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Nathaniel Tarn, 1979.

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Photo: Nathaniel Tarn, 1979. Photo Janet Rodney.
Back to the Nathaniel Tarn feature Contents list

Readers should also see the Tarn feature in Jacket 6, 1999, and
Nathaniel Tarn: «Selected Poems 1950–2000», reviewed by Brenda Hillman in Jacket 28, and
Nathaniel Tarn: «Recollections of Being», reviewed by Martin Anderson in Jacket 36

Nathaniel Tarn Feature

Richard Deming

Speaking Places

Nathaniel Tarn and the Poetics of Voicing Culture

The Embattled Lyric: Essays and Conversations in Poetics and Anthropology. Nathaniel Tarn. Stanford University Press, 2007.

Selected Poems, 1950–2000. Nathaniel Tarn. Wesleyan University Press, 2002.

The secret of culture is to learn, that a few great points steadily reappear, alike in the poverty of the obscurest farm, and in the miscellany of metropolitan life, and that these few are alone to be regarded, — the escape from all false ties; courage to be what we are; and love of what is simple and beautiful; independence, and cheerful relation, these are the essentials, — these, and the wish to serve,  — to add somewhat to the well-being of men.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson


In order to approach the central ideas guiding the poetics of Nathaniel Tarn, his ideas about poetry that go beyond just the aesthetic concerns of reading and writing verse, one needs to come by what at first might seem oblique angles, but it is necessary to construct a genealogy and a context for understanding the ideas at the heart of his collection of essays The Embattled Lyric. Tarn’s arguments move from discussions of place and voice out to include a model of poetry as the means of transforming the perpetual human condition of absence or loss or exile into a generative, inclusive sense of being. In Tarn’s view of things, poetry is not a way of resolving that feeling of exile, instead it is a means of finding one’s way towards the freedom of exile. Along the way of addressing the implications and context of Tarn’s ideas, I will point to relevant examples of this incredibly expansive and decidedly challenging poet’s oeuvre, which is superbly represented in a recent selection, published by Wesleyan University Press. To first locate the staging of Tarn’s poetics, though, we might begin by looking to one of modernism’s most influential and most ambitious voices.


In “Of Modern Poetry,” Wallace Stevens’s description of “the poem of the act of the mind” has always struck me as being relentlessly (though usefully) challenging in the terms of its conception of poetry which calls for a thoroughness in what might be (or needs to be) included in the complex of things a poem needs to address or in what a poem – and let us assume that Stevens really means poetry as a whole art, that is, the poem as metonymic of poetry itself – brings forth, evokes, provokes, invokes. “It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place. / It has to face the men of the time and to meet / the women of the time.”[1] Immediately (and rightfully), one might take these lines to be insisting that the poem must locate itself in the local and the particular, rather than give over to the grandiloquent abstractions and the oratorical excesses of the nineteenth century and its Longfellows and Whittiers, its Holmeses and its Lowells.


But is Stevens saying that modern poetry needs to be “living” in order “to learn the speech of a place” or is it that it “has to be living” and “it needs to learn the speech of the place”? There is a crucial difference if we read living as being tied to (flowing from) learning speech, as if to say that our education continues as long as we do. In other words, if one stops learning the speech of a place, one is no longer living. How does one learn speech? By speaking. If one no longer speaks, thus, one is no longer living. This is not to suggest that one is then physically dead, but rather caught in the situation of only living again the words (or the meaning of those words) one already has. Ludwig Wittgenstein once insisted that “to imagine a language is to imagine a form of life,” and thus if we can continue to learn a language we continue to deepen our understanding of what it means to live a life.[2] A life — or at least our ability to imagine what a life, our own life, might entail — is tied to or formed from the uses of language in that way and poetry is a means of coming to know language and the speech of a place, intimately, as if both inside and outside simultaneously.


But given the state of travel and communications in the twenty-first century, the idea of singular localities and isolated ideas of place starts to give way and blur into the reality of multiple sites, all touching. There are precious few places that are not what we might call contact zones. In that sense, “the speech of the place” would be multiple and simultaneous and the associations and connections that poetry makes possible would be (or need to be) of various places all at once in that communities are no longer isolated. We might then see in extended terms the lines of Stevens’s ars poetica describing the words which are “repeated” in the “delicatest ear of the mind” that cause the “invisible audience” to listen “[n]ot to the play, but to itself, expressed / In an emotion as of two people, as of two emotions becoming one.”


Now in the age of globalization, I hear that reference to “people” not only as “persons” or discrete individuals, but as “peoples” – say, citizens of different countries or members of respective cultures. With the possibilities of seeing the word “people” in this second light, the lyric and the bardic modes of poetry (the one personal, the other national) come together. Connecting place and voice, Tarn writes, “If we know little about the source of voice, we know that voice, in place, assumes spatial and temporal colors, accents of history, overtones and undertones of the Lebenwelt” (188). Thus, the personal, subjective dimension of a poem is never disconnected from its place within a larger sense of language and place, conditions which we discover for ourselves and for others of our own languages and belief systems but in dialogue with other places, peoples, and belief systems.


