Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Got to hear M.H. Abrams lecture for the first time in my six years at Cornell yesterday, at the inauguration of a new distinguished visiting professorship with his name. The first visitor is the pioneering feminist critic Sandra M. Gilbert, of The Madwoman in the Attic fame, who gave a talk titled "Finding Atlantis: Thirty Years of Exploring Women's Literary Traditions." The talk had something of the feel of a victory lap for feminist literary scholarship, while at the same time suggesting that the real work of excavating the history of literature by women has only just begun. She recommended four strategies for feminist canon formation: 1) What Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley called for, the re-education of women in rational thought; 2) carrying on the work of recovering individual woman authors; challenging and re-educating male readers; 4) rediscovering the hidden history of a male-female dialectic. This last refers to the most interesting idea Gilbert touched on: that even though women's writing has been largely submerged and out of sight for most of history (thus the Atlantis metaphor), it has nonetheless exerted a pressure on male writers to which they have responded in mostly apologetic but occasionally interesting and provocative ways. She seems to be suggesting that in the twenty-first century, with women writers working in the open, that this ancient dialogue is being continued in a new way.

Abrams was impressive: at ninety-four, he's still physically spry and mentally agile. His talk was called, simply, "On Reading Poetry Aloud," and was mostly an opportunity to take pleasure in the cadences of the four poems he did, indeed, read aloud: Keats' "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," Wordsworth's "Surprised by Joy,", Ernest Dowson's "Cynara," and A.R. Ammons' "Mansion." Abrams called our attention to how Keats creates an entrancing silent pause in the last lines of most of the stanzas of his poem, which have two beats where the other lines have four. He pointed out how Wordsworth's Petrarchan sonnet seizes up rhythmically to convey heartache; how Dowson's louche speaker plays with the shifting possible meanings of the famous line, "I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion"; and how Ammons' free verse needs to be read attentively and aloud for the richness of its tarrying with mortality to emerge. Very moving to behold a man near the end of his life who's loved poetry for all that long life, and for whom that love is still fresh.

I'm auditing a seminar on the American long poem taught by Roger Gilbert (my dissertation chair and Sandra M.'s son). Last week we began with the 1855 version of Whitman's Song of Myself; this week we're on to Eliot's The Waste Land and Four Quartets; upcoming are Pound's Cantos, WCW's Patterson, Zukofsky's "A", Oppen's Of Being Numerous, Duncan's Passages, Ashbery's Flow Chart, and Ammons' Garbage, among others (obviously we'll mostly be reading selections, which is itself one of the interesting problems and challenges posed by long poems). My evolving theory of the long poem, particularly the long poem as it's descended from Whitman, is that it attempts to transform, partly through sheer accumulation, the existential experience of an individual into the representation of social totality. Squaring the circle, the horizontal made vertical. Perhaps this is obvious; it's certainly broad—a notion of art partly derived from Althusser's famous definition of ideology: one's imaginary relationship to the real conditions of one's existence. Individuals are not usually responsible for ideologies, of course: the hubris of the long-poet (to coin an awkward phrase) rarely pays off, I think, in the formation of a brand-new imaginary, but they might very well achieve the creative destruction or at least corrosion of prevailing ideologies.

Rereading Song of Myself, I was freshly conscious of the poem as the document of a mystical experience, and the tension between such consummately individual experience and the radically democratic absorption and embodiment of the American polis attempted by the poem: a dialectic of enlightenment in the spiritual sense. Many of the other students were primarily impressed by Whitman's fantastic egotism, but I want to make a case for his radical humility, stemming from an intuition I have that spiritual enlightenment is born of the experience and embracement of one's own thoroughly ordinary and thoroughly mortal life. It's possible to mistake the speaker of Whitman's poem for some kind of superman, but when he claims, "And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier," I think the immortality he claims comes from accepting his share in the multitude, and not from some superior self-founded power (though he flirts with this only to find himself "on a verge of the usual mistake"). At least I suspect that's his drift.

In the meantime, the poem accumulates through its famous catalogs an idealized image of the American totality, circa 1855; the word "catalog" reminds me that Whitman's poem immediately precedes the age of Sears and Roebuck, through which was offered "merchandise such as sewing machines, sporting goods, musical instruments, saddles, firearms, buggies, bicycles, baby carriages, and men’s and children’s clothing." I believe eventually you could even purchase a complete pre-fab house from the catalog. Whitman's catalogs are more concerned with scenes of artisanal production and sometimes of mass expenditure (in the excessive, Bataillean sense) than they are with consumption, which makes the entire poem a kind of pastoral in my book. It's the rugged American individual producer, male or female (the women are usually depicted as mothers, their identities accessory to some virile artisan—"the mechanic's wife with her babe at her nipple interceding for every person born") that forms the ideological linchpin between Whitman's ecstatic self-image and the totality that he tellingly pluralizes in the Preface: "The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem." Whitman depicts himself as such a producer, but equivocally so: the famous frontispiece shows us a workingman ("Walt Whitman, one of the roughs") but the speaker's first action is religious and ceremonial ("I celebrate myself"), while his second action is the refusal of action ("I loafe and invite my soul"). It is still I think this joyous idleness, which Whitman explicitly connects with spiritual and emotional openness, that forms the core of his poem's appeal—otherwise we'd just have a free-verse Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

On now to Eliot and his spiritual solutions (I want this last word to carry its sense of that which dissolves). And I'm still pondering the baroque and the shapes it might give to postmodern poetics.

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