There are countless places of refuge, there is only one place of salvation; but the possibilities of salvation, again, are as numerous as all the places of refuge.—Franz Kafka
The sum is beyond us.—Robert Duncan
An image examined separately from the other parts of the poem becomes symbolic, just as the hand has no function without the brain. Likewise, a person only lives within the context of the world. Yet, while science describes the relationship of hand to brain, a person’s place in the world remains a source of mystery. Attempts to characterize our experience—through religion, philosophy, politics, and art—rely on abstract assertions about faith, truth, fate, or beauty that expose little more than the absurdity of categorizing the totality of existence. Mystery more accurately depicts our predicament than any civilized explanation. Art, more often than other disciplines, attempts to demonstrate mystery rather than explain it away. Poetry, in particular, does little to explain away its mysterious elements, often taking liberties in emphasizing or exaggerating a sense of mystery, especially through images. The nonsense of an image—the indeterminable aspects of its relationship with the rest of the poem—contributes largely to the energy of the work.
Contemporary developments in poetry, particularly among the emerging generation of poets, have been widely misunderstood as a movement toward sound and not a development of the image coming down through Modernism. Critics who have labeled the new poetry “post-avant” have incorrectly pointed to L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry as a major influence, perhaps because this writing often displays the density and playfulness of highly charged language that does not reveal instructively clear-cut narrative or rhetorical structures (what Joyelle McSweeney calls “the wiggly, fishtailing delight in the materiality of language that is the hallmark of contemporary poetry”). Similarly, the influence of John Ashbery, at times bestowed disparagingly on the generations of poets who have come in his wake, is often coupled with the criticism that poets such as McSweeney, Graham Foust, and G.C. Waldrep are only interested in music or “gorgeous nonsense.” While some of Ashbery’s books, particularly The Double Dream of Spring, Three Poems, Houseboat Days, and Flow Chart, might have influenced a number of poets, the element of his work those poets most closely share with him—the intuitive leaps between statements and images—appears just as readily in John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, or Alice Notley. One immediate difference between Ashbery and poets such as Berryman and Notley who came of age around the same time, is that throughout his career Ashbery has adopted the meditative, at times ironically grave, voice of the orator, while Berryman and Notley employ syntactical fragments that more closely approach a song-like moment of synaptic firing. The accumulation of fragmented syntax more closely resembles the structure of music than does Ashbery’s abstracted dramatic monologues, which are more like heightened speech; and while Ashbery’s voice adopts and at times mimics the voice of someone coming to realization or epiphany, the syntactically fragmented style patterns after the experience of recognition or raw apprehension.
In many ways, contemporary poetry has been more deeply influenced by the processes of imagistic or syntactical fragmentation than by Ashbery’s high ironical rhetoric, and of any other art form most closely resembles cinema. The musicality of the language is heavily charged to propel the poem rapidly through its imagery. The technical magic of cinema resides in the “mystery” of turning static frames into moving pictures, and the energy of the poem likewise depends on the mysterious transfer of lyric reference. Theodore Roethke, a forefather to this type of poetry, sought to write from a condition of primal awe and at times intentionally brought on psychotic fits to enable that state. Confusion and terror often immediately precede the ecstatic recognition of one’s own being. In “The Shape of the Fire,” Roethke exhibits madness in lucid imagery delivered through apparently nonsensical associative leaps:
Mother me out of here. What more will the bones allow?
Will the sea give the wind suck? A toad folds into a stone.
These flowers are all fangs. Comfort me, fury.
Wake me, witch. We’ll do the dance of rotten sticks.
The desire to interpret the world anew comes nevertheless through the rhetoric of “Mother me out of here” and “Wake me, witch.” The associations of the imagery—toad with stone and flowers with fangs—are nonsensical, yet make intuitive sense visually, suggesting a desire for transformation, which immediately follows: “Shale loosens. Marl reaches into the field.” Unlike the images of the toad and flowers, which are highly metaphorical, these geological changes describe a literal transformation of the landscape. The poet who wishes to see the world anew, Roethke shows us, must only look about the world, which abides in constant flux. The poet might then assume that the self may also be open to transformation, not through metaphor but in a literal sense, through enhanced perception. Roethke, whatever direct influence he might have on other poets, offers an early example of the contemporary lyrical style, which, as Wallace Stevens posits, must begin in reality. Mystery surrounds the poet whose gaze has shifted from the known to the unknown, and literal description takes on the same aspect of mystery as the metaphorical: “Small birds pass over the water. / Spirit, come near. This is only the edge of whiteness.” From such a state of awe, “whiteness” suggests both the luminous and oblivion, as a literal term for the quality of light and a metaphorical suggestion of both enlightenment and the unknown.
