Monday, February 28, 2005

Rilke's "To Music" and My "Ode: To Blues"

I hadn't realized, until recently reviewing a manuscript of my poems I've had sitting around for a while, that one of the pieces I'd written was in part a response to another poem that endlessly casts a spell over me: Rainer Maria Rilke's "To Music" ("An die Musik"). RilkeRilke never collected this poem in a volume during his lifetime, in part because it didn't fit the programs of his various books and in part because it is so far out there in its abstraction and attempt to capture an "essence" (of music), to embody the thing itself. (Rilke (1875-1926) often went way out there, though; he's the poet who, let's not forget, after telling us that a "tree ascended there" in the first "Sonnet to Orpheus," has poor Orpheus sing: "O höher Baum im Ohr!" (O taller tree in the ear!) Hello? You know that hurt!)

But seriously, his "To Music" is a strange poem, a haunting one, for me indelible. In fact, it so haunted me that I ended up unconsciously writing a poem that, I believe, deconstructs it while simultaneously speaking directly to and mirroring it. (Ah mimesis, ah dialecticism, ah the agon.)

So here goes:

To Music

Music: breathing of statues. Perhaps:
silence of paintings. You language where all language
ends. You time
standing vertically on the motion of mortal hearts.

Feelings for whom? O you the transformation
of feelings into what?--: into audible landscape.
You stranger: music. You heart-space
grown out of us. The deepest space in us,
which, rising above us, forces its way out,--
holy departure:
when the innermost point in us stands
outside, as the most practiced distance, as the other
side of the air:
no longer habitable.

--Rainer Maria Rilke

(Translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Statues, paintings, stillness, where language ends, feeling that become landscape, which is to say, abstracted, into nature, art--pure, uninhabitable, except by the music itself. That's Rilke's take, and reminds me of another artist, his almost exact contemporary, whose later, 12-tone compositions actually do realize what Rilke's describing almost perfectly: Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951). (Interestingly enough, Schoenberg set some of Rilke's early poetry to music, although Schoenberg set his most famous pieces with lyrics either to rather banal poetry by the likes of Albert Girard ["Pierrot Lunaire," "Gurrelieder"] or to quite accomplished texts he wrote himself ["Moses und Aron," "Ode to Napoleon").


So back in 2000 or so, not consciously thinking of Rilke's poem, I wrote an ode (a commemorative poem that also sometimes marks a crisis, which this one did) to the musical form that underlines so much African-American art: the blues. But it's not in a traditional blues form, because I could not manage that; nor is it as abstract as Rilke's poem, I suppose because the blues are not abstract; Rilke was after "pure music"; my immediate aim was to reflect in some way a music that was "impure," rich, roiling, true to (my) (black) experience. So here's what I wrote, and the struggle remains in, is embodied in the poem itself.

Ode: To Blues

Blues: lived funk silence
Or: ancestral soul river,
brooding, bearing the lovechild
of sublime improvisation: jazz.
Fearless prophet of undertow, tones
blue and beautiful as welts, bayous,
the invisible routes slaves drew
and redrew on their dream maps.
Broken: renewed. Sung hard
and remixed, the trick's
in the shaping. Lover who leaves
and always returns. Sweet noose
cut loose, feet dancing over the coal
abyss, shout, beat, keloid, jig
and stolen jug. Dank cell and icy asphalt
road, shotgun shack cold as concrete
tower, cold bed where the heart lies
its diamond head unsure
it's gone rise again, back door
by which it slips away
when bad judgment hits
                      like a bullet
or a summons:  black
life, black art,
black life, black art,
this house standing
where the first one stood:
you could pass through, stay,
pass through. Stay.

