A well known poet, Paul Mariani is also a pro fessor of English at the University of Massachusetts where he teaches twentieth century British and American poetry courses. He is the author of eight books and dozens of articles and reviews. Dr. Mariani has received particular critical acclaim for his biography, William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked (1981) featured in the New York Times Book Review and nominated for the American Book Award. His most recent publication is Prime Mover: Poems (1985).
Editor's Preview: Award-winning poet, author, and teacher Paul Marian focuses on the importance of symbols in our lives, particularly in our understanding of the past and our own contributions to society. He discusses the relationship of those contributions to language, "that complex symbolic currency we use daily and which we often take for granted?' The symbols we revere and the language we use to illuminate them are tangible signs of what we value in life as well as what we prefer, in Mariani's words, "to relegate to the dump."
Each generation makes it choices and evaluations about what it wants to save and what it wants to relegate to the dump. The famous Unicorn tapestries, were reduced to stable coverings for the duration of the French Revolution. These tapestries, the work of a 15th-century Belgian community of artisans laboring under a master craftsman, had become by the end of the 18th century a useless symbol thrown onto the heap as the deluge Louis XV had predicted drowned out the culture of the aristocracy. In this view of history, consider that museum basements with their revolving collections themselves stand as symbols of fossilized symbolic con tracts. True, the downward revision of symbols is sometimes made without an adequate accounting of value, so that what is now thrown onto the image dump may have once been thought worth killing for. Think for a moment about the various responses different societies might have to the burning of a cross, a Star of David, an American flag, Grant's face on a fifty dollar bill, the current exchange rate of Canadian currency. Each of these is a symbol and each receives its value from what we are willing to pay for it. This is not news, of course, but I think it is something about which we must be periodically reminded, just as illness makes us value our health the more.
And so with language itself, that complex symbolic currency we use daily and which we often take for granted. Because it is a kind of currency, language can be—and daily is—counterfeited for the sake of power and personal gain. It is what poets as different from each other as Edmund Spenser and Ezra Pound tried to warn us of, their voices becoming the more strident as the illness of corporate greed and the breakdown of a communal contract became more widespread and virulent. We have come in our time to distrust language in public places, a phenomenon which does not bode well for a working democracy. We believe we are lied to by representatives of the banks as well as by car salesmen. And surely the record of government officials on the score of public trust in our time is nothing either John Adams or Thomas Jefferson would have been par ticularly pleased with. The result is a corrosiveness in the fabric of our society which may eventually destroy our society, though we have learned, like the poor animals themselves, to adapt to a certain amount of toxic waste not only in our air and food and water, but—though no less tellingly—in our language as well.
Even a phrase like "symbolic contract" is be viewed by most Americans with either suspicion or, more likely, numbing indifference. Such issues simply do not seem to matter to us, we say, at least in any way that is going to affect our lives or our pocketbooks. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. The level of a society's culture, its art, the way it uses language and the ways in which the language itself creates our sense of reality do affect us and the very lives we live.
And yet, regardless of how our society ignores its poets, it still expects them to somehow counteract this corrosion of the symbolic contract by reviving language and its values to something like their former health. By poets, of course, I mean the conservators of the language which affects us all as members of a society: I mean our philosophers, our historians, our novelists, our teachers. In the New York Sunday Times, George Steiner called on American poets (by whom he also meant the larger community of writers) to re-evaluate their role in our society. One of the things he particularly warned us of here at home was that we, as members of a democracy, though guaranteed the right of free speech by our Constitution, run another risk, different from those faced in totalitarian states but no less insidious and destructive for all that: the danger of merely trivializing our literature.
If the poet is to escape the charge of triviality, it is necessary to take stock periodically, to re-examine both the seriousness of the poetic endeavor as well as the linguistic and symbolic contract which the poet maintains with one's society, one's world, and with the act of writing itself. Whom do we speak for, if we speak for anyone, and how are we to speak? Such questions must involve a prolonged examination of our role as poets—and by "prolonged" I mean a growing com mitment which will last as long as breath itself lasts. The commitment itself will necessarily involve a hard and continuous look at our relationships with our world as well as with the language which holds each of us uniquely apart even as it binds us together in the human community.
