Saturday, November 30, 2013

James Russell Lowell * The Moon

Like many readers, most of the poets I've read have been introduced to me--either through another person, an anthology, or a literature class. By contrast, Lowell was probably the first poet I discovered completely on my own-- stumbling into him without encouragement or help. A century-old volume of his Complete Poetical Works was sitting on a shelf in Caveat Emptor, a used bookshop in Bloomington, Indiana one day when I was in my twenties. Now, chasing poetry or music is sometimes like looking for the right medicine to a disease we can't even diagnose--we hunt through various remedies, hoping to find a cure for our restless symptoms--at least that's what it can be like for me, and certainly was that day.

Opening randomly, my eyes fell on a short poem entitled "The Moon." At the time I'd been steeping myself in English literature--Milton, Donne and Herbert in particular. Here was something completely different: streamlined language, murmuring and muttering in Americanese, fantasizing his imagery in science fiction-y terms--imagining his soul to be what the ocean was before the moon was made. This re-purposing of nature for the sake of lopsided allusion was striking for many reasons, not least of which that it seemed so familiar, so native to my own way of thinking, which has its own fair share of the Yankee tinker in it. His blunt thoughts, plainly yet smoothly expressed, punching lightly with a couple of clean, spare enjambments, was like a breathe of fresh air.

One of the goals of American Poetics is to give sonic life to poetry, so I've uploaded a recording of me reciting "The Moon" to SoundCloud.

Nearly twenty years later, the freshness hasn't subsided. Here is the text of the poem:



My soul was like the sea,
Before the moon was made,
Moaning in vague immensity,
Of its own strength afraid,
Unrestful and unstaid.
Through every rift it foamed in vain,
About its earthly prison,
Seeking some unknown thing in pain,
And sinking restless back again,
For yet no moon had risen:

Its only voice a vast dumb moan,
Of utterless anguish speaking,
It lay unhopefully alone,
And lived but in an aimless seeking.
So was my soul; but when 'twas full
Of unrest to o'erloading,
A voice of something beautiful
Whispered a dim foreboding,
And yet so soft, so sweet, so low,
It had not more of joy than woe;
And, as the sea doth oft lie still,
Making its waters meet,
As if by an unconscious will,
For the moon's silver feet,
So lay my soul within mine eyes
When thou, its guardian moon, didst rise.
And now, howe'er its waves above
May toss and seem uneaseful,
One strong, eternal law of Love,
With guidance sure and peaceful,
As calm and natural as breath,
Moves its great deeps through life and death.

James Russell Lowell and the American Poetic


To appropriate the observations of Whitman (who is in many ways the essential American Poet) it's worth stating clearly from the outset that, because it contains multitudes, the American Poetic is rarely consistent. It tends to run instead towards the self-contradictory; a vast population of squabbling voices, techniques, and purposes--at least when viewed superficially. As in our public discourse, we see it almost as a national virtue, and at least as a grudging fact of our existence, that we disagree about nearly everything, including the meaning and value of the foundational documents of our political system. This can seem ultimately disorganized and chaotic--and indeed it always runs the risk of becoming that. The ties that bind can, in fact, be loosed or destroyed in a nation's history--especially a nation built upon something so ephemeral as ideas. But a closer look shows that our chaos is not so complete as it might seem at first glance: that we do in fact have a foundation. The Constitution, however it might be treated on all sides, remains a functional reality. In other words, think whatever you might of it, the Constitution is something that has to be "dealt with" in one way or another. It can be appealed to, interpreted along a rather flexible spectrum, revised, and disparaged, but it remains the law of the land, and a very small group of folks, living in or near Washington, D.C., can tell us what to do based on what they read in it. And that is pretty significant, when considering the repercussions for not only the 300 million or so people who live in the US, but for all of those effected by our nation's actions globally.

With this in mind, and understanding that to agree or disagree with the documents of a nation is not the same as to acknowledge their foundational importance, we can look back to Poetics, and specifically American Poetry. We have certain poets who are absolutely foundational. Some are well known. Whitman comes immediately to mind, with his surging, enveloping, oceanic grasp and flow of Americanism. Emily Dickinson comes to mind as well, in the hyper-intense, self-focused, atomic explosiveness of individualism. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is the great bridge of translation between Europe and America, who so captured the British imagination that he has a place in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner, and whose verse was monumentally set by British composers. He built more than bridge back to England, though, translating Dante and even poetic forms such as the Kalevala--finding the rhymes between the European epic forms and the American landscape. These three alone would make a fine three legged stool to rest American Poetics upon, but it would be incomplete--perhaps for a number of reasons, but one which comes immediately to mind is the work of James Russell Lowell (1819-1891).

