Exposed to the information avalanche generated throughout a country whose interventionist tentacles are coiling about all parts of the globe, American poets of all ilk (especially those with jobs at stake) tend to preoccupy themselves with word games, displays of self-sensitivity, or pastiches of entertaining asides. Not long ago in an issue of the politically liberal New York Review of Books, the poet/reviewer Charles Simic praised as a major achievement a poem by the then Poet Laureate Billy Collins which basically expressed Collins "sensitive" surprise that cows actually moo. In a separate article, Simic dismissed Robert Duncan’s inspired confrontation of the American destruction of Vietnam in 1967 in his poem "Uprising" as "worthless." This downgrading of Duncan’s imaginative engagement with power, and the extolment of Collins work which is at its best sophisticated entertainment sadly exemplifies much of what is supported these days by editors, reviewers, and judges as endorsable American poetry.
Some years ago, in Sulfur #10, Charles Bernstein defined the officially sanctioned verse of our time as characterized by "a restricted vocabulary, neutral and univocal tone in the guise of voice or persona, grammar-book syntax, received conceits, static and unitary form." This definition is still good today, some twenty years later. In the academic writing programs the post-Confessional and Language poetries of the 1970s have fused to produce, in the main, a poetry that is an abstract display of self-sensitivity, the new "official verse." Such programs produce hundreds of young writers each year eager to be accepted, get jobs, and win prizes (virtually the only way a poet can get a first book published today is by winning a contest judged in most cases by a well-known conventional writer; poetry editors who actually edit hardly exist now, especially in the service of first books). To my knowledge, few writing programs back a genuinely international viewpoint, exposing novices, for example, to the range of materials one finds in, for example, the two volumes of Poems for the Millennium (ed. by Rothenberg and Joris). More commonly, student-poets are taught material by the same names that reappear with deadly regularity as featured writers in summer retreats, as judges, as grant recipients and as those invited to festivals as key-note speakers.
The extent that Harold Bloom’s pronouncements have had a direct effect on contemporary American poetry is hard to fathom. His primary position is that we are at the tail end of a great English tradition, with Wallace Stevens as the last major Romantic figure, trailed by John Ashbery as his radiant ghost. The implication of Bloom’s position is that English language poetry has culminated and that what is occurring now, or has been for the past one hundred years, is a belated and fractured caricature of it. Such thinking is Koranic, as far as I am concerned, in as much as it posits a great complete tradition (five hundred years of English poetry), which can be read as a metaphor for an incomparable single book. The upshot of such a position is to tell the young poet that he would be better off doing something else, that all his language tits are dry. Bloom would use his erudition to occupy ground that should be populated by contrasting and contesting innovative poetries. There is a powerfully-repressed Urizenic poet in Bloom that must account for some of his popular allure. Of course if the young poet can be defeated by the likes of Harold Bloom, he would clearly be better off doing something other than writing poetry.
Ever since I discovered the poetry of César Vallejo in the late 1950s, I have intuited that poetry is at a very early stage in its potential unfolding. The idea of poetry as a tool for making conscious the unconscious, as revealed by such heroic figures as William Blake and Antonin Artaud, is too demanding for many writers and thus many poetries prized in any particular decade perform conventional pieties and thus unwittingly bolster the position of someone like Bloom. Given what the American government has been doing throughout the world from the end of World War II on, the American subconscious, into which news dribbles, is a roily swamp, at once chaotic and irrationally organized. The fate of American Indians and African-Americans is at the core of this complex. While there is a whole new poetry to be written by Americans that reads our present-day national and international situation against these poisoned historical cores, one wonders just how many people out there would be interested in the fruit of such an undertaking. I am one.
