On Mount Vision: Forms of the Sacred in Contemporary American Poetry

On Mount Vision: Forms of the Sacred in Contemporary American Poetry

by Norman Finkelstein

In On Mount Vision, Norman Finkelstein displays how the sacred has remained a basic concern of contemporary experimental poets in an increasingly secular age by charting the wandering, together and apart, of poetry and belief. Finkelstein's discussions of Emerson, Whitman, and Eliot seamlessly yield to close readings of Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Ronald Johnson,

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In On Mount Vision, Norman Finkelstein displays how the sacred has remained a basic concern of contemporary experimental poets in an increasingly secular age by charting the wandering, together and apart, of poetry and belief. Finkelstein's discussions of Emerson, Whitman, and Eliot seamlessly yield to close readings of Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Ronald Johnson, Michael Palmer, Susan Howe, Nathaniel Mackey, and Armand Schwerner in a convincing reminder of why the sacred remains crucial to our understanding of postmodern American poetry.

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“Norman Finkelstein offers subtle, synoptic, and learned overviews of some experimental U.S. poets with textual-spiritual vocations. Making richly articulated career overviews of Duncan, Spicer, Palmer, Johnson, Mackey, Schwerner, and Susan Howe, Finkelstein engages with their spiritual projects, their affiliations, and their intellectual intensities. Its empathy and clarity of understanding make this book an exemplary interpretation of contemporary poetic practices. The cosmic, Gnostic, scriptural, antinomian, spiritualist, heterodox, and shamanic long poems of our time have rarely been so well understood or so suggestively exfoliated.”—Rachel Blau DuPlessis, author, Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work and The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice

“This is one of the best academic books I’ve read in some time, and one of the very best academic books on poetry that I’ve ever read. Finkelstein is not just a skillful reader, but a superb one. His readings—of everything from individual lines up to entire sequences—have the effect that only the best readings have, of at first glance catching you by surprise, and then, on reconsideration, convincing you of their inevitability.”—Brian McHale, author, The Obligation toward the Difficult Whole: Postmodernist Long Poems

On Mount Vision is an excellent book, one whose value exists on the level of explanation to be sure, but more powerfully, more suggestively, on the levels of persuasion, and of myth and metaphor, where one encounters the archetypes of the poet as priest, prophet, seer, antinomian, heretic, and scholar-translator. Finkelstein provides a lucid model for how to read and understand the often difficult and quarrelsome poetry that is his subject. This book will take its place as the exemplary study of the religious aspect of the works of contemporary American poets.”—Peter O'Leary, author, Gnostic Contagion: Robert Duncan and the Poetry of Illness

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University of Iowa Press
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Contemp North American Poetry
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6.00(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

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On Mount Vision

By Norman Finkelstein


Copyright © 2010 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-58729-857-8

Chapter One

Robert Duncan


A poem always runs the risk of being meaningless, and would be nothing without this risk ... (Derrida, Writing and Difference 74)

Is the root charge of poetry a power to partake of a Gnostic "version" of things, catastrophic events wherein we know truth by its downward turn? (Mackey, Paracritical Hinge 135)

Confronted with Robert Duncan's last two volumes of poetry, Ground Work: Before the War (1984) and Ground Work II: In the Dark (1987), readers of Duncan's oeuvre face a troubling situation, that some may be reluctant to acknowledge: Ground Work represents what appears to be a significant transformation in Duncan's verse, which some may see as a decline in its lyric qualities. This is not to say that these books are failures: there are individual poems and even sequences in both volumes that are as compelling and rhapsodic as anything Duncan wrote earlier. But something strange happens in the last phases of Duncan's work. An unmaking or a passage beyond the bounds even of open form poetry, combined with a shift in what was previously the poet's centering sense of prophetic vocation, results in anunprecedented kind of writing that no longer seems to be lyric poetry in any conventional sense of the term. It is this writing-this scripture-that I hope to describe and account for here.

