The book of my soul

The book of my soul

Image source: Gitksan woman Shaman and Chief, Kispiox, British Columbia, 1909, by George Thornton Emmons Collection no. 131 (University of Washington Libraries) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Why do we write poetry? In a world of inexhaustible archives, where we are overwhelmed with voices, why would we ply our own into the unending and infinite conversation? Why do this when although we have control over the words we write, we have no control over their reception in the world or the fruits of the work?

“Alas! What boots it with uncessant care

To tend the homely slighted shepherd’s trade,

And strictly meditate the thankless Muse?” (Milton, Lycidas)

My last post on conceptual poetry prompted me to think on this, since there is a way in which the proponents of the cutting edge have abandoned the thankless muse and turned their poetry into a species of barren, mechanical marketing. They abolish the anxiety of authentic authorship by turning everything into a cheap showman’s trick.

My post also prompted thoughtful responses from one of my readers, Daniel Paul Marshall, who says, quite beautifully, that “my entire reason to write poetry is due to Wallace Stevens saying it isn’t everyday the world forms into a poem.”

Daniel also pointed me towards the Inflectionist Review, which does articulate a sense of poetry as belonging to a long and deep tradition of infinite conversation between readers and writers, who are readers, rather than a ceaseless war of the new against the old, of radicalism against tradition.

At the Inflectionist Review they say, in describing their poetry movement:

The literary tradition is as ancient as our capacity for verbal communication. Through ages, most of the core human concerns have remained the same, although our ability to analyze and discuss them has evolved. Poetry has remained essentially the same in that it elicits our reaction by appealing to those concerns indirectly.

They also say “Poetry seeks to represent the type of human interaction that causes a positive spark, an epiphany, a sense of growth.” This connection of poetry to psyche or to soul seems to me, as I discussed in an earlier post, what Wallace Stevens referred to when he spoke of nobility in poetry. The poet’s special privilege and responsibility is an ecstatic freedom of the mind, and the worst forms of literary avant-gardism abandon and abuse this privilege.

Now, I am not one to raise an aesthetic war banner and plant it in the ground, but I do see my poetry – and my writing more generally, my prose and whatever the art form that this blog is attempting to shape – as part of a longer, humbler and more secret tradition than the loud brash declarations of the avant-garde.

When I write I belong in Milton’s homely slighted shepherd’s trade, and to the spirit worlds of all the unknown shamans of the world, who sang their chants, beat their drums, and went on unknowable journeys into the night.

Instead of a statement of an aesthetic philosophy, my mind turned to a poem I wrote some years back, and included in my self-published e-book, After the Pills. It was the first poem in the second half of that collection, which were poems written after I began to take medication for my mental illness. It was one of the first poems I wrote after that time, and it marked, perhaps even broke open the ground that made possible, the beginning of a more productive, more enjoyable, more free writing life.

Here it is.

The book of my soul

“The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof but canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth.”
John, chapter 3. verse 8.

In a plain bound book
I tattoo white paper in blue
Then wrap myself in this shaman’s cloak
To fly with the eagle to a sky renewed.

I sing words salvaged from the press
In the intervals of Te Deum,
Stolen from its church,
Sung so only its melancholy shines.

Pärt turned to church and tradition
Amidst a century of horror
And I turn to these conjured spirits
In a world polluted by podcast trash.

Inwardly, I turn – not without question.
The simplest words are sewn with elaborate doubt.
But into the image of inwardness
I dive deeper, and there find reasons to go on.

In the mandalas, strange mazes, of this book
I encircle, tame, and then hold fast
The sound of the blowing wind.

Jeff Rich

If this kind of writing practice makes me a traditionalist or even a conservative, who will never be fashionable, so be it. I do not seek fame or fashion from what I do with my voices, and I draw inspiration from others who do the same. The poem refers to the music of Arvo Pärt, the Estonian composer, who fled Soviet repression, and produced some of the most beautiful music of the twentieth century, springing from the traditions of church music.

Here is a performance of Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum if you do not know it, via YouTube and created by Akademisk Kor, Akademisk Orkester, Nenia Zenana, conductor.
Marianne G. Nielsen, solist. I can think of no more fitting end.