Lowell had, and expressed, what none of the other foundational poets had in such clarity and quantity: historical and political thought, subjugated to the personal and spiritual, while more or less constantly challenging himself self-confrontationally.

It is this self-confrontation, which sometimes approaches the savage in extreme moments, combined with a sharpness of wit and satirical verve, that makes him unique among the foundational poets of America. He is the prototypical American criticizing the nation by criticizing the contradictions within himself. He is often the poet of suffering, standing in opposition to mere creature comforts; the American poet who perhaps best defined the relation of verse to the unseen; the Harvard man--born, bred, taught and prof'd there--who paradoxically pioneered rustic dialect in American literature--and, perhaps most unexpectedly, he was the privileged descendant of puritans who questioned not only his privilege, but could both praise the mettle of their convictions while questioning their theological assumptions--relating both to society.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Walt Whitman on Thanksgiving

From an article in the Philadelphia Press, reprinted over at Every Writer:

Thanksgiving goes probably far deeper than you folks suppose. I am not sure but it is the source of the highest poetry—as in parts of the Bible. Ruskin, indeed, makes the central source of all great art to be praise (gratitude) to the Almighty for life, and the universe with its objects and play of action.

We Americans devote an official day to it every year; yet I sometimes fear the real article is almost dead or dying in our self-sufficient, independent Republic. Gratitude, anyhow, has never been made half enough of by the moralists; it is indispensable to a complete character, man’s or woman’s—the disposition to be appreciative, thankful. That is the main matter, the element, inclination—what geologists call the trend. Of my own life and writings I estimate the giving thanks part, with what it infers, as essentially the best item. I should say the quality of gratitude rounds the whole emotional nature; I should say love and faith would quite lack vitality without it. There are people—shall I call them even religious people, as things go?—who have no such trend to their disposition.”

Walt Whitman
November 27, 1884

Poetry: The Indispensable Art

The study of poetry is often seen as an archaic nicety, a cultural duty, or (in a utilitarian sense) as something merely psychologically helpful. By these models, those who practice or read poetry are encouraged to see themselves as either upholding a civilization against the barbaric tendencies of ignorance, or as well balanced intellectuals, superior to those who don't read or practice poetry. This 'us vs. them' dynamic, while true enough in many of the secondary arguments surrounding poetry in American culture, aren't the main issue, so far as I can see--nor are they particularly interesting in how they relate to poetry itself.

The problem is this: Instead of discussing poetry, and promoting the art, we all too often get sidetracked into discussions of sociology, politics, or even economics--in other words, we get bogged down in the cultural trends surrounding poetry. Such arguments have value, and I don't seek to disparage them entirely--only to suggest that if poetry is to be properly understood, we must put those secondary issues aside for a moment and consider why the study of poetry is an essential human activity. 

Our current world is one in which human activity is subjugated, on a regular basis, to technological and economic interests. For the past generation or two, school music programs in the United States have tried to argue for the study of music in terms of greater student achievement in math and science. Setting aside the comparative wisdom of this argument, what it demonstrates at the very least is a utilitarian model at work: if the arts can boost our technological (and therefore economic and military) prowess, we feel justified in the public expenditure on such education. Thus we make music subservient, out of seeming necessity, to cultural factors that would likely have left both Palestrina and Charlie Parker (among many others) indifferent; we have left the study of an art for surrounding concerns. Does music have a value independent of how it can be used for economic purposes? And if we are asking this question of musical education, what is the situation of poetry, which is fraught with far more cultural baggage?

When studying classical music, it is impressive just how quickly cultural baggage will be jettisoned. Mozart isn't held very accountable for the racial or gender issues of his libretti, Wagner's anti-Semitism is routinely overlooked in music history courses dedicated to his music, and Richard Strauss's membership in the Nazi party seems, oddly, to have had no substantially negative effect on his performance history. Apologists have been quick to make the reductive argument that the "meaning of music is the music itself", banishing all ethical difficulties of the real world for a facile option to study the mathematical relationships between black dots on a page.

