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Harold Bloom

Revealing the presence of order in “The Idea of Order at Key West”

“The Idea of Order at Key West” was written by Wallace Stevens, a ‘transcendentalist’ in the modernism era. Steven’s poetry reflected works similar to those of Whitman and Wordsworth in that he loved writing on concepts of the natural world to help discover and create personal meaning. Stevens often took vacations to Florida where the serenity of peace and beauty inspired him to write and reflect on deeper philosophical issues such as natural order, chaos, and the deep internal desires of the self (Morse 140). “The Idea of Order at Key West” emphasizes the internal longing to create meaning for order within the natural world, and to discover the role of man’s origin and the self’s purpose. However, in order for such meaning to be made obvious over the chaos, the order at Key West can only be clearly revealed when the beauty and chaos of nature is combined with the role of the poem’s female individual. The poem’s argues that order can be found and already exists among the chaos of nature, but that it takes the individual’s artistic craft to create meaning to make the order’s presence known and evident to the rest of the townsfolk and society.

The first stanza of “The Idea of Order at Key West” introduces two central figures which are used to reveal the poem’s meaning and existence of order: the sea and she. Both of these objects work independently of one another, yet also close together, and require attentiveness to the poem’s themes of imagery and sound so that order can be revealed (Bloom 62). Stanzas one, two, and four, contain descriptive sea imagery which can help one decipher the existence of order within the sea’s chaos. Order within the sea can be seen, but it is primarily masked by Steven’s raw depictions of turmoil, such as “the grinding waters and the gasping wind” (13). Despite this chaotic imagery, the poem goes on to reveal that the sea maintains a powerful consistency of order in that its “waters never formed to mind or voice” but rather remained consistent of that which it was and whose “mimic motion… caused constantly a cry” (2,5). Further support for this existence of order can be read within the opening verse of stanza one, “She sang beyond the genius of the sea” (Stevens 1). Here the language implies that despite the sea’s potential to possess upwellings of turmoil, the sea also possesses ‘genius’, an underlining potential to overcome chaos to regulate life and diversity. Thus the waters of Key West possess both potential for natural chaos as well as order. According to stanza four, these waters can be ‘walled’ with ‘sunken coral,’ and ‘colored by many waves;’ yet due to geographical demarcation along the equator, can also possess a ‘dark voice’ for trouble such as death among species and seasonal abiotic catastrophes. The presence of order can be seen overall within the context of the sea; however, it is and continues to remain unstable because it is constantly undergoing interaction and change. This makes the order difficult to initially discover.

Robert Pack reinforces this idea that the natural world cannot exist without the presence of both order and disorder because “these two things are one” (Pack 130). These two elements must work together to create natural change, and consisted of “Steven’s definition of the world in which we live” (Pack 131). Through “order becoming disorder and disorder becoming order,” the two elements make up a cycle which changes over the course of time (Pack 131). In “The Idea of Order at Key West”, however, Stevens portrayed the townsfolk as failures to recognize that order could be found within natural chaos. Rather than looking for order’s presence in an underlining cyclical concept, the townsfolk’s perception of order’s existence was based dependently upon that which was visibly evident in the experience of the present moment. Thus, this created the need for the role of the female individual.

Throughout the poem, the role of the individual, referred to as ‘She,’ is used to communicate the presence of order among the chaos. This is done through the act of the girl’s song, which breaks the townsfolk’s rational perception of order in that moment, and causes others to stop and ‘listen.’ Without the role of this individual, the townsfolk would continue to lack understanding on the presence of order and its meaning. Steven’s verse “She sang beyond the genius of the sea,” implies that the nature of the song itself contained a unique element which transcended any perspective of chaos and/or beauty that the townsfolk had previously known or experienced (Stevens 1). The simple and structuralized beauty of the art of the song altered the townsfolk’s previous perception on order’s existence around them (Bloom 62); it became captivating and mysterious causing all to stop, and listen:

It was She and not the sea we heard
For She was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing. (Stevens 14-17)

The art (order) of the girl’s song was internally and naturally created within the individual’s self, which when sung, enchanted, deepened and transcended the meaning of order in that moment and allowed others to discover and interpret its origin in a different light.

The order within the art of the girl’s song contained a unique state of ‘unnatural,’ pure order which gave the song’s meaning and words a form of structure. This structure was beautifully arranged and impacted the townsfolk listeners as well as created an internal desire and passion within the listeners to want to pursue the presence of this order more:

More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind…
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. (Stevens 29-30, 37-40)

Unlike the sea, a state of nature that possesses the cyclical relationship between both order and chaos, the art of the song possesses a ‘pure’ state of order which overpowers and sings “beyond the genius of the sea” (Stevens 1). The presence of chaos within this order ceases to exist, and therefore makes the order of the song truly pure and unique to the individual, and unnatural among the understanding of the listeners. Because of this, the listeners, for the first time, are able to both see and hear what order consists of in its purest state despite the disorder of the natural chaos of the sea.

Throughout the song and upon the time that the song of the individual comes to an end, the listeners are overtaken with feelings of awe and contemplation regarding the nature of this unnatural order’s origin. This can be seen in stanzas three and six where the townsfolk ask:

Whose spirit is this? (Stevens 18)
…tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night. (Stevens 44-51)

The order created by the structure of the song impacted the listeners to a point of meaning that transcended their original perception of order’s existence. Not only did this captivate their attention, but it also activated an internal desire which caused them to look for and seek out the meaning of order around them, “in the town” and in the night, in a new, ‘deepening,’ and ‘enchanting’ way (Stevens 48).

