"H.P." postscript : Neo-Acmeism?

As is usual with me, I started having second thoughts as soon as I finished the previous post ("Toward a Human Poetics"). Aside from the ponderousness and pomposity of the phrase Human Poetics, it occurred to me that all but one on the list of recommended books were produced by non-poets (that is, aside from Allen Grossman). Scholars, philosophers...

Anyway, I don't want to renounce everything I wrote yesterday. I still believe the general position laid out by these writers is aligned with poetry & the realities & immediacy involved with its making : offers a defense against determinism, abstractions, de-humanization.

But there's a problem with adding the full weight of an articulated ethic or philosophy (such as that of Levinas, or even Grossman) onto a theory of poetry; and a problem with arguing that poetic speech differs fundamentally from other kinds of language-use. I think there's one thing needful that needs to be added to that in turn, as a counterbalance. & I take this one thing from Russian Acmeism (on this, see Justin Doherty's fine book, The Acmeist movement in Russian poetry (Oxford, 1995). Or at least what I think of as an aspect of Acmeism.

I would call that one thing "inner freedom". Mandelshtam outlined what this means in an unfinished essay titled "Pushkin and Scriabin". Very basically, there is an irreducible "free play" dimension to poetry. Poets, makers of poems, are sharing in a mutual process of making (& sharing) free-standing, self-sufficient, works of art. "The word" in poetry creates its own dimensions, its own weights & balances - for its own sake.

Now if I said that this inner freedom was aligned also with a rejection or dismissal of life & the world outside of art - as in various modes of Decadence or Symbolism; or if I declared that the poetic word had no real meaning with reference to that world, no mimetic capabilities, no firm denotations - as with various modes of modernist & postmodernist detachment and autonomy - then what I would be sketching out would no longer be Acmeism.

The Acmeists boldly suggested that the free play of art, and the self-sufficiency (within its proper sphere) of the poetic word, was a normative response to certain basic normative dimensions of life and culture in general. Cultures at large produce the generative circumstances that undergird artistic freedom and its exchanges, out of their own wells of inner balance, or basic orientation toward the freedom and variety of life. That this is an idealization - that is, an idea of the normative - which artists & poets must strive & struggle to instigate & defend, is a good thing : because it means such norms are not simply determined by nature. They are the norms of the living conscience of a culture.

Maybe I'm confused & contradicting myself here. I'm not a philosopher... not a systematic thinker. What I want to emphasize is this concept of art as play. For some, this would only suggest poetry's fundamental childishness, its perpetual adolescence (in such terms Milan Kundera, in an essay of a few years back, belittled poets & poetry). But the joy of free play - like a witty rejoinder from the scaffold - can be a powerful thing : a reminder (to culture at large) of what life is really all about...

*p.s. "wells of inner balance"... sort of a plumbline phrase, no?

**p.p.s. Very apropos, with regard to this "inner balance" of normative culture, is Mandelshtam's famous (& witty) rejoinder, after a public reading in the 1930s, to an inquisitorial demand (from a Soviet apparatchik) for his "definition of poetry." Mandelshtam replied : "The poet's sense of being right [or, 'inner rightness']."


Toward a "Human Poetics"

Have been reading some new things... seem to be finding something of a philosophical ground for ways I have thought about poetry for some time...

ie. notions about the status of persons and real things... Levinas has a concept of ethics as the ground of philosophy, and the ground of ethics itself is the "face-to-face" encounter of self and another... that the human person is not determined or defined by language, that in fact the ethical encounter of persons is a kind of ur-language, the "language-before-language"... that poetry is fundamentally dialogical, & involved with a Bakhtinian (& Kenneth Burkean) sense of the dramatic Now...

Here's my beginner's reading list for a "Human Poetics"... (I haven't read them all yet myself!)

Harold Kaplan / Poetry, politics, culture : argument in the works of Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and Williams (Transaction Bks, 2006)

Michael Eskin / Ethics and dialogue : in the works of Levinas, Bakhtin, Mandel'shtam, and Celan (Oxford UP, 2001)

Daniel Schwarz / The case for a humanistic poetics (U. Penn., 1991)

Allen Grossman / Against our vanishing (conversations with Mark Halliday) (Rowan Tree Press, 1981)

Emanuel Levinas / Entre Nous (Columbia UP, 2000)

Here is Levinas, as quoted by Harold Kaplan in an appendix to his book :

"My view is opposed to the tendency (in)... contemporary philosophy that prefers to see man a simple articulation or a simple aspect of a rational, ontological system that has nothing human in it; even in Heidegger, the Dasein is ultimately a structure of being in general, bound to its profession of being, its "historic deeds of being", its event of being....
"Similarly, in certain trends in structural research, rules, pure forms, universal structures, combinations which have a legality as cold as mathematical legality are isolated. And then that dominates the human..." [think Foucault, etc.]

