Whither American Poetry – Part 3
THE POET IN A NONSENSICAL AGE: STEPS IN A HEALING RITUAL
Returning home I had to ask myself: What happens
to the heart of the artist, here in North America?
What toll is taken of art when it is separated from
the social fabric? How is art curbed, how are we
made to feel useless and helpless, in a system
which so depends on our alienation
Poetry therefore as opposition. Opposition to the dogma and conformity that waylays us, that hardens the tracks behind us, that entangles our feet, seeking to halt our steps. Today more than ever is the reason to write poetry.
What is it to be a poet in a nonsensical age? The question is filled with presumption, of course, about poetry’s traditional role within the culture and about the times in which we live. Perhaps more to the unabashedly prescriptive point of what follows, however, the question should be rephrased: In an age when language as received has been deemed both artifact and tool of repression, in an age when word and image are tools of a late capitalist ethic of nonparticipation, of passivity, of acquiescence, indeed in an age when the very notion of “meaning is under attack” (Rich), why write at all? What role can the poet play in his/her culture that does not perpetuate the status quo? That is, not only has language been deadened and deflated and even decommissioned as the boat of significance, but the fear of reification, of any idea becoming the idea, has lead to a bias against organizing ideas generally, “a bias against any kind of far reaching ideas, and a denial of systematic participation on the part of such ideas in the intelligent direction of affairs” (as John Dewey said a long time ago). Further, because of our realization of the malleability of language in concert with our realization of the machinations of power in the service of control, the poet knows beyond doubt that what we say will be co-opted and “everything we write/ will be used against us/ or against those we love” (Rich, “North American Time”).
And the questions mount: How can language be revivified sufficiently to do what needs to be done, if life is again to have meaning beyond our stilted egohood, the small man/woman the culture currently allows us to be? And of course the language must be revivified, because how can the current state of the diminished word possibly do anything for the marginalized and the dispossessed, let alone for the somnambulists before their television sets? How can the poem in its quaint garb stand against media stimulation, media’s bouncing images and flashing lights that mesmerize? How can it stand against MTV which, emblematically, replaces the watcher’s actual experiential associations to the music with conjured images that devalue lived experience in favor of language and music and life as commodity? How can it stand against the drone of music in the elevator, interspersed with commercial messages, that invades our skulls without prior consent? How can the poem stand against the forces of the market that flood over us, that saturate our lives, the constant pressure to buy things that will give us an identity? How can language withstand, let alone stand in opposition to, the culture’s increasingly endemic sense of ennui, of powerlessness? How can language stand up to the cynical vacuity that has replaced any sense of engagement with the world, that has done its fair share in diminishing the validity of assertion, namely postmodern politics? And so, desperately, on and on toward a state of impasse that yields, ultimately, silence: the answers too elusive and the questions too much for our receptors to handle.
Nonsense is the passive acceptance of this state of the world. Nonsense is the absurd-become-the-mundane, hardly bearing remark. Nonsense is human-being-become- frivolity, a barely breathing site of consumption, a cipher made of absorbed media images and signs that hardly registers on the scale of life let alone being. In the words of Sven Birkerts, nonsense is “increasing numbers of us…suffering time sickness…, no longer understand[ing] where we fit, or if fitting is even possible in the scheme of things” (Readings). Nonsense is the lack of any notion of a scheme of things or any viable, actively constructive, interactive modes of being in the world of poetry but one among many that our residually primal selves, our deepest selves, still remember, pine for even, but now only absently under the pressure of the increasing speed of modern existence.
Nonsense is a feedback loop of desire: those of our hungers which are ever more engendered by the market slowly pushing out those more legitimate longings, our more primal urges, which in turn reassert themselves, too frequently in a perverse form of the original spawning violence and self-loathing, as the ersatz hunger is momentarily resolved by the baubles and bangles the market offers up to placate us just long enough until another engendered “need” can be pushed forward again. Nonsense is: somewhere, as I write this, a man, an “average” man who has recently purchased a Ford or a Chevy big enough to hold his emptiness for a short time, powerful enough to tow around his unacknowledged misgivings, is ordering a particular brand of beer, and in so doing further declaring to the world who he is all the while dreaming, against his will, of raping the cocktail server.
Nonsense is us, is now. Nonsense is our civilization’s impending demise for lack of imagination, which is also under attack. As Diane di Prima says in her poem “Rant,” “the war is the war against imagination/…[and] the war of the worlds hangs right here, right now, in the balance.” Nonsense is the shocking lack of warriors attempting to save our collective imagination from extinction. In fact, nonsense is the participation of poets in our enslavement by virtue of their inability to exceed the impasse that has come to characterize the age and their response to our age, the langpo poets emblematic if not premiere among them. At their worst they give us Derridean aphorisms masquerading as insight (“She is the space of her own absence and she will always be there as the proper name never spoken,” Steve McCaffery), and are perhaps more laughable than inscrutable in this mode. But at their best, which is also to say at their most frustrating, the langpo poets give voice to the impasse but fail to exceed it. Bob Perelman can say in “The Marginalization of Poetry,” “In the regions of academic discourse,/ the patterns of production and circulation/ are different. There…//citation is the prime/ index of power. Strikingly original language// is not the point…,” and then admit that Derrida’s puns and citations are too slippery for all but the most “experienced/ cake walkers.” Which is to say that he recognizes the closed structures that perpetuate language as the purview of the elite and at the expense of aesthetics, and yet he participates in them, which is what langpo does generally: map the malaise, the circular construct of language and privilege as they impinge upon an ever diminishing subject, without ever discovering a way out.