The poet closes with the following verses:

Oh! Blessed rage for order…
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
…And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds. (Stevens 52-55)

Here, the poet acknowledges that a ‘blessed rage for order’ is required in life for meaning to be created. The only thing that can do this, however, is an unnatural form of order, disconnected from chaos and nature, which is uniquely pure and originates from the human inner self. Such was the influence produced by the song of the girl at Key West, and remains a unique element, which alongside the use of visual interpretation and the incorporation of keener sounds, allows man to make meaning to share with and/or to inspire others.

Meaning for order consists of more than what is made obvious in the present, but in order for it to be clearly revealed, one has to intently pursue it and/or interpret its meaning through another element. This is expressed in the role of the female individual, and is what Steven’s made evident when one listens for the presence of order within the artistic nature of the girl’s song.

Works Cited
Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens. Ed. Harold Bloom. Broomall: Chelsea House Publishers. 2003. Print. p. 59-64.

Morse, Samuel. Wallace Stevens: Poetry as Life. New York: Pegasua. 1970. Print. p.140.

Pack, Robert. Wallace Stevens: An Approach to His Poetry and Thought. New York: Gordian Press. 1968. Print. p.130-131 and 175-176.

____________________________________
DSC07673 - CopyKatharine Sell is a 3rd year student majoring in Biology focused in coral reef ecology and marine organisms. She enjoys writing in her spare time. She loved exploring ‘meaning’ in “The Idea of Order at Key West” in correlation to her passions for people and all that the sea possesses.

What are some reasons why we read poetry? Why turn to a poem over a novel, a play, a philosophical treatise? In this essay I want to suggest that we turn to poetry out of a fundamental desire to answer the question, How should one live? By making this claim, I am attempting to wonder about poetry’s relationship to the ethical, broadly conceived here as partaking in the four distinctions of ethical criticism as laid out by Wayne Booth in his book The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction and then paraphrased and articulated by Martha Nussbaum in Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. Those distinctions are 1.) Asking of a literary work, as Nussbaum writes, “What relationship does my engagement with it have to my general aim to live well?” 2.) “What sense of life is expressed in this work as a whole?” 3.) As there are “many good things for literature to do and be,” how do we talk about ethical criticism without reducing it to some “single dogmatic theory”? 4.) “What becomes of readers as they read?” (Nussbaum 232-233)

Furthermore, while I am interested in asking these questions more broadly about poetry, my emphasis in this essay will be on the work of John Ashbery, whose work I have found sustaining, consoling, and always interesting for about a decade now. Because the question, “How should one live,” is so resolutely personal, it seems important to choose a poet with whom I also feel – without knowing him personally at all – a kind of personal connection. For if literary works are, as Wayne Booth writes, like friends, and “we can assess our literary relationships in much the same way that we assess our friendships, realizing that we are judged by the company we keep,” then it seemed of the utmost importance to write about a “friend” that has, to paraphrase Nussbaum, enriched my life, however distantly, in a substantial way. (Nussbaum 234) Indeed, one of our greatest readers, Harold Bloom, has written,

Reading well is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you, because it is, at least in my experience, the most healing of pleasures. It returns you to otherness, whether in yourself or in friends, or in those who may become friends. Imaginative literature is otherness, and as such alleviates loneliness. We read not only because we cannot know enough people, but because friendship is so vulnerable, so likely to diminish or disappear, overcome by space, time, imperfect sympathies, and all the sorrows of familial and passional life. (19)

So if Ashbery has been a kind of “good friend” to me over the years, how has his work enriched my life?

2.

Let me start here: I remember vividly the first time I came across Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, at Shamandrum Bookstore in Ann Arbor in 2003. The orange spine of the book caught my attention, and I pulled the slim volume off the bookshelf and read Bloom’s exultant blurb, in which he placed Ashbery in the company of poets like T.S. Eliot and Hart Crane. I opened the book to the first poem, and read

I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.
Elsewhere we are as sitting in a place where sunlight
Filters down, a little at a time,
Waiting for someone to come. Harsh words are spoken,
As the sun yellows the green of the maple tree….
So this was all, but obscurely
I felt the stirrings of new breath in the pages
Which all winter long had smelled like an old catalogue.
New sentences were starting up. But the summer
Was well along, not yet past the mid-point
But full and dark with the promise of that fullness,
That time when one can no longer wander away
And even the least attentive fall silent
To watch the thing that is prepared to happen. (427)

Reading that passage from Ashbery’s “As One Put Drunk Into a Packet-Boat,” I myself “felt the stirrings of new breath in the pages”. There was something mysterious and lyrical about the passage, something exquisite, moving, and funny. Who else wrote in their poems about the “smell of an old catalogue”? What was the “thing” that was prepared to happen? The poem captured the excitement one might feel during the time the symphony warms up, that scintillating sound of instruments testing their timbers, meeting each other in the strange arena of sound, coming together to produce “the promise of that fullness,” for which “the least attentive fall silent / To watch the thing that is prepared to happen.”

