Thursday, May 31, 2007

Two Excellent Posts on the Purposes of Art

Anthropologist and cultural theorist Robert Philen has two very interesting recent posts on his blog, essays on the roles and functions of art. The first piece, "The Purposes of Art", addresses the question in historical terms, while the second, "Troy and the Purposes of Art", examines the ways in which the recent historical-mythological epic film Troy more specifically exemplifies some of the functions art can perform.

Both are highly intelligent, well thought out pieces. I strongly recommend them.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Shameless Self-Promotion

A selection of my poetry is included in the collection American Poetry Now: Pitt Poetry Series Anthology, a celebration of forty years of the Pitt Poetry Series and thirty years of Ed Ochester's editorship of the series. The book is edited by Ochester and published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Besides my work, it includes selections from such poets as Quan Barry, Wanda Coleman, Larry Levis, Paisley Rekdal, Muriel Rukeyser, David Wojahn, Dean Young, and many others.

The book can be purchased here and here.

Ed Ochester has been my editor and the University of Pittsburgh Press has been my publisher since my first book. I would like to do my part to support them as they have supported me and my work for many years.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Adorno, Celan, and the Possibility of Poetry

Theodor Adorno and Paul Celan appear almost as mirror images. Adorno’s work might be said to be the theory of which Celan’s poetry is the practice. Or, not to prioritize theory over praxis, it might equally be said that Celan’s poetry, addressing and enacting what Michael Hamburger in The Truth of Poetry calls “the question of what can still be said or no longer said in poetry” (290), is the practice of which Adorno’s work is the theory. Celan and Samuel Beckett are the only two contemporary writers Adorno discusses in his posthumously published Aesthetic Theory. As Celan’s biographer John Felstiner notes, “Finding such stringency [in their work], Theodor Adorno thought Celan the only authentic postwar writer to stand with Samuel Beckett and made copious notes in his copy of Celan’s Sprachgitter [Speech Grille]” (107).

Adorno wrote that Celan was “the greatest exponent of hermetic poetry in present-day Germany.” However, in the same discussion, Adorno pointed out that Celan’s poems “give rise to the question of just how hermetic they are,” because in them “the experiential content of the hermetic is the opposite of what it used to be” (Aesthetic Theory 443, 444). As Celan insisted, his poetry is not at all hermetic (ganz und gar nicht hermetisch), certainly not in the traditional sense of the escapist religion of art. “His poetry is permeated by the shame of art in the face of suffering that escapes both experience and sublimation” (Adorno, op. cit. 444). Rather than turning away or averting its gaze from historical suffering, Celan’s poetry faces it with its own Medusa gaze.

Allen Grossman says in an interview in the Harvard Advocate that “A strong poetry would be a poetry that discerns and finds a poetically adequate means of bringing to mind the catastrophe of history.” This bringing to consciousness of the catastrophe (Walter Benjamin’s storm of history) which both forms and deforms us is one of the many tasks that Celan’s poetry sets itself.

Adorno’s dictum on poetry after Auschwitz has become famous, or infamous. On the last page of his essay “Cultural Criticism and Society,” written in 1949, first published in 1951, and collected in Prisms in 1955, he writes that “Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today” (Prisms 34).

Despite Adorno’s high opinion of Celan’s work, Celan believed that Adorno’s stricture was directed against his poem “Todesfuge” (Death Fugue) (which Hamburger calls “perhaps the only decisive proof that poems could be written not only after Auschwitz but about the cold horrors perpetrated there” [290]), although Felstiner points out that Adorno was probably not aware of the poem at the time (139). It wasn’t published in Germany until 1952, when Celan’s collection Mohn und Gedächtnis (Poppy and Memory) appeared.

Adorno revisited and considerably modified his position on the possibility of poetry after Auschwitz in his 1961 essay “Engagement,” collected in the posthumous two-volume collection Notes To Literature. In the edited collection Aesthetics and Politics, published by New Left Books in 1977 and currently available from Verso , this essay is translated as “Commitment.” It is this translation from which I quote here. The essay is primarily a polemic against Brecht and Sartre’s demands for a committed literature or a littérature engagée. In it Adorno reaffirms his original statement about the barbarism of writing poetry after Auschwitz while also complicating it in such a way as not only to allow literature’s continued existence but to require it. This can be considered an Hegelian sublation of his original dictum, canceling it out while raising it up to a higher, more complex level.

In “Commitment,” Adorno asserts that “I have no wish to soften the saying that to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric; it expresses in negative form the impulse which inspires committed literature. The question asked by a character in Sartre’s play Morts Sans Sepulture [translated as Men Without Shadows], ‘Is there any meaning in life when men exist who beat people until the bones break in their bodies?’, is also the question whether any art now has the right to exist; whether intellectual regression is not inherent in the concept of committed literature because of the regression of society.” However, Adorno goes on to admit that German poet and polemicist Hans Magnus “Enzensberger’s retort also remains true, that literature must resist this verdict, in other words, be such that its mere existence after Auschwitz is not a surrender to cynicism. Its own situation is one of paradox, not merely the problem of how to react to it. The abundance of real suffering tolerates no forgetting; Pascal’s theological saying, On ne doit plus dormer [One should not sleep anymore], must be secularized. Yet this suffering, what Hegel called consciousness of adversity, also demands the continuing existence of art while it prohibits it; it is now virtually in art alone that suffering can still find its own voice, consolation, without immediately being betrayed by it. The most important artists of the age have realized this. The uncompromising radicalism of their works, the very features defamed as formalism, give them a terrifying power, absent from helpless poems to the victims of our time” (Aesthetics and Politics 188-189).