Given our sad state, the urge to deconstruct the text of the world, to tear it limb from bloody limb, is understandable, and to a degree even laudable. As William Carlos Williams said in Paterson (Book III): “…a chance word, upon/ paper, may destroy/ the world. Watch/ carefully and erase.” However, the deconstructive move is not merely the desire to tear down the machinery of oppression, the language of the fathers and metanarratives that are constraining and exclusive, an exhausted logocentric reality, but the primary desire to enter the underworld where chaos and silence reign, where meaninglessness is sovereign, so that rebirth can follow. Arguably, we have reached our initial dark objective, but only its doorway where the surface structures of hegemony are questioned and the old order deconstructed. Now it is time to descend with abandon into that black maw in order to chart its bleak passageways, and then to ascend again to the light and air of the world. The journey will be arduous because the forces that would keep us at the gates to the depths are ominous; but, ultimately, renaissance must be our conscientious new destination.
First, however, it seems necessary to deny that this vision is utopian. As what follows will indicate, this descent to darkness, the urge to tear down all that was made before, is part of the inevitable cycle of humankind, perhaps especially inevitable now as we become hyperconscious of the machinations of power and privilege. However, a reciprocal ascent is not inevitable, as history seems to indicate. To turn upward toward the light requires that we act, and to act is a function of will and courage, both in short supply of late.
It also seems necessary to deny that this vision is ultimately nostalgic for a golden age gone by. In fact, nostalgia is one of the enemies the poet, and the rest of humanity for that matter, must take a blood oath to kill. At best, the current cultural tendency to nostalgia is symptomatic of the darkness of our age, the desire to escape our own time and to retreat to some gleaming dream-like netherworld before the blight, which is really only our growing perception of certain cultural and historical propensities; but it is also indicative of how bereft of imagination the species has become. And who can calculate the danger of there being no imagined forward? Our children are not only listening to bad remakes of old rhythm and blues or rock and roll songs, for example, which would seem to indicate that creativity is nearly dead amongst song writers, they are listening to the same recordings we did in our youth and wistfully bemoaning that they were not alive in the sixties and seventies, that most longed for of eras unless of course you consider the spate of Victorian novels being put to film of late. Like the novels, the movies’ limited sphere of historical reality would indicate that everyone had money (except for servants, of course, whom the audience is never encouraged to identify with), which would seem to be the point: these “simpler” times were also easier.
Mostly, however, nostalgia is a packaged thing, one more means the marketers use to fuel our discontent which they then satisfy with some false remnant of the past: “The illusion of advertising and entertainment persuades us that we can have it all, that we can buy Grandma’s homemade lemonade to sip as we lunch in our cubicles before our terminals” (Birkerts). Our real past is filled with blood, with puddles of coagulated gore, with enslavement of the other, with mega-weapons to indiscriminately kill the other, with increasingly ingenious ways to keep the powerless that way, with nature under attack unto the denial in some quarters currently that nature exists at all, having been so soundly defeated. And so, desperately, on and on.
For the poet, the tendency to nostalgia manifests itself as a longing for a more strident form (hence the current incarnation of neo-formalism) or for Pound and Williams-like figures to ride over the horizon and save poetry from itself. The former, as in Mary Jo Salter’s nearly completely hollow acts of formal foofaraw, is a complete denial of the reality in which we live, of course, a desire for order on a scale that is not true and, worse, was hegemonic when the culture believed in it, i.e., all must con-form to the idea of an established order; but the latter is more dangerous. It is a messianic yearning for external salvation that allows inaction, even as the forest burns. It is true that “all revolutionary changes are led by individuals who articulate the inchoate perception of a collective need” (Anthony Stevens), but a concentrated and monolithic poetics offered up by poetical heroes is itself problematic. Too many misunderstand those big pronouncements and then take their perversely diminished form to illogical extreme; and such pronouncements are prone to co-optation anyway, that most subtle of subversive modes that power and the market can utilize. The work of individual consciousness as it is forged of individual experience is certainly necessary, and we wake up from the dark night of our collective soul one at a time, some sooner than others; but it is the collective vision as achieved and inflected by the individual poet in all his/her singular humanity that we need now, communication that is inclusive. There will certainly still be poets among us on occasion who transcend the rest in the poignancy of their visions (some new Blake or Rilke or Neruda on modern American soil, some Whitman), but that vision must not take primacy over the rest by virtue of access to a larger forum because of a kinship to the dominant culture. The voices in the wilderness must also be valid (like Blake in his own time, perhaps, but also the other however defined). And no vision must be reified, made the vision for American poetry. Diversity, and a damned good argument, are preferable to the sleep of a single vision.
As I said, the desire to deconstruct the text of the world is understandable, as is a necessary journey into the dark that the culture has actually yet to undertake except in perverse forms born of the denial of the downward path’s existence, but at present we are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, if the cliché can be forgiven. There is certainly a problematic relation between signifier and signified given the nature of privilege: who gets to speak, by virtue of literacy and education, but also who and what the speaker is, e.g., the traditional situation of white males from the ranking class as the arbiters of what is published and consequently of whose reality is deemed most real. In light of this realization the present devaluation of metanarratives is also understandable, but the constant displacement of significance has yielded, for some poets, the utter invalidation of meaning, small or large. As John Dewey said well before the deconstructionists’ proposals were made, however, “there is no need of deciding between no meaning at all and one single, all-embracing meaning. There are many meanings and many purposes in the situations with which we are confronted one, so to say, for each situation. Each proffers its own challenge to thought and endeavor, and presents its own potential value.” And as Derrida has said of his own work in Limited Inc.:
The value of truth (and all those values associated with it) is never contested or destroyed in my writings, but only reinscribed in more powerful, larger, more stratified contexts (that is, within relations of force that are always differential for example, socio-political-institutional but even beyond these determinations) that are relatively stable, sometimes apparently unshakable.
