The remittance of mistrust.
I am caught by two competing intuitions. Poetry seems a sham, a form of sophistry and fantasy: what Thomas Bernhard, one of the more angry literary mistrusters, calls "a lousy scrap of wind and rot." Absolutely, it can be lousy and windy. Sed contra: I love some poems, find them necessary, feel claimed by them despite my doubts. The combination of these intuitions I call mistrust. I hold my faith in the solution of my doubts. I give precedence to mistrust, and faith motivates its hold.
Situated amid such a tension, not between belief and doubt, but between saying "Aha!" and at the same time mistrusting that any "Aha!" could be about what I think it is, I try to cultivate my attention to poems through my mistrust of them. I have been told this is perverse. So be it.
Poems, disheveled in meaning but neat in form (or disarrayed in form, with whatever coy or disdaining implications), offer particular temptations to belief or doubt. As such, poems can become exempla of an interminable tension between hope built on faith and fear built on mistrust. My motives in reading poetry are both suspect and strangled. Am I simply a disappointed romantic, wanting desperately to live within extravagant meaning (with the pathos of Hamlet or the faith of St. Francis), while at the same time taking it all back in self-reflexive angst and doubt (with the pathos of Hamlet or the wit of Freud)? I will argue for another option, another form of motivated mistrust that is more classical than romantic, in the spirit of Lear's fool.
I mistrust poetry easily. Possibly I am a certain kind of person for whom the attraction and power of words and phrases produces a reaction of mistrust exactly because I overrate their power. Beliefs are also easy to come by, but that is just to say we are easily confused and confirmed in our egotism and cognitive limits, and so we believe things we should and things we should not.
Attending to what might matter more than anything or might be nothing much at all is an exercise that requires discipline and delicacy. My attention through mistrust produces a particular mode of interpretation, a mode of description and redescription that never quite settles in a meaning or a frame, a context for understanding. But nor does it forgo sense or understanding. A poem is unsettled and unsettling if taken, as it should be, not as a statement, but as a half-lost, half-directed reaching and withholding.
Finding a way with poems when one is suspicious of them, when one lets their odd nature color their surface, when one tries to get into view the assumptions and beliefs that allow them to appear as poems at all, requires a specific method of investigation: a peristaltic movement back and forth, toward poems and away from them. Assumptions have great force relative to poems; our beliefs are immediately involved, partly because the way we understand something as a poem is either up for grabs or is controlled by training and prejudice. Our beliefs are the nets we use to catch poems--or they are the means by which poems catch us. The peristaltic method is a means of getting the poem, ourselves, and our assumptions more in view in order to describe all three under different and shifting aspects, yet always relative to each other.
So my method will be to take four steps forward and two back. One might think this would mean to go forward with faith and then retreat half the distance in doubt. Unfortunately, it will be the other way around--to move forward with doubt and react with faith. I hope to justify the necessity of this way of proceeding as I go.
The remittance of mistrust labels this movement forward and back, an asymmetrical return and a transference of attention between a poem and one's relation to it. This peristalsis is a way of concentrating on our involvement with poetry, as opposed to our ideas of poetry.
The great modern poet of mistrust is Geoffrey Hill. His mistrust is of the kind I mistrust: a latter-day disappointed romanticism, aspiring to faith and motivated by desire for divine language, which invokes language as a redemptive power and then abuses it as fallen and humanity as unworthy. Hill's poetic language is not guided by the more abstract romantic metaphysics of, for example, Coleridge, but by a moral sensibility that, while hoping that poetry can be redemptive, never finds it to be anything but a slough of despair and sin. Hill's mistrust tilts toward moral outrage. To him poetry seems too often "the tongue's atrocities": atrocious because marred by the inertia of idioms, pretenses, disreputable motives, factitious empathies, and prurience. Hill combats these atrocities of the tongue with hyper-attention and poetic care, by slipping back and forth between extravagant ambitions and ironic deflations.
In his poetry and prose, Hill suffers this romantic conflict between belief and doubt. Certainly, there are two critical faiths about his poetic beliefs, each of which guides how his poems are read. John Peck highlights Hill's seeming faith in poetry. He imagines that Hill "sets the action of poetry at the intersection of Pentecost with resurrection." Peck thinks that Hill answers the threat to which Allen Tate also responds, the threat that the "loss of symbolic language may mean the extinction of our humanity."
Harold Bloom, on the other hand, discovers in Hill an exemplar of the anxiety of influence, which, while not opposed to faith, is in an agonistic war with poetry:
As a war of poetry against poetry, Hill's work testifies to the repressive power of tradition, but also to an immensely individual and deeply moving protest against tradition.
In support of this, Bloom claims (quoting "The Songbook of Sebastian Arrurruz") that "Hill's task is to 'to find value / In a bleak skill,' the poet's craft of establishing true rather than false 'sequences of pain.'" What a true sequence of pain is would be hard to say. "True" here means something like morally valid; but relative to what? Hill does seem to imagine that pain, at least a seriousness about pain, if deflated by guilt, is a kind of moral or spiritual harrowing. That seriousness is part of the faith that Peck marks; the guilt is part of the agonistic war against poetry that Bloom describes. That war leads to sacrifices: "Poems are 'gobbets of the sweetest sacrifice.'" This line from "Annunciations" fits with an image, as Bloom reads it, of poems as "specimen-jar[s] fed with delicate spawn." For Bloom this represents "an attack upon everyone who has to do with poetry: poets, critics, teachers, students, readers."
I think both Peck and Bloom are right. Together they characterize Hill's peculiar mistrust of poetry. Hill's mistrust is not a form of skepticism, but an anxiety about significance and import. His mistrust is sustained by an unresolved combination of romantic ambition and ironic deflation. Held in tension, they resist cynicism, but at a great cost. They produce what can seem at times in Hill an hysterical fastidiousness, a commitment to a half-idealized, half-mined past that acts as a means of refusing the present. His poems are tense with difficulty and subtly controlled experimental pressure. They serve an ideal of hyper-fullness of meaning and take a schoolboy's pleasure in being first in the class, in satisfying an idealized set of conventions. Stripped of its sophistications, Hill's mistrust might seem like a mistrust of life. But if that were the case, he would have good reason: his remains a positive kind of mistrust that attempts to protect a faith in poetry. Nevertheless, I mistrust his mistrust.
