Tradition and Decreation


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by Daniel Tobin

Around the throne of God, where all the angels read perfectly, there are no critics—there is no need for them.

—Randall Jarrell

1. The Hall

In one of my albums of old family photographs there is a picture of my brother and I standing on either side of Babe Ruth’s locker in the Baseball Hall of Fame. I am eleven, my brother two years older, and we look the part for the time: 1969, the sons of stolid Irish Catholic parents who had us in the late 1950s, still button-down and Bryl-creamed that summer of Civil Rights and Woodstock and kill counts from Vietnam before our tepid teenage rebelliousness kicked in, incongruously, in the era of the Hustle and the platform shoe. In another photograph we are joined by our mother’s childhood friend, Connie, a nun in full regalia, her rosary a beaded lasso looped at her side, her face crimped but smiling broadly under her snood’s high white façade—her habit’s equally constricted and flowing architecture preserved now in the photograph beside the uniforms of some of the game’s greats. By then I had memorized the batting averages, home runs, and other salient statistics of the all-time leaders as well as the dimensions of every major league ballpark, past and present. I kept my current baseball cards in a special plastic case designed to look like a miniature locker complete with swinging doors. Now I was roaming exaltedly in the Museum’s sacred space among the holy relics of the greatest of the game’s greats. Even Connie with her strange uniform familiar to me after six years at St. Anselm’s offered a surprising vantage—an encounter with the ordinary human, unimposing, behind the remoter, sterner visages I knew daily during my formative years at school. For me, it was the best vacation ever; now, in the widened context of forty odd years, it is a moment of unapologetic innocence unrecoverable except by a kind of artful conjuring that is itself furthered as much by the inevitability of distance as by the approximations of memory.

Though my early-life fascination with baseball’s numbers compulsion as an almost mythological measure of achievement has waned considerably with age, I found myself taken up by the current contentious deliberations over who belongs in the Hall of Fame from among recent players—who, in a phrase, measures up in their own time and state of the game to the legendary greats—and do so without performance enhancing drugs, or in spite of an array of issues from equipment to rules to institutionalized racism that make it less than optimal to discern real greatness across the game’s eras. It is fortunate, nonetheless, despite the occasional disagreement, that by and large the Baseball Hall of Fame has a firm intuition of exemplary performance and inducts new generations of “the great” onto its plaques in those vaguely Parnassian halls on the shores of Lake Otsego in upstate New York. Likewise, it maintains a firm grasp of tradition, the history of the game with its all of its changes, idiosyncratic characters great and otherwise, and exceptional moments; which makes individual greatness only one aspect, albeit a crucial aspect of the idea of tradition. Still, if one browses the internet one can find a by now famous photograph of the first inductees—Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Babe Ruth—the standard of greatness against which all future players would be measured.

Seeing the photograph of the first inductees reminded me of my long-ago visit to the Hall that summer. The image came to mind again when I viewed another photograph from a decade or so later of poets at a reception in the Gotham Book Mart: W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, Stephen Spender, all framed by tall, crowded stacks of books. Auden, his face still smooth and youthful, not the craggy, melting Rushmore it would become over the next thirty years, perches precariously on a ladder hovering above in a kind of private Olympus. Elizabeth Bishop stands demurely below, tight-lipped, one white glove, and looks as if she’s waiting in trepidation for the immigrant bard to tumble her way from his high empyrean. In front of Bishop sits Marianne Moore, warm and prim and satisfied, looking straight into the camera, unlike Randall Jarrell to her left (incorrectly captioned with Delmore Schwartz) who appears to have spotted a small rodent just outside the frame, or is thinking of World War II, or has an idea for a poem about a woman in a grocery store who regrets her life, which is really his life. Delmore Schwartz sits beside him, leaning forward, and seems to be telling the photographer to please take the shot now so he can have another drink. A young phenomenon, in eighteen years he’ll die alone in a flea bag hotel in New York. It will take the morgue two days to identify the body. Across the room Stephen Spender, seated on a chair back, ever aquiline, looks with what appears equanimity at some distant point in the receding universe somewhere in the stacks between Jarrell and Moore. Here are many of the poetry games near greats or great. Others are in the frame, noteworthy in their day but less regarded now if not nearly forgotten—the Sitwells, Edith and Osbert, sitting together close to the center of the room, as though they were the focus of the shot; Horace Gregory, Richard Eberhart, Marya Zaturenska, Jose Garcia Villa, Charles Henri Ford, William Rose Benet—looking already like a sad neglected uncle despite having won the Pulitzer Prize. Not all writers here are poets: Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal stand in back looking vaguely bemused. Who should be sitting up front in the one empty chair? Robert Frost—snowbound in Vermont? Wallace Stevens, dreaming of Key West? Ezra Pound, but he’s been taken from his Italian cage to a room in the “bedlam” of St. Elizabeth’s? Robert Lowell? John Berryman? Langston Hughes? Louise Bogan? Theodore Roetheke? Stanley Kunitz? Robert Hayden? Gwendolyn Brooks? Against the back wall on the shelf’s reflective glass the camera flash explodes in silent reverb like a sudden glimpse of quantum expansion.

Another explosion, one destined to be passing but for now memorable, occurred some sixty-three years later when Helen Vendler reviewed The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry, edited by Rita Dove. The photograph described above served as a kind of frame for the article and for Vendler’s vigorous and, as it turns out, incendiary repudiation of Dove’s editorial selections, and her excoriation of Dove’s introductory essay both for its prose and for its rationale. Dove, as is now well-known at least in the relatively self-enwoven universe of poetry, responded in kind, not so much defensively as offensively, calling into question not only the grand dame of American poetry criticism’s vaunted literary acumen but also her integrity and her motives. Anthologies are akin to snapshots. They give an image of the art at a particular moment in time, though unlike snapshots they carry presumptions of artistic timelessness. The essence of Vendler’s objections to Dove’s portrait of twentieth century American poetry can be distilled into a few ideas. Vendler’s first objection involves the sheer number of poets included. It is impossible for Vendler that there can be one hundred and seventy-five great poets in one century. Great poets, simply by being great, are few in number. Hers is a vision of the anthology as a genuine Hall of Fame—there may be very good poets in any given century but they should not be “inducted” among the truly great. Of course, there are the “bad” poets, and Vendler identifies a few among Dove’s many, most notably and notoriously Amiri Baraka. Second, Vendler objects to Dove’s tendency to advance “representative themes rather than style.” In other words, Dove has committed a well-nigh unthinkable sin: she advances content over aesthetic quality. Third, in her most volatile accusation, Vendler claims Dove succumbs to a “myth of progress” that privileges multiculturalism over real excellence. For Vendler, great poems involve “complexity” and are the product of considerable learning and thought by poets from all backgrounds. By contrast, Dove favors the “assessable” over the complex. In sum, in an anthology that should have clarified and advanced the greatest poets and poems of the last century for Vendler “no principle of selection emerges.”[1]

Dove’s response to Vendler’s assessment was swift and equally volatile. She regards Vendler’s fixation on the number of poets included as at best arbitrary, at worst the bias of a premier critic’s place within the “poetry establishment.” Vendler is narrowly elitist in her taste, whereas against the charge of including poets of lesser (or little) achievement Dove affirms she has included many poets who have won major awards. Dove, in turn, prides her selection as a way “to offer many of the best poems written between” the years 1900-2000. Her emphasis on “many” as opposed to few underscores a very different, and more egalitarian, understanding of which poets and which poems should be deemed worthy of “induction.” Contrary to Vendler she shifts the issue of privileging content over aesthetics, the assessable over the complex, to expanding the aesthetic palette of the art—an inclusion of other voices she regards as worthy beyond Vendler’s more limited taste. At the same time, Dove chides Vendler for seizing on the inclusion of Baraka’s “Black Art” as an easy target. She regards Baraka’s excoriating rhetorical tirade in free verse after 9/11 as “a historically seminal poem.”[2] Dove’s strongest retort to Vendler, in turn, follows upon Vendler’s qualification of Dove’s claim that Gwendolyn Brooks’ achievement measures up to that of “any white man,” to which Vendler incredulously reflects: “even Shakespeare?” This qualification and Vendler’s complaint that many of the short poems Dove favors for inclusion exhibit “a restricted vocabulary” prompts Dove to levy a charge of “barely veiled racism” against Vendler, as well as the further condemnation that the great critic’s review “betrays an agenda beyond aesthetics.” In sum, beyond strongly insinuating Vendler is a racist, Dove expresses the view relative to her own principles of choice that she is in fact glad “no principle of selection emerges” except for her desire to include “significant poems of literary merit… that illuminate the times in which they were crafted.”[3]

To browse the web and blog commentaries on the exchange between Vendler and Dove over The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry is to encounter an enormous variety of reflections and responses, some cogent, others vitriolic in the way solely permissible within a medium that thrives by leveling hierarchies. The most intelligent of these discussions raise the undeniable issue of “dissensus” in contemporary American poetry, as well as “the problem of multitude.” There is just so much poetry being written that it is impossible to keep up much less determine “the best” poems and poets of our time. More than confusion, the sheer multitude of poetry produced implies a flattening of standards. How does one judge what is good much less what might eventually be recognized as “Hall-worthy?” As one commentator observed: “the kind of writing you like is just one kind of potentially valuable writing.” Though perhaps reflective of our period’s lack of consensus, the ugly conflict between Vendler and Dove over The Penguin Book of Twentieth Century American Poetry betrays a much more deeply seated problem, since it demonstrates how the current historical and cultural moment shapes our views of the past, and thus shapes the future of the art—at least the immediate future. Reading Vendler’s review and Dove’s response, one has the distinct experience of encountering two thoughtful people talking past each other, a noted critic and a noted poet who for all the attention to the details of what the other is saying remain each in their own univocal surround, each in their own air tight bubble of impervious assumptions.