Obviously, some poets (and others) have taken the problematization of truth as its demise, and as a result seem to aim precisely for a murderous banality of assertion. Likewise, the question of authority in metanarratives has lead to a suspicion of all authoritative subjective assertions (and all assertions are author-itative inevitably, in spite of the syntactical parlor tricks some poets use to convince themselves otherwise) and has lead to the near absence of the active speaker in the text. For example, Steve McCaffery in Panopticon tells the reader at the outset, and in typical langpo third person in order to appear as clinical in one’s assertion as possible: “Eradicate the name, the character, the entire action and substitute the structural zones of clinical and critical discourse and she’ll still be there. Though displaced she was not annihilated.” In another poet’s hands this might be a positive assertion, that identity still exists, and perhaps even a radical imperative that is implicitly a critique of the diminishing subject and the danger inherent in allowing that to happen; however, in the context of the poem the woman is deconstructed down to her physical presence, “a sovereign presence in a lack of being.” And in spite of his attempts to remain aloof from the process of creation, giving the reader only the slightest hint that the poet has seen a movie and is here reiterating a scene, in his very assumptions as regards the readers’ understanding of the philosophy underlying his poem, not to mention his lack of desire to transcend the conceptualized subjective self of his character as mere cipher composed by the culture at large, he gives his motives away. As does the final 37 lines of “and on and on and on…” repeated as if it were a mantra of the disillusioned, waiting to die in one of the banal moments of his/her life.
Contrary to achieving some sort of democratized utterance, such poets are guilty of an abdication of responsibility that privilege, by virtue of literacy alone if not education and class, inevitably carries with it. The use of language may well always be an act of violence, an attempt to tip the scale of belief or prejudice or perception, and to deny that fact is merely to participate in our subjugation. To paraphrase Czeslaw Milosz, every poem is political, or why bother; by which he did not mean that the poem is necessarily overtly didactic, but that poetry calls into question the way-things-are. In fact, according to some among us, of all the kinds of discourse available, art has a greater responsibility to be contrarian. Merleau-Ponty believed, for example, that “the work of art… teaches us to see and ultimately gives us something to think about as no analytical work can; because when we analyze an object, we find only what we have put into it… It is essential to what is true to be presented first, last, and always in a movement which throws our image of the world out of focus, distends it, and draws it toward fuller meaning.” In other words, art must be participatory, require an act of interpretation, and it must be against the grain of the status quo. Art must carry with it some perception of the world that the reader had not hitherto achieved, that sends a shiver of discord through him/her, if it is to fulfill its role of continually remaking the world. As Adrienne Rich says, “Words are found responsible/ all you can do is choose them/or choose/to remain silent (“North American Time). Writers who refuse to accept the call to write as a call to arms would do the rest of us a favor if they remained silent.
Deconstruction as an ethical system is obsessed with accommodating the other, and there are many voices in the arts generally which were traditionally marginalized now being heard outside the mainstream (and some inside, although the tendency to tokenism and cultural voyeurism, the commodification of the other’s experience for the sake of entertainment, but in the name of diversity, is all too apparent). However, in the absence of authoritative assertion that is active, that is polemical, that risks destruction via mimicry or bitter irony by the agents of the status quo, the metanarrative that has become mostly noise will remain so rather than becoming the polyvocal narrative of the species that it must be if we are to truly accommodate all of us.
In spite of the fact that our current condition is in part due to the misunderstanding by many people of the tenets of deconstruction, poets premiere among them, or at least some of those tenets have been carried to their illogical extreme, the philosophers and their system cannot be let off the hook. Simon Critchley has noted in The Ethics of Deconstruction that, the move that deconstruction is unable to make—what I have called its impasse—concerns the passage from undecidability to decision, from responsibility [as in the members of the dominant culture taking responsibility for the condition of the other] to questioning, from deconstruction to critique, from ethics to politics… [this latter] concerned as an activity of questioning, critiquing, judgment and decision; in short, as a creation of antagonism, contestation and struggle—what one might call the battle over doxa.
Critchley goes on to say that without a supplementary conception of the political deconstruction will become an “empty formalism” which, “as Rorty would have it, is a means to a private autonomy that is publicly useless and politically pernicious.” I know of no more apt description of too many contemporary poets whose lyrical personae never achieve the level of the communally human voice but are stranded in solipsistic ego, lacking either a living energy or affect, who are neither actors in the poem or in the larger world. Thus, in a poem about the disappearance of her young daughter for an hour, Sharon Olds can claim that her quest is “to know where it is, the evil/ in the human heart…,” but in the end she “saw only goodness…[ in the eyes of passers by and ] could not get past it,” as if to say that even the possible loss of her child could not impress her enough to recognize the dark side of human existence (“The Quest”), as if her daughter’s danger were merely backdrop for her own (feigned?) moral quandary over evil, or more accurately that quandary as we the reader are privy to it, as it is presented in solipsistic shorthand as if this precious image of the speaker means more than an actual exploration of the human psyche relative to the world. Thus, her poem entitled “May 1968,” which is ostensibly about political protest, turns out in reality to be about nothing more than the speaker’s self absorbed ruminations about the child she carries. Ultimately, neither poem speaks to anyone but the poet herself, in spite of the charged contexts for her ruminations.