Hill does seem to want poetry to be Pentecostal, a form of God's Word, the Holy Spirit causing the Apostles to speak in their native tongues to create a cacophony that expresses God. Pentecostal voices--if we take them as caused by the Holy Spirit--have divine authority deflected through our limited and varied human modes of speech. Such speaking gives Hill a scene of both extravagant meaning and human limitation. Pentecost was understood as the founding moment of the early church, the moment after which many different believers came together to form an ecumenical whole. Poetry that is Pentecostal would overcome language's Babeling failures to speak that is Pentecostal would overcome language's Babeling failures to speak what is true, and in so doing would transform a community of discord into one of accord. The form of that accord, however, is ironic because it would seem like discord. Without divine revelations' guarantee, shared meaning degrades into shared beliefs about a poem or poetry.
The pattern of Hill's mistrust is exemplified in a short lyric "Shiloh Church, 1862: Twenty-three Thousand." The place and the event, the battle of Shiloh and the number of the dead, offer a context. The poet addresses the church--"O stamping-ground of the shod Word!" This is irony: the divine Word shod and stamping--with its redemptive force, does it gather those dead stamped for salvation or is it stomping the men dead, stomping dead men with its divine shoes? The irony continues later in the poem when the poet evokes God's power and the traditional mode of guilty asseveration: '"Jehovah punish us!'" Human terror is framed by this ironic prayer to God and intensified by the description of the dead as those "who fell to feasting Nature," as if a romantic aspiration transformed into a pagan god would turn Shiloh pond red. With ironic shrillness the bones of the dead become white turds, natural offal, which, in being shat onto the ground, want "to find out God in this / His natural filth." God is a "voyeur of sacrifice" -as is the poet and his readers. Is it hubris or condemnation to call God a voyeur? The shitting of bones for this Voyeur is redescribed as "a slow / Bloody unearthing of the God-in-us." Again, shrill irony, tense between hubris and condemnation. But all this is undone by a further doubt, which takes us not further toward human agony but toward Shiloh Church, the place itself, here framed in a neutrality that looks both toward us human beings and also toward whatever we address in prayer: "But with what blood, and to what end, Shiloh?" This is all romantic irony--an invocation of God that is revoked in hubris or condemnation.
Human folly encourages romantic faith; human fear prompts cynicism. Hill attempts to resist cynicism and mitigate faith by shuttling between them in a poetic game of saying something and then taking it back. I do not feel Hill's disappointment at human folly and I reject cynicism.
My mistrust is as quixotic as Hill's, but in a different way. The exemplar of my mistrust is Odysseus' mistrust of his men in book ten of The Odyssey. After reaching the land of Aeolus and being gifted a home-driving west wind, as well as a bag that holds all the other home-denying winds, Odysseus takes up a stance of caring mistrust--a wariness of his crew, a care for the sailing of the ship, a refusal to quite trust his men for fear that, beguiled by Ate, they will destroy them- selves by blind folly. He mistrusts them with good reason and out of his care for them. He stays awake to try to ensure a safe homecoming. The men, envious and seduced by uncertainty, wonder if Odysseus has hidden treasures in the bag given to him by Aeolus. They distrust Odysseus out of their greed and anxiety. Odysseus, exhausted by his attention to the ship for days and nights, finally falls asleep not far from Ithaka: "Enticing sleep came on me, bone-weary from working the vessel's sheet myself, no letup, never trusting the ropes to any other mate, the faster to journey back to native land." His mistrust fails him and his men's distrust succeeds. Their success is their undoing: the winds escape and they are blown from home.
Odysseus' mistrust is motivated by care for his men, a sense of his own competence, and a suspicion of human motives, an understanding of human folly. The tragedy of his mistrust, however, does not lie with the nature of the mistrust. Odysseus' mistrust is simply unequal to the task. Odysseus does not out of folly resist folly; he attempts to manage folly, his own and others' Mistrust is required, and yet it will always fail in the end. For Odysseus-like mistrust, while well-motivated, can never be adequate to the anxieties that produce envy and cynicism, nor to the wild faith that opens us to the attractions of fantasy. Nevertheless this is a kind of mistrust I will offer as the best companion for reading poems.
The promise of poetic significance is a promise of my own significance. To invoke these promises and then to doubt them is the texture (the purpose and possibility) of Hill's poetry and prose. In a poem called "The Imaginative Life," he investigates how and why one writes one's life into poetry--or, rather, we can imagine that this is what he attempts if we try to match the poem to its title. The poem and its title seem disjunct, obscure. We can connect poem and title if we read the poem as an allegory describing poetry in the terms of religious pursuits and devotions. The disjunction between the title and the poem requires us to read one relative to the other; to ask how each could fit the other. This question and our attempts to answer it mimic asking how this poem could fit us or we it: asking about the relation between the title and the poem allows us to ask about how the poem could be a description of us or we a version of it.
This is the poem: The Imaginative Life Evasive souls, of whom the wise lose track, Die in each night, who, with their day-tongues, sift The waking-taste of manna or of blood: The raw magi, part-barbarians, Entranced by demons and desert frost By the irregular visions of a god, Suffragans of the true seraphs. Lust Writhes, is dumb savage and in their way As a virulence natural to the earth. Renewed glories batten on the poor bones; Gargantuan mercies whetted by a scent Of mortal sweat: as though the sleeping flesh Adored by Furies, stirred, yawned, were driven In mid-terror to purging and delight. As though the dead had Finis on their brows.
Who and what are these "evasive souls"? If we let the title guide us, these souls are those who imagine. Who are they? They are, at least, poets. They are also those who "die in each night." Before we become comfortable with calling them sleepers, and then accept our night life as the model for our imaginative life, we should remember that these evasive souls die in the night, and have day-tongues. We are thus evasive when awake.
If we are evasive souls in the daytime, sifting our manna, what are we when these evasive souls die in the night? How does an evasive soul die? By no longer being evasive--that is, by getting caught by sleep or death? One might wonder, however, what is the difference between an evasive soul sifting and an evasive soul dead or asleep? Since I am lost to myself in sleep, I could then be evasive from myself. But one can see the twisting question-begging form of all this. Evasive is what we are when awake, but we could tell a story that could make evasive describe our being asleep. Our wakefulness can be construed as evasive in different ways--avoiding sleep or death, avoiding the wise, whoever they are.