I bought the book. I had never come across a poet as suggestive as Ashbery, nor read anyone with such a mastery of language. As a child I had loved The Phantom Tollbooth, and perhaps a part of me was still searching for that one conductor who, as he swung his baton in the air, could orchestrate the movement and color of the sun setting and rising. Ashbery, more than any poet I had read up that point, struck me as that conductor. His poems were participatory events, musical and visual as well as verbal, as rich with fecund possibility as W.H. Auden’s early poems, which I had fallen in love with a few months earlier. And as I read more Ashbery, certain questions began to percolate. The main question was: How could criticism talk about as rich a poet as Ashbery, without somehow suffocating his suggestiveness, his wacky humor, his idiosyncratic and imaginative gifts? Why was I so taken with the poetry?

3.

Richard Rorty has written of Harold Bloom that,

His ideal reader hopes that the next book she reads will recontextualize all the books she has previously read – that she will encounter an authorial imagination so strong as to sweep her off her feet, transport her into a world she has never known existed. In this new world, all the authors and characters with who she has previously been acquainted will look different…The reader’s real-life friends, relations and neighbors will also look different, as will their motives and choices. (390)

I love this quote, because this is exactly what happened when I read Ashbery. I was transported, swept off my feet. Everything I had read up to that point changed – it was if a great shifting occurred in my mind, not exactly suddenly but gradually – and over time I began to compare what I read – mostly 20th century American poetry – with the surprise, enchantment, and supple, tremendous sense of humor and nostalgia I found in Ashbery. And when I found much work lacking in the virtues I admired in Ashbery – taking itself too seriously, say, like in the work at times of W.S. Merwin or T.S. Eliot, or taking itself too un-seriously, like in the work of Allen Ginsberg and many of the Beat poets – I would continually return to Ashbery’s work, still startled, still unsure of how a mind could so continually surprise me with its jarring juxtapositions, its risks, its sheer imaginative chutzpah. As times passed, I became basically in awe of Ashbery’s poems, for I could not find in any poet’s work – with the exception of some major poets, like Stevens, Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop, A.R. Ammons – as ferocious a freshness, a newness, a kind of constantly renewing something that made the poems always delightfully baffling, pulling me into their dazzling fields, astonishing me with their metaphors, and making me gulp with pleasure at their sheer unwillingness to be pigeon-holed in any way.

4.

So, let us return to Nussbaum’s paraphrasing of Booth, What sense of life is expressed in Ashbery’s work as a whole? What relationship does my engagement with it have to my general aim to live well? For this we have to look at a poem. Hence, here is a shorter poem, “Spring Cries,” from Ashbery’s book from 1994, called And the Stars Were Shining:

Our worst fears are realized.
Then a string of successes, or failures, follows.
She pleads with us to say: “Stay,
just for a minute, can’t you?”

We are expelled into the dust of our decisions.
Knowing it would be this way hasn’t
made any of it easier to understand, or bear.
May is raving. Its recapitulations

exhaust the soil. Across the marsh,
some bird misses its mark, walks back, sheepish, cheeping.
The isthmus is gilded white. People are returning
to the bight: adult swimmers, all of them. (4)

How do we read this poem? Where do we draw the line between description and metaphor? For example, how does one read “The isthmus is gilded white” – is this literally a description of an isthmus, perhaps alluding to the way the sun hits it at a particular hour, or is there something about the isthmus being “gilded white” to suggest bafflement, bewilderment, or even a kind of tentative beauty? But let me first back up. Notice the way the poem begins, by refusing to make a statement that cannot itself be contradicted. “Our worst fears are realized” we read, and we think “oh no! This is likely to be a sad or mournful poem” – at which point we read, “Then a string of successes, or failures, follows.” Suddenly we are completely in the Ashberian universe, where “either/or” is constantly exploded to make way for “both.” And the first two lines are general enough to relate to anyone reading – who hasn’t experienced failure and success in ways that are always unpredictable? And who hasn’t heard the desperation and sadness of someone asking, “Stay, just for a minute, can’t you?”

The poem therefore evidences an exhaustion, a sort of uncaring about what happens next – success or failure, who cares? They both simply ebb and flow, lapping up onto the sand of our lives in ways we can never hope to predict or anticipate. Better to simply stand apart without attaching too much sense or meaning to these changes (?). But if this is the speaker’s stance, what is ours? Do we agree with the speaker? Do we empathize with him or her? Of course, at certain times in our lives we would agree; at other times we might not. Either way, Ashbery says, “We are expelled into the dust of our decisions,” though this knowledge is not easy to “understand, or bear.” For the world, like the month of May, is “raving” – crazy, loony, enigmatic, never to be fully understood. And all the iterations of May, unlike what we normally associate with spring, do not cause a regeneration of the soil but instead “exhaust” it.

As we continue to read the poem, it becomes clear to us that the poem is just general enough for us to relate to it, but just particular enough for us to be aware of a different speaker speaking, and of the multitude of possibilities that might have been spoken instead. For couldn’t this just as likely have been a poem of celebration of May? Instead, however, the poem is about a kind of sad human incompetence, finitude. For even the bird on the marsh, we learn, feels “sheepish” and “misses the mark.” And then the very enigmatic ending, which I read as suggesting a kind of futility related to everything that is happening around the speaker – still, despite all of our successes and failures, and our inability to know which will come next, still we jump into the water, we jump into the next bend in our fate, somehow willingly, even as adults! What a weird and revolting and exhausting (and amazing?) state of affairs!