Wasting time on conceptual poetry

I borrowed from my local public library Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton anthology (2nd edition), edited by Paul Hoover. I am not quite sure what was the impulse that led me to this step, perhaps it was a feeling that I had little real sense of what was up in the current poetry scene, and that I should give some attention to the profuse ideas about writing that my contemporaries have given voice to. It was a kind of anxiety of no influence, and a fear that my own writing practice is cut so adrift from the songs of others that they can only die solitary and alone.

If that was my intention, I soon found myself confirmed in shunning the poetics of these postmodern poets. which went by a bevy of terms I read for the first time in the anthology’s introduction in place of a manifesto – terms like proceduralism, uncreative writing, language poetry, Newlipo, cyberpoetry, Flarf, post-language lyrics and conceptual poetry. The last the anthologist proclaimed is what represented The New, which is a new form of the incarnation of the sacred, tinged with revolutionary politics.

Of course I was familiar with terms like post-modernism, and found in the introduction some old and familiar practitioners of slippery academic prophecy, in miscast runes, like Frederic Jameson. Jameson is quoted approvingly as the announcer of the postmodern which the anthologist declares the reigning style of this era and of its culture: “It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think about the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place.” This rather gnomic piece of circular self-deception comes from Jameson’s 1991 treatise named Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, which reassures its revolutionary readers of its prophetic truth with that little adjective slipped in, late. It is of the same cloth that much of the faux prophecies and drunken manifestos of various kinds of Revolutionary, Post-Modern and New poetry. Jameson seems temperamentally unable to admit that the literary critic simply has not bothered to look around the university, or even outside its fevered halls, for some people who do think historically, i

But this is very much a common infection among the conceptual poets. I learned from the anthology that Kenneth Goldsmith is the reigning arch-priest among these poets. Goldsmith practices a self-declared form of uncreative writing. His notable works include word-for-word (or something approximating such verisimilitude) reproductions of a newspaper, a report on terror, and a transcript each word he has spoken over a period of a week, in all their quotidian inanity. They are entirely uninteresting. They are only known because of the self-promotions that they serve. Indeed at UbuWeb he is his own custodian of digital permanence and trustee of the avant-garde as forever chic, sadly for me appropriating Jarry’s Pere Ubu and presenting Beckett as a sunglasses model.

He has recently lost the mantle of the New and the Radical by reading, with significant but minor alterations, the autopsy report of a African-American man shot by the police. This act quite understandably offended many people involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, and although there is a persecutorial leftism in the tone of the criticism, it is a sign that idle word games and enfant terrible poses for publicity are no match to deeply felt emotions.

Goldsmith’s radicalism is generously supported by an academic position at an American University where he teaches his brand of poetic practice with such courses as “Wasting time on the Internet.” Here he practices a form of mid-Western american shuckster fakery that promises to his students that “this class will focus on the alchemical recuperation of aimless surfing into substantial works of literature.” He destroys poetic practice and turns it into an entertainment driven series of stunts. Conceptual poetry, it seems to me is nothing more than that, a series of media stunts that leave nothing behind.

Still, Goldsmith clings to a stage persona of the great artist. His uncreative writing does not practice a humble craft but like a thousand avant-gardists before him, offers a masterpiece of dada in the wish to be known as a great artist.  It is American consumerism’s darkest hour, when it has turned those paid to teach poetry and to guard the culture into exponents of an uncreative writing that proposes that lists of online purchases and browser histories “be churned into compelling works of identity-based literature.”

Unsurprisingly, such a busker of the New has a poor understanding of history. He is quoted towards the end of the introduction as writing in a debate on the current state of poetry:

“Any notion of history has been leveled by the internet. Now, it’s all fodder for the remix and recreation of works of art: free-floating toolboxes and strategies unmoored from context of historicity… All types of proposed linear historical trajectories have been scrambled and discredited by the tidal wave of digitality, which has crept up on us and so completely saturated our culture that we, although deeply immersed in it, have no idea what hit us. In the face of the digital, postmodernism is the quaint last gasp of modernism.” Goldsmith quoted from “The Tortoise and the Hare,” 2009

His interlocutor in this false debate between the new and slow poetry is Dale Smith who advocates a slow poetry, which dwells, like this blog, in the mysterious image created by Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history.

