the void of space and time from one center of consciousness to another…
but it is also a function of collecting in the net of the poem the impulses and concerns lurking beneath the surface of the culture. Such poems-as-myth, because they access the unconscious yearnings of a people, frequently seem to have been prescient as those longings and rumblings move into communal consciousness.
The poem-as-myth is, in short, part and parcel of the human condition as a mystery that confounds and fascinates, both a dynamic (re)definition of being and its (re)capitulation. This is also in part what Wideman means when he quotes a maxim of the Ibo of West Africa to the effect that all stories are true, are the one story, and what Duncan meant when he said that we are all writing the same poem, the poem. This is the story of our collectivity, but not a stridently conformist construct¾quite the opposite. This is the unspeakable vision of the individual that is also the panhuman struggling its way toward speech. This is our attempt to understand the mystery, ineluctable and ultimately always beyond us, of this tenuous and unlikely walk through the stars.
Poetry-as-myth in this vision is, therefore, a late step in our healing ritual. It is a deep cultural work that defies our disintegration by reconjoining the disparate elements of our collective being, and it is the dynamic of being itself¾what we believe as it transmutes within and modifies the individual, both reader and writer, as it transubstantiates with multiple readings over time, as it refuses to become the sanctioned version of the human story but, rather, one temporary and poignant saying that leads to another and another, never ossifying, never giving up on the search for meaning, for understanding that is never an ultimate understanding, that allows us to be as vehemently human as we are able. The poem-as-myth is the indefatigable fight against the stasis at the center of modern life that has replaced the primally dynamic mystery, whether named or unnamed.
In a poem dedicated and addressed to Joseph Brodsky, which is as much elegy as myth, Derek Walcott momentarily confounds our sense of the addressee and appears to choose the former, to name the mystery. In a moment of mythmaking that is a conjoining of an old prototype of rebirth and one of the naturalized omnipresence of the dead with the echo of a Christian phrase, and with a trope that stands for the bleakness of history as it was played out in the life of a man, he says, in a disconcertingly formal poem given the subject, given the tenor of the century of which the poem speaks:
You refreshed forms and stanzas; these cropped fields are your stubble grating my cheeks with departure, grey irises, your corn-wisps of hair blowing away. Say you haven’t vanished, you’re still in Italy. Yeah. Very still. God. Still as the turning fields of Lombardy, still as the white wastes of that prison like pages erased by a regime. Though his landscape heals the exile you shared with Naso, poetry is still treason because it is truth. Your poplars spin in the sun.
(“Italian Eclogues,” The Bounty)
Can I hear an amen?
It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably everyday for lack of what is found there.
The imagination is not only holy, it is precise it is not only fierce, it is practical men die everyday for lack of it it is vast & elegant di Prima
The descent beckons as the ascent beckoned ……………………… The descent made up of despairs and without accomplishment realizes a new awakening: which is a reversal of despair.
The gate to the underworld looms before us, regardless of the direction we turn. Lately, like very young children playing hide-and-seek, we have been closing our eyes, and then we smile: how easy it is to make that black maw disappear! Meanwhile, the carnage mounts around us as our acceptance of our own enslavement, our own inability (by virtue of our unwillingness) to act deepens and becomes increasingly mundane, our everyday reality. We live at the juncture where banality becomes a brutally subtle fascism.
In the last few decades, we have had our eyes opened to a few unsettling truths: our destruction of the earth and our enslavement and/or exclusion of the other, and the degree to which the values that allow such behavior have been codified in all our systems, in the language itself. Aside from enclaves of righteous anger and a paradoxical, willed blindness to certain current exempla of precisely what we have had our eyes opened to, we have so far been unable to imagine other ways of proceeding and, consequently, expended much energy disarming those systems, including the language. We have reached an impasse between what we now know and what we can and must do. It is time to descend, so that we can be reborn, time to incorporate re-construction into a cycle that has become a feedback loop of almost nothing but de-construction.
