Future historians will doubtless look back upon the Twentieth Century as an interregnum, a period typical of an uncertain transition from the disintegrating order of one civilization to that of a still-embryonic, coalescent society, whose proper order remains for the future. Such periods of agony are often a mixture of glory and abysmal horror, and our era is no exception. One notable singularity of this century has been that even the smallest of peoples have clamored for the recognition of their identity, seeking to assert their uniqueness even though they could scarcely hope to control their destiny. Not only peoples: sub-groups of our one species, castes and clans within them, and, within linguistic groupings, regions, provinces, districts; rural, suburban, urban; hills and valleys…and so on, until one finds today’s groups identifying themselves according to genders and sub-genders; arranging themselves into affiliation within or across ideologies usually constructed by the arbitrary selection of categories assigned arbitrarily, as the wounded, the sick, the dying, the young, the old, the chronically or acutely symptomatic disorders are separated in hospitals for different kinds of attention. Differentiation, not commonality, is the theme of our time, as in the exfoliating choices in the consumerist cultures of this civilization, all of which leads to increasing separation, an accelerating centrifugality boosted by the geometric increments of our sophisticated technology. William Butler Yeats’ vision of a gyre in the form of a rotating inverted cone, like a widening spinning top that tends entropically towards instability, his dismay and despair that the center he imagined could not, would not, hold, seen from our standpoint seventy-five years later seems to be both conservative and narrow, limited to social history: it is a vision that preceded that of the new vast universe(s) offered by Einstein and Hubble, for example, in which we began to think of history as larger than our own biological vicissitudes, and reached back both to the first signs of life and forward to the eschatology of all existence itself.
There is however one group that does not advertise its existence: The Tribe of the Poets. Perhaps because of its ancient and protean constitution it does not clamor fashionably like the demagogues of the ethnic or gender groupings. Everyone else seems to have had their logo or banner designed; envoys and consuls and lobbyists have been sent out with brochures promoting trade and tourism; they have mortgaged their children’s children for heavy weapons; they have taken their seats at the United Nations, and placed in the world atlas the names they prefer to be known by, if merely for entitlement at the eleventh hour to some carloads of surplus food and a medical team with vaccines, or a plea for foreign troops to save them from threatened extinction … playing their part in the game of the geo-politics that more or less balances the powers of this planet.
I speak here in the name of the Tribe of the Poets — that transtemporal, and ecumenical company of men and women always and everywhere invisible — and to speak of men and women is perforce to speak against the notion of “national literatures.” That it is a perpetual association is on the other hand paradoxical, since poetry is always the poetry of a specific language, and utters itself only in a specific time and place, emanating from persons in a local “community.” Where language is written down, poetry leaves traces of itself in texts; yet texts are at the same time both alive and dead, which is also paradoxical. Because a text is a thing, it may seem to be identical with a single people, a time and a place, and a people seems an entity that may appear to be identical with a polity. And it is the polity that forever confronts the spiritual company I call The Tribe of the Poets.
In what follows I intend to suggest some of the reasons for the reticence, the silence of The Tribe of the Poets whenever it is forced to stand in the presence of a “National” literature.1
Our epoch has been one interminable trial session, during the course of which a hundred million and more men and women have been condemned by those slave-driving “archipelagos” of various tyrannical creeds that girdled the globe for 70 years — because they “erred in the formulation of their opinions,” or opposed their singular or private notions of “national identity” to those concocted by police masquerading as critics, politicians, or priests — and even revolutionaries!1 Not only their souls but their bodies were tried; their souls by the darkest obloquy of enforced silence or isolating imprisonment, their bodies by execution, or by masse in wholesale slaughter — in Europe, in Africa, in Latin America, in the Middle East, in Asia. Essentially, the pressure of enormous terror has been generated in order to at first contain, and then achieve the destruction of the soul.2 After the Cold War melted away and evaporated, and as the consumerist ethos began to spread around the world, there was a change in tactics, one might say, if not in the strategy that seems to be impersonally evolved from the economics of our emerging Twenty-first century technology. The obliteration of whatever might be termed the soul is coming to pass by what is now called “dumbing down,” as a new sort of one-dimensional consciousness floods our days like a lava flow that burns and then will congeal to hardest stone covering the surface of history.
