Unacknowledged Legislators & Art pour Art

Kenneth Rexroth, 1958
Man is not saved by knowledge; gnosis does not produce ecstasis, but vice versa. Vision produces the knowledge of the irrelevance of knowledge, a state of being beyond the vaporized ego, beyond the temporal order, an end in itself. – Rexroth, on Baudelaire

The oldest and most popular subject of criticism is apparently the role of poetry and the place of the poet in society. The arguments of Plato and Aristotle are not early but late. Long before their day, on Egyptian papyrus and Babylonian clay tablet and in the Prophetic Books of the Bible, the discussion was going on. As most of you may know, Plato had a very low opinion of poets. Isaiah had a very exalted one. From those days to the present the debate has continued.

In most cases the dispute has been so disputatious because so many of the participants have had a very inadequate idea of the nature of poetry, what it actually is, how it achieves its effects, what the arts do generally in and with society. I think the best way to start is naïvely and empirically to say that poetry is what poets write and poets are what the public generally agrees are poets. In my time anthologists have included everybody from Walter Pater to Vanzetti to Thomas Wolfe amongst the poets, but actually very few people would accept this judgment. Florid prose is not poetry; in fact it is often very close to being the opposite of poetry, rhetoric. The public seems to sense this. The Dadaist poetry of Tristan Tzara is considered poetry, even by people who neither like nor understand it. The last page of the Garden of Cyrus of Sir Thomas Browne or the sermons of Donne are beautiful rhetoric.

Let us start with a poet whose social responsibility is not very manifest. He wrote during the few brief years that the Roman Republic broke down once and for all and Julius Caesar began the organization of the Empire which came into full existence under Augustus, a period of economic booms and crises, of civil war and the constant threat of social revolution both from the upper and the lower classes. What have the poems of Catullus to do with either Republic or Empire, with the social collapse and conflict he saw about him? Is there any evidence that he interfered in any way with the society of his time? He wrote a lot of obscene and abusive poems about Julius Caesar, Mamurra, Mentulus, the millionaires of the “popular” cause. They were personally motivated – he just didn’t like them. Actually, he seems to have belonged to their circle. He certainly did not belong to the Senatorial party.

You could say that his poetry reflects passively the first period of Roman decadence, the breakdown of the caste system, the fall of the Republic, the spread of the Empire far beyond the Italian peninsula, the looting of the East, the emergence of the little circle of families of tremendous wealth, the dying out of the old stern ideal of Republican morality, the spread of a public and a private morality much like that of our own Hollywood or Café Society, through all classes. It is always presumed that the Lesbia of his most passionate love poems was Clodia, one of the more notorious evil livers of all time, a multi-millionaire courtesan like those who are always in our own newspapers. You could write a whole book like this and run it serially in Pravda, and you wouldn’t have said anything important.

Nobody has ever valued Catullus for such things, from Clodia or Caesar to our own day. Men have read him all these years and will continue to read him for his peculiarly exacerbated sensibility, the fine sharpness of his perception, the clarity and splendor of his language, and the heartbreaking pathos of – not the emotions he describes – but the actual emotional situations he recreates for us with such power, the drama of his own life in which he is able to involve us directly, as though it were our own.

This is certainly one of the things poetry does. It communicates the most intense experiences of very highly developed sensibilities. With whom does it communicate? Like any published utterance it communicates out into society with anyone who wants to be communicated with. The poet may envisage a specific audience, exquisites like himself, the proletariat, the “folk” – but actually he broadcasts and takes his chances with an audience.

Perhaps this is enough. As time goes on and the poem is absorbed by more and more people, it performs historically and socially the function of a symbolic criticism of values. It widens and deepens and sharpens the sensibility and overcomes that dullness to significant experience that the Jesuits used to call “invincible ignorance.” People are by and large routinized in their lives. A great many of our responses to experience are necessarily dulled. If to a certain extent they weren’t, we’d all suffer from nervous breakdowns and die of high blood pressure at the age of twenty. The organism has to protect itself. It cannot be completely raw.

