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.


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