This essay has made large demands, and large claims, as regards poetry’s role in the journey upward toward the light which must first be a journey downward into the dark. It is, admittedly, a strange presumption, now, when poetry’s readership and its vitality are at an all time low. However, the convergent presumption is that our sometimes seemingly imminent loss of this primary way of saying, of speaking our being, of mapping the terrain, is symptomatic of the atrophication of deeper human faculties and potentials. As Pound said in The Guide to Kulchur, “…the one thing you should never do is to suppose that when something is wrong with the arts, it is wrong with the arts ONLY.” The convergent presumption is that our pandemic, and mostly unspoken, grief for the impending loss of a more complex sense of our being, in combination with poetry’s inherent trace of what it has always been for the race, the embodiment and enactment of that complexity (which is to suggest that the project of revivification is in part one of reclamation), will yield a more profound poetry which in turn will yield a more profound sense of our humanity.
Healing rituals are a matter of life and death, of course, and the one proffered tentatively here, in all its relative simplicity given the size of the task, is for a culture. However, as no one’s health is static, so too the culture’s; and the cycle of death and rebirth, of de- and re-construction, must remain precisely that, a cycle. The human story is dynamic, and our poetry, our “tale of the tribe” (Pound), must be just as complex and vibrant and open to our evolving sense of ourselves in the universe.
THE TALE OF THE POSTMODERN TRIBE: NOTES TOWARD CONTEMPORARY VERSE EPIC
It is the parable of a charred future that shimmers just beyond us against the empty field of invisible distance, the dialectical fulcrum between renaissance and ruin. From here all signs point to this dead end, end of the street, the century, of obscene time and its breath of putrid history… or else toward what?
In one hand the parable teller holds horror and sacerdotal being, balanced, holds outcry and praise copulating wildly. In his other hand is stasis, death: a blind and contorted pup who would be admonition if it were not already too late.
The singer himself is lame: the hand that holds the blind dog shriveled, his voice small and incidental as rubble, a broken tool, a bent weapon. He is drunk with fear. It sleeps, nameless, in his liver.
He shifts from one foot to the other on the smoldering plain that holds the smoky stench of death itself like a rising demiurge, but also knowledge, ten-thousand gods, dancing, song…and the bodies that have melted to rings of bone, puddles of coagulated gore: testimony to a terror that is species-specific.
The parable teller shakes like St. Vitus and whimpers until the plain echoes. Then there is a shriek, a roar that aspires to be living wind, aspires to sweep the field clean. The parable teller fails. He must settle for his own brutal song, for the field only slightly, but irrevocably, changed.
Michael McIrvin, Dog
This is where the contemporary verse epic begins: on the field of human action that is history, which is the accumulation of all human time, including the present moment where the individual is spun up out of this morass of forces, where he/she lives and evolves moment to moment, where he/she is the embodiment of history as it is made. This is where the contemporary verse epic begins, as self conscious allegory: the context declared hypermeaningful, the speaker in the text, in all his/her limited individuality, declared emblematic of the human condition in his/her time, the sign system tagged as multivalently significant and therefore difficult, therefore requiring the active participation of the reader as all shifts before his/her eyes, as the problem of the text, how to make an epic, how to speak at all in this aphasic age born of too much sound and too many images passively received, is worked out as the text proceeds. This is where the contemporary epic begins, with notification that what follows is ultimately a failure in its attempt to give the whole story, in its attempt to change the course of history by positing a new direction, in its attempt to hold off decay.
The poem is nevertheless necessary if the speaker, who is also the reader, is to achieve any understanding of his/her place in time, their being-in-time. This has always been the poet’s job, regardless of declarations of either poetry’s death or its replacement in this role in modernity by the novel. The authors of Gilgamesh and Beowolf, Homer in the Iliad and Odyssey, Dante and Milton, Pound and Williams and Olson, to name but the most prominent, gave their respective peoples a dynamic view of themselves, an enactment of the values operative within their respective cultures as the poet perceived them, and, most obvious in the twentieth century version of the epic, a prescriptive analysis of the way-things-are. These poets gave the race much to think about and to discuss, to debate and to live by; and they gave each successive generation of poets a model to follow and to defy, to alter as the times demanded.
