Saturday, February 10, 2007

A Noiseless Patient Spider

Looking for clues on the spiritual, I turn to Robert Strong's introduction to the anthology he edited, Joyful Noise in which I have a poem. "All poetry is spiritual," he says, which seems too broad a claim to dispute, and then he refines it: "spiritual things give us templates of extra-ordinary perception that canot be explained, unless by poetry." What does "extra-ordinary perception" refer to as a ground-point for the spiritual? Perception beyond what's empirical and quantifiable? That fits with my intuition that spiritual experience is real, even if the material of so much of that experience is locked up and controlled by arbitrary codes. The Word is dead until animated by that necessarily subjective experience.

Then Robert makes another statement: "Across generations and leanings, we discover a constant poetic-spiritual dilema: a central observer overwhelmed by the eternal realization that he or she is not, after all, the center. From our false human centger, poets cast out language, as Walt Whitman's spider-like soul does, 'Ceaselessly musing, venturing... Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere.'" I like this because it demonstrates how the spiritual might actually undermine and oppose religiosity, if by that word we mean the tendency to codify spiritual experience into an Archimedan lever for manipulating the social. Above all this notion captures the radical humility demanded of the spiritual seeker, who acknowledges not merely that one is part of something bigger than oneself (which is sufficient for religious experience, which most often makes you small and insignificant now while promising to enlarge you later into one of the elect), but that one has no firm knowledge of what your relation to that thing is, the thing itself being centerless (but if you give it a center, you fall out of spiritual humility and become the founder of a religion).

In some ways I'm trying to think Stan Apps' claims for a materialist poetry against mystification with Reginald Shepherd's Allen Grossman post. Grossman is about as far from a flarf poet as you can get, given his unembarrassed affinity for what Shepherd calls "the elevated, vatic mode." What preserves Grossman from faux-seriousness or religiosity, however, is his consciousness that, as Shepherd argues, the grand style is an aspiration rather than an achievement on his part. When I read Grossman I perceive this as a kind of glorious awkwardness—so many of his poems seem gawky in their radiance, like a preacher in an ill-fitting suit. He persuades me of his sincerity—or rather, his sincerity shades itself over into action—largely through his persistence, through the large body of work he has built up—and also because he has failed, or perhaps refused, to cultivate a personal mythology: Grossman has built no ministry and has no disciples that I'm aware of (unlike T.S. Eliot, Jorie Graham, or other poets of the grand, vatic mode).

Grossman is easy to criticize or not take seriously because his aspirations are so high, and one Lawrence LaRiviere White has made this acute comment on Shepherd's post: "I know my interest in great voices is in part symptomatic: I hold the prophetic voice, the subject presumed to know, & know profoundly, as an ego ideal. I would like to be the man in the robes. (To whom the proper response would be Bugs Bunny's: 'What a maroon'!)" This precisely and elegantly repeats the criticism that Apps and Gary Sullivan level against poetic religiosity, and there can be no better emblem of flarf's desire to puncture pretentions than Bugs Bunny, preferably dressed as Brunhilde in What's Opera, Doc. White writes, "if one tries to expand the interest in Grossman, it would be important to eschew the vatic mode, to find a lower register in which to present his case, to lure those who only listen to the vernacular & domestic. It's a cannier approach." That would indeed make for cannier marketing, but denies too much of what makes Grossman Grossman. What would a truly vernacular seer look like? Even Whitman, the most democratic prophet I'm aware of, resorts to grand gestures when he's not hinting and whispering.

I've tried to stake out a distinction between the religio-social and the spiritual-individual, which is rather undialectical of me. Mystic experience is forever being recycled into ritual structures, while few mystics have failed to make use of the existing ritual structures their particular historical moment rendered available to them. (The naive artists that so fascinated Ronald Johnson fascinate me in this regard: assembling homemade worlds out of bits and pieces of the quotidian and the sacred alike, so blurring the distinction between them.) More fundamentally, on a gut level we seem to have a powerful desire to communicate and share our spiritual experiences with others, and all of the successful communities and collectives that I can think of arouse a quasi-spiritual camaraderie in their members. And then there's Badiou's notion of the Event that one commits to, which I think could be characterized as a spiritual experience (as I think he puts it, one makes a decision about something undecidable). This commmitment in turn transforms reality either for the individual or collectively, in the four major spheres of truth he recognizes (love, art, politics, science) as being those in which purely subjective commitment is decisive.. That's the lifecycle: spiritual experience makes a commitment possible, which in turn might set up a structure arranging the materials available for future experience.

All of which goes to say that, as admirable as I find the materialist critique of mystified religiosity, it may not be sufficient in itself for demarking the most subjective zones of experience; more significantly, it does not take into account the spiritual commitment that this poetics itself demands to its conception of political truth, since that truth is negatively defined (non-hierarchical, non-mystified, etc.). Its saving grace, its biggest gun, is its historicism, which is another version of the spiritual realization that one is not at the center, and that all the structures that surround you have temporal origins and endings. How curious and yet unsurprising to discover this kernel of spiritual experience in Marxian historicity! And a flarfist is nothing if not radically humble in his or her renunciation of the poetic ego ideal. Though I suppose merry prankster is a much sought-after ego ideal for some. Did Jesus tell jokes?

Once again I must stop short of announcing my unified field theory of poetry. But there's something happening here.

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