Adorno goes on to discuss Arnold Schoenberg’s 1948 composition A Survivor from Warsaw, which evokes the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, pointing out the inevitable tension between artistic stylization and the claims of justice, two incompatible necessities. So this point, at which he reaffirms his statement, is also the point at which he turns that statement on its head. (By selectively quoting so as to leave out the substance of Adorno’s statement, Felstiner distorts Adorno’s meaning in this passage, framing it as an implicit criticism of Celan.)

Thus, Adorno’s complication of his stricture against writing poetry after Auschwitz not only makes room for art, but specifically for the kind of art that Celan made. In Aesthetic Theory, Adorno goes so far as to write that, far from being barbaric after the horrors of the Holocaust,“art may be the only remaining medium of truth in an age of incomprehensible suffering. As the real world grows dark, the irrationality of art is becoming rational, especially at a time when art is radically tenebrous itself” (27).

John Felstiner’s biography Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew is almost infinitely useful in identifying, describing, and untangled the complex fabric of Celan’s poetry. But it is also a bit tendentious. Felstiner identifies too much with Celan’s paranoia and sense of isolation—he wants to construct Celan as alone and lonely, perpetually misunderstood, persecuted, and unappreciated. There was enough genuine pain in Celan’s life (both his parents died in the Holocaust and he drowned himself in the River Seine) without the need to manufacture it for the sake of narrative melodrama.

Felstiner seems to harbor an active animus toward Adorno. He calls Celan’s reaction to the news of Adorno’s death—“I am struck, dismayed”—“not quite his strongest words” (263), and mentions a slighting reference Celan made to Adorno, “who I thought was a Jew,” referring to Adorno’s adoption of his Catholic mother’s rather than his Jewish father’s surname, Wiesengrund (139).

In Negative Dialectics, Adorno writes that “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems” (362). After describing this passage as a recantation of Adorno’s earlier dictum (which is a simplification to say the least), Felstiner comments rather snippily that “This came rather late, as Celan’s verse had exercised that right for some time” (232).

Moreover, Felstiner crucially fails to cite the rest of the passage in question. “But it is not wrong to ask the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living—especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living. His mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz; this is the drastic guilt of him who was spared. [This sentence can be read as a highly particularized and even personalized example of the paradox of the dialectic of enlightenment, in which the logic of instrumental reason leads enlightenment into its opposites, domination and barbarism.] By way of atonement he will be plagued by dreams such as that he is no longer living at all, that he was sent to the ovens in 1944 and [that] his whole existence since then has been imaginary, an emanation of the insane wish of a man killed twenty years earlier” (362-363).

Adorno is obviously writing here of himself and his own survivor guilt at having escaped the fate that overcame so many millions of other Jews, but this description also sounds like Celan to the letter. It is to the letter that both Adorno and Celan are faithful, and by the letter that each wrote.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. C. Lenhardt. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984.

Adorno, Theodor W. Negative Dialectics. Trans. E.B. Ashton. New York: Continuum, 1973.

Adorno, Theodor W. Prisms. Trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981.

Aesthetics and Politics. Translation Editor: Ronald Taylor. New York: Verso, 1980.

Felstiner, John. Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.

Hamburger, Michael. The Truth of Poetry: Tensions in Modern Poetry from Baudelaire to the Nineteen-Sixties. New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1972.

Friday, May 18, 2007

A Few Words About Language

French poet Yves Bonnefoy writes, “Now night has fallen (Maintenant, c’est la nuit): if by these words I claim to express my sense-experience they promptly become merely a frame from which presence has disappeared. The portraits that have seemed to us the most lifelike turn out to be mere paradigms. Our most private words become myths once we have let them go” (107). This is both a critique of language and an affirmation of its only possibility of communication. What is most intimate, coterminous with the thoughts and emotions it expresses, is simultaneously exterior and utterly other: my language is both mine and not mine at all. Similarly, physical sensations can only be articulated and vicariously shared by being turned into abstractions, virtual feelings.

Language exists in and as a liminal state between the material and the immaterial, thing and idea: it is neither sheer marks on the page, sounds in the air, nor sheer ideality, but rather it is their contingent and temporary union. (This would be Saussure’s union of signifier and signified that together produce the sign, which Saussure brackets off from the unattainable, and unsayable, real.) It cannot veer too far in either direction without losing its character as language. (The poetic avant-garde seeks to discover how closely language can approach either pole without losing its language character.) Language is neither object nor concept but their articulation. Words hover and hesitate over the abyss between being and non-being, presence and absence. They embody a non-Aristotelian logic of both/and, in which A need not equal A and simultaneously equals B, as well as some third term that’s both their combination (A/B) and some other item altogether (a not A/not B not quite reducible to C).

The notion of direct, unmediated presentation of the “as is,” Pound’s demand for “direct presentation of the thing itself,” is itself a metaphor, a speaking of one thing—the things of the phenomenal, event-full world—in terms of another—words, which are at once tangible and intangible, which are both things and non-things. The world is, for us, always a tropological world.