As of this writing, poets of the present have recused themselves of this responsibility and left the void to be filled by a metanarrative that, although diffused across the culture and through many texts, although the slimmest shade of those former attempts by virtue of what little it offers the people in the way of a dynamized assertion of their being-in-time, is the conveyor of values that, in the absence of an active relationship to the sign system, keep the masses enthralled to the way-things-are. Poets of the present have left the masses at the mercy of the current metanarrative by failing to offer them an epic to stand in contradistinction to the stasis and death the anti-epic conveys, by failing to offer an alternative vision of what the race can be as their more immediate predecessors did, however deficient their attempts inevitably were, however different from those attempts the contemporary verse epic must be.
If the new language of images were used differently, it would, through its use, confer a new kind of power. Within it we could begin to define our experience more precisely…. Not only personal experience, but also the essential historical experience of our relation to the past: that is to say the experience of seeking to give meaning to our lives, of trying to understand the history of which we can become the active agents.
John Berger, Ways of Seeing
Most of what passes for art, particularly narrative art, advertises mainstream values and culture. An ad for itself. Product endorsing product, creating a seamless web of resemblance and reinforcement. This art tells us that other peoples’ lives aren’t actually invisible, not intrinsically unknowable. We learn that anybody’s story can be reduced to familiar terms, our terms, the terms our way of living prioritizes. Black people are just white people in darker skins, aren’t they? In such art, disguise, illusion, technique, trickery, are displayed as delaying tactics, mystification that deadens our awareness of mystery.
John Edgar Wideman
Late in the 20th century, we all fell down. We fell into a psychic darkness wherein our self definition dissolved into a calculated hodgepodge of images controlled by others. The only light in this night is blue and flickering, a screen across which passes an endless series of images the vast majority of the populace perceives as transparent, each “a sign that simply means what it says and says what it means” (Mark Crispin Miller), but which have invaded our consciousness, become annealed there, helping to turn the active self pangenerally innocuous by planting messages to short circuit our actual experiences, to overwhelm our primal sense of what is humanly meaningful.
This is the metanarrative of our time. Not an actualized epic or myth, those previous, frequently officialized, versions of our encoded cultural self image, but the seemingly inchoate, but nonetheless intentional and no less sanctioned, subtext that perpetuates our most beloved of illusions: America as the paradigm of freedom, as the land of opportunity, as meritocracy, land of the pangeneral desire for the common good of the species, land destined, by the intervention of God or via Darwinian principles of deserved domination, to be the only culture on the planet, land of the iconoclastic individual who stands up heroically for his/her hard won values the biggest lie of all. This is the metanarrative that, nevertheless, undercuts those same illusions even as it professes them in barely veiled messages so diaphanous to the average watcher as to be invisible. However, in spite of their simplistic overtext, in the absence of critical analysis the constant encoded messages are subtle unto being invidiously subliminal. They say: conform, buy-to-be, want this and this and this, ad infinitum, and you will be ultimately human, the paradigmatic American, the pinnacle of evolution whose very desires, however manufactured, are sacrosanct and thus enough, sufficient reason for being.
Consequently, the metasign system that is the media (movies, television, the internet, advertisements), operating as a kind of postmodern black magic, both illustrates and helps to perpetuate a status quo within which the average citizen understands his/her citizenship only in terms of consumption, and wherein, almost paradoxically given the relative simplicity of the signs and the obvious intention to modify the observers’ behavior, they do not recognize the forces at work shorting out their very sense of themselves as beings-in-time—which makes the current metanarrative both the epic’s surrogate and its antithesis, an anti-epic. Americans have become,
automatons [w]ho because they neither know the sources or the sills of their disappointments walk outside their bodies aimlessly for the most part locked and forgot in their desires unroused.
As Mark Crispin Miller, critic of American popular culture, points out in what he calls an “intensive explication” of a 1980’s vintage television commercial for deodorant soap, the truth of the text is certainly there to be deciphered. He agrees with John Berger’s assertion in the above epigraph that “a new kind of power” is available in such deep textual analyses as both men perform, and can assert, regarding the sad state of relations between the sexes, a man’s symbolic emasculation in the workplace within the traditional paradigm of the sexual division of labor and his wife’s unwitting complicity as her anger at patriarchy is played out in the commercial’s sign system for the purposes of selling soap via an ersatz feminism:
Of course, the ad not only illuminates this mess but helps perpetuate it, by obliquely gratifying the guilts, terrors, and resentments that underlie it and arise from it. The strategy is not meant to be noticed, but works through apparent comedy, which must therefore be studied carefully, not passively received. Thus, thirty seconds of ingenious advertising, which we can barely stand to watch, tells us something more than we might have wanted to know about the souls of men and women under corporate capitalism.