Regardless of whether this is an exercise in political shrewdness or self-lobotomy on the parts of musical scholars, it doesn't work so easily for poetry. E.E. Cummings never belonged to the Nazi party, nor was he Hitler's favorite (as Wagner was), but he did explicitly write enough vile anti-Jewish words to make his formal admirers uncomfortable. Ezra Pound's fascist leanings, likewise, bar him from full entry into the esteem of the avant garde critics most inclined to praise him. John Milton's place as a giant was marred for centuries for his revolutionary, regicidal biography. Ironically, when it finally became the vogue to be a regicidal revolutionary, he was marginalized for his puritanical religious beliefs. It's a testimony to the thunder of his verse that he is remembered at all--but he is not easy to discuss: his verse comes with a lot of baggage.

Books, courses, conversations, and blogs could be filled to no end with the permutations of this way of thinking. PhDs are granted in literature routinely for arguments never leaving this cultural sphere. But of greater importance, to my way of thinking, is the essential nature of poetry as fundamental to how human beings relate to the world, the people around them, and to their own experiences.

The poetic function is foundational--studying the other arts is perhaps the first, easiest way to demonstrate. Architects, for example, talk about the "rhythm" of a building. At first, this might seem simply the interaction of music and architecture, but note that it is poetic thought which bridges the two: any person who uses the term "rhythm" to describe something which is not temporally performed, is engaging in a rather abstract metaphor. In other words, exercising the poetic function of the imagination is essential to even understanding what was said.

Go to any orchestra rehearsal, and you'll hear a constant stream of poetic references: synesthetic directions given by the conductor to the players. Music will be likened to emotions, colors, historical events, spiritual abstractions, psychological conditions: metaphor, allegory, symbolism will all be employed, relentlessly, for hours. It is essential for musicians to speak poetically to one another (even if they don't recognize it as poetic), just to get a piece together well enough to perform.

Politicians routinely use poetic devices, even or especially when trying to manipulate a voting public. Those refusing to study poetics will be far more at the mercy of poetic eloquence than those who can decipher the history of political ideas, expressed in metaphor, allusion, and their rhyming throughout history. It's helpful, for example, if an American public is aware that terms like "optimism","hope", "exceptionalism", and even "right" are used symbolically, metaphorically, and have a long poetic history in our discourse. The more one has prepared themselves poetically, the better their chances of making free decisions.

There is a poetic to business, a poetic to corporate lingo, a poetic to sports, a poetic of physics and chemistry (without which they couldn't be taught), and even a poetic of personal memory. Like it or not, poetry and the devices of poetry constitute an important means by which we communicate on a regular basis. And the best way to develop this essential human faculty is to read, recite, study, and even compose poetry itself. Far more than preserving anyone's idea of an ideal culture (which generally only serves a perpetual argument about which poet is better than which), this understanding and exercise of the poetic imagination has the capacity to empower free, self-aware, and thoughtful people, able to relate to themselves, others, the natural world, and history in a way that no other discipline can prepare them. In a day and age where great literature is more available to a general population than ever before; where a High School student with no asset but a library card can access, via Project Gutenberg, a vast library of great poetic thought, we are in a unique position. Provided we can avoid the pitfall of seeing poetry as primarily a device for exploitation of an audience, and so long as we can remember to set aside the political utilitarianism that always seems to creep into American discourse, we have a chance to do something important: promote a tool so basic to human thought that people have always utilized it as a means of exploring themselves and their existence.

Because poetry was cultivated so assiduously by the European aristocracy, Americans have tended to regard it with suspicion. "Fancy book learning" can seem the enemy of practical wisdom, and what is more fancy than an intricate poem? The trouble comes when ignorance of poetics makes it difficult for a person to function in this world, which is a great deal more profound than anything we might like to call "practical" (the very notion of "practicality" is often a misrepresentation of the reality of our situation as human beings). In short, whether we agree with Milton, Cummings, or Pound politically or theologically might not be the question: that we have exercised our poetic minds enough to dialogue with their art, and to experience it in some meaningful way, has the potential to empower us, or awaken us, to the miraculous lives we actually lead.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

American Poetics

Is there such a thing as an "American Poetic"?

And if so, can it be presented in coherent form? To discuss this requires a few more questions.

Considering that the dominant language taught and spoken in the United States of America is English, does this imply that American Poetics is necessarily English Poetics? If so, is it an extension of English Poetics? A modification of English Poetics? Or are we dealing with something different?

If Spanish language poetry makes a significant impact upon American poetry, does the Poetic change? Likewise, if Japanese Poetic conceptions make formal inroads, can American Poetics be said to be an extension, in some sense, of Japanese language and culture? If Longfellow applies principles of the Kalevala to bowdlerized Native American myths and legends, mixing in native languages, producing a smash hit in the form of Hiawatha, can the American Poetic be said to be indebted to Finnish? And because of this, if there is such a thing as a uniquely Finnish Poetic, or a uniquely Iroquois or Algonquin Poetic, are they therefore part and parcel of the American Poetic?