Language converts the intangible into the tangible (thoughts or feelings that are events into words that are objects) and the tangible into the intangible (trees or dogs or the skin of a lover into words that cannot as such be touched, heard, or even seen, yet only function as words by being heard or seen, by their materialization): poetry foregrounds this travel between realms of being, this transfer of contents. (The word “metaphor” means “transfer” in Greek.) As Mexican poet and critic Octavio Paz writes, “Language is symbolic because it tries to relate two heterogeneous realities: man and the things he names. The relation is doubly imperfect because language is a system of symbols that reduces, on the one hand, the heterogeneity of each concrete thing to equivalences and, on the other, constrains the individual man to use general symbols. Poetry, precisely, proposes to find an equivalence (that is the metaphor) in which neither things in their concrete particularity nor the individual man will disappear” (227). Language is by its very nature metaphorical, calling a near infinity of unique, individual entities all by the same name, “chair” or “fig tree” or even “person,” calling an unlimited range of movements all the same action, “walking” or “laughing” or even “writing.” The name asserts that all the phenomena it points toward are if not identical then equivalent: this is like this is like this is like this, or even, this is this is this is this.

The poem always aspires to be an object in itself (as all art aspires to the condition of music), but is always also a thing about things. The thingness of language is an asymptote (neither marks on a page nor sound in the ear is language per se): language is by definition both object and meta-object. Thus there cannot be an abstract poem in the way that there is abstract music or abstract visual art, with no content but its formal procedures, for language is not a discrete entity the way sound and color and shape are: like Gertrude Stein’s Oakland, when examined closely, there is no there there.

“Abstraction” in art is the foregrounding of the materiality (as against the referentiality) of the medium (in this sense, “abstract art” is the opposite of abstract). Given language’s tenuous materiality, its capacity to foreground that materiality and still remain language (as shapes and colors are palpable and perceptible as such even when not “representing” anything) is limited. Compared to music or painting or sculpture, language has no “as such,” which puts stricter limits on the degree to which one can successfully experiment with it as a medium. Art critic Clement Greenberg characterized the history of modern art as the process of each form stripping itself of all that is not unique to its medium, an Hegelian coming to awareness of its own essential nature. In this sense, literature has no unique medium. What poetry captures isn’t things or events, but mind’s relation to objects and events. Perhaps this is what literature has/is that is unique: all relation itself, it is perfectly suited to enact and embody relation.

The poem performs a double transformation: translating feelings (in the sense of physical sensations) into feelings (in the sense of interior phenomena), and also vice versa (thought-feelings become sense-feelings, including the words themselves as sensory experiences). It turns conceptions and emotions into analogues of sensuous experience (by turning thoughts into images) and simultaneously turns both thoughts and images into, if not the intangible, then the not-quite-tangible: that is, into words, which can function as a shared medium precisely because they are not specific to individual sensations, while at the same time they are sources of sensation.

While for Plato the actual is that which is graspable by the senses but fleeting and ultimately insubstantial, whereas imperishable but not immediately apprehensible Ideas comprise the real, for Kant the never to be attained Ding an sich is exactly the naked, unmediated physical existence—it is not the material world but mental phenomena to which we have immediate access. Following in Kant’s very regular footsteps, in his Speaker’s Meaning Owen Barfield maintains that it is not our thoughts but our physical sensations that are unique to us as individuals: anyone can have the same thought that I have had (and I can share any thought I have with another), but no one can experience the same sensation on biting, for example, into a ripe Bosc pear on a May morning at nine: I can attempt (hopelessly) to describe it, but I cannot share it with anyone. (From this perspective Williams’s poem “This Is Just to Say” assumes a wider significance than its unassuming surface pretends to: the taste and feel of the cold, delicious plums the speaker’s wife cannot experience at breakfast because he has already consumed the fruit are a figure for all physical sensation, private and unshareable.) I would assert that thoughts are more events, and thus unrepeatable in identical form, and sensations are more things, and thus reproducible, than Barfield acknowledges. The distinction he draws between thoughts and sensations, events and things, is too sharp; it is exactly the double sense of the word “feelings” (which double-faced word can here stand in for language as such) that exemplifies their interpenetration.

Works Cited

Barfield, Owen. Speaker’s Meaning. Reprint. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1984.

Bonnefoy, Yves. The Act and the Place of Poetry: Selected Essays. Ed. John T. Naughton. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.

Paz, Octavio. The Bow and the Lyre. Trans. Ruth L. C. Simms. Austin: U of Texas P, 1973.

This piece is excerpted from the essay “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Coat: Nuances of a Theme by Stevens,” which will appear in my forthcoming collection Orpheus in the Bronx: Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry, to be published in the University of Michigan Press Poets on Poetry series in 2008.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

On George Barker

While George Barker was quite popular in Great Britain during the 1930s and 1940s, he seems to be better remembered for his numerous love affairs and fifteen children by several different women than for his very large body of poetry. One of these affairs is chronicled in the 1945 autobiographical novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart, a Canadian writer with whom Barker had a protracted and tumultuous relationship involving a great deal of deceit on his part and a great deal of credulity on hers. Barker’s version of the affair can be found in his 1950 novel The Dead Seagull. As I have often written, neither the meaning nor the value of a writer’s work is determined by his or her biography, but Barker’s life is a fascinating read in itself. He was the very definition of the modern bohemian, who built a life around flouting social and sexual mores.