However, Miller and Berger’s work is steeped in premises that derive from Foucault and Derrida’s intense and accurate, but very dense, observations and assertions about language and power. The message is therefore, at least at present, only “readable” by an intellectual elite, and only available to the masses in as much as the elite are able to put the message into terms the masses understand; and, more importantly, the message is only available at a conscious level to the populace to the degree the elite are able to convince them of the veracity and palpability of the reading, to convince them that there is indeed a message beneath the veil. Rather than being the “active agents” of history, the majority of the population remains precisely passive before the subtext, its dark art entering the watcher over the “sills” he/she only barely recognizes as doorways to consciousness: the jingle, that will arise later unbidden, enters through the ear, and the subtly-to-overtly erotic image through the eye. The insidious rhetoric of a diminished and acceptable self is hatched out of this mix, lodging itself in the mind where it perpetuates the status quo as a set of prescribed-values-internalized, as a constraining and ersatz “truth.” At present, contrary to Miller and Berger’s hope for them, the masses are not actors in history, but its passive recipients and therefore its pawns. Male viewers of Miller’s soap commercial example, if his reading of the ad’s constellation of signs is accurate, will tacitly accept their position as docile/servile/men-diminished-to-pederastic-sexual-objects to be symbolically ravished by the powers to which they are beholden for their livelihood; and female viewers, via a “sad fantasy of control,” will accept their role in both men’s diminishment, which makes men good employees, and as the begrudging bolsterers of the embattled male ego. Their positive reinforcement is begrudged because of their intuitive recognition, and consequent disdain for, the American male’s weakness in this manipulative system, but that recognition is never conscious and therefore they continue to enable men to go on, to remain functioning workers within the capitalist system.
However, the thin surface of humor and harmony and goodwill in the images media produces serve a more complex purpose than as inculcation and recapitulation of the way-things-are. These loaded images also level all experience to a drone of familiarity, even to cliché and stereotype as the marketing moment warrants. Miller offers the situation comedy, “The Cosby Show,” now in syndication (which means its pathetic portrayal of America runs on, like a ghost, after the actual series was euthenized) as an example of the paradigm of consumption as a way of life, “the show’s mise-en-scene…deliberately contrived to glow, like a fixed smile.” He also suggests, however, that the show’s largely white audience is reassured, via the show’s “lunatic fantasies of containment,” that racial violence will not erupt in America in spite of the well documented poverty of the African-American population, in spite of the premature death of black men whose mortality rates are second only to American Indian males, and their over representation in the prison system in spite of the L.A. riots of two decades which would suggest to anyone not sleeping through their tenure on earth that African-American rage is real. The family of protagonists in this sitcom are the model of American success: ambitious, but not in an untoward fashion that would betray black desperation under white rule; self assured as if royalty among the gewgaws of the American market, which shine like the promised land but without the need of being polished or vacuumed, or of being grossly purchased for that matter since the context must indeed seem Edenic, the miraculous reward for being good. Who could fear black faces so blessed with carefree beauty and the happiness we all must certainly aspire to: the deliriously proud owners of it all?
In short, the metanarrative of postmodern America is, on its glossy surface, less exclusionary than before. In truth it incorporates all experience in the service of the capitalist ethic while simultaneously making all experience the same, however outside the parameters of the mediated depiction those actual experiences might fall: if the dream of affluence that the media projects is not your reality, it is a fault of conformity that one must address. The new anti-epic, however disseminated the signs over the airwaves, is an invocation of the mainstream capitalist values that say all other values are wrong, that say subscribing to any but those values proffered is a failure to be quintessentially American, a failure to participate in the good of us all, is to not be. The values the new anti-epic professes take root in the uncritical watcher who then, in turn, becomes an agent of conformity: ridiculing the man who drives an old car, the woman who is not thin and wears last year’s fashions, the child who cannot afford Nikes, blacks and Hispanics and American Indians and those of Asian descent for not being more white, more “American.”
