On the Irrational Imagination 3
Take Warhol’s Campbell soup cans and take Levittown and you have the Suburban dilemma: Is this scene pleasant or horrifying? The desire each of us has for creature comfort translates itself into middle class, machine-made lives. The desire each of us has for personal trimmings, for a spice of uniqueness within the comfortable, when seen from a middle distance, serves only to heighten the blandness of comfort. There is a disquiet in the tension between similar and dissimilar lives, the threat of being average within the solace of being unthreatened. There’s always TV. But backing up a little further from a field of Campbell soup cans, one can see the ordered beauty of Mondrian. This is the true ambivalence of the contemporary.
Habermas states what he considers to be the contract between the reader and the work of literature: “Since the quasi-speech acts of literature are not carrying on the world’s business—describing, urging, contracting, etc.—the reader may well attend to them in a nonpragmatic way.”
Taking this as a given, then, Habermas goes on to add: “neutralizing their binding and bonding force . . . removes [the poetic uses of language] from the sphere of normal speech, and thereby empowers them for the playful creation of new worlds—or, rather, for the unmitigated demonstration of the world-disclosing force of innovative linguistic expressions. This specialization in the world-disclosing function of language explains the peculiar self-referentiality of poetic language. . . .”
With this as a contract, and modernity as the poetic material, a Poetics of sense/nonsense (which is the irrational) seems the most accurate way poetry can exist as a polemics of being at this point in time. Here, where there is no everything (just as there is no nothing), no all encompassing possible in art, we rarely, if even briefly, extend past our limits of spot and reduction. This is the struggle. The struggle that the language arts (and poetry specifically) must wage with the twin desires of science and religion, of design and ecstasy.
But—and this is a big but—Don Gifford, in The Farther Shore, relates something of the problem facing the writer who would try for perspective in this modern situation: “when we attempt to focus this midrealm of ours through the lens of the big numbers, the approximations should trouble us even more because they leave so much that matters out of account, because they seem so much more fragmentary then elegant.”
The balancing act between that which is generalized and that which is specific has been the project of poets for a long time, but the particular use of the disjunctive, the fragmentary, has been the life and death of art in the twentieth century. It’s not much of a leap from considering Mondrian (or poets such as George Oppen and Robert Duncan) elegant to considering him (them) fragmentary. In this same way, any whole is a fragment of a larger whole, it’s just that some artists/writers acknowledge this within the productin of thir art. And what then of the spatial elegance of Edward Hopper (and in poetry, his tonal affinities with Elizabeth Bishop on the one hand and Mark Strand on the other)?
The true strength of this poetry, of this poem, is that it moves toward that which is not understood within the context of that which is understood. This is the irrational understanding that, in the end, knows that it will not understand. This is the steady gaze at a subject/object with all the pressures of its vital present tense—the seeing of what is, in its milieu, without the false solace of closure.
There is no closure, only reverberation.
The last meaning, the highest purpose, in this poetry seems to be to align the reader to the relationship between the one world he/she is regarding and the many worlds that he/she isn’t. The meaninglessness surrounding meaning(s). The purposelessness surrounding purpose(s). To hear the music of is, these phenomena. To inhabit these borders and find them at the point of losing their distinction, is the goal.
A politics beyond public policy. How fragmentation can be the energy of completion.
This is the fundamental movement of the poetry of the Irrational Imagination, and what I’ve been attempting to think with here.
One must have faith in the force of the world to speak from out of myriad worlds. That the world will indeed speak through and as the poem. The poem must attend this sensual world (in the midst). Simply stated, the poem of the irrational imagination must not forget the real world outside of language, that it (impossibly) must (and does) reverberate in the representational qualities of language.
The irrational imagination, then, is concerned with the play of the rational intelligence on the subjective apprehension of things—before (but within) story, before (but within) the human needs of the body—where the poet finds worth in the manner of matter to speak the day into sensual presence, while at the same time acknowledging the crisis inherent in any perception. The crisis of the eye in beholding.
First, some house cleaning: a thank you to uncle Ezra, aunt Hilda, and what’shisname Aldington for:
1. Direct treatment of the “thing” whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome. (How often these days poets do neither—)
A) With a revision by Bruce Andrews: There is no ‘direct treatment’ of the thing possible, except of the ‘things’ of language.
B) And a corollary from Stevens: Not all objects are equal. The vice of imagism was that it did not recognize this.