A curious aspect of some modern and contemporary poetry resides in an odd rhetorical device through which the poet asserts an axiomatic phrase that is neither fully literal nor ironic, but embodies a certitude in the reality of the statement. Roethke thus announces: “An eye comes out of the wave. / The journey from the flesh is longest. / A rose sways least.” G.C. Waldrep opens “Against the Madness of Crowds” by applying such lyrically authoritative rhetoric to a series of images composing a metaphorically weighty scene:
Reckon the haste of one wall burning.
There is no thickness there is no terror there is
a transparency like oxygen like fire over this bright space.
Waldrep’s word “transparency” suggests perception that is at once literal and imaginative, as the light above the fire is both transparent and distorted. The use of “oxygen” and “fire” as similes further suggests the concomitance, as they contribute to the “transparency.” Emerging from a state of awe and apprehension, Waldrep’s assertions have the authority of lyrical insight: “There is no thickness there is no terror.” Reminiscent of Roethke’s “whiteness,” the phrase “this bright space” resolves the image with a symbolically evocative yet literal description. Waldrep then asserts his question as a statement: “And will the ashes that rise meet the ashes that fall.” The confusion is recognizable and, in a sense, certain.
In recent years, many poets have seemed to share a degree of comfort in describing the unknowable in ordinary experiences, perhaps partly due to growing up in an age of relentless image-based media. Joyelle McSweeney’s “Youth Idiom” describes the experience of watching movies:
My eye was repeating itself,
splitting the screen and splicing into
other scenes, choosing among times. I became
elevated from the row of seats. Reclining
in the dark air, interfering with the projection,
my own form entered the screen.
She describes the eye passively, as if removed from herself. She has given up conscious control of her eye and is letting her mind analyze the experience of the film as if removed from sensory participation. The splitting and splicing connect temporal dissociation with film editing, the willful arranging of fractured images. She intends to remain passive, “reclining,” yet she ends up “interfering with the projection” by ascending into it.
Humphrey Bogart and Humphrey Bogart and
Bogart turned to me, and said
Why are you assembling these mirrors?
What do you want to see?
The nonsense of her ascension into the film, swaddled in the reality of dissociated experience—particularly with a media as dream-like and pacifying as cinema—emphasizes the mysterious circumstances of the self existing amid unknowable surroundings.
However strange the context, the desire to understand the place one inhabits abides in recent poetry. The work of many contemporary poets, though traceable back to a common source—Romanticism—tends to align less with the earnest sermonizing in Wordsworth’s meditations and more with the fantastical constructs of Blake’s allegories. Like Blake, Notley defines a congruity between the world perceived as an exterior reality and the solitary intellectual domain of the self. The immediacy of her writing, even in its rhetorical assertions, does not posture or postulate, but follows the mind through impetuous discovery. In “The Islanders Remember That There Are No Women and No Men,” Notley distances the images of her poetry from her own memory, as memory accentuates the divide between the world seen outside of us and the living world in the mind:
Wanting the real
and as a dream is a dream
I try to remember something:
the trees at Blythe
at night, going home
inside the steel cab of a pickup,
road lined with athol trees. salty, drab.
Home gone to feels empty
a little shakily and that’s
more like a dream than a memory.
No I want real and dreamed to be fused into the real
rip off this shroud of division of my poem from my life.
Logic and meditation cannot fabricate a conduit between what resides in the mind and what the eye perceives. Dreams become urgently real, and to negotiate them into reality requires a landscape, a massive battlefield where the elements of that which is part of the self must war with the elements of that which is other than the self.