I want to emphasize again here that the sense of life as expressed in this poem is a contingent one, based upon the speaker’s circumstances and place at the time of the writing of the poem. Whether Ashbery is making up a speaker, or is articulating his own particular worldview at the moment, is unimportant. What is important is that we are being presented with a whole worldview, a whole philosophy, and we are then asked to wonder about it, to be made aware that, like the speaker, we are particular people in a particular time with our own preoccupations, and that here is an entirely different person with his or her own idiosyncratic and interesting preoccupations. Naturally, then, we might wonder, What are our own idiosyncratic and interesting preoccupations? If we were the speaker of the poem, would we lend more credence to agency? Would we agree with what we perceive to be the speaker’s exhaustion? Do we nod our heads knowingly or raise an eyebrow as if to say, Is this really how we feel about things?

5.

See how the poem, then, occasions such ethical reflections, merely by unfolding its own kind of logic of particulars. And this thickness of description, this polytheistic quest, seems to be the reason why Rorty and Martha Nussbaum praise the novel as a moral agent, (although they might as well be praising poetry as well), capable of nothing less than, in Nussbaum’s words,

psuchagogia (leading of the soul), in which methodological and formal choices on the part of the teacher or writer [are] bound to be very important for their eventual result: not just because of their instrumental role in communication, but also because of the values and judgments they themselves [express] and their role in the adequate stating of a view. (16-17)

“The values and judgments they themselves [express] and their role in the adequate stating of a view” – in our case, a view in “Spring Cries” that life is absurd, hard-to-grasp, frustrating and sometimes exhausting. But remember – this is the speaker speaking. And Ashbery’s poems are rife with polyvocality, with an almost perverse pleasure in a chorus of voices and images jostling against each other, all competing for our attention, all calling attention to what Nussbaum calls “the incommensurability of our values,” how we are incapable of prioritizing our real values but instead must learn to be as responsive as possible to the “ethical relevance of circumstances.” (37) And the plethora of vocabularies and idioms and tones that Ashbery employs means that one quickly learns to become sensitive to many things in his poems, including tone, mood, word choice, rhythm, allusion, “subject matter” and much more. For this reason, Ashbery’s poems are both about moral progress as increased sensitivity, or the ethical relevance of circumstances, while at the same time they enact this kind of moral progress in the reader, through his or her process of deep reading. By sensitizing the reader to a larger and more diverse set of possibilities, Ashbery’s poetry serves as a kind of poetic guidebook of what Wallace Stevens, another life-teacher, called “How to Live, What to Do.”

6.

“What becomes of readers as they read?” Nussbaum writes of an “ethical ability that I call “perception”:…By this I mean the ability to discern, acutely and responsively, the salient features of one’s particular situation.” (37) Earlier in the same chapter she poses these questions:

Then, too, what overall shape and organization does the text seem to have, and what type and degree of control does the author present himself as having over the material? Does he, for example, announce at the outset what he is going to establish and then proceed to do just that? Or does he occupy, instead, a more tentative and uncontrolling relation to the matter at hand, one that holds open the possibility of surprise, bewilderment, and change? Do we know at the outset what the format and overall shape of the text is going to be? And how does it construct itself as it goes, using what methods? (33)

Hopefully it is clear at this point that Ashbery occupies “a more tentative and uncontrolling relation to the matter at hand, one that holds open the possibility of surprise, bewilderment, and change.” But what methods, as Nussbaum insightfully asks, does the poem use to construct itself? To attempt to answer these questions requires looking at one more poem. Here is the first stanza of “Valentine,” from Houseboat Days.

Like a serpent among roses, like an asp
Among withered thornapples I coil to
And at you. The name of the castle is you,
El Rey. It is an all-night truck stop
Offering the best coffee and hamburgers in Utah.
It is most beautiful and nocturnal by daylight.
Seven layers: moss-agate, coral, aventurine,
Carnelian, Swiss lapis, obsidian – maybe others.
You know now that it has the form of a string
Quartet. The different parts are always meddling with each other,
Pestering each other, getting in each other’s way
So as to withdraw skillfully at the end, leaving – what?
A new kind of emptiness, maybe bathed in freshness,
Maybe not. Maybe just a new kind of emptiness.

What is this poem talking about? How do we account for a poem that covers, in fourteen lines, serpents, castles, truck stops, Swiss lapis, a string quartet, and “a new kind of emptiness”?

Perhaps we can get at the meaning of this poem by investigating Ashbery’s usage of “you,” and placing this in the context of moral progress as increased sensitivity. For what is “you” in this poem? You are the name of a castle, an all-night truck stop, something beautiful and nocturnal, with the form of a string quartet. With each iteration of “you,” the poem expands our self-image, calling our attention to aspects of our experience and world that are not typically represented as thematic matter in a poem (say, an all night truck stop in Utah juxtaposed with the name of a castle). (In this sense, we might say that Ashbery’s quest is analogous to Whitman’s, in that both provide us with catalogues and categories that extend the boundaries of what we consider to be important, what we value.) It’s as if each iteration, each part of the catalogue, widens the circle of our self-image. In doing so, in pushing back the thresholds for what we consider parts of our community, our deep ethnocentrism, they redescribe us, and in doing so, redescribe our values. The poem is a microcosm of society, in which

The different parts are always meddling with each other,
Pestering each other, getting in each other’s way
So as to withdraw skillfully at the end, leaving – what?
A new kind of emptiness, maybe bathed in freshness,
Maybe not. Maybe just a new kind of emptiness.

