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The violent sublime
In Precipitations: Contemporary American Poetry as Occult Practice Devin Johnston makes the case that far from being merely an obscure, naïve, or anachronistic phenomenon, the occult is fundamentally relevant to some of the central issues confronting twentieth century poets, namely: authorial intention, subjectivity, and the poet’s relation to language as a structure of meaning that far exceeds the limits of an individual consciousness. According to Johnston, the attraction of the occult for poets such as H.D., Robert Duncan, and James Merrill is its firmly anti-Enlightenment and anti-rationalist approach to knowledge, and he argues that foregrounding the aspects of the occult in the practices of these poets and others necessitates revising traditional ideas of authorship.
Defining occultism as “essentially a modern pastiche of religious practices from diverse cultures and historical periods” (5), Johnston spends the first part of his study mapping out some of the diverse strands of Gnosticism, Kabbalism, Rosicrucianism, neo-Platonism, theosophy, and New Ageism that — along with the poetry of Yeats and particularly Blake — have influenced poets since the beginning of the last century. His analysis of occultism focuses not so much on the interpretation of occult themes, but rather on how the occult offered alternate models of composition for the poets in question. In doing so, he indicates the continuation of Romantic ideas of inspiration and organic form that seek to discover or reveal the patterns and correspondences to be found in the otherwise irrational and chaotic systems of language.
The main focus of Johnston’s argument concerns expanding or further complicating the notion of what constitutes what he alternately refers to as the poem’s event, occasion, or circumstances. Against a Cartesian or Enlightenment understanding of authorship that would attribute the poem to the willful intent of an individual mind, Johnston argues that “these poets reject the assumption that the poem is the product of a singular and discrete consciousness. Instead, the poem is taken to be the product of an entire occasion, including the broadest historical conditions and the most trivial circumstances” (14–15). Accordingly, the historical and the trivial meet with often unforeseen consequences as discussed in Johnston’s chapters on the intersubjectivity of H.D.’s telepathy, the struggle between control of and submission to language in Duncan’s use of dictation, and Merrill’s ambivalent reception of messages delivered through a Ouija board.
The most dynamic and complex of these chapters is the one written on Duncan, as it historicizes his anti-Enlightenment views in direct response to the rationalism of the New Critics, discusses Blake’s influence on Duncan’s sense of Romanticism, and traces the development of Duncan’s understanding of form within the context of such sources as Blavatsky’s theosophy, Olson’s field poetics, Whitehead’s process philosophy, Christian symbolism, and a non-dualistic approach to subjectivity. By positing the source of the poem outside himself, Duncan’s sense of dictation “reveals the linguistic basis of subjectivity by dramatizing — beyond the individual consciousness — language itself” (61).
One of the many threads throughout the book is an examination of the occult as a means of approaching a sublime experience of language that both threatens and intensifies subjectivity. For H.D., the psychological trauma of war is a crisis that leads to the visionary possibilities of telepathy. In the case of Duncan and Merrill, their different practices of dictation result in various moments of contact with an otherness in language that both permits and resists assimilation. In the last chapter, entitled “Risk: Recent Approaches to Sublimity,” Johnston extends the discussion of his three main figures to address the work of Nathaniel Mackey and Susan Howe. Situating H.D., Duncan, and Merrill’s use of a sometimes violent sublime within the context of the cold war’s threat of nuclear annihilation, Johnston argues that Mackey and Howe’s poetry continues to seek forms of transcendence in moments of loss, even as it displays a greater ambivalence or even antipathy towards the forms of historical violence on which it depends.
Writing partly in response to a lack of scholarship on the occult’s relation to post-World War II poetry and to the skeptical attitudes of criticism in general (most notably represented by Helen Vendler), Johnston’s particular contribution here is his analysis of the occult’s significance in the development of literary modernism as well as its ongoing importance for contemporary writers. He clearly demonstrates the necessity of understanding the role of the occult in the development of twentieth century poetry and poetics. What’s more, Johnston indicates the need for further theorizing the occult practices used by poets as they relate to sexuality (he implies a connection between the homo- or bisexuality of H.D., Duncan and Merrill and their opposition to fixed notions of subjectivity) and the political implications of viewing the poem as a complex event (associating the occult as he does with various countercultural movements).
That said, there are a few peculiarities in this book. At times, his models of occultism as poetic method work better in metaphorical rather than literal terms (an observation that he himself admits), and the question of how a reader is to engage with the claims to truth made in the discourses around the occult goes largely unaddressed (for instance, what of Duncan’s continual insistence on the fictiveness of his claims?). Secondly, it’s surprising that the chapter on Duncan addressed little or no work from Ground Work and Ground Work II, since the later work — as it further radicalizes issues of sense and the relationship between the individual writer and the larger field of language — seems to support even more effectively many of Johnston’s arguments. And finally, while he does reference other theories of the sublime, his own use of mostly Romantic conceptions of an egotistical and negative sublime seem ultimately limited — although this choice is clearly motivated by Johnson’s more general identification with Romanticism.
In drawing attention to the Romantic aspects found in the continuing use of the occult by contemporary poets, one of the subtle critiques made by Johnston is lodged against language poetry. He remarks, in a statement of distrust that could just as easily have been made by Duncan, that “one could argue for a return to occultism and its concerns as language poetry — with its academic skepticism and ironic tone — begins to recede from view” (156). And yet, Johnston himself offers a way of thinking about occultism as a practice that, in its opposition to rationalism and convention, like language poetry “can assist in defamiliarizing the modern world and thus critiquing its pretensions to rational systemization” (2).
Far from the simple return to Romanticism that Johnston at times appears to be advocating, it seems to me that the real work and value of Precipitations is its extended attempt to understand the complex systems of relations in which the poem is always engaged and engaging, thus offering an alternate framework for conceptualizing the poetic act that exists not in strict opposition to but rather alongside the predominantly Marxist theories of economic production and ideology that characterize the work of much (particularly early) language writing. This, I think, is what is fully at stake in Johnston’s study of American poetry and/ as occult practice as evident in the book’s last words: “Reading contemporary poetry through the occult, we are constantly forced to reevaluate who — or what — writes a poem and what hidden network of circumstance informs its development” (162).
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