Between 1981 and 2000, in the 46 issues of Sulfur magazine that I edited with Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Michael Palmer, and Eliot Weinberger we published over 800 writers and artists. There are in 2005 a significant number of poets doing inventive work in their mature years and young poets who look as if they are capable of contributing a fresh body of work. The first names who come to mind in this regard are Adrienne Rich, Robin Blaser, Gary Snyder, Jerome Rothenberg, Jayne Cortez, Robert Kelly, Rachel Blau du Plessis, Ron Padgett, Paul Hoover, Nathaniel Mackey, Michael Palmer, John Olson, Pierre Joris, Andrew Joron, Tory Dent, Will Alexander, Dale Smith, Wang Ping, Christine Hume, Linh Dinh, Jeff Clark, and Cathy Wagner.
I should also mention the poetry of the extraordinary English poet Peter Redgrove who died at 71 in June, 2003, whose writing is little known here. In France, the poet Michel Deguy continues to expound a multifaceted, philosophical poetics (a recent translation of a major Deguy work, Recumbents, by Wilson Baldridge, received the 2006 PEN Poetry Translation Award). Recently, I discovered the writing of the Spanish transplant, Gerardo Deniz, who has lived in Mexico City for many years (in Monica de la Torres’ fine translation, poemas / poems). And just last month, Johannes Göransson sent me his translation of a young Swedish poet, Aase Berg (Remainland), some of whose linguistic deftness evokes the late poetry of Paul Celan. Such poets do not write the equivalent of American "official verse." Their work might be described as civil.
Civil poetry in the 20th century is associated with the poetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini. In his Foreword to a selection of Pasolini poems translated by Norman MacAfee (Vintage, 1982), Enzo Siciliano writes: "Civil poetry is poetry in which abstract subject matter ‘moral’ and ‘religious’ in Dante’s case, and as we know, these can also instantly turn ‘political’ becomes fused with an entirely personal sensibility, which absorbs every detail, every shading of inspiration into itself and into the transformation of its content into poetic language."
Without the qualifying clause, Siciliano’s statement could refer to Stevens or Ashbery as well as to the Pasolini of "Gramsci’s Ashes" (recently retranslated by Michelle Cliff in NO: A Journal of the Arts #4). As I see it, the "fusion" involves the figure of the writer against the ground of society. Or the figure of the writer as a kind of moving target in relentless evasion of those forces society uses to disarticulate him: self-censorship as well as editorial censorship, the shying away from materials that disturb a predictable and aesthetically-acceptable response.
For example, I wanted, in my poem "The Assault," to get the possible government conspiracy on 9/11 into the poetic record. Beyond that, I seek to build an atmosphere of political awareness into much of what I write to write a civil poetry as a citizen-writer, something I have done for several decades. I want a sense of my own time, on a national/international register, to permeate my language. One way that the American poem can remain human, in a social sense, as our government expands it imperialist domination in the world (and space) is for the poet to assimilate and imagine the monstrous interventionist framework within which, as a tiny and impotent god, he mixes his potions and proceeds.
Siciliano’s "fusion" also involves, in my sense of it, a porous mixing of perceived and imagined materials. For my part, I have created a kind of antiphonal swing between poems that would enable a future-day reader to sense the civil-political milieu of present-day America and poems that focus on the visual arts, on paintings by Caravaggio, Golub, Bacon, Michaux, Corot, and Darger, for example, as well as the images by those Cro-Magnon men, women, or children who ensouled the walls of Ice Age caves with some of the earliest images of which we are aware. In such poems I have attempted to create a dialogic lyric of the beholder one that performs the mediations of both maker and viewer, as in "What is broken advances, / pillowed by what will not yield: / a thought drinking its shadow" (from "Joan Mitchell’s Spinnerets." 2006).
In the fall of 2004, I spent a month at the Rockefeller Study Center on Lake Como, Italy, studying a large reproduction of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych, "The Garden of Earthly Delights," the most challenging painting I know of. My 60 page improvisations on the triptych, in prose and poetry, tip it, at points, into the 21st century so that, for example, the American assault on Fallujah is there as a shadow of Bosch’s Apocalypse. In a section called "Fantasia off the Force of Bosch," I sense the presence of Bush and Rumsfeld in the apocalyptic mayhem to be found in the triptych’s right-hand panel:
The intoxications of immortality
light up the switchboards when
another is killed, for the furnaces of "immortality"
are fed with the bodies of people who look a little different than us.
