Monday, November 28, 2005


Laura, you mentioned (in your first post) that Duncan believed his poems could be used as "battle strategies" in Vietnam! This is a rather striking statement that deserves attention: it raises questions of poetic ontology that have long been swept aside in favor of epistemological and social-critical concerns. As we know, Duncan identified war in its highest form -- as the Heraclitean Father of All -- with the poetic principle itself. The language-field of the poem thus becomes a battle-field, an arena for the contest of creative and destructive cosmic forces. (This aspect of Duncan’s poetics is thoroughly examined in Nate Mackey’s "Gassire’s Lute," Talisman 5 - 8.)

For Duncan, the poetic Word is composed in the same way that the World is composed, through the irresolvable struggle of elemental opposites. We don’t need to adopt Duncan’s program of Zoroastrian dualism to realize that poetic making differs from conventionalized discourse in the way that, say, a weather pattern differs from a street map. But Duncan’s example gives us the opportunity to understand poetic activity as an open-ended, nonlinear system of "forms melting into one another" (as Laura put it in her first post), transforming meaning in ways that cannot be anticipated by, or confined to, categories of social value or intentionality. (The famous debate between Duncan and Levertov, of course, hinges on the degree to which poetry ought to be motivated by socially determined aims and values.)

As Duncan wrote in a notebook from the fifties: "Only the most fanatic researcher upon cancer could share with the poet the concept that cancer is a flower, an adventure, an intrigue with life." Here, Duncan is proposing a synthesis of objective coldness and imaginative fire. This agonistic embrace of opposites occurs at all levels of being, from the cosmic to the poetic. The relation may appear to be dialectical -- inasmuch as cosmic opposites mutually condition and give rise to one another -- yet Duncan rejected the Hegelian-Marxist model of dialectical progression. His ontology is cyclical rather than progressive: the struggle of good and evil is an "eternal sentence."

I am interested in following up on Duncan’s ontological turn, yet I am discomfited by its mythopoeic cast and its residual anthropomorphism. In spite of its internal dynamism, the schema possesses an ultimately static circularity that, in my mind, approaches ideological closure. An alternative, yet obviously related model of poetic ontology is provided by Olson’s definition of the poem as an "energy-construct." Olson thought he had discovered, in the Mayan glyph, a symbol for the "field of force" underlying both natural processes and the making of language. Similarly, Pound supported Fenollosa’s conviction that the Chinese ideogram was a "vivid shorthand picture of the operations of nature." These operations were held to be complex and nonlinear; the ideogram clearly showed that the figuration of truth, whether scientific or poetic, "consists in following as closely as may be the actual and entangled lines of forces as they pulse through things."

Such "entangled" systems increasingly have become the object of scientific inquiry: the theory of complex systems (see Bak’s HOW NATURE WORKS and Prigogine’s ORDER OUT OF CHAOS) presents a picture of natural ontology as an open-ended, non-mechanical, and nonlinear process susceptible to revolutionary transmutation. I see a strong affinity between this new model of nature and the attempts of modernist poets (not only Duncan and Olson, but also the Surrealists) to articulate an ontology of poetic making. In the terminology of complexity theory, poetry is an "emergent" property of language, in the way that life is an emergent property of nonliving systems ("emergence" amounts to an ontological emergency in which the system in question undergoes a "phase transition" to a new, unprecedented state of being).

"Following as closely as may be the actual and entangled lines of forces as they pulse through things," while serving as a means of poetic revelation, ultimately militates against anthropocentric values. (Duncan’s intriguing cancer-flower becomes visible only from an interstellar vantage.) Nonetheless, modes of complexification that exceed social determination, especially at the language level, may contain an immanent politics. In "Gassire’s Lute," Mackey observes of Duncan’s Vietnam-era poems that "however ambiguous their status as anti-war poems, the poems are decidedly anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment, and anti-government."

According to RAND Corporation researchers John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, terrorist networks also are characterized by nonhierarchical modes of connectivity (see "How to fight the terror networks," ). The book-length study (published as NETWORKS AND NETWARS in 2001) additionally describes various non-terrorist organizations, such as the anarchist bikers’ group Critical Mass and the Zapatistas in Mexico, as possessing such leaderless, adaptable, "swarming" capability. Clearly, nonlinear connectivity, whether poetic or political, offers an alternative structure -- a structure of resistance -- to monolithic, totalizing modes of language and power. (Obviously, the ideology of the terrorist network in question, namely Al-Qaida, is retrogressive and totalizing; nonetheless, Al-Qaida’s system of organization, which has effectively defeated the frontal battle strategies of imperialism, can be defined as a complex adaptive system of networked nodes.)