“We’re surrounded by the past in the form of digitized archives. I understand that. But Benjamin’s notion of history is rooted in a sense of the catastrophic failures of history in the twentieth century, too. Paradise is a dream – a true liberating force (an impossibility?) – that is rooted in a meaningful search for images. We are surrounded by artifacts, endless fodder for remixing as you say. But how do we proceed with this material in respect to the catastrophe? Are we really free to ignore the contexts and situations produced by these images?” Dale SMith quoted from from “The Tortoise and the Hare,” 2009.

Without Smith’s tinge of longing for a radically changed paradise, I believe in his slow poetry. Conceptual poetry, such as that practised by Goldsmith in the cursed tradition of Andy Warhol, is a series of empty gestures, venerating the career of the artist above the suffering about which the poet ought to give testimony. History is not kind to artists who try to turn her into a fun-house for their happenings, and at least so I believe, it is the private lyric voice, who is not acclaimed in their time as New or Radical or Shocking that is the true and lasting voice of poetry.

 

The Great Confinement

The Great Confinement

Image Source: photograph, Sarah Lee, Bethlem Museum of the Mind exhibition, The Guardian

From Keats, Hyperion:

Just at the self-same beat of Time’s wide wings
Hyperion slid into the rustled air,
And Saturn gain’d with Thea that sad place
Where Cybele and the bruised Titans mourn’d.
It was a den where no insulting light
Could glimmer on their tears; where their own groans
They felt, but heard not, for the solid roar
Of thunderous waterfalls and torrents hoarse,
Pouring a constant bulk, uncertain where.
Crag jutting forth to crag, and rocks that seem’d
Ever as if just rising from a sleep,
Forehead to forehead held their monstrous horns;
And thus in thousand hugest phantasies
Made a fit roofing to this nest of woe

I have taken up again, after a break of two months, Andrew Scull’s Madness in Civilization: a cultural history of insanity. Here I learn that the archetypal lunatic asylum of the English speaking world, Bedlam or Bethlem Hospital , featured two large statues on plinths at its gates. These statues (pictured above) were of the figures of melancholy and raving madness. Melancholy madness lay imprisoned and disabled by his sadness. Raving madness, full of impotent torrents hoarse, lay shackled. These two statues, according to Scull, were alluded to by Keats in his poem of the fall of the titans, Hyperion, which I confess I have not read until prompted to by Scull’s account. They appear as the bruis’d Titans, who make a fit roofing for this nest of woe.

Whether we know them as asylums or mental hospitals or rehabilitation clinics, these places, which I have known as a visitor, but not a patient, have long been nests of woe. But Scull does a fine job of showing that they can at times be more than that, and that beneath the lurid and dark imaginings, the grotesque exploitation of the insane and the infirm for profit or for poetry, there are other motives and other experiences of caring and protection in these places. Of course, he does not minimise the cruelty and the suffering known in these places, but he also sees the compassion of those who cared and sought to find a place of refuge for their ill family members, and, with a modern perspective, sees the struggle of families in a world with few supports to take care of their mad members and to protect all who knew them from their worst excesses.

So, where the French radical literary tradition celebrated de Sade as the great libertine whose texts speak of excess and transgression that defy the law that sought to confine him with lettres de cachet, Scull gives attention to his despairing mother-in-law who saw her daughter lost in de Sade’s fantasy world and betrayed by de Sade’s affairs with her sister and many prostitutes. So Madame de Montreuil lured de Sade with a ruse to Paris, where she confined him in the Chateau de Vincennes and then the Bastille. Every loving family member of a person who is experiencing the extremes of psychotic behaviour can understand what she did, without recourse to Foucault’s grand myth of resistance to reason, the Great Confinement. Indeed this radical literary tradition celebrating de Sade culminated in Foucault’s celebration of the remorseless libertine in both his texts and his life.

