No 1 - 1981
Muse of the Moment-God
(Montemora, New York 1980. Distributed by the New York State Small Press Association).
The particular stance of the Western poet in relation to what we choose to call Nature, or the Cosmos, or to “Being”, in the sense assigned it by Heidegger, has evolved out of a dying pastoral perspective into increasingly unstable and fevered positions. If John Glare was direct, knowledgeable, and native, in expression, then the last successful and fully integrated religious interpreter of the universe as it effects itself in a semi-wild rural context was Gerard Manley Hopkins (as, in the shere of painting, was Vincent van Gogh). Such artists held total, and totalising, outlooks on life characterised by extreme intensity; and their attitudes cost them, in their personal circumstances, very dear.
After Hopkins, in England, and Whitman, in the U.S.A., a certain religiosity sets in. As such it was a moving rhetoric that was produced, and not a vision. Such religiosity finds expression in concealed forms both in Lawrence (with his cult of the demi-urge) and, later on, in the elegiac tones of Dylan Thomas. The poem Over St. John’s Hill, for example, proves to be a confused work at the level of ideology. If pure pastoral tapers off with Glare, then equally, a modified quasi-religious perspective of the cosmic and terrestrial order comes to a close with Thomas. It is to the credit of the Americans that they were swifter than the British themselves to salute that great aesthetic sunset which his works were to signal.
From the time of his death, a fresh and central issue has been silently forming. It is this: how ought a poet now to assimilate the facts, relationships, hypotheses, and ways of seeing, provided by Science and Technology to his own imaginative legacy? How ought he to assimilate them to his own realm of metaphor, without defacing the one, or betraying the other ?
The scheme of “Nature” now implied by Science seems to subvert all myth, and calls all orthodox religions into question. Today, a genuine poet has to work very hard in order to be able to see the given world bifocally, so to speak, with both an analytic and a primordial eye. He has to show organic life as both a republic of sorcery and a field of limitless logic. The problem posed asks for a new source of feeling in the arts, secular in character, humane in tone, but comprehensive in reference. The effort to construct such a fountainhead of thought and emotion has only just begun. The source has to be, of course, as was also the case in Wordsworth’s day, founded in philosophy.
The poetry of Sobin is a real development which points to one possible solution of lust that problem. Either by intuition, or by derivation, Sobin has revealed a path forward. Without wishing to diminish Sobin’s claim to great originality, in any way, one can nevertheless identify the philosophic base of his lyricism, together with an ancillary force which seems to have been drawn by affinity into his system. The first ground appears to be the existentialism of Martin Buber; and the second points to the poetics of the late Charles Olson.
Inside Sobin’s general nucleus of insight, it is possible to trace the thought of Buber and of Olson. In support of this contention, I give here a relevant set of quotations from these two men, followed by references to the work of the poet himself, together with a commentary. The relation of the poetry to its underpinning should then become clear; and at the same time the expressive beauty and thrust of Sobin’s verse may possibly come to fuller appreciation.
Buber’s fundamental attitude toward the universe was caught when he wrote:
What occurs to me says something to me, but what it says to me cannot be revealed by any esoteric information; for it has never been said before, nor is it composed of sounds that have ever been said. It can neither be interpreted nor translated. I can have it neither explained or displayed; it is not a what at all, it is said into my very life; it is no experience that can be remembered independently of the situation, it remains the address of that moment and cannot be isolated, it remains the question of a question, and will have its answer.
“It is said into my life” ! This is to see individual experience, as Utterance, as a half-learned language, or as an indirect mode of address impelled toward us by some creative act or principle. It is a form of the dialogue of the concrete. It is a mysticism which assimilates the metaphor of Speech (Parole in the sense used by de Saussure) to the details of subjective life. What happens to this man or to that has a secret lexicon and syntax that must be learned, through a daily effort to decode. To quote, once more, from Buber:
In the signs of life which happen to us, we are addressed. Who speaks ? It would not avail us to give for reply the word “God” ,if we do not give it out of that hour of personal existence when we had to forget everything we knew of God, when we dared to keep nothing handed down or learned or self-contrived, no shred of knowledge, and were plunged into the night. When we rise out of it into the new life and there begin to receive the signs, what can we know of that which ..... of him who gave them to us ? Only what we experience from time to time from the signs themselves. If we have the speaking of the speech God, that is always the God of a moment, a moment God.
Gustaf Sobin, it would seem, is in pursuit of Buber’s “moment-God”, as in his poem Signs:
what matters is what the shadow says
is reading the cloud, and the spastic drift
over the glass-headed meadow.
is earth, its ciphers its membrane of sounds.
is ones s life risked, a miracle
within a lizard’s eye !