From what I can tell, Barker was never much read in America. Despite his early success as a poet, in Britain he was somewhat overshadowed in the 1940s by the Auden circle’s discursive, socially oriented verse, and was rather dismissed in the 1950s by the Movement, which, reacting against what it saw as the Romantic excesses of the Forties, sought a sober, prosaic (even when written in traditional forms), “realistic” decorum to which Barker’s poetry is the antithesis.

Yeats included Barker in his highly idiosyncratic Oxford Anthology of Modern Verse 1892-1935, in which he called him a forerunner of a future literary revolution. Philip Larkin (a leading figure in the Movement) also included Barker in his only slightly less idiosyncratic Oxford Anthology of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973). But Barker’s work is not included in any of the three editions of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, nor in the recent Oxford Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry, edited by Keith Tuma, which takes as one of its aims the restoration of forgotten or neglected poets to public attention. His absence from the latter is especially notable, since such contemporaries working in comparable exploratory modes as Dylan Thomas, the English Surrealist David Gascoyne, Nicholas Moore (founder of the New Apocalypse movement), and W.S. Graham are included.

George Granville Barker was born in 1913 and died in 1991. Barker came from a poor background in a period of intense class-consciousness and class stratification; he was largely self-educated; having left school at fourteen and worked at a variety of jobs before finding literary patronage and early success as a poet. His first “official” volume, Poems, was published in 1935 by Faber and Faber under the aegis of T.S. Eliot, who became Barker’s patron, literary and financial, though Eliot considered him “a very peculiar fellow.”

Barker’s poetry, like that of Dylan Thomas and the somewhat younger W.S. Graham, is dense, musical, highly lyrical, romantic, visionary, and frequently mingles mysticism and sexuality. All three have been characterized as both New Romantic and New Apocalypse poets, though Barker and Thomas were more influences on than members of those movements. Their work certainly is romantic with both a small and a capital “R,” and apocalyptic in the original sense of the Latin and Greek words “to uncover” or “to reveal.” Strongly sound-led, Barker’s work eschews or leaps over linear logic in favor of the logic of associations, imagistic, verbal (he’s very fond of puns), and musical. “I now no longer wander wondering who.”

Barker’s highly dramatic work can be overly rhetorical, even oratorical, and his diction and phrasing, while usually surprising yet apt, can sometimes be slightly archaic or overly “poetic.” He was highly prolific, and does not seem to have edited himself much. But his work is never complacent, never content with what has already been done; his was a restless and exploratory sensibility. Even when he writes in traditional forms like the sestina, the sonnet, and the ballad, there is in Barker’s poetry an excess and a disregard for literary propriety very rare in British poetry. His best work (which to my mind is mostly found in his earlier books) has a passion and intensity that is almost overwhelming. Barker’s is a unique and idiosyncratic voice that deserves to be heard again. In its verbal and emotional extravagance and even recklessness, the American poet whose work his most resembles is his near-contemporary Robert Duncan.

The most recent edition of Barker’s Collected Poems, a volume of over eight hundred pages edited by Robert Fraser, was published by Faber and Faber in 1987, but now seems to be out of print. Fraser's substantial biography, The Chameleon Poet: A Life of George Barker, also appears to be out of print. Perhaps this is appropriate, as Barker was convinced that his biography couldn’t be written: “I’ve stirred the facts around too much. It simply can’t be done.”

The poems in this selection are taken from Barker’s Collected Poems 1930 to 1965, published by October House (New York) in 1965. I present them in chronological order. I have been unable to reproduce the indentations in "Daedalus."



Like the enormous liner of his limbs
and fell.
Remain behind, look on
What’s left of what was once in blighted remains.
That imponderable body
Smote my desire, now smitten
I lift his head, his death dampens
The moist palm of my hand like handled fear
Like fear cramping my hand
and stand.
Remain behind, entertain posthumous fear.


Come where no crowds can trouble us divert us
No acrobats hawkers bottles or street musicians
No towering necks like buildings overlook
Intimate revelation.

I take your hand
And steadily lead you
Across morning haunted lawns in earlier
Days, and show
With a reversal of our growing older
How it began, what caused, the germ of time.

Where florid in the night pregnant nightdresses
Proceed sedately down unlighted stairs
Like people. And in the garden
Large lake unreal. Hark, I hear visitant
Swans, and the moths in the trees
Like minor caverns humming. There he draws
Antennae from paralyzed spiders, weapons
In his warlock fingers brandished: or runs
Engendering the eventual major strength like engines
Preparant. I cannot discern you in the leaves or in the
Undergrowth, when starting down the steep hills
He flies precipitate: Spectre, Spectre, where
If among these early places lie you, do you lie?

He fell, not then. Recently sure has fallen from that high
Platform. Formed in fearlessness, has fallen
Like through thought’s clouds through fear, as You stood
Waiting with wanting breast to catch, he in his fall
Evaded. Passed towards a grave straight through.
Of Course You Knew, for saw his comet face
Approaching downward like irresistible.
I mourn him. Him I mourn, from morn to morning.