What do all our interactions amount to? Simply and complexly the moment of our attention, the “mooring of our starting out,” an increased sensitivity to our particular circumstances. It is perhaps a “fresh emptiness,” meaning an invigorating life unclouded somewhat by the insidious quality of our devotions to overly abstract concepts like “Reason” or “Reality,” or it is just an emptiness, a kind of existential echo chamber or vacuum in which we make transitory meanings that importantly create hope for a better future and greater understanding, but which still take place in a world shorn of metaphysics, or absolutes, or, as Rorty puts it, “neutral starting points for thought.”

7.

Perhaps it is because there are no “neutral starting points for thought” that Ashbery begins his poems so often en media res. For it is a strategy that immediately evokes in the reader a bewilderment, a sense of not knowing where exactly he or she is, and this carries over, then, into the reader’s own situation while reading: How did we end up where we are? The effect of beginning in the middle of things prompts us to move from the microcosm of the poem to the macrocosm of our lives: What strange confluence of fate and chance has been orchestrated to work to produce the rather miraculous equilibrium in which we sit and read? What kind of balance does our present place in the universe suggest, and how in the world did we wind up where we are? These questions are raised instantaneously as we begin many Ashbery poems; which is to say, that many of Ashbery’s poems serve promptly to historicize us, while at the same time force us to directly participate in the poem, for if we don’t know where we are in the poem, the best we can do is focus and see if we can get our bearings within the poem. How is reality any different? Ashbery’s poems, in their self-consciousness, in their method of decentered unfolding, recreate for us a scene of living, in which we are compelled to participate and imagine in order to reach any tentative understandings about the poem, as about life.

This is what becomes of us as we read – we become more responsive and more perceptive as readers. “The resulting liberation,” Rorty writes,

may, of course, lead one to try to change the political or economic or religious or philosophical status quo. Such an attempt may begin a lifetime of effort to break through the received ideas that serve to justify present-day institutions. But it also may result merely in one’s becoming a more sensitive, knowledgeable, wiser person…the change is not a matter of everything falling nicely into place, fitting together beautifully. It is instead a matter of finding oneself transported, moved to a place from which a different prospect is available. (390 – 391)

Sources

Ashbery, John. Collected Poems, 1956 – 1987. New York: Library of America, 2008. Print.

Ashbery, John. And the Stars Were Shining. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994. Print.

Bloom, Harold. How to Read and Why. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000. Print.

Nussbaum, Martha. Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Print.

Voparil, Christopher J., and Richard Bernstein eds. The Rorty Reader. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.

Gene-cov-lg

Gene Tanta begins his first book of poems, Unusual Woods, with a 20-page essay that takes shots at T.S. Eliot, Harold Bloom and others. Why does he do this and what is he trying to say?

Surrealism and one of its American progeny, Deep Image poetry, have never been fully accepted. Their stock has taken a dip in the last few decades. But they are still with us, and they shape our contemporary poetry scene arguably as much as any of the other big guns of modern poetry: Whitman, Imagism, Symbolism.

What Gene Tanta has done in Unusual Woods is take the project of Deep Image poetry, which is to recuperate and shape myths from the images buried in our collective unconscious, and make it local rather than universal. In particular, he is assembling images from various fragments of his Romanian immigrant “area” of the collective unconscious. (The collective unconscious is of course a Jungian concept made famous by archetypal criticism and the Deep Image poets. It is the idea that the collective memories of the human race emerge in various forms, such as myths, folklore and the like.)

As I said, Tanta makes poetry out of his Romanian immigrant “area” of the collective unconscious. I say it this way because it is different from any of the following: (a) poetry built on the cultural memory particular only to the Romanian and/or Romanian immigrant experience, (b) the rendering of images and myths only for Romanians, or (c) a poetry that has a particularly Romanian (political) subtext. Instead, Tanta realizes that while his personal and Romanian self is reflected in his work, his American immigrant experience (and his generally human experience) is as well. In fact, the images that make up the 13-line demi-sonnets of Unusual Woods are universally human (while being contemporary). And he is creating “myths” that are universal.

So why does Tanta make such a big deal about his heritage and immigrant identity? In effect, Tanta is doing what any Deep Image poet does (or did)—we all make what we can out of the pieces of the collective unconscious that have been lodged in our particular psyches. A Jungian expects no more or less of anyone. The difference between Tanta and the traditional Deep Image approach is that Tanta foregrounds the particularity and individuality of his own memories and experiences. He knows his cultural biography is the lens through which he experiences and makes sense of his American (and generally human) experience.

This is a level of introspection that most of the Deep Image poets cared only somewhat about. (Jerome Rothenberg is an obvious exception, but he is better understood as the arbiter of ethnopoetics.) The others, such as Robert Bly, James Wright, Robert Kelly, are fully invested in the project of finding (somewhat interchangeably) universal and American myths. Also, in as far as they saw themselves as continuing the project of the great modernists, especially the Imagists, these poets were loosely committed to poetry as a universal art form, even if they didn’t take it quite as far as to say a poem exists only as an aesthetic object. These days, our claims about poetry are more modest. We recognize that the role of cultural biography inevitably ties our writing to material, contextual existence.