Both Vendler and Dove indeed assume principles of selection. For Vendler it is the established standards of greatness, the best of the best, an elite to be inducted, selected to the “poetry Hall” based on the complexity of their stylistic achievement—nothing more nothing less. For Dove, conversely, literary merit plays second to the capacity for poems to “illuminate the times in which they were crafted.” By contrast, for Vendler, style evinces a kind of timelessness across history and cultures. Greatness, if not self-evident, is discernable by those who have the capacity to discern greatness. Anthologies as definers of taste, as ventures for identifying enduring worth, must take style and complexity principally if not exclusively into account. Vendler’s is a gatekeeper model of editorship. For Dove, history inevitably shapes literary merit, style, and may be said to infuse a meritorious poem with the required complexity that warrants its importance—hence the inclusion of Baraka’s “Black Art.” Baraka’s poem finds a place in Dove’s anthology largely if not exclusively because it is “seminal” for its time. Aesthetic value as a category of judgment has been relegated to a subspecies of historical value. Worthiness, if not greatness, is as much a production of the historical moment and the culture of the time as it is of the poet who made the poem. Any anthology must take account, therefore, of “evolving” practices and influences. Dove leaves the door open for historically representative poems, especially if they track cultural and sociological trends. If Dove does not elide the ideal of aesthetic greatness, she surely hedges, assuming a poem’s historical significance somehow will encode the desired aesthetic gravitas. Beyond the wide public airing of their serious editorial and aesthetic disagreement, Vendler’s and Dove’s clash exemplifies a stark divergence between defining conceptions of tradition and canon-making. It is a clash that raises further questions about the cultural and historical conditions of taste, and the continued relevance of tradition and canon-making for the future of the art.

2. Handing Over and Measuring Up

For all of the ephemeral critical heat generated by Vendler’s and Dove’s exchange over an edited but inevitably amendable anthology, the concerns raised by their conflict about critical judgment and the cultivation of tradition are not new. On what does one base one’s principle of selection? The admittedly tongue-in-cheek analogy between induction into the Hall of Fame and selection to what aims to be the definitive anthology of twentieth century American Poetry intends to press the point that judgment indeed depends on principles, presumably determined from standards, and principles and standards depend on one’s idea of tradition. If the kind of writing one likes is just one kind of potentially valuable writing, how does one begin to determine the parameters of value, not to mention the potency realized out of any “potential” that might emerge as something that should be indelible? For poetry to assume the status of the indelible means behind it there is a conception of preeminent value and not only for one historical moment. It must be translatable from the present relative to the past and into the future. In short, one must have some standard of artistic greatness beyond what is “seminal” for the time, but potentially elusive at least at first to the critical reception of the time as well.

In the mid-nineteenth century pre-dawn of modernism Matthew Arnold offered a classic vision of tradition—the best that has been said and thought in the world. Though Arnold’s own weltanschauung was surely rather narrower than what the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have pressed upon us, his pithy summation offers an ideal that implies the most acute kind of judgment, both for selection and for exclusion. A century later, after two world wars and the radical redefinitions of modernist practice, Arnold’s conception of tradition was questioned by W.H. Auden who declared, simply: “Arnold’s notion of Touchstones by which to measure all poems always struck me as a doubtful one, like to turn readers into snobs and ruin talented poets by tempting them to imitate what is beyond their powers.”[4] By contrast, Auden summarily shifts the emphasis away from any talk of Touchstones. Tradition, he counters, is “no longer a means of working handed down from generation to generation to the next; a sense of tradition now means the whole of the past as present, yet at the same time as a structured whole the parts of which are related to the terms of before and after.”[5] Originality no longer means working to develop “a slight modification of style,” but rather to discover “one’s authentic voice.” Nonetheless, for Auden, good taste meant one was “compelled to exclude;”[6] which implies that authenticity and originality can often fail to produce work of lasting value. Writing about the same time as Auden, Randall Jarrell rhapsodized “there is surely some order of the world, some level of being… in which the lost plays of Aeschylus are no different from those that have been preserved, and order in which the past, the present, and the future have in some sense the same reality.”[7] Here we find, though he does not state it overtly, a version of tradition as a kind of secular City of God, which allows Jarrell to affirm a vast continuity from the labor of making to the order of being through which, with which and in which, such labors find their purpose and meaning: “The poet, writes his poem for his own sake, for the sake of that order of things in which the poem takes the place that has awaited it.”[8] Jarrell’s vision of tradition as composing “the order of things” in which the poem takes its appropriate place is astonishingly inclusive, containing works lost to time, or at least lost works by already recognized writers rather than works by the unknown great, if such can be conceived of as a category. Selection and exclusion at this “level of being” become irrelevant—even the lost of this world gain entry, preservation, at least if your work is as good as Aeschylus—though the net appears wider than that, including “the poet” in some representative sense. Or was Jarrell’s effusion just an ecstatic moment of unbridled faith, if not in God than in some order of the world above the world? Jarrell only a few pages earlier affirms: “People realize that almost all fiction or poetry is bad or mediocre—it is the nature of things.”[9] He believes the same is true of criticism.

Jarrell’s double vision with respect to tradition starkly juxtaposes the utmost idealism with an unwavering reality principle. If the ideal were true, “tradition” at Jarrell’s most encompassing level of being would imply something like universal salvation on the order of Origen or Gregory of Nyssa. If such were assumed, one would have to add the incalculable loss of Sappho’s poetry to the lost plays of Aeschylus, all preserved in a kind of trans-Platonic state of ever-accruing literary bliss. Conversely, for all of his conservatism, T.S. Eliot’s ideas about tradition strike a balance between extremes and reveal themselves to be somewhat suppler than many writers and critics are willing to recognize. For Eliot, tradition should not involve a “blind or timid adherence” to the work of previous generations.[10] Rather, a poet’s active engagement with tradition requires “great labour,” and involves among other commitments the poet’s pursuit of “the historical sense… a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.” The historical sense, in turn, requires the poet to “write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.”[11] In short, Eliot’s version of tradition holds “the timeless and the temporal together.” Belatedly, Michael Ryan in his essay “The Literary Dictator” declares Eliot’s views on the subject of tradition “absurdly idealized,” to which one might add Eliot’s Eurocentrism, not to mention his rather unsavory views about race and ethnicity. Auden, much earlier than Ryan, takes issue with Eliot’s claim that tradition must be acquired “at great labor.” It is this claim, Auden believes, that betrays Eliot as something other than a European critic—only an American could claim such a thing, and indeed Eliot labored to be European as much as he labored to be traditional.

For all of its idealization, however, its attempted interfusion of pseudo-Platonic, timeless “existing monuments” with an Aristotlean ever-evolving temporal reality of poets aspiring to make great poems, Eliot’s view of tradition is anything but static. “What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art that preceded it,” he observes, such that “while the existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves,” the ideal order of tradition “is modified by the new (the really new) work of art among them.”[12] As such, Eliot’s notion of tradition requires both integral completion from the standpoint of it having an undeniable past and inherent alteration, for without novelty tradition atrophies. A genuinely new work alters the past by re-ordering our consciousness of the past and thereby repositioning both the present order and the potential order of the future. While it might well be impossible for a poet laboring to make ambitious work retain consciously everything ever written within the limited scope of Europe, or merely within the English language—Ryan is right in this—to hold up the ideal that requires a poet to pursue “the historical sense” should strikes one as a necessity for seriousness in the art. If nothing else the historical sense is a necessary means for the poet to enlarge her or his capacities of mind and feeling and to develop and enlarge the poet’s practice of the art. Moreover, if we expand Eliot’s cultural and historical frame of reference beyond the compelling but comfortable niche of Europe to allow for other altering influences, other novel admixtures, translations, underrepresented voices, then the idea of tradition that he struggled to articulate nearly one hundred years ago begins to approach a concept capacious enough for our own historical moment. The dynamic order that is tradition widens scope. It reconfigures from a local history to a global one. Such a view places Eliot’s belief that “no poet, no artist, has his [or her] complete meaning alone” in an entirely more inclusive context.

This expanded relevance of tradition, should one seek to negotiate the fraught continuum between extremes—what and who belongs in “the Hall” and who and what falls away—requires a further consideration of terms. Tradition, from the Latin tradere, “to hand over,” and canon, from the Greek kanon, kana, or “cane” are not entirely the same thing and emphasize somewhat different processes, or perhaps different aspects of one process. One can “hand over” anything one deems valuable for any variety of reasons, sentimental or otherwise. Canon, however, declares that what is handed over must ultimately “measure up” to the mark already established. The establishment of religious canons through deliberations over sacred texts that have taken hundreds of years trace a process of selection often far more contentious than deliberative. Eliot tends to conflate tradition and canon, the dynamics of “handing over” and the dynamics of “measuring up.” While the poet’s mind must take account of existing monuments to attain a place in his ideal order, that same mind, infused with the historical sense, must likewise “abandon nothing en route.”[13] From the anthologist’s standpoint, then, one might choose a poem for inclusion that indeed has significant value from a strictly historical vantage, though it may not “measure up” aesthetically. Consider again the photograph in the Gotham Book Mart with its notables and truly greats seated together. From Vendler’s perspective we should not confuse even the notable with the truly great. Dove surely inclines toward a broader inclusion in her editorial principles. Overall, given what she says in her introduction, Dove’s anthology of twentieth century American poetry, though clearly seeking to make a case for excellent choices, inflects toward the imperative to “hand over” in the larger sense thereby allowing space for more poets, other voices. Though she does not explicitly say so, it is Dove’s proclivity to advance an idea of tradition without sufficient account for the measuring function of canon-formation that so roils Vendler.

