March 2004

Dale Smith

marsupial inquirer

Divining Word

"...authority versus the heresy of the individual experience..."
-Robert Duncan

Robert Duncan saw his work derived from Ezra Pound, H.D. and others of that generation of modernists. In them he found an expression of individual experience against the chaos of state coercion and social reform culminating in two world wars. To Duncan, Vietnam was an extension of that same state apparatus, and the war economy of the 1940s remains into the present, with wars on poverty, drugs and terror. For him and others, poetry is an act of resistance to the violent agendas of global economy and social repression. His poetic rebellion is grounded in an adventure of poetry that is romantic, volatile and intellectually synthetic. By a convergence of spiritual and philosophical systems, Duncan recovers for his poetry a divers cast of spiritual figures to empower his own local engagements. For him, there are no distinctions between the living and the dead, there's only the continuing potency of individual language.

"Present, past, future may then appear anywhere in changing constellations, giving life and depth to time," he wrote in the unpublished H.D. Book, a massive volume impressively written as both homage and interrogation of his modernist heroes. Expansive and lucid, the H.D. Book integrates divers perspectives with seeming ease. Written as poetic lore somewhat in the tradition of Robert Graves' The White Goddess, what he retrieves also is a synthesis of occult practices and concerns. In it, we find a poetics intimately concerned with Neoplatonism, Jewish mysticism and many other spiritual traditions, seeing in them foundations to our own system of scientific knowledge. But he also is attentive to materialist social values, closely examining, for example, Freud's writing on dreams and sexuality. This life-long critical work defies conventional expectation, stressing divergent moods or intelligences, "states of mind," to put it more commonly, to achieve a vast noetic archive. In it we are witness to an active intelligence, "as if the heart were itself an organ of intelligence and we would find more than a figure of speech in the intuition of 'to know by heart' or 'to know in one's heart.'"

This notion of an "active intelligence," is rooted in complex angelic hierarchies, but it remains a useful term for postmetaphysical, secular poetics. It can be extended to a kind of relational poetics that establishes community across wide social networks.

Persian scholar Henry Corbin wrote extensively on the active intelligence of Medieval Islamic philosophy and spiritual practice, particularly in Avicenna and the Visionary Recital. In Arabic it's 'aql fa''al, the Tenth Intelligence, uniting light and darkness, matter and language. In that sense it's part of a complex medieval angelology, a system of reading signs and their spiritual correspondences. For Duncan, Charles Olson and others it has to do with the activation of language in the self, a kind of self-actualization by the word. An active intelligence in poetry is one that quickly apprehends the relations of things, ideas and emotions without explaining or playing games with words. It's a unifying intelligence that does not rest, abiding by an intuitive curiosity. There are emotional and instinctive intelligences, physical ones too (like Newton's law of gravity!). But the active intelligence is engaged with the reading of images and the mediation between self and other through them. Related to it is ta'wil, a spiritual or esoteric exegesis that turns thought back on its origin in language and the world.

Charles Olson, in "The Present Is Prologue," points to this exegesis with persistent vigor. "My shift," he said, "is that I take it the present is prologue, not the past. The instant, therefore. Is its own interpretation, as a dream is, and any action-a poem, for example. Down with causation (except, see below). And yrself: you, as the only reader and mover of the instant. You, the cause. No drag allowed, on either. Get on with it."

Right off he gets to the instantaneous element of this concept of an active intelligence, in fact, moving it away from mere concept to active principal. Although his style is idiosyncratic and seemingly convoluted, it dispenses with prosaic niceties in order to assault our expectations. The prose expresses a mind in action, unedited, pushing forward.

He states bluntly: "(1) How, by form, to get the content instant; (2) what any of us are by the work on ourself, how make ourself fit instruments for use (how we augment the given-what used to be called the fate); (3) that there is no such thing as duality either of the body and the soul or of the world and I, that the fact in the human universe is the discharge of the many (the multiple) by the one (yrself done right, whatever you are, in whatever job, is the thing-all hierarchies, like dualities, are dead ducks)."

The pages that follow show a kind of ta'wil in process as he brings attention to those formidable bodies of first experience, his parents. But it's not just his parents, it's the foundation of our minds and imaginations that are at stake for him. "But what strikes me ... is, the depth to which the parents who live in us (they are not the same) are our definers. And that the work of each of us is to find out the true lineaments of ourselves by facing up to the primal features of these founders who lie buried in us-that this is us, the Double-Backed Beast."

Starting over, with a new conception, if necessary, is what Olson requires to achieve contact with the "definers," in us. In another time this would be considered spiritual practice. Perhaps today it would be known as a form of psychoanalysis. More aptly, it's a tool for honing the mind and senses in language, staying free of debilitating figures of authority and politically manipulated attitudes, fashions or patterns lethal to the imagination. For Olson, authority begins with hierarchies and dualities. The first step in his registration of experience is to assert the primacy of his authority over his socialization.

"To some extent, to understand is always to exclude a background of intellectual incoherence," wrote the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, whose work Olson devoured. "But Wisdom is persistent pursuit of the deeper understanding, ever confronting intellectual system with the importance of its omissions." Active intelligence acts through those "omissions," assimilating experience, recasting it, giving form to a diversity of phenomenal relations. To break experience down to its poetic origins in us, to retrieve the past as a process inextricably mixed with our own perceptions of it is to participate in the imagination of the world. In the face of global markets, bankrupt economies and corrupt social systems, such active processing and pursuit of images from the very onset of our conscious (and unconscious) memories create an opposition more expressive, ultimately, than throwing rocks or casting votes.

In a 1977 interview, Edward Dorn said: "I think the function of the poet in present-day America ... would be to stay as removed as possible from all permanent associations with power. There's no reason to form relationships of that kind." Asked to extend this a bit, and to comment on "the poet's function," Dorn said: "There are certain Obligations to the Divine, whether those can be met or not. Part of the function is to be alert to Spirit, and not so much write poetry as to compose the poetry that's constantly written on air ... I think it's important for poets to be as varied as possible, since the instrumentation is the language. That's the commonest thing there is of human invention." Asked what he means by "Obligations of the Divine, Dorn continues: "There must be something in 'being a poet,' and it's demonstrably not material, so I therefore suspect it must be divine. The obligations would be self-evident. It's divining like science is divining.

That word "divining" finally gets us from a Persian context into something more uniquely American. If the content of our thought is always "on air," surrounding us, then this ability to "divine" apprehends poetry from the whirling transmission of data. Conversation, radio, television, the Internet and anything else that extends language's knotty tissue over our day is subject to poetic divination, an ability to isolate meaningful fragments from the whole ongoing environment of human interaction and the technologies that amplify it.

Kerouac's image, "on the road," perhaps best signifies the urgency of escape from official dogmas into the "dogmatic nature of experience," as Olson put it. The car's a tool out into new possibilities. It was his divining rod, a vehicle not only of transport, but of image and information reception. On the road, it brought the self to its brightest hope and opportunity, or darkest descent away from, well, anywhere or anything. It's this simultaneous restless movement and release of energy that saves us from a life of sedentary smart shopping. Expression's not responsible to anything, finally. It's as common as there are ways of seeing. Trouble is, learning to see is an ongoing discipline.

Collected Prose
University of California
472 pp.

The H.D. Book
Frontier Press
421 pp.
Edward Dorn: Interviews
Four Seasons Foundation
117 pp.