Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Poetic Manifesto II

What Passes for Poetic manifesto, Part the Second

When confronted with the idea of revisiting a Poetic Manifesto on the Poetry of Witness, I kept drawing a blank wilderness, but then, slowly, I came to realize that the abstraction of nouns are, at best, a vague idea. That language itself fails me. I am drawn back to an imagist quote: “not ideas, but things.” And I began to realize that the tangible comfort of concrete things is how I define my poetic world. I think in terms of things—like a Joseph Cornell assemblage box. I see in terms of visual metaphors: This is to this as that is to that, which is related to that other artifact...  A scientific observation: compare/contrast. This tactic is how I render my world into poetics, though it feels  a bit like trying to describe light to a blindman. Or as philosopher John Locke put it in 1690 in “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” For, words being sounds, can produce in us no other simple ideas than of those very sounds; nor excite any in us, but by that voluntary connexion which is known to be between them and those simple ideas which common use has made them the signs of.

The visual world is my first language, words are but translations from an unnamable place where ideas come from. Unnamable signifiers. I say unnamable because I suspect that visual comparisons too are translation. A ready means of escape from a harsh world. The abstraction of words come from the stacking of things, like so many logs to build that cabin my grandmother who had eight screaming kids, always longed for—escape to a bee-loud glade.  Ergo, to witness is to observe, and to react to that witnessing requires the rendering of an image into the poetic mind where it takes on new characteristics and becomes a solitary act outside of the mirror of self.

I inherited my grandmother’s dream to escape from this world, to enter into another reality. Call it the Otherworld—a parallel that coexists alongside this world. I wanted to believe in its existence. Yeats’ dream, or the collective dreams of medieval Irish druii agus filidhe agus seanachie cum-monks in search of Tír na n-Óg, or God. After getting their mitts on the apocryphal gospel of St. James, they had a field day. Excluded from Babel, (an oversight, of course), they could freely render their own alternate universe to suit their needs, in order to belong to the Judeo-Christian world. Lacking in desert wilderness, they brought the idea of desert to Ireland and then transformed it. Diseart. The Emerald Isle never yet yielded a decent desert except for a dry pub on a blue moon), and so the hermit’s hut deep in the woods, a cell on Skellig Micheál, or a cabin on a lake isle on Inishfree, became their desert, a place for the idea of bearing witness, a symbol for the search of God in the wilderness. A signified place for God to exist, therefore ergo sum: I am.

In “Meditation at Lagunitas” Inverness poet Robert Hass, wrote: Each particular erases from the clarity of a general idea... and the more I try and define it, the more it gets erased. Or the lake waters, ruffled by an offshore wind, churn and muddy the idea until I’m left adrift on a small boat and the oars are commas separating things and worlds. A collision of rock and thought, the sea beckoning. Yeats was a young man when he wrote that most anthologized of poems, “Lake Isle of Inishfree”; he later wanted to take it back, calling it a fraud, but there it was, published for the world to see. An artifact. He wanted to control it, master it, but poetry isn’t like that. It has its own hidden agenda. As does the poetry of witness. It’s more like a Nantucket sleighride—you just hold on for dear life and come out into another world inhabited with the testimony of strange juxtapositions.

UC Berkeley professor emeritus, Julian Boyd, said that when English was codified in the 17th c.: the Siamese twins “will” and “shall” were severed from each other—as an Anglo bishop put it: the correct use of “will” and “shall” which separates men from beasts—was established. He was referring to that quare Hiberno-English usage of Will you be having a bit of coal on the fire now? versus the right proper: Shall I put more coals on the fire?  ...using language to  scientifically establish Anglo superiority over the Irish who were little better than “beasts of burden.” Language as a weapon. My grandmother said: Tír gan teanga, tír gan anim: a country without a tongue is a country without a soul—the Irish idea of revenge is to use the language of the enemy against him. Joyce, Beckett and Wilde—bearing hard witness on the properties of the English language come to mind.

