Mind, Body, Spirit, Whatever: The New Poetics of the Metaphysical
Adam Fieled has published a very interesting essay at Word For/Word about what he sees as a needed resurgence of metaphysical concerns in contemporary poetics. I largely agree with his thesis that the poetics of previous generations, in particular those of the American avant-garde of the latter half of the twentieth century, have been overly enmeshed in a variety of materialisms. There are notable exceptions, of course, chief among them I think would be poets of the Beat generation like Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg and a few others from the New York School, most notably Joseph Ceravolo. But in surveying the poetics of the major movements of the last 50 years of poetry, it's clear that in particular the obsessions of post-structuralism and the new criticism with the text as material object have infected a great deal of the late poetries with a pervasive materialism that has created the problems that Fieled notes. I don't want to quibble with the problematization as Fieled conceives it, but I do see a flaw in his historical analysis that I'd like to reformulate because I think it will make clearer those problems as well as help to point out possible approaches to solutions in the search for a way forward.
To begin with, Fieled centers his critique on a materialism that he traces primarily to the Marxist critique of capital. In this I think he has a good point. Marxism largely goes awry by failing to challenge the primary assumptions of capitalism as arising from a sort of material value sourced in the production of goods. Whereas capitalism isolates value as a function of market forces, Karl Marx, following from David Ricardo, saw value as situated in labor and as such something much more fixed and permanent than the fluctuating forces of supply and demand allow for. This, I think, has an important impact on how one views the value of poetry if one accepts, as I do, that the value of a commodity is at least in large part determined by the work necessary to bring it to market. Of course the problem with this, as can be seen in poetry, is that even with this understanding of value, the exchange value of work is meaningless if one is incapable of finding a consumer willing to pay that value. This is the sad state of poetry now that Fieled mentions in noting that most if not all contemporary poets must make a living through some other means that might only be peripherally related to their work as poets if at all. We have then a situation where the value of poetry as work fails to maintain its own value in the marketplace. If poetry has value, and it does, this value must come from some other sphere than an economic one.
In attempting to locate this value, Fieled turns to spiritual value as the obvious alternative to material value. The argument here is plain, although Fieled doesn't make it in quite this way, his point as I understand it is that in getting caught up in the essential materialism of both marxism and the prevailing critical positions of the New Critics and later Structuralism and Post-Structuralism, the poets of the last fifty years have failed in dealing with a primary substance in poetry that has previously always been at the heart of poetry, the realm of the spirit. I"m not inclined to disagree. There is a clear shift to materiality that happens at some point in American poetry somewhere during the lives of two of our most important forebearers as avant gardists, in the writing of William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson. Williams for his part was very much concerned with poetic object and image and actively discouraged reading other meaning into his poems beyond the words on the page. Williams was heavily committed to a material poetics, going so far as to prefigure Umberto Eco's semiotics in describing poems as "language machines." This was a position that in itself was radical at the time, given the milieu in which it took place at a time when Pound and Eliot had both become progressively more conservative and occult in their work. I would even argue that the most interesting work being done with language was rapidly becoming the realm of prose rather than poetry as, following Joyce, the great American modern novelists began an aggressive period of stylistic innovation that was very much in the vein of the sort of formal novelty that Williams championed. What was present in modernist prose, the emphasis on the individual will, the dissatisfaction of materiality present in everything from The Great Gatsby—the greatest baseball novel ever written&mdashto The Sound and the Fury, was almost wholly absent from much of modernist poetry. A single example here suffices to make my point, I think, in the very different conception of the emptiness of existence exhibited in Eliot's "The Hollow Men" which on my reading is not so much a dissatisfaction with the material but in fact with everything else around it.
Poetry echoed this movement in content, but with a pseudo-mannerism which, with its focus on the material, physical aspects of poetry that ultimately I think has served to undercut the modernist program and which put the postmoderns, particularly as represented by The New American Poetry, on the wrong foot textually from the get go. Nowhere I think is this more definitively established in the widely influential theories of projective verse as defined by Charles Olson. Olson in no uncertain terms tied the poetic line to the physical, that is material, act of breathing, and makes the physical object by which this line is composed specifically the auditory phenomenon as realized by the faculty of hearing. Here in projectivism is nothing but poem as materielle, mechanical, machine like and locked to a physical existence that points nowhere else. Olson's influence is sweeping, from the yogic-hebraic breath that measures the lines in Ginsberg's "Howl" to the various great poets who were directly tutored by Olson—the most important to my mind being John Cage, Robert Creeley, and Larry Eigner, all notoriously difficult—and through whom Olson has achieved a lasting impact in all of the avant garde poetries of the last fifty years or so.