How does this work, Donald Rumsfeld?
Does your Reaper retreat an inch
for each sixteen-year-old Iraqi boy snipered
while out looking for food?
Men in power are living pyramids of slaughtered others.
Bush is a grinning mountain of carnage.
The discrepancy between literal suit and
psychic veracity is nasty to contemplate.
Imagine a flea with a howitzer shadow
or a worm whose shade is an entire city ablaze.
Being caught up in an agenda can be as undermining to imagination as self-censorship. Traditionally, so-called "political poetry" tends to express a formed, and thus predictable, viewpoint that the writer locks in place as a poem. Such in effect displaces an imaginative openness to spontaneity and notions, images, associations that come up during writing. If I am going to use George Bush in a poem I have to figure out ways to imagine him and to absorb him into my sensibility. This is close to thinking of him as a text that must be translated. Bush creates his own reality (at odds with what we might call real reality) which millions of Americans induct while its repercussions undermine their lives. Bush’s "language" is the collision between what he proposes to be and what he actually legitimizes. I must translate this "collision" into an ongoing participation in my poetry. Visually, Botero’s recent bringing of tortured Iraqis in the Abu-Ghraib prison into his invented pantheon of the obese (which is starting to look like "real reality" in America) strikes me as a valid example of such translation.
Another of my responsibilities as a writer is to believe that writing remains significant, that significance is not the enemy. The enemy is the eternal game of sticking our heads in the sand and pretending not to know what is going on. In an essay in American Letters and Commentary, Ann Lauterbach stated that her response to 9/11 was to stop watching television a doubly curious statement, since mainstream television has stopped watching life as we know it to be. 9/11 opened up not merely a can of worms but a silo of hydras, and the event itself should drive every artist crazy with curiosity not only about the "official" account of the destruction of the World Trade Center but about what we must have done to people to make them, apparently, assault us. I think these are the initial commands. One then might ask: do we now have people in our government who would sacrifice thousands of American and Afghan and Iraqi lives for greedy, global ambitions the repercussions of which they themselves do not understand? I think that one has to face such commands and to risk being overwhelmed by what one finds out during one’s investigations. Then one must assimilate them, and, as Vallejo writes, "see if they fit in one’s own size."
It is wrong to say that an event like 9/11 provides justification for a poetry that avoids meaning, or to believe that 9/11 changed the world just because it happened to us. Of course those directly impacted by the assault on the WTC and the Pentagon must grieve and work through their grief, but the rest of us should not feel sorry for ourselves. If anything 9/11 should make us investigate our foreign policy of the past 50 years. Relevant to the Middle East: over the past 20 years, we have shot down Libyan and Iranian planes, bombed Beirut, created a Vietnam situation for the Russians in Afghanistan, aided both Iran and Iraq during their war in the 1980s so as to maximize the damage each side could inflict on the other, bombed Iraq, imposed grueling sanctions upon its population, blown up a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan (that as I understand it provided half of that impoverished nation’s medicine), established hi-tech military presence in Islam’s holiest land, Saudi Arabia, and given 10 million dollars a day to Israel. The quality of life in Palestine has been so ruined that it is no wonder that many of the humiliated and the abject young there, as well as the educated, can only think of themselves as ammunition.
9/11 aside (if that is possible, at this time), responsibility has to involve responsible innovation, a poetry that pushes into the known and the unknown, making not non-sequitur nonsense but uncommon sense. Wyndham Lewis’s view of the basis of art is still true: that of clearing new ground in consciousness. Blake’s "Without contraries there is no progression" also still holds. Unless poets learn to stave off and to admit at the same time, working with a constant ambivalence, keeping open to the beauty and the horror of the world and remaining available to what their perceptivity and subconscious provide them with, one is pretty much left with "official verse culture." Poets do not lack an audience because what they write is difficult and demanding they lack an audience because the poetry that is published and reviewed in mass media publications is almost always superficial and a waste of a reader’s time. People who read The New Yorker for its engaging investigative reports, its witty movie reviews, and its often excellent fiction, must find most of the poetry in its pages rococo entertainment. My notion here is that very few readers of complex fiction and commentary seek out poetry because they have a limited view of what it can be, based on examples or reviews of it in publications like The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, or The Nation which often publish sophisticated and pertinent material in all the areas they address except poetry.