And yet, ironically, what was once thought of as the soul was in the West defined out of existence a hundred or so years ago. That was the time when the “crats” blossomed: econocrats, technocrats, and historio-psycho-sociocrats — all those self-designated experts of ours at work in the invisible bureaus where warrants were signed for arrest, torture, deportation, unlimited imprisonment or execution for whatever reasons those anonymous ones care to concoct. Not only in authoritarian and dictatorial societies. It is the “crats” who fabricate excuses for those who control the presses and the etheric bandwidths, the police as well as the oligarchy above them: the politicians, gangsters, and managers of society, and since the mid-Century, the loudspeakers and billboards of a commercial culture to which everything is subjected, and everyone subsumed. Almost all writers and thinkers, at least since Darwin have struggled against the modern, “cratic” way of defining the soul into nonexistence. As for the “spirit” of Western Man: today the pontifexes and revivalists of a global supermarket of creeds pump up the anthropopathic machine in the intensive-care wards of the advanced democratic polities, competing for profit with athletic teams for space in sports arenas, or filling hundreds of thousands of vacant seats with vast prayer meetings during the intervals between baseball and football and tennis and soccer and basketball seasons; as the militarized, totalist states of our era did with their parades, congresses of cultural forums, and round-the-year Olympics-type mass calisthenics. Common to all, however, their idea of the “soul” is conflated with the reified notion of a National Identity. Hence to speak of the “soul” today means to speak of the “soul” of this or that people as a nationality: or an ethnic collection of people, or their local religion, their songs and dances, or their cuisine, or their villages and houses and castles, rebuilt for tourist trade. Most often the soul is conceived as something like an essence, even if that essence is merely derived from the mining of scholarly materials, the records and archives of libraries.3 This abstract, merely obscurantist technique may be trivial in its commonplace, popular manifestation, that of the sleep-walking narcosis of consumer compulsion; when it is seriously applied for the arming of some souls for mortal struggle against other souls, it has proved not only reactionary but devastating, as newspapers have shown us for decades. That murder and chaos result is apparent in the most advanced, and liberal of societies of the West, whether it is official or spontaneously engendered by individuals who act out the shibboleths of racial or religious identities.
Nor do I wish, in referring the extinction of the “soul” to the early 19th Century, or shortly before it, to hark back to the Romantic figure of le poète maudit, a once grand, even grandiose figure that has devolved into the savage sentimentality today of the depraved adolescent, or modeling themselves on the personas of raging pop musicians, whose synthetic frenzies are rehearsed and produced for juvenile masses in stadiums. Le poète maudit was perhaps the first sign of reaction to the Enlightenment’s rationalist and then the industrialist Positivist attack upon the soul, and the brief Romantic period can be regarded as a fever, somewhat like the organism’s response to massive infection. Neither am I thinking of the dissociation of the artist from the social changes wrought by industrialization, which can be studied through the most part of the 19th Century under the head of “bourgeois individualism,” and lumped, after Poe and Baudelaire, with Symbolism, then with Dada, Surrealism, Neo-Dada & Neo-Surrealism, and the farrago of isms that have found the spotlight about every five years, all the little isms which used to be concocted by artists and announced in manifestos, but which are latterly the invention of caption writers and agents for celebrities and broadcast by half-baked newspaper reviewers or talk-show hosts. Those hectic episodes of the past might be likened to the organism’s various symptoms as the chronic malaise afflicting the soul, attacked now this, now that organ of the cultural corpus. That history is a concern of critical commentary — or used to be, when there was a garden for serious criticism of poetry, and not the sterile corridors of self-reflecting mirrors proclaiming “Theory.”