With this context of the tensions arising between a desire to move both towards and away from seeing culture as system and foundation, one turns to specific exemplars and the recent publication of essays and poems – many of which were fugitive or out of print – by Nathaniel Tarn is perhaps our worthiest case. For instance, Tarn, in “The Joining of Hands,” one of his early poems, gives a sense of what this dialogue of separate forces and cultural conditions might be like when he writes:


Our hands unable to touch
our fingers begin to think
we work across landscapes (28)


This poem both describes and enacts – in that space of the first line, its parataxis, its catachresis – that feeling of ultimately insurmountable distances between languages and places but ones that can be crossed by acts of imagination. I take the “thinking” of the fingers to be the work of writing, the expression of the imaginative acts as leaving an inky inscription of their movements. Elsewhere in the poem, Tarn writes:


In the poem I give you my hands
where you will sense
their joining overhead
give me the birds of summer
beyond intelligence
for they know ways in the air
far countries where we need not meet
married already there

In the poem I give you my hands

you cannot lose


It is by means of the poem that hands that “cannot touch” can be given, that is, they can be represented and in this way presented to another. The writing creates a commensurate, shared space where things are separate yet enter the mind or consciousness of another.


While this poem of Tarn’s might be the address of one lover to another, in the context of Tarn’s work as a translator and anthropologist and as a poet with a lifelong investment in ethnopoetics, the distance he describes (and its specific reference to landscapes) is more than that faced by Abelard and Heloise, is more than emotional – it is existential (and, no doubt, experiential) as well. What remains particularly compelling about this passage and the poetics it implies is that speaker and the addressee are joined – or so the speaker proposes – by shared acts of language and imagination and yet they maintain their distance, their separateness. In fact, we might say that the poetics here stakes the discovery of proximity by way of distance. This idea of the near only being possible because of distance is shared by Henry David Thoreau, who writes in Walden that he requires of every writer “a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely, it must be in a different land to me.”[3]


In Thoreau’s thinking one encounters a sense of accounting for or being responsible to one’s own place in one’s own moment, a proposition Stevens also describes. Yet, this accounting is not only for oneself, but for others. In fact, the Other predicates that accounting, prompts one to say what thing are like for him or her in a shared language, or as Tarn indicates in analogous or similar social practices. As Tarn indicates, the action of accounting for one’s account (reading one’s own ordering and arranging tendencies as meaningful) is significant enough to create dialogues even if the content of those practices can never be fully squared. Implied in the insistence on the near and the far is a feeling of separateness that also makes possible the desire to overcome that inclusive distance.


Perhaps poetry – in its opportunities for interpretative actions over the primarily communicative – is a form of writing that brings the far closer without completely absorbing it, transfiguring it. We see this possibility when Tarn writes in a section of the sequence “Jonah’s Saddle,”


Your voice over the hill
as you shape shells into a pattern,
your gray parka beside you,
pointing toward the artic
gives me an answer,
shaping our common mind,
and takes me back,
to the cool evening we met
and the whole of solitude lay between us. (203)


In this passage, especially with its discrete images and end end-stopped lines, Tarn’s poetry foregrounds both the commonality and the perpetual solitude existing in intersubjective space. The speaker learns to read the signs (the parka, the shells) and discerns patterns of meaningfulness and encounter in those acts of reading, and in doing so draws near. The addressee shapes the particularities of the shells into patterns and the speaker (as well as the poet himself) arranges images and words into a meaningful order. The analogies of pattern making and not necessarily the patterns themselves allows the poet (and the poem’s reader then as well) to recognize her actions and to recognize, thus, his own. The poet wrenches the objects from the original patterns and then recontexualizes them in his own. In this, the solitude remains between, however, and because of that there remains the need to overcome the threat of that solitude.


Before I say more about this distance that makes possible the conditions for nearness by way of poetry I want to bring in another aspect raised by Stevens’s claims. For in addition to an emphasis on the everyday speech of a place (and we see that for Stevens events count as speech, as a part of a place’s grammar and “may / Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman / Combing”) Stevens is perhaps trying to make a case for what a poem brings its readers to, which is a desire for the impossibility of finding a satisfaction. I take it as a given that Stevens is suggesting modern poetry needs to be marked by an ongoing attempt to create poems that are intellectually ambitious, expansive, that create or push forward possibilities of imagination and knowledge. Furthermore, and this is how I hear the real challenge of Stevens’s claim, it is to suggest that the act of the mind is revealed by the formation of a poem. The choices made in composition reveal understandings and beliefs, both conscious and unconscious, about language and the world. What would that mean? Certainly, at the very least it would mean that a poem is more than lines on a page and that the stakes in thinking about poems are much higher than one might have otherwise anticipated.