As John Edgar Wideman asserts in the above epigraph, artists, especially narrative artists, are complicitous in this sad perpetration of simplistic but omnivorous capitalistic values on an uncritical audience. In 1920 the novel was touted by George Lukacs, in a critical study entitled The Theory of the Novel: A Historico-Philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature, as a fundamental form of the epic in modernity. He justifies this assertion by saying,
The epic and the novel, these two major forms of great epic literature differ from one another not by their author’s fundamental intentions but by the given historico -philisophical realities with which the authors were confronted. The novel is the epic of an age in which the extensive totality of life is no longer directly given, in which the immanence of meaning in life has become the problem, yet which still thinks in terms of totality.
Although the assertion still has merit as regards some rare narrative art (Delillo’s Underworld comes to mind, its vast and allegorical portrayal of America), the majority of novels are produced only with the market in mind and thus do not aspire to be the truth of a people, however limited the end result of that effort must inevitably be. In part, the values promulgated by media have been internalized by writers, an ominous sign indeed given their role in telling the tale of the tribe as Lukacs defines it. But more than that the lure of big advances and royalties, in combination with the new publishing environment where 15% return on investment is not seen as an unrealistic expectation (whereas 2% was acceptable not that long ago), yields an art that now purveys the same domestic capitalistic values of conformity that the other forms of media push. Which is to suggest that even if the true epic novel is being written, by-and-large it cannot be published because it would not fulfill marketing expectations by appealing to the media-created values of the macro-audience.
As Wideman says, the so-called art that currently masquerades as fiction is “product endorsing product,” the story pushing the values that allow the story to exist as product in the first place, albeit in a more complexly masked form than television or movies. A publishing company’s marketing analysis yields middle class backdrops for an inane exploration of relationships (like those on television) as salable. It yields exotic backdrops, often ethnic and peddled as an example of our much touted cultural predilection for diversity in the marketplace, for a voyeuristic reading. It yields catch phrases that will appeal to a niche audience in jacket blurbs that are simplistic unto being cliched misrepresentations of valid stances toward the world, stances the corporation assumes most potential readers only shallowly associate themselves with, committing themselves to the same degree they do to any other “product” and its purported inflection of who they are, thereby reducing what readers claim to believe in to identification as members of a target audience: a feminist portrayal of abuse that will enrage you and keep you on the edge of your seat, a picture of disappearing wilderness that will make you cry, a portrait of the traditional American family that is at once poignant and heartrending, a study of the black experience that reveals the humanity and love at the core of one man/woman’s desperate search for self amid the ruins of the inner city. All experience is fetishized, commodified, turned into a potential made-for-TV movie, and only rarely offered up as the tale of a people, as the historical milieu as it impinges upon the individual, as it is actually lived, let alone as it exceeds the experience of a singular man or woman to become the allegory of an age and place.
The net result of this inchoate, veiled anti-epic, at the core of which are the values of the marketplace, its constellation of signs a means to co-optation and control, is the infantilization of the masses. In general, like children, and not uncoincidentally like the characters on television and in the movies, Americans no longer question the veracity of authoritative assertion let alone the values that are enacted in the metatext that is the media. If the television says it, whether the message comes from the mouth of a politician or a pitch person or the character in a television show, it must be so by virtue of its very presence, the market being its own justification. In America, as Charles Bernstein says, fashion and the market are “ascendant as the arbiters of value,” the only arbiters.
Miller relates the story of an unnamed woman, a fan of “The Cosby Show,” who confided to her psychiatrist that when her husband did not react to a situation in their household as she thought the character Bill Cosby plays would to the same situation (and she, tellingly, confabulated the character with the actor) she grew angry with him. The provisional “hero” of the story portrayed for her the values that all men should possess, and, as traditional epic did for earlier civilizations, defined the perameters for possible versions of self and behavior which she had internalized. If Odysseus was proof for the ancient Greeks that cunning and resourcefulness are as important as strength and courage as masculine qualities (the latter attributes, which he had relied on solely in the Iliad, having become insufficient in the Odyssey); if Dante’s audience is reminded that justice in this life and the next must be attained through means which God has placed at man’s disposal (i.e. all decisions are at root moral as defined by Christianity); and if Milton’s Paradise Lost offers up man’s pilgrimage through history as every bit as arduous as Satan’s through Chaos, albeit more noble by virtue of its end goal, to remind 18th century Englishmen/women of the rigors of the Christian path and the dangers of hubris; Bill Cosby, as Miller tells us, is proof to contemporary Americans that conformity is to be the goal of all good citizens, that a man’s job within the household is to help his family achieve that goal through a subtly fascistic manipulation.