Where once he trod
I cannot tread;
From the home he is gone from
I am prohibited:
We cannot be
While he is gone from being;
While he is not with being
I am as well miserably unloving;
Totally bereft I too am totally absent,
Appearing here, although
Bruisable and buriable seeming, am too bruised
In my dead
To buried.
Spectre who spreads
Internal dissension,
Dividing the unit army of the body
To coward forces,
Since I have brought
To these private places
Sick with his not being, with his recalled
Reverberant fleet blooms of doing and coming,
Empty with his going, since accomplished, entertained,
Shown choicest hothouse blossoms, phenomenal
Plants he acted on the air like dances lasting,
Since he is not here but where you know with doom—


Where wander those once known herons
Or rabbits here
With shattered entrapped forepaws pitiable in crimson
Killing have known,
And seven-year-old boys locked among ominous
Shadows, enveloped
Have known, and are
At the unmerciful onrush of determined seas
Gathers small craft
There the acquainted faces of the dead sailors
Sight that sees
Where those once known herons fled in fear, to where I
Like lonely herons
The abandoned heroine


Go. With mild gradual descent
Burden the memory
Not as he fell, in anger, in the combat
With forms invisible intactual fought
On that mortal rooftop: not with celestial
Speed brought down, in meritorious
Defeat no beating, but like lamed
Herons or birds in wounded slope
Descending down to lamentable homes
In scraggy caves, borne down by death, I come
Drawn down to earth, and underneath
The earth, like one drawn under
Lethal water by an unknown weight
Unseen invisible, but not unknown is fear.


My tired lips received that morning
Their first kiss, so stirred the mind
Cannot subside for days for weeks or months.
That slim mouth upon mine held firm complete pressure,
Keeping mine for the inconceivable period
Between meeting in dream and meeting the unknown person.

Therefore for days or months I examined all faces
That slip between me and the exit to forget;
At political meetings at parties and at festivals
Every unrecognizing face, the features of every unrecognized face, refused
To be that face, assumed adverse reaction,
Closed its cold eyes on the air, and was removed.

Traveling through a fine evening in a car
The attentive line of my own face was at intervals caught
From the sunlight in outline—the chin’s framed curve,
Lips, jaw’s asseveration—on the windscreen;
The reproduction on, the reality through
I now no longer wander wondering who.

“O Who Will Speak from a Womb or a Cloud?”

Not less light shall the gold and the green lie
On the cyclonic curl and diamonded eye, than
Love lay yesterday on the breast like a beast.
Not less light shall God tread my maze of nerve
Than that great dread of tomorrow drove over
My maze of days. Not less terrible that tread
Stomping upon your grave than I shall tread there.
Who is a god to haunt the tomb but Love?

Therefore I shall be there at morning and midnight,
Not with a straw in my hair and a tear as Ophelia
Floating along my sorrow, but I shall come with
The cabala of things, the cipher of nature, so that
With the mere flounce of a bird’s feather crest
I shall speak to you where you sit in all trees,
Where you conspire with all things that are dead.
Who is so far that Love cannot speak to him?

So that no corner can hide you, no autumn of leaves
So deeply close over you that I shall not find you,
To stretch down my hand and sting you with life
Like poison that resurrects. O remember
How once the Lyrae dazzled and how the Novembers
Smoked, so that blood burned, flashed its mica,
And that was life. Now if I dip my hand in your grave
Shall I find it bloody with autumn and bright with stars?
Who is to answer if you will not answer me?

But you are the not yet dead, so cannot answer.
Hung by a hair’s breadth to the breath of a lung,
Nothing you know of the hole over which you hang
But that it’s dark and deep as tomorrow midnight.
I ask, but you cannot answer except with words
Which show me the mere interior of your fear,
The reverse face of the world. But this,
This is not death, the standing on the head
So that a sky is seen. O who
Who but the not yet born can tell me of my bourne?

Lie you there, lie you there, my never, never,
Never to be delivered daughter, so wise in ways
Where you perch like a bird beyond the horizon,
Seeing but not being seen, above our being?
Then tell me, shall the meeting ever be,
When the corpse dives back through the womb
To clasp his child before it ever was?
Who but the dead can kiss the not yet born?

Sad is space between a start and a finish,
Like the rough roads of stars, fiery and mad.
I go between birth and the urn, a bright ash
Soon blazed to blank, like a fire-ball. But
Nothing I bring from the before, no message,
No clue, no key, no answer. I hear no echo,
Only the sheep’s blood dripping from the gun,
The serpent’s tear like fire along the branch.
O who will speak from a womb or a cloud?

To My Mother

Most near, most dear, most loved and most far,
Under the window where I often found her
Sitting as huge as Asia, seismic with laughter,
Gin and chicken helpless in her Irish hand,
Irresistible as Rabelais, but most tender for
The lame dogs and hurt birds that surround her—
She is a procession no one can follow after
But be like a little dog following a brass band.

She will not glance up at the bomber, or condescend
To drop her gin and scuttle to a cellar,
But lean on the mahogany table like a mountain
Whom only faith can move, and so I send
O all my faith, and all my love to tell her
That she will move from mourning into morning.