On entering the landscape that Emily Dickinson creates out of a beam of sunlight, what matters is the intuitive leap from a perceived reality separate from the self to an experienced reality of which the self is part. Dickinson seems to cry from an imaginative world, but her voice is calling the self out of its separateness from the actual world. To negotiate through that separation, the mind must interpret phenomena subjectively in order to experience objectively. While the eye detects “a certain Slant of light,” the allegorical nature of the mind associates what is seen with what is felt, which in this case gives light the quality of music that in turn has the quality of mass: “That oppresses, like the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes.” The image of sunlight becomes a story of how music makes us feel, and the room with the window becomes a cathedral. I can see the beam as an architectural support and hear a Bach fugue because allegory allows the mind to conceptualize the physical description through the metaphorical.
Wallace Stevens posits that similarities—“resemblances” he calls them—between things and ideas perforate the intellectual barrier between self and other. “The spirit comes from the body of the world,” concludes “Mr. Homburg,” Stevens’s dramatic persona (an alter ego for Emerson) in “Looking Across the Fields and Watching the Birds Fly.” Nature’s functions resemble the mind’s function: “The afternoon is visibly a source, / Too wide, too irised, to be more than calm, // Too much like thinking to be less than thought.” To Stevens, as to Shelley, the spirit is unseen and omnipresent, yet unlike Shelley, he envisions the spirit not as a force exerting pressure upon the world, but as a “transparency” that reveals a relationship between interior and exterior realities. The outside world is not where the thinking self feels safe, but it is nevertheless home: “No doubt, we live beyond ourselves in air, // In an element that does not do for us.” Here “air” is analogous to the spirit:
A transparency through which the swallow weaves,
Without any form or any sense of form,
What we know in what we see, what we feel in what
We hear, what we are, beyond mystic disputation,
In the tumult of integrations out of the sky
Stevens’s quarrel is absolutely with himself, in that if he can only perceive through “desperately clear” senses, the world will appear in simultaneity with the mind, in pure visceral beauty.
While Stevens appears as an observer whose conflict resides in thinking out his ontological predicament, Robert Penn Warren’s Audubon: A Vision depicts an individual set out to define himself against and as part of the natural world. Audubon’s struggle is not to formulate an identity for himself—he is explorer, scientist, artist, and hunter—but his quest in the poem is to turn inward and comprehend the spirit that impels him in the face of nature’s cruel process:
Eastward and over the cypress swamp, the dawn,
Redder than meat, break;
And the large bird,
Long neck outthrust, wings crooked to scull air, moved
In a slow calligraphy, crank, flat, and black against
The color of God’s blood spilt, as though
Pulled by a string.
How can one form a sustaining idea of the self when nature tends toward destruction? The terrible reality of the world inspires self-reflective terror: “His gut twists cold. He cannot bear what he sees.” Warren’s sorrow in Audubon: A Vision and in Or Else is not caused by his likeness to the savage and broken world, but by his inability to comprehend nature or match its beauty and violence. In “The Nature of the Mirror,” Warren embodies clear-headed dejection:
The solstice of summer has sagged, I stand
And wait. Virtue is rewarded, that
Is the nightmare, and I must tell you
That soon now, even before
The change from Daylight Saving Time, the sun,
Beyond the western ridge of black-burnt pine stubs like
A snaggery of rotten shark teeth, sinks
Lower, larger, more blank, and redder than
A mother’s rage
Warren finds a false turn in the primal awe that many poets seek, in that even virtue participates in the nightmare.
So what is a poet to do, other than dwell in sorrow? Ashbery suggests, “Much that is beautiful must be discarded / So that we may resemble / A taller impression of ourselves.” In Fanny Howe’s work, always rooted both in venereal soil and abstracted mind, we discover the voice of a deconstructed hero who acknowledges the necessity of a limited but self-consuming psychological devastation: “The human is a thing / Who walks around disintegrating.” However, waywardness, or at least openness to suggestion, allows for growth and adaptability:
The whole body
condenses to isolation and exhaust
as if neutrality in nature
or thinks it does.
The self, stripped bare, creates its own essential presence beyond the confusion of ontological accoutrements. Diminishment of self perhaps intensifies comprehension of our creative powers:
In the next world I discovered
a hovel where a naked I writes with a nail
There you’re as small as a zero, the hole in the wall
the mouse goes in.
Self-destruction, if applied creatively, can lead to a sort of afterlife.