Any interpretation of "evasive soul" requires judgments that float on unwarranted assumptions. So what answer could we find that could matter as a claim about the poem? Any answer we give to "what is an evasive soul?" will be a new game, whose value cannot be given or determined except by understanding what we should and can do with this poem. There are no rules about that game that anyone should respect.
There is no answer to a poem, especially if we imagine that an answer would be a meaning like the meaning of a sentence. At the very least one would have to decide what sense of meaning is at stake: it is not that we have two poles here--sentence meaning, on the one hand, and interpretative extravagance, on the other. We have a range of kinds of meanings--the meanings of sentences, the meanings of actions, the meanings of events. Also, the meaningfulness of gestures and of emotions, and so on. And we have prompts for interpretation--ambiguities, indeterminacies--none of which show the emptiness or incoherence of language. They instead compel us to orient ourselves within the possibilities of language and our understanding of language as it is deformed and exploited by the poem. Thus, rather than offering an interpretation of a poem as if one were offering a meaning of a sentence or a paragraph or a fact, one might instead read the complexity of the poem's nonsense relative to how one is claimed or disgusted (or whatever else) by its words and phrases. We might attempt to read the poem's figurations relative not only to their possible meanings, but also relative to their nonsense.
In effect, we should treat the question "Who and what are these 'evasive souls'?" as a riddle. A question, as a riddle, requires that we decide what will count as an answer. We must decide the criteria for which an answer will be an answer. This is not to determine a fact of the matter or to find a meaning: it is to interpret. There can be no answer to a riddle separate from our decision about what will count as an answer. In effect, our interpretative strategies and conceptual beliefs provide the criteria for what will count as answers to such poetic questions and ambiguities. But that is a poor way of answering riddles. We should treat each riddle as a task that requires judgments and questions that will never result in stable answers. We are not Oedipus answering the sphinx; we are the sphinx questioning what we find ourselves saying.
How we understand the imaginative life offered by the poem is determined by how we situate ourselves with the poem as a description of something that we do not know, that we need not respect, that is given to us in a specific form that obscures whatever it is about, if it is about anything. The judgments to decide how to accept or reject this description must first proceed through the words given, not the purported target we imagine. In other words, we must allow the words and our struggle with them to give us the target. And such a target and struggle will partly be determined by how we believe or how we mistrust the ordered patterns of words we call poetry.
My own mistrust finds me less with the evasive souls than with the raw magi in the second stanza, because they characterize how we might approach this poem, especially as we mark the promises of its theological gestures:
The raw magi, part-barbarians, Entranced by demons and desert frost. By the irregular visions of a god, Suffragans of the true seraphs.
These magi are at least poets and readers, if not slouching toward Bethlehem, then already mock or mocking copies of Christ, born not as divine and human, but split between priestliness and wildness ("part-barbarians"), entranced half by the demons of the desert spurring them on their travels and half by the promised god before them. As these magi we are raw and half-formed: in the half-forming of our world into words and in our doubts about what the poem's words might mean, about how they might apply to us or the world. Even if this passage does not resonate for you in this way, I offer it as an articulation of two of poetry's possibilities: the possibility to invest the greatest seriousness in words and the possibility that this investment is misguided.
The first three stanzas begin like this:
Evasive souls ... The raw magi ... Suffragans of the true seraphs.
Grammatically, the evasive souls are identified with the raw magi. There is some ambiguity with suffragans, but the pattern of repetition, the nominal form, the religious form, and the fact that each phrase characterizes a putative person encourage a kind of nested identification of these phrases within our imaginative lives, that is those of us reading this poem right now.
There is some connection between the raw magi and the suffragans of the true seraphs. A suffragan is a person, as is a magus. They are both second-order representatives of divinity, and thus the grammatical ambiguity of the last clause can be resolved by linking these two. We could also understand the "suffragan" as a metaphor for the irregular visions--for dreams. But of course this would be to make a true seraph a god, which it is not. If we insist on the connection of the raw magi with irregular visions, we must understand the raw magi as entranced by demons, desert frost, irregular visions of a god, which--not who--would be a suffragan of a true seraph. If "the raw magi" is a figure of the dreamer--or the dream state--then in that state or as that state one would be one's own vision, one's own dreaming. The raw magi would be suffragans at one remove.
These possibilities (or maybe failures) of poetry are enacted in the transformation of these "raw magi" into "suffragans of the true seraphs." Hill's identifications position the poet and the reader in a melodrama of seriousness, while marking the melodrama as a standing-in for something beyond that is never shown or clarified in the poem: the true seraphs. If we cannot find any true seraphs, then we represent nothing, our paper scratchings and intonings are a sham. Do we approach each poem as if it will speak as a true seraph? Reading ourselves into either "raw magi" or into "suffragans" is an allegorical sham. We can too easily take upon ourselves theological language and poses.
In sketching out these analogies among the words of the poem, between the title--the imaginative life--and the poem, between myself and the poem, I am attempting to construe the poem as a description of myself. Such effort is cognate with what Hill calls the redemptive stabilization of ourselves within language. Hill also calls this atonement ("at-one-ment"). In an essay, "Poetry of'Menace' and 'Atonement,'" he illustrates this stabilization with Coleridge's poem "To William Wordsworth." Hill claims, "the private utterance of highly organized art can for a while stabilize the self-dissipating brilliance of the listener's mind, that is, Coleridge's mind, the mind that is concentrating upon that very diffusion."
How does a "mind" "stabilize" itself in "the private utterance of highly organized art"? The importance of aesthetic language lies in its availability as a means of self-description and belief. To be stabilized is either a psychological effect, a relief produced by the comfort of an image or form, or it is a belief, an assent to what the poem offers. For Hill, stabilization counters failure, sin, and dissipation: "A poet can transfigure his own dissipation by a metaphor that perfectly comprehends it."
But a sentence or phrase cannot convince us of its perfect comprehension without some further judgment on our part about what is comprehended. "Perfectly" does not describe a judgment determined by criteria but an experience of recognition and assent. Thus, the perfection of a metaphor is given, is established, in someone's psychological reaction to the language. The rightness, although ascribed to the metaphor and to its sense, is actually an effect and an affect, a feeling.