Rather, I suggest that promulgation of something called a National Literature became attractive over the past hundred years as the nation state became the chief form of political organization. Its incarnations jostle for shelf space in the Western entertainment emporium, playing to a myriad of “special” audiences such as ethnic, and sexual/gender groups, whose publications are as parochial as the magazines of plumbing supplies manufacturers, pharmaceutical houses, unions, or hobbyists, or religious sects, or a thousand identifiable markets. Whether defined by the Masters of the Interrogation Cell or the University Seminar, the very concept of a National Literature is merely irrelevant to the Tribe of the Poets. Seldom are they included in official symposia, colloquia, and conferences, because they are an equivocal element, also suspected to be dangerous. When they are paid to come to a scholars conference to read, that is all they are asked to do, and if they are professionals, they come to sell their latest books under the benevolent toleration of the 99% of literary scholars who don’t read them, or contemporaries in any case. The Managers, that portion of them who masquerade as Academics, will do well to remember that oblivion awaits those who degrade Poetry.4 (Although, for having defined the Soul away and consigned its vestiges to mystics and fundamentalist fanatics, they have already set one foot over the threshold into oblivion.) My views regarding the arrived and universally accepted notion of National Literature, whether it be that of a nation or diverse ethnic/racial/gender groupings within a nation, may seem arbitrary to those so committed to the absolute politicization of language that they are already insentient to their situation outside the noumenon of Poetry. If I am not mistaken, today’s Academy is the main source of the synthetic, manufacture of identities that groups of all kinds and sizes wear like tie-dyed robes to assert unique diversities that are scarcely more than a substitution of stereotypes lifted from our rich archives for the original energy of what Socrates suggested was the working of the god he called Eros.
Discussing literature and speaking of “national characteristics,” scholars have usually tended towards the mode of vicious abstraction. The general categories used to define a group of people are derived, as Emerson noted [pace Coleridge] from poetic speech; hence a thing — mineral, vegetable, animal — seems to characterize a class of similar things. Metonomy universalizes; simile identifies; and metaphor transports. Poetic speech is responsible for our habitual, ingrained, perhaps inevitable tendency to confuse the one, the singular and unique, with the many; and the Many in turn with a still higher One. Among all our achievements as cultured animals, perhaps only mathematics has purified itself of metaphor. But we must always remember that arithmetic neglects (or avoids) from its first axiom the fact that what lives alone and in the particular alone– that no particular living thing has yet been fully described mathematically, moreover that it may be intrinsically impossible to do so. Even if the particular is located by being placed in a larger field, there is still a disjunction between the field or class and the existent individuals of which it is composed. Apart from the statements of mathematics, the “life” of a particular is given to our apprehension of an event or existent by means of poetry, that is, by poetic speech. Yet, while a poem is an artifact of language, it is itself contained within language. The poem is an especially interesting thing, because it suggests most of the problems inherent in our understanding of the nature of language. Language is the best example of a field or system of classifications that exists, yet cannot exist sans the particular event in a particular living individual. The poem is a complex of complexities, and metaphor is a brilliant, even blinding source of meaning, perhaps the sine qua non of all significance and meaning. We should constantly remind ourselves that it is the poetic in speech that makes it possible to say anything more than what we say when we point and say, A=A5
Still, we mostly and usually speak from many other motives than the expression of the poetic. Even when contemplating poetry we usually look elsewhere. We tend to avert ourselves from the event of the poem, which may be regarded as a kind of mirror of the world, or sometimes the sign of the noumenal, like a door into another world (although whether that universe is contiguous, congruent, continuous with or even immanent in what is called the world, is hard to say). Even as we look away from the poem, we nevertheless glimpse the world by its mediation. Perhaps the origin and development of language causes the historical process, with or without specific poems. Poetry, or poetic speech, is an ineluctable element in the individual’s history, too. Perhaps what any individual experiences and knows is a combination of language-as-given and its history. In any case, poetry can be considered as the “model” that forms a language, or upon which a language is formed. Poetry is also its source, which is why ancient texts are still sometimes studied.
Poetry may be considered, if not a “soul” thing (absent whatever sense the word “soul” can once have conveyed) a hoard of “archaeological“ objects and artifacts. That is, poetry models linguistic identity; but it also contains the residues, or vestiges, or preserved, fossil remains of once-extant identities, even, if you will, “National Identities,” such as for example the vanished persons in the Old English epic of Beowulf. Unlike all other archeological remains, however, poetry persists into the present, relatively active, at least insofar as it can be known through texts, even the texts of extinct languages.6
Poetry in its “active” forms, ancient or contemporary, expresses complex, persistent identities, national as well as individual (The Iliad for example, or Bhagavad Gita.) I call such identities “meta-identities,” because they are both in us and of us. They seem to be active in ways that elude the Positivistic definition, which is not self-reflexive, as is culture. They are meta-identities because they are certainly not ourselves, if we think of ourselves as the sum of our responses to our present situation in the realm that is our life’s temporal span. Nor are they the idealized identities that I consider to be “pseudo-identities”. Pseudo-identities are those produced by the illusions and delusions bred in us by whatever society prevails during our own lifetime. Pseudo-identities are cultural impositions upon us, — no matter though we usually believe them to constitute our very selves. Pseudo-identities, for instance, are the persons created in us by the poetry of propaganda, of advertising, the media, the State, and the institutions of the simplest tribal religion or worldwide œcumenes.