What the arts do, and particularly what the most highly organized art of speech does, is to develop and refine this very rawness and make it selective. Poetry increases and guides our awareness to immediate experience and to the generalizations which can be made from immediate experience. It organizes sensibility so that it is not wasted. Unorganized sensibility is simply irritability. If every sense impression, every emotion, every response were as acute as it could be, we would soon go to pieces. The arts build in us scales and hierarchies of response.

As acuteness grows and becomes more organized in the individual and in society as a whole – in the separate individuals who make up the abstraction “society as a whole” – it reorganizes and restates the general value judgments of the society. We become more clearly aware of what is good and bad, interesting and dull, beautiful and ugly, lovable and mean. Experience thus comes to have greater scope, greater depth, greater intensity. Many activities of man do this – but it is specifically, primarily, the function of poetry.

Whatever else the arts do, and amongst them the art of poetry, this is the simplest and most obvious thing. If we stick to this we push aside a great deal of aesthetic argument. Is art – or poetry – communication or construction? Criticism in the recent past has held that the arts are largely construction, and that it is the architectonics of the construction which provide the criteria of judgment. All the arts were assimilated to the canons of architecture and music. Of course, the answer to this is that Chartres or the Parthenon are not purely construction. All great architecture, like all music, is very definitely a kind of communication. The Parthenon says something, something quite different from what Santa Sophia says centuries later. This should be self-evident – San Vitale, Saint Front, Albi, Lincoln Cathedral, Richardson’s Trinity Church, the UN Building – these are overpowering acts of communication, each widely different from the rest.

Purposive construction of any kind is a species of communication, just as any kind of communication must be structured. I cannot get paid for this lecture by babbling to you incoherently.

From the opposite aesthetic direction there has come in recent years, in the art of painting especially and to a lesser degree in poetry and music, the exploitation of what is called “the art of random occasion.” People spill paint on canvas, ink their shoes and walk on paper, stare at a glittering point and write down their “free associations.” Now the actual purpose of such activity is to show the kind of communication that emerges, under the guidance of the sensibility and taste of the artist, even out of the manipulation of accident. After all, nothing looks so much like a Jackson Pollock as another Jackson Pollock. This can be said of the work of all the abstract expressionists. As painting has exploited more and more the manipulation of random occasion, the more personal the paintings have become. I am not arguing about the ultimate value of Rothko, or Still, or Motherwell. I do not as a matter of fact think this is the very highest kind of painting. I am simply pointing out that any familiarity with it reveals how strongly personal, how individually communicative it is.

Is it that when you have a minimum of active construction and a maximum of chance and “inspiration” the unconscious mind operates to reveal the artist more intimately? I think not. The poetry of Paul Valéry and T.S. Eliot is presented as rigorously constructed, unemotional, impersonal – “like the Parthenon.” Like the Parthenon it turns out to be intensely personal. At the first glance at the page, Pope seems to be the most formal of poets. The sentences unroll in strict balance and antithesis, the couplets always carefully scanned. He is the perfect example of absolute obedience to eighteenth-century French aesthetic theories. But what happens when you pay attention to the poetry? There emerges a tortured neurotic, shivering with a kind of exquisite irritability, one of the most personal utterances in literature. T.S. Eliot has told us all so many times that he has no emotion, that he never writes of personal experience. The truth is that his poetry is so personal that you can reconstruct his whole inner life, his whole personal history, from it. It is as embarrassingly intimate as the revelations of the analyst’s couch. Remember when he climbs the winding stair and looks out through the keyhole window and sees Spring on Westminster Place in St. Louis, and the flowering bushes, and all the agony of childhood? Valéry too says there is no emotion, no “expression, no personality, no direct communication” in his work. It is just architecture and music. And then, in The Marine Cemetery, he cries out, “Ah, Zénon! Cruel Zénon d’Elée!” and the pathos of this man caught in the trap of his own gospel of implacable order overwhelms you, the torture of this mind hiding behind its formalism is almost more than you can bear.