Navigating these extremes in her prescient essay “Owning the Masters,” Marilyn Nelson in turn at once recognizes that poets like herself, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Robert Hayden, and Gwendolyn Brooks, among many others and many contemporaries including Dove, are all “heirs of an alternative tradition, heirs of slave narratives, spirituals, great orators, jazz and blues.”[14] Still, she vigorously asserts, “the once enslaved are the heirs of the masters, too.” In what is nothing if not an unlikely coincidence of minds, Nelson invokes T.S. Eliot and affirms the rightness of his view of tradition as something at be obtained by great labor as well as something that evolves over time. “Too often,” Nelson muses, “we ignore the fact that tradition is process” and is “formed as we go forward.”[15] In short, Nelson endorses Eliot’s idea of tradition as dynamic rather than merely retrospective. Where she expressly advances Eliot’s view is the demand she places on overcoming “time-bound limitations” such as the legacy of oppression through the very same labors by which one seeks to obtain tradition. Nelson, in fact, goes further. “I’m convinced,” she affirms, that “our inclination to create race-, gender- and ethnic specific enclaves is dangerous” for that tendency disinvites us “from community.” As such, owning the masters in every sense for Nelson ultimately “gives us a way to escape the merely personal, puts us in dialogue with the great thoughts of the past, and teaches us transparency.”[16] In Marilyn Nelson’s enlarged understanding of Eliot’s concept of tradition poets are called at once to become heirs of a wider set of historical and cultural inheritances and to measure up to what is unabashedly great.

To a significant extent, Robert Pinsky’s observation from some twenty-five years ago in his essay “American Poetry and American Life” is apposite to the conflict between Dove and Vendler as well as to Nelson’s wise negotiation of the conflict’s basic terms: “If the truest political component of poetry is the sense of whom the poem belongs to—the sense of what social manners, assumptions and tastes the poem imagines—modern America poetry has been uniquely situated, between the old, aristocratic authority of the form and against that authority a powerful, shifting social reality”[17] What lies beneath both the aristocracy of tradition’s reliably adaptive integrity of form and order and a shifting social reality that prizes the relative over the ideal with the consequent demurral over questions of hierarchy, is the radical skeptic’s creed that attempts at such valuation are at best arbitrary, and at worst an exercise in the multifarious productions of power—that and only that, nothing more. In the face of that negation, Marilyn Nelson asks simply but powerfully “How can a poet survive without tradition?” To measure one’s work only against one’s contemporaries “in the pages of the latest issues of one or two literary journals, instead of against the old masters of our tradition” is to indulge in a profound impoverishment of the more encompassing community to use Nelson’s word that we have been, are, and would become. At the same time, one can see how poets like Audre Lorde would prefer to “disown” the masters,” given the trauma of slavery, and would solely affirm Nelson’s alternative tradition of slave narratives and spirituals, orators, jazz and blues. Like Nelson, however, one could see appositely how such a disowning would narrow artistic expression and limit an ideally more inclusive order of community. Surely it would be an impoverishment for the masterful tradition of the west not to embrace those heirs of any tradition who measure up artistically and thereby extend and transform what we carry and ought t carry forward culturally and historically.

3. The Loss of Eternity

In “The Poet and the City” W.H. Auden enumerates several conditions that define the prevailing worldview of the mid-twentieth century. The first of these is the loss of belief in the eternity of the physical universe. Nature, he reflects, constantly changes, and consequently the modern artist has lost any model of endurance upon which to base the durability of his or her own work. The second is the loss of belief in the reality of sensory phenomena—“modern science,” he observes, “has destroyed our faith in the naïve observations of our senses.”[18] Third is the loss of belief in a norm of human nature which will always require “some man-fabricated world to be at home in.” As such, the artist cannot believe that even the next generation will be able to understand the work of the previous. Consciousness of the past as present, as Eliot acknowledged, no longer stands. At best, the “handing down” that is tradition becomes merely an effort of anxiously grasping at the past by the individual artist: it is a species of cupidity, if such access is desired at all. Nonetheless, some thirty years later, in his vision of tradition as “a network of reference and reliance in relation to the past,” Pinsky would affirm tradition as visible and discussable though its presence “as a part of the poem’s technique.”[19] He assumes that considerable effort has been made by the poet to obtain the kind of knowledge that enables artistic maturation, but what he cannot assume is that the nexus of conditions identified by Auden allow for any security in the reception of the poem. This loss of security entails more than the poet’s doubt about individual efforts. Nor do I mean to suggest merely concerns over whether the poet will have an audience now or in some future. What I want to underscore is the more pervasive loss of faith in any overarching or subtending vision of reality, some “level of being” as Jarrell would ideally have it that provides a foundation for valuing anything beyond the terms of free floating plurality; that is, for measuring aesthetic value with an eye willing to range beyond the cultural preferences of the moment.

The aesthetic insecurity underlining Auden’s state of the intellectual culture at the middle of the twentieth century has its origins in the rise of modernism over several centuries, the gist of which may be understood as a myth of progress, a “meta-narrative” that subsumes all stories into itself—the story of human reason concomitant, paradoxically, with the supervening of a purely materialist cosmos over the belief in a cosmos given amplitude by some spiritual dimension. One sees the vestige of this older vision, again, in Jarrell’s plea for another level of being. It is relatively easy to see the discord in modern thought between reason tied to no higher, sustaining dimension of reality and the positivist conclusion that the prima materia of existence is nothing more than the bedrock of all that is. The step into postmodernism is a step into the rupture opened by the modern, self-negating meta-narrative where “truth” is merely the product of the rhetoric of power, “the story” as theologian David Bentley Hart describes it, of “no more stories.”[20] In this univocal story subtending all stories, all stories are read through the monocular, “totalizing” lens of their own self-contradiction—the meta-narrative of how narrative as anything but a redundant parody of itself is impossible. Tradition, however construed, is a variety of meta-narrative about what a culture values, which of course reflects what a culture values still more broadly over the course of its history. There is novelty in the formation of tradition but there is also continuity, and it is this combination of novelty and continuity in tradition, and to a more emphatic extent canon formation, that would seem to have become unsustainable in view of the meta-narrative of radical discontinuity undergirding all we say and are and do.

In keeping with this discomfiting vision of things, Czeslaw Milosz saw the defining rupture in the western tradition impacting poetry like everything else as the gradual replacement of “the vertical orientation “when human being turned its “eyes toward Heaven” by “a horizontal longing.” This horizontal longing as Milosz calls it manifests itself, again, as a myth of progress that runs hand in hand with an all-consuming nihilism.[21] As a poet living in the merciless crosshairs of twentieth century history, Milosz was witness to some of the most brutal and extreme manifestations of unrelenting violence, power, and destruction. “To define in a word what had happened,” he writes, “one can say: disintegration.” And he further reflects: “People always live within a certain order and are unable to visualize when that order might cease to exist.”[22] While it would be the height of culpable hyperbole to place the relatively incidental “disintegrations” of tradition in twentieth century poetry on par with Milosz’s scale of historical and cultural trauma, it would be delusional to assume that poetry has become immune to the loss of Milosz’s vertical orientation. It is precisely the loss of the vertical orientation as a sustainable support structure (not to mention as supplier of form, content and the fundamental terms of our self-understanding) that in a way undermines Vendler’s implicit reliance on the measuring up of canon-making as the guiding principle of tradition as well as Dove’s implicit acceptance of a purely historical principle as contrary litmus: where one harkens to an aesthetic elite unsupportable except by an assertion of cultural power the other inclines to re-calibrating the distribution of what ought to be handed over on a principle distinguishable from aesthetic achievement.

Pluralism is one thing; relativism another, and the responses to the conflict between Vendler and Dove have opened a window to just how pervasively relativism rules determinations of value in American poetry. “There is no disputing taste,” Horace famously wrote, but in a world in which the vertical orientation has been so devalued there is also no establishing taste on any firm foundation. What you like has value for you, which has always been a self-evident assertion. Reified across culture, it has the effect of rendering aesthetic value meaningless. By contrast, when a critical effort to establish some basis for the idea of tradition around legitimate questions of value, practice, and inheritance modulates into a social agenda, as it does in T.S. Eliot’s more extreme reflections on culture, the necessary plurality of voices and visions required for any tradition to thrive into the future risks almost inevitable curtailment. Both relativism and nihilism have their philosophical source in nominalism, which according to David Bentley Hart has the effect of severing “the perceptible world from the analogical index of divine transcendence.”[23] By cutting the cord of meaning across the line of Milosz’s vertical orientation we not only lose the hope of transcendence but the hope of a coherent and meaningful world, and the hope as Marilyn Nelson reminds us, of real community and inclusivity. The root of Auden’s lament, that we have lost any sense of the eternity of the physical world, likewise finds its central source in this same nominalist rupture. Some thirty years after Auden, Robert Pinsky again sheds light on the heart of the matter when he defines nominalism loosely as “the doctrine that words and concepts are mere names, convenient counters of no inherent reality, though they may be useful means for dealing with the atomistic flux of reality.”[24] Conversely, realism is “the doctrine of universals” that declares “words and concepts embody reality.” For Pinsky, the poet must be a realist however unacknowledged otherwise the very act of writing would be pointless.