This materialism only accelerated in the sixties and seventies as post-structuralist philosophy began to wield its greatest influence on the academy of English literature. It's often been noted that Structuralism itself never really happened as a period for the English speaking world, and in fact English thinkers skipped over it almost altogether because the introduction of Derrida into the west of poststructuralism happened well before much of the structuralist fundament had been translated. As such, the previous structuralist work of critics like Althusser, Barthes, Lacan and the rest of their their generation, who had drawn heavily from the work of Claude Levi-Strauss and Ferdinand Saussure, had already been roundly criticized and superseded in Europe by the post structuralist ideas of Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, and the later Barthes and Lacan. It's important to note however, that this is a two way blindness. While it's true that much of what was going on in continental semiotics after World War I, theories about language and meaning that would ultimately come to play an important role in the poetries of the last part of the 20th century, went largely unnoticed in the Anglo-American world, by the same token Anglo-American notions of semiotics were similarly going unnoticed on the Continent. This is perhaps a bit more surprising than it otherwise would be given the fact that many of the thinkers who innovated and pushed forward Anglo-American thought on the subject of language were themselves native German speakers who were probably more accessible to philosophical children of Heidegger than the English speaking analytic philosophers were to the continent. Which is to say that there is a contrary tradition of meaning that Anglo-American thought developed parallel and separate from the multiple "isms" of continental philosophy (structuralism, post-marxism, poststructuralism, deconstructionism, postmodernism, etc.) which traces its lineage from Gottlob Frege and Lords Whitehead and Russell in Germany and England, and from Charles Peirce, William James and John Dewey in America. This "semiology" always has been, I think, flirting on the edge of a mysticism that comes both from an American inclination towards transcendentalism and the impossible to calculate influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein on subsequent philosophers of language working in the same philosophical tradition of British Empiricism where he and his students did most of their work. The end result was that by the time Jacques Derrida got around to criticizing J.L. Austin's version of Speech-Act theory in the 1970s, he seemed ludicrously unaware of the fact that much of his criticism had already been made and debated some 20 years earlier by Gilbert Ryle and that the current version of Speech-Act theory as espoused by John Searle and others was not vulnerable to Derrida's deconstructive method. The end result has been thirty some odd years of riposte and unproductive bickering between continental and anglo-american philosophers that at this late date, thankfully, appears to finally be ending.
This matters of course, because it establishes the linguistic millieu that the twentieth century avant garde concluded with. Because while the philosophers of language and semiotics were viciously not paying much attention to eachother, for some reason French philosophy slipped into the academy through the back door of critical theory where it has been shaping the thinking of new generations of poets for nearly as long as it has been in translation. Critical Theory of course has absolutely nothing to do with philosophy and everything to do with how to read. And if your view of how to read is being shaped primarily as a student through the lens of the thoroughgoing materialism that underpins everything in the various postmodernisms of critical theory, then it will be inevitable that such ideas are reflected in the poetics of that generation. And so it has been, as Fieled rightly points out. This, however, is where I think his essay goes slightly astray. Because in pointing at the spiritualism that he sees necessary for forward progress among contemporary avant gardes like himself and others of our generation, I think his essay makes the mistake of leaving out the fact that there is very much a tradition in English letters and Anglo-American political radicalism for such work to drawn on without having to work with the essentially conservative ideas of received spirituality and methodology and the obsequious banality of the so called New Formalists with whom Fieled but for the quality of his poetry and thinking might otherwise be confused for making the case for non-materialist poetries as he is.
