Epic poetry of the Classic tradition kept its continuity through a mythic architectonics of deep power. Myth drove the inner dynamic of the poetry. Persons and events came to an epiphanic intensity because they were caught up in a greater cohesive play, a play that could change—we see this wonderfully in Aeschylus’ Oresteia—but the pliancy is due to a mythic fabric that can still breathe. The charged numinous atmosphere surrounding the drama does not change. In Dante, narrative grew tall and strong through the nurturing atmosphere of a Catholic architectonics. It is important to recognize that this bright air is not the same as the going narrative, but it allows for the narrative to find its life. Problems, over the last hundred years or more, with long narrative poetry may therefore point to deeper conflicts that take us to the very horizon of our current struggle with meaning.
It is often insisted upon—perhaps too often and too insistently—that we now lack an overriding myth-structure to guide epic action in poetry. Pound, Williams, and Olson tried heroically. The saving grace of poetry is that, if they failed, their failures are part of the common consciousness of who we are. Seen in this larger context of our present struggle to find a lasting meaning, their giant poems don’t really fail at all. Pound asked for direct treatment of the thing, whether objectively or subjectively considered. The clarity of this, of course, becomes quickly complicated.
Through his dictum, Pound would often flatten people into mere effigies of what he wanted. In postmodernism, direct treatment has been reduced to a kind of cool irony, if not sarcasm. I see no real reason to believe that this is direct treatment at all. There is a great overlap between Poundian imagism and Poundian vorticism. Once image becomes vortex for the in-rush of transhistorical ideas, once image becomes flame in a poetic rite of anamnesis, we are well past direct treatment. In his own way, Williams broaches the gap between historical reference, à la Pound, and living presentation. In Patterson, Williams’ real power is as a kind of proto-conceptual poet, finding metaphor powerfully implicit in the lifted newspaper article. Olson found Nike alive in the streets of Gloucester. Clearly, neither Pound nor Williams nor Olson eschew numinous experience. There are powers at play in the mind and in the world, there is a kind of Hermes that holds the key to the hallway between them.
Numinous experience is hardly dead—it remains utterly endemic to the human person. We can color holy dread with sarcasm, we can deny that holy awe has any objective place, but such responses are shown for everyone, at one time or another, to be false. The world is full of gods, and the gods belie direct treatment unless direct treatment admits the full mysterious experience of being human.
This text originally appeared in David Mutschlecner’s Poetic Faith (2016). The title comes from Robert Duncan’s “Secondary Is the Grammer” (“Dante Études,” Ground Work: Before the War): “a felt architectonics of the numinous / that drives us beyond us.”
David Mutschlecner is the author of four collections of poetry from Boise State's Ahsahta Press—Esse (2002), Sign (2007), Enigma and Light (2012), and Icon (2018)—as well as a book of theopoetic essays, Poetic Faith (The Lune, 2019). He grew up in Bloomington, Indiana; moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in his mid-twenties, attending graduate school at St. John's College; and has now called New Mexico home for over twenty years.