As Kaplan argues, the philosophical and theoretical trends that Levinas is criticizing have consequences for poetry; whenever the human person and the person's inner freedom, and inner ethical stance with regard to another (in which both persons in the face-to-face dialogue have substance, validity, actuality) - whenever these dimensions are dismissed, or subject to a determinist reduction of one kind or another (cultural, political, natural, etc.) - then poetry, and persons, are no longer there...


Mandelstam, by way of Michael Eskin


In an appendix to his book Poetic Affairs (on Paul Celan, Durs Grunbein, Joseph Brodsky, and the kinship each poet shares with Osip Mandelstam) Michael Eskin deftly draws together some logical threads of Mandelstam's "Acmeist" poetics :

1. aesthetic : "Mandelstam's notion of the 'living word' ties in with the overall Acmeist endeavor to create 'an organicist poetics... of a biological nature' - a poetics predicated on biology and physiology, on 'the infinite complexity of our inscrutable organism,' and on the basic notion that a 'poem is a living organism'" [Poetic Affairs, p.139]. More than that : "The breathing, moving human body is the ultimate ground of poetry. The 'poetic foot,' Mandelstam notes, is nothing but 'breathing in and breathing out.' The poem is literally animated into existence by 'the breathing of all ages' to the extent that it is the articulation of the breathing, moving bodies of countless poets 'of all ages' [ibid.].

The image of poetry projected here is strikingly reminiscent of the ecstatic "speaking-in-tongues" event on the day of Pentecost, as described in the New Testament : poetry here is akin to the descent of the Holy Ghost, by means of which people from "all lands" begin speaking together, each in their own languages, yet mutually understanding each other.* Poetry is a physiological embodiment, shared "inscrutably" across time & space.

2. ethical : The Acmeist movement developed in the early 20th century as a dialectical response to the otherworldliness of Russian Symbolism. Eskin explains : "'Acmeism is not only a literary phenomenon,' Mandelstam notes in 1922... This new ethical force... consists first and foremost, in the reversal of the Symbolist denigration of the real, phenomenal world of the here and now... Mandelstam emphasizes the world's very reality and materiality as the Acmeists paradigm and horizon...
"A love for the here and now, for 'all manifestations of life... in time and not only in eternity' - a love for this world and this reality, for one's 'own organism,' for one's singularity, cannot fail to bear on sociopolitics. What kind of sociopolitical setup will foster and secure the possibility of this kind of Acmeist existence?... Mandelstam lays out his own sociopolitical vision:

'There are epochs that maintain that they are not concerned with singular human beings, that human beings must be put to use, like bricks, like mortar... Assyrian prisoners swarm like chicks under the feet of a gigantic Tsar; warriors personifying the power of the state inimical to the human being shackled pigmies with long spears, and the Egyptians are dealing with the human mass as if it were building material... But there is another form of social architecture who scale and measure is... man... It doesn't use human beings as building material but builds for them... Mere mechanical grandeur and mere numbers are inimical to humankind We are tempted not by a new social pyramid, but... by the free play of weights and measures, by a human society... in which everything is... individual, and each member is unique and echoes the whole.'" [ibid., pp. 139-140]

Eskin notes how this stance had consequences for Mandelstam's personal fate, & which was echoed by Brodsky in his remark that the poet "is a democrat by definition" (& here we further note the shade of Pushkin, standing behind both Mandelstam & Brodsky).

Finally, Eskin reiterates Mandelstam's supremely dialogical concept of poetry. M's famous essay "On the Interlocutor" likens the poem to a message in a bottle, set afloat on the sea toward an unknown friend/reader in the future; when conjoined with the charismatic ("Pentecostal") sense of poetry outlined above, we understand that each reader, each one of us - when we truly encounter a poem - has become the intended recipient of the message. We are conjoined - in a kinship of friendly dialogue & companionship, across the sea of time & space - with the poet in person.

[*Note : these references to the Pentecost are my own interpolations, not not discussed in Eskin's text.]


& how would I relate all this to our Plumbline?

