Poets of Western Civilization
This piece was originally intended for the September 2014 edition of TheBlvdier. That edition having gone unpublished, and this piece now having been dug up, feel free to read it here and enjoy it to your taste. Read more works by good writers at TheBlvdier.com.
By Robert Ravensbergen
« The real life in regular verse is an irregular movement underlying. » – Ezra Pound
Poetry today in the West, predominantly in America but throughout the region to a great degree, is taken on by rappers, emcees, and street musicians. They often provide personal stories, irreverent narratives, or exalt lifelong ambitions of money, fame, success, influence and virility, however at times too do they exercise their political and socioeconomic sensitivities, ever-conscious of a responsibility towards the development of our culture, or the development of “The Culture” as some may put it. This poet’s role is nothing new, but the beats behind it, their accompanying pitch and timber, their lyric duality and impersonality, are of a sheen that is now coming to be recognized as a legitimate form of art and expression in academic and intellectual circles, an accomplishment rarely formed in so few decades by what is, on its surface, a new art.
The ancestral character of hip-hop is one which resembles a universal human condition that is, in essence, a desire for ornamentation in order to achieve reproductive goals, coloured of course by the possibilities and subversions of the modern sexual revolution and its accompanying health technologies which enable particular exaggerations of our ancestral behaviours while altering their consequences, or at least statistically reducing certain consequences and the commitments or pain they might entail. This piece, however, is not meant to participate in the in-vogue, “Genius”-inspired cycle of scholastic delineation which is now perforating the façade of hip-hop and taking down the simple facets of fun, success and achievement that rest in its origins and drives current artists towards overwrought pre-written lyrical punchlines and passive-aggressive jabs, for fear of open conflict ending in either reduced future income (see: 50 cent) or outright inflammatory tragedy (see: Biggie & Pac), as is occurring now at the apex of the form in a more personal soap-opera between the Kanye Kardashian and Bey-Z as they vie towards sound positions on the success, personality and commercial ventures of a delicate Torontonian named Aubrey. This piece would rather use such a preface only to point out the sense of consciousness and responsibility impelled towards WORLD EVENTS by dominant poetic forms of the past, not as a Cassandra of towards current trends, but a structure upon which an identity can be formed and related to the poets of the past, through the particular exploration of current issues and former hegemons and dynamos.
Poetry in Crisis
Resisting the urge to be didactic in the extreme, and exaggerating our use of difficult language and structure, the originary quote herein used from Mr. Pound is present in order to insinuate one fact of life: the very nature of events, the very causes of what is experienced and perceived in quotidian life, is the subject of massive waves and transitions of consciousness and values visible in the longitudinal view of human life. Any poet accepts this to be true, either in their effort to deny the power of our past, or to manipulate and appear to be at the vanguard – to act as what poets often are, registering instruments of the powers that be and the sentiments that hold sway in any given moment in human events. The history of the West and its accompanying imaginative life have constituted and reconstituted themselves again and again in the work of its most accomplished poets and most renowned poetry, often political, and often perhaps even written by politicians, but forgotten still is how crucial the place of poetry and poetic expression, in whatever arena, exists as a “registering instrument”, and how poetry may lead the imagination of life apolitically (we look always to Dante for our visions of heaven and hell).
What we chiefly lack, is the political rhetoric – the profound if not stayed poetry, that once came from the White House in our current time of crisis. Within the recent economic crisis and the efforts to withdraw the United States from conflicts overseas, while restoring its society at home, are forgotten elements of a President Obama who called on the past to lift out a narrative of triumph for his people and for others around the world. What with the growth of ISIS, the Ukrainian civil war, the quite recent conflict in Gaza, and the myriad of new democracies crumbling before the comforts and certainties of authoritarianism, Mr. Obama has been oddly silent, failing or unwilling to offer a means of rhetorical release in which the conflicts around the world might be framed as something with a constructive outcome, and possessing a tone of what might motivate an institutional structure so hesitant to tempt conflict that it fails to realize what catastrophe will ultimately brought to it by leaders or despots all-too-encouraged by victory after victory against open and free societies.