This myth, Scull shows, was mistaken about the true historical circumstances. The idea that Foucault put forward, that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, through a strange shifting of symbols and discourse in the minds of Western man (since Foucault did indeed think in such terms), there was a Great Confinement of the insane “vastly overstates the true state of affairs.” (p 127) The insane were a small and secondary population in the great congregations of the broken in the new French general hospitals, such as the Saltpetriere. Even more so in the rural Europe, most of the mad who were confined were a danger to themselves or others, and most the mad were dealt with, often inadequately, within families, poor houses or religious institutions.

Still the image created by Foucault, in that strangely mesmerizing yet unsatisfying book,  Folie et Deraison (translated as Madness and Civilization in English), has an enduring magic. “By a strange act of force, the classical age was to reduce to silence the madness whose voices the Renaissance had liberated, but whose voices it had already tamed,” Foucault wrote (Madness and Civilization, p 38). For me this grand gesture of retrieving from confined silence the voices of madness has always had a strange power. It has made me overlook all the errors and inconsistencies of Foucault’s argument. It has made me pass over the crude recycled Marxism of Foucault’s interpretation of the great confinement as an act of power asserting order.

But I cannot overlook this any more. There it is, in his text, the absurd statement that the Hopital General (apologies for no accents or diacritical marks since I do not yet know how to produce them from my keyboard) and all the professions of medical care for the insane “had nothing to do with any medical concept. It was an instance of order, of the monarchical and bourgeois order being organized in France during this period.” (p. 40) And later, “Confinement … is a ‘police’ matter. Police, in the precise sense that the classical epoch gave to it – that is, the totality of measures which make work possible and necessary for all those who could not live without it…. What made it necessary was an imperative of labor. Our philanthopy prefers to recognize the signs of a benevolence toward sickness where there is only condemnation of idleness” (Madness and Civilization p 46).

So Foucault turns all the complex storm of emotions, thought and practice provoked by the still deeply mysterious presence of madness in our lives to an old-fashioned Marxist conspiracy theory that condemns the bourgeois in a stance of radical defiance. As Roger Scruton says in his essay on Foucault in Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, Foucault “devoted his work to unmasking the bourgeoisie, and showing that all the given ways of shaping civil society are reducible in the last analysis to forms of domination.” In the end, this rhetoric is helpless before the real experience of falling into madness or caring for a loved one who is mentally ill.

Scruton also identifies the enduring power of Foucault’s writings. His essay is a sensitive and remarkable tribute, yet a scathing critique. He writes of Foucault with a generosity and admiration not dispensed on other fools, frauds and firebrands, such as Sartre, Habermas or the entirely despicable Jacques Lacan. “His imagination and intellectual fluency,” Scruton writes,”have generated theories, concepts and insights by the score, and the synthesising poetry of his style rises above the murky sludge of left-wing writing like an eagle over mud-flats.” He identifies that Foucault’s great book on madness retells the Hegelian master-slave story as a conflict between reason and madness, and it is perhaps my own experience of struggling to find my way between these two experiences that had led to my long enchantment with Foucault’s metaphors and my long search through his radical pantheon of mad anti-gods. As Scruton writes from the revolt of the Romantics and the early modernists through to the twentieth century:

Madness is out of the cage, and confronting us with our truth. At the end of Foucault’s drama the gods of the French post-war Olympus enter stage left, to stick out their tongues at the bourgeoisie in the stalls. Goya, de Sade, Holderlin, Nerval, Van Gogh, Artaud, Nietzsche, all are proof, for Foucault, that the voice of unreason (deraison) can no longer be silenced, and that the reign of bourgeois normality is over.” (Scruton, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands)

This great dreamt titanic struggle between shackled raving madness and its captor, ordinary life has both sustained me and led me many times astray. Still, I feel Foucault could only have written this great book by knowing the borderlands of madness and reason from the inside, and this experience speaks in the poetry of his style in a way that his drier and more pedantic critics cannot attain, despite all their evidence and good sense.

Yet today, I let it go in the knowledge that the voices of madness have never wholly be silenced nor confined. So instead of Keats’ epic vision of madness, as much a vision from the outside as the confining, caring doctors in Foucault’s own poetic epic, let us recall that even in an asylum, with medical confinement, the voice of John Keats’ near contemporary, John Clare, could still speak and break the silence, with a tone quite different to Artaud’s obscene laden rants, and in a way that reaches to every one who writes, and so asserts their being, however diminished by the vast shipwreck of any life. Here, in closing, is John Clare’s poem “I am”.

