Wednesday, May 7, 2003

What Passes for Poetry of Witness, Part the Second (draft)

What Passes for Poetry of Witness, Part the Second (draft)

When confronted with the idea of revisiting a Poetic Manifesto, the Poetry of Witness, I keep drawing a blank wilderness, but then, slowly, I come to realize that the abstraction of nouns are, at best, a vague idea. That language fails me. I am drawn back to an imagistic quote, “not ideas, but things.” And I come to realize that the tangible comfort of concrete things is what defines my poetic world. I think in things—like a Joseph Cornell box. The abstractions come from the stacking of things, like so many logs to build that cabin my grandmother who had eight screaming kids, always longed for in a bee-loud glade.
I inherited her dream. Yeats’ dream, or collective dreams of medieval Irish monks in search of God, after getting their mitts on the apochryphal gospel of St. James. Lacking in desert wilderness, they brought the idea of desert to Ireland and then transformed it. The Emerald Isle never yet yielded a desert except for a dry pub on a blue moon), and so the hermit’s hut deep in the woods, or on a lake isle on Inishfree, became a desert, the idea of witness, a symbol for the search of God in the wilderness.
Poet Robert Hass, in “Meditation at Lagunitas” wrote: Each particular erases from the clarity of a general idea... and the more I try and define it, the more 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. Yeats was a young man when he wrote that most anthologized of poems, “Lake Isle of Inisfree”; he later wanted to take it back, calling it a fraud, but there it was, published for the world to see.
UC Berkeley professor Julian Boyd said when English was codified in the 17th c. : the correct use of “will” and “shall” separates men from beasts was established. Will = duty /oath/ promise/ belief; 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 in and the place where the origin of words form 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. Roland Barthes states the literal and figurative give a text its multilingual 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, that 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 UCB Celtic Studies and Rhetoric professor Daniel Melia, that image/idea precedes thought/language is an age-old debate. That inner pressure is the natal ground of witness that compels us to act. Something pre-lingual behind the epiglottal and the tongue. The idea of separation and exile also enters into it, giving us the distance, the lens by which to observe/write. To witness is 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. 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 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. Cosmonauts of the word we are, adrift in a sea of ambiguity.


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