This example may be extreme in as much as the woman could identify the “hero” whose actions she expected to see enacted in the world, but in the absence of a critical relation to the sign system, the new anti-epic that is the pangeneral product of the marketplace via the media, whether electronic or bound and replete with glossy photos of the author, is controlling and constraining and exclusionary in the extreme, not to mention false in its portrayal of the human condition. And the present metanarrative (if the anthropomorphic move can be forgiven) does not even pretend to seek to explore our relationship to history, to help us make meaning of our place in the here and now, as is the purview of a true epic. In fact, the metanarrative seeks to diminish the very desire to do so since the slightest notion of a hunger for meaning, even at a rudimentary level, could be counterproductive to the capitalist enterprise: what do large breasts and slender feminine hips have to do with a particular brand of beer, or freedom with any brand automobile, those black holes to swallow one’s hard-earned money, or the brand of one’s clothes with how frequently the opposite sex makes provocative overtures, etc.? Although those who have a vested interest in the present situation probably do not equate the asking of such simple cause and effect questions as tantamount to revolt, but only as a failure to properly encode the message.
Obviously, at the end of the twentieth century poets fell down along with everyone else, and they fell all but silent as well, abdicating their traditional role as tellers-of-the-truth as we can understand it at any moment in time, as the bearers of epic into the world, in favor of a domestic ennui and a subjective dissolve before our very eyes. In their well-founded desire not to participate in our incarceration by metanarrative, not to be responsible for holding readers to specific values as epic was traditionally used in its most limited and limiting role, and their desire not to either exclude or control the other via an officialized version of our cultural metaself, the poets’ collective vision narrowed to the tiny “I,” to the domestic and solipsistic, to nil. Thus John Ashbery emphasizes art as artifice in his poetry, but in its tiniest representational sense, recording the minutiae of the world as it moves through the mind unimpeded by any attempt to achieve significance:
To be able to write the history of our time, starting with today, It would be necessary to model all these unimportant details So as to be able to include them; otherwise the narrative Would have that flat, sandpapered look the sky gets Out in the middle west toward the end of summer…
Only on the surface (which is all there is in the poem, a variety of surfaces) is this an assertion for a totality of representation. The details of the present poetry are merely small in the absence of any desire to speak for anyone beyond this tiniest version of consciousness. There are no ideas proffered, except perhaps small ones as in Ashbery’s poem, no meaning assumed to arise from the constellation of signs, as if there were no force in the universe: no night or day, no cold or heat, let alone any actual allegorical fluctuation of the self under the forces of time and power and our own presence in the world, which is presumed and presented as so tenuous as to be illusion any way.
The poets of the present have largely reneged on their unspoken, traditional responsibility to tell the truth of-and-for the people, to tell the tale of the tribe. For fear of failure and/or complicity, they chose not to write an epic at all, and that genre has become supposedly obsolete, something the moderns loudly attempted but failed to achieve, or so says critical consensus. I will not proclaim a possible centrality for poetry in America that would rival mass media; but in the absence of a conscious attempt at verse epic, the poem containing history as Pound famously defined it, which is to say a poem that not only incorporates the past but is the record of how it impinges upon the living moment, the now, there is no alternative to juxtapose to that invidious metanarrative of our market driven present. Ironically, lacking the critical skills necessary to discern the message, the populace has fallen under the power of precisely what poets feared participating in if they attempted an epic: an overarching assertion of values that manipulates, only narrowly defines, and therefore controls those same masses.
