Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Architectonics of Poetry

sketched 5/9/2010
descending Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon

As Cal and I began our hike down the Bright Angel Trail, it struck me, overlooking the Canyon, that here, in the presence of time-defiant carvings, vaster, more slowly and minutely sculpted than any imaginable human endeavor, that in this scene of staggering contrasts, one may postulate and reflect upon the most significant distinction between American and European culture.

I will speak specifically of poetry.

In broad strokes, we may say that Europe has inherited and developed highly structured, metered, rhymed, and decorative forms of poetic expression. The many forms this has taken yet reflect a unifying, underlying purpose: that the human enterprise is about managing and controlling nature. It is a poetry of architectonics, asserting the human rejection of randomness, insignificance, minuteness. Even where, in this body of work, the human enterprise, personally or on a grand scale pales or fails, still, the divine and especially the messianic is tangent and prepared to assume authority. Yes, that is it: the structuring of European poetry represents a literature of an authoritarian human will conquering nature, and where that fails, of divine interventions that either shape or crush us.

Not so the quintessential American poetry, vis, Whitman, Neihardt, Jeffers, Turner, Thoreau (as if prose poetry), and their intellectual and spiritual colleagues in Bierstadt, Moran, Cole, Remington. The architectonics of their art are not driven by or contained in the formalities of fixed structures. Their vision is an outpouring of an epic narrative, following the non-linear and unexpected contours of consciousness, and emulating nature, rather than trying to control, restructure, or geometricize it. Natural beauty and natural structure are the virtue of this art and its vision, and the divine is not tangent or removed or above, nor waiting to intervene with redemptions and punishments, but embedded and present, immanent. And as the divine is immanent, so is the human responsibility to moral action, here, now, not deferred, not waiting for a messiah, but acting with a messianic agency.

Thus my meandering thoughts as we climb down the steep trail that follows native contours, crossing paths with speakers of a dozen languages or more, the California Condor brooding silently overhead, cliffs and steep drops but a step or two away, awestruck and inspired, thinking of this conflicted, flawed, and glorious nation and the unexpected changes it has generated in the human soul, in the human word.

1 comment:

Gregory A. said...

You are light years ahead of me with your understanding of poetry Steve...yet, I feel that you are reaching for an insight that is both true and profound. There is indeed a special brand of European anger at religion (for very justifiable reasons!) that results, as you put it, in a new authority for the human will. This anger does not permeate North American consciousness - indeed when British New Atheists rant in North America - their 'colonial' audiences wonder what all the fuss is about. Do you think this openness to immanence is a latent aspect of our humanity that emerges once we are in a situation where we no longer have to react angrily?