In poetry, as in all the arts, both the constructive and communicative aspects are tremendously raised in power, but they do not differ in kind from ordinary speech. Only the aesthetician who brings to the arts considerations from elsewhere in philosophy, from ontology or epistemology, can postulate a different realm of being with its own kind of communication in poetry. Hector with his wife and child, Piccarda’s speech to Dante, the ghost of Hamlet’s father, these are all, however exalted, in the same world as “Please pass the butter.” Furthermore, medieval and “vulgar” aesthetics are perfectly right when they speak, as Plato and Aristotle did, of the Art of Cooking, or the Art of the Saddler. The only difference in the Fine Arts is that they are finer – and they communicate more, and more importantly. Albi Cathedral is the sum total of the work of its bricklayers as well as of the plans of its architects. As construction, the difference is simply one of degree. There is no sure point at which you can say, “Beyond is Fine Art.” Instead in the constructive activities of men you have a continuum, growing in refinement, intensity, scope, depth, and splendor. Here Thomas Aquinas and his modern followers are right.

Furthermore, certain works of art in recent years have taught us that you can apprehend even the simplest speech or simplest plastic arrangement, or, to take somebody like Webern, even a fugue on two notes, with the intensity of an artistic experience if you want to compel yourself to do it. Yoga and other mystical gymnastics involving the faculties of attention have always done this. You all know the modern photographs of hop-scotch squares on sidewalks, torn signboards, broken windows, piles of lumber, and similar things. What the photographer is doing is focusing attention on something that was not actually structured in the first place. It is the attention which creates the structure. You can train yourself to see the clouds of Tiepolo, the mists and mountains of Sesshu, in any water-stained ceiling.

Gertrude Stein did this with words. You say poetry is different, disinterested and structured. It is not the same kind of thing as “Please pass the butter,” which is a simple imperative. But Gertrude Stein showed, among other things, that if you focus your attention on “Please pass the butter,” and put it through enough permutations and combinations, it begins to take on a kind of glow, the splendor of what is called an “aesthetic object,” and passes over into abstract, architectonic poetry. This is a trick of the manipulation of attention. Pages and pages of Gertrude Stein are put together out of the most trivial speech, broken up and used “architecturally” to the point that ordinary meaning disappears, not from the sentences, but from the very words themselves, and a new, rather low-grade but also rather uncanny kind of meaning emerges. I happen to think that her work was valuable. It makes interesting reading for a while, but it is, by and large, a failure, because it lacks enough significant contrast to engage the attention for long. Besides, her interests, her conclusions about life, her ideas about almost anything, are so terribly pedestrian.

To get back: what kind of communication are we dealing with in the arts? So much of our dispute about what poetry does, about what happens between poet and hearer or reader is due to old unsolved questions about the nature of knowledge and the nature of communication. This whole body of argument is peculiar to the Western world during the last three hundred years. The philosopher I.A. Richards once wrote a book, Mencius on the Mind, all about how the classical Chinese philosophers spent a great deal of time discussing epistemology, the problems of knowledge and communication. It is a very ingenious book, but it is untrue. What we call the epistemological dilemmas of modern thought have never existed for anybody except Western man. The whole problem of knowledge and communication never bothered other people in other civilizations. We forget that to a very large degree it does not bother the bulk of the people of Western civilization either. The epistemological problem arose as in Europe and America human relationships became increasingly abstract, and the relation of men to their work became more remote. Six men who have worked together to build a boat or a house with their own hands do not doubt its existence.