The fact that Stevens puts poetry in terms of “the act of the mind” means that we have a certain amount of permission to think of the philosophical implications of poetry. I do not mean that the poems (merely) illustrate philosophical problems, but it does allow us to value some of the thinking (or acts of the mind) poems make occasion for. As I will suggest in a moment, one needs a canvas that wide to approach the work of an expansive, maximalist poet such as Nathaniel Tarn. Tarn’s bringing together anthropology and poetry – and his discussions of their intersections are the core of the recently published collection of essays, The Embattled Lyric – as sister arts ultimately shows that there is room and even necessity for thinking about how these endeavors make evident the ways and means we have of making sense of a world in which (and by which) we are given to find ourselves, and those selves (our own) are always amidst others.


Let me further complicate matters (or raise the stakes) by pointing out that one might hear in back of Steven’s aphorism, Thoreau’s insistence that “[t]he morning wind forever blows, the poem of creation is uninterrupted; but few are the ears that hear it. Olympus is but the outside of the earth everywhere.”[4] In placing these two claims (Stevens’s and Thoreau’s) in conjunction with one another, we can start to see some trajectories about poetry’s function forming. We might read Thoreau as suggesting that creation is always and everywhere occurring, even if we do not always know it. Some might take Thoreau’s comment as being elitist or exclusionary – as if only certain ears can hear the poem of creation. On the other hand, I think we could take him to mean that at any given time only a few people have an awareness of this poem of creation, and that occasionally people – never all of us at once, but then perhaps also there is never a moment when no one hears it – can catch a few measures of this poem.


This is not to be taken as Romantic as it sounds if we think of “creation” as referring to a totality that can only be apprehended as a created totality. What if, then, the poem that is the act of the mind is also the poem of creation, of apprehending the world in terms that we bring to it, invent for it? What would follow is that what we mean by “poem” is some act of ordering, and bringing intuition, insight, and an entire world-view into language. The more of this language and its constitutive speech acts in use, available, the more of a world we have. So, writing is for Thoreau a kind of ordering, a way of making accounts of the world of one’s own making – in other words (or in his word), an economy. For Thoreau, this sense of ordering is not arbitrarily imposed but comes from prolonged, patient attention to things.


The link I am drawing between Thoreau and Stevens – and in a moment, Tarn – is this idea that the tendency to order or classification is not a given but is something we are given to doing, and is a measure both of humankind’s ability to reclaim (or perhaps redeem) its freedom and its tendency towards tyrannical control. The sense of classifying and ordering (and thus revealing contingent, revisable systems) is therefore an answer to anxiety and the producer of anxiety. In this sense, poetry is the open and visible negotiation of the very way we order experience linguistically and conceptually.


Poetry is one way, and not the only way, that we make our unconscious negotiations visible not only to others, but to ourselves as well. As Hegel writes in his lectures on aesthetics, “the universal need for expression in art lies, therefore, in man’s rational impulse to exalt the inner and outer world into a spiritual consciousness for himself, as an object in which he recognizes his own self. He satisfies the need of this spiritual freedom when he makes all that exists explicit for himself within, and in a corresponding way realizes that his explicit self without, evoking thereby, in his reduplication of himself, what is in him into vision and into knowledge for his own mind and for that of others.”[5] Hegel explicitly links poetry within his conception of art as part of this process of bringing interior states into the world. In a sense, the poem of creation is a way of tracing our own acts of recreating the world in our minds and bringing these negotiations into view for others.


With this idea of Hegel’s about art and its connections to expressivity and systems, I would place an argument for poetry that Tarn makes in his essay “The Heraldic Vision: Some Cognitive Models for Comparative Poetics.” He writes, “One view of poetry allowed by such a discipline [as poetics], would take the art as a cognitive system characterized by the presence of distinctive features, oppositions, and transformations, standing among other cognitive systems” (133). For Tarn, classification takes up and transforms the poet’s – any poet’s – adamic duties of naming the world and fashions them into processes of describing, contextualizing, and fronting (to use one of Thoreau’s terms) the basic facts. In fact, we can read his work as continually bringing different cognitive systems into contact as a means of expanding and transgressing (and so perhaps synthesizing) these systems.


Tarn explicitly sees some shared analogies between poetry and anthropology arising from a mutual investment in classifying, a term that he means as naming “the activity of arranging, organizing, or ordering to various criteria such as structure or origin, of phenomena into groups whose totality forms a system” (134). He notes that such activity comes along with an aesthetic pleasure that is “universally obtainable from the act of classification” and which is part of “an exploration of art objects (seen both as wholes and as sums of parts) both at the level of the object itself and at the level of the classifying mind in its production and consumption of objects” (135). Paradoxically, this thinking locates an expressive force in even the most empirical or objective of languages, and in that sense writing (a practice shared amongst the names I have mentioned, no matter the diversity of their discourses) serves as a kind of listening, if by listening we mean hearing with an attention that reshapes that which is heard in the possibilities of the meaningful.


