A Measure of Poetry
This was originally presented for an AWP Conference panel in Austin, Texas, on March 11, 2006. Participants included Joshua Clover (moderator), Charles Altieri, Jeanne Heuving, and Jennifer Moxley. The occasion of this conversation was to discuss “where the poet-critics are.” Duncan McNaughton’s letter is reproduced ere with permission. — D.S.
It is possible to be misled by the complex presence of a poem — from its beauty, ecstasy, delight, and potential for knowledge. Often there is achieved only a limited recognition of forms as they are allowed to function socially. In this way it is possible to approach the poem in error of its proof — of thinking it can be understood outside of its strict purposes and relations. What I want to talk about here is how through conversation we can recognize and recover from certain personal errors, and that poet-critics can be anyone, anywhere, and their words can arrive when you most need them.
Poets are urged to write critically about their craft because often the beauty of the poem resists social comprehension — and social relations dominate much of our current situation as writers. This has been the case particularly since the 1802 publication of the Lyrical Ballads, which arrived with Wordsworth’s famous preface. I would argue that the complex relationship between poetry and criticism as we receive it began with this romantic self-consciousness of the poem’s fragile relationship to shifting social paradigms. I don’t want to address that historical shift here today, but to simply note it as a significant influence on the present. Instead, I’d rather speak of relationships in poetry that are personal and that exist alongside the absorbing demands of the social. For through certain personal compulsions we often are driven to engage a work in order to pass it into our own metabolic systems of analysis and registration. In this way the poem’s mystery extends through us too, and goes into our writing, for in our origins as symbol-bearing creatures we fundamentally seek relation in words to others as well as to other aspects of ourselves. More negatively, and this is predominately an action of social analysis and inquiry, it can seem as though we appropriate texts like parasites consuming the body of their hosts. That is why I believe in the importance of intimate correspondence between poets more than in the formal occasions of the poet-critic’s public engagement. In the end, the poem is an achievement of some magnitude if in its complex balance of forces we discover in ourselves something that had been previously undisclosed, and social measure does not often lead to such intimate disclosure.
Mystery has two senses, one that is based in nature and predicated by the complex force of the personal as it is imposed on the limits of the known. Another social sense of mystery recognizes persuading circumstances in the revelation of a shared situation. As Kenneth Burke brilliantly notes in A Rhetoric of Motives, “Persuasion is ‘spiritual,’ in contrast with the producing of change by purely material agencies. For if it is ‘bodily’ to move a man from here to there by pushing him, then by antithesis it is ‘spiritual’ to produce the same movement in pleading, ‘Come hither.’ But such ‘spiritual’ communication is abstract” (177).
Pardon these digressions. What I want to say is really quite simple. But the terms that interest me maintain a certain magnitude. I don’t want to cheapen words like “beauty” and “mystery” or “knowledge,” for they deserve adequate reflection and relation as complex entities around which we organize our poetic inquiries. The poet-critic then is someone who stops over these mysterious relations to art and words in order to confront the formal apparatus of the poem. And since I am supposed to talk about poet-critics — where they are — as the description of this talk says, let me relate something that happened recently to show you a way in which poet-critics work in our world outside the usual markets of publication and formal presentation. By so doing I hope too to resolve my own anxiety over an article I wrote for a recent issue of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter. That piece entitled “The Romantic-Modern Lyric: Poetry for the Non-Poet,” was written in response to a book by Jeffrey Walker called Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity, a solid and informative re-evaluation of ancient language transmissions. I wrote a review of this book last fall and had not tried to publish it because of a busy work schedule. Brendan Lorber at the PPN, however, asked me to write a feature for that lively and socially engaging newsletter. I complied by dusting off my review of Walker’s book and rephrasing it as an argument about problems of audience in romantic-modern poetry. I don’t want to dwell on that particular piece, but to note a response I received about it quite recently from San Francisco poet Duncan McNaughton.
I met Duncan more than ten years ago. He is a poet whose work has been significant to me for that much time. His insight and instruction were helpful to me as a student at New College of California, where I studied in the mid 1990s. He did not teach there at the time, but his conversation kept me thinking hard about he poem and its many manifestations. His is in many ways, though I refuse to totally reduce it to such, a romantic approach. Beauty and knowledge for him are words of concrete significance — actualized entities of sorts by which we measure ourselves — particularly as these elements are revealed in a poem to which we are as much mystery as any form it reveals.
The point of my piece was in part to look at Walker’s book and to offer some of its thought on rhetoric and poetics as material for reflection to a broader audience of poets. Duncan, however, sent a sharp and accurate letter recently that pointed out certain things I had neglected. He accused me of making errors of perception and relation. Not public errors, so much, as private ones that relate to poetry, its mysteries and beauty, which I do believe in.
Here is what he said:
I’ve been thinking about your essay in the current St. Mark’s Newsletter — trying to find a simple way to respond to it. But I can’t. It would require a treatise, or several hours face to face with you.
