Monday, 28 November 2011

Reading with Vision, part 3

Here's the third section from my essay on the poetry of Vernon Watkins.

Beyond Knowledge in the Vermilion Chambers

The Infant Joy is beautiful, but its anatomy
Horrible ghast & deadly! nought shalt thou find in it
But dark despair & everlasting brooding melancholy!

Looking back on his work in the preface to The Firewall, Iain Sinclair identified the forms of spiritual life, the spirit-lives, to which he has most aspired: ‘they were the double lives I wanted most, film and poetry.’ His description of the ‘film’ side of the equation in terms of ‘unanchored imagery’, suggests his understanding of spiritual activity as work with images – visions – without referents; work with views that are not necessarily interpretable in connection with a material grounding. ‘Cinema and its bastard off-spring, television, is the addiction, always: unanchored imagery, analgesic colours.’ Sinclair’s poem ‘Friendly Fire’ (included in The Firewall) indeed speaks of ‘light beyond interpretation’. In Watkins this contrast, between light or visions and all our wordy intellection, is particularly prominent in ‘Sea-Music for My Sister Travelling’.

Come down, I say,
Deluge of light, and drown the words’ inflection,
Rush through the luminous, coiled, vermilion chambers,
Shatter the labyrinths white,
And ruin all the mind remembers;
Come down, great Resurrection [78]

Watkins values the inside of the shell: the involution, the spiritual calm ‘too far away/ For thought to find the track’ [181]. But its flooding by light does not correspond to cognitive wipe-out. When shattering light, ‘unconscious glory’, disintegrates language it prepares for expansive renewal through the release of new potentialities.

What thought a thoughtless moment will express;
The unconscious glory brings its undertone.
Or how can thought be magnified, unless
The unknown god begets upon the known? [421]

In ‘The Replica’, a waterfall shows how the fragmentation of language can return us to the ‘thoughtless moment’ with its rhythm of a ‘perpetual music’, and its capacity to enrich insight beyond secular rationality.

The dissipation of unnumbered drops
Vanishing in a dark that finds itself
In a perpetual music, and gives light
In fading always from the measuring mind:
Such is the waterfall [263]

‘Prime Colours’ memorably imagines the operation of the secular interpretative ‘measuring mind’ belonging to ‘cramped, figured scribes, distorted by possession’:

One man may count, with imitative hooves,
The huge, high landscape that another loves,
Empound the apocalypse, till truth is pent
To satisfy the turnstiles of a tent.

But the following stanza foresees the subversion of such positivistic, accumulative research by dissipation, a humble dust-shedding – shedding of over-materialistic, empirical fragments – which releases new spiritual creation within the supernatural realm of the sky.

Vast libraries vault their dead, but I can trust
White dust to resurrect the moving dust,
White dust of donkeys shedding dusty loads
Where swallows’ wings paint Zechariah’s words. [6]

If it is indeed possible to trace a twentieth-century visionary poetic lineage – say (to list only a few markers) from David Jones or David Gascoyne, through Celan and Watkins, Raine/Temenos and on to Sinclair – then one notable instance of the contrary measuring mind, as noticed by Sinclair in his Lights Out for the Territory, would be the very Cambridge, literary-critical secular reason which fostered my own doctoral research on him. Observing the questioning Cambridge response to his publicizing of the visionary at the 1991 Shamanism of Intent event in Uppingham – ‘the younger, immodestly articulate element seethed with discontent’, and felt that ‘the whole approach to the numinous was suspect’ – Sinclair saw that the young academics were charging shamanism, particularly in its Sixties inflection, with ‘woolly thinking’. In Sinclair’s view, some sort of positivistic measuring mind was still demanding ‘genuine and visible scholarship’ from a ‘”shamanic” text’. In my slightly later experience of it, the covertly antimaterialist Cambridge philosophy of Simon Jarvis in fact instead encouraged my own inchoate suspicion of positivist method, and also directed me to the potency of language’s sacred capacities – amongst many other things, not least The Fall and its transcendental capacities. But there was nonetheless obviously a Cambridge resistance being made to the absolutism of London visionary proclamation: in supervisions I was a truculent student, a troubled post-cockney too full of Blakean moralisms. The academic resistance in Cambridge more generally was, I would now suggest, essentially to Sinclair’s claim to an accessible visionary experience – to what he himself calls (in Lights Out) his ‘rhetoric, the hyperbole’ – and also to his personal investment in the visionary as a repository of truth and value. Faith, against the facts. Prynne’s relation to shamanism, by contrast, Sinclair argued, offers a ‘measured risk’: the visionary poetic of ‘Aristeas, in Seven Years’, supported by a bibliography, has not – to quote Blake, in Milton – ‘cast off the rotten rags of Memory by Inspiration’.