Milosz, Auden, and Pinsky each in their way affix on the idea of poetry as an embodiment of the real without denying the world’s actuality in difference. The world is not composed of one thing, but many. It exists as relation and not merely chaos. So the world as a composition of differences finds its meaningful orientation only in analogy, for analogy itself is the principle of relation that allows one thing to be “handed over” to another. Analogy, in short, is metaphor understood at the level of the macrocosm—the difference between things that nonetheless establishes the connection by which anything comes to be and continues in existence. Milosz’s definition of poetry as “a passionate pursuit of the real”[25] assumes this analogical perspective which is the foundation of philosophical and theological realism. Like Milosz, though he writes long after the vertical orientation has been cut, Wallace Stevens affirms essentially the same sense of value when he says poets make “a world that transcends the world and a life livable in that transcendence” because at poetry’s root is “a transcendent analogue composed of the particulars of reality, created by the poet’s sense of the world.”[26] Stevens’ secular version of “the analogical index” is none other than a belated version of the medieval realist’s divinely established analogy of being. Where Stevens situates the Archimedean lever at the point of “the poet’s sense of the world,” theology traditionally places the lever (that allows the world to move as a world rather than a compendium of chaotic disintegrations) in God through and whose infinitely dynamic being the being of the world obtains and sustains form.
If one envisions tradition as a concept situated at the midpoint between the microcosm of language and metaphor and the macrocosm of the analogy of being, then tradition’s self-defining action of “handing over” operates within the cultural and historical nexus between the individual poet’s efforts at embodiment and the world’s embodiment in what necessarily transcends its powers of representation. When tradition itself devolves into a nominalist Hall of Mirrors rather than a Hall of Exemplars it loses its capacity to mediate between the particular imaginative propensities of individual poets and some “supreme fiction” that orients the poet’s work—some vision or version of transcendence whether orthodox, heterodox or merely the post-Romantic doctrine of imagination itself as necessary angel. This loss of some “true north” is debilitating to poetry. “What artist would not establish himself there where the organized center of all movement in time and space—which he calls the mind or heart of creation—determines every function?” so Stevens believed with Paul Klee.[27] Still more emphatically, Stevens invokes the philosopher, social advocate and mystic Simone Weil to give final credence to his judgment that “modern reality is a reality of decreation, in which our revelations are not the revelations of belief, but the precious portents of our own powers.”[28] Coincidentally, Milosz also invokes Simone Weil as the principal exemplar for poets who, failing to sense “the vital center,” have become so “enmeshed in professional rituals” that they become “ashamed” of “discriminating between values.”[29]

The tendency to become involved in “professional rituals” was never a challenge for Simone Weil. From very early in her life she exemplified a passionate commitment to the poor and the working classes, despite having been born into a well off Jewish family of free thinkers. Her father was a doctor and her brother, Andre, one of the great mathematicians of the twentieth century. Her own intellectual passions turned toward philosophy and literature, and eventually Christian mysticism and the Vedas. She made her living as a schoolteacher, though her work as a labor organizer was just as significant, and her desire to share fully in the life of the working class led her to pursue a year of laboring in various factories under arduous conditions, despite a physical constitution ill-equipped for such labor. Labeled a communist and an anarchist, she argued with party leaders including Trotsky about the fate of Europe, renounced her pacifism with the rise of Hitler, fought with republicans in the Spanish Civil War, and to her own surprise found herself experiencing what can only be called mystical states, the first upon encountering the crucifix at the Basilica of Santa Clara in Assisi. For years refusing to eat beyond the necessities in sympathy with the lowest classes of society, and eventually with those starving under German occupation, she died in England at the age of thirty-four in 1943. Today she would be regarded as an anorectic, though her desire to curtail nourishment had both a foundation in social justice and her deep theological reflections beyond any psychological complications. Her parents and her brother had already immigrated to the United States from occupied France. Weil, in contrast, refused that safe haven and shortly before her death still sought to return to France to join the Resistance, despite suffering from tuberculosis and the frail physical condition that would kill her. It is amazing if not unaccountable that her mostly posthumous writings influenced twentieth century poets as widely unalike politically and aesthetically as T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Czeslaw Milosz.

Simone Weil’s importance as a philosopher and religious, social and literary thinker is as unlikely in many respects as it is incalculable, and it endures into our postmodern world. Anne Carson pays a kind of homage to Weil’s significance (if not her vision of the world) in the poetic opera, “Decreation.” Carson’s work is emphatically postmodernist with “Chocolate Dancers” whirling around the stage among other discontinuities and non sequiturs. The work strains to gain credibility either as opera or as poetry, though the “Decreation Aria” sung by a fictionalized Simone Weil captures something of the extremity of the thinker’s understanding of the relationship between God, creation and decreation:

I am excess.
Creature who
breaks the silence of heaven,
blocks God’s view of his beloved creation
and like an unwelcome third between two lovers
gets in the way. [30]

The extremity of Weil’s apophatic understanding of the relationship between Creator and creation finds stark articulation in these lines—it is a view that led Eliot to see her as a latter day Gnostic, a belated Cathar, as well as a modern day follower of the Gnostic thinker Marcion given her less than sympathetic view of the God of the Hebrew Bible whom she deemed a purely national deity, autocratic, and therefore not quite the radically monotheistic Deity of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which she embraced in her uniquely and radically unorthodox way. Her circumspect attitudes toward the God of Israel constitutes the most controversial aspect of her thought, though it must she said she had strong objections to the Catholic Church as an institution as well, and found in its structure a continuation of the materialist oppression of ancient Rome. It was the social structure of the Church she feared, the allure of a collectivity that made it a terrestrial body, and as such bound it to “the Prince of this World.”[31] Furthermore, as she wrote to Father Perrin, her spiritual confident, her experience of the knowledge of “Greece, Egypt, ancient India and ancient China, the beauty of the world, the pure and authentic reflections of this beauty in art and mathematics, what I have seen of the inner recesses of the human heart where religious belief is unknown, all these things have done as much as the visibly Christine ones to deliver me into Christ’s hands… even more.” It is these things that are “outside visible Christianity,” that kept her outside the Church: “The children of God should not have any other country here below but the universe itself.”[32] She affirmed this, remaining unbaptized to her death, and simultaneously affirming that everything in the universe, not least of which human beings, have been thrown as it were into the fundamental conditions of necessity and chance.

To say Weil was uncompromising would be an understatement; to say that her theological and spiritual reflections were apophatic in their understanding of God’s relation to the world is self-evident—her theology is negative in the extreme. At the same time, Weil’s vision is anything but nihilistic—the extremity of her view of her own life as provisionally given heightens her commitment to the Creator as the source of compassion for others as well as for the world. Despite the all too human tendency to interpose themselves, often brutally, between the uncreated and the created, Weil recognizes that it is only by virtue of the uncreated that the created world has any value whatsoever. It is for this reason that she stood so strongly against the culture of her own modern moment, preferring the worldview of the ancient Greeks, the medieval mystics, the distant Vedas. So where in our time Carson portrays Simone Weil as a simulacrum of self-deconstruction, we find Milosz worrying some twenty years earlier that such views as Weil’s and his own might be labeled as reactionary. Indeed they might, perhaps even more so now than when they were initially articulated, given the current culture’s penchant for the metaphysics of materialist naturalism and for creedal atheism.[33] This, despite the extremity of a life that inspired Carson’s genre-bending text that, it must be said, runs the risk of reducing Weil’s concept of decreation to a psychological disorder rather than a vision of reality resonant with a kind of theological and spiritual urgency that runs through and across multiple traditions, East and West. With the loss of eternity, of Auden’s physical world and of the metaphysical world that guarantees the world’s admission into meaningful language, what does Simone Weil’s concept of decreation have to teach us about how we might regard the art of poetry in relation to its past and to its future?

4. The Closed Door, the Way Through

That poets as widely different in background and temperament as Wallace Stevens and Czeslaw Milosz could both invoke for their art the thought and example of a brilliant young Jewish French political, social, and religious philosopher who embraced Catholic spirituality but who refused baptism and arguably died through complications of self-inflicted starvation at the very nadir of the Second World War is surprising if not remarkable. Anne Carson’s more recent fascination with Weil and her ideas underscores the durability and timeliness Weil’s vision for our own historical and cultural moment. The concept of decreation is central to Weil’s thought, and incongruously enough, central also to Stevens’ and Milosz’s reflections on the art of poetry. Whereas destruction is “to make something created pass into nothingness,” decreation is “to make something created pass into the uncreated.”[34] For Weil, the whole purpose of life is “to undo the creature in us,” to make passage against or, better, through the “deifugal” force of creation moving outward from God into the state of the uncreated, which she affirms is God’s own life. “We participate in the creation of the world by decreating ourselves,” Weil believes, which from her perspective involves the utmost in renunciation: “We must become nothing, we must go down to the vegetative level; it is then that God becomes bread.”[35] The ego is nothing. The true “I” is hidden and lives “on the side of God.” Imagination, far from being Coleridge’s “esemplastic,” shaping power, “a repetition in the finite mind of the Eternal Act of creation in the Infinite I Am,” is precisely the power that prevents humanity from “seeing how much the essence of the necessary differs from that of the good.”[36] For Weil, imagination blinds us to what is really real; it does not constitute a reflection of the image of God’s creative power. Rather it weaves a veil and exemplifies our “degradation.”[37] There is, needless to say, radicalism to this way of thinking, a very near world-denying inclination that verges beyond the nominalistic into the masochistic. How could such a vision provide an affirming flame even for religiously inclined poets, much less poets desiring to enrich the precious portents of their own powers in order to make poems without any appeal to religious ideas of order?

