Thursday, March 28, 2013

Lanthanum

The book-length poem Lanthanum, which I worked on from late 2008 to July 2012, comes with an introduction and notes, which you can read online (along with the rest of it) here.  So, in this Dove St. School mini-lecture, I will improvise a few current half-thoughts about the thing.

O the providential luck of reading, when one book leads to another...  I was absorbed lately in John T. Irwin's masterful study/revivification, Hart Crane's Poetry - a book which did many things for me : (1) increased my wonder at Crane's rich complexity; (2) confirmed my sense of his affinity with my favorite poet, Osip Mandelstam (both combine a Dionysian lyric intensity with what Crane called his "dynamics of inferential mention" - a wall of sound, a thick palimpsest of puns/allusions; (3) opened my eyes to some fundamental differences between Crane's worldview and my own, which I had missed or minimized.  O the providential, comic ironies of our naive misreadings!

Irwin discusses Spengler's Decline of the West as a background presence in Crane's Bridge.  This led me to read Spengler : something I doubt I would have done otherwise.  Spengler has a rather shady popular reputation for gloom, tendentiousness... the dark shade behind such conservative historians as Samuel (Clash of Civilizations) Huntington.

I'm too weary today (my declining years!) to expatiate at length on all this.  But I found Decline of the West hard to put down : very grand and original, very acute and elegant in its ultimate wrongness.  Spengler, stemming from Goethe, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, understands Time - irreversible, unstoppable - as the fundamental quiddity underlying everything.  Time, not Space.  Reality is essentially History.  Spengler, the historian, discovers nothing universal in human nature : rather history is a matter of the rise and fall of Cultures : giant spiritual organisms which have their ineluctable growth and decay.  And what they decay into are Civilizations : dried-up husks of former life-forms, intellectual, rationalized, urbanized, detached from anything really alive.  Civilizations are the archives of their former Cultures.

The organic cultures are utterly distinct : and their unique character - their formative shape - defines and explains all the particular aspects of their arts, social forms, and historical destiny.  Much of the book is a project of contrasting our own (dying) culture - the "West" - a "Faustian" phenomenon which was born around 1000 a.d. - with the totally different Classical culture of ancient Greece.  The third major Culture Spengler calls the "Magian" or Arabian - which was born and grew in the Middle East out of the "younger" tribes of that region - Jewish, Persian, Arab.  All three monotheistic religions - along with Mazdaism, Gnosticism, Manicheanism, etc. etc. - Spengler interprets as manifestations of one powerful cultural form (the Magian) - completely different in turn from both Western and Classical cultures.  It's a heady brew of historical philosophizing, to say the least.

John Irwin, in Hart Crane's Poetry, discusses how, in Spengler's framework, the West and the Classical cultures are like twin rivals or binaries.  The "Faustian" West needed Classicism - or its manufactured image of the Classical - as a counter-weight : the voracious Faustian drive toward the Self, the Invisible and the Infinite sought to wed itself to a (Classic) image of the Visible, Beauty and Repose.  Crane was aware of these ideas : his profound, Nietzschean investment in the myth of Dionysus played out in many aspects of his work (think of his aspiration to be a kind of "Pindar for our Machine Age" - or his poem "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen").  In The Bridge, according to Irwin, Crane hoped to transpose Spengler's pessimistic vision of Western/Classical duality into a new amalgam : Western (American) / Native American.  The Bridge represented his conception of an entirely new (New World) culture-form : a new Atlantis.

So what, you might ask, has all this to do with my own long poem, Lanthanum?  Let me sketch out a few notions which came to me today, within this Cranian-Spenglerian schema.  Crane and The Bridge are part of the fabric of my long poems.  The orphic/Midwestern/Native American theme is very active there, both in Forth of July and in Lanthanum.  As I've noted elsewhere, at times I thought of Lanthanum as a kind of bridge between the worldviews of Crane and T.S. Eliot (shaped as it is around an iconic monument of American engineering - the Gateway Arch - located in Eliot's home town, St. Louis).  But reading Spengler sent me back again in thought to some of the early roots of my own artistic trajectory : I thought about my life-changing, soul-shaking "encounter" with Shakespeare and the Bible in terms of Spengler's notion of the Middle Eastern, Magian culture as a very distinct "Other" - an anomaly - as well as unacknowledged matrix - within the morphology of the West.

Lanthanum is, until the very end, strangely static, non-dramatic.  It's contemplative, repetitive - a kind of turning back to the womb or cave of speech.  This, in Spengler-sense, is very "Magian".  Spirit, Word, and Soul are distinct substances for the Magian : Light is a physical entity in the darkness of the cosmic Cave.  Spengler might say that the "theological" dimension in Lanthanum - my desire to reconfigure an Eliotic devotion to the medieval "mind of Europe" as "Maximus" of Byzantium, etc. - actually represents a Magian impulse.  Within the chaos of a late post-cultural Western civilization, this attraction toward a pleroma, a timeless, collective Now within the fulness of the embodied Light, the Word, represents a kind of cultural anomaly in America : yet its quite close to certain strains of Eastern Orthodox, Russian culture (one of the few peoples which according to Spengler, has a cultural future).  Thus, both like and unlike Crane, my "epic" is a kind of amalgam : Faustian/Native-American... and Magian.  (Crane, on the other hand, battling against conservative-pessimistic Eliot in his poetry, and dealing with the strictures of pious Protestant America bearing down on his tormented familial-psychological struggles - opposed any Christian-Magian impulse with his Nietszschean aestheticism.)

The dream-vision which bursts the contemplative pod at the end of Lanthanum is a kind of Siberian shamanic spirit-flight, from Providence to St. Louis to San Francisco to Mexico to Byzantium to Russia and back.  What was contemplative, discursive and repetitive suddenly becomes very dramatic.  The poem - finally - comes into its own, is born.  The joy I try to express throughout is, finally, very un-Spenglerian.  Where I disagree with Spengler is with the roots of his "authority" as cosmic historian.  His denial of universality - on behalf of a vision of ever-changing time-morphology - is at odds with my own.  There is another factor - an X-factor - which is more fundamental than the unique morphology of organic cultures : and that factor is, for me, the irreducible Personhood of the Divine.  Once one recognizes this fundamental ratio - this Logos which binds the human person with the ineffable Person(s) within whom we "live and move and have our being" - then every aspect of reality and experience is transfigured within us.  This is the wholeness which was symbolized long ago by baptism, a rebirth of the soul initiated through cleansing cosmic Water, the Dove-Spirit descending on the embodied "Son of Man."  This is Mandelstam's "axle of the earth", the ultimate hinge of human history.

Lanthanum pbk @ Lulu