Of course, it may be easier yet for the opponents of Western life to point out the unfreedoms that it propagates – rampant surveillance states, militaries with new robotic if not sheerly dystopian capabilities, and a silent denouement for social mobility, silent because generations present cannot be made to remember how easy things may have been in the past, as they could very well be too burdened with hardship to even possibly imagine it. This is the kind of age in which poetry provides its best uses, and is reminiscent of the wars, depressions, and mass mobilizations of the early 20th century, where two American poets wrote mainly in classicist English while heading up the vanguard of a distinctly European aesthetic tradition: Ezra Pound and TS Eliot. Chief among their concerns were loyalty first, and a great many meanings of words thereafter, and though theirs was a relationship frostbitten by war but ultimately reconciled in fairly goodwill by eventual death, they offered cyphers through which the world could be seen without too much caution a world of hope though it may have been burning, a world of love though it may have been hateful, and a world of redemption and return however much its traditions and tenets may have been irrecoverably disrupted. Circuitous constructions of language like this serve as a tribute to them, because it is the circuitous and irregular verses which represent the confounding and contradictory movements of human motivation that underly the very events we are so often vexed by. In the political possibilities of life, however, a regular verse is required, and regular force is then to follow, so as to compel life to become regular again. Words in this way can let loose the energy of invention and civilization by organizing life for us, by making it clear what we should value and where we should draw the line, both for others and ourselves.
Loyalty in the West
In Eliot’s youth, his pursuit of academic philosophy drew him closer to poetry by the failure of the words he attempted to identify with reality. In his later life, he wrote plays so dependent on convention and form that it seemed words and homely traditions were the only refuge from the barrage of relativism that had been brought to his door by the world, a barrage he had very well asked for in his Waste Land. Couched in quotation after quotation in polyglot languages is the mythical rape of the princess of Athens’ Philomela, harsh jug jugs (an Elizabethan convention there laced with ironic used) cried out amidst a collage of civilized poetry to serve as an identity for the inevitable rape of innocence by conquering villains, from within or without. It can be considered a rape of what is loyal, of that which is built by steady concentration and in a certain sense by a naïve hope for redemption. Those who exercise disloyalty or mercenary qualities, who take what they want without remorse, are what we face always when the world is in crisis, and worse yet is their victory – those are the kind who cannot ever find a thrill without a chase, and finding in final conquest only boredom and insecurity, create games again and again, an instinct of bloodlust upon whom conscientious rest and reflection is lost in place of revelry for one’s own ego and power.
The West is not however without its conquering heroes, and it is again that same 20th century to which we can all look and find the purest of human bloodlust unleashed in our civilization. Though Whitehead said that the philosophical tradition of the West was a “series of footnotes to Plato”, the history of Western cultural analysis itself is merely a series of addenda – alternatives which are forever built WITHIN the dominant taste and texture of a particular age, and thus as culture ascends, its range of possibility becomes circumscribed. As time passes, dominant and lasting cultures become more clearly and cohesively formed around a set of originary loyalties which might have set that culture off in its particular path of development, but cannot necessarily be said to have ever existed. It harkens Heidegger’s Being and Time, where one can never reflect on the absence of life or the sorts of logic which may exist in that absence – a void has an exclusive logic to the world we men and women inhabit, and we must build without the unutterable sense of the void in our lives, however much its absent mass and gravity may bend our world and experience around itself.
More yet as time passes may the real origins of our civilization be lost to our attempts to discover the real origins of our civilization. That is to say that history may be merely implied by the winners, while it is quite elaborately written and spoken by their descendents – it is those sons of winners who close down life to their ends, and in forgetting the brutal compulsion of innocence towards their sense of conquest, make it all the more visceral. And so come the genealogies, first of Nietzsche, and then Foucault thereon, who attempt to discover either righteously brutal ends, or brutally righteous ends intended by powers that once were. Those societies that they analyzed, Ancient and Modern, had both immense civic sensibilities and thoroughly disciplined individual responsibilities, situations in which the best form of loyalty was constituted in thinking as entirely for oneself as possible, but can we ever really know towards what ends? Loyalty may constitute the fundamental feature and reason for success of Western life, whether to political institutions, commerce, a formalized clergy, a scientific method, or a boundless appetite for adventure we cannot know – all we can know is that one form of loyalty or another, a loyalty strong enough to be willing to redefine even in contradictory ways what it is loyal to, produces outstanding results.