Neither should the meta-identities that poetry creates in us be thought of as “souls.” A soul is formed from a meta-identity, depending on how we grow through the poetic word, and beyond it. No one speaking a language self-consciously, that is, learning its songs and poems, can be unaware of its effects, and of how these effects tend toward the acquisition of meta-identity. This is the purpose of literary study, and it gives the subject whatever significance it may have. Proscription of archaic, ancient, or traditional meta-identities by our modern religious and/or political censorship that, through a vacuous education would prevent or usurp their dissemination suggests their importance and power. Banish ancient texts, you banish the latent “souls” of future generations. Psychologists are much interested in the process of language-acquisition in children, since it seems the key to the door that opens upon the understanding of the uniqueness of the human in us. Yet who today is interested in the child’s acquisition of those archaic meta-identities that poetry and poetry alone preserves? Only those who would prevent it — because they wish grown people to remain as ignorant as unschooled children. These persons have a long history; but they have become immensely more powerful, aggressive, and diligent in their control of society than could ever have been anticipated. They are the source of the threat to human development today, and by “development” I imagine an integration of what we always were, and are, which is in fact a species that, using tools, has changed and developed its powers since its appearance a few million years ago.
Ever since the rise of Positivism and its assumption of power over daily life in the early 19th Century, the social sciences, positivism’s main intellectual accomplishment, have taken it as axiomatic that Art, especially the art of poetry, is a nugatory factor in society. The social sciences are not merely taught to the bureaucrats, soldiers, and gangsters who police our world, but practiced by them. The social sciences have become their means to promulgate power. Because the social sciences are positivist, they regard all identities — whether they be a meta-identity, a pseudo-identity, or just a plain “personal” identity — as incidental, useful merely for measurement and management. What is important to the social sciences (including the new “socio-biology”) are countable bodies: these are the loci of the behavioral patterns from which the techniques of “socialization” may be derived. In the last analysis, perhaps it is only the bodies that matter: if only to be counted. For the positivist, bodies are traffic, the flow of which is understood as data graphed on a computer’s screen, so that it can be regulated by various “programs.” The effort of managers today is directed towards a higher efficiency in regulation. For them, identities are either chimerical or nonexistent. If they must be thought of as existential facts, then those facts (i.e., identities) are defined as minimal causative factors, hence negligible for planning purposes. Simply a number will do, and there is no end to the number of numbers.
But the conception of identity, first recognized in the models that the poetic in language provided, is bothersome. Even imaginary numbers are more useful to the equations of the planners than those irrefragable, refractory things, names. From the perspective of the social planners, names are better eliminated, by any and all means— short of liquidating the bodies that carry identities, since numbers need those same bodies in order to be counted. Identities also must be gotten rid of because they are contaminated by annoying traces of the metaphysical, and theological, those anachronistic carriers of possibly dangerous genes in the nucleus of the cells that constitute the social organism, individual human beings. Whereas philosophy has always had to contend with poetry, Positivism’s great discovery was that the elimination of meta-identities can be achieved simply by regarding them as inexistent.
That is the present (implicit) position of Western social science. But it will very soon, indeed too soon, become explicit. Any fully-developed, sophisticated social science must assume that position. And even if social science may not reach that position tomorrow in theory, it will nevertheless come to it in practice for the means of data collection and processing, supported by 5th and 6th generation of super-computers on the way. In theory, after all, allowances can be made for bits of anomalous data — such as persons (i.e., identities), one might even say of persons that they are present, yet unaccounted for. Though some scattered thinkers still try to preserve the remnants of the legacy of Humanism, they are not strong contenders in the struggle for control of social science; that struggle is being waged by ruthless secular and theocratic powers today.
