Genesis and Praxis
Sacrifice of Isaac, Caravaggio, c. 1603
by Clayton Eshleman
When I lived in Kyoto, I would ride my motorcycle downtown in the afternoon and work on my translations of César Vallejo’s Poemas humanos in the Yorunomado (“Night Window”) coffee shop. I had determined that a publishable version of this 1989 poem collection would constitute my apprenticeship to poetry. As I struggled to get Vallejo’s complicated Spanish into English, I increasingly had the feeling that I was struggling with a man more than with a text and that the struggle was a matter of my becoming or failing to become a poet. It was as if through Vallejo that I had made contact with a negative impaction in my being, a nebulous unreleased depth charge I had been carrying around with me for many years.
In the last half of “The Book of Yorunomado,” the only poem I completed to any satisfaction while living in Japan, I envisioned myself as a kind of angel-less Jacob wrestling with a figure who possessed a language the meaning of which I was attempting to wrest away. I lose the struggle and find myself on a seppuku platform in medieval Japan, being commanded by Vallejo (now playing the role of an overlord) to disembowel myself. I do so, cutting my ties to the “given life” and releasing a daemon named Yorunomado (in honor of my working place) who, until that point, had been chained to an altar in my solar plexus. Thus in early 1964, the fruits of my struggle with Vallejo were not a successful linguistic translation but an imaginative advance in which a third figure emerged from my intercourse with the text. Yorunomado became an imaginal companion in the ten-year process of developing a “creative life,” recorded in my book-length poem, Coils (1973).
I have thought more about poetry while translating Vallejo than whilst reading anyone else. Influence through translation is different than influence from reading masters in one’s own tongue. If I am being influenced by Wallace Stevens, say, his voice is coming directly into my own. You read my poem and think of Stevens. In the case of translation, I am creating an American version out of — in the case of Vallejo — a Spanish text, and if Vallejo is to enter my own poetry he must do so via what I have already as a translator turned him into. This is, in the long run, very close to being influenced by myself, or by a self I have created to mine. Vallejo taught me that ambivalence and contradiction are facets of metaphoric probing. He gave me permission to try anything in my quest for an authentic alternative world in poetry.
A couple of decades later, in Donald Kuspit’s Introduction to his book on the painter Leon Golub, I came across the words of Gabriel-Désire Laverdant (written three years before the revolutions of 1848), who appears to be the first person to speak of radical art as “avant-garde.” Kuspit writes:
For Laverdant, avant-garde art “worthily fulfills its proper mission as initiator,”
making it “the forerunner and the revealer” of “the most advanced social
tendencies.” It “must lay bare with a brutal brush all the brutalities, all the filth,
which are at the base of our society.’ It has been forgotten that the brutal revelation
of brutal reality—a mimesis that necessarily employs brutal techniques—is the
central idea of the avant-garde, which has degenerated into a notion of esthetic
My primary belief concerning poetry is that it is about the extending of human consciousness, creating a symbolic consciousness that in its finest moments overcomes the dualities in which the human world is cruelly and eternally, it seems, enmeshed. In this symbolic or imaginal consciousness, I believe that the realities of the spirit are to be tested by critical intelligence. Here I think of a statement by Paul Tillich: “A life process is the more powerful, the more non-being it can include in its self-affirmation, without being destroyed by it.” Affirmation is only viable when it survives repeated immersions in negation. The problem of focusing at large on brutality and filth is that in doing so symbolic consciousness is flattened out by agit-prop and poetically-rendered journalism. There are many lies in poetry. Pretending that violence and horror do not exist is only one of them.
