I've been reading Russell Salamon's book Woodsmoke & Green Tea (deep cleveland press, 2007) [Press/purchasing information here]. There will be a more detailed review of this book in the upcoming special "Performing Patchen" issue of Celery Flute.
Salamon shared a house with d.a. levy in 1964-1965. In 1994 he published a book detailing this experience, composed of an extended letter of prose to levy, interspersed with both his own and levy's poetry, all of which contribute to one of the best poetic memoirs I have ever read. Descent into Cleveland is an important text in literary autobiography, as it maintains a tone both reflective of the life and activity they shared, now 30 years gone, while it continues forward a consistent viewpoint that shows that the activity begun in that distant past is still ongoing, and of our present life. The current book, Woodsmoke & Green Tea is a project in poetic invention that extends over each of the 44 poems in the book. In his introduction to the collection, Salamon provides a valuable example of an articulate, argumentative statement of poetics. Amidst this, he offers what I consider one of the most powerful descriptions of what a great musical performance can accomplish:
Let's say the symphony orchestra has just washed a tidal wave of sounds over you. You rise up sputtering, gasping for breath, and as the next wave hits you, sections of your body float off in pieces. Little is left besides an exalted feeling of heaven and hell. And that was only the first movement. The third movement tries to heal you, but now you have six arms and no legs. You can climb vines in the jungle very quickly. Among the branches you squawk like a green parrot. The last movement won't let you come back until you promise never again to be human. You lie, and you say,
If ecopoetics, as a distinctive grounding for works of poetry and other arts, is to have some weight in coming years, Salamon is pointing to one component that seems urgently necessary, that the composed form must provide means of extending the senses in a visceral way in order to re-imagine our own capacity for movement, perception, and sense. Salamon describes an imaginative reinvention/transformation of capacity and perception experienced within a particular performance--and the poetry in his book bears out this conjecture. Some other level of reference, beyond our agreed-upon certainties, must be available to the poet, even if it forgoes scientific accuracy. Via the sonic ground and mutability of imaginative relations, I would argue, poetry participates in a reordering of conventional linguistic continuities. And the formal bounds of this, in meter, form, frame or process, are the supports which allow our entry and egress.
* * *
I woke up in a liminal state this morning, feeling the same way Salamon's empathetic listener describes that initial immersive experience of a symphony. In shreds of acute disorientation, I reached for some stable point around which the morning (beautiful as it was) would compose. Again, as with the Ram Dass book, I opened a book at random. I held Sesame and Lilies, by John Ruskin, a British critic of the victorian era, a writer I had avoided throughout my college years because he had gained some notoriety as an author characteristic of some long abandoned project in poetic thought. But since the physical book itself was well made, probably in the 1890s, by the Henry Altemus company in Philadelphia, with its Arts & Crafts/William Morris-style raised floral design, I was interested enough to sample a page:
...the effect of failure upon my own mind has been the reverse of [Alexander Pope's, typified in such sentiments as these: "Each want of happiness by hope supplied/And each vacuity of sense, by pride.//Hope builds as fast as Knowledge can destroy;/In Folly's cup still laughs the bubble joy."]. The more my life disappointed me, the more solemn and wonderful it became to me. It seemed, contrarily to Pope's saying, that the vanity of it was indeed given in vain; [Pope's lines read: "One pleasure past, another still we gain;/And not a vanity is given in vain."] but that there was something behind the veil of it which was not vanity. It became to me, not a painted cloud, but a terrible and impenetrable one; not a mirage, which vanished as I drew near, but a pillar of darkness, to which I was forbidden to draw near. For I saw that both my own failure, and such success in petty things as in its poor triumph seemed to me worse than failure, came from the want of sufficiently earnest effort to understand the whole law and meaning of existence, and to bring it to noble and due end; as, on the other hand, I saw more and more clearly that all enduring success in the arts, or in any other occupation, had come from the ruling of lower purposes,--not by a conviction of their nothingness, but by a solemn faith in the advancing power of human nature, or in the promise, however dimly apprehended, that the mortal part of it would one day be swallowed up in immortality; and that, indeed, the arts themselves never had reached any vital strength or honor but in the effort to proclaim this immortality, and in the service of either of great and just religion, or of some unselfish patriotism and law of such national life as must be the foundation of religion. (p. 180-181)
I have to say this is where I stopped--so many metaphysical underpinnings that poststructuralist philosophy had taken time to explore were invoked here, that I wondered if Ruskin could really mean that any feeling for success in the arts depends on this same credo ut intelligam that answers to his sense of not knowing where next to turn. What I do find interesting are the conditions of the question: basically, some felt sense of failure that seeks some other explanatory grounding in which the attempt at art can be justified. For Ruskin, this is immortality grounded on "lower purposes" which find a kind of warm tidal hum of permanence named just religion, law, patriotism, and national life. While I admit to a vast ignorance of both Ruskin and Arnold, my limited memory recalls that both writers eventually abandoned poetry to write criticism for the remainder of their lives. It is an interesting "verge" if you will, the space of the question of one's activity, or the recall of the purposes towards which an activity is aimed, as if Ruskin were accurate enough in his assumption of why he had written poetry when that activity began (I don't know, I am taking this quote "out of context" so to speak, the essay itself is grandly titled "Of the Mystery of Life"). In this small excerpt, Ruskin identifies why he has begun rowing in the deeps: failure. But he posits two contradicting rationales: Pope's seemingly endless renewal in vanity after vanity, as from an unlimited source of diversion and performance, and the option of a "solemn faith in the advancing power of human nature". Ruskin discredits the first approach, calling it the "rule of lower purposes", if it doesn't see itself tied to larger purposes. My question is not by necessity the same as Ruskin's but does allow me to see an interesting component of how choices are discerned. For Ruskin, we can stay mollified and creatively productive by watching the shifting light over Pope's "painted clouds" or we can instead watch them harden into an "impenetrable" mystery that must align itself with institutionalized identities--in a "national life" or as communicant in a "great and just religion". Are we faced with parallels to these options today? If we are of Pope's persuasion, does that mean we simply expand our wardrobes and paint ourselves with the available light? Or do we try to transform our lower purposes (which are mutable) into aspirations for "immortal" life as provided through the prevailing structures of church and state? Of course this language is, in our current discourse, antiquated. It may be better to ask for a new set of options. Something more fitting of the current environment in which the question plays itself out. For me, at least, the question remains relevant. But how, and why, and for how long one goes about answering it is another problem in itself.