Critics of Duncan have certainly intuited this situation. Peter O'Leary, for instance, proposes that the four Duncan poems which are "arguably his best work" are "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow," "Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar" (both from The Opening of the Field), "Apprehensions" (from Roots and Branches), and "My Mother Would Be a Falconress" (from Bending the Bow). For O'Leary, these "stand out from the rest of his writing, but in a way that supports the achievement of his serial poems and the projective imagination that inspired him in that poetic mode. The four poems can be imagined as pillars holding up the roof that shelter the temple. To these four poems I would add three 'Passages': 'The Fire, Passages 13' from Bending the Bow and two late visionary Passages that Duncan left unnumbered: 'The Dignities' and 'In Blood's Domaine,' both from Ground Work II: In the Dark" (Gnostic Contagion 73-74). I would have to agree with O'Leary's assessment, though I would also add the brilliant revisionary lyric "This Place Rumord to Be Sodom," two or three more of the earlier Passages, and two more pieces from the Ground Work volumes, the magnificent "Circulations of the Song" and Duncan's very last poem, "After a Long Illness." Even so, we are still faced with a disappointing falling off of achievement, especially when one recalls how Duncan dramatically refused to publish his work for fifteen years, from about 1968 (when Bending the Bow came out) to 1984, saving this accumulation until he felt the time was right for its appearance. What, we may rightfully ask, is happening in Duncan's poetry from the period of Bending the Bow to his death in 1988?

We prefer to think of great poets (and there is no question in my mind that Duncan is a great poet) as growing ever stronger and more determined in their utterances, and this is especially true of poets like Duncan who directly emerge from a visionary tradition of the sublime. But Duncan is more than a visionary poet, and even more than that singular American figure who, in the second half of the twentieth century, successfully synthesizes romantic and modernist modes of poetic discourse to produce what he terms a "grand collage" (Bending the Bow vii) of uncanny beauty and mystery. He is a religious poet: for him, poetry is a religion and the prophetic poet inherits from the religious and philosophical traditions of the past all that is necessary to bring spiritual insight or gnosis (which includes a renewed understanding of the social and political conditions of history and of one's own time) to his readers. In "The Truth and Life of Myth," perhaps his greatest testament, Duncan gives witness to "a Creation by Creative Will that realizes Itself in Form evolving in the play of primordial patterns" (Fictive Certainties 34). Yet always in this work, as in his other prose, "what I speak of here in the terms of a theology is a poetics. Back of each poet's concept of the poem is his concept of the meaning of form itself; and his concept of form in turn where it is serious at all arises from his concept of the nature of the universe, its lifetime or form, or even, for some, its lifelessness or formlessness" (16). Duncan's own concept of form derives from a syncretic theosophical tradition that includes Neoplatonism, Christian and Jewish kabbalism, and gnosticism, all of which share an emanational vision of being and creation. Yet at the same time, this tradition leads to a vision of decreation too: "Chaos, the Yawning Abyss, is First Person of Form. And the Poet too, like the Son, in this myth of Love or Form, must go deep into the reality of His own Nature, into the Fathering Chaos or Wrath, to suffer His own Nature. In this mystery of the art, the Son's cry to the Father might be too the cry of the artist to the form he obeys" (15-16).

This suffering of the Son as he returns into the Chaos of the Father is fundamental to an understanding of Duncan's later poetry, for in this work, the form-making poet, the devotee of Eros whose power brings forth the "form of forms" (Fictive Certainties 38), must confront the fathering formlessness of the Abyss that has paradoxically served as the hidden ground of his earlier achievements. To endure this return is to engage in a ritual of dis-ease, of psychic (and ultimately, physical) pain and dissolution. In O'Leary's formula, "the religious dimension of Duncan's maturity is an intensely narcissistic, mystical, and personal theosophy whose major mode of expression and meaning is a language of illness, in which he suspends himself and through which he engages in poetic, creative production. In short: to use a language of illness in poetry is to live in illness and give meaning to illness" (Gnostic Contagion 22-23). The shamanistic ritual of illness that O'Leary defines here and details throughout his study of Duncan comes to a head during the period when Duncan is writing the Ground Work volumes, and it is late in this period that Duncan develops the kidney disease that eventually leads to his death. But death haunts the late work even before Duncan becomes seriously ill; it is elemental to the psychic and discursive transformations the poet undergoes as he fulfills what is in effect his destiny, or what the gnostics would call his heimarmene. Hans Jonas defines this notion as the "tyrannical world-rule" of the Archons, the demonic lords of the seven planetary spheres who would keep the gnostic's spirit (pneuma) from leaving the fallen Creation of the Demiurge and reuniting with the alien God of the Abyss. It is "universal Fate, a concept taken over from astrology but now tinged with the gnostic anti-cosmic spirit. In its physical aspect, which includes for instance the institution and enforcement of the Mosaic Law, it aims at the enslavement of man" (43). Thus Duncan's late work is not only a shamanistic ritual of psychic dis-ease, but it is also the necessarily disjointed and increasingly chaotic account of the pneuma, as it struggles in a final crisis against its star-born fate, so that it may return to its home beyond the stars.