Interestingly, the task of “reading the cloud”, of translating the moment of perception is taken up elsewhere in the collection by the poem Giant, in which the title takes its part as the first word:
whipped himself into magic, into
(then lay in the luminous fleece
of his giant’s
breath and breathed
The brevity of Giant tends to hide the achievement. Given here, in oral fact is a scientific imagination of the Earth’s atmosphere (of Earth’s Aura, as Louise B. Young, in her beautiful introductory book to a study of the sky, put it) is fused with an image of equal scale drawn loosely from the store of fable. The motion of the self-generating cloud, its flailing precipitation, and its manifestation to the eye have been successfully joined in the rhythms of the “moment-God”. The estrangement of the modes of explanation of the two cultures, first identified by C.P.Snow, has been overcome, and a stark unity re-established. Here is scientific poetry, or poetic science.
But Sobin goes well beyond the propositions of Buber; and, rare for a poet, philosophises in his own right. The whole collection is punctuated by a series of tightly organised medium-length poems, all gathered under the one title Helix. These poems, vividly, and with a surrealist turn, implement the philosophy; but there are present, too, certain larger poems which are organised almost in collage form, involving a long series of cumulatively mounted aphorisms, patly Blakean, and partly Whitmanesque, in their manner. These latter supply the outlines of Sobin’s entire system. From the ecstatic text of Notes on Sound, Speech, Speech-Crystals and the Celestial Echo, one can cull the following indices:-
“Sound,the progenitor, by continuing to ring through its creation, its forms,
Speech,both the resonance and celebration of Sound.
Speech that’s never pronounced , but cast, diffused, exuded.
That communicates with nothing except its own ebullience.
That varies with the depth and the contour, the vibratory shell of each form.
The iris emitting a different Speech than the dragonfly.”
. . . . . and further on, in the same poem:-
“Language remains Speech, remains power (springing translucent out of its
source) only when uttered with a total intent. When it’s the flesh that proffers it.
When the breath commits itself to the crystals that it breathes.
As sometimes with the whisper, the green sigh, the jagged shriek.
Or whenever the ode is a rich, glittering secretion.”
. . . . . . and lastly:-
“For the imperative of Speech is to hear itself: hear itself realized.
As the red concerto, stunned in the shower of its magnificence.”
The emphasis on “breath” as a concept reflects Olson, who taught a whole new prosody at Black Mountain on the basis of a man’s individual breathing. From his Projective Verse, we can gather:
Let’s start form the smallest particle of all, the syllable. It is the king and pin of versification, what rules and holds together the line, the longer forms of a poem. I would suggest that verse here and in England dropped the secret from the late Elizabethans to Ezra Pound, lost it, in the sweetness of meter and rime, in a honey-head.........The fineness, and the practice lie here, at the minimum and source of speech.
Syllables are, of course, Sobin’s much praised “word-crystals”. Sensations, he writes, are the fibers of Speech. Are its quills of flowing crystals that, myriad, determine its volume, its intensity, its “voice”.
The elements of his credo, then, might read as follows:- In the beginning was/ and is the Breath, author and begetter of the syllable. Sobin’s world-view is raised on this first and last axiom; from which proceeds the following sequence of creation:-
breath/sound (vibration/sensation)/ “Voice”/ Speech (via syllables)/ leading to efflorescence (of the poetic phrase) / into: the capture of space (atmospheric or cosmic) by the formal imagination.
Yet this is one-sided. The same sequence is held to occur from the cosmos itself, the aim of which is, through Man, to “hear itself realized”. Such inspired tenets make it possible for Sobin to say, in a lyrical form that owes much technically to W.C.Williams, Cummings, Pound and Olson:-
what is writes itself, the mauve-gold claws
of the honeysuckle
make perfect cantatas.
what isn’t except in its black incipience
is breath: breath reaching
into the thick globe
of its whispers (its seed wrought
with the wisdom of an ultimate resonance);
is muscle flowering into muscle;
is hair, shuddering like a liquid
into its vacuum of light;
is light, itself, flooding the stars . . . . .
earth, asleep, in the music of its spores,
earth, asleep, in the music of its spores,
the body is blown through the tongue
into a perfect turban of bees and deep thunder.
With the writing of The Turban, the extinct “Nature” poem rises like a raw phoenix from its own ash. But the field of reference has become cosmic, not rustic; galactic, not local; and the manner is now perceptual/surreal, and no longer pretends to parochial realism, or to a religion, in the accepted sense. A fusion of dream and materialism has taken over.
Wind Chrysalid’s Rattle is available from the New York State Small Press Association, P.O.Box 1264, Radio City Station, NEW YORK, NY 10019, USA. The price is US$ 3.00, and includes p & p. For airmail delivery add a further two dollars.
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