I feel a sense of weight : of the earthly weight of material things, and the weight of lived experience. & I relate this first of all to all those dimensions of poetry which remain unspoken : the submerged portion of the iceberg, so to speak : all the overtones & undertones & inexplicable feeling-tones & hidden meanings & unknowables which help give a poem its resistance, its resonance, its own specific gravity. & further, I relate this to living specificity and particularity, that vividness and local accuracy which are part of the glory of poetry - a synthetic brilliance of referential & evocative vision : faculties of Mandelstam's "infinite complexity of our inscrutable organism." These are dimensions which weight the "middle path" of our plumbline : tied deep down in the heart of faithful utterance, Wallace Stevens' "spirit of poetry" as the "companion of the conscience." & then I think of all this as impelling the poet to strive for a poetry that can speak... like this :

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice. It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one.
(- Wallace Stevens, "Of Modern Poetry")

Heart of my Plumbline

What is the Plumbline School? The answer is sketchy and schematic. And this is not a bad thing : its inchoate character offers an opening for each of us, & for our readers, to articulate a variety of perspectives & insights.

But the amorphousness may also be contributing to the sort of halting, dormant feel of this weblog (though the prime factor, I'm pretty sure, is that we're all mighty busy...). & I must here register my disagreement with the position of Timothy Steele, at least as presented in previous posts by Conrad. I view Steele's stance as simplistic. First of all, he sets up a rigid binary between what he is terming "form" and the free-verse experiments of Modernism (and postmodernism). Secondly, he develops his polemic by laying the blame for an assumed decline in contemporary poetry at the feet of "the schools". It is exactly this kind of superficial polemic - so familiar on both (illusory) wings of "experiment" & "tradition" - which the Plumbline School was organized to overcome. So I'm going to try to re-formulate some of my own basic ideas about this project, in hope of stimulating others - to comment, or to join as new members. (Note : the basic orientation which we share, the organizing ideas, can be found in the early posts to this site - for which please visit the archive.)

I'll try to be a simple & clear as I can. The Plumbline School, as I see it, is interested in the underlying nature of poetry, its ur-form, beneath the layers of specific techniques and styles. Thus, we are exploring a hypothetical middle ground, where "form" emerges, not as one half of the traditional duplex "form-&-content", but as a new, living shape derived from the fusion of style and subject-matter, of art and experience.

In this we would follow some of the directions outlined by Aristotle in the Poetics, in which he describes the form of poetry as a new, distinct shape, not reducible to its words alone, but analogous to 3-dimensional sculpture : resulting from, emanating from its language - a new & distinct dramatic/conceptual/sensible/affective unity. Out of this amalgamating, fusing process, something paradoxical happens : now content is form; & the formal dimensions - the words, the music, the spectacle (in dramatic poetry, at least) - are actually its material content, the building blocks out of which this new & previously-indefinable shape in born.

In this scenario, the old cliches about "form & content", style & subject-matter, which have provided fodder for all the literary battles of at least the last 100 years, are set somewhat to one side. We are looking at a middle ground whose substance is form-as-fusion, in which style & subject-matter are both inalienable and interchangeable. "The Word is Psyche", as Mandelstam put it : a physiological, psychological organism : an experience.

& yet I think the battles will never completely disappear, because this form/content binary is rooted in a more fundamental dichotomy : between experience and art. The balance of Aristotelian form, which we are proposing, is itself grounded in a more basic balance : between reality and its representations. This is where the "plumbline" search for balance, harmony, and modesty of means (Ars est celare artem, as Horace says : Art camouflages art) becomes a modus operandi : a means by which the poet opens the channels between a new, unknown creation (the work of art) and the matrix of shared experience and intelligibility from which it emerged, and within which it discovers shared meaning. In this way the poem can be likened to a gyroscope : spinning & wobbling, magically centered on itself - yet at the same time subject to the horizontal thread of the tightrope along which it travels, and to the vertical weight of gravity holding it to a deeper center (the earth).

In a follow-up post I'll try to describe how this orientation has developed, for me, from an absorption with Osip Mandelstam's life-work...

& thinking thus of Mandelstam, I realize now that my image of poetry-as-gyroscope is itself insufficient. Yes, in poetry, we seek this free-spinning balance between opposites. Yet the poem is not a gyroscope : not simply an object, or a toy. The poem is bread : the poem is wine : the poem is flower. The poem is the offspring of a dialogue. The poem is lovingly communicative : it is fundamentally diaological : a form of love.

Rachel Wetzsteon on Philip Larkin

In some comments on recent posts here, I mentioned the late Rachel Wetzsteon as a poet who negotiated, in her poems & essays, a middle ground between "form & content" (that old two-faced griffin) - between experience & art. The Contemporary Poetry Review has just published a posthumous essay of hers, which provides some evidence for this. Here's her concluding sentence :

"In 'Born Yesterday,' Larkin finds a happy medium between 'Nothing and paradise,' joy’s absence and its fragile or otherworldly abundance; and if we are skilled and vigilant and flexible enough readers to pay attention to this important, quietly profound poem, we will be enthralled."