I want to bring out some of the shared resonances I hear among Hegel, Stevens, and Thoreau (though the very terms Tarn uses suggest these interconnections) in order to talk about Nathaniel Tarn and his work in that there is a tendency towards wrestling with a totalizing and absolute order that informs Tarn’s work in complex and compelling ways. In fact, the recent publications of his Selected Poems 1950–2000 and The Embattled Lyric, the latter of which brings together a selection of Tarn’s strongest essays on poetics and anthropology, makes available a great deal of material at once, allowing one to trace the claims that Tarn’s work have been staging for decades.


Indeed, these two books read together reveal a perspective on this intellectually, aesthetically, and spiritually (if I use that last term qualifiedly) ambitious poet that has not been possible before now. Tarn has been developing his body of work (and it is a work that is the product of a life of the mind) steadily for more than forty years and these two recent books give readers the opportunity to think (or, rather, think once again) of Tarn’s work not only in its arc but in terms of his tendency towards systems. What one means by systems needs some clarifying in that in Tarn’s case they do not necessarily generate a priori thought or experience. Instead, they create a context, a foundation for meaningfulness and for how we invest ourselves in that meaning. Tarn prefers the term “model” because, as he argues, “[m]odels do not require fixed loci of elements” (206). While this is true, models do not tend towards the totality and the contextualizing of elements that surround its inquiry, which is also central to understanding the force of Tarn’s poetics.


In Tarn’s essay on heraldic vision, he describes the fraught process of writing about objects by foregrounding his trope for classification, heraldry, which entails bringing together in a given field objects (or images) that have some associative interaction in their new milieu. These images or objects take on import in their relationships to other objects adjacent as part of the symbolic order wherein they are located (or placed). In their emphasis on an object’s particularity, heraldic shields “detotalize” given objects – plucking particulars from the larger undifferentiated mass of that which is not yet in language or from the various and varying conceptual orders in which things are found. “I am aware as I do this,” Tarn observes, “of a debilitating aspect to my activity. This arises [… ] from the fact that, in this detotalization, I am striving to distinguish these elements from those of all other possible bodies belonging to the same ‘heraldry’” (149).


As with any act of symbolizing or signification there is a kind of conceptual or sometimes perceptual violence that occurs as the object is wrenched out of its own situation into another’s. “In order to do so,” Tarn argues, “however, I have to refer back to my initial total,” and thus the poet sees the distinctions not in the object’s own position, but in his placement of the object in different conceptual orders. “This backward look — like the look to Eurydice — kills the object. The way forward implies selection for maximal artistic stress by rigorous attention to the elements in their particularity, a particularity which opens the elements to other paradigms in the oncoming metaphorical process of re-totalization” (149). Tarn’s emphasis on the first syllable serves to remind that where there is a part, there must be a whole. The particular, in its ability to be seen, is always part of something else, some field of knowledge that allows one to recognize it. We are not far from Kant in this (if I may bring to this discussion the most important of system builders). Deep in his first Critique, Kant acknowledges that there is no intrinsic connection between objects and so constellations, likenesses, and the sort of arrangements (according to, say phyla) people make use of are artificial rather than necessary.


For how are we to think it to be possible, [Kant insists] when several substances exist, that, from the existence of one, something (as effect) can follow in regard to the existence of others, and vice versa: in other words, that because there is something in the one there must also in the others be something which is not understood solely from the existence of these others? For this is what is required in order that there be community; community is not conceivable as holding between things each of which, through its subsistence, stands in complete isolation.[6]


In other words, community is not a necessary condition of things. He continues by arguing, “We can, however, render the possibility of community – of substances as appearances – perfectly comprehensible, if we represent them to ourselves in space, that is, in outer intuition.” According to Kant, then, connections, groupings, and associations come from the process of representation, which is an argument that Tarn touches upon in his use of heraldry as a trope for how one arranges (for) an understanding of things. We can see actions of arranging and rearranging as expressing and forming representations of conceptual possibilities occurring in terms of images and things as well as social and cultural communities. This possible analogy that Tarn foregrounds among items, objects, and even social practices – brought about in conjoining poetic, philosophical, and anthropological thinking – reconceives perception as a process of composition and a largely poetic act. Perception, thus, is always a matter of perspective.


Here, as I am suggesting, Tarn locates art – and perhaps poetry in particular – as being midway between totalities, the one a person is found in and the other a person (a poet) founds. While the latter action makes vision into something more like possibilities of perception or even sense itself, the totality for which it makes a case comes with a new/old set of problems in that any conception of totality makes its cases for its own clustering, its own inclusive and comprehensive model of social control. Tarn even offers this backward glance/forward sight double motion operating within poems a terminology. Describing them as elegy and lyric respectively, Tarn sees these two terms “not so much as descriptive of particular kinds of poems but rather as analytical of directional modes in all short poems which have the lyrical thrust as their original being or intent, the intent, in short, of biologically induced SONG” (159). In his poem “Brueghel at Wien,” Tarn thematizes this double motion, this process of detotalization and retotalization, when he writes, “Our lives are led before us, / before we lead them — or are we there? / Are our days inside us / lived fully, without escape? / Or is there a little door / in the background / through which they drain away?” (261).