And Fieled is not alone in this observation, but I think he speaks too broadly when he condemns all of that which has gone before as failing to maintain the spiritual tradition. Marjorie Perloff, the avant garde's most eloquent critic and literary theorist, has noted and explored much of what I see as the "other tradition" in American writing in her book Wittgenstein's Ladder which explores the presence and influence of Wittgenstein's ideas about language in various twentieth Century writers. Unfortunately, Perloff's excellent study I think too narrowly focused on specifically formal influences of Wittgenstein and didn't do enough to make the very real connections, that she mentions but doesn't explore as much, with Wittgenstein's thoroughgoing linguistic mysticism that remained present in all of his works from the Tractatus Logic-Philosophicus onward. More to the point however, is the fact that in the late twentieth century we have available to us as poets a number of thinkers and writers who clearly have had a very strong tie to this other tradition, but in circumstance where this influence is largely ignored. It is clear, for example, that Ted Berrigan was heavily influenced by Alfred Whitehead's philosophy, that Ron Silliman's preoccupations with language stem as much from his reading of American literary and political history as they do from any sort of continental critical theory, and that there remains—both in the radical proletariat of slam poetry and the academics that followed after Jerome Rothenberg and his championing at various times of ethnopoetics, Lorca's duende based poetics, and the "Deep Image" poetics that grew out of it in America—an abiding appreciation for poetry as esoteric and occult.
What is absent, I think, in Fieled's analysis is not so much his conclusory ideas that a revitalization of the mystical and the esoteric in the form of a renewed engagement with a non-materialist poetics is both in the offing and necessary, but an appreciation for where that is already a bit haphazardly and almost accidentally present in the work of our forebears. I'm referring here not so much to the various spiritual ideas present in the work of the Beat poets, which in my estimation more often than not amounts to little more than a tawdry orientalism—the notable exception here being Burroughs who was very much engaged in western occult practices and whose "logos as virus" idea forms very much a touchstone that I think should be emphasized. But rather, in those places where the materialism of the preceding poetries of the last century has given way in the composition to something that I want to describe in almost Jungian terms as present in the collective unconscious of English Literature. Specifically I would note that I think this emerges in works like Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons, many Jackson Mac Low's "Light" poems, the aforementioned works of Joseph Ceravolo and Ted Berrigan, the intensely personal and humanitarian themes in Frank O'Hara's best work, Lyn Hejinian's My LIfe, and more recently in Alice Notley's Descent of Alette and In the Pines. I want to stress, all of these I think betray some of the materialism that rightly Fieled condemns in his essay as a cultural and poetic dead end, but at the same time at moments find ways to transcend it in their concerns and construction and I'm reluctant to throw the baby out with the bath water here.
Necessarily then, what's needed is not a new beginning, but rather a new set of touchstones upon which The New Poetics of the Metaphysical that Fieled seems to be calling for can be based. He explicitly rejects a return to Romanticism, and I think he's right to do so. Such a move would be ultimately a reactionary one that won't provide the forward momentum that is the life blood of any avant garde. However, I do think that we can find in our literary histories a set of precursors from which any number of organizing principles might be extrapolated. I don't intend to do that extrapolation here as I think that's a much longer conversation, but rather just to nominate a few players in the history of English letters that I think might be properly informative for the work that is to come.
First and foremost of course, there's the question of John Donne and how to address him. Donne is probably the most well-known and accomplished of English writers dealing with the metaphysical mysteries of language, and I think any coherent poetics must in some way account for him. I do not think, however, that Eliot's approach to Donne and the metaphysical poets is the right path, growing as it did out of the later Eliot's conservatism and bizarre anglophilia. The idea of twenty first century Americans, informed as we are much more by punk rock, hip hop, and television than we could ever be by georgian pastoral Albion and the mysteries of 17th century protestantism. That said, I think that most likely Donne's use of conceit, his blatant devotion to love and to faith, and his carefully musical composition all form elements that properly adapted and adopted can serve very well in any new spiritism in poetry.
I think more important though is probably William Blake, in whose ideas about the Poetic Genius, so much a precursor to the Jungian notion of the collective unconscious and its explicit rejection of materialism as concerns the human psyche, much can be found that is relevant and persuasive. Blake writes in his pamphlet All Religions are One: "The Poetic Genius is the true Man...called by the ancients Angel & Spirit & Demon." Blake's conception of the poetic genius as the underlying truth of humanity from which all of our philosophies and religions are imperfectly derived serves I think as an ideal easel on which to balance any notion of what might be sought in a spiritual resurgence in poetry. This, I think, is different from the romantic individualism which is distasteful and inapt for any number of reasons for such a project. Blake, rather than appealing to the sovereignty of the individual secure in his liberty, is rather concerned with a common and esoteric link between all that is good and true in humanity and from which the greatest truths of our existence we collectively derive both inspiration and solace. Leaving aside the unecessary platonism that bogs down Blake's ideas here, what remains is the enduring idea of an eternal and immaterial poetic genius that all human creation participates in. This, more than anything, strikes me as a very useful place from which to approach a poetics such as Fieled describes.