Hence the route out of impasse is the acceptance of the deconstructive assertion that “language is ethics” (Kearney), which entails an inclusive perception of the poem (who writes it and what it contains in terms of experience and world view) and a corollary acceptance of the responsibility that the privilege of participation in poetical discourse brings with it. To quote Diane di Prima’s “Rant” again (paraphrasing Keats in the final line):
A woman’s life/ a man’s life is an allegory
There is no way out of the spiritual battle the war is the war against imagination you can’t sign up as a conscientious objector the war of the worlds hangs right here, right now, in the balance it is a war for this world, to keep it a vale of soul-making
Thus begins our journey toward reconstruction, toward the light of the daily world, with a declaration of war: on passivity, on submission to the co-optation of images and language, on ambivalence, on disintegration, on death. In 1870 Rimbaud used the term voyant (seer) to identify the new poet:
one must, I say, become a seer, make oneself into a seer…
which Jerome Rothenberg connects to Mircea Eliade’s treatment of shamanism “as a specialized technique of ecstasy, the shaman as technician-of-the-sacred. In this sense, too, the shaman can be seen as a protopoet, for almost always his technique hinges on the creation of special linguistic circumstances, i.e., of song & invocation.” In other words, like the shaman the poet stands where the worlds (inner and outer) come together and creates a space there for others, for witnesses who are also participants, via language. “Art,” said Jean Cocteau, “is not a pastime but a priesthood.” All elitist connotations aside, poetry is capable of being a participation in the real at a profound level, for the reader as well as the writer. In the vision of poetry currently under discussion, the poet is not a hieratic purveyor of the status quo as mumbo-jumbo, but rather he/she who chooses to stand at the nexus of language and experience, who accesses the imagination where the subject and the objective real dance in a dynamic of potential signification The poet attempts to map the worlds, inner and outer, and attempts to make provisional sense of it all. This is the anthropologist Levy-Bruhl’s notion of participation mystique, but without the centralized originary force from which all else springs and to which the artist is beholden for images and archetypes. In this vision of art, poems become steps in a healing ritual, the ultimate aim of which is a momentary reconstruction.
John Berger says in “The Hour of Poetry”:
Every authentic [my italics] poem contributes to the labour of poetry…to bring together what life has separated or violence has torn apart… . Poetry can repair no loss, but it defies the space which separates. And it does this by its continual labour of reassembling what has been scattered.
And what has been separated is nearly incalculable: ourselves from nature; ourselves from a viable sense of being; ourselves, each from the other; ourselves from ourselves. To that end, much must be recovered, like our sense of connectedness to the natural order and the sensuality of the image, the viability of rhythm and breath as cognitive adjuncts to signification, as experiential relationships to/within the poem. We need some reassertion, along with Merleau-Ponty, that “it is impossible to say that nature ends here and that man or expression starts here.” We need this participatory re-enactment of the real if we are to overcome what Nietzsche termed our “passive nihilism,” defined as a decline and regression of the power of the spirit. We need a redefinition of mythology for our age, one which does not access sterile or constricting or controlling archetypes; and we need to make myths that are born of individual experience but that connect us in our humanity, that defy our alienation, our disintegration. We need maps of the inner and outer worlds, of the “pathologies of the modern” (Habermas) as well as that in us that stands in opposition to, and transcends, the madness of history. We cannot climb out of our darkness if the bulk of our poets pretend it does not exist. We need poems that ask the questions we must ask ourselves now, “when so much has to be witnessed, recuperated, revalued” (Rich, The Best American Poetry: 1996). We need poetry that allows a voice to the marginalized, that gives voice to the voiceless among us: those without means, without access, without language to equal their experiences. We need a poetry that is truly authentic to the human experience, its horrors and its joys, if we are to go about the business of reconstructing the world and our place in it.
Authenticity in an Inauthentic Age
The poet’s desire now is not to abstract himself from his being, to entrust his song to strange forces that would soon engulf him, nor, by some opposite push, to withdraw into his own weightiness to rage lyrically in the depth of his desolation. There is this movement through which the spectacle of the surround illumines (disorders), while the imposition of each word tends to order in the world. On this double necessity, which has been the sacred seed of poetry, the present articulates itself like a solemn, ineluctable law… . That is to say that poetry begins in the domain of the epic. In our anarchic universe, such a manner of poetry ceases to be accidental, imposes itself as the imperious Harvest. It names the Drama that is ours: fire of the Diverse, struggle of the Disparate, desire for the Other. It perpetuates the chaos and this labor, which is uniquely poetry’s: to tear down the walls, the barks; to unify without denaturing, to order without taxidermizing, to unveil without destroying; to finally know each thing, and that space from one thing to the other, these saps, these countries in the mind’s sharpness and the heart’s all-generosity.
It is no easy task this elder from Martinique gives to the poem, the poet. The world, as he tells us, is a dizzying convocation of forces; and, by implication, to be passive before that chaos, that disorienting dance, is the greatest sin. It is to pretend that the poet/human is truly separate from the “anarchic universe”; it is to withdraw; it is to play dead. As Adrienne Rich says, authentic poems have “a core (as in corazon). The core of a poem is not something you extract from the poem’s body and examine elsewhere; its living energies are manifest throughout, in rhythm, in language, in the arrangement of lines on the page and how this scoring translates into sound” (BAP). In other words, the poem is a singular act of attention, an organic whole born of the poet’s presence in/of the world; but it is also a sensual organism/construct, made of breath and rhythm as they are forged into voice. The great poem resonates in the body as well as the mind. The great poem forms something out of the chaotic forces of being to be swallowed, experienced, lived with as part of an ever evolving sense of the real, and of being within the real.