But I’d like to remind you that — say, in this case, J. Walker — for about 500 years or so, coincident with the European ‘discovery’ of the ‘New World’ and the exploitative idealization thereof, The West’s ‘discovery’ of the remains of what it has proprietarily presumed to be its ‘past,’ e.g., the so-called classical world, has been an equally ‘colonial’ exploitation driven by ambitions for identity and legitimacy, rather than — as occasionally someone does do — realizing that said remains are that of a mystery of its own order, the nature of which will not disclose itself but that its mystery be respected i.e. contemplated sans ideology of any kind, sans motive, sans assumption or any idealization.
‘Thumos’ cannot be translated as ‘heart.’ Even if one is hearing ‘heart’ in the subtlest of its many subtle senses. This is a term, however later usage has it, from Homeric ‘physiology;’ it does not assimilate to anything outside its intrinsic milieu. But for that matter, the Homeric opus, which was into Roman times understood, by those who could, precisely as of “Homer was an astronomer” (Heraklitos) — that is, a work of cosmology rehearsing, in its fashion… with all else it so marvelously brings forward, thousands of years of cosmological observation. Epic is myth. Myth is the story of a mystery.
When Homer looks in the mirror he sees Sappho — to get around to what lyric is and is doing. She is the defining mistress of lyric. It starts, as all great poetry does, with the endeavor to, and finally succeed in, recognizing in whose or what’s behalf one has given one’s life to the poem. It is not the ‘audience’ in any social sense of that term, but it is, believe me, the audience. The complaint you reiterate re: the introversion of the poem and/or its lack of broad social affect in our culture is for my money a social complaint as of the poem’s presumed powerlessness vis a vis “Those that have power to hurt.” This too misses the point of “in whose or what’s behalf.” The poem finds its audience; its audience finds the poem. Just as painting is “all about seeing,” the poem is finally all about hearing — in the game of the poem, and I mean ‘game’ just as a 1000-year-old sufi means that term, power is not in any way what’s up.
Beauty is what’s up. Knowledge is what’s up. Just like Keats says.
That the poem is innately political can only be comprehended when polis — city — is comprehended. It is totally mystical, a mystery, the city in question — which by no means, despite “history,” means that the city is not realizable in this life on earth. The entirely practical reality of the poem, like Williams said, men die miserably every day for want of what’s in the poem, the practical, usable reality of the poem — this is not a matter of the poem and the poets having to become ‘better’ communicators or to come up with means which generate wider social attention to them. It is not in any sense a job for rhetoric, in order to gain efficacy of persuasion, to gain social affect i.e. power.
But the game is a struggle, micro and macro and all the in-betweens — a political struggle in the deepest sense of same. Between all that constitutes the agency of the meanness of power and all the agency that labors on behalf of the agency of beauty and knowledge. It is a practical, mystical struggle. In the whole game, the poem defends and struggles on behalf of proportion — proportion in art = in some real sense justice in the social dimension. When, that is, the poem is doing its job right. Insofar as the poem participates in discourse it is not on the job. Discourse — including that stupid version called poetic discourse — can do no more, writing to do no more, than talk to itself about itself. Discourse is the handmaiden or servant of what’s called language. The language poets named themselves absolutely accurately. Language and discourse, specifically generated by the advent of writing itself, are in the agency of power… . It is like Alice Notley said, words aren’t language — they never were. For the poem, the real one, words and talk are in the agency of beauty and knowledge. They are the gates into finding out. Language and discourse are structures incapable of finding out anything — they are expressions of motive, of intention, of assumption, of prerogative — they idealize ignorance, for gain, and they falsify the occasion of the poem in their greed for their election… .
It is finally a struggle against the darkest and most deeply specious falsification of intelligence and the true visionary realization of intelligence. Who knows why it has to be so? No one I know of. It just is.
The reason I’m bringing this out for you today is because I wanted to show you where the poet-critics are, and how such intimate exchanges can influence a writer more than broader, public kinds. Poetry excites ongoing conversations in many formats, including personal “talk” or correspondence, like mine with Duncan, as well as book reviews, public essays, and that sort of thing. But I want to stress how with Duncan our conversation is about the poem, registered at that level, regarding it and what it will reveal of itself through us, however awkward and difficult this can be, my own wide grasp of it often holding nothing but air.
Currently, I am in a graduate program working on a PhD where the urge to examine the poem as a social artifact is highly stressed, and I understand the reasons behind such approaches. But Duncan’s letter reminded me too that other measurements are to be made and it’s my job to recognize and keep in mind what I am dealing with. I don’t know how this sounds to you. But if we don’t accept the poem and our talk around it with personal care, realizing our errors for what they are and trusting those around us to show us when we have failed to meet a measure — the measure — of ourselves, then what’s the point? The poet-critics are everywhere, in that sense, and are those we trust, and to whom we owe a debt of love.
 Walker’s etymological argument re: Aristotle’s term enthymeme does just this, deriving it “from en and thymos, ‘in heart’” (171). See his Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity. Oxford University Press, 2000.
 it is not “a poem that contains history” until or unless the term “history” is rinsed clean, drained of all but itself.” (McNaughton’s note)
 and vice versa. (MN)
 He suggests several books for me to read in his letter too, including Comparative Studies in Greek and Indic Meter and Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play.
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