The Poet in the World
"The poet's task is to hold in trust the knowledge that language, as Robert Duncan has declared, is not a set of counters to be manipulated, but a Power. And only in this knowledge does s/he arrive at music, at that quality of song within speech which is not the result of manipulation of euphonious parts but of an attention, at once to the organic relationships of experienced phenomena and to the latent harmony and counterpoint of language itself as it is identified with those phenomena. Writing poetry is a process of discovery, revealing inherent music, the music of correspondences, the music of inscape. It parallels what, in a person's life, is called individuation: the evolution of consciousness toward wholeness, not an isolation of intellectual awareness but an awareness involving the whole self, a knowing (as man and woman "know" one another), a touching, a 'being in touch'."
— Denise Levertov, "Origins of a Poem"
The Poet in the World (New Directions, 1973)
It has been almost a full season since I last wrote to you on The Lune's behalf. The idea of a full season—the tilting towards and away from the light—astonishes and confounds me. How is the individual supposed to respond? And the whole of humanity? Are we not all a function of what the planet is doing in the light? Are we drowning in it?
That last question suggests, rather too well, my own fears and doubts. The anchor tumbles into the abyss, tethered to a vessel by a braid, clever and spare. Are we the anchor, or the vessel? And is poetry the braid? What I'm trying to say is that I'm grateful to be writing to you again, for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that The Lune's Autumn 2017 edition—a synthesis of six radically different collections by six radically awake poets—is now officially alive in the world. In celebrating the poets of this collection, I want to somehow acknowledge the force and weight of the uncertainty that is such an integral part of all acts of composition — the triumph of specific gestures that do not simply spurn the cloud of unknowing, but find ways to honor it. Levertov's notion of being in touch is a balm upon the solitude of selfhood. How can a community of words show us what it means to be a community of people?
At one point in The Poet in the World, Levertov addresses what feels like a uniquely contemporary conundrum: How to champion what is beautiful when faced, relentlessly, with that which is brutal? The intimations of an answer in Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: "Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what's going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise."
Yet Dillard seems to be quietly calling morality itself into question: "the right question" is something sort of hurled madly into the void, and "proper" suggests those decorative gestures that appease somebody else, that distance us from esse, from Levertov's (via Hopkins) "inscape." Does this mean the poet is a rebel? At the same time, "choir the proper praise" invokes the power of the communal, which goes right back to Levertov's "music of correspondences." Does this mean the poet is a citizen? Maybe in Dillard's context "proper" becomes "true," and "praise" becomes the poetry of survival.
The composer and astrologer Dane Rudhyar (1895-1985) made many an elegant observation about the balance between individual and collective experience. One has recently taken hold of me: "What is Democracy and the principle of a universal Brotherhood of Man if not the most extreme generalization which man can make about human relationship? Tribal law... is based on proximate connections, on personal and emotional experience. But the Democratic law does violence to our archaic instincts, rooted as they are in blood-exclusivism and cultural pride. No wonder then, that as the modern ideal of Democracy crystalizes into politics, most of the old ancestral hatred and class-prejudices tend to regain the ground they have occupied for ages."*
The fact that lyric poetry—as historically valuable matter for sale and distribution—was channeled and conditioned by a patriarchal publishing empire for centuries means that its "emotional" content has favored masculine or, at the very least, heteronormative ideals. (It's interesting to think of the modern separation of "lyric" and "poetry," here, and how the music industry, as "lyric," still perpetuates this; is "poetry" harder to sell and, if so, does that help it transcend dominant ideologies?) The poet's necessary departure from these ideals can be seen as a refusal to "grow up." But the infantilization of the poet doesn't solve any problems. It recalls what Alan Watts called "one of the peculiar problems of our culture: we are terrified of our feelings."
How full of grace the child-self thus becomes, for it is in feeling—a biological reality that predominates youth—that one experiences "Power" as a force "toward wholeness." With practice (an alignment with aging?) we are capable of balancing the "Power" of collection with the "power" of individuation. Or such is my hope, and the art of the poets to whom I look for guidance. Poetry as an act of faith. Dillard, again: "Distinctions blur. Quit your tents. Pray without ceasing."
I leave you with good news and lightness in this season of deepening dark:
• The Lune: Autumn 2017 marks the end of a thirty-title chapbook series that began with collections by Reed Bye, Jack Collom, and Laura Cesarco Eglin in 2015. Dedicated to Collom, this 184 page sextet of lyric and prose poetry features Imperative of the Night by Sherry Luo,The Slightest Bearing by Nicholas Fuenzalida, Memory Palace by Jaime Robles, All the Parts of the Animal by Eleni Padden, Yet Wave by Genelle Chaconas, and Harvest by Curtis Romero. Each collection is a singular achievement; taken together, this is a complex testament to the vital energy of the poetic mode. An overview and PDF excerpts can be found on the website, as well as the insightful perspectives by Alan Mudd, Mark DuCharme, W. Scott Howard, Matt Clifford, and Tim Kahl. As always, The Lune's art director, Indigo Deany, is responsible for the immaculate cover, the back of which features an excerpt from Romero'sHarvest.
• It's possible that many of you are already aware of this remarkable work, but still: we are celebrating Ella Longpre's How to Keep You Alive (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2017). Ella is the author of Apocalune, a separation cosmology, No. 8 in The Lune's chapbook series.
• Delighted to share this super thoughtful review of W. Scott Howard's SPINNAKERS (The Lune, 2016); thanks to Rich Murphy and Word For/Word, a beautifully-arranged digital Journal of New Writing.
• We are very fortunate to be publishing the poems of Andrea Thornton online, and her bio bears repeating in the context of this letter: "There's not much to say really. I am a Catholic convert and a professional chaplain trying to do my part to heal the wounds on the soul. Most of these wounds are the result of some poor fool's failure to see beauty, opting instead to impose its will on others. Religion itself has suffered too much use to such ends. I write poems because they are useless, and the world needs to practice beholding useless things."
• A link to David Mutschlecner's newest collection of poetry, Icon, from Boise State's Ahsahta Press. "It is here that hope resides," writes Allison Cobb, and it is deeply, deeply true. David is the author of three other singular collections from Ahsahta, as well as Poetic Faith (The Lune, 2017). We are excited to release a new and expanded edition of Poetic Faith sometime in 2018 (along with three more full-length collections by a number of talented folks) .
With gratitude for your attention and friendship, yours in the marrow of meaning,
Editor & Publisher
*(Rudhyar, continued) "We have taken for granted that parliamentarism means Democracy, that the respect for majority decisions in any elected group of representatives proves that Democracy operates. This is obviously naive, as all depends upon how elections are conducted and whether financial, social and psychological pressure is or is not applied to force a decision of the electorate." (The Pulse of Life, 1943)