Another reader who recognizes an increasing sense of crisis in Duncan's late work is Nathaniel Mackey, whom O'Leary interprets as having contracted from the older poet the "gnostic contagion" that constitutes the soul of the shaman/poet. In his essay "Uroboros: Robert Duncan's Dante and A Seventeenth Century Suite," Mackey observes that "a sense of exhaustion and limitation, along with a somewhat confessional note, enters these works, a sense that is contrapuntal to [Duncan's] poetics' promise of an escape from closure" (Discrepant Engagement 91). Mackey relates this sense to Duncan's increasingly obsessive use of other poets' material to generate his own, as may be seen in the sequences he discusses, based on selections of Dante's prose and of seventeenth-century English poems. This appropriation of earlier poetry, based on Duncan's communal belief in a "poetry of all poetries" (Bending the Bow vii) or a "form of forms" operates dialectically. It "deepens the sense of exhaustion and limitation that enters these works.... What is interesting is that this should have occurred in the context of works given over to variations upon the works of others. It underscores Duncan's insistence upon calling himself a derivative poet, pointing up the fact that the self upon which he feeds has been largely constituted of his borrowings from others, his feeding upon others" (Mackey, Discrepant Engagement 95). Mackey's final move is to relate these sequences from Ground Work: Before the War to a Derridean notion of the "trace": "'a kind of writing before writing as we know it', an inscription prior to, 'fiercely beyond', presence" (103). What Duncan produces in his late work is thus a sort of spirit writing, mediumistic "in the compound, conjunctive sense of channeling voices from the past and engaging the medium qua medium, consciously and self-reflexively engaging issues pertaining to poetics and poetic tradition" (99).

Drawing on these observations, what I wish to argue is that given Duncan's psychic and discursive trajectories, his later poetry ritualistically turns upon itself, becoming an increasingly attenuated, self-diminishing, even self-sacrificing body of writing. The further this process extends, the more the writing feeds on both the poet himself and on other poetries. Yet this ascesis is simultaneously an apotheosis. The figure of the poet is both dispersed and centralized, curtailed and inflated, becoming, to an unprecedented extent, a sort of Primordial Man or Adam Kadmon out of the gnostic and kabbalistic traditions that Duncan knew so well. As for the text or body of writing, despite its possible weakening or lessening as poetry in any normative sense, it actually grows and blossoms into a strange, postmodern scripture, as occult, hermetic, and theosophical as any of the spiritual traditions that shaped Duncan's early sensibility or mature verse.

* * *

My use of the term scripture in relation to this late poetry needs careful explanation. Duncan's primary mode in his early poetry is decidedly post-romantic, as seen in such works as "The Years as Catches," "Berkeley Poems," "Heavenly City, Earthly City," and Medieval Scenes. Of course, he also assimilates a complex and to some extent contradictory set of modernist principles, especially through Ezra Pound-though arguably Duncan's Pound is also a post-romantic, the author of The Spirit of Romance, whose Cantos is "a work pervaded by the invocations of ghosts, time travel, esoteric philosophy, and superstition" (Johnston 11). However, from the late thirties to the early fifties, Duncan is also deeply engaged with the work of Gertrude Stein, an heir not of romanticism but of realism, an unequivocal modernist for whom writing, as Marjorie Perloff puts it, continually produces a "tension between reference and compositional game, between a pointing system and a self-ordering system" (Poetics of Indeterminacy 72). Duncan's engagement with Stein takes various forms, including many imitations, and culminates in the volume Writing Writing (1952-1953). In her definitive essay on Duncan and Stein, Jayne L. Walker observes that these texts