The concern about totalities has a long tradition, particularly in the genealogy I have sketched for the context of Tarn’s work. Thoreau of course consistently inveighed that the price of a generalized, prescriptive moral vision could become giving into a conformity that yields a life of “quiet desperation.” This desperation, this melancholia that we already experience singularly en masse –according to Thoreau anyway – is that pervasive sense of no longer living because the terms of the grammar or language of that totality is set, the language of the place no longer needs to be learned.


Tarn, in writing about the problems of jargon in professionalized sciences (principally sociology and anthropology but one can see that Tarn means this in whatever the discourse) argues that what totalities obtain is their completion. “For the true paradox of power is, surely, that when everything is yours nothing is any longer yours: when you have become everything, a complete totality, nothing can be above or below anything else. Whether this is pure escapism or whether it is something which responds very deeply to a basic problem of human existence, it is certainly not for our disciplines to judge. But that does not mean they can disregard it altogether” (131).


The power that he describes here is an absolute power. Why is it not for our disciplines to judge? Perhaps disciplines are not able to judge this because such absolutes determine more than the language available to separate disciplines and perhaps thus such separations are defined – or at least underwritten – by an unassailable totality. This would make any means out not escapism but escape (and both an escape from as well as an escape to). This is one reason perhaps why Tarn himself left professional anthropology and the academy as a whole as soon as he could.


One way of dismantling or evading a totality is with or through cultural dialogues, particularly within a poet’s own set of references. Tarn’s work, given its level of erudition and its dense clusters of cultural references, has often been thought of as belonging to a specific modernist tradition inaugurated by Ezra Pound. Pound, of course, drew on myths, rites, and languages from cultures and traditions other than his own – Chinese language and literature being one of his most favorite sources to draw upon – in fashioning a poetry and establishing a literary genealogy that is often as exclusive as it is comprehensive in its demands.


There is little question that Pound can be charged with co-opting other cultures for his own agenda, that of establishing his own modernist genealogy. In light of this and with a general increase of ethical sensitivity, many of those contemporary authors who participate in ethnopoetics as a discipline or mode of inquiry (figures such as Dennis Tedlock, Jerome Rothenberg, and perhaps Nathaniel Mackey) are aware of the problems with engaging other traditions and the threat of encounter becoming appropriation or colonization.


When taken moment by moment, Tarn’s poems do not marshal their erudition to prohibit reading in the ways that Pound’s or T. S. Eliot’s might, as these predecessors saw a value in a kind of gate keeping of high culture. Tarn avoids the trap of assimilating or exploiting other cultures in large part because of the amount of actual fieldwork he has done which has also made him a recognized authority on the Mayans, on Buddhists of Southeast Asia, and so forth. Indeed, one of the elements that has always further distinguished Tarn is that he is a well-trained anthropologist (formatively trained, one needs note in the context of the reading I am developing, by Claude Lévi-Strauss) and this matters a great deal in terms of his treatment of cultural materials. I want to underline a distinction in his stance towards cultural materials, what one might refer to in broad terms as “ethnopoetics,” and how others might stand towards the same references.


We can put aside for the moment the fact that he also speaks several languages (Tarn was born in Paris, raised in London, educated across Europe and in the United States and has been an American citizen for more than two decades), although this gives a sense of why Tarn seeks to put different epistemes in dialogue because that is how he understands the world. Rather than bringing other elements into his milieu, however, Tarn has entered into different cultural and social conditions, thereby making himself the evident “Other.” I would not suggest that this makes Tarn’s poetry or his references more authentic. It does, however, suggest the ethical commitment to an understanding of diverse social models and even different epistemological models. At the same time, this also explains why Tarn sees exile as a useful existential condition for it offers the possibility of possibility: “Exile is the thing, person, place at the arche, the presence, the established root, the paradiso” (189). As Tarn suggests, one is always in exile but the awareness of that as a positive value is intermittent.


Anthropology as a body of knowledge or mode of inquiry has always had a certain primacy for Tarn, who distinguishes between poetry and anthropology by referring to the former as the “creative angel” whereas the latter is the “recording angel.” For him, the cultural information derived from his studies in Mayan rituals or Southeast Asian Buddhism is not simply a range of exotic materials that provide usefully appealing tropes. Indeed, so adept is Tarn at bringing these two fields and bodies of knowledge into dialogue that it would seem that he is a poet tailor made for the twenty-first century. In that we are now experiencing the realities of post-disciplinary studies and a picture of the world transforming from a vision of radically discrete nations and peoples into a concatenation of cultural contact zones, Tarn’s interpenetrated points of reference are perhaps ideally suited for that which readers are coming more and more to value: cosmopolitanism.