For one thing, creation and decreation are for Weil part and parcel of each other—the created requires decreation, the necessary answering counter movement. “The world is the closed door,” she wrote, “it is the barrier. And at the same time it is the way through”[38] How so? Despite the imagination’s proclivity to blind us, it is so because the created world as world consists of “bridges,” “metaxu”— from the same root as the word “metaphor.” The world exists in its many differences in order to carry us over from created to the uncreated—an answering kenosis or emptying that mirrors God’s self-emptying in the creation which, paradoxically in Weil’s belief, is also the substance of God’s withdrawal from creation. As such, for Weil, “the essence of created things is to be intermediaries,”[39] and the role of the poet is to look beyond the limits of imagination into what Weil regards as the true subject of art, which is “sensible and contingent beauty discerned through the network of chance and evil.”[40] By contrast, Wallace Stevens places the theological force of decreation in brackets. He wholly aestheticizes the idea. For Stevens, the term decreation speaks precisely to modern poetry’s tendency to re-imagine the real, the way Cezanne (to use Stevens’ own example) sees abstract lines and planes and represents them in newly formed configurations lifted out of physical reality. Like Weil, however, Stevens had a strong affinity with Plato, which might well explain the tendency toward abstraction in both of them. In contrast, Milosz sees Weil’s thought as a practical countermeasure against wanton destruction, and as such a counterforce akin to Stevens’ idea of a violence within exerting itself imaginatively against the violence without that sustains the poet’s consciousness confronted by disintegration. That requires for Milosz as for Weil a reverence for the past, a love of the past, since it is through distance, through the distance of time, that we are enabled “to see reality without coloring it with our passions.”[41] In his own way Milosz embraces the theological reach of Weil’s idea. Where Weil’s concept of decreation enables a poet like Stevens to see art as a transcendent analogy such that the created thing, the poem, approximates the uncreated, it empowers a poet like Milosz to value “the passionate pursuit of the real” such that time and the world serve as intermediaries, bridges, metaxu. In just this way, on the larger scale of history and culture, tradition hands itself over to the poet who loves it, for on one hand it binds the poet’s work to the past, while on the other pitches the work forward into the future through the encounter with reality.

From this double perspective Weil’s decreation conjoins the penchant for invention and novelty with reverence and continuity. Or, from Auden’s perspective, if “the poet’s activity in creating a poem is analogous to God’s activity” of creating human being in God’s own image, then every poem in turn “is an attempt to present an analogy to that paradisal state in which Freedom and Law, System and Order are united in harmony.”[42] Great poems decreate the world through its very worldliness as well as the worldliness of the poem into a promise of the uncreated. The great work of art is the created so concentrated in its making it is as if it had entered into the perfected life of the uncreated through the conditions of necessity, chance, and evil. Art is a promise of that perfection, an attempt as she claims “to transport into a limited quantity of matter… an image of the infinite beauty of the entire universe.”[43] In this manner, she further reflects, art is optimally analogous to virtue in that both are the products of extreme attention, attention that is itself analogous to prayer.[44]

I want to look now at a few poems that arguably not only achieve this superlative degree of artistic perfection but do so by dramatizing the decreative experience itself insofar as it is possible to imagine what is, in fact, unimaginable. The speaker in Emily Dickinson’s “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” imagines the unimaginable with vivid and unsparing immediacy. Throughout Dickinson’s poem we are with the speaking consciousness inside the theater of the mind, and the mind watching itself comes to the brink of its own passage beyond existence. First the Mourners appear—are they thoughts treading to and fro, trying to make sense of what lies beyond the senseless? Then the drumbeat of the service begins, at which point the mind itself numbs and the box lifts, and the Soul hears itself creak across itself while all of Space begins to toll. In the poem’s final two stanzas, Dickinson brings the reader to the very limit of knowing—to what Weil would have regarded as the very threshold between the created and the uncreated:

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being but an Ear,
And I and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here—

And then a plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down—
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing—then—[45]

C.K. Williams observed that in Dickinson’s poem the poet “has enacted the terrifying closed system of depression.”[46] The poem certainly can be read that way. Yet, where “I felt a Funeral in my Brain” brings us is somewhere out beyond depression’s admittedly devastating emotional trauma. We are on the final bridge, the ultimate metaxu, the place where being carries itself across and is handed over into un-being, or being beyond our human capacity to know. That bridge, because it must, caves open. There, along with the “I,” Worlds plunge into unknowing—the ontological, the epistemological underpinnings of physical life and consciousness all fall down. And yet, remarkably, Dickinson renders this impossible state beyond states in the past tense—it happened “then,” that final word marking the experience of time, the experience that nonetheless the mind has somehow passed beyond. Is Dickinson’s poem a brilliant enactment of the moment of death’s annihilating power, the poet’s projection into the past of what is sure to come inevitably, then, in the future? It is that. But Dickinson’s poem also captures perfectly Weil’s conception of death as “an instantaneous state, without past or future. Indispensable for entering into eternity”[47] The final extraordinary fiction of the poem is that the “I” of the poem speaks out of its post-created life beyond all knowing back into the ear of being, the human listener, to tell us what happened before time ceased for the soul.

Dickinson is often at her most extraordinary when her poems speak of the paradoxically condition-less condition of some posthumous life, the life of the uncreated. Her “I heard a fly buzz–when I died” marks a similar enactment, the interposition of the fly at the end just before the windows fail and the speaker can no longer “see to see” creates a pause that allows the kataphatic presence of light to linger just brightly enough before all converges into the apophatic onset of what lies beyond all seeing. Here, again, the poem acts as the bridge, the metaphor that carries us over if not into the uncreated then to its liminal portal within the theater of consciousness. Perhaps most famously, in “Because I could not stop for death” Dickinson ventures to bring us beyond the threshold of the created into the uncreated itself, or at least to figure death as something other than instantaneous and therefore un-representable. Rather, in Dickinson’s great poem Death is portrayed as a suitor and the post-creaturely “life” a journey that takes one past familiar places. Here, the fiction of the uncreated is given physical credence in a sudden disruptive reversal of motion:

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed us –[48]

In this version of the afterlife as journey the physical reality of time’s relative motion becomes a figure for the metaphysical passage of departing, almost leisurely, outside created existence. Dickinson’s image reads like an Einstein thought experiment. Centuries pass at the end of the poem, though they pass in hardly a day. In death the horses heads are “toward eternity,” as though Dickinson had glimpsed a vision of the eternal as some infinitely slowing motion—Zeno’s arrow perpetually moving in space as it moves eternally by halves toward the target, an infinite approach, a stretching outward in relation rather than toward some static final point.

“Toward eternity” suggests a version of the uncreated as somehow being bound up with movement, a kind of eschatology that appears to be more of an unfolding, even in the afterlife, rather than a seismic transformation into the unimaginably other of the spirit. In the case of Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for death” we have what might be called an aesthetic eschatology, since the passage beyond death into the uncreated is obviously figural, analogical. By the end of the poem the uncreated is “fleshed out” in the soul’s journey. I want to pursue further the idea of poems “fleshing out” the uncreated by stopping for a moment at two other very great poems: W.B. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” and Wallace Stevens’ “Of Mere Being.” The first stanza of “Sailing to Byzantium” establishes the relationship between the created and the uncreated in starkest contrast:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees —
Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.[49]

Underscored by the “sensual music” of the alliterative “f” sounds through lines four and five, Yeats’ dying generations exist in culpable relief of the “monuments of unageing intellect.” Here we see how Yeats’ view of art offers an enduring true north for Helen Vendler’s idea of tradition dovetailing with canon in a narrow gate of admittance—only monuments of unageing intellect belong. At the same time, the poem’s embrace of the monumental finds structural veracity in Yeats’s adaptation of ottava rima, a form Byron used in “Don Juan” to carry the reader along on a comic tale of one life out of all the dying generations. Yeats’ formal choice exists in counterpoint to the poem’s sensual music, but beyond this brilliantly dynamic fusion of aesthetic opposites his choice to reconfigure Byron’s form for a poem more akin to a four part Byzantine frieze than a narrative romp demonstrates how tradition—even of the monumental variety—is anything but a static reception of the past without reinvention.

In the next two stanzas Yeats elaborates and heightens the contrast between the “paltry thing” of his own life, the dying animal in him, and the artifices of eternity that permit him entry into the uncreated as figured by the holy city of Byzantium. “Studying / monuments of its own magnificence” is the only way to embark on the journey into the uncreated—a more heroic journey in Yeats it so happens than we find in Dickinson’s comparatively leisurely coach ride. Having departed created nature, in one of the great and strangest figures in poetry, Yeats transfigures himself from the aged man he is into a golden bird, a figure for the utterly unnatural, the utterly denatured work of art that, by being outside nature, paradoxically sees—“what is past or passing or to come.” That is, he can see all natural time in its entirety. For Yeats in “Sailing to Byzantium” the measure of all art is the distance the artist has been able to travel as if beyond the created state into the uncreated. Though Yeats never expressly calls poetry an art of decreation, his vision is decreative with the one caveat that like Dickinson he ventures giving us a vision of the uncreated world in a figural rather than a historical Byzantium.

In contrast to Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium,” Stevens’ “Of Mere Being” offers a more stringent vision of the uncreated, though perhaps not as stringent as Dickinson’s in “I felt a funeral in my brain” or “I heard a fly buzz when I died.” Both of those poems bring the reader to the brink of the uncreated as a condition-less condition that eludes all figuration—the mind at the end of its natural existence at the edge of transitioning “out of nature” once and for all. Like Dickinson in “Because I could not stop for death,” Stevens relies on the figural, though in “Of Mere Being” the figural declines back almost tenuously into this world rather than pitches us forward into the next:

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze distance.

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.[50]

In “Of Mere Being,” eternity is at best conceived of as a bronze distance at the edge of space—a vision far more reticent than Yeats’ gold enameling, mosaics and drowsy emperors. Instead of Byzantium we have the minimalist version of the opulent Florida characteristic of Stevens’ florid imagination. It is impossible, however, not to see Yeats’s golden bird on its mythical and figural bough as a direct forebear of Stevens’ peacock. Unlike Yeats’ golden bird, Stevens’ peacock appears to have no capacity nor any inclination to sing of what is past or passing or to come—it sings a song ‘without human meaning, / without human feeling,” a song totally foreign to the human. It is the song of unadulterated decreation, of the purely uncreated beyond mere being and not reducible therefore to representation. Through the poem’s ranging lens we see its fire-fangled feathers dangling down, a gesture that recalls the ambiguous undulations of Stevens’ pigeons at the end of “Sunday Morning” as they sink “downward to darkness on extended wings.” Yet unlike those pigeons from early in Stevens’ work the palm at the end of the mind rises, which gives a different inflection to the idea of order behind this late poem. “Of Mere Being,” as paradoxically sparse and richly figural as it is, offers a vision of continuity across an impossibly discontinuous boundary—the unpassable gulf, the aporia between our knowing and what exceeds our consciousness. The palm at the end of the mind and the peacock’s fire fangled feathers are metaxu, bridges stretching out between the created and the uncreated.