Still, even the would-be Humanist planner does not think to provide for meta-identities in his projections. In fact, chatter about a humanist social science is self-contradiction. Marx, for instance, like most social scientists in the early days of positivism who had no knowledge of the complexity of biology, may have permitted marginal allowances based on poetic models when he described the future paradise of communism. Lenin, though, was so ignorant of elementary human biology (what could be termed social ethology today) that he regarded the intellectuals, those specialized carriers of identities, as “vermin,” and started up the terror machinery to do away with such pests. Art is acceptable to Marxist planners as a Social Tool, or Weapon — when fabricated as a medium of controlled communication and instruction. (That way of thinking about Art is another aspect of McLuhan’s famous, apodictic formulation: the Medium is the Message.) Such a view reveals a barbarous way of thinking. Even as theory, it is deficient. In practice it is reactionary. Its votaries may have believed it, in whatever way the word “belief” be taken; but the world knows they also carried in plain view the weapons they used to enforce it. In any case, belief itself was and is unnecessary to bureaucrats, who flourished within the organs of the totalistic State, whether it be tiny Cuba to this hour or leviathans like China or the former U.S.S.R.’s empire. Art in such secular tyrannies was completely under their control. In the religious tyrannies that have remained and flourish today, as in the Islamic societies where religious authority and State authority are identical, Art and the Arts remain sequestered in various degrees of nullity or constant nullification. George Meredity observed 125 years ago or so that where women are not free, there is no comedy, for example. Since comedy is always, from its origins, founded on the satirical, we know that words, that is, the poet’s words, will be muffled if not suffocated by the controls of the fanatic and fetishistic shibboleths of prescribed modes of faith, of belief, or ritual observance.
Insofar as poetry is integral to a National Literature per se, real poets will seek to remain apart from it. To the Tribe of the Poets there is no such thing as a “National Literature.” True, during the 19th Century, poets were instigators and leaders in movements aimed at breaking up autocratic empires in Central Europe and the Balkans, and many did speak of Nations and of Peoples. Their roles as revivifiers and even creators of written, vernacular “traditions” were persuasive and profound. The 19th Century ideal of National Literatures is invoked today as a means of dissent and resistance, as a call to self-consciousness or for consciousness-raising. Nationality in literature is a political-polemical proclamation, usually coercive; whereas the poet’s language is an accident of birth. Contemporary loudspeakers use the honorific, emotional term, “The People,” to suggest the idea, so-called, of a National identity based on the language a group of people speak. In short, the idea of “National Literature” common today represents the ersatz and kitsch materials prepared in our technocratic language factories. Such writings are processed, distributed and sold as advertisements for groups surrounded by borders drawn on the map by rulers; they are invisible lines, the parameters created by the surveys of social scientists. Styles in clothing, cookery, home furnishings, et cetera, are exported as the “creations” of designers based on the “traditions” of National Identities — Folk Chic. Talk about a National Literature is like the jingo flackery extolling high-powered “ethnic” dance troupes backed by symphonic arrangements of village tunes. To speak of a “National Literature” in connection with poetry is no more than to croon about a new line of dresses or dishes as the “poetry of clothing,” and “the romance of dining.” Nevertheless, for the members of the Tribe of the Poets, there can only be that event for which they work and wait: the coming of the poem. The poem comes into existence in the words by which it is constituted. And it is words that carry with them identities and the meta-identities; and words make the poems that constitute a literature.
So, what is the poet, rather, where is the poet, when it comes to thinking about poetry? We may regard the poet as the curator of society’s linguistic artifacts, that is, of its archaic identities, too — insofar as the poet can penetrate and comprehend the identities residual in words. In fact, it might be said that verbal artifacts are intrinsically archaic by the time they are twenty, or even ten years old. For that matter, yesterday’s poem is already an archaic event. The primordial time of the poem’s making has immediately lapsed into social time, that is, into history. It is in history that the scholar and critic assemble poems, the residues of poetic events, into the mosaic that, reified by textbooks into a “tradition,” constitutes a “National Literature.” What has that to do with poetry? For the poet, nearly nothing.
