Tuesday, August 17, 2004

I'm posting my most recent reaction paper written for my snail-slowly-completing incomplete. It's long by blog standards, warning, and probably lots of obviousness, but it took me a while and for that I'm proud of it. Read if you want an intro to Spicer, or school me on Spicer, if you want, where I've missed . . .

and I'm sure I have.

Reaction Paper Considering Jack Spicer’s Language and “Imaginary Elegies”
in the Light of John Calvin’s Theology (with George Herbert Mediating)

“This ocean, humiliating in its disguises . . .” Spicer resents from the beginning his place as receptor in his perceived system of poesis. He resolves himself to it with love, the final word and motion of “Thing Language.” In this resolution he is like Herbert. That is, he resolves himself through all torment and want with love. Spicer, though, goes for a harsher equalization of love and death than Herbert, who for all his severities writes of a love powerful enough to be indulgent (“Love (III)” comes quickest to mind as example). In Herbert’s theology, love conquers death—well not conquers (read “Death,” ex.) but subsumes death, death is a manifestation of love (read “Easter Wings,” ex.); love is the one morpheme, so to speak, and death an alternate pronunciation introduced to accommodate our free will; paradoxical to the receiver perhaps, but seen through the lens of faith a manifest grace. Spicer takes agape and thanatos as the two morphemes (“Lew, you and I know how love and death matter . . . thanatos and agape have no business being there.” Having no business, I take to mean, they are that they simply are.). Compared to Herbert, who views (and struggles to view, “Church Monuments” ex.) death as a subset of love, Spicer sees only with what Herbert would call “doubledark,” or non-faithed, eyes, and I suppose without some sort of faith there is no reason to believe death is not the equal dance-partner of love, particle to its wave. Spicer even rejects the possible American theology offered by Whitman[1] at the end of “Morphemes’” first section: “Dead grass. The total excuse for love and death”.[2] Emphasis for this point is “Dead.”

Now as far as the ‘value’ of a poet as receiver-radio goes, Spicer addresses it and its magical valence in the final section of “Thing Language” (though not only here). He first says there’s lots of silicon, i.e. organic matter, in his heart. & that this substance muffles the clear ringing of the iron. The metal in his heart “bangs,” not rings. “Too personal/ The glass and glue in my heart reply.” But then in the final two lines, “The sounding brass of my heart says/ Love.” This is not rationally deductible from the argument built up in the poem to this point; and even were it parsed to mean “well, what little brass there is sounds” the phrase “the glass, the glue, the living substance . . . muffles what the rest of the heart says” denies this possibility. So the crucial trans-formation which bodies forth into those last two lines from the previous seven, embodied in the one-line quote from 1 Corinthians (and well-bodied, as it speaks to the necessity of love—of being open to God’s love—to attain the eloquence not of mere hyperbolism but of love & truth[3]), is the miracle of grace. Its motion, both tonal and logical, brings to my mind’s ear again Herbert, say the turn ending “Iesu,” among so many.

One crucial difference between the two poets, one related to the issue of love’s relationship to death, is that Spicer does not seem to feel the lower-case-ess ‘self’ can conduct poesis. His poems move beyond the personal as their success; along the way, the ego may protest or observe its own inadequacy but ultimately, as the “Imaginary Elegies” do their best to, they transmit a holistic, worldwide verity-based metaphysic. In Herbert, the ego may protest, or observe its own inadequacy, but ultimately, as in “The Collar,” they transmit a personal, intimate, relational-based metaphysic. For Herbert, God’s love goes both ways and that is free will. For Calvin, from what I remember, the doctrine of predestination moves free will’s domain to a different and, strangely enough freer, domain. But this may be fanciful on my part.

From the Encyclopedia of Religion. “For Calvin, the world of God in scripture is generated by the Holy Spirit and, therefore, properly interpreted only by the Holy Spirit.” “The often-discussed doctrines of providence and predestination . . . are presented by Calvin as the response or affirmation of a man of faith, affirming the control of God in his life, not an epistemological program.” “Calvin’s theological program is based on the dictum of Augustine that man is created for communion with God and that he will be un-fulfilled until he rests in God.” “God is always hidden and revealed, both beyond our comprehension and revealed to us at our level. Humans . . . are dependent creatures, both because we are created to be so and because our sin renders us totally helpless in spiritual things. Consequently, God must always be the initiator of any communication with us.”

I mean, where to begin? This is Spicer’s very poetic. A poet is to receive. A poet is to abnegate the personal as any more than a tool to be used by the broadcaster, the “ocean, humiliating . . .” which is broad and complete enough to not even need us for meaning, let alone to exist—the relationship being one way. Love, for Spicer, is not part of the equation—poetry’s messages, which have battered the self who attempts to receive them, to be an available transmitter and has suffered in the process (“The tubes burn out . . .), do not even know “they are champions.” They are envisioned as lifeless transmissions from some Solaris-like ocean which, tossing, makes the music we would move to. Love, for Spicer, while an adequate for death, is purely an interpersonal matter.

Or maybe not. I seem to be arguing 2 things for him. One, that, as I just said, love is terrestrial. The other, that, as quoted before, freed as if by a miracle from the dross of personality, his responsive eloquence is one word, “Love.” So he makes much of death but perhaps is not so removed from Herbert in this regard. Or is and isn’t; I don’t know that he is saying merely one thing.

My (usual) caveat: In addition to this paper’s purpose being to touch on, not completely explicate, the topic at hand, I know I am also clumsy in my exegesis, these poems are lovely and while they feel familiar in a way I’ve never encountered, I am still feeling my way into them. The use of nursery rhymes feels significant, and my sense of why—something of the power of regression to a primal state of birth-existence, one where personality has yet to develop and so one is a receiver of the first order; where one has not even developed, through experience, a structure of personality upon which injury might be felt (from the force of the transmission-waves, that is)—doesn’t feel complete. I look forward to reading some prose by the man, to get a more detailed sense of his poetic. But I very very much like what I’ve read, much more so than I expected to—such enjoyment, and such a sense of fellowship, is almost by definition beyond expectation. And I think that fits.

[1] i.e. from Leaves of Grass, explicit: “To die is different than any have supposed, and luckier . . . look for me under your bootsoles.”

[2] He does so, though, in a way which makes Whitman (and, I suppose, the power of viewing and ‘chanting’) more primal than love or death, by introducing the ‘dead grass [period]’ as a found excuse, a ‘total’ excuse, for love & death. I suppose this is the motion a Romantic poet should make. It is also the motion Harold Bloom would ascribe for any poet reaching for strength—it both makes his own poem an antecedent to his ‘strong’ predecessor and affirms the primacy of the (Blakean, Shelleyan) Romantic Imagination, while offhandedly denigrating the “strong” predecessor in the process. Which I find interesting because before reading much Spicer but having from you the topic of this paper, my first thought was of Bloom, who makes so much of language having its way through history through its poets, of poems talking to each other more truly than of poets. But that’s about it.

[3] Question, actually: do those sects which practice speaking-in-tongues have any connection to Calvin? They would seem to have a connection to Spicer’s poetic in this regard, at least.

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