Turn on Your Side and Bear the Day to Me

Turn on your side and bear the day to me
Beloved, sceptre-struck, immured
In the glass wall of sleep. Slowly
Uncloud the borealis of your eye
And show your iceberg secrets, your midnight prizes
To the green-eyed world and to me. Sin
Coils upward into thin air when you awaken
And again morning announces amnesty over
The serpent-kingdomed bed. Your mother
Watched with as dove an eye the unforgivable night
Sigh backward into innocence when you
Set a bright monument in her amorous sea.
Look down, Undine, on the trident that struck
Sons from the rock of vanity. Turn in the world
Sceptre-struck, spellbound, beloved,
Turn in the world and bear the day to me.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Music for Boys

When I was in high school in the 1970s, poetry was the brooding lyrics of Tim Buckley, Neil Young, and Jefferson Airplane I copied into blue-lined notebooks, cueing up the records over and over to make sure I hadn’t missed a word. To this day, listening to “Coming Back to Me” or “Today” can bring me to the verge of tears. I wrote down all the words to “MacArthur Park” and Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses” (particularly excited that my obsession with mythology could merge with my musical obsessions), Simon and Garfunkle’s “I Am a Rock” and Dan Fogelberg’s “Nether Lands,” Tim Buckley’s “Morning Glory” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Silver Spring,” and all the words I could make out of Patti Smith’s “Easter” and “Because the Night.” Music for people too sensitive for this world, who had only books and music to protect them.

My attachment to the music I loved was as much about what I wanted to feel or thought I should feel as about what I actually felt, about becoming or pretending to be the kind of person who felt those things. Music represented something that was not me, but felt like a truer version of me. The songs did the feeling for me, an externalization of my own emotions. Later, poems, my own and those by others, did that work too. (As Eliot wrote of the poet, “emotions which he has never experienced will serve his turn as well as those familiar to him.”) For a long time when I listened to that music and relived the periods of my life with which I associated it, I felt nostalgia for times when I felt an unhappiness that in retrospect seemed more pure, more noble, even, though there was nothing elevated about it at the time. I would listen to sad music to make myself sad, trying to recapture that negative golden age, seeking a sense of connection with periods when I felt more deeply, endured a sadness less adulterated. (By, among other things, practical concerns: to be able to lie in bed hating one’s life, to be miserable and not have to do anything about it, is a great luxury.) I went in search of lost misery: remembrance of sorrows past. Now I hate to be reminded of those times, and wish that I could listen to that music remembering only what it meant to me, but not the pain. I look back on my past as a blighted wasteland, and what survives of value are music, poems, and a few friendships. And now there is my partner, Robert, who saved me from myself. Everything But the Girl sang that both desire and despair are hard to sustain, but I have managed both for too long.

And when I actually am sad, I find myself consoled by sad songs. They confirm that I not alone in my misery; they make my mundane unhappiness something shapely and beautiful, something the world not only wants to hear but wants to listen to. As Louise Glück has written, “There is always something to be made of pain.” I find that assurance comforting.

Patti Smith was my first image of what “a poet” might be (except perhaps for Neil Young, longing to live on Sugar Mountain, wondering what color is left when black is burned). She turned social ostracism into rebellious outsiderhood, loneliness into proud isolation from the uncomprehending mass. The mass of people I encountered couldn’t comprehend me: perhaps I could be a poet too. “Outside of society, that’s where I want to be”: I wanted to be there too, instead of just being on the bottom of society’s shoe. Listening to Patti Smith eventually led me to read Rimbaud, though he was more important to me as a figure of what a poet could and should be (a voyant, a visionary, an other to himself and the world) than as a writer, especially since I didn’t read French. I was more fascinated by the translator Paul Schmidt’s account of having tried to relive Rimbaud’s life, of having deranged all his senses in the hope of inhabiting Rimbaud’s skin, than by the lively but, I was told in college by friends who read French, rather inaccurate translations.

I suspect that for many contemporary poets popular music formed our first ideas of poetry. Some older poets have written about the importance of such figures as Elvis Presley (who, as Public Enemy rapped, didn’t mean shit to me) or The Beatles, whom I enjoyed but whose songs rarely seemed sufficiently “poetic,” though a song like “Hey, You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” spoke to me very painfully. (I had a notion of the poetic long before I had any acquaintance with actual poems.) It has primarily been what used to be called New Wave and its various offshoots that has haunted my poems: arty music for artistically minded misfits, or at least for misfits who hoped that their social dysfunction might mean they were artistic, that being artists might validate their inability to fit in. I wanted to write poems as evocative as Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Ocean Rain” or Kate Bush’s “The Man with the Child in His Eyes,” as coolly passionate as Japan’s “Ghosts” or David Sylvian’s “Forbidden Colours.” (Early in my encounter with poetry I understood that restraint was a form of passion, and longed for that power over my own emotions, which too often overpowered me.) I wanted to write poems as bitingly incisive as the Psychedelic Furs’ “Into You Like a Train,” poems that captured the perfectly poised sadness of This Mortal Coil’s “Song to the Siren” or “I Must Have Been Blind.” (Both were cover versions of Tim Buckley songs. I learned about intertextuality from music also.) Along with the artists I’ve already mentioned, The Blue Nile, China Crisis, The Comsat Angels, Culture Club, The Cure, Brian Eno, Everything But the Girl, The Smiths, Talk Talk, were as much my influences as any poets that I read. That most of these groups and songs were more or less my secret, or a secret I shared only with a few friends, made my relationship to their music feel all the more intimate. It always upset me when a singer or group I liked became popular, as if something had been stolen from me.