“Distance is the soul of the beautiful,” Simone Weil believed, and she believed it as much if not more as the theological principle that allows us to unite with God despite the fact that, paradoxically, God for Weil is unapproachable.[51] Something of that same paradox pertains to each of the aforementioned poems, though none of them are remotely orthodox or even explicitly religious in any way. Dickinson’s poems, like Yeats’ and Stevens’, also evince a quality of aesthetic distance reflective of Weil’s belief that “a work of art has an author and yet, when it is perfect, it has something which is essentially anonymous about it. It imitates the anonymity of divine art.”[52] Up to the point of that final statement, despite their different sensibilities, each of these exemplary poets would concur with Weil’s view. Were one to take that further step, one might in turn concur with Weil when she says that just as human art at its best imitates divine art, so “in the same way the beauty of the world proves there to be a God who is both personal and impersonal at the same time, and is neither one nor the other separately.”[53] Weil’s faith in the continuity between the divine and the world—that which inclines out of nature and that which resides in nature may well be a step beyond what any poet, even a great poet, is prepared to achieve. Witness the end of Dante’s Paradiso. Poets cannot stop the generations from dying. Still, it is the paradox of crossing the impassable boundary—nature to mind, mind to mind, and to whatever might lie beyond the end of the individual mind—that is essential to great poetry even in our own late, fractious, and skeptical time.

This boundary crossing combination of the personal and the impersonal, the distant and the intimate is what typifies great achievement in the art of poetry. Such boundary crossing animates the final poem I want to consider. Utterly contemporary and historically reflective, and likewise mindful of what has come before in the art, Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Facing It” embodies the decreative boundary between self and other, the monumental and the historical, the created and the uncreated, with exemplary self-reflection:

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t,
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way–the stone lets me go.
I turn that way–I’m inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap’s white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet’s image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I’m a window.
He’s lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.[54]

Komunyakaa’s poem begins with a dramatic immediacy worthy of Yeats’ declaration “That is no country for old men,” and intensifies the personal impact of the drama with the speaker’s confession “I said I wouldn’t / dammit. No tears.” In addition to setting the scene, the first two lines veritably enact the poet’s passage across the decreative boundary from the natural condition of a personal life into the impersonal though nonetheless reflective material of art itself—the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, DC. The blackness of the speaker’s face, both in the remembered literal physical reality of personal history and in the figural present of the poem, enters the very material of Maya Lin’s brilliant commemoration of the dead American soldiers of the Vietnam War. Komunyakaa’s representation of self, crossing the boundary from life literally into art through the mirroring effect of the monument’s material existence, establishes the speaker figurally as simultaneously flesh and stone. Moreover, he appears to exist at once outside and inside the monument and, crucially, it is the poem that continually reenacts and elaborates this vital double life of the world as it is and the memetic reflection of the work. Komunyakaa’s poem is as much an exploration of art as a process of making and its effect on the observer and the maker as it is a depiction of the work of art.

As the poem progresses it incorporates more details, particular details that would be evanescent if not for their accrual into the life of remembrance that the poem makes present as a monument to the monument it depicts. The slant of night against the morning, the enumeration of the names of the dead evolving in the poem to its focus on the name of one dead soldier known to the speaker who was present at his death, the woman who brushes her blouse, the presence of the white veteran whose glance intermixes with the gaze of the black speaker—all become integrated in every sense into the poem as into the monument. Facing it, the self is threatened with effacement, though the poem’s greatest surprise is to transform the threat of effacement into a redressing fulfillment of art’s ultimate promise, its hard won accomplishment. It is hard not to hear an echo of Dickinson’s “There is a certain slant of light” in Komunyakaa’s “night / slanted,” in view of the difference the light makes shortly afterwards. As in Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” and Stevens’ “Of Mere Being” a bird appears—more a harbinger than an emblematic figure. Two birds appear in the poem, the first a bird of prey emerging from the speaker’s own reflection, evocative of the emotional condition of the survivor before the names of all the dead, a kind of afterimage of bombing missions. Then there is the red bird that cuts across the poet’s stare, just a plane in the sky now and not a bird of prey from the past. Komunyakaa’s visuals are brilliantly directed. The monument is at once a mirror and a lamp into the speaker’s unconscious life. Seeing is everything for “Facing It,” and what we see is how the poem as mirror to another mirroring work of art embodies the reflective power and the light-giving portal of the uncreated within the created world.

The work of art, the poem, as a figure of the uncreated, the mirror of its perfection raised out of its wholly natural condition, at once distorts and clarifies. Or, rather, it calls us to transcend our own proclivity to distort—it provides vantage. The arc of Komunyakaa’s poem traces and captures this revisionary vision. His black face fades then reappears, his reflection is clouded, if he turns one way the stone lets him go, then he’s brought back inside the memorial, he expects to find his own name “like smoke,” the memorial triggers his memory of a death, a woman brushes her blouse but in the trick of light and doubling the names stay on the wall, the white vets arm is lost in the stone and, finally, he thinks a woman is trying to erase the names until he realizes she is only brushing a boy’s hair. That final exhilarating perception places us, again, on a threshold—not on the threshold of what is true and what is not true, nor on the threshold of what is outside nature and what is in it, nor even on the threshold of how everything depends on the relativity of perception itself. Beyond these, “Facing it” places us on the border between life and death, the boundary that if captured by a great work of art has the power to transfigure everything. To inhabit and embody this boundary, to become a bridge across it, is what poems should seek to accomplish. Such poems enable us to see what is most potentially transcendent in our lives through the all too flawed conditions of our lives—to see what transcends albeit through the glass darkly. This accomplishment, an achievement of decreation realized paradoxically through the process of making, is what makes a poem the bearer of tradition: the indelible human circumstance embodied as if in stone and handed down. It is how the poem achieves the status of a monument in Yeats’s high example, while at the same time remaining a living reality in which we see ourselves reflected, all the dying generations. The poem is the granite hard mirror reflecting dark and light, absence and presence, and calling us to see.

5. Beauty and the Marketplace

We are standing, my wife and I, on the rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art nursing a pair of specialty martinis. It’s happy hour. The bar is crowded. A cross section of well- heeled and middle class humanity, some dressed to the nines, others like my wife and I in jeans looking like true exemplars of our middling economic station, talk in pairs or groups or mill around while the sun starts to set beyond the vast, gradually darkening green of Central Park. The distinctive jagged peaks of Upper West Side apartment buildings almost appear ramparts in the deeply widening glow, striations of dark and light turning from the lucent white-edged blue to a rich orange-red—a gorgeously ample dimming of the day. A water tower atop one of the taller buildings stands out— wooden, round, and peaked, an artifact of the previous century—amidst the scene which, one imagines, Singer Sargent or Hopper might have painted in realist glory, or Rothko might have distilled to an expressively elemental vitality of tones. Now two young women walk over to the western wall, negotiating a clearing in the crowd, each with their back against the scene, each stretching out their arms before them, cell phones in hand, smiling, angling the shot, posing, the scene to which they have their backs a backdrop for their ephemeral portraits, their “selfies.” Downstairs, in the galleries, the vital works of cultures and histories—our global, human story told in chosen brilliancies, genius, and remnants—quietly sustain their assumption of the enduring life of art out of the conditions of life into the timeless: the created rendered emblematic of the unconditional, the uncreated—icons of human possibility, a dimension of significance that adds to rather than dismisses the obvious historical and cultural significance of any work of art.

It is, of course, beautifully genial to be able to look out from the Met roof on a summer twilight, talking with friends, sitting with one’s beloved, or milling alone among the crowd. It is a good thing, a fortunate thing. But it also suggests the economic and cultural need for a museum to create allures beyond the works of art themselves, to draw in the “customers” of culture in our capitalist milieu. The two young women taking “selfies” engage in the now prevalent act of imprinting self objectively onto potentially every experience. Almost without the mediation of time, much time, that image can be broadcast digitally, globally to friends and total strangers in an eye blink. Compare the self-images of Rembrandt or Van Gogh—“selfies” rendered painstakingly with brush and paint, with the signature of incomparable genius. Where do they stand now in a world where the mass-produced rules and selfies broadcasted digitally offer the illusion of an immediate immortality? Perhaps the juxtaposition is misleading, or disingenuous. I do think the image of those two young women ignoring the sunset for itself alone pitched behind the dramatic cityscape suggests just how much our technologically driven society has altered our relation to the world, re-centered it around the atomized self, and so altered our relationship to art and to poetry. Paradoxically, in a world in which no story is sustainable, where all stories become the story of no-story, with no metaphysics, no narrative in which self and culture can find the promise of truth, the focus on self, one’s sole self and its aggrandizement becomes prevailingly and disturbingly urgent.

We have passed from a world valorized by halls of fame and galleries of great works, among other measures of human aspiration beyond the given materials of life, and have entered what David Bentley Hart in The Beauty of the Infinite calls “the marketplace.”[55] For Hart, the market as a sign of the times is “not so much a vertical as a horizontal totality, a plane upon which everything can be arranged in a hierarchy of abstract equivalence… it is a totality that contains everything in a state of barren and indifferent plurality.”[56] We live, in short, in a “spectacle of vanity” in which desire breeds only “the desire to desire more,”[57] in which ideas of achievement measured against tradition and the further discernments of canon appear to self-displace and self-empty—a negating kenosis rather than a creative or decreative one. Rather than the free space of expression, or perhaps only delusively so, the market mind brings into reality “the nonspace of nonthings, a universal and proliferating immateriality” where judgment, the good discernable from the bad, good from evil, dissipates into consumerism and the prevalence of will: the market powers of the merely fashionable—“this twittering world,” as Eliot reflects in “Burnt Norton.”