There is a body of water that has been called the Shattemuc, the Mahicanituck, the North River, the Great River of the Mountains, and now, colloquially, the Hudson River. Is the chronic naming and renaming of places in multiple languages an essential aspect of the American Poetic? Do we tear down languages and replace them as we do shopping centers?

Or does the concept of a Poetic have less to do with language than with meaning?

When we are discussing American Poetics, are we concerning ourselves with poetry, or with all things pertaining to rhythm, meter, rhyme, sound, sense, and meaning gleaned by humanity through the prism of time?

When Mike McCready, lead guitarist of Pearl Jam, ends the tune "Go" with a guitar figure reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix's conclusion to "All Along the Watchtower," and when we sense the two songs have a kinship of meaning--a knot of emotion tied with desperation for escape beyond the confines of an abusive situation--there is an aural poetic active, uniquely American because of it's roots in blues. The guitar solo underlines the kinship of the verbal poetic.

Owen Barfield hypothesized that language was once more elemental--that basic words contained more meanings before vocabularies developed to extract shades of meanings.

What if a culture decided, not so much by conscious choice, but by taste and environment, ignorance and wild talent, to (at times) reverse that process? What if, in the odd desire to constantly create something new--newness for the sake of newness, novelty run amok, idolized innovation--what if in the rush to find a wildernesses, any wilderness, and rebuild humanity according to an improvised plan, based upon conjecture, hope, and misguided utopian schemes, a Poetic was developed that actually sought, unknowingly, to replicate the simplicity of earlier language?

We have hardly noticed it, but it's sometimes happened. Words, sounds, and images humbled; intensified meanings in direct relation to their humility. Poets like Sandburg who stopped trusting adjectives. Poets like Whitman who preferred rolling rhythm and massive movements of words, like tides, to metric compaction (and the extension of that principle having massive consequences). Poets to turn plain speech into bricks of meaning--the humbler, the more uniform the brick, the more useful for large structures. Poets like Langston Hughes, developing syncopation as a structural principle, rather than relying upon metric docility. A groove of words becoming more architecturally important than meter.

Language smoothed of its chunky Anglo-Saxon roughness, streamlined of it's earthiness, like a tail finned car, swimming nimbly through the air. Able to dart, fly, dive without the harshness of tangled roots holding the language down.

Charles Bukowski sounding like Humphrey Bogart muttering Raymond Chandler appropriating Ernest Hemingway punching like Carl Sandburg sounds like the guy you work with in a factory. Elemental. Blurt something out, under code so your boss doesn't know what you're talking about, or so it sounds too basic to be worth much: speak in aphorisms only. Proverbs repeated too many times become platitudes and platitudes become clichés and clichés, when left to rust in the autumn rain become junk and junk is put on the tree lawn. Then someone drives by on trash day, claims it, and puts it on his mantle as Poetry: here is the proverb everyone forgot. Note it's delightful patina. It is original. They implode the building downtown: the beautiful one that you loved but never went into: it spoke to you, but they had to make room for the next expansion. The bricks fall, and become souvenirs. The bricks: the words: the sounds: the mud.

The Blues, in all their forms. But especially the 12 bar blues: the timbres without names or classifications; the polyrhythmic ancestry of Africa, married to the plagal cadence: inheritance of the sacred music of Europe. The collision, the suffering, the joy, the need of humanity to shout in unique, musical, painful and ecstatic ways. The permeation of these ideas to words, the seeping into architecture, film, phatic speech.

Is there such a thing as an American Poetic? Yes. Can we define it? Not likely. Is there a direct rhyme between Whitman's barbaric yawp and Eddie Vedder's howling? Yes. Can we contain it? Never.

The American Poetic is seemingly disorganized. It is vast. It can seem vapid, unstructured, and it can seem to sink beneath the weight of hubris. It is too simple, too convoluted, too natural, too mechanical, too sprawling, too dumb, too mute, too loud, too independent and too subservient. (It generally doesn't know what it is).

And the only justification for my writing a blog named American Poetics is that, because of my birth, it happens to be both my main challenge (my central riddle, if you will) and my natural habitat. I can't get enough of it, and I can hardly learn enough about it to swim through a fraction of its beautiful permutations. But because it is intensely beautiful, it invites constant reflection.