Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Poet's Journey

Among his many epithets, including hodio, patron of travelers, the Greek god Hermes is also oneiropompous, conductor of dreams, and psychopompos, conveyer of souls. Hermes is guide physical and spiritual, the god of the Poet, guiding the poet through the "membrane" of the uncanny before Apollo descends with the lyre Hermes made for him. Hermes directs the poet to the steps of the Delphic Oracle, to an audience with the underworld Queen. Hermes arrives in daylight undisguised and impregnates first.

In 1929, a young man went to a crossroads in Mississippi and at midnight the devil taught the young man to play the blues. Robert Johnson had to travel to lose his soul for the sake of the blues.

The poet must explore, and be guided, in order to achieve blessing. This is Thoreau's saunter -- or sans terre, to be without land, or to be a pilgrim, a holy-lander, a Sainte Terrer. This exploration is either physical, psychological, or both. As often is the case in American poetics, Dickinson and Whitman mark the dividing line: when Dickinson starts early and takes her dog, the mental/spiritual/psychological processes of the world soon overpower her. It is the walk that begins it; for Whitman, it is not psychology but the physical environment that leads to the expression of deep sublimity. Whitman is not prone to keeping it inside, rather "sounds his barbaric yawp" upon the multitudes and democratic masses of his landscape. "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" is my favorite example of such a physical exploration. 

In the 21st century there seems to be two sites of exploration. The first is cybernetic, attached to the open window of the browser, the endless page on page that I believe is Joyelle McSweeney's real "necropastoral." It is the living dead-ness of cyberspace many of us sit down to day after day, aware a living world beyond our screen; but "disconnecting" is now a very strangely disconnecting experience. This cybernetic ground is a psychological space, and poetry invested in this space is more psychologically uncanny than other spaces, linking it to the darker realms of the Romantic and lyrical poetics, such as Coleridge or Prospero. In further posts I will explore examples of those poems.

Joshua Carey in a post from last year, questions the poetry that leans toward the uncanny, a poetics he sees as passing through Olsen's lineage and is (I would say) given more clout as the landscape of poetry moves from the book to cyberspace. Here things are even weirder. But Carey calls for moderation: "There has to be a role for the rational, even a humbled and supplemented rationality, in a poetics that is nonetheless not instrumental but re-open the foreclosed world."

To me, this is remembering what lives beyond the window of the screen, what is the world "out there." That is physical exploration, with its reaches into the uncanny and the real. But I must move even farther from what is popular today, and that is to say that even the urban landscape is a place deadened by the psychology of being urban. It dangerously treads through malaise, the morose and the cynical so its uncanniness is even more putrid and dangerous. It has no renewal, no love. It seeks out the pastoral to moderate its discomfort. Rather than allow the rural and pastoral to do so, I propose we begin to explore once more that state of being, more naturally the space of Whitman and Dickinson and Thoreau. This is western poetry, the poetry of landscapes where human beings play little part. I propose we bring the poetics of the pasture back into the American landscape. Robert Johnson had to go to the crossroads to sell his soul and learn his instrument. We too must take that journey.

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