Music still possesses my mind and my poetry, holds me in its loving and inextricable grip. My poetry is a palimpsest of various voices and discourses, shot through with song titles and song lyrics. They make up a large proportion of the voices in my head, and hearing a song will prompt a line almost as often as reading a poem will.

When I was a college student in Vermont in the early 1980s and a college dropout in Boston in the mid-1980s, I had a few friends who shared my musical obsessions, mostly gay boys from small towns and suburbs who had run away to Boston to become the gay men they’d always hoped to be. They collected Kate Bush or Culture Club picture discs, import singles and B-sides like “December Will Be Magic Again,” objects which encapsulated their emotions and experiences (loneliness and longing, mostly), the feelings they had and wanted to have, and gave them back to them as music. I collected those things too, and they’re in my poetry to this day.

In part, my will to become a poet arose from a desire to take a more active role in that transaction, to be not only the audience for my own revised emotions but their author as well, to produce others’ emotions for them.

Much more recently, I saw a banner in the music section of my local Barnes and Noble which featured a remarkable quote from someone of whom I’ve never heard, one Edward H. Howe: “When people hear good music, it makes them homesick for something they never had, and never will have.” I think that “something” is freedom, which music hints at, promises even, but never gives for more than moments. The song remains the same, but the song always ends.

It sometimes occurs to me that I know almost no one who still has that particular relationship with music, who still has that degree of emotional investment—everyone has moved past that, though to what I don’t always know—and I wonder if my continuing obsession means that I am emotionally stunted, that I have never really grown up. Shouldn’t a man in his forties have put away such adolescent preoccupations? But then, Nietzsche did once call poetry a secondary sexual characteristic (so many people write poetry in their teens, and then they grow up and do other things), so perhaps to be a poet is to be a perpetual adolescent. Hardly an original thought, but what about adolescence is?

This piece is adapted from the opening autobiographical essay in my collection Orpheus in the Bronx: Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry, to be published in the University of Michigan Press Poets on Poetry series in 2008.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Notes Toward Beauty

“I don’t trust beauty anymore,” I once wrote, “when will I stop believing it?” And elsewhere, “because beauty (fixed, triumphant) isn’t my friend, is it?” That is part of the truth. The other part of the truth is that without a notion of beauty, an embodiment of the possible beyond the abjections of the mundane, I would not have become a poet, would not, perhaps, have left behind the Bronx housing projects and tenements at all. It is very fashionable, indeed almost de rigueur, to condemn beauty as oppressive: at worst an ideological mystification, at best a distraction from the real work. (Lenin couldn’t listen to music for this reason: he distrusted the power it had over him, fearing it would enervate him and make him too soft to do the hard things that had to be done). As poet Jay Hopler writes, “It is hard to believe beauty is the new ugliness./But it must be, why else would so many of my contemporaries mock it so?” And simplified, distorted notions of beauty have too often been deployed for vicious ends: the Nazi cult of Aryan beauty is the most egregious example. (Though I am also reminded that the sculptures of Arno Breker, Hitler’s court artist, are actually ugly. But Leni Riefenstahl’s straining, triumphant Olympians are not.) Adorno’s point remains: “Beauty of any kind has to face the question of whether it is in fact beautiful or whether it is just a fake claim resting on a static affirmation.”

It is common to confuse the beautiful with the merely pretty, an ornamental irrelevance, to oppose the pleasing to some more exigent or severe realm above and beyond the simply beautiful. This perspective situates beauty at the mid-point of a continuum from the pretty to the beautiful to the sublime: beauty is thus a form of mediocrity or compromise. It was Edmund Burke who first distinguished between the beautiful and the sublime as that which submits to us versus that which overwhelms us, that which could destroy us but does not. Immanuel Kant and (more recently) Jean-François Lyotard have elaborated on this distinction. In this view, beauty reassures and comforts: it supplies us with the already known, while the sublime crashes over us like the storm surge of an out of season hurricane. As Susan Sontag has observed, “Beauty is part of the history of idealizing, which is itself part of the history of consolation. But beauty may not always console. The beauty of face and figure torments, subjugates; that beauty is imperious. The beauty that is human, and the beauty that is made (art)—both raise the fantasy of possession. One model of the disinterested comes from the beauty of nature—a nature that is distant, overarching, unpossessable.”

Beauty is insistent; it makes demands. It demands that we see it and acknowledge it, that we acknowledge our seeing, that we be changed by the experience. As Rilke wrote, beauty is the beginning of a terror that we are barely able to endure. And as Francis Bacon wrote, there is no beauty that hath not some proportion of strangeness in it. To quote Thomas Nashe’s “A Litany in Time of Plague,” a poem that celebrates and embodies the beauty of annihilation, a poem whose speaker is, in part, dying of beauty,

Brightness falls from the air,
Queens have died young and fair,
Dust hath closèd Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.

