Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Poetry as Navigation

In some ways what preoccupies me most in poetry is navigation: the poem as cognitive map; the poem as an imaginative attempt at orientation, in and through language. Jameson’s Postmodernism appeals to me most of all for its notion of cognitive mappig and what it suggests for postmodern poetry as a series of attempts to navigate and make palpable the capitalist world-system that is rarely if ever visible to the naked eye. In this respect for me poetry is no different from criticism and theory, as discourses which illuminate invisible connections both vertically (the modernist "depth model" of what’s beneath the surface: Freud and the unconscious. Marx and the mode of production, Darwin and natural selection) and horizontally (the postmodernist network of metonyms: Derrida’s chain of signifiers, Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomes, Lyotard’s implosion of master narratives).

What draws me to the great modernist long poems—The Waste Land, The Cantos, Trilogy, Paterson, “A”, ARK—is their epic-scale attempt by an individual to situate him or herself in relation to a culture or cultures dynamically conceived. Even their most conservative attempts to arrest that dynamism—to save a tradition from decay, dissolution, or outright destruction (Pound, Eliot, H.D.), or to preserve a place, a family, or their own imaginations (Williams, Zukofsky, Ronald Johnson) from the pressures of capital—manage to include that dynamic through the fundamental modernist technique of collage, so that each poem is, in Stevens’ terms, a pitched battle between "reality" and imagination. A battle which can never be won; yet merely to locate the enemy’s ground and engage him is a tremendous victory of perception, given the pressure we all are under to submit to the most expedient narrative frames for our lives—frames that omit reality and imagination in almost equal measure.

I'm drawn to pastoral as one of the oldest literary modes of mapping, which is simultaneously a troubling of the territory: where does nature end and culture begin? And as I immerse myself more deeply in ecocriticism I recognize its attempts to think space, place, and history in a fresh way. Struck by the mutual hostility and incomprehension of mainstream ecocritics and postmodernists, and by the similarity of their projects: deep ecology, which seems to be the most influential ecocritical impulse (versus the shallowness of "environmentalism" as just another attempt to manage nature), takes a post- or anti-humanist stance that Foucault might recognize in its decentering of the human subject. The difference is that Foucault, et al, would say that there is only discourse (il n'y a pas hors de texte) and the power relations that generate and situate subjects, whereas the deep ecologists privilege the nonhuman and in their more enthusiastic moments claim the nonhuman as a kind of ur-discourse (mystical, scientific, or both) through which we can access reality directly. I'm too far gone in postmodernism to go there: I think all our claims about nature are saturated in ideology, even and especially when they're made in scientific language. The virtue of pastoral is the transparency of its relation to ideology, and a properly postmodern pastoral will deconstruct its own claims about nature while its powerful affect remains intact.

I say that navigation is what I go to poetry for—Pound’s periplum, Olson’s 'istorin—but it’s more atavistic than that. Reading in Lawrence Buell’s Writiing for an Endangered World an observation of Leslie Marmon Silko’s that "particularity of environmental detail may actually betoken lack of connectedness," I immediately think of my own childhood and my sense of being trapped in a world I never made. The social relations that others seemed to swim in like fish in water were at once visible and opaque: I saw clearly the power struggles that governed relationships, but my vision seemingly disqualified me from joining the struggle in a meaningful way. I suspect this experience is typical of many intellectuals, or at least it’s typical of nerds as they’re described in a useful taxonomy I read recently. I wrote and later read poetry (that’s the usual order, no?) because it promised to reintegrate what I saw and what I felt: as a cognitive mode that involves the body (by ear, he sd) it creates danceable maps of experience. Later on I became more interested in collective modes of experience, in more layered and detailed maps (whereas the lyrical-confessional mode of poetry that I was originally attracted to was more concerned with points than lines: for such poetry YOU ARE is more important than YOU ARE HERE), and I was also not coincidentally discovering the great theoretical maps of psychological and social and historical being (I’m a latecomer to the biological via my new interest in ecopoetics). For a long while the more abstract something was—the more of a God’s eye view it promised of the territory—the more seductive I found it. Only recently has this tendency been counterbalanced back toward a concern with more local and particular details, and in my rewrite of Severance Songs I'm trying to rediscover the unabandonable "I." Because creating a map, however variegated and gorgeous, may be less important now than the act of tracking and orienteering, of living off the unstable postmodern "land" without accepting it as the only possible reality. (I find I am incorrigibly diasporic in my thinking, a sojourner, most un-at-home when at home. But maybe this feeling has been intensified by moving twice in two years.) Another way of saying that I want to preserve something of the modernist preoccupation with history—the absolute present of the postmodern nullifies the very notion of a future that doesn’t look like the present, but more so.

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