I have written some very ugly poems over the last forty years (“The Bridge at the Mayan Pass” and “The Tomb of Donald Duck” come to mind) and I want the blackness in the heart of mankind to be engaged as part of my primary stabilizations and concentrations. But I do not want it to rule. I see it as an important aspect, no more, of the imaginative world I am attempting to create, which includes my twenty-five year research project via the Ice Age painted caves of southwestern France on the origin of image-making, many poems on paintings by such artists as Caravaggio, Chaim Soutine and Leon Golub, and other major translation projects on Aimé Césaire, Antonin Artaud, Michel Deguy and Vladimir Holan. Since the early 1970s, Caryl Eshleman has been my closest reader and editor. Her responses, mingling confirmation and resistance, have helped me see through superficial clarities as well as groundless obscurities.
Because of Caryl, I have come to believe that the “I,” that selva of the self, is one of the most rhizomic words in the language, that poetry is still in its archetypal infancy, and that rather than repressing such vexing and unstable forces as the self or its chauffeur the ego, they should be opened up and explored. Because our national self has become monstrous, there is a lot of subconscious obstruction in doing this, and the tendency of too much American poetry has been to either take the “I” for granted (as do most of the contemporary poets in The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry who practice creative writing rather than poetry), or to abandon it entirely (rearranging the words of others as one’s own).
Several years ago in an issue of The New York Review of Books, the poet/reviewer Charles Simic praised as a major achievement a poem by the then Poet Laureate, Billy Collins which basically expressed Collins’s “sensitive” surprise that cows actually moo. In a separate article, Simic dismissed Robert Duncan’s inspired confrontation of the American destruction of Vietnam in 1967 in his poem “Uprising” as “worthless.” This downgrading of Duncan’s imaginative engagement with power, and the extolling of Collin’s work, which is not even sophisticated entertainment, sadly exemplifies much of what is supported these days by editors, reviewers, and judges as endorsable American poetry.
Rather than the Freudian totem pole of super-ego, ego and unconscious, I propose an antiphonal swing of the bicameral mind, which in a contemporary way relates to shamanism, the most archaic mental travel. Here one must keep in mind that shamanic trance does not reflect on the message it is beholding or hearing. Thus, if in trance, the poet has to keep a shit-detector active, a bird’s-eye critical view, that injects invention with revision. Practicing poetry as a spiral flow, with simultaneous penetrations of perception, intuition, feeling, and imagination is one way to write a poetry that is responsible for all the poet knows about himself and his world.
As always, learning to milk oneself is the next-to-impossible mining.
Earlier I mentioned that our national self has become monstrous. I feel obligated here to bring up the failure of the American government to thoroughly and honestly investigate the events of 9/11. I am now absolutely sure that Building 7, which was not struck by anything more than debris and which had minor fires on only a few floors, was brought down by a controlled demolition. If this is true, then I have serious doubts about the official narrative concerning the Twin Towers. The suppression of the brutal truth of this assault infests the American soul with a stifling sense of unreality, which is to say nothing about the river of blood that runs alongside the Euphrates and Tigris through a destroyed, ruined, and failed state that may never be put back together again.
Where is poetry (in contrast to creative writing) going today? To hell, as usual. Not to Christian hell, but to the underworld, to our pre-Christian subconscious. Poetry’s perpetual direction is its way of ensouling events, of seeking out the multiformity of events, their hidden or contradictory meanings. The first poets, facing the incomprehensible division between what would become culture and wilderness, taught themselves how to span it and thus, momentarily, in such caves as Chauvet and Lascaux, to be whole in a way that humankind could not be whole before it became aware of its differences from animals. North American poets today, facing virtual humankind’s cybernetic swarming and the ersatz immortalities plucked from the cut-loose shadow of the self, must assimilate such vectors and figure out ways to see through them. If we cannot accomplish this, our distinction may become that of being the first generation to have lived at a time in which the origins and the end of poetry became discernable.
Cover image by Tinou Bao
Donald Kuspit, Leon Golub Existential /Activist Painter, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1985.
About the Author:
Clayton Eshleman is an American poet, translator and editor. He is presently Professor Emeritus in the English Department at Eastern Michigan University. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the National Book Award for his translation, with José Rubia Barcia, of The Complete Posthumous Poetry (1978) of César Vallejo.