I am (John Clare)

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows

My friends forsake me like a memory lost,

I am the self-consumer of my woes –

They rise and vanish in oblivious host,

Like shadows in love’s frenzied, stifled throes –

And yet I am, and live – like vapors tossed

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,

Into the living sea of waking dreams,

Where there is neither sense of life or joys,

But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;

Even the dearest, that I love the best,

Are strange – nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes, where mam hath never trod,

A place where woman never smiled or wept –

There to abide with My Creator, God,

And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,

Untroubling, and untroubled where I lie,

The grass below – above the vaulted sky.

John Clare (composed some time between 1842-64 in Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, now St Andrew’s Hospital).)

john-clare

Dr Cogito’s Rebellion

The following poem I composed in the last year, and takes up in an over-educated time the persona or character of Zbigniew Herbert, Mr Cogito.

I have a printed page of Herbert’s “Envoy of Mr Cogito” on the pinboard beside my desk, and it is one of the poems I have committed to memory, and which gives me a sense of purpose. I have little time. I must testify. I am composing several poems featuring this character, Dr Cogito, and aim to collect these and some other new poems in a collection, named after the poem that follows.

Dr Cogito’s Rebellion

Dr Cogito wailed to the wall:

Banished I am. Banished from the sun.

Yet in exile is freedom, where beauty is won.

Rise, strange city, with me, in revolt.

But the wall did not fall.

The prowling police only smiled askance,

as they waved on the disturbance;

Just one stranger cried for no apparent reason at all.

So, Dr Cogito roamed the city by day,

A lone man, with misshapen hair,

His beard dull white, his trackies urine stained.

He dictated revolt into his device.

His mind let go all hierarchy,

Swooned upwards into the swirl of dream,

And from the ashen scarred sky

He dictated the fleeing angel’s decrees.

Flail the pleasure-seekers. Let blood mingle with come.

Hang the merchants by the weight of their debts.

Empty the archives, and make a wild pyre

There to burn the courtiers whose brand I wear here.

To his arm he then pointed:

A blackened and bruised star,

The mark of the accursed,

The outcast’s pride jewel, he cried.

Then in waiting for savagery again to roam the earth

At last, in fear, the crowd attended

To this homeless man’s address.

But no words came a-preaching, as he fell to his knees,

Only tears and crumbling muscle,

As he looked afar, to the angel blown away by the fire.

Farewell, he sobbed, in this city we never will belong,

Before a patient nurse came to hurry him along.

Jeff Rich

Poem: one thousand steps

Poem: one thousand steps

Here is a poem I wrote over the last year, prompted by a walk along one of the most popular walks in Melbourne, the thousand steps walk in Ferntree Gully National park. This national park was one of the first in Australia and dates from the nineteenth century. The thousand steps walk is popular as a fitness challenge, and to prepare people for walking on overseas travels. It features along its way markers of the Kokoda Track, and so serves as a kind of walking meditation on sacrifice in war.

One Thousand Steps

Moss covered log

Lichen robed manna moist

You fell here too

At some unstressed time

About half way up to one tree hill

Beyond the battles inscribed in this journey

Near the pass and the crossing, nameless now,

The end still one thousand breaths away

Still but never in silence

The log allowed the moss to grow

To make evergreen ears in the thousands

And here to attend to the forest fall

Near vertical lines screen all

But glimpses of the strangers’ city

In this percussive forest of symbols

And to my eyes so is all I see

Notwithstanding the city ken

Cockatoos white and black

Scream their way to Walhalla

An engine whines its solitary death

And the lyre parodies the rancour

Of sports militias training up and down

In their industrial silks

Barely forgiving the mindful walkers

But alone on this wryly named hill

With its scraped bald pate

Two workmen lunch in silent high-vis vests

And two walkers stop for rest

And learn to listen

 

Jeff Rich

 

Thomas Bernhard’s soliloquies

Thomas Bernhard’s soliloquies

Looking around my study this morning for a prompt for a post, still with the idea in the back of my head of doing versions of list posts on a Tuesday, I pulled out Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser from the shelves.