are not simply extensions of his search for freer, more discontinuous poetic structures; they entail a far more radical assault on the structures and functions of language. Abandoning the discursive function of language as a means to a conclusion, they enact a surrender to the substantial qualities of the medium, to associations of sound and rhythm which subvert and resist rational ordering. ... In his imitations of Stein, Duncan turns his back on writing as self-expression, political commentary, or spiritual exploration. No longer a communication about or directed toward some object or idea, writing is its own subject, object, and end-a serious play on the surface of language. The medium is dense-almost, but never entirely, opaque. The writer is free to follow associations of sound and rhythm into the realm of "non sense." (28)

To turn one's back on "writing as self-expression, political commentary, or spiritual exploration" is to turn one's back on the romantic heritage. As we see from this passage, Walker goes some way in explaining Duncan's motives for this uncharacteristic move; she also points out that "Duncan was never totally committed to Stein's project. Even while imitating her style, he was often straining against some of her theoretical and epistemological presuppositions" (22-23).

These presuppositions include what could be termed Stein's anti-mimetic realism: as Perloff puts it, "she resolutely opposes mimesis, the notion that the verbal or visual construct can replicate the external world of nature" (Poetic License 48), while at the same time subscribing to what Lyn Hejinian describes as a belief "that language is an order of reality itself and not a mere mediating medium" (90). In working through Stein (both compositionally and psychologically), Duncan appropriates but also undermines her principles. Hejinian points out that Stein, following William James, "proposes the act of writing as the organization and location of consciousness in legible units, and not just of consciousness but of the consciousness of consciousness, the perceiving of perception" (143-44). This pragmatic, positivistic philosophy at the base of Stein's writing practice is antithetical to Duncan's idealist, spiritualist, and theosophical worldview. Thus, Walker is right to conclude that while Duncan's "apprenticeship to Stein taught him a new attention to the substantiality of words, an obedience to their sound associations, and a commitment to writing as a temporal, sequential process," he nevertheless "after 955 ... left behind Stein's materialistic, deconstructive project in favor of his own search for the secret harmonies hidden in language and in (the Book of) nature" (34).

For Duncan, as for Stein, language as "an order of reality" means that language is fundamental to our comprehension of the objective world around us. To defamiliarize language using the techniques that Stein and other modernists develop is to comprehend reality anew, freed of repetitive habits and a fixed view of how the world operates moment to moment, day to day. From Stein, Duncan learns that language is both an autonomous entity following its own grammatical and semiological codes, and one of the inter related orders of reality-but "reality" for Duncan means something more than it does for Stein. Consider, for instance, this passage from Duncan's "Writing as Writing":

Poetry made up of sentences of words. Poetry in its regular irregular lines and divisions. Poetry in its steady revisions of its original vision, an accurate eye correcting its accuracies, an image of a man made in his own image inaccurately. I endeavor in delivering to deliver the speech from all truth spoken into its true form. I strive in inscribing in its different lengths the lengths of description I would go to, the lasts of all passages of literal understandings. I arrive in the reiteration of all the relations at lengthy vacations of ordinary prose in poses of poetry. (Derivations 45)

Readers familiar with Stein's work will certainly notice both the similarities and differences in Duncan's "imitation." Technically, it resembles what Perloff, in her anatomy of Stein's various styles, describes as "narration-as-permutation of phrasal repetitions, each reappearance of the word or phrase giving us a new view" (Poetic License 158). This particular instance of Duncan's "writing as writing" owes a good deal to a work such as "Composition as Explanation": an explanation of the techniques and principles of composition that self-reflexively demonstrates or embodies those techniques and principles as well. In "Composition as Explanation," Stein addresses the psychological relationship of composition to time and change ("after that what changes what changes after that, after that what changes and what changes after that ..." [Selected Writings 519]), in order to account for the presence of time in a work, even though she does not believe that there is change in time: "If the time in the composition is very troublesome it is because there must even if there is no time at all in the composition there must be time in the composition which is in its quality of distribution and equilibration" (522). Writing, especially writing in sentences, is a continual engagement with ongoing acts of perception in a Bergsonian temporal continuum (durée) that Stein herself calls "a continuous present" (518).


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