The whole point is to understand and move on…not hold seminars or open fucking web pages. [Smith]

In ‘The Room of Pity’, Watkins wrote of how ‘God’s heart beat seconds where there was no clock’ [13]; our experience of the sacred cannot be grasped by a perception which would divide it up and classify it into so many ‘rotten rags of Memory’. In a way bibliographies, websites and sacred texts themselves – when read as classificatory accumulations of spiritual knowledges – are only so many cognitive clocks. Supports of our fake human claim to omniscience, they become measuring tools for the faithless, weapons in the academic battle for mundane status. A ninth-century Indian mystic cited by Buber, Bayezid Bistami, prayed: ‘My God, it is not asceticism that I need, not knowledge of the Koran by heart, and not science; but give me a share in your mysteries.’ In 1848 Kierkegaard similarly expressed his dislike of the unnecessarily quasi-clerical character of mass Bible-reading – ‘a scholarly and legalistic type of religiousness, sheer diversion. A sort of “learning” in that direction has gradually found its way down to the commonest class and no human being reads the Bible humanly any more.’ The crux of the problem was ‘always this sham that one must have the learning in shape before one can begin living – which means one never gets around to the latter’. Kierkegaard, Diogenes Allen wrote, ‘claims academia has forgotten what it is to be an actual existing human being searching for truth’.

The ‘truths revealed by Scripture’, Allen goes on to argue, ‘must be considered by the mind of a person, and in particular the mind of a person who recognizes his or her incomprehensible nature, his or her insufficiency, his or her plight’. Buber called his anthology ‘[a presentation of] personal confessio’. Smith advised Middles, writing his book, to ‘just do the bits that are natural, that are of real interest to you, not the best bits, just the bits that mean something to you’. It is indeed difficult to imagine a visionary less scholarly or legalistic – or more committed to the personalized performance of lyric scriptures – than Smith. The Fall can be situated, in a way, in the Existentialist tradition of Kierkegaard and Allen – the band’s name is, after all, lifted from the Camus novel La Chute, published in English in 1957 as The Fall. Kierkegaard’s attack on the professionalizing ‘sham that one must have the learning in shape before one can begin living – which means one never gets around to the latter’, was echoed by Smith’s comments at a music and politics summit at the offices of New Manchester Review, in 1977. ‘People, especially working-class kids, are inhibited from trying to play because of the expertise of music-college groups like the Pink Floyd. But punk rock has shown that they can do it.’ Something like a Protestant nurturing of personal spiritualities, spiritual expressivities – Blakean ‘infinite talents’ – is a core goal of the ‘working class intellectualism’ propounded by The Fall.     

As is rapidly becoming the case in the United Kingdom, the US is composed of fine unique people with infinite talents ruled and bullied by indecisive publicity seeking political incompetents who are allied with the hopeless and un-intelligent media, bullshit academics, and a Martian-like led civil service. [Smith, Cleveland travelogue]