Such cosmopolitanism and increasing attention to cross-cultural analogies or homologies is especially relevant given Tarn is both a polymath and polyglot and his life is marked by both an intellectual restlessness and an ongoing appetite for experiential knowledge. His investment and immersion in a number of disciplines (poetry and anthropology – not to mention publishing and even bird watching) evinces a desire to actively engage the world in multiple directions and on multiple registers. The key here is the way that various kinds of discourses offer worldviews that order information and provide models for interpreting experience.


Poetry in Tarn’s model, then, allows for the inhabiting of an openness of language that makes it possible for all of these registers to enter in or to be accounted for. Tarn has indicated (particularly in an interview included in The Embattled Lyric) that for him the central (epistemological, ontological, spiritual, existential) problem is the many-in-the-One and the One-in-the-many. The erudition in his poetry does not have the cultural-pedagogical intent informing the work of Pound, say, or Eliot. Instead, the density of its allusions arises from the conscious overlapping of various kinds of language, experiences, and so forth, in order to tease out and reveal establishing analogies of practices. For Tarn sets associative possibilities between and among parallel social practices and makes apparent not the similarities of content across languages and cultures and times, but the analogous processes of arrangement and order-making as means of determining opportunities for and of meaning itself.


In a sense, this desire for multiplicity and the dream of inhabiting multiple registers informs his prodigious work in translation (primarily from French and Spanish) as well. These fields of reference and allusion allow for him to inhabit other traditions and bring them into English, opening discussions between various cultures but also allowing (less altruistically) for him to serve as that bridge that crosses various linguistic possibilities. More linguistic possibilities allow for an increase of possible imaginations (or to use another term, the poet can be a citizen of multiple image-nations). “Then we lie down and prepare ourselves,” Tarn writes in his poem “Sin Alternativa,” “to be transformed entirely into light / in order that we might be devoured by no other light” (Poems, 113). One can see how this moves toward a totalizing desire for a full, complete knowledge with poetry as a means of inhabiting that knowledge. However, the world’s irreconcilable multiplicity (not to mention human, all too human limitations) always prevents that achieving of totality.


The inclusion of obscure mythology, structuralism, South American politics, Tibetan religious rites and the multitude of discourses, tropes, and references present in Tarn’s essays as well as his poems are not programs for required study but are invitations or occasions for the reader to be restless in their own inquiries. In placing these different kinds and histories of knowledge side by side he invites the possibilities of disagreement and dissensus as a means of generating skepticism and a persistent radical of difference that forebears a stable totalization.


Thus, Tarn’s sutures and interests do not “celebrate difference” in any modish liberal gesture. “While poetry is nation-/culture-bound by virtue of language, that is enough: there is no need of further binding in isolationism. The survival of the species ‘poet’ is at stake and only the refusal of boundaries can save it,” Tarn writes in “Regarding the Issue of ‘New Forms,’” an essay ostensibly cautioning against the balkanization of camps within poetry as well as a division between poetry and a wider sense of reading communities, but we can see that he also has inclusive ideas of the survival of humanity itself in the face of proliferating dogmatisms, fundamentalisms, nationalisms, and the like (204).


All these divisions set boundaries between groups but also limit the capacity of groups to undertake the reclamation and redemption perhaps, of that which we might call “human.” As he writes in another essay, in “Translation/Antitranslation,” the issue of finding a conception of communities that is at once multiple – a Multiculture rather than simply Culture – is of critical consequence, “We are constantly presented [… ] with the relation of Culture to Multiculture as an agon, a struggle. We are told that we are in the profoundest of troubles because we must decide and decide quickly, critically, between the tradition of Culture and the new of Multiculture” (114). Tarn insists that there is no real agon, thus no natural and necessary struggle or conflict, and that we must learn this in order to overcome this illusion and come to terms with the full extent of human possibility. “I am, of course, talking of the ancient ideal of human unity, one without which humanity will not be saved and this planet will not be saved” (114).


The insistence here is that if we can gain the value of seeing humanity as a fractured and fracturing total, the Will to Totality will pit each against each since the possibility to recognize duty, fellow will, obligation to the other all becomes otherwise illusory. Tarn stakes his wager on a cosmopolitanism to dismantle a pervasive and despotic Will to Imperialism. If this fraught space is true in poetry, it is true in the world at large, true also of a sense of moral being. As the poet writes in the eighth section of his book-length sequence (a work well represented but not complete in the Selected Poems) Beautiful Contradictions, “There is no more worthier subject for poetry in our times / than the fear that the races should rise and rend each other.”[7] The question is how to balance individual identity and not lose a sense of connection between and among a constellation of others.


On the one hand, these lines from Tarn’s poem foreground the possibility of racial or what we might even call “tribal warfare.” Yet, we see that worthiest of subjects –there is none worthier, the poet writes – is not warfare but the fear that the diverse races will rise against each other. Tarn’s emphasis suggests that there is a psychological element that can be addressed, and while there is a certain amount of sociopolitical reality to contend with, what needs to be changed is means of understanding the world and a way of imagining one’s relation to others. In that sense, Tarn’s work is not utopic but therapeutic in that he worries not what a new reality might look like but instead calls for revising ways of looking at the present that will resolve problems lying deep in the grain of thought. If the agon that Tarn sees as being perpetuated is indeed illusory in that it is not a necessity but a result of how we think object and subject relations, then we can determine a new order of things once divested of our old thinking.