"A metaphor that perfectly comprehends it" is a vivid phrase. It means that the metaphor is adequate and that the poet recognizes his dissipation. What is true of the poet might be also true for the reader: "These words comprehend me, and I believe it." How do I know this? I feel it. Such a feeling is not enough to engender belief, however. I can believe in my feelings, and that belief can stimulate whatever beliefs I think are confirmed in my self-descriptions (whether made or found). But I can only judge the adequacy of such descriptions by comparing them with other descriptions. There is no adequate metaphoric comprehension that is not founded on rational evaluation.
What kind of stabilization, what kind of recognition can be enacted by our shifting identification with phrases whose meanings for us cannot be given any theological substance? For example, the phrases "imaginative life," "evasive souls...sift[ing] / the waking-taste of manna or blood," "raw magi," "suffragans of true seraphs," "gargantuan mercies," "Adored by Furies." Can we be true seraphs in the way the poem can be a description of the imaginative life? We have no way to determine the sense or validity of such theological and moral language as descriptions of anything. Within the poem we can only understand what is divine and transcendent as nonsensical. Ask yourself in the words of the poem "Am I an evasive soul adored by furies?" What would be an adequate answer?
The point of this last question is to demonstrate that there is no non-tendentious way to decide what would be adequate. To insist that the answer is simple is to say a riddle is a question of fact and not a game of description.
We do not know how to invest ourselves in the allegorical promise offered by the words "raw magi" and "suffragan." We cannot recognize ourselves as raw magi and suffragans without taking upon ourselves the order or theo-logic they promise. Our recognition of ourselves as magus or suffragan is, therefore, a mime. This recognition of the allegorical promise of the word "suffragan" attends the recognition of the nonsense described by "true seraphs." These seraphs, who never enter the world, are not the consorts of Arnold's absent God. We cannot follow these true seraphs into transcendence; as Hill says in "A Pre-Raphaelite Notebook," they talk down from their glory to our degraded condition: "Gold seraph to gold worm in the pierced slime." Is the gold of the worm the same as the seraph's gold? Maybe worm gold parodies celestial gold, an impure image of the image of god.
The God-ejected Word resorts to flesh, procures carrion, satisfies its white hunger. Salvations' travesty a deathless metaphor ...
Poetry would seem at best an attempt to find deathless metaphors, and therefore a travesty of salvation. If this is another of Hill's Pentecostal visitations, then the god-ejected word, projected from divinity, eats the flesh it inhabits, as we eat the host, a metaphor or symbol of Christ, the Word. Is the story Hill tells that God is hungry and eats us, while we believe we are eating him--even in the degraded form of poetry?
Hill mimes theological language, but he refuses to give it sense. We must read our relationship to his mime.
In the pierced slime we find the remnants of dead bodies, the dead with which this poem of suffragans and seraphs ends. Are we to be satisfied with this imaginative life if it ends as Hill's poem does, "As though the dead had Finis on their brows"? There is no fact of the matter. Do we need that label "Finis" to know the dead as the dead, to know them as boundary markers? The end for the dead is nothing, or not even that: words fail. For us Finis is part of what Hill calls the "Renewed glories batten[ing] on the poor bones," where the sympathy of the words seems to speak for the bones battened with these glories, and the glories something to fear. What salvation is being offered to us, if these glories only attach themselves to our drying bones?
Hill turns part of the tension here between glories (divinity) and bones (humanity) to his advantage in his comments on his poem "Annunciations":
By using an emotive cliche like "The Word" I try to believe in an idea that I want to believe in: that poetry makes its world from the known world; that it has a transcendence; that it is something other than the conspicuous consumption...that it seems to be. What I say [in this section of the poem] is, I think, that I don't believe in The Word. The fact that I make the poem at all means that I still believe in words.
Hill still believes in words? What kind of belief is that? If I believe in the Word, I believe in the existence of God and His speech. To believe in the existence of the divine Word entails believing in its efficacy. Not so with human words. Words are odd kinds of things, but nevertheless their existence is not in doubt--unless one doubts the existence of everything. So, what does it mean to believe in words?
If the existence of words is not in doubt, then one imagines that what Hill believes in is their efficacy in some special sense. Given the parallel use of "belief" in Hill's confession of faith, this efficacy borrows something from the power of divine words. Hill invokes an analogy between human words and divine words. But how can one believe in words if their efficacy depends on the imitation of the divine Word in which one no longer believes?
Hill uses "belief" equivocally: it means one thing relative to divine words and another relative to human words, and yet the seeming intelligibility of the second sense is dependent on an analogy with the first. But what does that analogy entail if not a belief in the very power of divinity that is denied when one denies the divine Word? Hill wants it both ways. If he does not believe in what he says he does not, then believing in words makes no sense. If he really doesn't believe in the divine Word, then there is no intelligible sense to his believing in human words--their existence is not at stake.
In the essay in which he sets out his idea of poetic atonement, Hill relies on a similar kind of equivocation. In that essay, he develops G.K. Chesterton's distinction between sin and mistakes, or what Hill calls, at least initially, sin and "the empirical guilty conscience." Hill quotes with approval Chesterton's witty explication of this distinction:
A saint after repentance will forgive himself for a sin; a man about town will never forgive himself for a faux pas. There are ways of getting absolved for murder; there are no ways of getting absolved for upsetting the soup.
True enough: for the man about town--who is defined by his reputation, whose status is a function of his manners and appearance--his embarrassment diminishes his reputation and thus himself. Of course, the forgiveness for murder is of a different kind than that for a faux pas. One might at least remark that both kinds of forgiveness are not given by people per se--the first is given by God and the second by a change of opinion or forgetfulness. Opinion is greater than any single person, as is God: from their greatness both get their power over us.
A man about town defines himself within the superficial shame culture of a particular social group. In such a context reputation and honor are determined by opinion and status relative to the standards that define that social group. It is odd to call this sense of shame empirical guilt, since it is more like empirical embarrassment. The reason Hill labels shame as guilt lies with the special status he wants to give language as itself a source of such guilt or shame.