Selecting a page at random, I came upon this passage:

“Our starting point is always that we don’t know anything about anything and don’t even have a clue about it, he said, I thought. Immediately after setting to work on something we choke on the huge amount of information that’s available in all fields, that’s the truth, he said, I thought. And although we know that, we continue to set to work on our so-called human-science problems, to attempt the impossible: to create a human-science product, a product of the intellect. That’s madness! he said, I thought. Fundamentally we are capable of everything, equally fundamentally we fail at everything, he said, I thought.  [Thomas Bernhard, The Loser (1983, tr 1991) p 66]

That pattern of layers and layers of speech acts and cognition – he said, I thought – is characteristic of Bernhard. So too the desperate madness of the intellect that is dramatised in these strangely fugal rants.

This kind of narrative – from inside the head of an obsessed intellectual – is the one that I often default to, or it might be better to say it is the one that I am currently practising. The layers of speech acts and cognition – there might be  technical literary term for this mode of speech, but I do not know what it is – allow a dialogue of perspectives even within the lonely and obsessed monologues that are Bernhard’s novels.

As I am practising it, this kind of soliloquy is not really a stream of consciousness so much as an essay of consciousness, in which I take up and reflect upon my own mental events from different perspectives. And it allows a kind of interpenetration of the theme of an essay with the biography and self-presentation of the narrator. So my prose work does not seek to reproduce the typical scenes, dialogue and narrative arc of fiction. It follows my internal monologue about a set of related stories – about a breakdown, Ivan the Terrible, my encounters with the powerful, stories of violence and power from history, a train journey from Beijing to Moscow, and many reflections, fantasies and observations triggered by recalling all these narratives. If it works, it creates a kind of interesting set of associations and discoveries through the interleaving of these stories, which as the writing proceeds reveal many symbolic kinships between these several layers of the story.

Writing this down here reflects a new found confidence that this prose work will be completed. I had tried different forms before to tell the story of Ivan the Terrible. But, having read Berhnhard and Sebald, and having been entranced by this style of voice, I found writing a conventional prose historical fiction ultimately uninteresting. So I am giving birth to this odd monstrosity that perhaps only I will ever love.

Let me say my thanks, however, in this list post to those authors and their works that have influenced me in this project. I do not say I will match these authors’ artistic achievement. I only say that I am working through my own response to their influence by writing this book.

Books from my shelves that influence how I am writing my my main prose work

1 Thomas Bernhard, The Loser – which is an account from Wertheimer of his struggle with not matching Glenn Gould’s artistic virtuosity, leading ultimately to his self-destruction

2 Thomas Bernhard, Correction – which is a kind of account of a murder or a suicide through constant correction of differing perspectives.

3 Thomas Bernhard, Lime Works – which is another portrain of a strangely obsessed intellectual, which has the epigraph “But instead of thinking about my book and how to write it, as I go pacing the floor, I nfall to counting my footsteps until I feel about to go mad.”

4 Thomas Bernhard, Wittgenstein’s Nephew – which is perhaps his most accessible work, and is a deeply moving story of his friend Paul Wittgenstein, the philosopher’s nephew who suffered from mental illness and the treatment that society gives to we, the mad.

5. W.G. Sebald, Rings of Saturn – Sebald has acknowledged Bernhard’s influence, and for me this is Sebald’s most mesmerising work that interleaves essays on Thomas Browne, Roger Casement, Joseph Conrad, silk works and much besides, all with a dark bass note obsessing about the traces of destruction and ruin that can be found everywhere you look. This book is very much the model for my main prose work.

6 W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz  – a purer narrative than Rings of Saturn, more fictional in a way and less essayistic, but still with the echoes of refracted thought.

7 W.G. Sebald, Vertigo – a more divided work, less symbolically cohesive than Rings of Saturn, and with more accounts of the author’s own difficulties, and his experiences of vertigo when travelling to his homelands.

8 Marcel Proust, In search of lost time – Of course, Proust wrote before both Bernhard and Sebald, but his great book, that is the telling of the symbolic redemption of his life through art, is also a model for my own prose work, in which I must symbolically destroy power in order to serve art.