But authentic poetry is not merely spirit(ual), as in of the breath and the essential, but also a broader conception of the self, all the metaphorical darkness and light and the multichromatic shades in between. It is an honest map of the interior and exterior worlds. What passes for the map at present is like those early European renderings of the planet outside Western experience, all forbidding darkness; but this black hole in the map is, ironically, our experience: the dissolution of a valid
conception of self, burgeoning prisons, war in our streets and across the globe, and etc., seemingly ad infinitum, all pushed into the interior and marked with a skull and crossbones. In some sense, the poststructural poem, its postmodern pastiche and dis-integrated speech, are of this map: the place where we get lost and wander, disoriented, in circles. However, to draw the impasse is to draw only the coast of mediaeval Europe, the metaphorical ground we ambivalently occupy.
If we are to find our way out the poet must descend into the darkness, wholeheartedly, must depict the missing hands of the living and the bloated corpses, must speak to the demon’s responsible and allow them to speak for themselves through the poet, to rage against all the poet believes. And the poet must map his/her own darkest interiors, those corners where demons are born, whether inculcated there by the subliminal forces of the status quo or some vestigial urge made perverse by lack of use: born of nationalistic pride or notions of ethnic purity or the will to power become pathology. The poet must show the world to itself. More pointedly perhaps, as Pound said : “…it is the business of the artist to make humanity aware of itself” (Literary Essays).
But there is more to the story than this charting of bleak geography. There is love as valid response, in spite of its many wounds, to the world-as-it-is. There are burned out cars on shattered streets where a man sings the blues as his mother taught him. There are soup kitchens and unregenerate trailer parks and skid marks on the highway where someone swerved as an act of faith in the sanctity of life. There are begging children smiling and a pestilential wail rising from the ground in protest. There is a jubilant and wild leaping in response to the outer wilderness. There is light on garden leaves. There are guitars impersonating birdsong. There are sons and daughters dreaming of a way through the dark regions of the impasse, of the present, dreaming the map itself that they will write down and explain to us all. There are birds of omen scripting infinity on the air. There is joy and remorse and an undying desire to change the world embodied in the poet, in the poem. And, finally, there is mystery (re)achieved, the conundrum of being, beating like a heart at the center of everything.
Toward Authenticity: Steps in a Healing Ritual
(Stealing Back the Word and the Image)
The human soul was threshed out like maize in the endless granary of defeated actions, of mean things that happened, to the very edge of endurance, and beyond…
Neruda (“The Heights of Macchu Picchu”)
We start from this premise: that as a people we are cosmically, collectively, insane. That is, we have lost all formal structures beyond the inane for ordering our universe and, worse, any connection to the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. As a result, we have abdicated our subjective responsibility to being; we have enslaved ourselves; we have become automatons in a totalized system that is responsible for the death of our souls. Some among us are attempting daily to tear it all down: the ideology and its exclusionary structures that privilege certain experiences over others, but with those structures go the means to say, to reassert our being. We start from this premise: poets can be vital agents of reconstruction, of reintegration, or merely remain symptomatic of our malaise, participants in a no win end game.
To begin to rebuild the poem as a vehicle of our rejuvenation, we must steal back our primary tools. Sound (the sensual) and mental image (the recreation of the sensual in the imagination) are central to a reader’s participation in the text: “Words…carry the speaker and the hearer into a common universe by drawing both toward a new signification through their power to designate in excess of their accepted definition, through the muffled life they have led and continue to lead in us, and through what Ponge appropriately called their ‘semantic thickness’ and Sartre their ‘signifying soil’ ” (Merleau-Ponty). That is to say that beyond the dynamic abstract meaning of individual words, and words in relation to each other, to their mutually arising context, the language of the poem taps the power of words to draw the reader into the realm of the imagination, “a common universe,” to make him/her feel as well as think. As Chris Mazza says in a recent article in Rain Taxi, “These are the moments I read to find: the moments when some trick of words strung together becomes a gasp, a sigh, a grunt, a moan.” The reader is not merely a voyeur, watching from a distance and at best titillated; but he/she is singing with the singer, hearing water roll and smelling the lightning riven trunk of a tree, all ozone and the scorched husks of beetles, loathing some stark antagonist his/her destruction of what is good or swelling with pride and fear at the sight of a child wading through chest-deep grass toward adulthood.
But in contemporary life we are overwhelmed by sound, and by “the message.” Recently, as I was loading groceries into my vehicle in a supermarket parking lot, a wave of thunderous bass rolled over me from the car wash next door. A woman in a small, red car had pulled up to the vacuum cleaners, and over the sucking noise of the machine, over the constant sound of traffic as it streamed by on the adjacent road, I could make out every bathetic word of the song playing on her radio. All questions aside regarding the death of public civility and the ascendancy of an adolescent self-absorption among the populace, regardless of age, this was an assault by sound. I wanted to escape, to climb into my vehicle and roll up all the windows and speed away, and not just from the invasive noise but the deadening message as well: all that drivel reflecting the diminished romantic ideal of love as it is subverted, the goal being a subtle sense of grief in the listener that will be momentarily placated by the promise of attraction to the opposite sex that the commercial following the song offers. All the hearer need do is purchase the appropriate hygiene product.
We are also assaulted by the image, whether word pictures or the actual image on television, billboards and in magazines. Even clothing is textual, endlessly self-referential (and the pun is telling), declaring the wearers sworn allegiance to the brand name or the sports team or the rock band, and subliminally encouraging the “reader” to do the same, to be a walking advertisement for the corporation and to participate in the ephemeral and noncorporeal corporate image, itself a floating and ill defined signifier that is intended to augment positively the wearer’s sense of self. If I could have seen my young assailant more clearly, doubtless she is an avatar of the Nike swoosh or the very embodiment of New York Yankee-hood.