As human beings grow more remote from one another, they become more like things than persons to each other. As this happens the individual becomes remote from, loses, himself. First alienation from comradeship in the struggle with nature, then alienation from each other, finally self-alienation. A great deal of our communication is not with persons at all. It might just as well be a machine to which we say “Pass the butter.” What we want is the butter. This is what people mean when they say the communication of the arts is of a different kind. But this is not communication at all, it is verbal manipulation of the world of things. “Reification” an American philosopher once called it. The arts presume to speak directly from person to person, each polarity, the person at each end of the communication fully realized. The speech of poetry is from me to you, transfigured by the overcoming of all thingness – reification – in the relationship. So speech approaches in poetry not only the directness and the impact but the unlimited potential of act. A love poem is an act of communication of love, like a kiss. The poem of contempt and satire is like a punch in the nose. The work of art has about it an immediacy of experience of the sort that many people never manage in their daily lives. At the same time it has an illimitable character. Speech between you and me is focused, but spreads off indefinitely and immeasurably. What is communicated is self to self – whole “universes of discourse.” When we deal with others as instruments, as machines of our desires, we as well as they are essentially passive and limited to the end in view. My relationship to a horse is more active than my relationship to a car. Something happens but it is outside of us. In the arts – and ideally in much other communication – the relationship is not only active, it is the highest form of activity. Nothing happens. Not outside in the world. Everything is as it was before. We react to things, we respond to persons. In the arts we respond to the living communication of a person, no matter how long gone the artist may be. In a sense, out into unlimited time and space, say from the studio of an Egyptian sculptor, the artist is speaking, alive, to us, person to living person. Of course it is this which is the subject of the great poems by Horace, Shakespeare, and Gautier: “No thing will outlive the living word.”

No thing happens. What changes is the sensibility. It deepens, widens, becomes more intense and complex, in the interchange between person and person. If, historically, this is a cumulative change, it is a very slight one. There is no evidence that Picasso has “progressed” beyond the paintings of the cave men of Altamira, or that Sappho is less a poet than Christina Rossetti. Progress takes place in the world considered as an instrument. And even here it is questionable if tools, means of production, which irrevocably separate man from man, represent progress or decadence. I think the arts do progress, but they progress in their means, in their own instruments and in a slow growth towards more widespread purity, that is, lack of adulteration with just this reification. Of course, from the very beginning – Sappho, the songs of the Shih Ching – this purity exists. And the tone changes. Each age has its specific sonority, its response to its time. (The politician cannot understand this. For him all persons are things. So the lyric folk songs of the Chinese Book of Odes, the Shih Ching, were “interpreted” by the followers of Confucius as versified political homilies.)

Often the poet, let alone his audience, is not very clear about what he is doing. Consider how certain key poets in the European tradition have lifted up and crystallized and illuminated the whole thought of their epoch. This is particularly true of Baudelaire. Sometime ago I said in an article in The Nation, “Baudelaire was the greatest poet of the capitalist epoch. Does anybody dispute this?” Well, nobody wrote any letters. Yet Baudelaire had all sorts of idiotic ideas about why and how he wrote. But more than any other poet for two hundred years he communicated. He defined and gave expression to all the dilemmas of modern man, caught in the cruel dynamic of an acquisitive and continually disintegrating society, a society which had suddenly abandoned satisfactions which went back to the beginning of human communities in the Neolithic Age. Baudelaire, at first sight, painted the entire portrait of modern man, urban and self-alienated. He speaks directly to each of us like a twin brother. And yet Baudelaire was hardly aware of the magnitude of his accomplishment – he had such foolish ideas when he tried to explain himself.

Blake, in so many superficial ways, inanimate reification ways, the very antithesis of Baudelaire, plays a similar role in the founding of the modern sensibility in English. He saw the whole picture of the oncoming nineteenth-century civilization with its dark Satanic mills. He wanted none of it, but he came to grips with it. It is very pertinent that for most tastes Blake’s most powerful wrestling with his time and the future occurs in his lyrics, not in his Prophetic Books where he presumes to deal with such matters explicitly, or at least allegorically. This is true of Burns, a specifically Jacobin poet – a professional revolutionary in a sense. He takes a simple Scotch folk song and ever so slightly alters its hackneyed lines with the slightest shading and change of emphasis. A whole new realm of values opens up. And he is more successful in his lyrics, in my opinion, than in his long satires, admirable as those are.

