This is a response to a letter to Dispatches from Bill Freind criticizing “Dispatch #29 – on truth and the new totalitarianism” available here: Bill Freind to Dispatches, on Dispatch #29 — 10 January 2018
Thanks for your attentive and engaged reading of “Dispatch #29 – On Truth and the New Totalitarianism”. I have quite a lot to say in response, but want to start in media res, as it were, with the H.D. quote because everything hinges on it for me. You accuse me of misreading the passage from H.D.’s Tribute to the Angels regarding John’s testimony, asserting that H.D. actually meant that “human experience of the Divine – comes with an expiration date.” I have to disagree quite strongly since this proposition seems to ignore the entirety of H.D.’s poem completely. The quote from John comes at the beginning of Section III and needs to be seen in the context of the opening of the book. In Section I, H.D. invokes Hermes Trismegistus as the patron of alchemy (he is also the patron of writing, linking the two processes) to watch over the poem. Alchemy then becomes a recurring image throughout the book, both because of its perennial invocation of gendered imagery, so important to H.D.’s imagination, in relation to the sacred marriage (hieros gamos or conjunctio), but also because of its thinking of the work of transformation which then becomes H.D.’s thinking of the work of her book—the transformation of violence and war into love and renewal.
When Hermes speaks to her at the beginning of Section II he invokes John’s apocalyptic vision of Jerusalem (“And the city lieth foursquare, and the length is as large as the breadth: and he measured the city with the reed, twelve thousand furlongs”) as the source of her strength. H.D. rejects this, proposing instead something new, “another shape (octahedron?) / slipped into that place / reserved by rule and rite // for the twelve foundations.” This innovative break with the original vision leads into the quote from John in the opening of Section III. The stake in this section is the tension between two apparently mutually exclusive energies. John’s testimony is incontestable. He has seen what he has seen and he needs no further authorization. The testimony is true to the vision. Given that H.D. was writing a poem in which she was visited by and communed with angelic powers, determining her authority was essential for her work to proceed in the face of the hostility she knew was coming. The predictable response from the rationalists, the materialists, and the Methodists who control public literary discourse — white boys with names like Fitts, Jarrell, Shapiro, and Wilbur — dismissed her and her poems as “silly” and went so far as to eject her from The Anthology of Modern American and Modern British Poetry, consigning her to the poetry wilderness, not unlike, come to think of it, what Winthrop did to Anne Hutchinson when she crossed him and his patriarchal gang back in 1637. Le plus ça change . . .. With I John saw / I testify, H.D. fearlessly asserted the legitimacy of her visionary testimony in the face of the Philistine attacks on her.
But within the same passage in Revelations, Jesus states that he makes all things new which contradicts John’s assertion that no one should alter his vision. This is the tension at the heart of H.D.’s writing. In Tribute to the Angels, the book previous to The Walls Do Not Fall, while in the midst of the apocalyptic raining down of fire during the Blitz in London, H.D. was granted the vision of Aries, the Ram, who also makes all things new. That renewal returns in various modes throughout the three books culminating in the birth of Christ in The Flowering of the Rod, but even more significantly, in Caspar’s spiritual rebirth through his renewed vision of Mary Magdalene when he falls into the facet of light that flashes from her hair.
The promise of renewal is H.D.’s answer to Pound’s rather technocratic “Make It New” which serves equally well for poetry, automobiles, or populist demagogues. Yet as essential as it is to our very being, H.D.’s (octagonal) renewal (which I would argue is congruent with Karen Barad’s quantum cosmos of interactive emergent entanglements), is at odds with the authority of John’s vision, an apparent conflict between John’s testimony and the eternal force of creation. The entire book hinges on the resolution of that contradiction in the hieros gamos that occurs in the alchemical crucible of her poem.
When the jewel melts in the crucible, she writes at the end, the result is not ashes or ash-of-rose, or even rosa mystica. It is “a cluster of garden pinks,” the ordinary transformed and renewed to reveal, say, what used to be called “the sacred” as pure immanence. It is the transformation of the rosa mystica, not its elimination or, as you put it, expiration. For you to reduce that to “human experience of the Divine . . . comes with an expiration date” is to eliminate the entire significance of the poem, in fact to argue against its very premise, since it begins in the first section of the first poem with the statement: “still the Luxor bee, chick and hare / pursue unalterable purpose.” They continue to prophesy, Bill, no expiration date. She says it right there, so I really don’t think your objection here holds much water.
I would similarly disagree with your reading of Emerson and Whitman. First you limit their thinking to something you call “the divine”. Then you dismiss “the divine” you have defined as some kind of vestigial transcendental delusion. Because you continue to force things into binary conflicts – divine/empirical, here – you fall into the very error they were attempting in their pioneering writing to move beyond. Olson, identifying it with a particular threatened American possibility, called it in Proprioception, a secular that loses nothing of the divine. A hieros gamos in action, a Blakean visionary engagement with the fourfold that prophecies the crisis of representation at the heart of modernism, central to every art gesture that recognizes and embodies the entangled limits of frame and vision, which is just about everybody interesting since at least Monet.
When I proposed that poetry will always testify against totalitarianism, I was not referring to political content. Poetry is a specific and particular linguistic mode of thinking. Even the most banal and simplistic poetry cannot be contained, although totalitarian regimes have tried to contain it (demanding it be, precisely, banal and simple), and sometimes even partially succeeded through ideological and physical violence, including forced containment of those who write it (China, anyone?). Containment is the essence of totalitarianism, containment in the totalized form.
Emerson and Whitman (and Dickinson) found themselves in the midst of a great change, a change in which the concepts and categories that had held the modern world together for hundreds of years were disintegrating. For Emerson, the crisis came when he could no longer in good faith administer the Sacrament of the Last Supper and left the pulpit for the lectern in a gesture that wed secular and divine. For Dickinson it came as a rejection of The Second Great Awakening and a refusal to any longer attend the family church. They were confronted with the recognition that, as Emerson put it, experience is unable to be grounded in the lubricious world, leaving the institutions of formal religion as dead forms without meaning. It also meant that experience is not subject to representation. It is uncontainable. This has nothing to do with being in touch with a trans-rational divine force. On the contrary, Emerson clearly recognizes that such a being-in-touch is no longer possible, that no matter how much you may want to anchor, the anchorage will not hold because the bottom is quicksand. In that case, poetic truth is not about being in touch with anything, and especially not some meagre notion of “the divine” as you use it. Poetic truth is the formal experience of the irreducibility of the plenitude of the world you cannot grasp because language is always a (beautiful) limit.
But then, the word “truth” seems to bother you. Or at least that’s how I read your final exclamation: I HATE TRUTH. To be clear, you hate the word truth and what you think it stands for. You can’t hate something you think doesn’t exists, so it’s got to be the word. No doubt you are not sanguine about the word beauty either. I would suggest that has something to do with how you define those words, containing them in binary constructions. I am with Keats on the question of truth and beauty (“What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?”). And the Navajo, who speak of a way of being in the world that is walking with beauty. I can’t imagine the sheer unrelenting brutality of trying to live in a world where there was no room for some thinking of truth and beauty. Because everything flows from them, first and foremost, justice. To imagine justice without truth and beauty is to find yourself in an equation rather than a scale. And equations don’t give a damn about consequences or balance, which is only possible through considerations beyond “facts” and calculations, considerations that are informed by truth and beauty. Which is not to say that I know what they are, only that like the Luxor bee, chick and hare, they have always been with us, calling out to us to find the right line, the right word, the right syllable, the right phoneme – to make it true, a carpenter would say. As a poet I feel some particular responsibility toward them, especially in these times when they are needed most.