Recent decades have seen a surge in the “hybrid” poetries of American immigrants. What is particularly interesting about this poetic scene is that Eastern European poets writing as immigrants in English seem, generally, to be keenly aware of the “hybrid” quality of their poetry—they know they have more than one tap root in cultural experience. And yet, they remain ambiguous, or even agnostic, about what the particular components of this hybrid poetics are.

In his essay, however, Tanta offers at least a few concrete explanations. First, he, as an ESL poet, experiences idiomatic language as non-transparent. This shapes his experience of the language, which results in poetry that, like misunderstood idioms, mean different things to different readers: “As a form of linguistic irony, the idiomatic expression itself stands for two things at once, which of these two things the reader comes away with depends on the community with which the reader identifies” (30). This makes our reading of the text contingent and plural.

Another, more significant aspect of Tanta’s cultural biography comes from the mash-up of linguistic elements present within the Romanian tongue—partly Western Latinism, partly mongrelized Turkish and Slavic, Romanian has shaped the way Tanta approaches reality: “My own resistance to binary thinking feels ‘implicit’ and ‘experiential’ . . . and manifests in my practiced refusal to fit into categories of Romanian or American, Poet or Artist, Aesthete or Propagandist” (33). The claim is elemental and common, but it is essential: it’s not simply that different “content” is being inserted into our brains—it’s also that cultural and linguistic features have constructed our consciousness to process the content differently.

Ultimately, though, Tanta wants to have it both ways, and I think he is right. Even though both the form and content of Tanta’s work are particular to his Romanian-immigrant experience, he insists that his poetry is accessible to everyone. His poetry, he says, exists both as aesthetic objects and political propaganda. This is absolutely true about all poetry, not just his own. Inevitably, literary criticism will come to see that literature is always both. Most critics probably know this but have allowed themselves to stray from this obvious fact because the theory wars have created a false dichotomy between cultural and formalist criticism. Tanta brings us back to earth. We all experience texts as both universal and particular—both aesthetic and political:

I will not commit the essentialist error of taking myth of origin . . . only literally or figuratively: both the practical hardships of dislocation and the aesthetic insights that may accompany such cultural shifting go into creating our myths of origin. Cultural identity has multiple and simultaneous histories and motivating factors but this does [not] make it arbitrary. (35)

Later, he writes, “As a poet, I am interested in what the English language can do through how I use it. . . . As a critic, I am faced with the paradox that a poem operates both as an object with aesthetic form and as a process with social content” (36).

Tanta’s essay offers a corrective to the rest of the poetry world. Our readings need to focus on and scrutinize the dialectic between cultural biography and aesthetic form. Tanta claims merely that we need to do so if we are to understand his poetry, but it is not hard to see the wider implications of his argument—this goes for all literary texts. My own sense is that literary criticism has been beating around this bush for a while, even though when we are reading in our right minds most of us would probably concede this fact without difficulty. Many of us are probably already on board with this. Still, there is a notable absence of theory that directly targets the relationship between cultural biography and aesthetics. It’s odd and rather shocking.

Next time I will look at the poems of Unusual Woods, which are gorgeous and demonstrate what Tanta is saying in his essay. It is rewarding to read a poet who is willing explain his poetic approach and is knowledgeable enough to understand it without self-delusion.

There is an inwardness so vast, so total, that it has a true integrity—not the pretentiousness of artistic temper, not the vanity of professional mysticism, not the neurosis of social anxiety disorder, but a forthrightness, an honorable, hourly withdrawal from the world that seems, for lack of a better word—ecstatic. Emily Dickinson’s passes this test fro me so that, beyond her artistic temper, and beyond her neurotic social anxiety, and beyond her “Bride of calvary” routine, her retreat seems legitimate, necessary, vital. It shames me. It makes me want to be a better man, though not enough to change my life.

Dickinson’s gate keepers make me vomit. Her worshipers make me want to kick them in the shins. Her poems have the same effect upon me as the transports of saints. Before them I want to droop my head, and surrender like the unicorn, and let the little tough guys from the middle ages sink their spears into me. I sense the true virgin—not the prude, not the sexless, shrill old maid of 19th century households (though she wears those uniforms), but the true virgin—intense, blessed with a mystical and erotic chastity.

Poem 258 by Emily Dickinson stirs this sense in me, but not as an isolated particular. I do not read poems in isolation. They leap their borders, and commune with other acts of language, with other slants of light. My favorite poems do not exist as singular deeds.. This is not my absolute favorite by Emily, but it comes close (My favorite begins “I dreaded that first robin so”). 258 is one of her more canonical poems, and Harold Bloom has explicated it well. I do not compete with Harold, but I am taking it from a different angle.