Hill reduces empirical guilt "to an anxiety about faux pas, the perpetration of 'howlers', grammatical solecisms, misstatement of fact, misquotations, improper attributions." So both Homer and St. Paul would stand convicted of such empirical guilt: Homer for misstating facts, and St. Paul for misquoting various bits of what became the Tanakh. Hill quotes with approval Simone Weil's judgment that anyone who made an avoidable grammatical or other linguistic error in public should be prosecuted and sentenced to hard labor. He admits this can sound neurotic. But he associates Weil's view with the idea that grammar is a "social and public institution" to which poets have a social responsibility in their struggle with the difficult medium of language.
Hill links the "density of language," which produces our empirical guilt, to Karl Barth's description of sin as the "specific gravity of human nature." He creates a further equivocation by means of this identification. He re-identifies empirical guilt--a kind of mistake, which is not sin--with sin, our sin without God. Thus if we proofread with more care, we battle not mistakes but sin. (How the density of language is shown by mistakes of spelling and usage relative to temporary, albeit nowadays institutionalized norms, is something Hill suggests rather than states.) But even if we allow for this trivialization of sin and this desperate allegiance to proper form, the atonement and redemption offered is a psychological state. Thus it is consolation, not redemption.
If I am nothing but my reputation, then I am determined completely by the opinion of others. The conventions of language are not opinions, but intersubjective norms expressive of usage. But even if this were not the case, it is a misconstrual to accept the arbitrary standards of linguistic convention as if those conventions characterized an authority whose justification provides their warrant and value. The conventions of grammar and form, although certainly expressive of much social meaning (which is why they can be contested), remain patterns of usage that allow for meaning or meaningfulness. There is nothing sacrosanct about them.
Of course language can, like anything else, form part of one's reputation and social status. The conventions in this case are conventions about language, not conventions constituting language. To allow myself to be constituted by such conventions about language (or any other social practice and behavior, even if ideal and situated in some past community of forms) is either foolishly weak or hubristically ambitious: one either accepts that one's life is lived as a form of rumor or one hopes to re-establish by one's own good grammar a community of forms of extravagant and fastidious self-consciousness. For Hill it is this last hubristic motive that guides his care.
The conceptual engine producing the need for this care is the nature of language's density. Hill, as a poet, believes he must work within the constraints and seductions, the "inertia" and "coercion" of language, what he calls "the density of the medium." It is misleading, however, to think of language as a medium: nothing goes through language as if it stood between the world and our understanding. There is nothing of the world that we do grasp that is not a something that we can grasp. This does not mean that our language or concepts make up the world or that the things of the world fill our language, but that the language and the world are coeval. We cannot get underneath the one to see the other. For Hill language is a medium that resists that which we want to show and distorts what we think and mean. This intransigence of language is a state of impurity, a condition of the fallenness of language, but it is for us inescapable. So poetic atonement for Hill is a kind of experience and an attitude expressive of our need to work against our necessary failures of understanding, personality, and articulation.
An experience happens to us in the way feelings happen to us. The logical form of an experience is not a judgment; it is the more general form of what we call emotional and mental states. To experience so-called redemption, as Hill imagines it, would be just to feel something, to be hopeful or relieved. But the feeling could be unwarranted. Actual redemption would be a judgment, although it would be a judgment we could not make of ourselves. Consolation, on the other hand, is an experience. We cannot live without it, but by means of it our lives and actions are not redeemed. We are just able to go on. Hill, therefore, confuses redemption and consolation. He wants the forms of poetry to be redemptive, but he gives the content of these forms the feeling of consolation.
Hill's mistrust is a mode of self-reflection by means of which sin is matched by guilt, but this requires that the match be similar in kind and power. So poetic redemption must match consoling words to sinful words: sin is made linguistic as a way of giving poetic words a chance of countering this sin.
Hill mistrusts language and compensates by attempting to give language a special redemptive sense to trump its sinfulness. This trump is a belief in the psychological efficacy of style, which in Hill's aesthetics is a combination of hyper-attention and mistrust. His initial mistrust, which defines the point of poetic redemption, emerges out of his disappointment that language is not pure. That disappointment itself gets from from the idea of language as a distorting medium.
One can understand the inertial forces of language without being disappointed in it; that language is normative means it can be misused and that it gets its logical power from both its categorical forms and its logical and grammatical structures. There is no getting it right without the means of getting it wrong, and this getting it wrong and right are what makes language what it is: a means not a medium.
But while language certainly has great powers of distortion and clarification, those powers are not the effect of the density of the medium. They are the effect of the density of our judgments, the limitations of norms of any kind relative to the complexity of situations. There is no situation that is not grasped through normative means, and thus the rightness and wrongness take place within the limits of language. But these limits are not the limits of a lens (a medium); they are the limits of our judgments.
Hill claims and attempts to show that his beliefs and doubts govern his relation to words. This belief-guided relationship depends on the legitimacy of describing language as a medium and not a means. There are ways in which language is more than a means--but it is never a medium between ourselves and what we describe.
Language is a tool, a means, and so belief in words has little point. I use a tool; I needn't believe in it in any way that gives it more or less power. I mistrust the tool because it can break, it can fail, it can cause damage. My mistrust is not a question of belief but of confidence. And if we are entangled within language in ways that go beyond treating it as a means, and I think we are, then that entanglement is a kind of intimacy--an intimacy that again leads to trust and mistrust, and not to belief or disbelief.
Hill's ideas about language as a medium and poetry as a form of atonement combine a disappointment that we are not ourselves divine and that divinity is delusion, and an extravagant faith that divine power can have an efficacy separate from the warrant of actual divinity. Hill seems to believe in a romantic idea of poetry that gives it a mimic-power of God: as if poetry were as divine as a Christ who is, in this case, unfortunately, both divine and sinful.
If I lose someone I love, I may understand this loss as a loss of some aspect of myself; or I find that that loss, to my horror, does not entail any sense of personal loss. The loss of someone can attack my personality or it can diminish me: "I miss you so much I miss myself." "Her absence or silence unstrings me." "I am frenzied with despair." "My life no longer makes sense." The failure of sense that follows from such losses can make me sick. I panic. My losses convert me or change how I describe the world. I become unmoored from my self-descriptions.