 

The nobility of poetry and a normal life

The nobility of poetry and a normal life

Yesterday I visited the State Library of Victoria and there I read from the Collected Poetry and Prose of Wallace Stevens.

Wallace Stevens is perhaps my most loved American poet, and certainly an influence on me – his diction, his mix of abstraction with the most remarkable particulars of the beautiful world, his romance of the self, his playfulness with the treasure-hoards of the things of the world and the words that name them.

I have at home both an old copy of his Selected Poems, which I bought in my early twenties from the second-hand bookshop near Melbourne University, and a more recent edition of his  Collected Poems. At one point this year I had the mad plan to only read from these Collected Poems and one other book, von Eschenbach’s Parzival. Curiosity, thankfully, overwhelmed this puritanical plan. I learned by heart some years ago “The Idea of Order at Key West”. Its line that “there never was a world for her/ Except the one she sang and singing, made” is talismanic for me. I might even pin it with some suited image, and display it on the pinboard that sits beside my desk.

Stevens also seemed a role model for me. His life as an insurance executive grounded him in something outside his imagination, and did not defeat his poetic venture. So much of the superfluous romance or self-defeating sturm und drang of writing is unnecessary – belonging to circles, issuing manifestoes, rebelling against the world. The greatest of art and the purest of imaginations can arise from a quiet, normal life.

Still, I had never read any of Wallace Stevens’ prose. Yesterday I dipped into the first of his essays in The Necessary Angel: essays on reality and the imagination, which I have just now discovered is available online in full on archive.org. This essay, “The noble rider and the sound of words” proceeds from a discussion of a figure from Plato of the imagination at work, a noble rider of a chariot in the sky.  Towards the end of the essay, Stevens asserts the importance of nobility for poetry, not grandiloquent nobility, but a nobility that sits at the base the call to write poems. In so doing he reanimates contemporary poetry with the dignity of free imagination. He writes that:

There is no element more conspicuously absent from contemporary poetry than nobility. There is no element that poets have sought after, more curiously and more piously, certain of its obscure existence. Its voice is one of the inarticulate voices which it is their business to overhear and to record.” (664)

This is a paradoxical idea, that nobility is an inarticulate voice, which the poet must search for and rescue from shadows of obscurity. Nobility is more commonly seen, if I may use a pastiche of current academic discourse, as a site of privileged cultural power. But Stevens’ idea connects more deeply to the striving I feel when I write poetry, a striving to find some kind of nobility in this life.

Stevens goes on to elaborate what I may be feeling in those moments. He writes:

For the sensitive poet, conscious of negations, nothing is more difficult than the affirmations of nobility and yet there is nothing that he requires of himself more persistently, since in them and in their kind, alone, are to be found those sanctions that are the reasons for his being and for that occasional ecstasy or ecstatic freedom of the mind, which is his special privilege.

I think I am discovering, I hope not too late, that the pursuit of the ecstatic freedom of the mind, that complete and utter freedom, is indeed a special privilege, and a privilege that can confer nobility on, and be claimed justly within, the most ordinary and normal of suburban lives.

So let me close off by transcribing here, as a tribute, one of Stevens late poems, “A quiet normal life.”

A Quiet Normal Life by Wallace Stevens

His place, as he sat and as he thought, was not

In anything that he constructed, so frail,

So barely lit, so shadowed over and naught,

 

As, for example, a world in which, like snow,

He became an inhabitant, obedient

To gallant notions on the part of cold.

 

It was here. This was the setting and the time

Of year. Here in his house and in his room,

In his chair, the most tranquil thought grew peaked.

 

And the oldest and the warmest heart was cut

By gallant notions on the part of night –

Both late and alone, above the cricket’s chords,

 

Babbling, each one, the uniqueness of its sound.

There was no fury in transcendent forms.

But his actual candle blazed with artifice.

[From The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens: the corrected edition (2nd Vintage Books edition, 2015), p. 553.]

May all our candles, and our archives, blaze with artifice.

 

Image Source: Photograph of Wallace Stevens’ home, Hartford Courant