Timothy Steele's Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter: the case for a new Formalism

Part 2

Steele's thesis is valid: vers libre is a more hybrid, complex and structurally vital element of poetry than even its most conservative practitioners have realized, with even Pound and Eliot having to word their own formulations of it in as exact a language as possible. Eliot is even said to have favoured the elusive ("musically indefinite") meanings of poetry, the effect of conveying poetic meanings only piecemeal and indirectly, to the dull straightforward senses of metered verse. The result for us of this shift away from meter is not its displacement by anything that equals it in poetic strength: rather metrics and imaginative freedom become vital components of poetry that won't be torn out of each other's arms without the loss of something vital in the creative processes. We seem to have inherited a bifurcated notion of poetry that won't ever be restored  to anything like its more classical Aristotelian sense.

Steeles cites even Coleridge as saying that without meter the genius of poet (and poetry) would remain hidden (Missing Measures 190) There have been those, too, like Emerson, Blake and Whitman who've openly espoused abandoning the rules, making the poet both writer and technician after his own heart. Which is not to abandon meter but to rework it in an entirely individualistic mode. And in the case of Eliot and Pound there's the call to write not with the accentual-syllabic line but as if the poem were rather sheet music and words musical notations likes staves and bars. In Steele's estimation, the die's been cast for a persistent verse/Poetry opposition conditioning our understanding of the nature of verse in general:

To say that poetry exists in a realm of its own is not necessarily to say that meter should be abandoned. Yet meter's rules are not individual but comprehensive: they ask the same obedience and offer the same rewards to all poets. This quality brings meter into conflict with views which stress the self-sufficiency of the individual poet and poem and with views like Williams' which hold that even private legislation is not to interfere with the poet. (192)

Even if the act of writing poetry is spontaneous, inspired by the world or emotions & ideas, there's a lingering sense that without rules or acknowledgement of writing 'technique' poetry would be too rambling and disconnected to work. It's interesting that by eliminating categorically a division of poetic composition called meter, a whole host of competing 'rhythmical structures' always hurry in to fill the void. Traces of a classical literary 'influence' that won't go away: the invisible void lying hidden beneath the fragments and revealing itself primarily as prose poetry.

And if the leap from metrics to music could work on aesthetic grounds only, innovators wonder if a similar kind of artistic foray into experimental science weren't feasible. Since poets seemed to despair, as Steele argues in his most interesting chapter "Sciences of Sentiment", of ever matching the classical authors for literary freshness & vitality—poetic models, materials and techniques all but already taken— they looked to improving on the process rather than product of their writing. The desire for a more scientific attitude to writing stems, once again, from the association of meter with an antiquated literary past and non-metrical verse with the progressive bent of modern scientific method (240).

Metrics was envisaged as the terrible link to the past that had to be broken for new art to emerge. Whether in the form of Pound's "Make It New" slogan or Marinetti's notion of the " revolutionary" overthrow of the traditional means of literary production or Whitman's equating true poetry with the spirit of science and democracy in his own day—a kind of 'ageism' crept into the literary consciousness whereby novelty and experimentalism always now came to be more highly esteemed than the old classical models. A bewildering array of "isms" also made their way into literary parlance: the zeal (present still today!) with which bands of poets always strive in literary competition for the newest name, newest manifesto is testimony to this emerging 'scientism' in letters. As Steele wryly puts it,

This imperative [to adopt science as model of artistic composition] contributes to the "isms" characteristic of the poetry and art of the early decades of this century; the champions of each "ism" pronouncing themselves the embodiment of the newest New and the rightful successor to the next-to-the-newest-New-but-nonetheless-now-old New. These isms reflect not only a concern with making art novel, but also with securing scientific validation for it (246)

The need to return to tradition is more necessary than ever, the author concludes, especially as contemporary poets seem to have made a Faustian pact with radical novelty, their artistic spirits compromised by this incessant idolization of experimentalism for its own sake, and led to embrace, among other things, qualities of "superstition" and "irrationality" in artistic work (274-276). And to replace isosyllabic measures with a new metrics (however that was envisaged by Pound, Williams, etc.) is something that never really happened either. Leaving poets (and the academic-poets who had a direct stake in vers libre milieu) with just vaguely defined notions of personal intention and subject-matter as the only compositional principles to guide them. Metrics seen as an accessory to the predominantly anti-meter culture: a related but largely irrelevant subspecies of poetry writing.