The result of all this noise, the muzak in the grocery store and the advertisements for videos and the Globe declaring the reality of the profoundly impossible and the Pillsbury doughboy staring out at us as if he were stoned or hypnotized or both, is obviously a diminishment of word and image as the conveyors of significance. But the result is also the shutting down of our sensory and cognitive mechanisms. We manage to drive away, cognizant enough of our aural and visual surroundings to function, but we no longer see and hear sufficiently to make sense of the world as text. We can no longer process everything, let alone sort out the dreck from the poignant, rare as this latter has become. In fact, our current malaise is due in part to the lack of a viable means of signification, a participatory communication. It is not just a case of sensual overload, or even of the notion of language as a diminished purveyor of truth, but a loss of “sensual vitality” (Rich, What is Found There) and any sense of being alive in time within a community of other vitally sensual creatures:
…our power to speak and live languages enhances the bodily bases of our
imagining. The speaking worlds we inhabit are not just intercorporeal, they are
inter-personal worlds of human coexistence. Through the languages we speak, we
are embodied in social roles, in cultures and subcultures, in forms of thinking and
understanding and imagining. Languages and the sociocultural and intellectual
dimensions they incorporate are produced, reproduced, and transformed as
articulations of historical practice. The explicitly conscious theoretical
structurings of our languages and cultures are imaginative elaborations of our
implicit practical sense of historical embodiment. The original and continuing
basis of our power to live intelligently in actual and possible worlds is our
practical sense of the implicit carnal ground of our experience, communication,
and coexistence—imagination’s body.
Our use of language is a participation in the larger world, a belonging; but it is also a way of interpreting our place historically and culturally, in terms of power and resistance, and a way of positing possible futures. To be overwhelmed, to roll up the cognitive windows of necessity against the onslaught, is to lose all of that and thus much of our humanity. Obversely, to use language imaginatively is to make sense of the world and our place in it, and “ ‘making sense’ must here be understood in its most direct meaning: to make sense is to enliven the senses. A story that makes sense is one that stirs the senses from their slumber, one that opens the eyes and the ears to their real surroundings, turning the tongue to the actual tastes in the air and sending chills of recognition along the surface of the skin. To make sense is to release the body from the constraints imposed by outworn ways of speaking, and hence to renew and rejuvenate one’s felt awareness of the world. It is to make the senses wake up to where they are” (Abram).
In our shutting down, our shutting out of the glut of noise, we have also shut out our primary means of connection to each other and the world, ceased to make sense of the world and further attenuated our being. Therefore, the question before us is: how can poets again revivify the language and again “make sense” in spite of the surfeit of words and images that overwhelm us? First, we must not give in and abdicate our traditional role as re-enactor of the real relative to subjective sensation and rumination. We must again pay attention to language, rhythm and sound and connotation. It would seem to go without saying that poets must attend to craft, and in some circles that priority would appear to be paramount unto absurdity, i.e., too many MFA programs, where form is loosely defined but stridently enforced, and among the neo-formalists. However, craft for its own sake is not what I am suggesting, but attention to the musicality and sensuality of words as they are relevant to both meaning and to a participatory enactment of being. This is an attempt to draw the reader into the text against his/her will if necessary via their individual imaginations. The assumption here is that to signify, and all that it entails, from a notion of historical belonging to sensual enactment, is inherent to the species, and that to do so poignantly upon the sacred ground of the poem, of the imagination, is to issue an invitation to participation that cannot be refused. Because the meaning of human experiencing is metaphorical and imaginative as well as quintessentially experiential, the poem must be a breathing as well as ruminating and dynamically imaginative animal. It must taste and smell and be touch sensitive.
Second, the poet must be unafraid of active, vehemently subjective assertion, unafraid of the strident use of word and image, of the sensual, in the service of meaning. Subjective assertion generally has been dubbed one of the more egregious signs of patriarchy, the desire to control the hearer, to name and define and conquer, by virtue of an overtly masculine energy that, it is true, manifests itself as undying certainty. But certainty need not be hegemonic in intent or result, need not be rigid and hierarchical, need not be any more than one more voice vying for the reader’s attention, albeit to inflect his/her perception of the world in a positive, dynamic way that the other “messages” he/she is bombarded with daily do not: to make him/her think and feel and to do so adamantly. As Barry Allen asserts in “Difference Unlimited,” “while as Foucault said ‘it is in discourse that power and knowledge are joined together,’ power is not necessarily wicked or irrational. It is not always on the other side of freedom, or objectivity, or truth.” Paradoxically, speech is, writing especially, as much an act of violence as it is community; but the recent passivity in much of American poetry, which is an attempt to deny that massive responsibility that comes with being a poet, with so self conscious a use of language, amounts to a rubber stamp of the pathetic way-things-are, and more voices vying for the reader’s attention that seek to overthrow our sad state are in order. The poet must be willing to risk ridicule and even subversion, and be willing in turn to subvert the language of the usurpers, the violators, of his/her assertions and judgments. The poet must be willing to challenge ideologies and behaviors, to seek change and accept the results of his/her actions, and then seek to undo or modify any perversion of his/her intentions, endlessly. The poet must be willing to change him/herself in response to challenges to their own assertions that make sense to them, or in response to some follower’s desire to reify those assertions and thereby make them as rigid as the dominant assertions he/she seeks to throw down.
As Paz says, …better to be killed by stoning in the public square than tread the mill that grinds out into nothing the substance of our life, changes eternity into hollow hours, minutes into penitentiaries, and time into copper pennies and abstract shit.
In our case the mill is massive and daunting, but one of its many bleak manifestations is the move toward silence that has been a result of too much noise and of our increasing passivity. If poetry is to be something other than symptomatic, poets must again find their voices, certain and full of anger, and hone the weapons they previously put down for fear they had already been irremediably compromised.