Poem 258

There’s a certain slant of light,
Winter afternoons—
that oppresses, like the heft
of Cathedral tunes—

Heavenly hurt, it gives us—
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the meanings, are—

None may teach it—any—
“tis the Seal Despair—
An Imperial affliction,
Sent us of the air—

When it comes, the landscape listens—
Shadows—hold their breath—
When it goes, “tis like the Distance
On the look of Death—

When I first read this poem, I was fifteen, and reading Saint Theresa of Avila’s account of her vision:

I saw an angel close by me, on my left side in bodily form. This I am not accustomed to see unless very rarely. Though I have visions of angels frequently, yet I see them only by an intellectual vision, such as I have spoken of before. It was our Lord’s will that in this vision I should see the angel in this wise. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful – his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Cherubim…I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of his goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

The imagery in Dickinson’s poem seemed familiar to me— the certain slant of light I had experienced in countless works of art from the high masters. A “certain slant of light” does not have to be the product of knowing the New England Winter. It can as readily come from having read deeply and looked at reproductions of the Florentine Masters (especially when one considers how much Emily loved the Brownings, and their Roman retreat, and that her father’s amazing library no doubt contained such picture books). Her comparing this slant to the heft of cathedral tunes, making this light as heavy as the bar of a cross, and creating one of the most wonderful examples of synesthesia in American poetry… well, I took all that for granted.

Being a Catholic, it did not seem complex or baffling to me—but wonderfully accurate. Light when it is slanted is always certain, and seems to have mass—like a board of wood, and, given the imperial despair in the later part of the poem, and given my own inundation in both the mystical and erotic agony of the Catholic Church, I had no trouble with this. I found it remarkable because it seemed so precise—as true and as ordinary as Theresa seeing angels, and yet it was coming from a woman in the heart of the Puritan tradition— a tradition that did its best to tame all such erotic/mystical transports. I remember sitting there and thinking: “Wow, I love this poem. She must have read Theresa of Avila, too.”
This sort of reading is heretical, as heretical as Emily. The mind selects its own anthology, paring off poets who no self respecting scholar would place in the same room, but I think it not an unlikely pairing. Both Theresa and Emily were practical women. Though Emily reduced her world to her house, she was convivial, even wickedly funny within its protective borders, and St. Theresa had just as wicked and satirical a sense of humor as she rode about Spain, founding convents and reforming the church. Both had the gift of mystics: to normalize the extraordinary, and to make extraordinary the common, the lowly:

“heavenly hurt it gives us—
we can find no scar,”

“the pain is not bodily but spiritual”

“None may teach it—any
’tis the Seal despair—
An imperial affliction,
Sent us of the air”

“The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it.”

The imperial seal of despair, Dickinson’s whole take on despair is not far removed from St. John’s Dark night of the Soul, or Theresa’s sense of a pain so excessive yet more desirable than any earthly pleasure. Mystics slaughter the dialectical oppositions by investing the “value” of one extreme of the dialectic with the qualities of the other. Despair is, in Emily’s mystical realm, a sort of ultimate triumph. The first is last and the last first, not to reverse priority, but to re-invest the dialectical oppositions with their original spiritual freshness and force.

We should not be surprised by the eroticism of Dickinson or Theresa, and just as I know my imposition of my Catholic upbringing upon this poem is not one of scholarly argument, but of a chance leap in my mind between these great woman figures, so, too, the imposition of contemporary ideas of sexuality, Emily’s lesbianism, is a limited reading of her work. To look for evidence of her sexuality is like 19th-century scholars looking for historic proof of Jesus. It somewhat misses the mark. Emily’s eroticism, and much of it could be interpreted as towards the female, is ordinary and even defining as part of the mystical tradition. Her love of Keats would make her prone to such mystical oxymorons. In such a realm, the pure music becomes the spiritual ditties of no tone. In Dickinson, chastity, virginity becomes the purest form of eroticism. It makes sense within the verbal construct of mystical oxymoron. In this realm, it is most divine horse sense.

I am not through with this poem. In a 2nd post I hope to write, I’ll remember how I came to know that Elizabeth Barrett Browning (more so than even Robert) was of great importance to Emily, as was Keats, and that the famous couple’s abiding interest in the Franciscan heretics of the mystical persuasion may have had as much to do with her refusal to officially surrender to faith as any other reason proffered.

My overall point is that the leaps and landscapes we enter through reading are every bit as real as actual locales and travels.

Below are some candid photos I’ve taken of Poetryland’s Personalities.

“One of the marks of our world is perhaps this reversal: we live according to a generalized image-repertoire. Consider the United Sates, where everything is transformed into images: only images exist and are produced and are consumes… Such a reversal necessarily raises the ethical question: not that the image is immoral, irreligious, or diabolic (as some have declared it, upon the advent of the Photograph), but because, when generalized, it completely de-realizes the human world of conflicts and desires, under cover of illustrating it.”

“Each photograph is read as the private appearance of its referent: the age of Photography corresponds precisely to the explosion of the private into the public, or rather into the creation of a new social value, which is the publicity of the private: the private is consumes as such, publicly.”

“The Photograph is an extended, loaded evidence — as if it caricatured not the figure of what it represents (quite the converse) but its very existence… The Photograph then becomes a bizarre medium, a new form of hallucination: false on the level of perception, true on the level of time: a temporal hallucination, so to speak, a modest, shared hallucination (on the one hand ‘it is not there,’ on the other ‘but it has indeed been’): a mad image, chafed by reality.”

‘Crusoe in England’ was first published in The New Yorker in 1971, then later collected in ‘Geography III,’ perhaps Bishop’s finest single volume of poems. (Only recently I discovered the title of which was suggested to her by John Ashbery. He had found a little geography textbook of the eponymous name, and sent it to her, thinking she’d rather enjoy it. Turns out, she did.)

