On the Irrational Imagination - 2007 Version
I'm still thinking about this tendency in many contemporary poets, this tendency toward the irrational (the way that tending to the times begins to look like the surreal, the closer one looks). So I've put together some thoughts from the fall, and thougth I'd trot it out, all gussied up for 2007.
On the Irrational Imagination
I've been wondeing about this for some time now. Why I like what I like in poetry . . . so today I've begun to write it out. Here's the question, as I see it. The question that leads me to the sort of poetry I find myself most drawn to. And, of course, it starts with Stevens:
“. . . it is becoming easier every day to say that we are irrational beings; that all irrationality is not of a piece and that the only reason why it does not yet have a tradition is that its tradition is in progress.”
Attend. ATTEND. Directive: Attend.
First, it’s important to remember where we’ve been. This, from William Wordsworth, in “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” (1802):
“The objects of the poet’s thoughts are every where; though the eyes and senses of man are, it is true, his favorite guides, yet he will follow wheresoever he can find an atmosphere of sensation in which to move his wings. Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge—it is as immortal as the heart of man. If the labors of men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the poet will sleep then no more than at present, but he will be ready to follow the steps of the man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the science itself. The remotest discoveries of the chemist, the botanist, or mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the poet’s art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us, and the relations under which they are contemplated by the followers of these respective sciences shall be manifestly and palpably material to us as enjoying and suffering beings. If the time should ever come when what is now called science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the being thus produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.”
And this, Harold Bloom’s footnote to the above selection:
“Alas, this has not come to pass. Science, so far from being 'familiarized to men,' has developed to the point where it is beyond the comprehension of most men, including poets.”
The tension between these two positions, one, that the poet must (will) be aware, and work with, the “material revolution” of science (as forecast by William Wordsworth in his preface to Lyrical Ballads) and two, that the comprehension of this revolution is beyond most people, (as noted by Harold Bloom) reveals the tension at the heart of the progressing tradition of the irrational imagination. Proceeding through the very real day, looking for sign posts, poets of the irrational imagination attempt to put a “form of flesh and blood” on what has, and hasn’t, come to pass, to move, while at the same time, remaining aware that much of what has come to pass is, or is nearly, inexplicable. So what assumptions, what politics, might guide this poetry?
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.”
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’s-his-name 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.
It is through the poetry of the Irrational Imagination where we find the contemporary shock of the sublime, the extremes of which can be mapped from Robert Hass, Thomas Lux, and Charles Wright, through Brenda Hillman and Anne Carson, to Martha Ronk and Michael Palmer. Though any aesthetic position that has both Robert Hass and Michael Palmer as examples is predictably widely encompassing, there still can be seen certain sympathies, certain denials, that are made in the poetry itself—not a masking of story (or narrative), but a meditative unmasking that will never complete itself, an unmasking known to be futile, known as failure, but necessarily undertaken. Which is why, I believe, so many contemporary poets keep mentioning Stevens.
I am bored with the term postmodern, and I have little use for schools of poetry, and I'm tired of paeans to complexity, but I do think it's important to hold together, if only for a moment, poets and poems that attempt to go beyond the comfortable limits of understanding, who worry the edges of thought, and perhaps bring something back to show for their trouble. Poets who exist within and among knowns and unknowns, neither as far into the aphasic constructed/un constructed poetries of the leading edge of the avant garde, nor as far into the voice poem delivering learned truths as the post-confessional period style illustrates. But existing within, and in relation to, both.
Poetry, and here I’m speaking of poetry that holds itself open to its irrational elements, is the is that falls between the artifice of the too-well-wrought urn and the eternal and of journalism, between the staid and the unsettleable. And when confronted with the simplicity of that which is beyond us, it can only act As If. As George Steiner (among others) has said, the artist, when creating, is continually going toward the As If, the bargain one makes with imagination when confronted with that which is beyond knowing.
This type of poem is the poem of continuance: the poem as the journal of a tour. A tour that can exist only in reference to itself. On a tour, interruption and distraction can be as much the point as anything else. As Robert Duncan writes, “Everything that happens in writing the poem, as it belongs to the poem, must be acknowledged and undertaken as meaning.” The traveling is what gives points A and B meaning, is what gathers them together. One of the chief functions of art is to refuse limitation, both spatially and theoretically. The poem must move through discoveries, through layers, through attachments.
(new poetry = new way of seeing [point A, point B]).
Without a ground and a movement, we have no support for the sentences of our lives, we have a shapelessness of disordered, of willed, occurrences.
In the same way, then, this writing’s dwelling. Writing which isn’t heading for, or going after. Writing’s dwelling. Living in. Where everything that happens becomes part of the poem. Here one can think, as well, of Charles Bernstein’s “Artifice of Absorption.”
This poetry is aware within the poem that poetry can get no closer to signifier or referent than a middle ground. A tentative stepping out that aggressivity would rupture.
On the flip side: what does this hovering middle ground do with issues of actual time and temporality?
What the poem half creates by perception: that things as they are are not as the observer wills, but in the past remain so removed and colored by belief and desire that they pretty nearly are, is a difficulty that this poetry must continually face.
Poems of the irrational imagination are continually aware of the tonal power of grammar. How in seeing, by and through language, one is constantly in a tense relationship with that which has caused one to look in the first place. How intentionality tinctures one’s perceptions. Perceptions we hold and suspend at the same time, until that which propels us forward ceases, and we recognize, as Stevens phrases it, “our unique and solitary home.”
In this landscape, the parenthesis mark, as well as the material inside, is tonal design (—as is the dash: the colon, etc.). But it’s not willed —it arises out of the desperation one feels for wholeness, for a moment of unity. So the poetic use of punctuation is not toward the sentence but away from it, it resides outside of grammar but within it—post—so to speak.
For example: the parenthesis can make a place for ‘the other’—consider an old couple, long married, trying to get through a story —they support and supplant each other, they add but do not complete. This is the gesture of long acquaintance and competition, the desire to join in the telling. This is the manner of matter, of fragments, to coalesce. And in coalescing, to complicate matters, rather than simplifying them, rather than reducing them.
A) Stevens: A great disorder is an order.
B) Lyn Hejinian by way of Valery: Two dangers never cease threatening in the world: order and disorder.
The project of any poem is to find the principle of its regulation. To find its order. And for poems of the Irrational Imagination, the project is to find what exists one tick past order. When “things” haven’t fallen apart and yet no longer condition themselves as “whole”. To exist at the border of its disruption. And to find out how long one might reside in this liminal alterity. And then? One must strive to remain (for as long as one can) in the presence of that which is continuance. And in continuing, the poem must look for the individual code that the present circumstance calls for in its singularity so that the poem may center itself while decentering that which is taken for granted. But isn’t de-centering really just re-centering? This is the question that leads to further poems. This is the politics of art.
The poem must be aware that it is being enacted through a doubled voice (a self address, a personal utterance that is both objective & subjective). Through the poem the subject and the object merge as the many and as the one (“We have chosen the meaning/Of being numerous,” Oppen writes). One (as a noticer of stuff) has to discover what this page wants done. And move.
Charles Wright: . . . “listen to John, do what the clouds do.”