What does the poet do, if not fundamentally concerned with producing work under the rubric of a National Literature? The poet attends the primordial event from which the poem originates, and ministers to its speech. The poet thus acts as a self-appointed thaumaturge for certain psychic needs. (Uncertified. Unlicensed. Reward and punishment incidental. “Kill him for his bad verses,” cries a voice from the mob in Shakespeare’s Julius Cæsar.) These needs may not be all that proximate in time or space. They can be latent or potential needs in an audience that may not exist in the poet’s lifetime, or if existent, may not be waiting for the poet’s words. The audience may not realize its need for those words before they are offered, if the poet is permitted to offer them by the local chieftain (or council of elders, or band of wild, young followers, or powerful businessmen or gangsters who also contend for its limited attention-span). Not a pleasant position to be in. But that is the position in which the poet is to be found in civilized, that is bureaucratized societies, whether ancient, modern-industrial, or the coming totalistic ones.
In the European experience after Homeric times, poets concocted and delivered the artifacts today labeled National (whether Nationalistic or Nationalized). Early on poets were absorbed by the priesthood and bureaucracy of the ancient city-states and empires in both the Near and Far East, where they purveyed more or less prescribed, commissioned placebos — the same sort of products for a National literature that would be approved by our present rulers. (A Sappho, an Archilochus, a Catullus offered something else, as did a Jeremiah, an Ecclesiastes, or the author of Job.) Today the poet also delivers a legible-anywhere pablum that may be termed Literature for Human Understanding — in other words, the greeting cards sold by UNESCO. It is predigested to suit the pseudo-identities demanded by its official vendors. A not altogether useless vocation.
Or, the poet acts surreptitiously, providing under-the-counter artifacts meant to assuage unacknowledged or forbidden needs. But, what could require an X-brand remedy for its well-being? The soul, for its needs are basically linguistic. And the thaumaturgical work it uses for its existential homeostasis is unimaginable to those who babble about National Literatures. Today, it is deemed unacceptable to implicate the poet in communication with souls or sordid traffic in them. The notion is repugnant to our way of thinking about human problems, whether we are believers in some sort of god or social planners, or both; because the term “soul,” that vaguest of all meta-identities, is but a shabby relic of fossilized religious systems from vanished cultures.2
Since, viewed from any present perspective the poet’s relationship to the soul is problematic, it is harmless to suggest that poetry makes for heroes (or strange men and women, when we consider what is usually the content of their lives and works). Such social types don’t fit well into the format required of those who produce works of National Literature. “Human understanding,” in the social science sense of it, may be the last thing poetry derives from, or works toward. The very term, “human understanding,” presumes a single mind in the species. Whereas poetry presumes the occurrence and representation of unique events, events that remain unique in each action-and-reaction by which a poem manifests its meta-identities in each living person.
Contrarily, “continuity,” or the “Tradition,” that is, the Cult of National Literature, is favored by both “socialist-camp” slave drivers and capitalist paymasters, as well as by the “revolutionary” “educational” advertisers who have taken over the means of production of thought and speech in our time. “Continuity” is sheer delusion; it is a straitjacket tied by the agents who repress the individual, even with benign instruments like communication. Continuity, or National Literature, is the armature of steel hidden within the mushy lectures of the historian in a classroom of a television series titled “Mankind.” Continuity is the nostalgia predicated by texts and teachers everywhere and nowhere.
The Tribe of the Poets, in other words, those in whom poetry occurs poem by poem, is an anomalous group of individuals whose association is contingent. They stand in relation to the organization of literature in modern society as the Rechabites seem to have stood in relation to the kingdoms of ancient Judah, Israel, and Samaria. The Rechabites were tent-dwellers, old believers, keepers of an archaic form of faith. Their adherence to the memory of the foundations of the faith prevented them from being assimilated to the elaborate, corrupt manners of sedentary, civilized society. In effect, the Rechabites were keepers of conscience and the spiritual; and they remained so by staying tribal and nomadic, tent-dwellers amidst the cities. They were anachronistic witnesses to the primordial moments of the faith’s establishment, which continued to arouse in them an expectancy of the coming to men and women of the Lord, the creator of the soul, the Voice out of Nowhere, the Maker of Speech that is a special mode of speech, exemplary speech that recognizes the primordial events such as were signified by some of the songs called Psalms. The Psalms attest to hearing and re-speaking the words of that Voice, whose force makes its terrific and terrible incursion into the sleeping state we call our reality, a reality in which we dream our reasons. The Prophets went far beyond even that recognition.