Steps in a Healing Ritual
(Mapping the Territory)
Our true faith is said in simple words, for we cannot escape them—for meaning is the instant of meaning—and this means that we write to find what we believe…. Eventually, I think, there is no hope for us but in meaning.
[Poems, like] dreams, instantiate meaning.
Bert O. States
All human perceiving is an historically interpretive perceiving, an imaginative perceiving.
Richard C. McCleary
As a culture we suffer from what States calls “perceptual bondage,” which is to say we are tranquilized by the “parade of contexts” that the media offers us, but we are also lulled into a sense of the present, of reality, that is made of its surface constituents only: generally things to buy that, all added together, make up our self-perception. The only elements of the world lurking below the surface are deemed pangenerally dangerous and are symbolized on television by police dramas and infotainments that serve to warn us ad nauseum that we could be victimized any minute now. However, what is below the surface remains inchoate, faceless except for the temporary and ever changing masks the media give it: child stealers, Arab terrorists, black crack addicts, wife beaters and emasculating women, the restless poor in their guise as the robbers of convenience stores, perverts who poison our over-the-counter medications, the young who at any minute might shoot their fellow children en masse (as a television special on teen violence recently declared, “any kid could snap”). There is no correlation of these effects with some larger, more complex cause, no exploration of any of these events as symptomatic. It is all presented as a postmodern version of evil that rides the air, invisible, and that can infect anyone at any time. The only answer proffered is more control, and hence schools that look like prisons and actual prisons with a total American population that approaches 2 million (and 40% of inmates are incarcerated for nonviolent drug-related charges), mandatory minimum sentences and ridiculously long terms for offenses that would have called for probation not that long ago, three strikes laws that by any act of common sense would be deemed unconstitutional and a general erosion of our hard-fought civil rights. In a word, America has become paranoid while the pandemic crimes like poverty in the face of expanding profits, increased police power, environmental degradation, and third world labor that approaches slavery to turn out American consumer goods (and so, desperately, on and on) go largely unacknowledged.
A cynic might suggest that the portrayal by media of the world as inordinately dangerous for the individual without broaching such dire particulars is sleight-of-hand to keep us unaware of the real dangers so as to protect those who profit from the world-as-it-is. However, the truth, the actual map of this time and this place, is the purview of the poet (as it has always been), and to access the truth is to journey downward into the abyss. According to James Hillman, “the pervading, though masked, depression in our civilization is partly the response of the soul to its lost underworld” (The Dream and the Underworld). His suggestion is that we as a culture have lost touch with the depths of our being, with the archetypal, primally human conception of mystery. However, perhaps because we have failed as a culture to look into the darkest corners of ourselves, and in fact refuse to acknowledge they exist, the underworld is also projected outward, manifested in historical terms. At present the underworld would seem to be manifested as our reality in toto, and the only relationship to it we have is, like children afraid of the shadows in the closet, in the form of the boogie man du jour the media offers us as a momentary objectification to deflect blame, to represent an easy fix control of that singular entity.
In “For those I Left in Asylum,” the poet Leonard Cirino offers us a glimpse of the enormity of the task, of the journey toward change that is also a kind of absolution given our will to change (that mighty act of the human universe that Olson told us was the one constant):
…who can bother with such things now that we’ve lost sight in the dark and the way out is further down where even death doesn’t seem final enough.
This passage is from a poem about madness, about charting the path out, upward toward the light, which is paradoxically first downward into the dark. It is no wonder that this assertion comes from the periphery of American letters (a small press), from the margins, from (in Anne Waldman’s term) a cultural outrider. In fact, such attempts to map the dark terrain of the American everyday are ridiculed or ignored by mainstream critics who seem to believe that poetry is no longer the place for truth telling, unless of course the truth is tangentially available as a prurient voyeur’s buzz is achieved, critics who seem to prefer the current sleep of denial. It has always been this way, of course, and the price all too often a large one for poets who attempt to cut through all the obfuscation. In her book 7th Circle, a reference to Dante’s level of hell reserved for suicides, Maggie Jaffe answers the 20th century riddle: what is the relationship of art to the horrors of history? Those artists she writes of are victims of their age, of the weight of the truth and their unequivocal need to tell it, of the subversion of that truth by the powers-that-be; but they are also despised by the very people they wish to save with their unblinking honesty. She offers us Mayakovsky, who dreams “he’s/ naked at the podium/ while students mock/ his dada,” who dreams he is incapable of protecting himself; she offers us Celan: “a despised man,/ a pariah with a human tongue.” But these exempla serve as prototypes for those among us now who are likewise despised for portraying the world sans the veils spun of pure bullshit or solipsistic juvenilia by the purveyors of the unspoken rules of conformity and consumption. It has always been this way, but now poets have a larger task in the face of our current version of “perceptual bondage” and the more pandemic and powerful mechanisms that drive it in our age, in the face of a voluntary somnambulism before an unprecedented, albeit frequently subtle (by virtue of our acceptance of those mechanisms), violence:
High up, and even higher, within
the cyclone, metal grate, and star
poised in pristine rows, guns
like lilacs bend to kiss
a cloud—to see it roil, spin.
And what is torn is torn.
And what is shot is shot.
All day the catwalks creak;
the sky filled-in holes
above the din. Count goes on
faces, names, and numbers spent
like empty shells. Casings
rattle the grillwork. At midnight
even they must be counted.
