Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame. Take the moral law and make a nave of it And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus, The conscience is converted into palms, Like windy citherns hankering for hymns. We agree in principle. That’s clear. But take The opposing law and make a peristyle, And from the peristyle project a masque Beyond the planets. Thus, our bawdiness, Unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last, Is equally converted into palms, Squiggling like saxophones. And palm for palm, Madame, we are where we began. Allow, Therefore, that in the planetary scene Your disaffected flagellants, well-stuffed, Smacking their muzzy bellies in parade, Proud of such novelties of the sublime, Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk, May, merely may, madame, whip from themselves A jovial hullabaloo among the spheres. This will make widows wince. But fictive things Wink as they will. Wink most when widows wince.
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white, On a white heal-all, holding up a moth Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth– Assorted characters of death and blight Mixed ready to begin the morning right, Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth– A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth, And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white, The wayside blue and innocent heal-all? What brought the kindred spider to that height, Then steered the white moth thither in the night? What but design of darkness to appall?– If design govern in a thing so small.
Maybe it’s Pilgrim’s pride, or perhaps the Puritan pursuit of image-less purity, or the Colonialists ecumenical style, or maybe even some Shaker weirdness that finds itself up for analysis.
Perhaps somewhere there’s a spare, Yankee work ethic resting on a simple, wooden shelf in the ‘American mind.’
Could such a thing be discovered within mid 20th-century modernism?
Robert Hughes takes a look at Donald Judd’s ‘Temple Of Aesthetic Fanaticism,’ and Richard Serra’s nod to Jackson Pollack and abstract expressionism in the rawness of material sculpture. You know, making stuff (a potentially sensitive subject with so many technological changes going on right now).
(link may not last):
As for Land Art, Michael Heizer’s life’s-work land-art project is apparently complete, if such a thing can be complete:
Apparently, Heizer’s been working since 1972 on this sculpture in the Eastern Nevada desert, which was originally called ‘Complex One.’ It’s morphed into his life’s work, called City. It’s very large. It can’t be moved. You can’t reproduce it. It represents a break from traditional sculpture. It can’t be put in a museum and it’s not clear that it has a function.
In Brasil, they just started from the top-down and built a city that doesn’t work that well for people: Brasilia: A Planned City
I have to confess that seeing that structure upon the wide open emptiness of Eastern Nevada is comforting for the familiarity it brings. It’s a little bit of order upon the unknown, and the design, or lack thereof (about which a man may wonder), within Nature herself. I think this is why a military installation out in the desert can captivate the imagination as it’s been known to in Hollywood and in the public mind (dreaming of aliens and conspiracies).
To expand on that theme, Wallace Stevens might shed some light. He was an American poet on the hinge between romanticism and modernism:
Anecdote of the Jar
I placed a jar in Tennessee, And round it was, upon a hill. It made the slovenly wilderness Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it, And sprawled around, no longer wild. The jar was round upon the ground And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion every where. The jar was gray and bare. It did not give of bird or bush, Like nothing else in Tennessee.
What do you do with an uncivilized, wild land? Import European learning and literature “atop” it? Christian tradition and the Natural Law? Import the triumph of the Western mathematical sciences and technology? Import its movements of the arts and the individual artist?
Somewhere up in the clouds of Venus, there’s Phosphine [possibly]. So far, there’s no known naturally occurring reason for this, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. On Earth, when bacteria farts in our guts and in swamps, that’s when you get Phosphine. I’ll bet it smells nice.
Maybe in those clouds of sulfuric acid, racing above surface temperatures high-enough to melt lead, there’s some ammonia? Maybe this ammonia is neutralizing the cloud PH balance enough for some kind of bacteria to survive?
These are questions to which a little exploration can provide answers.
You know the moment you notice that the world has fallen away for awhile? You’re leisurely enjoying a photograph, or a painting, or a poem…
‘In the critical terminology of the time, Ghirri’s close-up photographs of the details of atlases and other maps question the link between signifier and signified, referring to a supposedly ‘natural’ environment that has long since become a simulacrum, and revealing the specific aesthetics harboured within ‘objective’ representation.’
The NIGHT of the BLURB! It’s postmodern, it’s (S)elf referential, it’s….alive. It’s dead. It’s…subjectivity and objectivity combined!
And now for a ‘modern’ poem.
