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

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Reconfiguring Romanticism (52): The Construction of Poems for the Millennium & the Poems It Engendered

[My contribution to a volume of essays, Active Romanticism, edited by Jeffrey Robinson & currently still in progress, as a followup to Poems for the Millennium, volume three, our joint work on experimental romanticism & postromanticism.  (J.R.)]

In the course of assembling Poems for the Millennium, volume three, I was engaged in two – at least two – companion works.  This wasn’t at all strange but fit, maybe too neatly, into a view that I like to put forward – that the composition of large structures like the Millennium volumes is inseparable from my other activities as a poet and that this would hold true for other poets engaged in what Robert Duncan, I believe it was, spoke of as the construction of a “grand collage” and as “a poetry of all poetries,” a type of work practiced in one form or another by many a modern or postmodern poet/artist.  Looking back at my earlier works, the first of the anthology/assemblages, Technicians of the Sacred (1968), was paralleled by first experiments with “total translation” as a form of composition from oral sources, but also by the beginnings of Poland/1931 as an exploration, I wrote, “of ancestral sources of my own in a world of Jewish mystics, thieves & madmen.”  The followup, Shaking the Pumpkin (1972), an anthology of American Indian texts, was also a catalyst for A Seneca Journal, while A Big Jewish Book (1977) continued the work of Poland/1931 and led to first experiments with gematria and other forms of traditional aleatory procedures.  In the same vein I wouldn’t separate Revolution of the Word (1974) as its American counterpart from That Dada Strain, both celebrations of our Dada and modernist predecessors.
            Romanticism, as Jeffrey Robinson and I came at it, was a catalyst for us as well, much as it was for those who came before us.  In Robinson’s case, though his primary life’s work has been as a devoted and innovative scholar of British Romanticism, he has accompanied the scholarship as such with an ongoing series of original poetry texts drawn or collaged (“spliced”) from the work of poets, both Romantics and Moderns/Postmoderns, who were central to his studies and enthusiasms.  For myself what I had to overcome was my own prejudice against fixed forms –  shared with many in my generation – in order to see anew the challenges to form and content that were set in motion by the Romantics and a number of others who had preceded them. As a matter of nomenclature Jeffrey Robinson and I began to talk between us about “experimental romanticism,” although I’m not sure that phrase came into the actual writing.
           With that as our target, experiment and transformation appeared both in aspects of Romantic writing that were largely subterranean and, even more surprisingly I thought, at the heart and core of the Romantic project. An aspect of this, from my side at least, was that the Romantics and those we called the postRomantics began to feel like contemporaries, less magisterial figures and more like fellow poets with whom we could enter into a free and easy discourse. In large part, if this doesn’t sound too arcane or abstract, we rode on Jeffrey Robinson’s recovery of the “fancy,” salvaging it from Coleridge’s otherwise brilliant and long-lived dichotomy of fancy and imagination. The two terms – fancy and imagination – have otherwise been historically synonymous, whereas Coleridge made imagination not just the shaping spirit but a binding spirit that reconciled and thereby froze deep conflicts of image and idea, in relation to which “the fancy” might now be viewed as a liberatory force – for play and invention – the field par excellence of the experimental and visionary. I would then think of imagination qua fancy less in Coleridge’s sense as reconciliation and closure than in Keats’s definition of “negative capability” followed immediately by his criticism of Coleridge” “Several things dovetailed in my mind and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without an irritable reaching after fact and reason – Coleridge for instance would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge.” Or Whitman in an equally famous passage: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes).” That being said, I would as well speak of imagination as of fancy, the good-of-it being, always, in the meanings, not in the nomenclature, and in any case, an inheritance from the Romantics with whom it all started.
            I thought of all this again in the process of working through a series of poems that I was composing alongside the major work of construction or assemblage that Robinson and I were engaged in.  The series in question (fifty poems in all) was my response to Goya’s Caprichos, a work of imagination or fancy that we included in Poems for the Millennium, both as a touchstone of an emerging Romanticism and as a forerunner of the expressionist and surrealist side of a modernism yet to be.  The images that Goya gave me helped, as with other forms of ekphrastic writing, to launch a succession of my own images and fancies, an interaction across space and time that I’ve often tried to practice.  In the opening poem, for example, I begin with Goya’s well-known self portrait, a figure slumped over a table on which are written the words “El sueño de la razon produce monstrous.”  From that and from the bats and owls that fly around him comes the following, not a literal account of Goya’s image but a journey into places where the Fancy leads me on my own:

The Sleep of Reason
                          for Clayton Eshleman
Words imprinted on a sign
by Goya     glowing
white against a surface
nearly white:
the sleep of reason
that produces monsters.
He is sitting on a chair
his head slumped
resting on his arms
or on the marble table,
pencil set aside,
his night coat open
thighs exposed.
All things that fly at night
fly past him.
Wings that brush an ear,
an ear concealed,
a memory beginning
in the house of sleep.
His is a world where owls
live in palm trees, 
where a shadow in the sky
is like a magpie,
white & black are colors
only in the mind,
the cat you didn’t murder
springs to life,
a whistle whirling in a cup,
gone & foregone,
a chasm bright with eyes.
There is a cave in Spain,
a fecal underworld,
where bats are swarming
among bulls,
the blackness ending in a wall
his hands rub up against,
a blind man in a painted world,
amok & monstrous
banging on a rock.

In the course of which I became aware, as I should have earlier, that caprichos as a term was most commonly translated as “fancy” or “fancies”, which after Coleridge at least would effectively conceal what Goya was unleashing here.  Yet it is precisely in his “caprichos” that Goya shows us the fancy as “a power, not a work … a struggle, not a thought,” as Federico García Lorca wrote of that related or perhaps identical power he called duende.  In Lorca’s case too the word in question went back to an earlier source that belied the characteristics that he ascribed to it – a hobgoblin or imp to start with and a driving force among those Flamenco singers and dancers from whom he took it.  Dramatized by Lorca as engaged in a fierce creative struggle (chthonic, even demonic, in his telling) it also released, as he described it, a sense of unprecedented formal and visionary transformations: "The duende's arrival always means a radical change in forms. It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm."
           It is this force or something very close to it that Jeffrey Robinson captures in his aforementioned description of “fancy” with perhaps a greater emphasis on the transformative or experimental side of the process, as well as the playfulness of the original folk presences that in no way diminish the power of what’s at work or play here.  The search on this side of Romanticism is less toward resolution, then, and more toward struggle and conflict, with a resultant liberatory thrust (the adjective is Robinson’s), a newfound openness of form and thought.  In the process Goya’s caprichos operate at white heat, burning away appearances to let new worlds emerge, kept hidden otherwise by “mind-forged manacles” in Blake’s words and inherited conventions of the “really real.”  For me at least the convergence of Blake and Goya is essential to their time and to the times that lead from them to us.  

[To be continued]

1 comment:

WAS said...

Some fascinating interelationships explored here. I especially like the suggestion brought out from Lorca of the continuing role of trickster folklore creatures in artistic inspiration, especially in the destruction of forms. As Holderlin writes "an enigma is the pure sprung forth."