I can’t help thinking ‘Crusoe in England’ is Bishop’s greatest poem, though Bishop is the type of figure who inspires worshippers, and therefore, nearly all of her poems are considered The Greatest, The Most Favorite, The Defining Classic: ‘The Fish,’ ‘At the Fishhouses,’ ‘One Art’ (which wears on me), ‘The Man-Moth,’ etc. Ashbery’s favorite is characteristically ‘Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance.’ After reading it, he wrote Bishop his first and only fan letter and attached the poem he wrote in tribute ‘Soonest Mended.’ Ashbery also adores ‘A Miracle for Breakfast’ for the charm of a strict form like the sestina depicting a daily meal (one thinks of a Fairfield Porter interior in the Bonnard style, teacups and silverware placed around a family dinner table next to a copy of Wallace Stevens’ poems). Helen Vendler’s favorite is ‘Brazil, January 1, 1502’—or maybe it’s simply the poem of Bishop’s she has written most beautifully about. Harold Bloom’s favorite is a small gem from her first book, ‘The Unbeliever,’ which he finds to be a pure Romantic lyric in the Shelleyian vein. Christopher Ricks once told me how much he cherished ‘The Filling Station,’ though he has reservations about EB, and prefers her prose. Scott Cairns—like Mark Strand—thinks ‘The Monument’ a perfect poem because it is enacts what it describes, full of those tromp l’oeil effects where poems step off the page: “Look!” (Similar grand examples of this: Keats’ ‘This Living Hand,’ Ashbery’s ‘The Instruction Manual.’) And while I know Merrill considered her the greatest poet of his time (like many others: Randal Jarrell, Robert Lowell), I’m not sure which was his favorite poem. ‘Pink Dog’ is surely the most Merrillesque—for its astute powers of observation mixed with the reticence of its sophistication. It’s a mellow poem that reminds me how much both poets really learned from Auden.

Clearly, she was and is a well-loved poet. I’ve been using ‘the greatest’ and ‘favorite’ almost interchangeably, which is not quite right. ‘Crusoe in England’ might be both for me, though I admit to always having had a soft spot for ‘North Haven.’ Was a more intimate and moving elegy ever written by one poet for another? As Bishop said to Lowell in a letter: “I want to be heartbreaking.” ‘North Haven’ is compactest proof.

So what’s so amazing and appealing about ‘Crusoe in England’? For starters, it’s one of Bishop’s longest poems, if not the longest; it was written towards the end of her life, and in it, one finds an entire life—Crusoe’s (i.e. Bishop’s)—compressed soberly, hauntingly. Bishop was a wordsmith but in her poetry she is no less a painter: the array of detail is uncannily fresh, mostly for its accuracy, but no less for its originality. Steam rises in the distance from the volcanoed island like flies; the volcanoes themselves stand like mountains with their heads blown off. Every sense has been answered to, from the smell of guano to the touch and texture of the hissing lava, the rolling gulls and quaking turtles, the horrifying baby goats.

Still, previous poems of hers have shown the same brilliance and grace of description. In ‘Crusoe,’ that painterly hand is matched with a cadence of melancholy and surrender that comes from staring back at the unexpected—or was it expected?—course of a single life. “None of the books has ever got it right.” “Beautiful, yes, but not much company.” “I often gave way to self-pity.” These asides, seemingly dropped down in the poem carelessly, are the signs of her mastery. The voice of this poem, like its tone, betrays her inimitable dramatic understatement. It reminds me of the quietness of Auden’s love lyrics, or the intimacy of Coleridge’s Conversation Poems. And speaking of Coleridge, of whom Bishop was a lifelong devotee, ‘Crusoe’ is also a poem suffused with allusions to Romanticism—there’s the title character, of course, written in the vein of 19th century adventure travelogues; there’s also the Wordsworth quote from ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.’ I also hear in her hallucinated sunsets that mysterious ballad ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ And then in her play of Mont d’Espoir for Mount Despair—a telling trickery, that is so reserved, and sad—you also see a wink at Shelley and Wordsworth who found in the Alps something like a confrontation with existential reality—a sublime affirmation for one, a sublime negation for the other.

Bishop spent most of her adult life in Brazil, away from academia and the limelight she had received ever since Marianne Moore brought her to the attention of the general reading public. An orphan, an exile, a lesbian—all of these personal histories are entwined in ‘Crusoe in England’ that underscores how her life ended. Bishop would return to America, die in Cambridge, having survived the love of her life’s suicide. Her last days were as a professor at Harvard. As the title belies, the adventures have ended. Crusoe is back in England, Bishop in the States. Just as Crusoe’s imaginative paraphernalia have been incased in museum glass, so have Bishop’s manuscripts and poems been handed over to other people. What ultimately remains of any artist’s life but an attempt to make some lasting object? That’s the Ovidian monument against time, yes, but it’s also another momentum mori. Art may go on, we certainly don’t. Like Don Quixote waking from his reveries to find himself the published character in his mad odyssey, we—like Crusoe, like even the great poet Elizabeth Bishop—are defeated by reality.

You can read and hear her reciting “Crusoe in England” at Poetryarchive.org. Below, a recording of Bishop reading “In the Waiting Room.”

Elizabeth Bishop – In the Waiting Room .mp3