This brings us to the model that Tarn articulates throughout The Embattled Lyric and which he thematizes throughout his poetry, as Selected Poems indicates, a model that addresses this problem of totality and multiplicity – in another context we might refer to this as the tension between the manifold and unity. Tarn divides into a three-part model possibilities of poetic making: the Vocal, the Silence, and the Choral. I would suggest thinking of these terms and what they name as dimensions or modes rather than parts. While Tarn puts this model in terms of poetry, it is impossible not to think of the Greek idea of poeien, which though usually translated as to produce or to make, certainly also means to compose, the latter speaking to the ways that thought relates (organizes, puts in relation to) intuition to objects. In that way, poetry and poetic making are more clearly analogies for larger acts of understanding and imagination that constitute one’s experience of and with reality.


So, in extending Tarn’s thinking (or how we might think about Tarn’s thinking) we might see his model as providing a means of composing one’s self towards poetry (as we say after a fright, “I composed myself and set off again on my way”). Thus, the model Tarn develops is not a formula or prescription. Instead, it determines ways of representing and locating force of poetic actions, for indeed, Tarn sees poetry as actions inasmuch as they participate in the general economy of naming, classifying, and representing, a process within which we are always already to be found.


The Vocal is the activity of a self speaking, that is, in a sort of separate constitution. The impetus here is to the production of an original, perhaps authentic articulation of the self’s experience. The Vocal is a condition of complete reciprocity of self with Other. This is the realm of the ethical and the competitive. If a self is to distinguish itself (rather than extinguish itself) it needs always define itself in reaction to and against the Other. This is not wholly negative as acts of kindness and generosity if not Eros itself needs Others to exist. Tarn insists that the dominant force in the Vocal is the struggle of the voice to protect its individuality, its uniqueness. “The Vocal involves competition more than cooperation. Self, voicing its idiolect, can, must in fact to whatever degree, feel menaced by the other” (206). Think of the Vocal as a confederation of singularities.


The Choral is a modality that might appear at first as the opposite of the Vocal. Indeed, Tarn describes Choral and the Vocal as reciprocal in that each needs to define itself by means of the other. Within the Choral, unlike the Vocal, there can be no reciprocity as there are no individuated selves and if there is no receiving, individuated consciousness, there are no singular identities – all are indivisible parts of an absolute unity. “By definition, the Choral would appear to be concerned with Utopia. Utopia can involve looking back as well as looking forward,” Tarn explains, and again reminds us of a poem’s double face of elegy and lyric in his characterization of these terms (206). He also argues, “Utopia is the exasperation of human expectation to its limits” and sees that expectation is borne out of desire and that desire then “attempts to englobe all time, all space” (207).


In that way, the ideal of Utopia actually is complicit in the very forces that prevent its actuality. We see here the ways that Tarn maintains his generative skepticism in that the Choral is both an ideal and a trap – what Wittgenstein might call a chimera – indicating that the model he develops is non-teleological and must remain open. “I take the aim of art to be the creation of an order so surprising that it cannot fail to be perceived by receivers as new and different from what went before,” Tarn observes (215). It is not wholly clear where he locates this impulse other than the fact that it looks towards a kind of futurity in its escape from overdetermined compositional choices while also insisting on the individual voice’s originality. Yet, the Choral remains as the lure, the draw towards escaping the merely Vocal.


Of the three regions Tarn discusses, the third is perhaps the most difficult to conceptualize. The Silence is a kind of intermediate realm between the tensions pulling in the direction of the self as itself being a site (and cite) of struggle that is the Vocal and the undifferentiated totality that is the Choral and this is the authentic realm of poetry in Tarn’s structure in that it is the site of the non-self. Since there are no possible divisions in the Choral, there can be no non-self as the self cannot be experienced at all, even as an absence or a negation. “The Silence,” Tarn writes, “would be the time in which the poet communes with his/her self as, say, a windowless ‘monad.’ Let us now add that this moment is that in which, in my experience, it is most frequently possible, consciously or probably unconsciously in the main, to simultaneously wish for immediate life and eternal death. To me this is a very strange moment” (212). As it would be for anyone, one imagines. In fact, according to Tarn’s model we might actually see self as a negation of non-self.


Within the realm of the Silence comes the most crucial moment for a poetic consciousness – that is, an awareness or state of attention that the making of poems provides.