The Snow Man
One must have a mind of winter To regard the frost and the boughs Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time To behold the junipers shagged with ice, The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think Of any misery in the sound of the wind, In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land Full of the same wind That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow, And, nothing himself, beholds Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
‘The most useful definition of modernist fiction I’ve encountered comes from Brian McHale’s Postmodernist Fiction. He says modernist fiction tends to “foreground epistemological questions” such as “How can I interpret the world I’m part of? What is there to be known? Who knows it? What are the limits of that knowledge?” In contrast, postmodernist fiction tends to “foreground ontological questions” such as “What is a world? What kinds of worlds are there and how are they constituted? What happens when…boundaries between worlds are violated?’
As to the epistemological questions surrounding Modernism, below are four poems. Hopefully, each is a representative example of a move away from the Romanticism that had been prevalent up until the late 1800’s.
In addition to the move away from traditional Romantic rhyme and meter towards modern blank verse, there’s also a certain conception of the Self rendered in them; a presentation of our natures that might be worth examining in some detail.
I believe we can see clearly a move away from tradition towards the Self, the Poet isolated, the poem itself as a means of communication, and an anxiety so common within the 20th century.
‘At the heart of Bloom’s project is the ancient quarrel between “poetry” and “philosophy.” In Bloom’s opinion, we ought not have to choose between Homer and Plato; we can have both, as long as we recognize that poetry is superior.’
Says the guy who writes about poetry…
What does one find within, as one looks without, waking from sleep and dream?
What kind of world is this, and can the poet actually help us know it?
You tossed a blanket from the bed You lay upon your back, and waited; You dozed, and watched the night revealing The thousand sordid images Of which your soul was constituted; They flickered against the ceiling. And when all the world came back And the light crept up between the shutters And you heard the sparrows in the gutters, You had such a vision of the street As the street hardly understands; Sitting along the bed’s edge, where You curled the papers from your hair, Or clasped the yellow soles of feet In the palms of both soiled hands.
The world will stain you, and it is a fallen, modern world, rendered profoundly and exquisitely.
As consciousness creeps in, building a bridge to the day, to the world, to the facts left as though they were the first facts, the light as though it were the first light, what one finds is distressing, both within and without.
That distress must be ‘made new,’ which is to say, the suffering (original?) in which we all sometimes find ourselves must match our experiences within the modern city and world, at least, the world created within Eliot’s lyrical verse.
Of the four poems, only the first and last have a 3rd-person subject.
Wallace Stevens‘ ‘I’ is in a more contemplative state, but it’s an ‘I’ exploring similar themes, and experiencing some distress in trying to know how the world actually is, and what might lie within.
The journey to The Self may not be a journey for the faint of heart.
The Poems Of Our Climate (stanzas II and III)
II Say even that this complete simplicity Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed The evilly compounded, vital I And made it fresh in a world of white, A world of clear water, brilliant-edged, Still one would want more, one would need more, More than a world of white and snowy scents.
III There would still remain the never-resting mind, So that one would want to escape, come back To what had been so long composed. The imperfect is our paradise. Note that, in this bitterness, delight, Since the imperfect is so hot in us, Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.
Even if the verse can describe a perfected world, delivering us, perhaps, a little closer to perfection, our poet is still not free from the impulses and desires which simply never cease.
Interestingly, we end-up not with a discussion of the heart, the spirit, libido etc. as a source for those desires (for Plato, the irrational), but rather, for Stevens, just a mind.
We also find more Romantic elements of language and an almost baroque/rococo arrangement of words and ideas, dandyish even, yet combined with an intense effort to abstract, define, and clarify. From here, the poet may proceed on his task of flawed words and stubborn sounds.
***I find myself thinking of elements of modern architecture and abstract-expressionist painting. The meaning, or at least some delivery from our restless existences, can be found within the abstract itself. Or at least within a retreat to the abstract for its own sake, away from the world.
The modernist, glass-walled house on the hill will exist in its own space, offering and defying meaning. The structure’s own shapes will be stripped down to often mathematically precise forms interacting with Nature. These shall guide Man, or at least offer individual men a little refuge.
It is perhaps in Stevens’ poem we can see the questions of knowledge about the world suggesting questions about whether there is a world at all, or, at least, what kind of worlds each Self might be able to inhabit.
The Self is extremely isolated. In fact, Lowell went more than a little crazy. Unlike the known nervous breakdown of Eliot from which Eliot recovered, Lowell’s life was essentially one long breakdown from which he never recovered.
