To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Reconfiguring Romanticism (11): Prologue to A Book of Extensions, with pieces by Goethe, Carroll, Thoreau

with Jeffrey C. Robinson

Poetry fetter’d fetters the Human Race. – W. Blake

It was Blake’s prophecy of an unfettering – & the practice of poetry that accompanied it – that presaged what would issue finally in the revolutions-of-the-word at the heart of any/every future avant-garde. As such the late eighteenth-century urge to “unfetter” citizens from social constraints & repressions had its counterpart in an “unfettered” version of poetry itself. The political association to the liberation or unfettering of prisoners from their chains – in, for example, the Bastille – was revisited in the visionary liberations described in some poems of the period & in the unfettering of traditional form & conventional syntax. Often conflated with “the fancy” & set in conflict with the unifying & “shaping spirit of the imagination” (S.T.C.), some key principles underscored these tactics, namely that poetry’s language, grammar, & syntax could actively participate in the protest & revisioning of the world. In which case, poetry as fancy could also question the consoling function often ascribed to it – that is, the notion of its congruity with a stable self &, by extension, the notion of the poem itself as stable, a “monument” that withstands the buffets of the world “cased in the unfeeling armour of old time,” as Wordsworth had it. There is in fact a long countertradition of poetry that broke open in the late eighteenth century, exploded in the twentieth, & is currently very much alive – a tradition of self-aware, difficult, experimental work that locates poetry’s “political” role (as a means to a reawakening of human possibility) in the very elements of poetry itself. These elements, in the context of experimental poetry & equally experimental prose, are not invisible conduits of poetic “content” but reveal the constraints on the mind, while indicating the means by which to throw off those constraints.

It is this notion of the experimental under whatever name that introduces as well the ludic spirit of play alongside a serious & often expressionistic poetics. Its markers, stretching from the late eighteenth century into the twentieth & beyond, are hybridization – crossover – mischung – improvisation & performance – dreamwork as poem – new forms of rhyme & lineation – prose as an instrument for poetry – first glimmerings of open verse, free verse, & words in freedom. With this as subtext, the Romantic poet adheres, characteristically, to a still traditional, if increasingly shaky, image of the poem, with its formal structure or poetic “line”; that is, most Romantic poetry is written in predictable forms – stanzas, couplets, rhymes, blank verse, sonnets – yet signs of turbulence reside within these structures, such as parataxis, excessively long blank-verse paragraphs, half-rhymes, seemingly endless tetrameter couplets, & unconventional grammar & syntax. While such devices are present throughout these pages, A Book of Extensions brings together some of the still more experimental “extremes,” beginning in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries & accelerating toward their fuller recognition in the century to come. Embedded within Romanticism & Post-Romanticism they represent an alternative road toward that visionary & liberatory goal that has defined poetry & related works from then to now.

[From Poems for the Millennium, Volume 3:The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry, scheduled for publication in January 2009, which Jeffrey Robinson & I have co-edited for the University of California Press. Further previews were posted on June 11, June 18, June 24, July 6, July 13, July 21, July 29, August 7, & August 16.

The following are three of the sixteen pieces in this section.]

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Writing Aslant
from Conversations with Eckermann

“At times,” Goethe continued, “the experience I had with my poems was quite different. I had no impression of them in advance and no presentiment. They came over me suddenly and demanded to be made then and there, and I felt compelled to write them down on the spot, in an instinctive and dreamlike fashion. When I was in such a somnambulistic state, it often happened that the paper before me lay all aslant and that I noticed this only when everything was written, or when I found no room to go on writing. I used to have several sheets of paper written like that on the diagonal, but they gradually got lost, and I am sorry that I can no longer show examples of such poetic immersion.”

Lewis Carroll

(a) All babies are illogical.
(b) Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile.
(c) Illogical persons are despised.

(a) None of the unnoticed things, met with at sea, are mermaids.
(b) Things entered in the log, as met with at sea, are sure to be worth remembering.
(c) I have never met with anything worth remembering, when on a voyage.
(d) Things met with at sea, that are noticed, are sure to be recorded in the log

(a) No interesting poems are unpopular among people of real taste.
(b) No modern poetry is free from affectation.
(c) All your poems are on the subject of soap-bubbles.
(d) No affected poetry is popular among people of real taste.
(e) No ancient poem is on the subject of soap-bubbles.

Henry David Thoreau

Sept. 3

As I went under the new telegraph wire, I heard it vibrating like a harp high overhead. It was as the sound of a far-off glorious life, a supernal life, which came down to us, and vibrated in the lattice-work of this life of ours.

Sept. 22

Yesterday and today the stronger winds of autumn have begun to blow, and the telegraph harp has sounded loudly. I heard it especially in the Deep Cut this afternoon, the tone varying with the tension of different parts of the wire. The sound proceeds from near the posts, where the vibration is apparently more rapid. I put my ear to one of the posts, and it seemed to me as if every pore of the wood was filled with music, labored with the strain – as if every fibre was affected and being seasoned or timed, rearranged according to a new and more harmonious law. Every swell and change or inflection of tone pervaded and seemed to proceed from the wood, the divine tree or wood, as if its very substance was transmuted. What a recipe for preserving wood, perchance – to keep it from rotting – to fill its pores with music! How this wild tree from the forest, stripped of its bark and set up here, rejoices to transmit its music! When no music proceeds from the wire, on applying my ear, I hear the drum within the entrails of the wood – the oracular tree acquiring, accumulating, the prophetic fury.

The resounding wood! how much the ancients would have made of it! To have a harp on so great a scale, girdling the very earth, and played on by the winds of every latitude and longitude, and that harp were, as it were, the manifest blessing of heaven on a work of man’s! Shall we not add a tenth Muse to the immortal Nine? And that the invention thus divinely honored and distinguished – on which the Muse has condescended to smile – is this magic medium of communication for mankind!

Sept. 23

The telegraph harp sounds strongly today, in the midst of the rain. I put my ear to the trees and I hear it working terribly within, and anon it swells into a clear tone, which seems to concentrate in the c ore of the tree, for all the sound seems to proceed from the wood. It is as if you had entered some world-famous cathedral, resounding to some vast organ. The fibres of all things have their tension, and are strained like the strings of a lyre. I feel the very ground tremble under my feet as I stand near the post. This wire vibrates with great power, as if it would strain and rend the wood. What an awful and fateful music it must be to the worms in the wood. No better vermifuge. No danger that worms will attack this wood; such vibrating music would thrill them to death.

[Note too David Antin’s suggestion that Thoreau’s two years at Walden Pond – his experiment at “living deliberately … fronting only the essential facts of life” – can now be read, much like the foregoing, as an example of performance art avant la lettre.]


Anonymous said...

I never come across passages from Thoreau's journals without recalling that, some time not long after his death, the mayor of Concord expressed incredulity that the writings of such a shiftless character should be deemed worthy of preservation.

Relative to singing wires, I recommend the recordings of Alan Lamb:

Anonymous said...

On Thoreau's WALDEN, please see Hayden Carruth's essay on Thoreau in EFLUENCES FROM THE SACRED CAVES.