I'd like to end with a plumbliner's estimation of the anti-meter debate and  may offer an opinion of my own. If just to add a little clarity to the discussion. As someone who's been pulled in two very distinct traditions and literary styles (British and American), I've always tried to resolve inner-tensions through a typically Canadian syncretism (as Atwood would say): namely, by taking the best from both, and trying to align my own personal sympathies along a sort of sensible middle ground, not too rigidly 'formalistic' nor too wildly experimental, a good style always the result of sound familiarity with the great literary canons of the past and their historical developments, as well as the odd tampering with tradition and the established tools of the trade (like meter, diction).

Canada has experienced its fair share of poetry innovation. The radical Tish poets of 60s Simon Fraser University in Vancouver (Canada), a movement very much inspired by the active presence of Americans Olson, Creeley, Duncan and Blaser, probably represented the most significant era in Canadian experimentalism. Poets Frank Davey, bpNichol, bill bissett, & Daphne Marlatt for a time turned the Canadian literary establishment on its head, rearranging elements of visual, aural and First Nations iconography to create distinctively (very unCanadian) dissonant, 'otherstream' styles. News of bpNichol's winning the Governor-General's Award for best poetry even caused a stir in the House of Commons.

Not that Canada hadn't seen poetic innovations before Tish but just not to that radical degree. In 20s and 30s Montreal, for example, writers like Robert Finch, F.R. Scott and John Glassco, working out of McGill University, were at the forefront of a distinctively tamer 'modernist' movement in which Canadian innovators found elements of a European Aesthetic/Decadent movement more congenial to a distinctively Canadian poetics, for which reason (among others) they never really took to what they considered the inhospitable Imagist poetry of their contemporaries Pound and Williams. Even if the young McGill writers chose to emulate authors who opted for unbridled 'subjectivities', the result was a loosely 'formal' or lyrically self-defining Canadian style.

I suppose I'm a product of both these versions of literary iconoclasticism. By nature and educational upbringing tied conservatively (and perhaps a little sentimentally) to my Dryden, Browning, Tennyson and Swineburne, taking notes mostly from the standard Oxford Anthology of English Verse, I regarded literary individuality as a little alarming & chose, in my daring moments, to be conversant with a sort of wild-eyed Romanticism instead. In typical early Canadian modernist fashion, I followed the poetic impulses of Page, Layton, Pratt and Souster.But with exposure to more radical European and American poetries came, of course, intellectual maturity and a more settled appreciation of literary différance so that I can recall even now the exhilaration at discovering the heterodoxies of Tzara, Mayakovsky, Verlaine, and the postructuralist theorists ( Deleuze, Kristeva) who seemed to justify radical 'otherstream' poetics. It's been my own writing goal to infuse a Canadian-style modernism that shied away from Pound and Williams with the more personally satisfying 'fragmentariness' of postmodern verse ushered in (and made popular) by the radical Tish experiments. And to believe that the synthesis still makes for a meaningful poetic expression.

The question, therefore, of whether to restore meter to its former prominence in contemporary verse (in some new Formalist style), if only in outline, to me really amounts to something like what Ron Silliman's perhaps proposing for prose poetry: a New Sentence configuration of the verse line "altered for torque, or increased polysemy/ambiguity" ; or perhaps what visual poet Geof Huth's thinks of as a poem's most essential stand-alone constituents— the 'pwoermd'— that's given him, as he says in his most recent blog post, the very flexibility to write "thaumatrope poems, planned zoetrope poems, and...various visual poems meant to take advantage of various optical illusions"; or perhaps what "polyartists" Richard Kostelanetz, Aram Saroyan, Gary Barwin and Ed Baker regard in their practices as primary multimedia sources of art (ranging from computer graphics to pictograms to the barest minimalist typography).

Or what any number of poets will say is significant poetic 'form' or a verse line's key rhythmical nature if asked just what is worth preserving in their work. Steele stresses that legacy-making power of metrics throughout his book, even enjoining young poets to follow the examples of poets like Larkin who may have produced relatively little in their lifetime but whose great popularity and legacy will be keyed directly to their metrics. But I'm inclined to think that Huth's 'pwoermds' or Silliman's New Sentence or Baker's exquisitely spare visual poetry may make them just as memorable. I do believe, in fact, that something will always take the place of traditional 'meter' (and anything else regarded as enduring and worth preserving)and make any departure from it not so much a rupture as a kind of released "intensity" of the original metrical paradigm. I believe 'meter' is a property of language that is destined to spring, as by a natural l evolutionary process, into differentiated uses: a spontaneous tendency of artist and their materials to 'deterritorialize' poetic practice.

I guess in this way I've tried, in typically Canadian fashion, to bring together what's to me seemed to be the best tendencies in two poetic traditions.