I think it bears noticing both the matter of imported non-English poetics and the various occultisms that appeared and swirled about in 20th century letters. Most importantly I would hold that Andre Breton and Federico Garcia Lorca hold a non-materialist viewpoint in their poetries that can be both instructive and fruitful as a point of resistance. Breton's surrealism, probably most forcefully exhibited in his novel Nadja and his long poem Arcanum 17 are above and beyond the explorations of psychology and automatism that he wrote on so extensively, but rather given a precursive acceptance of Blake's poetic genius exhibit the ways that such methods as aleatory and parataxis, which are so much a part of the writing of our present, might be saved from their essentially materialist origins and infused with spirit almost akin to the sumi-e painting style that derives its inspiration from the Zen Buddhist notion of satori. Again, the cheap orientalism of poorly imported eastern ideas is something that should always be looked at skeptically, but I think the spontaneity and the paradoxical notion of calmly planning a work prior to its spontaneous work by moving into something like a trance state is something that is a spiritual cousin of surrealist automatic writing and the attendent pursuit of strangeness. Attendant to this technique might be the further exploration of the phenomena of semantic saturation, which has been sadly unexplored in contemporary poetry to my knowledge, whereby words and sentences through repetition can be made to seem strange and alien. Some of the best work Jackson Mac Low did, I think, works along that axis and it's something that bears new consideration under any new critical paradigm. And I think part of the genius of Ron Padgett's sonnet "Nothing in that Drawer" comes about through the saturation of the repeated phrase making the meaning slowly become strange as the poem is read aloud. As for Lorca, enough has been written about Duende elsewhere that I won't bother to deal with it here. What matters is that it is a vector of approach to the depth of feeling and faith that I think Fieled is longing for in his championing of spirit as opposed to material in poetics and as such ought to be similarly accounted for in any systematic poetics of such a notion.
Lastly there is the ever present and tricky realm of the occult that swirls in and about English literature, resurfacing time and again in myriad forms. Here the obvious progenitor is Burroughs, in particular his occult work both with Brion Gysin through cut up and his pursuit of occult knowledge through making strange the language that was his primary medium. The issue here isn't technique, because I think we've passed the point where mere cut-up and aleatory can be fruitful, if it ever was. But rather the controlled, ritualized skepticism about language qua language as materiality is what I think can be taken from Burroughs example and applied to the New Poetics of the Metaphysical. This stretches beyond Burroughs and his own occultist preoccupations, which I think in their own right ought to be taken very seriously as a mode of operation for any writer, and can be found in various places that Fieled I think too quickly dismisses. It's there in Robert Grenier's famous written proclamation "I hate speech" as well as in the opposite and too often unanalyzed Deconstructionist skepticism towards writing. As such both in the Language poets and the late post-structuralism, there is already present a fair amount of suspicion of the materiality of language which I think can be put to good use by a more occult approach to such things.
Strangely enough, or maybe not considering my own preoccupations, this brings me back yet again to Wittgenstein and the inherent problem of the limits of language. To my way of thinking, poetry at its best serves as a sort of javelin to be launched at the veil of language beyond which lies the mystical which can only be indicated or pointed to but not directly talked about. Poetry should always be pushing at the limits of language because it is the only way of using language we have yet discovered that is in anyway capable of doing so. The job of poetry is not to clarify or to enshrine, but rather to inspire and give life to the most difficult aspects of human communication and find a way through to say those things which are unsayable in any other way. I believe this whole heartedly and as such I find myself very much in agreement with Adam Fieled's manifesto. I don't yet know what form the poetry of this generation will take or if it will even address these things as thoroughly as I think both Fieled and I hope they will. Still, what remains clear is that the present capitalist materialism and it's antithesis in the prevailing marxist paradigm are no longer tenable. The surface cannot hold and a time will come when what lies deeper will be the only thing left that matters. How we get there is the only real question.