If the Rapture is the apex of the process of poem-making – the moment in which the poem lyrically rising from structure achieves a moment of stasis (the true moment of Silence) just before elegiacally falling back into structure as an achieved order – then, during this timelessness, the melding into each other of the Vocal and the Choral, the resolution of their conflict or the recognition of the loss inherent in their ignorance of each other [such ignorance is presumably a structural blindness rather than an active avoidance] shows itself as totality, as never lost / never gained: always there ab initio. For that brief moment, all reciprocity is abolished, all self is merged into an entity which can be seen as a collective self but which I prefer to call the no-self. At that brief moment, the successful poem emerges as “wisdom,” the mind and roar of the Lion. For the poet there is no other “religion.” (216)


The final comment here about religion evokes an insistence of Stevens’s: “After one has abandoned a belief in god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.”[8] Following Tarn’s description, we can now see the ways that poetry does not displace religion but takes on its functionality. Tellingly, Tarn’s characterizing this moment as religious maintains as part of its claim a skepticism that prevents poetry from becoming either dogma or a prescriptive morality while also managing a sense of the devotional. I might hesitate over Tarn’s use of the word Rapture in that it is a term that has been overdetermined or co-opted by certain directions of Christianity, yet his use of it restores its possibilities.


In Tarn’s model, there exists a perspective analogous to one held by Heraclitus. Heraclitus describes that the flash of lightening at night as making available a particular insight in that in the brief moment the landscape suddenly is revealed and its specific appearances emerge out of the darkness and its specificities are able to be apprehended, bound together by the light before being plunged once again into the dark gives a glimpse of the manifold and a totality. This momentary insight would be an equipoise of the many-in-the One and the One-in-the-many.


Tarn’s model provides a means for invoking the conditions by which that momentary insight might arise. Such insight cannot be willed but opportunities can be created for the possibility of such an experience. But it is an insight always aware that it will come to an end, that it needs to come to an end lest it become absolute. To experience rapture, one most also know the experience of the bound. This experience within the Silence is the act of arranging at its purest when ordering is seen as the point where an irresistible dictation of some collective sense of order qua order encounters the speaking self’s desire to establish its own legitimate voice, its own experience of experience. In that moment, the poet comes into his or her fullest presence of a moment that is always drawing to a close and opening into itself at one and the same time.


Tarn’s model of poetic production – and we see him work through his thinking explicitly and implicitly, consciously and unconsciously throughout The Embattled Lyric, just as we see his poems open out in their form and yet gravitate towards “beautiful contradictions” – is an open trope akin to his sense of heraldry as an arrangement that in its awareness of its own activity as the creation and resistance of totality offers a means of rethinking what poetry stages. It is hard to think of more ambitious thinking than Tarn’s in terms of poetics, a thinking that marries its sweeping, inclusive vision to a rigorous attention to the particularities – to the flames and generosities of its own implications. The basis of his poetics takes poetry as being a full enough art that while it does not change the world, it might change the reader, if he or she is willing to give himself or herself to its forces, forces which are our forces, the force of our language, our choices.


Indeed, with Tarn’s model, poetic making is a means of examining choices as a series both of effects and of causes. The essays found in Tarn’s The Embattled Lyric as well as his Selected Poems give models not for understanding the world but for attending to the way we make sense of understanding. The models and tropes Tarn offers are not didactic nor prescriptive nor do they offer ideals. Instead, the tropes acknowledge their limitations – they in fact take the limitation as a freedom from doctrine – and suggest intuitions and bring to the fore our process of representing intuitions to others as well as to ourselves. Tarn’s Selected Poems ends with these lines:


At last, a home, good God!
Names of the mother-fathers all recovered,
uncle from here, aunt from there,
most distant cousin from insignificant towns,
all now remembered through the smoke,
and brought to life again —
all reassembled, all transfigured,
a human reign. (335)


The home then is one of our own finding, one formed out of exile and distance, found only through being lost and being forced (forcing ourselves) to construct the place for dwelling, a place for invoking the self and its human reign so as to be able to lose it, to let it go. And the assembling is always a transfiguration not only of the world, but also of those who would risk losing that world in order to live in it, with it. If Tarn’s poetry teaches us anything – and his art with its hope and its consolation is seemingly more necessary with each passing year – it is that to bereave is also often to bequeath a world that can and must surpass all understanding, if we are to survive each other and the world, and if the world is to survive us.


[1] Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poetry and Prose. Ed. Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson. New York: Library of America, 1997. 218–9.

[2] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. 3rd ed. Trans. G. E. Anscombe. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1958. 8e.

[3] Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Resistance to Civil Government. 2nd ed. Ed. William Rossi. New York: Norton, 1992. 1.

[4] Ibid ., 57.

[5] Hegel, G. W. F. Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics. Ed. Michael Ironwood. Trans. Bernard Bosanquet. New York: Penguin, 1993.

[6] Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. Norman Kemp Smith. New York: St. Martin’s, 1965. 256.

[7] Tarn, Nathaniel. The Beautiful Contradictions. New York: Random House, 1970. N. p.

[8] Stevens, Wallace. “Adagia.” Opus Posthumous, ed. Samuel Morse. New York: Knopf, 1957. 158.

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