The terror that Kant equated with the sublime is synonymous with Rilke’s beauty: the sublime is beauty’s true face, like Zeus revealing himself to Semele in all his glory, like Yahweh whose back alone can be glimpsed by the mortal eye. Beauty is not kind or benign; it is a natural force, amoral, beyond good and evil. Like the pleasure/pain of orgasm, like Roland Barthes’s jouissance, it is shattering, ecstatic: we are beside ourselves, outside ourselves. Beauty burns and devours: we die to our old selves and rise reborn.

I have quoted and cited, referred and alluded, but I am still no prophet. What do I believe—and which I, and at what time? Perhaps this near-chrestomathy is evidence, however circumstantial, that beauty is not merely personal or idiosyncratic. I have felt haunted by the beauty of men that I did not possess and could not make mine (beauty calls to beauty, after all, though beauty also demands an audience, an audience that is presumably not beautiful: otherwise it would contemplate itself), and felt crushed by the distance between myself and what I wished to have, wished to become. I have felt both enraptured by and utterly alienated from the beauty of nature, which was other to me so fundamentally that there was no feeling of exclusion, but simply pure alterity. There was no wish, no possibility, that I could be a waterfall plunging into a gorge, though I have felt that vertiginous urge to plummet into white water and shale. But there was, there is, a wish to preserve that moment of apprehension. This is one of the things poetry means to me: the possibility of mediating between being and desire, of bridging alterity by articulating it. “To articulate” also means “to connect.” One way a poem begins for me is with the question, “How do these things relate to one another?” Language itself is articulation in two senses: it speaks and it connects. Liminal, nothing in itself but everything in relation, a bridge between the material and the immaterial, between image and idea, signifier and signified, all language is conjunction, copula, commingling. The real waits in a corner, never to be spoken, but only spoken of… Only connect, as E.M. Forster wrote.

I decided I wanted to be a poet (an asymptote, approached but never truly reached: in that regard like beauty itself) because I was overwhelmed by the ambivalent, contradictory beauty of Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which seemed not simply to speak to and of my life but to replace it, if only fleetingly, with something more meaningful. Amorphous misery had been made form, suffering had been transformed to shape. I hated the poem for eluding me, for not surrendering itself immediately to my understanding; I loved it for its power of fascination. I sought by becoming a poet a share in that power, to be, if not a thing of beauty in myself (that would have been too much to ask for), then at least a source of beauty. As Frank O’Hara writes in his “Autobiographia Literaria,” “And here I am, the/center of all beauty!/writing these poems!/Imagine!” So much for the unkind animals and the fleeing birds…

I wrote once that many of my poems constitute an argument between beauty and justice, and it has long been the fashion to oppose the two, as if the falsehoods of beauty were unmasked by the unsparing eye of justice. But I believe, with Elaine Scarry and many others, that ultimately, and perhaps paradoxically, beauty and justice are one, that beauty presents us with the possibility of things as they should be. As Susan Sontag writes, “the various definitions of beauty come at least as close to a plausible characterization of virtue, and of a fuller humanity, as the attempts to define goodness as such.”

Beauty is outside the bounds of good and evil, and yet it enacts a rightness of relation that has an ethical dimension. (Stendhal wrote that beauty is the promise of happiness, though that promise is often broken.) In that sense beauty does embody virtue, as Plato believed, and demands of us that we embody that virtue: for who doesn’t want to be beautiful, who wouldn’t be beautiful if he could? The presence of beauty reminds us of its all too frequent absence, and demands that we remedy that absence to the best of our ability, if only to salve the pain of lack. Again in Rilke’s words, there is no part that does not see you: you must change your life. The rightness of beauty is a form of justice: just proportion, just harmony (even in seeming discord), the just relation of parts to the whole and the whole to the parts. In this sense beauty, in its form rather than its content, offers an imago of the just society. Friedrich Schlegel makes this analogy explicit when he writes that “Poetry is republican speech: a speech which is its own law and end unto itself, and in which all the parts are free citizens and have the right to vote.” The pain that beauty often induces (beauty is something we undergo, a passion) is the pain of the awareness of the absence of such a thing in or as our lives, beauty’s reminder of our own inadequacy. Rilke’s archaic torso is after all a fragment of a god: beauty shines out in what remains, reminding us of a wholeness just out of reach. It reminds us of the possible which does not exist.

Beauty isn’t particularly good for anything, except perhaps helping one get laid, if one happens to be beautiful, and I like the idea of its uselessness. In a society so over-ruled by instrumental reason, to be good for nothing is perhaps simply to be good: in its inutility, beauty manifests what Kant called the kingdom of ends, in which people and things exist in and for themselves and not as the means to other ends (profit, power). In Sartre’s terms, beauty is the domain of the for-itself and the in-itself. Beauty is gauche and inconvenient and often embarrassing (or at least our responses to beauty are, making us lose composure, lose our cool) and altogether in excess of what is required, what is asked for, what is appropriate. I dwell among these visions of excess, altogether inadequate to their demands, and hope that my failure even to attempt a definition of the beautiful might be taken as an instantiation of my title—beauty can only be approached, but never actually reached—and thus as an assent to beauty’s refusal to be mastered by the understanding.

This essay will appear in my forthcoming book Orpheus in the Bronx: Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry, to be published by the University of Michigan Press in 2008.