In decades since the Second World War, prose-poetry has taken on a particular social concern, headed by the Iowa Writers Workshop and typified by the likes of Toni Morrison, among many, many, many others. This was ultimately a ruse of discipline funded chiefly by the CIA, meant to put a literary foot forward against prolific productions of the radical left. Produced therein, that tradition exists still lingering in the works of David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen, composed of a discouraged oblivion unwittingly serving the tyranny of war bureaucrats and leaving only surface conceits towards real human values, experiences and adventures. Now, in our time of continuing hardship, exists an opportunity to undo that, one that could form a generation which knows the essential meaning and importance of sacrifice for that which we must remain loyal to. More illustrative than Eliot and Pound is the thought found in Tennyson’s Ulysses, an ultimate expression of Victorian England, one that ruled the world, and though with brutality may it have done so, it also wrought the values and sensibilities which, unfortunately, only seem to be found in the personage of awesome and irresponsible kings. Writers of Iowan social concern would be quick to point out that we cannot all be kings, that we are rather most often the heritage of slaves and forgotten nomads upon the great plains of historical epochs, but what difference does that make to what we can believe for ourselves? So Ulysses goes:
3 I mete and dole
4 Unequal laws unto a savage race,
5 That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
13 Much have I seen and known; cities of men
14 And manners, climates, councils, governments,
30 And this gray spirit yearning in desire
31 To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
32 Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
51 Death closes all: but something ere the end,
52 Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
53 Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
56 … Come, my friends,
57 ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
58 Push off, and sitting well in order smite
59 The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
60 To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
61 Of all the western stars, until I die.
The meaning of culture is to achieve some form of ultimate experience, and to rule out other forms in a process of often severe considerations. It is to accelerate the development of human life, and accelerate that acceleration – to find more efficiently the ends and means and purposes to which our devotion can strive. In Notes Towards the Defintion of Culture, a treatise written after the war and yearning for a renewed sense of cohesion in the West, Eliot suggested that “culture may be said to contain all of that which makes life worth living”, but for Eliot and his identification, its transitive character portends that what makes life worth living can all, and thus perhaps only, be found in culture and inculturation (not to mean the Christian process of inculturation, but the development of culture in oneself).
Moreso to the ends of Eliot, it is culture that contains in it our norms and values – culture itself not only makes life worth living, but tells us how to live our lives. It is possible that without culture, we could not conceive that our lives even existed. We could ascribe to them no profound or redeeming importance, we could register no emotional or aesthetic quality, and without common culture we could produce no thought or idea that would find enough meaning among our peers as to influence them positively, bring about material changes in their lives, or bring meaning to the mess of human affairs that might abound at one time or another. And so as Ulysses might so famously continue:
65 Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
66 We are not now that strength which in old days
67 Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
68 One equal temper of heroic hearts,
69 Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
70 To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Culture comes with injury, and great injury at that, and good and great poets and poets who last know this – risks and wars on the basis of pure beauty and elegance, sacrifice of the common man for the hubris of inexpert leaders, in the name of often vain and prideful things. Those are the failures and risks run, but culture also comes in that pure thrill of life which abides ambition, and growth, and respect, and good manners, and though that we may lose strength as we age, we need it not, as our simple sentiments and pure thoughts refine us, to make right moves and to do justice to others, and to know how friend and foe alike may be welcomed and weathered. Tennyson’s Ulysses, the awesome, learned, irresponsible explorer who cannot redeem his peers if they do not redeem themselves – this is not a mere note for men of power, a morality tale within an imagined recollection, but a note added to civilization itself, clarifying it, giving a pure and simple sample, seeking to unbound the knowledge that its experience has wrought, unbounding it towards yearning and yet greater goals.
Where are we now? What is our circumstance? Can our segment of humankind have the sufficient intellectual power and energy to come about in sorting out its own house? The disorganization, the ill-focus of Liberal Democracy is not supposed to suit the highest cultural aspirations and achievements of the West. Socialist Republics, possessing a full complement of cultural and physiological aspirations, are more representative of the best achieving, most sustainable, and most conducively progressive states of man, and yet they fail, and pop up only to fail again. It is because they lack adventure – they do things better for a time because they want to, not because they want to avoid doing things the same way they have always been done.