David Bentley Hart’s judgement on our current twitter and selfie-driven cultural moment may sound extreme, even reactionary, but it accords well with prevailing academic and popular trends that deemphasize the idea of truth and codify the purely material nature of reality. Pluralism and self-expression become ultimate values, and fame an end in itself. In the realm of the multitude of contemporary American Poetry, pluralism—rightly valued—can quickly devolve to the current value-subverting catch phrase, “It’s all good.” Against this backdrop, the conflict between Vendler and Dove over the Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry appears little more than a tempest in a teapot—a rapidly dissipating tempest in a cracked and leaking antique pot. Robert Pinsky’s reflection that “to assert the existence of a worldly world implies there is also a different, distinct world which is other, a spiritual world”[58] would appear to be more an assertion than a trusted confidence or a principle on which to base the art of poetry. The view of the world’s ultimate dependence on the spiritual is exactly what sustains Hart’s philosophically, theologically, historically, culturally and sociologically expansive and painstakingly cogent case for the idea of beauty as being bound to the infinite rather than the fleeting expression of fashion. His critique of postmodernism (and nearly all of post-Enlightenment philosophy) redounds to a great theologian’s refusal of the “totalizing” rhetoric of meta-narratives, especially the current meta-narrative—the Story of No Truth, the Story of No Stories. Against it he posits a defense of tradition that valorizes the story of the beautiful as the story of incarnation through which the infinite is made present and knowable within human life and history. In his defense, it is the compelling rhetoric of the story that prevails over any philosophical superstructure. His is a view of tradition sustained as story, a story beside other stories, other traditions, that proposes to redress the fragmentation of the world. In that story, distance, difference, is embraced as part of the enterprise of creation rather than effaced either into a generic unity or an equally bland atomism. Contrarily, he pictures the postmodern market as the “arid, empty distance that consumes all other distance,” a fracturing condition that would reconfigure the vast blazoning of a sunset within the pinpoint frame of self-centeredness.

Admittedly I have forayed from matters of aesthetic discernment into matters better left to theologians, but I do so to place matters of art and tradition within a more fundamental frame of reference. Editors and schools of poetry make judgments every day. Reviews are written, anthologies published. Still, what rules if Hart is right is the market, and the market by its nature offers no basis other than its own currency for value, and that currency by its own accounting is counterfeit. Beneath the market’s operations will remain “the arid, empty distance” of an atomized cultural condition underlying the aggrandizement of all the many social and private forms of self-advancement. Such workings of the market are nothing new, but what is new and what Hart objects to is the market’s assumption of ultimacy in the absence of any veritable way to bridge the impassible boundaries. In her prophetic way, Simone Weil proposes an alternative conception of artistic distance, the kind of distance whereby the work of art—the poem—exhibits a quality of intention that for all of its uniqueness links it to matters of ultimate value, of truth and, yes, beauty. That is why the greatest art, the greatest poetry, for Weil always “imitates the anonymity of divine art.”[59] That is why the beautiful always conveys a surplus, a surplus that points beyond—for the always more at the core of human making. The infinite, which Weil would call God, cannot be approached. We approach the Infinite through the beautiful, and distance—the kind of distance that stretches and expands rather than atomizes and disintegrates—is, as she says, “the soul of the beautiful.”[60] Something of Weil’s conception of beauty as distance is prefigured in Friedrich Hölderlin’s poem “Hyperion’s Song of Fate” written at the outset of the nineteenth century:

You roam up there in the light,
Blessed, blissful, with the powers,
Among the cushioned lofts of clouds
While the radiant airs of the gods
Grace you lightly, the way a harpist
Caresses music from the holy strings.

Outside time, the heavenly ones
Breathe easy as sleeping infants.
For them, the spirit always flowers
Safe and pure in its simple bud;
And their eyes, joyous, behold forever
Everything with a crystalline calm.

But for us—what are we given?
Restless, homeless, we wither and fall
From one hour to the next
Like water tumbling over cliffs
Down and down through the long years:
Suffering, baffled, human.[61]

Hölderlin’s poem starkly and beautifully articulates a sense of disruption between the uncreated and the created worlds, particularly the human world, that resonates with Weil’s latter day insight that beauty manifests itself not in the identification these two states of being—the contingent or the created and the un-contingent or the uncreated, but in the distance between them. Theologically, it is the uncreated that bridges the distance not by the erasure of distance but through a kenosis, a divine self-emptying of surpassing beauty into the world. Aesthetically, art manifests the experience of beauty as distance that allows the human to be seen as human in relation to the uncreated which transcends the human and allows the human, in fact, to be.

The powerful idea of beauty as life defining distance finds rich expression in B.H. Fairchild’s poem aptly titled “Beauty.” Fairchild’s poem is a narrative in which the poet from the considerable distance of age and geography recalls a time in his youth when he worked in factory where his father served as foreman. The portrait he paints evokes the same physical, social, cultural, and intellectual curtailments that motivated Simone Weil herself to pursue factory work in order to experience the soul-limiting life of a worker. In Fairchild’s “Beauty” we find the antithetical passage of the worker having grown unaccountably beyond the given limits reflecting back on the world of the factory as on a previous existence. What we discover in the poem is beauty as an, at first, puzzling and finally miraculous expression of distance and healing realized through memory. Here is how the poem opens:

We are at the Bargello in Florence, and she says,
what are you thinking? And I say, beauty, thinking
of how very far we are now from the machine shop
and the dry fields of Kansas, the treeless horizons
of slate skies and the muted passions of roughnecks
and scrabble farmers drunk and romantic enough
to weep more or less silently at the darkened end
of the bar, out of, what else, loneliness, meaning
the ache of thwarted desire, of, in a word, beauty,
or rather its absence, and it occurs to me again
that no male member of my family ever used
this word in my hearing or anyone else’s except
in reference, perhaps, to a new pick up or a dead deer.[62]

This extraordinary opening sentence performs the very passage back through time and place of which it speaks, line by line, and so underscores the recognition of beauty through the process of an individual consciousness encountering the mystery of itself, its origins, history, and its embrace of a desire for what would enable it to transcend those conditions. The treeless horizons of Kansas mirror in this way the internal horizons of the self-reflecting mind—the act of thinking that becomes an act of meaning even in the recognition of limits—the “ache of thwarted desire.” Fairchild situates the speaker and the reader on the vital threshold of a contrast—the beauty of the Bargello Museum in Florence set in relief of the emptiness and personal loneliness of rural Kansas. Fairchild knows that first world, knows the depth of its limitations and its desperate lives.

As “Beauty” unfolds section by mellifluent and surprising section Fairchild deepens and extends the poem’s entry into that retrospective horizon of memory until the poem becomes fully present in its portraiture of the past, the place and people, the family members and fellow workers, from which the poet has gained profound distance. Among the most vivid portraits is that of Bobby Sudduth, a foul-mouthed and violent co-worker in the shop who works a Hobbs machine lathe. It is the cutting motion of the lathe that the poem at once evokes metaphorically and seeks to redress—Fairchild’s “Beauty” would bridge together past and present in a single vision, and with it beauty and ugliness, the emptiness of lives held in the poem’s embracing and restorative fullness. The narrative turns on a single day when two chance new male workers enter the shop, and inexplicably strip naked before the other men. “I recall how fragile / and pale their bodies seemed against the iron and steel / of the drill presses and milling machines and lathes,” Fairchild reflects. The two naked men, in stark contrast to their surroundings, take on the startling power of art itself:

…in memory they stand frozen
and posed as two models in a drawing class,
of whom the finished sketch might be said, though not by me
nor any man I know, to be beautiful, they stand there
forever, with the time clock running behind them,
time running on but not moving, like the white tunnel
of silence between the snap of the ball and the thunderclap
of shoulder pads that never seems to come and then
there it is…[63]

Entering a “forever” even within the midst of time itself, the men have become the art they seemed to have been at the time in Fairchild’s poem. By creating this artful space the poem has made them an incarnation uncreated, lifted out of time and conditions, through time and conditions, by the poet’s creative act. What is coming in the poem, from this still point of silence and stop-time, is Bobby Sudduth with an animal terror moving toward them an iron file—beauty and violence in fraught juxtaposition. It is Fairchild’s father who comes between the naked men and their brutal end, touching one of the men on his should and saying quietly “you boys will have to go now.” Beauty, violence, and a tenderness not unlike grace. In the fourth and final section of “Beauty” Fairchild returns to the poem’s beginning, as if for the first time, now showing the reader that he is standing with his wife before Donatello’s David and implying it is this great image of beauty that triggered the memory of the past, his own life story, and the naked men that day in the machine shop on the strangest of days anyone who was there will ever remember. He remembers, too, that his father described how Bobby Sudduth shot himself in the chest with a twelve-gauge shotgun. It is here, remarkably, at the poem’s end, that Fairchild paints a vision of past and present sustained in perfect equilibrium held together in what can only be called a glimpse into the redemptive potential of time itself:

… and so I began
to tell her about a stranger afternoon in Kansas,
about something I have never spoken of, and we walk
to a window where the shining light spreads a sheen
along the casement, and looking out, we see the city
blazing like miles of uncut wheat, the farthest buildings
taken in their turn, and the great dome, the way
the metal roof of the machine shop, I tell her,
would break into flame late on an autumn day, with such beauty.[64]

At the end of Fairchild’s “Beauty” distance is collapsed in a revelation of redemptive perception that embraces all—the ugliness and violence, the failure of lives and the way of the mind’s gradual passage away from the given conditions, but without loss, and with love. Though “collapse” is too strong a verb to describe how Fairchild’s poem binds past and present together so vibrantly to the point of enacting the redemption of the past through the poet’s conscious act of imagination. Perhaps a metaphor from astrophysics is better, specifically the phenomenon of “gravitational lensing,” which is a way of using the gravitational effect of large bodies like galaxies to focus and bring into view even more distant objects whose light is barely visible. Fairchild’s “Beauty” rides on a kind of emotional “lensing,” such that the true gravity of the past emerges into the life of the present and into the reader through the poem. Similarly, in Auden’s exquisite “Lullaby,” though “time and fevers burn away / Individual beauty” and “the grave proves the child ephemeral,” it is the inherent distance of our mortality that renders the beloved for the lover “the entirely beautiful.” In Auden’s equally unsparing and ecstatic poem we find an example of individual beauty “lensing” into the entirely beautiful—the created focusing for us an image of the uncreated.