--John Keene (c) 2000-2005

--John Keene (c) 2000-2005

Mine: life, blood, rivers, keloids, dancing, maps, love: you may keep stepping, but if you want to you can stay. Somebody's always building this house--the music does. All in all, I'll take both. I hope "Ode: To Blues" makes it into a book (the Indiana Review did publish an earlier version a few years ago), but even if not, it will continue to haunt me as much as Rilke's poem--it troubles not only his water, but its own.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

The Gates

Well, Christo's and Jeanne-Claude's The Gates are coming down starting Monday, and must be completely down in a couple weeks. I was pleased that C. and I got to explore them up close. I tend to be a fan of Christo's and Jeanne-Claude's spectacles and had wanted to see the wrapping of the atoll, the bundled Reichstag, and those umbrellas in California. (Very unlikely.) There's a whiff of charlantry about them, which I tend to admire, as well as genius. I link them to landscape artists and those like Smithson and Tobey working with large-scale earth installations; the earlier conceptualists (from Duchamp onwards) to later incarnations, including the Fluxus folks; Clark, Pape and Oiticica; and spectacle-based artists who attempted to create public, participatory and liberatory experiential artworks; the anti-commodity and self-deconstructive art of Joseph Beuys; installation art; pop art; and the monumentalist traditions in art and architecture. Certainly there are many more possibilities. Aesthetically, I see Christo's and Jeanne-Claude's art aiming towards sublimity, through its scale and the participants' apperception, yet there is the issue of its banality, its kitschiness--of materials, color, and so on. Who all does this take into account? Kant, certainly, ethically and aesthetically, but also such figures as Hegel, Nietzsche, Pater, Dewey, Greenberg, Sontag, Lyotard, and certainly Heidegger (talk about "setting forth a world!"). I also see critiques of the contemporary exchange value of art which point to Marx and Engels, as well as to later figures like Bloch, Adorno, Bourdieu and Althusser. Capital, yes--but exactly how does it figure into the creation and experience of The Gates? Whose labor are we talking about? Don't the masses of people required to mount and break down such creations challenge (while also magnifying) the traditional atelier model? How does such a utopian-seeming, ephemeral work (which will, in eco-friendly fashion, be recycled) fit into the commodity system? Yes, he raised the money through sponsorship, though none of the gates were visibly "branded" as such by corporations; people were marching through the park with all kinds of food and electronic gear; it drew tons of out-of-towners, including yours truly, to Bloombergistan; and Christo maintains the copyright and rights to the images--or so I read--though not each person's memories.

The Gates (I can't yet post pictures!)

At any rate, I wanted to approach the concepts behind them and my experience with as much openness as possible. No theory, just walking through a space I love, with a man I love (my partner C.), experiencing those bright-orange...gates. Actually, they reminded me more of staples or hurdles, though on a scale for titans (or Gargantua and Pantagruel). The saffron vinyl curtains And the immediate effect upon entering the park from Central Park West was...a letdown. At first. Immediately, however, I noticed the throngs of people moving through The Gates and the way both these phalanxes and the gates themselves snaked before and behind us. Against the zinc Sunday sky and the blanched colors of the wintry terrain, with our own voices and those of children and adults and dogs and the ducks ribboning into the chilly air, The Gates were transformed into a breathing, orange, latticed sensorium. As we walked the paths, I made a point to glance upwards at the swaying curtains, and because of the wind patterns, none were the same. Above they might be flapping, while still several yards ahead, or vice versa; and they created a striking visual frame for the familiar, yet constructed world of that amazing park. They were both structures of limit, highlighting the already built walkways, but they also unsettled the familiar visual patterns. We crossed over to the east side, left to get some coffee and nosh, then reentered along the edge of the Reservoir. That was perhaps the highlight. A vast, silvery mirror, on whose western edges blurry orange fringes shimmered, like a necklace of otherwordly lights. I loved the effect, and the immensity of the Reservoir made me think of Kant's mathematical and dynamical sublimes connecting with Lyotard's "il y a" in a way that much smaller scale art (save Yves Klein's blue paintings or Ronald K. Brown's dances) does not. (Sianne Ngai's "stuplime" would be an apt partial description of my own response.) What clicked was the necessity of such vast (and already constructed) spaces for such artwork, which creates a shifting frame and both reconstructs and deconstructs what it adorns. I also fathomed how crucial perspective (in this case actually just being there, as well as other elements such as the weather, time of day, etc.) is in the experience.