Ours in the West is a culture that is meant to reward talent, in all the modes where it exceeds expectation, not one which subsidizes accomplishments of individuals towards rhetorical and political ends, nor one that suppresses individuals for the same reason. Eliot’s work in the Waste Land and other places represents collage as the new norm for Western art, consolidated as such by it’s immense disorganization and allusiveness of what was once classical, organized, structured, and even teleological subject matter. The most fruitful form of narrative left lies beyond the pretence of surface semblance, or even in the lack thereof. While certain states have cultural aspirations, subsidizing the artist and the leisurely bourgeois, it funds and accedes to art upon which one does not risk life and livelihood, where there are no risk but still a satisfactory enough patina of identity. In that station and security however, risk of a closing-in on oneself abounds, that the post-colonialist might in his or her own instance come to resemble the most colonized, that the most liberal and open-minded might prove to be the most presumptuous, the least open, and the socialist most prone to resembling property, to behaving as if that is what they are for their audience. Life, as we discover it, is full of opposites, replete with fruitless contradictions, and the job of a poet in said circumstance is to be the analyst of those irregular movements underlying, and to state them in verses which represent what they actually are, especially if they make not a damn lick of sense, because often that’s what life is! Here again is perhaps the need for simpler poets, some water in our wine, to retain the buzz but subtract the edge, a poet who is so originary and yet so deeply unpoetic that his surface impressions carry forward what democracy may truly be worth, and what the Western tradition is meant to be – Pericles, in his funeral oration, from Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War:
Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbours’, but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, …But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit.
That originary state of the West preached equality, and in so doing was not above hierarchy – it rewarded talent, and not the measures of talent, but the clear and distinct functions and achievements of it.
For we are lovers of the beautiful in our tastes and our strength lies, in our opinion, not in deliberation and discussion, but that knowledge which is gained by discussion preparatory to action. For we have a peculiar power of thinking before we act, and of acting, too, whereas other men are courageous from ignorance but hesitate upon reflection.
The discursive ethic and digressive habit of democracy is its peculiar discipline – it has no fear in its openness to its own traditions.
Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now. We do not need the praises of a Homer, or of anyone else whose words may delight us for the moment, but the estimation of facts will fall short of what is really true.
Not needing the praises of a poet!? This originary democracy, which sacrificed and found victory against greater and richer enemies, achieved its greatness through the combative discipline of its democratic classes, its habits of meeting hardship courageously and often without prior fear or preparation. The ultimate end is perhaps a society full of talent, replete with genius (according to Jay-Z, everyone has some “genius-level” talent, so maybe the poets do still speak to us). That democracy faced down a distinctly authoritarian system in the Spartans and their allies – that is to say, when contemplating the peculiar characteristics of the West vs. others, an oppositional Orientalism need not be intended, those with real social concern would look most favourably to a civilization that is looking to get the best out of itself. National literatures are themselves opposed to conceptions of civilization as a whole, and so national poets – Virgil in particular – can often be considered at a discord with the whole procession of civilization in general. They are vengeful, and when we consider broad democracy, we must make up an individual first who can live, and live well, within it, and out on the various adventures it requires. We cannot afford to live lives ruled only by marriage, property, and idleness – there is too much of a genial world to be found everyday around us. We must discuss, digest, sensationalize, and reanimate the dead and not-yet-living voices who can tell us what we must hear about ourselves.
Dissolving Social Concern
Philosophically, Eliot was tired of people being unable to internalize essential facts, or the essential fact that there may be fewer essential facts than one had previously imagined, before making sure that every individual in their cohort internalized them as well. The fact is that, in a society of reasonably well developed discursive principles, in which people understand what it is and is not to listen before one speaks, no comprehensive social transformation, no conceptualization of a social space in crisis is needed – it comes to an ethic of personal responsibility and total communal productivity, the common bases of any and every conservative philosophy in even their most extreme forms, but one that in the long term far outstrips the progress of societies that are problematized and rationalized according to autocratic perfections. This discursive society, though do so many resist participation, may emerge in the new digital space, where shame is so quickly accessible and so generously handed out. However, in a moral universe where this cultivated conservatism dominates, very little is actually conserved. For many, lifestyle and it’s constant improvement may be the only ambition, and reputation the only currency, and that is constant change incarnate, but for many more, their dreams and aspirations are the stuff of pure abstraction and imagination – stuff so complicated that the execution of a dream is the only means to realize an explanation, that they cannot even begin to explain to us what they must in order to begin to explain something to us at all… and so may poets continue still.