English distinguishes between desire, belief and intention: most other languages don’t. Will = duty /oath/ promise/ belief; versus Shall = intention/prediction/desire. The ability to dream and manifestation/ implementation of will... I will live alone in a bee-loud glade... A performative speech act of free will is “to witness.” This process happens between the act of witness and the place where the origin of words forms a semiotics that we happen to call reality. What Aristotle called praxis: doing/action. The only sentences that matter are T/F; everything else is religion or poetry.

Philosopher Roland Barthes states that both the literal and figurative definitions give a text its multi-lingual nature. Metaphor makes a text plural, since with more synonyms and “forms of language,” the text is multiplied in both quantity and meaning. Ergo, metaphor requires translation. Charles Simic states in his notebooks that something before language exists, and that everything is translation. He maintains that poetry is not what gets lost in translation but the orphan of silence because:
I’m one of those who believes that there is something that preceded language. The usual view is that there is some kind of equivalence between thought and language; if you can’t verbalize it you can’t think it. I’ve always felt there is a stage that precedes verbalization, a complexity of experience  that consists of things not yet brought into consciousness, not yet existing as language but as some sort of inner pressure.  (Bruce Wiegel, ed. “Charles Simic: Essays on the Poetry” Univ. of Michigan Press,1996; Bruce Bond; p157).

According to UC Berkeley Celtic Studies & Rhetoric professor Daniel Melia, that image/idea precedes thought/language is an age-old debate. That inner pressure is the natal ground of witness compelling us to act. Something pre-lingual behind the epiglottis and the tongue. The idea of separation and exile also enters into it, giving us the distance, the lens by which to observe/write. History tells us what happened; poetry tells us what ought to have happened, said Herodotus. Plato saw poetry as a mirror of history. He said, Fine ideas are the father of poetry, words are the mother of poetry: poetry takes after its mother.  But Plato banned poetry from his Republic because it upset the emotional equilibrium of the psyche and gave no truth of its own. Did Plato mean answer vs truth?

To witness is not just the seeking of truth, but it requires an act of translation. Equivalencies. Simic utilizes the visual cortex as a more accurate form of witness. Many of his poems are the laying down of multiple visual images juxtaposed to create a larger picture which we enter, with our differing portmanteaux of experience. The exact combination of cumulative events whether, real or dreamed, becomes a form of witness.
While Simic never imposes a moral obligation on poets to reveal truth in this authentic manner, he does say that poets seem to be able to make more sense of this age of uncertainty than other artists.... Bruce Weigel asks how Simic reconciles the larger forms of history...with ‘the more exclusive forms’ of art. (Ibid; Brian Avery, p.88).
And Simic refers us back like a möbius loop to the philosopher Martin Heidegger:
Already Hölderlin asked the question: ‘...and what are the poets good for in a destitute time?’ And Heidegger replies: ‘in the age of the world’s night, the abyss of the word must be experienced and endured....’ ...poetry says more about the psychic life  of any age that any other art. Poetry is the place where all the fundamental questions are asked about the human condition.... Our situation is impossible, and, therefore, ideal for philosopher and poets. (Ibid; Brian Avery, p.89).

Our situation is impossible, therefore ideal. Shipwrecked, we are adrift in a sea of ambiguity. This is our stance of witness. To create an integral order from the Charybdic void of  informis is to land on a desert island, to write “I am” in the sand of that undiscovered country. But John Locke bemoaned the lack specificity in words, how they ultimately fail and betray us. As the exiled Indian writer Salman Rushdie put it: A poet's work is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it from going to sleep.  But it is indeed a solitary monkish position. As the exiled Paistinian poet Mahmoud Darwish noted: You are my country...but I am a stranger, always a stranger:...stripped of identity...those who pass between fleeting words carry your names...above us, as above you are sky and air...

We are alone. We are alone to the point of drunkenness with our own aloneness, with the occasional rainbow visiting...The prisoner said to the interrogator. 'My heart is full of that which is of no concern to you. My heart is full of the aroma of sage. My heart is innocent, radiant the remains of dawn I walk outside of my own being...’

5/7/03; rev 5/14

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