The outstanding example of this social-historical role of the poet is Dryden. From the Puritan republic of Cromwell to the Roman Catholic despotism of James II, Dryden changed with the politics of his day. Each time he wrote a long poem to justify himself. It would be easy to dismiss this as timeserving, but careful reading of the poems themselves carries the conviction of Dryden’s sincerity. Although he became progressively more reactionary, the whole structure of his thought, as he hammered it out in a new kind of verse and a new attitude towards reality, presages the oncoming secular, republican, rationalist eighteenth century. Out of Dryden you can deduce Gibbon or Voltaire, but you cannot even imagine Cardinal Newman. Dryden himself, of course, was completely unaware of this.

So programmatic poets do not, by and large, even speak for the programs they think they promulgate. The propaganda poet thinks of men as things and of poetry as an instrument for their manipulation. Again, consciously tendentious poets are crippled by their “message” and tend to be just that much less effective. Milton presumed to speak for the new era of Protestant middle-class republicanism. Yet his poetry is technically reactionary and looks backward to the Renaissance and even the late Middle Ages. The person we meet in Milton would have been happier in the court of that Henry VIII he despised, or of Lorenzo de’ Medici a century or more before him. Who speaks for France of the first half of the nineteenth century: Lamartine? Béranger? Or Baudelaire? We do not read Shelley for his dreary rehash of the woodenly inhuman and humorless ideas of Godwin but for the developing sensibility of the oncoming century which he shares with Keats. This is his unacknowledged legislation.

It so happens that until modern times few poets were “pure poets” in George Moore’s sense – completely disinterested in anything but personal communication. Most poetry in the Western world is more or less corrupted with rhetoric and manipulation – with program and exposition, and the actual poetry, the living speech of person to person, has been a by-product. The felicities of Dante are such by-products, of an embittered politician rewarding his friends and punishing his enemies and preaching an already outworn philosophy and cosmology and an ugly, vindictive, and cruel religion. I think Dante was much more interested in putting the “other side” in various disagreeable pits of Hell than he was in the magnificent images of the gate and the first level of Hell or in the glory of Piccarda’s speech. For this reason, although passages of Dante are amongst the very greatest in all literature, he is not so great a poet as Homer or Sappho or Tu Fu. The greatest poetry cannot redeem an obnoxious creed and an unpleasant disposition.

How few poets have this purity! Horace, Catullus, Sappho, Meleager, Asclepiades, Chaucer, medieval lyricists, Shakespeare in his songs, Burns, Marvell, Landor, Blake, Li Po, Tu Fu, The Song of Songs – the list could be prolonged, but not very far. A poet like Tu Fu has a purity, a directness and a simplicity – presents himself immediately as a person in total communication — in a way so few Western poets do. And yet, even here this purity is partly a matter of perspective. Tu Fu never forgot his role as a court official, a censor. Even after he was fired and the T’ang court was demoralized and exiled, he went right on “admonishing the Emperor.” Much of this, couched in symbols of natural occurrence, simply goes by the average reader.

However, there are rare instances where the “message,” the expository occasion that floats as it were the poetic accomplishment, is itself so profound, so deep an utterance of a fully realized person that it augments the poetry and raises it to the highest level. This is certainly true of Homer as it is just as certainly not true of Dante or Milton. As you read the Iliad and Odyssey, the sublimity of the conception rises slowly through the sublimity of the language. An old man, blind now, who has known all the courts and ships and men and women of the Eastern Mediterranean, tells you, with all the conviction of total personal involvement in his speech – “The universe and its parts, the great forces of Nature, fire, sun, sky and storm, earth and procreation, viewed as persons are frivolous and dangerous, from the point of view of men often malicious, and always unpredictable. The thing that endures, that gives value to life, is comradeship, loyalty, bravery, magnanimity, love, the relations of men in direct communication with each other, personally, as persons, committed to each other. From this comes the beauty of life, its tragedy and its meaning, and from nowhere else.”

The great Chinese poets say the same thing, except that they make no moral judgment of the universe. They have no gods to fight against. Man and his virtues are a part of the universe, like falling water and standing stone and drifting mist.