When overwhelmed by this kind of panic we want consolation or redemption. We persevere, we despair, or we turn indifferent. Can the gratuitous words of poetry or of a fiction instigate crises of these kinds? If words prop up beliefs and concepts, then they just might. We can let words and stories sustain and, hence, threaten our beliefs. But this would be unusual. It is unusual to let our imagination, our empathy and involvement in poems and stories, carry enough of what we believe to allow such a crisis to take hold. We would have to surrender to words, and to characters and stories, as if they were people we loved or feared.
We could do this with scripture. If we cannot quite do this with someone else's words, might we do it with our own self-descriptions? I think we surrender to our self-descriptions and we insist that others surrender to our descriptions of them. We believe in rumor if it confirms our desires or sometimes our fears. I cannot make the argument for the nature of this surrender here; but poems offer us formalized, at times parodic forms of this surrender--we feel our way into their sense, we discover their significance through our beliefs and in applications of aesthetic ideas and prejudices.
Consequently, I think we can sometimes call our surrender to words a surrender to love or prejudice. Our faiths in ideas about people and the world also entail such a surrender, if not always to specific formulations, then to concepts whose expression describes a holy order, the threat to which can lead to anxiety, resistance, and even violence. When we take ideas to be necessary truths--not just ideas about the environment and God, but ideas about what is true about art, about the good life, about capitalism, about how big my office should be--then we react with anger or anxiety when they are challenged.
We ask words to carry not just our thoughts but also our senses of ourselves. Words are not so stable in sense or content that they cannot get deflected and dissolved. So that if we are given to ourselves by means of words, we are in danger of finding ourselves deflected and dissolved. We can become unclear to ourselves--who we take ourselves to be--according to various descriptions: what we believe, what we think, what thoughts are ours. We believe in stories that we take as facts about ourselves and others. We call these stories political commitments, ideas that drive us, claims about what other people think and feel. We are competent in treating each other as animals on the make, but the inner worlds of belief and thought carried by words seem both brittle (we are often wrong and we are contradictory) and forceful (we kill others and will die for our beliefs, for what we imagine is true of others whom we know poorly and with prejudice).
The simultaneous sense that we are radically dependent on words and that the sense we say and find through them is dubious or distorting produces a particular kind of panic. This is the panic poems can induce in me, and is the source of my mistrust. My mistrust is an admission that I can surrender to words. My panic is not caused by disappointment that words are not more powerful, as is Hill's sense of linguistic sin. My panic expresses a sense that everything and nothing is simultaneously at stake in language and its possibilities of sense and form.
To accept this idea would be to give language a power to sustain or extinguish us. We can respond to rumor this way. Rumor is a parody of the power of the word to make us in its image; it is a parody of the divine power of the Word. I mistrust rumor in a way not dissimilar from my mistrust of Hill's poetry. And yet I love his poetry. So how can my mistrust shepherd this love?
One can find a good example of mistrust shepherding love in Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road. The world, after a cataclysmic event, has degraded into horror. A father and son travel the road, searching for food, trying to stay alive, walking forward, half-starved, on the edge of desperation. The father must wash the brains of a man he has killed out of the hair of his child. Afterward, "he sat holding him while he tousled his hair before the fire to dry it. All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you've nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them." The life of father and son are made out of little ceremonies of speech and gesture. The father lives through doggedness and love. He finds in momentary simplicities a form of faith to sustain both himself and his son.
A ceremony of this kind holds someone in a community of faith. But the kind of faith needed is special: it cannot be built of belief, since the father has little to believe in. The world is too savage and decayed. The faith he needs and makes must lie in what he can do. He finds it in what he can do in the moment, in what father and son are to each other beyond all ceremony, even though this is shown mostly through ceremonies. Ceremony is like language: a means not a medium. Father and son must each believe in what the other says. They usually do, but not always. There is trust, but it is trust in what they are, father and son, and it needs no other name. There is an imperative to protect each other beyond all limit--and that means that they would kill each other rather than let either be used as food by the cannibals, which have come to populate the world. Facing that need, knowing that there are horrors worse than death, cannot be helped by belief in each other. They must believe in something more than their wandering if only to give themselves hope. But what is needed more than anything is courage, not faith. Courage comes from the act of making ceremonies: "Where you've nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them."
A ceremony provides a way of acting with self-reflection that indicates some greater pattern of action. The father gives his son a particular kind of attention, which, by providing continuity, offers hope. That continuity must be expressed as hope, rather than as unconscious habit. And it must be taken up as hope.
A poem is also such a ceremony, a display of a form graced in meaning by our commitment to the lives it sustains or cherishes. Reading such a ceremony is itself a form of cherishing it, of breathing into it. It requires an active attention in which one situates oneself within what is read. One must find oneself responsible for such ceremonies, but one must not be fanatical about them. We must protect particular human beings within the ceremonies of our attention, and not replace people with either ideas or beliefs. These ceremonies are for the living and are motivated by love. Remembering the living and this love of particular persons (rather than the ceremony per se) requires a mistrust of the ceremony that is guided by an extravagance of attention. The remittance of mistrust is love and its sustenance is attention.
The ceremony of art is a moral act. Such ceremonies require choices that are explicitly commitments: but their moral content is not determined by that alone. What matters most is that to which we are committed.
I am not committed to poems, my commitments are revealed by means of them. And thus I am not disappointed in the limitations of the human words in poems, nor do I want to make them vehicles of transcendence.
But there is a problem. Ceremonies of love that target people are different in kind from those that target poems. Poems are not people. They make a different kind of claim on us than even conversations do. We can give poems special authority or respect, but that is exactly what I want to criticize. Poems are the means of some further love, but they should not be the objects or targets of love, except in a secondary sense. To make a case for this claim, I must again step back a bit.
I love poems not in spite of but through my mistrust of them. In this I treat poems in ways that are similar to how I treat people, but with a significant inversion. In some general way, I mistrust people who are not my friends or family (I can of course mistrust friends and family--but that mistrust would be a consequence of knowledge and experience). This mistrust seems justified to me, an initial assumption in the face of a lack of knowledge or faith. This mistrust of others can be taken too far. We should not get lost in pathological distrust--imagining that others speak in secret codes, assuming that they lie most of the time, that they don't know what they mean--although in a certain mood I think all of these things are true.
One lives with one's mistrust, and it does not debar one from helping others, from interacting with them and valuing them. This changes as one becomes intimate with someone. The closer two people become, the more destructive mistrust becomes. If you love someone, then regardless of what they have done, regardless of your own judgment, you must trust them and risk disappointment or worse. To not trust them will produce what you fear most. I find that many times poems are like people I do not know. I begin with mistrust, and settle there. But some poems claim me with the force not only of beauty but of love.