Deep Conflict is the Forge

What is then to be done? A one-time academic reader, all I can suggest is that we learn – somehow – to read visionary language with more generous vision. But this virtue involves struggle, just as did the creation of that language. For Weil, ‘that action is good which we are able to accomplish while keeping our attention and intention totally directed towards pure and impossible goodness, without veiling from ourselves by any falsehood either the attraction or the impossibility of pure goodness.’ This is one point where Weil’s ethics converges with her aesthetics, since she concurs with Buber that whilst ‘the ecstatic cannot say the unsayable’, the visionary nonetheless ‘speaks, he must speak, because the Word burns in him’. ‘The beautiful poem’, Weil goes on to write, ‘is the one which is composed while the attention is kept directed towards inexpressible inspiration, in so far as it is inexpressible.’ It was just this sort of stressed direction of attention which Watkins, in ‘The Death Bell’, saw lying behind visionary understanding or perception:

Deep conflict is the forge
From which their faiths emerge
Who give to humankind
Mind that is more than mind. [213]

In a 1949 letter to Michael Hamburger, Watkins contrasted the conflicted soul to the secular poet, whose work derives from a rationalist contemplative attitude.

What I look for first in a poet is intensity, and you have this. A poem must, for me, contain intensity in a unique form, impossible to paraphrase without loss. It is found in Hölderlin constantly. But large tracts of contemporary verse derive from a speculation situation allied to lucidity of thought; and there is everything there except the soul.
Watkins’s conception of the deep spiritual conflict from which visionary understanding can emerge is analogous to Buber’s conception of the burning ‘Word’.

For the Word burns in him. Ecstasy is dead, stabbed in the back by Time, which will not be mocked; but, dying, it has flung the Word into him, and the Word burns in him. And he speaks, speaks, he cannot be silent, the flame in the Word drives him, he knows that he cannot say it, yet he tries over and over again until his soul is exhausted to death and the Word leaves him. This is the exaltatio of the one who has returned into the commotion and cannot resign himself to it; this is his insurrection, the insurrection of a speaker: related to the insurrection of the poet, slighter in possession, mightier in existence, than his. This is the bending of the bow for the saying of the unsayable, an impossible task, a labour in the dark.   

The burning Word, through or conveying which the post-ecstatic seeks to pass towards expression of mystical experience, finds a further instance in Hildegard von Bingen’s comparison of visionary words to ‘a vibrating flame’ (quoted in Buber’s collection).

For in this vision I am not taught to write as the philosophers write. And the words in this vision are not like the words that sound from the mouths of human beings, but like a vibrating flame and like a cloud moving in pure air.

In ‘Yeats’ Tower’, Watkins wrote likewise of ‘this fire which never formed a school’ – in the hearing of which a ‘seed’ of salvific visionary perception is nurtured.

Surely the seed that stirs beneath this touch
Hears in its ear the wand within the wind,
The miraculous fire from which all years have waned.
This, if it moves, must heal the martyr’s wound:
O under grass, O under grass, the secret. [13]

In ‘Demands of the Muse’ Watkins lets the Muse articulate the conviction that it is precisely uncategorizable visionary passion, our struggling, self-conflicted fire which never formed a school, which lends poetic language its meaning:

Yet, though a school invoke me, it is he [the poet]
I choose, for opposition gives those words
Their strength; and there is none more near to him
In thought. It is by conflict that he knows me
And serves me in my way and not another.

Burning words are humble and submissive words in that the poet’s integrity is shaped by necessary difficulty: ‘The bit is tempered to restrain his words/ And make laborious all that’s dear to him./ So he remains himself and not another.’ [282] Yet burning words, Watkins feels, can be precise words too. ‘Dawn fires kindle perfection like a sword.’

To have held through hail, stormwinds, and black frost in darkness
Through the long months, gives meaning to the bud when it opens.
Song loses nothing of moments that are past.

So my labour is still: it is still determination
To resolve itself slowly in the weathers of knowledge. [392]

Weil shared Watkins’s sense that visionary understanding is indirect, even unending, and involves laborious struggle, yet can be supported by linguistic precision achieved through a slow resolution. ‘Intelligence can never penetrate the mystery, but it, and it alone, can judge of the suitability of the words which express it. For this task it needs to be keener, more discerning, more precise, more exact and more exacting than for any other.’ 

Final part to be posted next week.

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