I think that American poets must also realize that because of the horrifying destruction and suffering our government is wreaking on Afghanistan and Iraq, there is increased irrational turmoil in all of our minds. There is liquid guilt everywhere, and we poets must make ourselves conscious of it, and if we feel that we must express it, to express it in our poetry and not thoughtlessly take it out on others in hysterical and vicious literary commentary. Not too long ago, Peter Campion, in Poetry magazine, ended a trashing of Jeff Clark’s book, Music and Suicide, with the following: "Clark writes and publishes these poems for the same reason that Kim Jong Il shoots missiles over Japan: simply because he can." It is of course outrageous that Poetry would publish such poison, in which a writer with whom the critic disagrees is compared to a Stalinist dictator. Of course, who knows, Mr. Campion might say the same thing under any social circumstances. But the times are ripe for a lot of projected, misplaced bile.
I was a walking contradiction that had not met itself when I encountered César Vallejo’s poetry in the late 1950s. Discovering poetry, and especially Vallejo’s, was like finding myself suddenly in a jungle with no know-how, no survival smarts; poetry immediately informed me that my life up to that moment made little sense. By working translationally through Vallejo’s Poemas humanos, I began to open up galleries below the text through which my own soul could begin to crawl. I think that was the beginning of poetic permission for me. Try to address anything that compels your attention, and insist on saying anything that opens a door. All the poets I have translated or co-translated at large Vallejo, Artaud, Césaire embody transgression on various levels. I believe that transgression of the status quo is one of the obligations of an inventive poetic viewpoint. My poetry contains a lot of investigation of male psyche, for example, like breaking the silence that protects the penis from any explicit attention. I have tried to be both honest and imaginative about what I have found in, let’s call it "the masculine basement."
Translating Antonin Artaud has also offered a range of permissions, primarily in an increased respect for and trust in the subconscious. After receiving nearly nine months of electro-shock in the Rodez asylum, Artaud is a mined man, his life has been pillaged, and one of the gains from his terrible situation is that any concern with decorum or taste has simply been wiped out of him. From 1945 to 1948, when he dies, he simply writes and draws what comes through or what confronts him. The barriers between consciousness and subconsciousness have been erased. I am not at all in Artaud’s position, understand, and I do not in any way pretend to have incorporated his life stance into my own. What can be drawn upon in his writing relates to the kind of mental travel that has its roots in shamanism. I believe that the most delicious place to write from is a state that might be called Dreaming Awake, or semi-trance, where one can attain a state of simultaneous mêlée and synthesis. There is an imaginative increase in such a state over dreaming, since in the semi-trance I have in mind, one is still open to critical input one can critique as one invents another form of Blake’s "contraries."
Most people are walking accident sites, imploding with constant smash-ups between conscious and unconscious vectors. Besides being heroic, Artaud is also tragic because he had to be nearly destroyed in order to realize himself imaginatively. I feel a great deal of affection for him even tenderness. He is about as close to a living ghost as one will find in a poet. Was it not John Berryman who said that the best thing that can happen to a poet is something that will all but kill him? Generally, this is not true at all. But in Artaud’s case, Berryman’s point is made.
"Contraries" do not always manifest themselves as intellectual tensions. In 1980, while doing research for Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underworld, I was feeling very frustrated about the direction my work on the origin of image-making was taking. I felt stalled, and did not know where to move. So I began to pray for divine aid. Seemingly out of nowhere, a poem arrived one morning while we were in the Dordogne that October. It is called "The Death of Bill Evans." It came right through me, a dictation of sorts, from places in my life I had not visited for many years. When I looked at what I had written, it scared the hell out of me. I decided not to show it to Caryl, my wife. As I later wrote, in describing the situation in the essay, "Fracture": "I sensed that I was moving toward something that would hurt me, not out of self-destructiveness, but as if I had been moved ‘on track’ toward a harmed and initiated state." In other words, I had called the gods and the gods were now answering.