Being like those primitivistic Rechabites of old, the poets are, metaphorically speaking, driven from the temple of official literature. Either they flee, or they must allow themselves to be kept as specimens, gaudy flies in the amber of a National Literature. The Tribe of the Poets may be permitted to come and trade in the marketplace, to observe festivals and compete for national prizes. They may also be likened to internal emigrés, or fugitives, or gypsies. They service the National Need whenever they are held up as exemplars of this or that aspect of the National Genius. But when they find themselves baffled by the super-rationalization of institutions of higher learning, they usually choose to serve neither the needs of a National Literature nor even the needs of their Tribe — preferring to meditate alone in the wilderness of themselves, often as not sleeping while awake and dreaming nightmares, sometimes growing as mad or arid as their private wastelands. That is a loss for poetry. Poetry can be lost in many ways, but its loss is always a loss of the soul — that meta-identity elicited via the poem as a kind of fleeting, primordial consciousness.
Because we are growing impoverished mentally and emotionally, and because rulers are forced to make ever more stringent plans for managing social economies, poets are considered expendable. In fact, the organizers have always suspected, that in the intrinsically-rationalized process of social planning, poetry — the unpredictable incursion of a voice from some elsewhere — is a luxury we can forego. Who can make plans based on the contingent, the fortuitous, and above all, the gratuitous? Poetry is not merely a luxury but also sets a subversive example against the rationalized order, because poets wait for those incursions of the voice, shutting eyes and ears to all our positivist engines whose operation fills the emptiness of their waiting with their twitters and roars.
Poetry is not words on the page; not communications; not therapy; not entertainment; not filler on the schedule of 500+ channels of infotainment or even edutainment. In the planned global economy of the future, and it will be a planned one sooner or later, poets will be considered “social parasites,” as some already have been called in many regimes during this century. Poetry will bring those who utter it ostracism, banishment, exile, and sometimes a death sentence, as has happened in our time, and has oc-curred even to novelists who cite banned verses in their prose texts. To term a person parasitic, is usually the first legalistic step taken towards defining that one out of existence. We may be quite sure that the Tribe of the Poets will never be given, no, certainly not! even a paltry minute of air-time to speak to the world from any of the many tightly-controlled satellites in space, if only because they cost so much to put up and maintain. Besides, what could poets cry out from space? When that Soviet cosmonaut radioed down years ago that he could observe the Earth and our Solar System and the stars, but had not seen God, we were given a fine example of the arrogant banality of the creatures of technology; and an indication of the absolute poverty of their spirit. They cannot afford poetry at all. Poetry it seems is a luxury that probably will not be obtainable in our future. It will not be privileged to anyone at all. Until then, perhaps silence is the only thing to be heard from them, if that can be heard at all.
Yet even if poetry were not to be banished as a privilege or luxury, the Tribe of the Poets represents a social liability. Because of the peculiarity of the poetic process and of poetic language, poets will be prevented from contributing their artifacts in the future because they will appear to be false values that could interfere with the Communications Network. Poetic language will not be written into the software of the social programmers because the universal, universalist, universalizing data-processor cannot account for the events we call poems. And then poetry shall come to seem like that thing called the soul: the thing that is not. Poetry cannot be surveyed, measured, numbered, stored, and it is precisely the surveyed, the measured, the numbered and stored that is accommodated by the determinants, parameters, and paradigms of a social reality based upon plans made with the aim of control. Like the sub-atomic particles described by the Principle of Uncertainty in physics, the poetry associated with the poem cannot be located in its constituents. Even if the planners attempt to manage its constituents with more powerful magnets, as it were, they will not be able to find and calibrate, let alone control poetry, although that seems to be the way they wish to go.
Far from establishing Pure Poetry as the speaking of the Unknown that is present yet not present in the language, structure, and allusions of the poem, the Abbé Brémond, for example, was in fact talking a perfect positivism. Instead of mysticism, Brémond’s idea was in fact positivism stood on its head, a positivism inverted by the poets’ pique with an exhausted culture. It is useless to speak of ineffables to the positivist mind-set, which simply declares that all talk of the individual, unique soul is nonsense. And who could fail to come down on the side of even the crudest version of positivism, when writers like Brémond seek to defend the ineffable, that is the poetic, by displacing it from the Earth in a flight of vacuous theological analogy?
