Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Just Out...

...The Salt Companion to Harold Bloom, edited by Roy Sellars & Graham Allen, a new collection of works about and in honor of the Falstaff (or is that the Zero Mostel?) of modern literary criticism (including a poem by yours truly). I have been reading Bloom since my undergraduate days and have written about him on a number of occasions, mainly in the context of Jewish literature. Whether our precursors are absorbed into our superegos or our ids (a fine point of psychopoetics debated in The Anxiety of Influence), I know he's lurking around in my psyche somewhere. Critical trends come and go, but for me, he remains a Great Original. Once again, Salt Publishing deserves our thanks.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Ran Across This This Morning Howard Nemerov

A Song of Degrees

Though the road lead nowhere
I have followed the road
In its blind turnings, its descents
And the long levels where the emptiness ahead
Is inescapably seen.

I have cried for justice, I have cried
For mercy, now I desire neither.
A man may grow strong in his wandering,
His foot strong as a wheel
Turning the endless road.

Foot and hand hardened to horn,
Nose but a hook of bone, and eyes
Not liquid now but stone--I
To myself violent, fiercely exult
In Zion everywhere.


Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Oppen Conference CFP

This just in, and of interest:

CFP: 'George Oppen: A Centenary Conference', conference, Fall/Autumn 2008,
Edinburgh University.

2008 marks the centenary of the birth of the American poet George Oppen. From his early "objectivist" volume Discrete Series (1934) to the spare and enigmatic meditations of Primitive (1978), Oppen's work consistently interrogated the relationship between poetry and sincerity and the ground of political and ethical value. This conference will include major scholars from both sides of the Atlantic in order to celebrate Oppen's centenary and to consider key aspects of his artistic achievement and legacy. An edited volume of specially commissioned essays arising out of papers given at the conference is also planned.

Possible topics for consideration include: Objectivism and the literary object; style and sincerity; literary and philsophical modernism; the cold war; the idea of America; poetry and the polis.

Abstracts of no more than 500 words should be sent to Lee.Spinks @ ed . ac. uk. (take out the spaces, natch--ES). The deadline for submissions is November 1, 2007.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Poetic and Prophetic Inspiration

What used to be called the Twentieth-Century Literature Conference but which is now known as The Louisville Conference on Literature & Culture Since 1990 is coming up later this month, and will include a panel organized by Daniel Morris on “Historical Contingencies and Jewish Modernism.” Dan will be presenting on Marjorie Perloff’s Vienna Paradox, Merle Bachman will be discussing literary caf├ęs and Yiddish poets in New York, and yours truly will be addressing the subject of Charles Reznikoff and biblical prophecy. This is a rather long paper I wrote several years ago for a guest appearance at UNLV, and the time has come for me to whittle it down to the conventional 20-minute length to which all presenters must promise to adhere, lest they be dragged bodily from the podium in utter humiliation. Since part of the paper involves a quick introduction to Reznikoff (at UNLV, I think maybe three people in an audience of about fifty had even heard of him), I can probably get to the main argument without too much trouble, though I also may have to dispense with discussions of some of my favorite Rezi poems, like “Samuel” and the breathtaking piece originally called “A Compassionate People,” which opens Inscriptions: 1944-1956 (“Where is that mountain of which we read in the Bible…”).[1]

In the light of my poetry and my present criticism (I’ve been writing a book for years now on what I call, for lack of a better term, religious revisionism in postmodern serial poems), my Reznikoff paper is still intriguing to me because of a passage I discovered in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s monumental study’s The Prophets. Heschel devotes a chapter of his book to the relation between prophetic and poetic inspiration, and I apply his comparison to Reznikoff. This proves useful enough: I conclude that Reznikoff’s poetry does not meet the Jewish criteria for prophecy but is ironically powered by his deep awareness of an absence of the prophetic vocation. Having written the essay, I remain haunted by Heschel’s analysis: “The poet’s inspiration seems . . . to be a subjectless experience, a condition in which no personal agent is apprehended. The source he is exposed to is unknown, devoid of personal identity, and his own role is one of passive receptivity, of being a receptacle, a mere object.” Heschel mentions the impersonality of poetic inspiration, and one is reminded not only of T. S. Eliot and his idea of an impersonal tradition moving through the poet, but of Yeats and his wife receiving messages from the spirits, and of Jack Spicer, who insists that poems come from an unknowable outside, from the “Martians.” The poem, coming from beyond, is seeking itself through the poet; it is the form becoming itself that is primary. On the other hand, the prophet is concerned primarily with the message, a message, Heschel reminds us, that comes from God: “In prophetic inspiration . . . the knowledge and presence of Him who imparts the message is the central, staggering fact of awareness. There is the certainty of having experience the impingement of a personal Being, of another I; not an idea coming from nowhere or a nameless source, but always a communication reaching him from the most powerful Subject of all.”

I appreciate how straightforward Heschel’s distinction is, though of course, I also realize that this is just the tip of the iceberg. In English poetry alone, the distinction is already blurred in the Renaissance with figures like Spenser, becomes much more complex with Milton, and simply explodes with the Romantics. In the figures of Whitman and Dickinson, American poetry may be said to have its origins in the problematic of prophecy. Reznikoff, steeped in both Judaism and the Anglo-American poetic tradition, worked out a unique and (to my mind) very unstable “solution” to the problem, which must partly determine any further discussions of his poetry. This instability or volatility is one of the qualities I find so important and moving in Reznikoff.

Furthermore, I continue to worry over the problem in regard to contemporary poetry at a time when many poets, with a tremendous variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds and experiences, are raising the issue of “spirit” in their work. “Whose spirit is this?” we might ask, echoing Stevens. Given his prophetic faith, Heschel speaks for “the impingement of a personal Being, of another I…the most powerful Subject of all.” I suspect that this won’t work for most poets, even the relatively rare ones who consider themselves devout in some orthodox way. As for me, I’m ambivalent about Heschel’s formulation for poetic inspiration (“a subjectless experience, a condition in which no personal agent is apprehended…”) though it also speaks very strongly to many instances of my own composition (or is that dictation?). What we can call modern poetry’s “Jewish Question” (cf. Allen Grossman’s great essay “Jewish Poetry Considered as a Theophoric Project”) complicates matters even more.

Oh well. I just write what the voices in my head tell me to write…

[1] The poem was first published in The Menorah Journal in 1944.