Experience, it is presently assumed in America, is not the stuff of history, but only momentary gratification or its lack, both as defined by the messages that wash over us endlessly, even entering our dreams where they take on the force of myth. History, if it exists at all, has become something “back there,” something reenacted on PBS or that serves as backdrop for a Danielle Steele novel, as a minimal context for entertainment. And we, the embodiment of history as it is lived, as the forces of history impinge upon and inflect our being, are perceived as all the same, mere markers for nothing but an agglomeration of media generated images, variations on a standard that we either achieve or fall short of and therefore must strive harder to reach. The real work of the epic, the attempt to understand our humanity relative to this place and this time and to tell the truth however provisional and imperfect, is going largely undone. Poets will not save the culture from such a banal ending as seems its destiny by again seeking to tell the tale of the tribe, but in their abdication of that responsibility and in their failure to provide a viable contrarian tale as counterpoint, they are complicitous in the diminishment of the masses to their present sad state.
The birds of meaning have flown forever south, and myth of eternal return died, Dog says from the cab’s back seat to the driver who pretends he has no ears. All that remain are wing-clipped chickens, domestic turkeys on low limbs… all roosters become rooted, as flight is tamed out of them, as wings tighten and shorten with each generation until even the notion of sky fades and the immediate dirt in shade of their own bulk is all they know to say. Shut up, says the driver, and Dog falls asleep as the taxi careens like a split atom through traffic. In a dream Dog peers south waiting for the return of meaning, for soarers with bright wings pounding over the edge of Earth honking, screeching, demanding, pleading… . But the sky remains a blank page, beautiful blue, vacant of any sign. In his dream Dog knows what he has always known wheel of the word is broken and the singers will never again land on this land….
“Dog and the Myth of Eternal Return”
The despair that has lead contemporary poets to silence in the form of utterly constrained poetry, in the form of the tiny “I” which does not achieve the level of a being-in-time, is understandable if unforgivable. That despair, however, must be included as part of the tale: our abiding sadness that language is being dismantled as the boat of meaning, but more than this that meaning itself is suspect in our age and that language has been used against us, co-opted, made into subliminal messages that attenuate our being. The protagonist of the lyric sequence I am offering in this interlude, and elsewhere in the essay, as a tentative example of the next permutation of the epic, is on a quintessential hero’s journey. But, as in Eliot’s Wasteland, his search is more apparently psychological and at least borders on mythology more than the protagonists’/speakers’ “journeys” in the modernist epics of Pound or Williams. His search is for meaning; but, given his place in history, it is also a search for the validation of meaning as possible, as more than a fool’s errand.
He is also looking for a way to speak his place in time, for a way to understand and to communicate his existential longing, his postmodern loneliness that borders on madness, which is offered as a trope for the condition of the culture at large. He is searching for a way to sing the world that will make sense of the world. In the poem “Dog and the Burning World,” he is visited by an apparition, his American Indian grandmother, who gives him the message all contemporary poets need to receive, that if nothing else he must sing the disintegration of civilization. However, Dog cannot fathom a voice to equal the horror of that picture, of the present:
What can I sing, Grandmother, in this singularly sick moment? Of the kiss that devours? Bayonets and rockets? Fear and dullness in human eyes as men and women stumble like prisoners through their tiny spot of time? Of their necrophilious love of the mechanical? Of their terminal desire to become the machine? How can I erect towers of air on the wind to say: children are tortured here in the name of belief, raped before their mothers’ eyes, forced to watch the murder of their fathers, then slaughtered too, so that their last vision of Earth is hell and the demons who rule, of diminished simians self- assured of their place in heaven at the right or left hand or in the lap of a God with blood in his teeth…. No, I must look away, Grandmother, or at least look with eyes of glass like the rest that only reflect the world back at its nightmaring self.
He cannot imagine the language to contain this terrible vision (in this case, taken from news reports of the war in Bosnia, which was raging when I wrote the poem), but nevertheless he speaks it, nevertheless (echoing Oedipus) he “sing[s] the savagery of God” as it is made manifest in human action, as history. The world has not changed because he/I have offered this bleak list or because he/I have stated the poet’s/reader’s conundrum: how to speak the unspeakable, and why speak if to say the world in all its terror is not to change it? Except, perhaps, a reader cringed, maybe looked at the dark side of the race squarely and wept, and cursed, and swore to make the world better in any way he/she is able.