A couple of days after writing the poem, late at night, I allowed myself to be talked into visiting an undecorated cave on the property of some people we had met and had over to dinner. I twisted my ankle getting out of the cave. Driving back home, that leg went into spasm, I lost control of the car, swerved left into a ditch, and crashed into a boulder. My ankle was broken in three places. Had I swerved right I would have gone down into a 50 foot ravine.
So this permission to access subconscious material has its nightside. Of course I will never know if the accident would have occurred had I not written that poem. But that sequence of events still seems interlocked, as an eccentric but very real manifestation of "contraries". James Hillman had warned me about attempting to induct the undifferentiated psychic material to be found in prehistoric archetypal images. So maybe I had been "on track" for several years. The fruits of the accident was a longer poem, "Visions of the Fathers of Lascaux," which I wrote partially to pull something positive out of spending three months in a cast.
Writing on Henri Michaux’s art in 1977, Octavio Paz stated: "His paintings are not so much windows that allow us to see another reality as they are holes and openings made by powers on the other side." At 70 now, I continue to work on accessing one kind of the language I hear in dreams, a kind of magnificent nonsense, non-English English which, in the dream, makes perfect non-common sense! Such language is super-egoless, and possibly the presence of that "other side" that Michaux seems to have visualized. I believe this language relates to the language-twisting of shamans, and that it is still writhing, in our subconscious, on the ground floor of poetry. However, like all dreams, it does not transfer directly, effectively, into writing. The dream mind is a rapt spectator which does not reflect on the meaning of what it is beholding or hearing.
When not dreaming these days, the American artist is confronted by a plethora of new information daily on the misdeeds of the Bush administration at home and abroad. Unlike the Vietnam era, there is no artistic mobilization. One is on one’s own. To really follow the news as the writers Eliot Weinberger and Mark Crispin Miller have done is a fulltime job. Aesthetically, one of the most vexing aspects of the present administration is that an artist is forced to give up a lot of traditionally creative time just to keep up on new revelations about the war, torture, renditions, the Patriot Act and the 2004 national election (with probable voting irregularities in 2006 and 2008 now on the horizon), or to disregard this political nightmare completely, and subsequently live as an artist in one’s own little bubble. And if one does not go the bubble route, the more roguery one uncovers or tunes in to, the more one may confront extreme emotions of rage, despair, and bafflement. The news has become a palimpsest of crisscrossing stories and leads. For every uncovered so-called fact one suspects there is a host of supporting and contradictory ones in the shadows. I realize that one reason that I have written poems about art and artists over the past decade is that as complex as Bosch and Golub may be, one is at least on firm ground facing their imaginative elaborations.
It would now seem that with the 20th century re-discovery of the Ice Age painted caves in Europe, we have made contact with what could be thought of as the back wall of image-making which, in its grotesque aspects, evokes mental travel and thus the roots of poetry. While it is possible that there are even older imaginative materials in Africa and Australia, the chances are that people will not uncover on these continents the ancient creative range and quality to be found in such caves as Lascaux and Chauvet. If it is thus thrilling to know where one is ultimately based as an artist, it is equally horrifying to realize that one may also be witnessing the ecological destruction of the fundament that made art possible in the first place. As these massive vectors shift into place and cross, a disturbance in my mind challenges the convictions that I held as a young man: that the most meaningful way I knew of to deal with myself and with the world was to explore poetry and to write it. This is not a back-handed way of suggesting that poetry or art at large is dead, but a recognition that I may be of the first generation to be witness to one of the recuperations of the roots of culture and to the devastations that may make culture as we know it today a thing of the past. No ground opens up under me, no abyss resonates with the magnificent aurochses of Lascaux. There is instead in my heart intensifying sensations of the empty and lifeless space that humankind has always suspected fueled depth and its analogues of loss.
This material is © Clayton Eshleman
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