Here he is, looking back:
Those blessed structures plot and rhyme- why are they no help to me now i want to make something imagined not recalled? I hear the noise of my own voice: The painter’s vision is not a lens it trembles to caress the light. But sometimes everything i write With the threadbare art of my eye seems a snapshot lurid rapid garish grouped heightened from life yet paralyzed by fact. All’s misalliance. Yet why not say what happened? Pray for the grace of accuracy Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination stealing like the tide across a map to his girl solid with yearning. We are poor passing facts. warned by that to give each figure in the photograph his living name.
The weight of having to make that meaning, for yourself, and by yourself, is a horrible weight indeed. One can glorify one’s Self and family, but that, alas, only goes so far. Rhyme and form still carry one’s living name, as far as they do.
Of course, there’s still wonderful rhythm and form here (this is excellent verse), but blanker now, with a relentless focus on the ‘I.’ The poet is perhaps talking a little more to himself, and the poem keeps self-consciously calling attention to itself.
In fact, it reminded me of the poem below, by Robert Creeley, which was published a few years afterwards.
From this page:
‘Creeley was a leader in the generational shift that veered away from history and tradition as primary poetic sources and gave new prominence to the ongoing experiences of an individual’s life. Because of this emphasis, the major events of his life loom large in his literary work.’
There’s Nothing but the Self and the Eye seeking and making meaning, by itself within a void of emotionally compact and precise language (of course there’s still form and other things besides).
Can the poet fit inside the little abstract chapel of words he’s building for himself (let alone the world, tradition etc.)?
For all the talk about ‘space,’ there seems very little.
Position is where you put it, where it is, did you, for example, that
large tank there, silvered, with the white church along- side, lift
all that, to what purpose? How heavy the slow
world is with everything put in place. Some
man walks by, a car beside him on the dropped
road, a leaf of yellow color is going to
fall. It all drops into place. My
face is heavy with the sight. I can feel my eye breaking.
The distress is still there…but I’d argue that we are now a good distance away from the grandness of Eliot’s vision, his religiosity and virtuosity with form and meter at the dawn of Modernism. Very few people can/could do what Eliot did (addition: even if he can help us gain knowledge of our Selves or the world).
That said, it’s unclear there’s enough tradition and confidence to even undertake such a project, now, even as such talents come along. The state of things is more scattered. We’re in a very different place of selves and artists isolated, of anxiety and post-anxiety.
Aside from the very accomplished poets above, in terms of both knowledge (epistemology) and being (ontology), we often have writers feeling pressure to weigh-in on such questions without even being about to write that well; artists who can’t draw or paint that well, and frankly, quite a bit of bullshit besides.
So, where are we headed? Who’s ‘we’ exactly?
Predictions are hard, especially about the future.
‘In “Sea Change,” Graham becomes Prospero, casting spells by spelling out her thoughts to merge with ours, and with the voices of the elements. The result is a mingling of perceptions rather than a broadcasting of opinions. Instead of analysis, the poems encourage emotional involvement with the drastic changes overwhelming us, overwhelm- ing the planet.’
‘Strengths and weaknesses, flows and ebbs, yet every poem in “Sea Change” bears memorable lines, with almost haunting (if we truly have but 10 years to “fix” global warming) images of flora and fauna under siege. Jorie Graham has composed a swan song for Earth.’
What are these poems being asked to do?
And moving away from poetry into the realm of ‘performance art,’
It is the word pejorative that hurts. My old boat goes round on a crutch And doesn’t get under way. It’s the time of the year And the time of the day.
Perhaps it’s the lunch that we had Or the lunch that we should have had. But I am, in any case, A most inappropriate man In a most unpropitious place.
Mon Dieu, hear the poet’s prayer. The romantic should be here. The romantic should be there. It ought to be everywhere. But the romantic must never remain,
Mon Dieu, and must never again return. This heavy historical sail Through the mustiest blue of the lake In a really vertiginous boat Is wholly the vapidest fake. . . .
It is least what one ever sees. It is only the way one feels, to say Where my spirit is I am, To say the light wind worries the sail, To say the water is swift today,
To expunge all people and be a pupil Of the gorgeous wheel and so to give That slight transcendence to the dirty sail, By light, the way one feels, sharp white, And then rush brightly through the summer air.