(Christopher Presfield, “Siege”)
But the mapping of the current human universe is much more complex than the iteration of what the populace seems hell-bent on denying (all puns intended). The poet must also map his/her own frustration and deep disappointment with the limitations of language to change the course of history, with its limitations to tell the truth. Poststructuralism has not misled us the poet’s tools are malleable and fragile and capable of misuse and that knowledge gives rise to what William Doreski calls our “postmodern funk.” His own poetry charts that frustration, but there is also a coming-to-terms with those limitations, acceptance but also transcendence. “Description and homage are my tasks..,” he says in a poem entitled “The Satire of Icy Walks,” because whether or not civilization is winding down, whether or not we lose in our battle to regain the image and steal back the word and certain writers and popular media and politicians and corporate panderers have their way and meaning slips its traces utterly, whether or not words must melt equally before the beauty and the horror, the vulgarity and the burden and the ecstatic longing of being human into a puddle of undifferentiated sound in the end, there remain squash to be planted and rocks to be skipped and the geometry of geese flying, of trout rising, of a man and a woman embracing…and the undeniable desire to give voice to those experiences. All of this is also the truth, also within the poet’s purview. All of this is part of the map.
As States says, “dreams and art are necessary in order to see the substructure of reality.” Invoking a paper by Gordon Orians and Judith Heerwagen, “Evolved Responses to Landscapes,” Anthony Stevens suggests that our aesthetic response to landscape derived in part from psychological structures that help us navigate the terrain, that we still require in order to “find our way.” Hillman, borrowing from Keats, refers to this act of mapping the outer world that is also the inner as “soul-making,” which is not to suggest the making of an essential substance but the “imaginative possibility of our natures, the experiencing through reflective speculation, dream, image and fantasy, that mode which recognizes all realities as primarily symbolic or metaphorical” (Re-Visioning Psychology). Again, the object is to make sense of the surface structure of the world, to enact it at a poignant level where we can come to grips with it, and perhaps change it.
Not all can speak for themselves, however. Not all can tell the truth of their corners of the map, either for lack of the requisite language skills or for lack of access for reasons of economics or exclusion. By virtue of his/her skill, and the privilege that skill with language affords, which is nothing less than the skill to speak, to broach the truth, and by virtue of the conscious decision to stand at the nexus of language and experience, it is the poet’s responsibility to speak for those mute others to the best of his/her abilities. As McCleary suggests, “a successful pedagogy of imagination [and the poem so conceived] must explore and utilize the historical multiplicity of human embodiment and imagination. It must understand the historical conditions which enhance or alienate our power to imagine… .” This is not to suggest that the other suffers from a failure of imagination, but that the other is frequently disallowed either the skill or opportunity to speak, to participate in the imaginative body. This is what Craig Werner refers to, in Adrienne Rich : The Poet and her Critics, as cultural solipsism, “the tendency to treat only the self or group, sharing specific characteristics with the self (gender, race, religion, class, nationality, etc.), as real and to establish fixed roles for those defined as ‘other.’ Consigning the expression of these others to the ‘wild zone,’ the cultural solipsist, unable to acknowledge those aspects of the self associated with the other, inevitably subverts his/her relationship to community, nature, and the unconscious mind.”
Cultural solipsism disavows certain experiences as real; therefore a wide variety of speakers are denied a forum, and consequently the map is forever incomplete. More accurately perhaps, the map that excludes anyone’s experience is a lie. This is not to suggest that those speakers should not, or indeed never will, be allowed their voice as “polyvocal microcosm”: “…the voices conscious and unconscious, inherited, cultivated, instinctive, trained, me, myself the polyvocal microcosm, one whose experience is particular, unique, but who also and always bears a communal, historical experience of language and culture” (John Edgar Wideman). Rather, as Barry Allen suggests, “When we consider the ethical character and political implications of inquiry and knowledge, and all the practices and interests interwoven with these, it cannot be a matter of no importance who is said to need or lack the truth and who is said to have it.” In short, although it is preferable that the experiencer speak for him/herself, in the absence of radical equivocity (and this may well be an ideal and thus unattainable in practice) the poet must accept the responsibility of language use and, via an act of creative empathy, attempt to tell the truth of the other, for the other.
There are inherent dangers, of course, the possibility of misunderstanding and thereby misspeaking the least among them. In the final analysis, a middle class white man is not an African-American woman living in poverty or a prisoner stuck in the labyrinthine penal system. The greatest danger, however, is that the poet will co-opt the other’s experience for the sake of the reader’s voyeuristic entertainment or, far worse, subvert it to make it more palatable, to control it by either turning the other’s experience into cliché or otherwise simplistically portraying it. However, a true act of creative empathy is the valid attempt to see through the other’s eyes, to speak with the other’s sensibilities. Even when the other is completely capable of speaking for him/herself, i.e. the many excellent women writers struggling to speak the truth within patriarchy, what is gained via an act of empathy, understanding as far as we are humanly capable, far exceeds the negative possibilities And not just for our hypothetical middle class white male poet as regards the African-American woman living in poverty, but perhaps for other white males who, by reading her experiences in a language they recognize, but that is none-the-less accurate, will have a better, more realistic and compassionate view of that part of the map.
This is the role for which Plato would banish the poet from the republic, the poet as chameleon speaker who can become the other via an imaginative act, can speak the truth of the other, albeit at one remove. Not only does he/she not serve a singular purpose as defined by the state by becoming the other, but the poet as voice for the other subverts the rationalization that keeps us in this most egregious form of perceptual bondage, a cultural solipsism that defines the world in terms of privilege and exclusion. As Wideman warns us: “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.” The poet who risks becoming the other, however momentarily and imperfectly, breaks this cycle (again, however momentarily and imperfectly), puts a wedge into the monolithic block of the status quo to pry it apart ever so slightly, to let difference in as a valid assumption. In America, “when we get past the lip service paid to individuality, difference is abhorred, treated as a glitch in the cosmic scheme” (Wideman). The chameleon poet looks to put all experience on the map, to stand against the fear that would make us all the same.