Because it involves a dialogue between members of a society, the symbolic contract requires that society hear what the poet has to say, and, conversely, that the poet listen to society, not only to what that society says but equally to how it says it, so that the poet can then enter into the currents of that language and shape it in such a way that it reveals something significant about ourselves as a people and our own history. Hopefully, the poem should allow us to see ourselves more clearly in the words we use and in the way we piece those words, phrase by phrase, together. "Not until I have made of it (the language) a replica/ will my sins be forgiven and my/ disease cured;' William Carlos writes in Paterson. "I must/ find my meaning and lay it, white,/ beside the sliding water: myself…" Williams knew that what language gives us in return for spending it wisely is a glimpse at the truths about ourselves.
The poet, then, intent on rendering what he sees, by that act alone gives praise to the world and at the same time also renders a portrait of himself. But despite the anguished cry of Joyce's Stephen Daedalus, we cannot afford to awaken from the nightmare of history if to awaken is merely to enter the world of myth. (As attractive as it sounds to some of us, you cannot set up house in Disney World.) After Ulysses, Joyce opted for the world of dream, the result being the brilliant narcissistic echo-chamber of Finnegan's Wake, but that way, it seems to me, lies a labyrinthine dead end. What the poet must attempt instead is to bear witness to his history as honestly as he can without succumbing to the extremes of optimism or despair. The act of the poem can mean a constant and deepening renewal of the symbolic contract with the people, in which the poem itself acts as witness. For it is in our poems, Williams has reminded us, that those coming after will know who and what we were as a people.
And the poet will, if his words are to survive the moment of his writing, sooner or later have to stand up and be counted. This is very hard to do because the poet really has no more guarantees than the next per son that what he or she stands for is the truth. "What is truth?" a mocking Pilate asked Christ shortly before he gave the order to have him crucified, and the mockery of the question has reverberated down the ages, like a word dissolving in the caves of Malabar. Seamus Heaney, one of our foremost contemporary English-language poets, has tortured this question back and forth in his poetry for twenty years in attempting to bear witness to the vicious civil strife in Northern Ireland, a parochial affair—as Yeats before him knew—with international implications. The specific question for him has been how to bear witness to the wrongs inflicted on his people, the Catholic minority in northern Ireland, and at the same time bring a necessary distance and more universal perspective to the larger political issues at stake. He has also had to learn how to speak so that he can be taken seriously yet not be perceived as being so much of a threat that—as hap pened to Garcia Lorca during the Spanish Civil War—he becomes a mark for one of the extremist factions and so winds up as one more slashed and hooded victim in a bogfield. For one truth which has not changed much in the last several thousand years is that it is difficult for any poet to go on singing with his throat cut.
If it is the role of American poetry in our time to bear witness, a role thrust upon us as a people who have willy nilly come of age, to address serious issues seriously, what will this mean for American poetry? The twenty-year experiment with what we call "confessional poetry" is behind us now, as is—hopefully—the more recent poetry of linguistic narcissism and escapism. We had better be aware of this if our poetry is not to be relegated to the dust bin in the coming millenium which is, after all, only a little more than a decade away. Will the voices of the new world and a sign of their times be Neruda and Paz and Parra rather than Ammons and Ashbery and Merrill? And will our own poetry turn out to have turned prematurely decadent, like the face of a man who keeps his boyish looks until he wakes up one morning gray-faced and old, without ever having experienced the vigor of middle age? I hope not.
We must reach outward beyond ourselves at the same time that we maintain a deep humility: moongrasp and earthshod as it has been since the early anthropoids hunkered in the mud, staring up at the nailparing of the moon. And since we are children of the Roman tics, let us consider a passage from Wordsworth as an emblem of the symbolic contract the poet must be continually renewing. At the conclusion of The Prelude, Wordsworth recalls a time from his youth when he made the ascent up Mount Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales, during one midsummer's night. He thought to do this, he says, in order to watch the sun rise from that spectacular and sublime vantage.