I tip my hat to Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Charlatans perhaps, but geniuses as well. Now, when are they going to wrap the Pentagon?

Welcome and First Post: Jay Wright

Nothing would be more fitting to inaugurate this blog than to note that this past week, one of the most innovative and visionary poets in the American and African-American traditions, Jay Wright (b. 1935-) received the Yale University Library's extremely prestigious 2005 Bollingen Prize . The judges noted that, "Daring to extend the tradition of the prophetic voicework, Wright's poetry has for more than 40 years been nothing less than a sustained meditation on the various aspects - historical, spiritual, mythical - of which humanity is woven. The great ambition of his work has not only been to weave these strands into rich, complex, allusive poems but also, in his own words, 'to uncover the weave.'" (Let me add that the judges included two of the finest younger poets we have, Elizabeth Alexander and Carl Phillips.) Though Wright has previously received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, the 2000 Lannan Literary Award, and the Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets, his poetry has not received widespread critical attention or acclaim. Previous Bollingen Prize winners include many of the most highly regarded American poets, including W. H. Auden, e.e. cummings, Louise Glück, Howard Nemerov, James Merrill, Adrienne Rich, Laura Riding, Gary Snyder, and Wallace Stevens. Wright is the first African-American to receive the award in its almost 60-year history.

Indeed, because critics and readers have considered Wright's poetry "difficult," and because he often has published with smaller presses, he has been mostly passed over with silence (to echo Wittgenstein), though "difficulty" and/or small-press publication have in themselves not always barred public critical appraisal, as the cases of John Ashbery, Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane, e.e. cummings, Jorie Graham, Charles Olson, and Wallace Stevens make clear. Nor, I believe, is race the central issue either, though it factors in; Wright's chronological peer Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), for example, has not only received extensive critical examination (and rightly so), but is now considered a "canonical" American poet, particularly within the framework of the American, African-American and experimental traditions.

The key issues in Wright's lack of critical attention are the lack of a consistent critical champion (either from the scholarly or creative worlds), and in the nature of his poetry itself. With regard to the latter issue, his poetics are even in their earliest incarnations highly distinctive and original (yet accessible), though they connect in language and theme (family, African Diasporic traditions, spiritual grounding, and cultural hybridity and transformation) to Anglo-American and European poetic traditions (I see elements of authors as diverse as Herbert, Shakespeare, Keats, Yeats, Rilke, and Eliot in his work), as well as to a wide array of African-American and African Diasporic writers, including NoLangston Hughes, Robert Hayden, Countee Cullen, Nicolás Guillen, Kamau Brathwaite, Wilson Harris, Derek Walcott, Henry Dumas (for whose posthumous collected poems Wright wrote an introduction), Clarence Major, Nancy Morejón, Ishmael Reed, Michael Harper, Edimilson de Almeida Pereira, and even Baraka himself. 

His poetry's aesthetic qualities, which include lyric dialecticism and rigor, and the employment of what would become his poetic signatures, historical, mythological, metaphysical, spiritual, linguistic, historical, and philosophical motifs and allusions drawn from a wide range of cultural traditions, including the pre-Columbian and sub-Saharan Africa (the Dogon, the Bambara, Yoruba, etc.), however, have made it hard to read his poems as transparent representations of the contemporary African-American (or more broadly) American condition, as expressions or statements of personal confession, or as experiments that might be solved or categorized by a simple or ready-made hermeneutics.

Nor are Wright's poems, his poetic opus in general, we might say, political or ideological in the usual sense, though their intense and extensive engagement with the "cross-cultural" imagination, to use the Guyanese novelist and critic Harris's term, is utterly political in the most profound sense, by which I mean that they plumb the very depths of language's capacity to represent being and becoming. But they do so insistently in a framework that draws directly from the experiences of African, Native, and even European peoples in the Americas, as well as from across the globe, from our rich and often mis-understood history. The poetry is capacious in its catholicity of reference, of forms, of statement: it is truly "liberal." One might respond then that few people out there possess the breadth of knowledge necessary to appreciate the work fully; and yet who among us, other than Harold Bloom or a few other extraordinarily erudite figures, for example, possesses the range necessary to grasp the range of allusions in Shakespeare, or Ezra Pound, or Gertrude Stein, or in the work of more recent poets such as Charles Bernstein, Ann Lauterbach, and Charles Wright? Has that stopped critics from reading and praising them?