If the analogy with people holds, then I should give up my mistrust. I might, as C.S. Lewis suggests in An Experiment in Criticism, refuse to use poems for my own interpretative or emotional reasons, and instead receive the poem, and, as if toward God, open myself to its claims and discipline. For Lewis this idea of reception is modeled on prayer and our attitude toward sacred texts. Lewis appeals to the model of prayer to distinguish how we should stand toward literary art from our egotistical approach to entertainment. In other words, Lewis gives art a quasi-sacred power.
But poems do not have the authority or warrant that a believer would give to sacred texts or to God. Without the warrant of authority why would one trust the dictates of what we read as poetry? In any case, I refuse to give it that status. That does not mean, however, that I then think one should use poetry for one's own ends.
Lewis is right, as is Iris Murdoch in "The Sovereignty of Good," in seeing our attitudes toward art as too often symptomatic of our own human egotisms. Poems do matter; they are meaningful beyond what they say. Thus their value and content does not lie in our grasping of them. They grasp us. This is what I mean by love--my love of a poem. But at this point I have to qualify the analogy between poems and people: for my love of poems survives through mistrust, not despite it. Nor does my mistrust threaten my intimacy with the beloved poem as it would if it were a person. A mistrust of poems is a mistrust in certain pretensions of meaning, significance, and implication with which we might surround a poem, or even the tone, sense, and import that seem carried by the poem itself. Such a mistrust is itself an ethical stance toward the ways we imagine ourselves to ourselves, and toward the ways we succumb or do not succumb to the attractions of ideas and words.
My mistrust is not to be alleviated or assuaged; I can find no answer or solution to it. Reading poems is only trivially like being a detective. There is no killer to find, no doubt to remove. In poetry what would count as a crime is a riddle and thus always open to further consideration. Instead of catching the criminal, we have to catch the crime, or let it catch us. Poetry should always remain a trap in order to work its prize into what we prize.
Hill admits the failure of poetic vehicles for transcendence, but he does so amid a desire and belief in extravagant meaning. Poetry, he claims in The Triumph of Love, can be "a sad and angry consolation." It can be; maybe it even should be. Consolation and redemption can look like cousins, but they are not. Redemption remits our guilt, at which point it is up to us to redress the original fault (but not to remove it). Consolation remits our pain and despair, but it does not redress it or remove it. Consolation can prompt reactions of redress--but they remain mock redemption if they are guided by consolation, which is directed toward our pain, not our guilt. Consolation is a salve. It is not clear what redemption is for any of us. We must discover it, if we can.
Consolation redresses our despair by giving us some counter-feeling, some sense that things are OK. Redemption, on the other hand, need not lead to any good feeling. The equation that balances the bad thing with some other good thing, that which is conciliatory in consolation, does not work for redemption. Redemption requires that one accept that there exists no quid pro quo by means of which we can balance the books, that we need grace and forgiveness to follow acknowledgment of our failure. Poetry can show our need for grace and redemption, but it cannot accomplish it.
At best my mistrust of poems is the condition for the redemption of the attention, feeling, form, and effect they produce--a justification of their claim or failure. Redemption cannot come through human words no matter how carefully used. This is not a confession of faith, but a description of what redemption means. One might imagine that my life can redeem my sins, but my life is not simply my actions, nor is it in my control. I would have to discover my redemption, and yet I could never be certain. I might have faith, but faith relative to my own limited understanding of the significance and consequences of my failures and successes.
Hill struggles with a kind self-reflexive doubt, expressed through an oscillation between faith and guilt, that is a parody of my sense of mistrust. It is a parody because it is a mode of saying one thing and then taking it back as a way of having both positions together. This might seem reasonable in the face of an impossible position, but it is not an analytic mode of mistrust that accepts the lack of any foundational ground for our beliefs in poetry (let alone God). Nor is it one that then works out the implications of this lack of foundation. Instead one gets two kinds of special pleading--for ultimate seriousness and then for a necessary but obscure guilt. This oscillation is contradictory in a catastrophic way, but it is a most profound expression of the problem we have with describing and grasping our beliefs and self-understandings under the threat that we are in all ways deluded about ourselves.
Hill wants to have it both ways--to believe and disbelieve in poetic extravagance. I understand the desire. Maybe it is simply one way a religious sense of possible salvation can survive the acid of an historical sense of human life, given its terrors, and a deflationary intelligence that is suspicious of human satisfactions. Hill's contradictory mistrust encourages him to praise consolation, to allow art to offer a mimic of religious salvation: the psychological striving for peace mitigated by self-reflexive moral criticism.
My sense of mistrust, the motive for my doubts and what follows from these doubts, is different. Redemption is not consolation. Poetry can console, and insofar as it does, it has refused the struggle with and for redemption. I am not disappointed that our words can not gain the power of the divine Word. I mistrust that desire for divine linguistics, and fear that it is a form of self-hatred directed toward human beings in general. My mistrust, like Hill's, has as its first target our self-delusions and pretensions. But that mistrust has to be of ourselves as well. One cannot have it both ways, pretending not to be deluded as a way of getting divine power on the sly. This is why replacing redemption with consolation diminishes the problem of our self-delusion. If consolation--a feeling we have--is redemptive--a judgment we cannot make of ourselves--then we allow that our feeling can determine our redemption. If so, we could never be wrong about it: if we have the consoled feeling, we are redeemed.
Hill knows this, and thus he tries to build the complexity of redemptive judgment into feeling. Thus the difficulty of his poetry is itself a description of and an attempt to induce a complexity of feeling that is somehow self-checking. The classic example in his poetry is the moment in "September Song," where he admits that the poem to the killed Jews is for himself:
(I have made an elegy for myself it is true)
If this is true, it should undo the entire poem. But it does not, because it is only true in some sense, in one way. The emotions for the dead become partly colored by the admission of self-concern, just as elsewhere they will be colored by an admission of prurience. The dominant emotional condition remains: it is what unites the often fragmented bits of poems into a kind of polyphonic, Pentecostal whole.