In a universe that is not equal to itself, organizations of matter-energy undergo sudden, spontaneous phase transitions toward unprecedented modes of being. Such transitions may be described as ontological ruptures. Locally, we can observe six large-scale ruptures of this kind: namely, the transitions from physical to chemical to biological to social to linguistic to poetic modes of interaction. In this dissonantly harmonic series (A Tonalism in action?), poetic lines of force also delineate a glyph of sociopolitical resistance, the prefiguration of another world that is waiting to be born.


Blogger Brian Strang said...

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2:24 PM  
Blogger Brian Strang said...

I'm deep into Nathaniel Mackey’s "Gassire's Lute" now and find his discussion penetrating. As you know, I've been drawn to Duncan for his constant push toward larger orders (or systems) and the encompassing of opposites. It's a difficult position, especially in relation to war, but in his letters, one can see not only that he thought the Vietnam war was shit, but also that the kind of stance Levertov took--a stance entirely permeable to history--was antithetical to his notion that everything is part of the poetic. And, in my opinion, it led to her worst, most clichéd poetry.

Giving up. I was just reading an article that talked about Rushkin's "pathetic fallacy" ("Owning the Weather: The Ugly Politics of the Pathetic Fallacy," Ando Arike, Harper's January 2006). Mackey's point that the New Critics (through their rationalism) sought to "confine all thought to an acceptable despair" is akin to Rushkin's idea that nature is "a succession of meaningless, monotonous accident." So while Duncan's fanciful projections may be difficult for serious-minded New Critics and a whole host of others (for me, there's even the whiff of homophobia in the New Critics' rejection), his desire to "make light” is an essential, healing response. And the idea of surrendering (to higher orders, to feeling, to the non-utilitarian, the open-ended, etc.)--as H.D. was carried away by a piece of fruit in "Heat"--is antithetical to the fundamental drive of war making. And although he qualified many of his statements about war and was, therefore, difficult to make into an "anti-war" poet, his poetics are not conducive to the drive to war (just as he skipped mandatory drills at Berkeley in favor of reading Joyce on the lawn).

In fact, for me, the strength of his poetics is not only that it offers a model for understanding the most difficult aspects of nature and human nature but also that it acknowledges, as Mackey says, the fact that war "exists not as something to be discussed or objected to...but as a witness to what resides in the heart, a writing-on-the-wall to be read by the light of the poem." This idea of Duncan's--that war resides within, that myth is relevant, and that we are subject to deeper "orders"--is often missed by the approach embodied by Levertov's "anti-war" stance, (an "anti-" anything stance is defined, and therefore consumed, by the word after the hyphen). And, I think, one must recognize the destructive aspect of creation demonstrated by the damning picture of the artist Gassire's lute paints.

But Duncan brings his larger, cosmological view to bear on more pressing matters as well and often wrote directly about (or "from" or "through") current events, politicians, the war, etc.--which led to a certain pathos in speaking from the conditions he lamented. His poetics allowed him to address these concerns from a deep well, and yield a deep understanding, even if at times it left him, as Mackey writes, "caught between morality and cosmology, between outrage at human evil and a "higher" understanding of evil's place in the scheme of things."

Mackey's writing is helpful in illustrating issues of power in poetics as well. He talks about Olson's "crave" for power, where poetry is "a rival government" (of which Olson would be king) and Duncan, too, made huge claims for the position of the poet. I think this is, in many ways, delusional. Olson claimed a sense of the righteously poetic by his willing renunciation of power, and Duncan sometimes claimed a similar position in The H.D. Book, though they both held considerable influence in their spheres. But being "in" or "out" isn't enough for me. What matters to me is what one chooses to surrender to. The danger (and Mackey touches on this with Olson, Duncan and Pound) is surrendering to nothing more than vanity--just as, perhaps, our president hears the voice of God in the conceits of his own mind. I don't know what God is telling me or anyone else but I hope never to find out; I hope that the world is always in a sense of becoming, rather than completion, that the world remains an open place, that I will always dwell in Emily Dickinson's possibility.

2:44 PM  

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