Some scholars, such as Robert Steptoe, Vera Kutzinski and Harold Bloom, have championed Wright's work, and Kutzinski, in her important study Against the American Grain: Myth and History in William Carlos Williams, Nicolas Guillen and Jay Wright, links Wright correctly, I believe, to the great modernist American and the pathbreaking Afro-Cuban poets. Nathaniel Mackey, an extraordinary writer and critic in his own right, mentions Wright (though without devoting a chapter to him) in relation to such figures as Wilson Harris and Kamau Brathwaite, in his important study Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality and Experimental Writing. (Mackey's text also crosses the usual racial boundaries by discussing within its pages figures such as Major, Baraka, Creeley, and Robert Duncan). In addition, Charles Rowell quite admirably has devoted much space to Wright's genius in the journal Callaloo, featuring essays by Stepto, poet Gerald Barrax, Isidore Okpewho (an authority of African oral texts and Diasporic literature), Vera Kutzinski, and Wright himself. There have been some non-scholarly critics of Wright's work; I definitely hope that the upcoming issue of Obsidian III devoted to Wright includes critical appreciations and readings some of these writers and artists. But for the most part, Wright has lacked the sort of sustained scholarly or non-scholarly champion enjoyed by other "difficult" poets such as Ashbery (Bloom), Major (Bernard Bell), or Graham (Helen Vendler).

Lastly, Wright's work has hardly been static. As I have mentioned, the earliest work, which appears in the Homecoming Singer and Dimensions of History, is quite accessible, in terms of both form and content; the poetry of Wright's middle period, in the 1970s and 1980s—which includes the books Soothsayers and Omens; Explications/
Interpretations; and The Double Invention of Komo, can appear at first glance forbidding. Some of the poems in these collections seem to work better to me than others, though I remain in awe at their overall magnificence and the aesthetic system they create. Beginning with Elaine's Book, and most especially in Boleros and the most recent poems that appear in Wright's collected volume, Transfigurations: Collected Poems, the work synthesizes Wright's philosophical and transcultural explorations with a dazzling and indelible linguistic music. Or, to quote Helen Vendler, in her recent New Republic review of John Ashbery's newest book:

John Ashbery, in a youthful review of Marianne Moore, cited what he called the 'almost satisfactory definition' of poetry given by the nineteenth-century French poet Banville: "[Poetry is] that magic which consists in awakening sensations with the help of a combination of sounds ... that sorcery by which ideas are necessarily communicated to us, in a definite way, by words which nevertheless do not express them." Poetry expresses ideas, the poet claims, but not by means of propositional statements. Instead it relies upon an underlying 'sorcery' dependent on a combination of sounds (arranged rhythmically, needless to say) that awaken sensations. If the sentences of the poem were written differently, the evoked ideas would disappear.

Certainly this is as true of Wright's unforgettable seguidillas and boleros as it is of Moore's or Ashbery's influential and beguiling lyrics. Wright's music not only aspires to, but achieves "the condition of music," to use Nietzsche's formulation.

All of which is to say, "Congratulations, Jay Wright!" I am not sure that this award will provoke a spike in new readers of Wright's work, but perhaps it might nudge someone at Princeton or some other prestigious institution with connections to the Swedish Academy to give Wright a closer (re)view. In my opinion, a Nobel Prize (and there are many deserving candidates, I admit) would not be out of the question.

I also want to note: Guillermo Cabrera Infante, the fulgurant Cuban wordsmith whose skill at punning in multiple languages always struck me as unsurpassed, passed away this past week. Cabrera Infante's works include the novels Three Trapped Tigers (in Spanish Tres Tristes Tigres), Infante's Inferno, and A View of Dawn in the Tropics, and the non-fiction works Mea Cuba and Twentieth-Century Works.