On the Irrational Imagination 2
To apprehend the tradition of the Irrational imagination in 20th century American poetry, I'm finding it necessary to keep going back to the “Imagists” and the “Objectivists” (as well the “Projectivists”), and to go back to the various Modernisms of Stein, Moore, and Stevens. I'm finding, in so doing, that poets have basically no new subject matter (just the waning of the old subject matter [of course, one could say it's indeed, turtles all the way down, but for my purposes, I'm needing to designate a starting point, so I will call it 1911])—that even Wordsworth felt his times in danger of fragmentation. So? Do we Make it new! yet again? Yet, though the subject might not have changed, the consciousness (the self-consciousness) has. As poets, we’ve become hyper-aware of both ourselves and words. This is our circumstance. How one decides to deal, or not to deal, with this circumstance, leads to the extreme divergence, this century, between styles of poetry.
As Martin Amis stated it in 1987, “The past and the future equally threatened, equally cheapened, now huddle in the present. The present feels narrower . . . straightened, discrepant.”
The question arises (though many don’t seem interested): how to formulate an empathic gesture toward this circumstance? Or the assertion arises: We can’t write new work until we begin to see ourselves in new ways. Or, new work necessitates new ways of seeing.
But to explain this new gesture? This empathy?
As Stevens says, “I believe that, in any society, the poet should be the exponent of the imagination of that society.” So then the question, phrased yet another way, is: What does one do with the spirit of the times? First of all, Stevens (again and again) reminds us of the individual and of the particular, that the “something said” is important, but it is important for the poem only insofar as the saying of that particular something in a special way is a revelation of reality.
So the imagination exists only in relation to, and at the mercy of, “the real.” But what we see in front of us is not reality but the visible. Poems, one might irrationally hope, can unlock reality from the “merely visible” so that more of reality can be present than the senses normally allow — this is attention through imagination. And this attention, this language, is always metaphorical. Things are not metaphorical: things simply are. Obviously (though some artists and theologians would have it otherwise). But from Physics we learn that the matter that we see functions under principles that the matter we don’t see apparently feels no compulsion to follow. What does this then do to one’s rigid sense of “seeing is believing”? What is reality now?
This, from LeCorbusier: “Respecting the forces of nature is superior to respecting tradition.”