Consolation as a state of mind is a way of compensating for our sinful failures. It produces in ourselves a feeling of relief that is predicated on our admission of sin. Such consolation demands moral courage and an intelligence of attention that Hill's poetry demonstrates. But that is not enough, since the ground of this form of consoling redemption remains our feelings alone. But our sins, whatever they are, are neither given to us nor shown by our feelings. We might feel no guilt or become incapacitated from guilt. But in neither case will this show us what we have done wrong or be a means for remitting our failure. All this shows is something about our psychology, not the state of our souls or the state of the world we have made with our actions.
There are no ceremonies of redemption for the simple reason that we cannot effect our own redemption. Hill offers ceremonies of consolation gussied up as redemptive in their self-reflexive angst. These ceremonies of consolation get their justification, but not their linguistic power, by producing psychological consequences with their care and fury. Given their psychological content and justification, ceremonies of consolation look like ceremonies of sentimentality--no matter how sincerely felt.
I want to counter Hill's ceremonies of consolation with ceremonies of love. A ceremony of love is an act of grace and an expression of care for those we love. But again, a poem is not a person. Poems are ceremonies, a means to show something, to honor someone, to feel something. A ceremony is not a medium through which our thoughts or emotions go, or through which God or the world comes. A ceremony of love--is for love.
I both mistrust and believe that we must attend to the ceremonies of art in order to respect and cherish the persons and feelings and ideas to which we are committed. To be found by any art requires that we find through it those who or that which we love outlined and targeted by it. We are found by art through the ceremonies we make with it. The value of such ceremonies, and thus of our mistrust and attention, depends on the value of those persons, feelings, and ideas. Our commitment to people through poems--if it is not simply a way of joining a community made around the poem--comes from how poems show us kinds of people, feelings, and ideas. Thus a poem gathers in our understanding and attention those it would itself hold in its ceremonies of attention and distinction. The ceremony of the poem, therefore, situates us among people, feelings, and ideas.
We are in danger, however, of mistaking the ceremony for the commitment. I fear the ceremony will be too powerful. Hill, on the other hand, fears the ceremony will be impoverished and rote, and thus that its situating power will be dissipated. He has a point. As he says in "Tenebrae," "our faith is in our festivals." The consequence of his disappointment, however, skews the moral point of art the wrong way round. If only our festivals were faithful, he is saying. But isn't that complaint really a complaint about humanity: if only we were more faithful. Faithful to what? He cannot say. (And don't we believe too much too easily, anyway?)
Even to say--"If only love triumphed more over egotism and evil"--requires endless squabbling over what love means here and how to understand egotism. But certainly evil is evil: "if only human beings were not so evil." We should agree to that even without knowing what evil is. But that will not get us very far.
I am trying to find enough faith in what people mean to match my mistrust of what they say. I am a person too, so the faith I need and the mistrust I feel is for myself as well. Sometimes, however, I want to give up such concerns for words as indulgent foolishness. I want to accept that we are simply primates prone to particular extravagances of imagination and outbursts of rational action. I should not expect more than that, but I do. That I expect more defines one aspect of my faith in poetry. That I expect more defines one aspect of my faith in poetry. That expectation is not for epiphanic revelation nor cynical confirmation, the two poles between which Hill has made his poetic web, one that is meant to catch grace: "the things of the earth snagging the things of grace" he writes in "Parentalia." Hill collects suffering from the earth --the dead at Shiloh, in the Shoah--as martyrs and as victims. He attempts to snag grace with sin and loss. Can grace be snagged? Grace snags us.
Ceremonies of consolation and of love wait for grace, but whatever grace they manifest in their completion is accidental to the commitment that justifies them. When a poem, as opposed to a person, is part of the ceremony of love it must remain bound to mistrust, for what we love may be what the poem shows and not the poem itself. What it shows will depend on both the possibilities of sense offered by the poem and on our own engagement and attention to what it implies and can reveal. This is not a revelation taken up in faith, but one further harrowed through mistrust. Mistrust makes the love of poetry a bastard of love. I am arguing, therefore, that we should read poetry as part of a ceremony of mistrust.
The poem is not the son in McCarthy's novel. The poem is the ceremony, the means, like those the father uses to recover and love his son. My mistrust insists that this ceremony is not given by the poem but through our attention to it--and unlike the gestures of anointing, that attention requires descriptions.
And this means we must discover how we love it, to situate ourselves with its words, in the way I attempted to situate the body of the poem "The Imaginative Life" with its title. To discover how we love a poem is not simply to say what it means.
In attempting to situate myself with the words of a poem, with its obscurities and possibilities, I am taking its title to myself, to something I am, to my life, to my thoughts and feelings, to something I might discover that I can only entitle with that, with this, with some particular poem.
The poem as a title that I might take on--at least in some ways--is like a name. I read to make sense and to test the name it might be. And that test goes in at least two directions--toward what it implies and suggests relative to how and what sense it can make of the world, and toward myself, toward what I am tempted and fear, what I want to believe and imagine.
I do not simply ask as I read: Am I entitled to this poem as a name for myself? I must ask: Is this poem entitled to name me, in some way--and if so, how and in what way? This is not egotism on my part. To simply ask myself if I am entitled to be named by the poem would only mean that I would accept it or deny it as of me: my beliefs could only be confirmed--confirmed by it or against it. The poem is too open, I am too clever, the words are too suggestive. In order to constrain my egotism and the power of any interpretation I must ask if the poem is entitled to name me. In so doing, I will test myself by testing the poem; I will not test the poem by testing myself. To do the latter would simply mean to attend to myself in order to see if what I think I am is confirmed by a poem. To test the poem allows for puzzles and attractions that can only be understood by flipping back and forth between what is possible given its words and how I react to its possibilities and my understanding of them.
The discovery of a poem as a title to myself will not redeem me. It may console me; but if I take a poem, in all its complexity (and in the case of "The Imaginative Life," with all its nonsensical gestures offered as poetic revelations), as the title to what I reveal of myself in reading, then in reading I am articulating my relation to the poem by confessing its claim on me. I am producing a ceremony of love for a target that is neither myself nor the poem. For what it is I cannot say--a true seraph, maybe. I mistrust such an obscure target and I have great faith in it.
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|Title Annotation:||discussion on poet Geoffrey Hill's work and the topic of mistrust in poetry|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2008|
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