Tuesday, February 16, 2010


"In saying the word "sun" we are, as it were, taking an immense journey to which we have
grown so accustomed that we almost travel in our sleep.What distinguishes poetry
from automatic speech is that it rouses us, and shakes us into wakefulness in the middle of a word.
It then turns out that the word is much longer than we thought, and we remember that to speak is to be forever on the road."
This comes from Osip Mandelstam's CONVERSATION ABOUT DANTE(1936)writing right at the edge of the Stalinist purges, a few years prior to Mandelstam's death. To write about Dante
in the Soviet Union in 1936 was to uphold what got Mandelstam ostracized to begin with, and puts him closer to house-arrest and then Siberia. His friend the poet Lev Gumiliev, shot by firing squad in the first
days of the Bolshevik revolution, died clutching a copy of Homer in his hands. This Dante essay is like
that in slow motion. Mandelstam seems to be putting every idea he wishes to impart in coded form into his last testament. In one astonishing aside,he seems to have had a poetic anticipation
into the structure of DNA--he addresses crystallography as a discipline which he would turn
to the study of Dante's patterns, if he had time. Earlier, he compares poetry
to a carpet woven out of the waters of the Ganges, the Euphrates, and the Nile,
in which their waters weave in patterned braids without mixing. But it is to his comments
concerning poetic speech that I must return.
Two uses of the word "original" by two fine American poets, Marianne Moore and Robert
Frost, reverberated within reach of each other when I read them. Moore's:
not in the days of Adam and Eve,
but when Adam was alone,
when there was no smoke and color was fine
not with the refinement of early civilization art
but because of its originality..."
And Frost's, which is from his masterpiece, DIRECTIVE,
"Your destination and your destiny's
A brook that was the water of this house,
cool as a spring as yet so near the source
too lofty and original to rage..."

This use of the word "originality" means the near opposite of "novelty".
This rang true with me, which is a distinct sensation, like the touching of a tuning fork.
I am not sure why I believe that we hear the truth rather than see it--listening
being part of the sequence--but it is the sound of truth we speak of more often than
it is the sight. Both Moore and Frost roused me into waking in regard to the word,
(There is something else concerning Mandelstam's comment to which I wish to add:
he speaks as if language is an instrument of truth, and that truth might be found
in language. This is interesting to consider in our truth-eroded, rhetoric bloated time. The idea
that a language may be the bearer of a collective truth as a poet may be the bearer
of an individual one is an original idea which novelty has largely buried beneath static.
But Mandelstam believed it was the nature of Language as well as the art of
individual speech. In a brief aside, he apostrophe's DAL's Etymological Dictionary as a giant
proto- poem of this collective truth.)
The rootword of " original" is Er, which is to set in motion, to begin.
As it was in the beginning has a very particular sense for each of us.
It consists of something familiar in the Edenic infant sense of our earliest memories
but also something of our human ancestry. All nostalgia may be based on Eden, just as all longing might be for a New Jerusalem---sacred or secular, it does not matter which: we are irreparably between.
Even so, we each have a sense of the beginning:to utter it is to
begin to picture it:who knows if this twitch goes far?
In Islam, creation begins before time, in the convocation of all souls who will
ever come to exist. All say "Yes" to Allah and enter time. I was there
with you according to this doctrine, and this hidden memory is shared
from the beginning of time.Should Jehovah ask, "where were you
when I called the world into being and the morning stars danced for
joy?"the reply might be, I was there. I know something from the beginning of
time which I have yet to put in words.
When a work of art is original, as far as I am concerned, it is because
it is touched with the beginning, and takes a reverberation from it,
and vibrates with it. It is singular but it also
has an unexpected familiarity, a way of making something I have inarticulately
known into some know-able speech. The effect of Wagner on men as different as
CS Lewis and Gerard de Nerval, Auden and Baudelaire was one of coming across
something for the first time that they had known all their life. (to be continued)

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