My point however has been to suggest that meta-identities are what the poetry in poems prepares in us. That in fact they are a perfectly natural thing, though tending towards the transcendental if only because language itself includes time past, the dimensions of events that were and are no longer, and events that never were, or even never could have been, yet which persist through language.
We have not really begun to miss the soul. Not yet. We feel some disquieting symptoms from its loss; but it is believed that these symptoms can be treated. In that case there is no reason why poetry should be missed either. Like the Tribe of the Rechabites who wandered through the Kingdoms of Samaria, Israel, and Judah during the First Millennium BCE, the poets will soon be gone into the wilderness of our human past, that desert where none can live for long, and where so few today are disposed even to venture. They are leaving the Nations with their National Literatures to confront each other on the fields of explication and obscurantist, metalinguistic disputation about poetics, of propaganda and communications, and of mass entertainments that are nothing more than degraded and clumsy poetry. The Nations will arrange their hegemonies, their various overlordships and satrapies, their networks and provincial syndications of professors and bureaucrats; they will exchange delegations meant to display their “heritages”; they will divide up the booty of spoiled lives and ruined decades like scavengers disposing of the carrion they have themselves strewn about in the carnage of their so-called cultures. The emigration of the Tribe of the Po-ets will seem no misfortune to them, even if they disappear for whole epochs. But each of us is the loser.
The nature of poetry requires that the ground be always prepared, available for its arrival. For the power intrinsic to language is so profound that even where there is ignorance, hostility, destruction, and decay, it may yet, as in ancient theophanies, sometimes produce a poem. In the chaotic sleep we call our human existence, a poem is the record of a moment of illumination by the hidden, lost, mysterious, or obscured light of the soul.
- 1 It may be recalled that Jean Genet added one new avatar to the ancient types of authority, king, priest, soldier: that of the policeman. Cf. Le Grand Balcon.
- 2In his GULAG books Solzhenitsyn demonstrated how obsessed with souls the State Security organs of the U.S.S.R. have been from the very beginning, since they went to horrendous lengths in camps and psychiatric hospitals to combat and eradicate them. This, despite the irony that by suppression they tended to create new souls in men and women — a surprising accomplishment, considering this late hour in the history of civilization! — just as industrial diamonds are produced by means of immense pressure and ultra-high temperature. Today, the chiliastic sects of Christianity are producing their enclaves of possessed souls; some are widening their control by means of mass-meetings and television; and the Islamic fundamentalists are determined simply to obliterate physically, as they have traditionally done, any and all who lift their heads from submission to the rulings of the theocrats.
- 3An instructive example is the recent invention of the Ministry of Tourism in Mexico City, which found a vast culture extending from the heart, so to speak, of the Aztec domain in Mexico City all the way up into most of the Southwestern United States, once part of the Spanish Empire that destroyed it. This has been named “Aztlan,” and the word itself is meant to suggest to Mexican-Americans as well as tourists an identity that is singular and not a composite of various tribes from the Yucatan north. That it is vacuous, suitable merely for emblazoning T-shirts with the sun disk calendar is of no concern to tourist boards or leaders of a “Chicano” consciousness.
- 4When I met and became friends with one of the first few Chinese to be permitted out of the PRC after Chairman Mao’s death (he was given a year to acquire good enough English to translate Derrida and De Man, Baudrillard and the rest of those founders), he gave as a parting gift for my son, a graduate student in Chinese Archaeology, “the only thing worth reading”: an anthology of several volumes of the best Tang poets handed to him by his father. There is nothing better, his father had told him before he disappeared into the deathly slough of “re-education” in some desolate place in the West from which he was never to return.
- 5That A=A, is the beginning and the end of modern linguistic philosophy, so aptly named Logical Positivism.
- 6Even in the popular imagination, as in those terror movies in which an archaeologist reads the poetry from, say, The Book of the Dead, and brings a pharaoh back to vengeful life, although why the mummy should always be evil, bent on destruction, is another matter. Perhaps the “soul” of such long-dead creatures is irretrievable, even if the poetry can return the form to the living.