In darkness, and accompanied by a friend, a shepherd guide, and the shepherd's dog, Wordsworth's small party begins the climb up the mountain in dark and fog, the poet not even sure that he or the others will be able to see the sun rising for all their effort. There is nothing at all spectacular about the journey: some small talk among the men and then silence as each moves back into his own thoughts. Only once is the silence broken as they climb upward, and that by the barking of the dog letting the others know it has discovered a hedgehog among the crags. What heightens even this unspectacular event, Wordsworth insinuates, is the unfamiliar worth and the dark he is surrounded by, which seems to deepen as each man moves on now alone. Only the poet's eagerness to move beyond the darkness—that blind hope—keeps him going, head bent and moving step by step outward, doggedly, as if the earth itself by which he climbs were the sullen enemy holding him back from his moment of transcendence.
And then, suddenly and unexpectedly, the poet notices that the ground at his feet has begun to brighten and with each step to brighten more. He looks up, and there, just there, he sees…But let Wordsworth speak for himself:
The Moon hung naked in a firmament Of
azure without cloud, and at my feet
Rested a silent sea of hoary mist.
A hundred hills their dusky backs upheaved
All over this still ocean; and beyond. Far, far
beyond, the solid vapours stretched, In
headlands, tongues, and promontory shapes,
Into the main Atlantic, that appeared To
dwindle, and give up his majesty,
Usurped upon far as the sight could reach.
A heavenly ocean, made up of the full summer's moonlight reflecting back off the top layer of the fog below, out of which the poet had just ascended replaces, for the moment, the might of the North Atlantic, over shadowing and usurping its majesty. Now it is the queen of night which takes precedence over the masculine sea as she seems to gaze "from her sovereign elevation" upon the "billowy ocean" of mist and fog. All is meekness and silence Or almost all. For, as the poet gazes on this heavenly vision, he becomes aware of the sound of water from a rift—some "fixed, abysmal, gloomy, breathing place:' Once made conscious of that intrusion from below, it becomes to the poet's sensitized ear nothing less than a counter force to the heavens' serenity, a roar
of waters, torrents, streams
Innumerable, roaring with one voice!
Heard over earth and sea, and, in that hour,
For so it seemed, felt by the starry heavens.
The vision is fleeting, but, if we did not already understand the import of the scene Wordsworth has been at pains to present to us, he now goes on to explain what is in effect his own rewriting of the Old and New Testament versions of the transfiguration on the mountain. It is an emblem of the poetic imagination, this scene, feeding "upon infinity" as the poet broods like God over "the dark abyss" before the creation, intent on listening for the voices—language itself—"issuing forth to silent light/ In one continuous stream." The symbolic contract is, then, the transubstantiation of the bread of language into a meaning beyond itself. It is this towards which the language rises and, though that sound will never reach the heavens, seems capable at moments of lifting itself into the silent light in the single and continuous stream which is the music of the imagination, the turn and turnabout of words caught up in the all-encompassing rhythm of the outward-spinning poem.
But Wordsworth is not yet finished. In the scene which he has re created for us, he says, all of us, even the least sensitive, would have felt something of the power of what had transpired that night. This ability to begin with the quotidian—a shepherd's hut, a becalming fog, the bark of a dog who has uncovered a hedgehog, the doggedness of three men trekking up the mountain—and to transform it all, lifting us the reader not only by the scene itself, but by the subtle modulation of the language as it rises into a higher key: This is Wordsworth's own masterful usurpation of the Miltonic sublime.
And this, Wordsworth suggests, is what the strong poet is capable of engendering in the reader as both renew the symbolic contract of the poem. For the poet has the ability to deal with all experience and not just with the sublimity of mountain scenes in a similar fashion, as Wordsworth himself demonstrated again and again, whether he dealt with boyhood memories or a nutting expedition or a chance meeting with a leech gatherer in the woods. Wordsworth's is essentially a sacramental vision of nature, and all images are therefore capable of revealing their larger symbolic significance in the hands of the capable imagination.
In the closing lines of the Snowdon passage, Words worth throws out to us his heirs a challenge. Poetry, he says, is capable of a profound moral dimension so that by a continual meditation, not on sensible impressions (he would have included an over reliance on electronic information systems, cinema, video, and music) but on the rhythms of life itself, it can offer, like prayer and meditation, "that peace which passeth understanding." This is his own claim, and, as with T.S. Eliot after him, we know from what source he has lifted his words. In fact, he tells us further, the poet must come at last to rely on "moral judgments which from this pure source/ Must come, or will by man be sought in vain."