Broken down enough, the self sees that perception itself is indestructible, and in that fragile, essential state, one’s place becomes clear. We see this in poetry of recovery, in Franz Wright’s The Beforelife and Graham Foust’s Necessary Stranger. In Wright’s “From a Discarded Image,” a voice utterly baffled by the mere presence of the world states,
beauty intact, indeed
it can never be other
like the stars, like the stars
when the stars have no names once again.
The image is nestled and hidden in the language: the word has its place in the world, but the world’s beauty survives “intact no matter what / harm we perpetually do / and have done.” The realization that the world continues despite our worst actions implies that we are not compelled to full comprehension. Our smallness serves to reveal the grandness of the universe. In “Clouds,” Foust explains fate and grace from a similar perspective: “Such things / as laws fall on us.” “Such things” undercuts the significance of “laws,” while “fall” analogizes the inevitable with some force of nature like rain, and from this diminished perspective the effect of fate is also diminished. Our inability to avoid “law” parallels our inability to describe the function of grace: “There / are nameless shapes. / There are tears of understanding.” This futility in aspiring to control or even accurately describe our surroundings—and the ultimate confusion that breaks us down—leads to a form of communion with “fate,” with the processes of nature as they are rather than as we wish them to be.
Ashbery’s Houseboat Days demonstrates confusion as a reliable and virtually predictable conduit between self and other. “The Lament upon the Waters” begins,
For the disciple nothing had changed. The mood was still
Gray tolerance, as the road marched along
Singing its little song of despair. Once, a cry
Started up out of the hills. That old, puzzling persuasion
Again. Sex was part of this,
And the shock of day turning into night.
The disciple interprets the road through an analogy with human behavior (“marched along / Singing its little song of despair”), yet his procedure is primarily observational. The disciple’s mood has not changed because the landscape has not changed. “Sex” and “the shock of day turning into night” continue to confuse the disciple, who has not desensitized himself to experience by explaining it away. Thus, as the disciple continues to experience the world’s startling beauty, his subjective powers have transformative value:
And we made much of this sort of materiality
That clogged the weight of starlight, made it seem
Fibrous, yet there was a chance in this
To see the present as it never had existed,
Clear and shapeless, in an atmosphere like cut glass.
Subjectivity skews perception (“clogged the weight of starlight, made it seem / Fibrous”), but resorting to pure observation as a response to the inevitable would inhibit the disciple’s discovery. “The problem isn’t how to proceed,” the poem continues, “But is one of being: whether this ever was, and whose / It shall be.” The question is neither of arrival nor of setting out, but of remaining continually open to new recognitions, always taken with hearty resignation to the unlikelihood that this will ever end: “The sackbuts / Embellish it, and we are never any closer to the collision // Of the waters, the peace of light drowning light, / Grabbing it, holding it up streaming. It is all one.” The recognition of our actual predicament seems to perpetuate our communion with the world, which is “all one,” and the transcendence of “light drowning light” might be needless fancy.
In Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport describes a willful return to a primitive perception of self and place: “Man is the animal that chooses its instincts through emulation, and all his learning has roots and branches.” Warren’s Audubon puts it mystically: “The world declares itself.” The poet must cease to declare anything:
It can only be enacted, and that in dream,
Or in the dream become, as though unconsciously, action, and he stood,
At dusk, in the street of the raw settlement, and saw
The first lamp lit behind a window, and did not know
What he was. Thought: ‘I don’t know my own name.’
To know that one does not know one’s self is the primary definition of self. Howe says it definitively: “Half of every experience is lack of experience.” Stevens turns it into a march: “Exit the mental moonlight, exit lex, / Rex and principium, exit the whole / Shebang. Exuent omnes.” Frank Stanford offers it to us as pure joy: “When you take the lost road / You find the bright feathers of morning / Laid out in proportion to snow and light.” In “Nightmare,” Allen Grossman reverses the entirety, shrinking the almost infinite to a landscape within his head: “In the dark bottom of his head there lay / A severed head.” Then he imposes the image upon the world: “He saw it when he closed his eyes to sleep. And when he opened them / It lingered on things like a stain.” He struggles to find a word for the image, something that will allow what he sees to cohere with what he knows he does not see. Yet all that appears is a flux of images:
For no reason he could understand, [things] flung
Themselves across the singular abyss
In shreds—burned and died to be perceived by him,
Standing a moment on a balcony.
Within chaos, “the brokenness of things” is “formed whole” only in the moment of seeing.