Saturday, April 11, 2009

Moments hang,

to return.
Each chair is a gift.

The sun
we'll turn

in passion

curves wood
to make the string
like speech

--which these
people pour

"that they may hear."

This is simply a bit of notation made while waiting for a performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, a great thing to hear live, on period instruments, with two small orchestras, two small choirs plus a small children's choir, organ, and harpsichords. The introductory lecturer claimed that the baroque bow, with the curvature of its wood away from the strings--the opposite of the modern bow--mimics the consonant-vowel sequence of speech (since it produces a strong initial articulation, immediately tapering into smoothness--as opposed to the modern bow's "all-vowel" character, which matches the irritating lack of diction in most operatic performance). The music was magnificent, especially the extraordinarily strange, sparse arias in the second half, which I'd never really dug into. I thought, of course, of Louis Zukofsky, though I didn't come home and start writing "A."

Today's reading: Robinson Jeffers' Selected Poems, the small, older edition published by Vintage. I've been meaning to read Jeffers for some time. I think he may be the most depressing poet I've ever read. Over and over there's the assertion that humankind is done for, and good riddance, the urge that we not speak about atrocity, but merely observe the idiocy of slaughter, starvation and willful ignorance as dispassionately as possible. Where many poets during and since the second World War have written that we can't speak about atrocity--that language can't encompass its magnitude--and many poets today say that we shouldn't because "it's bad for poetry," Jeffers urges us not to out of an ethical (though highly misanthropic) conviction. His most positive thought is the assertion that new culture can only arise from the burning and bloodbath of a decaying civilization. In contrast to the sarcasm and the ultimately bored, cynical jokesterism that usually accompany the antipolitical in the poetry world, Jeffers is dead serious, facing horror in poems that are often very good, nearly always gripping.

I wrote three "mirrors" in opposition to this stance, but they didn't turn out well, and so their implicit argument seemed to be "don't waste time writing against other writers who say we shouldn't, or can't, speak out." Maybe that's right, in some sense.

There's a powerful respect for nonhuman nature in Jeffers' work, but--in contrast to Iijima (see yesterday's post)--the gulf between the human and the nonhuman is vast, and the idea of crossing it is both dismissed and condemned. The radical indifference of hawks, stones and especially the ocean to our humanity is essential, for Jeffers, to what's powerful in it. It's a radical nonhumanity that I find philosophically attractive, except that I also see it as liberating, instead of connected to nihilistic misanthropy. I can certainly see what Jack Spicer saw in Jeffers. This is a poet whose work should, I think, be read by anyone who feels a crisis in relation to the question of political poetry--he presents problems to be dealt with. A worthy adversary.

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