Hölderlin’s stern perception on the distance between created and uncreated in “Hyperion’s Song of Fate” Fairchild’s portrait of self and place in “Beauty,” and Auden’s evocation of “the entirely beautiful” clarifying its presence through the very distance-making reality of our mortal lives, all exemplify Weil’s insight that the experience of beauty is a manifestation of distance—distance that is itself the manifestation of a subtending and overarching relation that the poem, if it is true enough, reveals. The poem thus becomes the “gravitational” lens that enables vision and insight, both emotionally and intellectually. From Weil’s vantage, as with Hölderlin and Fairchild, the beautiful is neither merely pretty nor merely soothing. The very “ugliness” of a Giacometti sculpture is the veracity of its beauty captured in the extremity of a core human monolith of need reaching upward even as the human creature continues perilously forward into the unknown—the vertical bound to the horizontal, that core longing of the species. Likewise, great poetry often is disruptive and disfiguring—Dickinson does not put the reader at ease, nor does Stevens, nor does Komunyakaa. Nor do Hölderlin or Fairchild. The beauty of their work rests in the poem’s capacity to stretch readers out of their habitual apprehension of the world, just as the effort of making the poem, must have stretched the poet into the experience of genuine discovery, which is the experience of meaningful optimally resident in the poet’s work. The beauty of such poems resides in their tendency neither to ease us or to soothe with any prettified display, nor to confirm us nor to permanently confuse us, but to challenge us, to call us out of ourselves into the fullness of possibility and relation to each other and the world and what might beyond the limits of the world sustain the world in value: the created as incarnation of the uncreated.

This conception, which might at first seem excessive in its claims, finds credence in Louse Glűck’s “The Wild Iris.” There is nothing remotely sentimental in Glűck’s poetry, and even when flowers speak, or speak out of a still more distant consciousness as they do in her Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poems, they do so in a manner that expresses the perspective on an embodied renewal—the voice of something having entered the uncreated and having returned. “At the end of my suffering / there was a door,” so her poem “The Wild Iris” opens, and continues with the voice of one who has returned from the uncreated to speak to again to the created: “Hear me out: that which you call death / I remember.”[65] What we encounter in this voice is something different from Dickinson’s post-mortem journeys, and different again from any figurations, and again from beyond any bronze décor hinting at what cannot be represented. The distance Glűck’s poem traverses it traverses out of the created and back to the created from that which lies beyond. That is the poem’s supremely remarkable fiction. “Terrible,” as the voice continues, to survive as “consciousness buried in the dark earth.” The vantage, it might be said, is far from Weil’s Christian understanding of decreation, but that is not the point. The poem’s fiction transcends the doctrinal, just as Weil’s heterodox theology, unbaptized as she chose to remain, cleaves to a transcendence more radical than what might appear to neatly fall within convenient religious categories. Glűck’s “Wild Iris” ends with a declaration of ultimate beauty and ultimate ratification of the poem as embodiment of the dynamic interdependence of the created and the uncreated:

You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:

from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.[66]

Glűck’s “great fountain” is indeed a figure that can be found across cultures, throughout history, and in both religious and more secular iterations of the great tradition of poetry and art. It is the embodiment of beauty’s inexhaustible source, incarnation as inexhaustible source, recognizable equally to St. John of the Cross and the Vedas. The voice of Glűck’s “Wild Iris” communicates the essence of poetry conceived of as a process of decreation. Likewise, tradition, like the individual poem (however historically conditioned, however evolving) acts optimally on some whole or partially enacted form of decreation.

After the year of factory work, after her self-enlistment to fight on the side of the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War, after her spiritual encounter at St. Francis’s chapel in Assisi, after visiting the Benedictine Abbey at Solesmes where she had one of an increasing number of mystical experiences, Simone Weil began reading the English Metaphysical Poets, and falling in love in particular with George Herbert’s “Love III”: “Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back, / Guilty of lust and sin….” Reading the poem aloud, Weil experienced a profound mystical sensation of Christ’s presence, indeed his taking possession of her. It is a stunning testament to the power of great poetry to impact the individual consciousness, and as such the power of the past to offer itself, in Weil’s words, as “the most perfect image of the eternal, supernatural reality” reaching out to us from beyond our reach.[67] Such is the impetus for the poet’s labors along the bridge that is tradition, aiming for something like an image of perfection accomplished in and through the reality of change and necessity—and if not perfection than an evolving order to which the poet might ideally measure up. Weil’s own experience of spiritual transformation is therefore a powerful testament to the capacity of Herbert’s poem to speak out of the poet’s consciousness from another historical moment across the bridge of tradition to someone schooled in a different language, in a different time, with a different cultural background—a Communist, anarchist born of free thinking, non-believing Jews—that most reveals how the work of art rooted in the conditions of time, place, and personal circumstance, can indeed reach out of its original conditions, through and across those very conditions, into the life of another as if it had laid across time and space a bridge from the created to the created through the promise of the uncreated—out of that always partially eclipsed but never wholly obliterated light. Without that light we have only the arbiters of dubitable taste, coercion founded on privilege or luck, circumstance and prevailing myths and the ever-shifting and dimming signs of the times. The varied greatness of our human labors would not have it so, and calls the poet to the halls of something far greater and decidedly otherwise.


[1] Helen Vendler, New York Review of Books (November 24, 201211) 19.

[2] Rita Dove, New York Review of Books (December 22, 20122) 3.

[3] Ibid.

[4] W.H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand. (New York: Random House, 1990) 37.

[5] Auden, 79-80.

[6] Auden, 5.

[7] Randall Jarrell, Poetry and the Age (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001) 24.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jarrell, 74.

[10] T.S. Eliot, Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. Ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Mariner Books, 1975) 37.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Eliot, 39.

[14] Marilyn Nelson, “Owning the Masters, in After New Formalism. Ed. Annie Finch (Brownsville, OR: Story Line Press, 1999) 12.

[15] Nelson, 14.

[16] Nelson, 17.

[17] Robert Pinsky, Poetry and the World (New York: Ecco Press, 1980) 122.

[18] Auden, 78.

[19] Robert Pinsky, The Situation of Poetry (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978) 78. 78

[20] David Bentley Hart, Beauty and the Infinite (New York: Eerdmans, 2004) 7.

[21] Czeslaw Milosz, The Witness of Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 1984 15

[22] Milosz, 81.

[23] Hart, 133.

[24] Pinsky, Situation, 85.

[25] Milosz, 56.

[26] Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel (New York, Vintage, 1951) 130.

[27] Stevens, 174.

[28] Stevens, 175.

[29] Milosz, 56.

[30] Anne Carson, Decreation (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2005) 235.

[31] Weil, Waiting for God, 12.

[32] Weil, Waiting for God, 41, 42.

[33] David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God (New Haven: Yale University Press). 13ff

[34] Simone Weil, A Simone Weil Reader (New York: Moyer Bell, 2007) 350.

[35] Weil, 354.

[36] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace (New York: Routledge, 2002) 94.

[37] Weil, Gravity and Grace, 175.

[38] Weil, 364.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Weil, Gravity and Grace, 148.

[41] Milosz, 114.

[42] Auden, 70-71.

[43] Simone Weil, Waiting for God (New York: HarperCollins Perennial Classics, 2009) 107.

[44] Weil, Gravity and Grace, 97, 117.

[45] Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1976) 280.

[46] C.K Williams, Poetry and Consciousness (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998) 11.

[47] Weil, 354.

[48] Dickinson, 712.

[49] William Butler Yeats, The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (New York: Scribner, 1996) 193.

[50] Wallace Stevens, The Palm at the End of the Mind (New York: Vintage, 1990) 398.

[51] Weil, 379.

[52] Weil, 378.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Yusef Komuunyakaa, Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1993) 159-160.

[55] Hart, 433.

[56] Hart, 434.

[57] Hart, 433.

[58] Pinsky, Poetry and the World, 3.

[59] Weil, 378.

[60] Weil, 380.

[61] The translation is my own.

[62] B.H. Fairchild, The Art of the Lathe (Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 1998) 11.

[63] Fairchild, 15.

[64] Fairchild, 18.

[65] Louise Gluck, The Wild Irish (New York: Ecco, 1993)

[66] Ibid.

[67] Weuil, Gravity and Grace, 175.

About the Author:


Daniel Tobin is the author of six books of poems, Where the World is Made, Double Life, The Narrows, Second Things, Belated Heavens (winner of the Massachusetts Book Award in Poetry), and The Net (2014). His seventh book of poems, From Nothing, is forthcoming in 2016. He is the author of the critical studies Passage to the Center: Imagination and the Sacred in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney and Awake in America, and the editor of The Book of Irish American Poetry from the Eighteenth Century to the Present, Light in Hand: The Selected Early Poems and Lola Ridge, and Poet’s Work, Poet’s Play: Essays on the Practice and the Art. His awards include the “The Discovery/The Nation Award,” The Robert Penn Warren Award, the Robert Frost Fellowship, the Katherine Bakeless Nason Prize, and fellowships in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.