And what is this pure source? Tellingly, Wordsworth has purposely skewed the syntax and pronominal reference in these closing lines (as he has done before in The Prelude) so that the pure source refers co-equally to the Holy Writ and the informed poetic imagination. We may take issue with Wordsworth's high claims for poetry, but for him, as for Emerson, Whitman, Brown ing, Tennyson, and Arnold after him, the poet's moral obligation both to himself and by extension to others was very great indeed.
And while the world and the language have changed in the past two hundred years, I do not think the major poets believe any less in the powers of the poetic imagination, though political, ideological, psychological, and scientific systems may have altered the poetic and metaphoric strategies available to poets.
Let us move forward in time some hundred and fifty years to consider for a moment Wallace Stevens' late claims for the single candle of the imagination at nightfall, how in a time of radical doubt he still opts for "the obscurity of an order, a whole,/ A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous;" whether we call it the self or that obscure nameless "other" he is willing now to summon up by the name of God. Having tried for forty years to find a meaning which would suffice, he seems satisfied, finally, like the con templatives, to dwell together with that obscure Other in the growing dark, "In which being there together is enough."
An old man wrapped in a shawl at evening, in a room lit by a single candle. We are a far cry from the poet ascending the sacred mountain into the light of the full moon. Nevertheless, out of the essential poverty of the human condition, Stevens has found a sustaining solace for himself and for us. And this revaluation, this too, is a renewal of the symbolic contract, in a language which, even if we do not understand its syntactic swervings and complexities, its intricacies of doubt, still soothes us with an honest music.
Is what I have said too insistent for contemporary American tastes? Is it not out of keeping with a view of language with affinities to the big bang theory of the universe, where, the more we stare into the heart of the word, the more it dissolves, like the blow up of print, into shades of black and white, atoms shimmering in a state of constant unrest as they continue, like the stars themselves, to fly outward from the center? Do we not all take it for granted today that in this post-Heisenbergian world of ours language keeps shifting away from us even as we try to hold it from slipping through our hands?
And yet language does not change so fast that the human spirit, which seems to me to be the only force capable to moving at a rate faster than light, cannot easily keep up with language's continental drifts. If therefore the imagination is still capable of discover ing an obscure order of what is possible, then we come back once more to the idea of a symbolic contract, to that which makes an order acceptable. Listen to what Joseph Brodsky has said in a recent interview. "Basically," he reminds us, "one writes not about what surrounds or happens to one; it's a very Marxist attitude that the actual living conditions determine the operation of the consciousness. Obviously, it's true, but only up to a certain point, after which the consciousness, or conscience, starts to determine the nature of the living conditions, or the attitude towards them, anyhow."
When we were young, the world shaped or misshaped us as it saw—or did not see—fit. But as we get older, we learn to shape our world according to our own best lights. Eventually it is up to us to do what we can to make sure that time chisels us as we would want, so that the myth we leave behind us is one to which we can add our signature. lb do that we will need the best models available, and the best models are still the classics, those works which have survived in the alembic of time's fire. We are jack, joke, poor potsherd, Hopkins wrote after he had undergone the ordeal of near madness, the record of which we have in the terrible sonnets he cared to let no one see while he lived. This realization of our mortality is our tie to what Wordsworth called the rift of earth, and—it seems—we are indeed patch, matchwood and immortal diamond.
But in the list of things to be burned in Nature's Heraclitean bonfire (the bonniest thing being ourselves) Hopkins' violent pun reminds us there is also that about us which abides. For at its best the poem must still re mind us that, whatever else we are, we have value, we have within us that which is immortal diamond. So the poet, it seems to me, must believe, or else he is damned to move—as few poets are unreservedly willing to do—towards a killing nihilism. If we are poets, the tongues of our communities, then our earthbound barks and animal grunts and blurts and stutters must also bear witness to what transpires in the Heraclitean fire and light of our remaking, a remaking which occurs largely in the words, and in the signs, we make our own.
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