The Poetics of Gnosticism, Materialism, and the Incarnation

Modernist poets struggled with the question of what poetry does and from what (or where or whom) does it derive its power.   They were particularly divided over whether true poetry is a poetry of ideas or concrete objects.  They also had divergent positions on how much of a role the poet plays in the creation of meaning. This stemmed from the modern dilemmas of where to locate truth and value, how to balance subjective experience with the world's actual existence, and the search for some unifying vision of life.  I would like to suggest that Stevens, Williams, and Moore answered these questions in part based on their understanding of God.   Ancient Gnosticism held that the material world was ultimately evil, and that one needed a secret gnosis or knowledge to escape the world.  By analogy, a modern form of gnosticism exists that practices solipsism and sees human beings' creative abilities as a way to "transcend" brute reality.  In a similar fashion, other poetics rather than placing faith in ideas, place faith in the ability to enliven or accent the material world, to make it sensately present.  But this, too, tends to see human creativity at the center of meaning.  Only a poetics that seeks to balance human subjectivity with the world's objectivity, as well as a humility to locate truth and meaning both inside and outside history, time, and place will answer this problem.   As I've suggested, this is a poetics of the incarnation.

stevens.jpg (19560 bytes)

"The idea of God is a thing of the imagination.  We no longer think that God was, but was imagined.  The idea of pure poetry, essential imagination, as the highest objective of the poet, appears to be, at least potentially, as great as the idea of God, and, for that matter, greater, if the idea of God is only one of the things of imagination."

-- gloss to "The Greenest Continent"

Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one...
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.

-- "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour"

Wallace Stevens' Modern Gnosticism

There is no knowledge of reality directly.   Instead, the mind creates reality through perception. [Description = Perception = Conception]  Poetry bestows meaning on the (meaningless) universe.  It does this because the mind locates a pattern in what otherwise seems random.  Poetry can achieve a "supreme fiction" that allows us to order and create purpose.  In this sense, the imagination enhances experience.  Poetry must be abstract, changeable, and yet give pleasure, for it is a thing of the mind. It also has a particular music, a euphony, that sets it apart from daily language.  For poetry to be affective it must have original ideas: "In the absence of a belief in God, the mind turns to its own creations and examines them, not alone from the aesthetic point of view, but for what they reveal, for what they validate and invalidate."  In contrast, "the trash heap of history" is the place for worn-out ideas that no longer move us.  Symbolism is particularly important, for it gives poetry a way to "inspire" the particulars of the world.  Symbols are also what give significance (or at least interest) to the human struggle.

williams.jpg (26141 bytes) Why should I move from this place
where I was born? knowing
how futile would be the search
for you in the multiplicity
of your debacle.  The world spreads
for me like a flower opening -- and
will close for me as might a rose --

wither and fall to the ground
and rot and be drawn up
into a flower again.  But you
never wither -- but blossom
all about me.  In that I forget
myself perpetually -- in your
composition and decomposition
I find my          .                 .

-- from Book 2, Patterson [In the manuscript, Williams had addressed this to "God"]

William Carlos Williams' Impulse Towards Enlivened Materialism

The most famous phrase associated with Williams is "No ideas but in things."  He stressed that poetry should seek to impart a vivid realism of the active things of life.  Williams was deeply opposed to symbolism, distrusted overuse of figurative language, and (at least for a portion of his life) avoided metaphysics.  He did hold that life, particularly nature, had some kind of power innate to it, though he never quite understood this as divine. He tended to distrust universals.  In reaction to positions like Stevens, he wrote, "I do not believe that writing is music."  He felt that poems were shaped objects designed to "lift up the word of the senses to the level of the imagination and so give it a new currency."  But this does not mean that he believed that the words used by a poet actually spoke for reality.  Instead, he stressed that words and things are two separate elements.  In some sense, the poem is a natural thing itself.

mmoore.jpg (7458 bytes) It comes to this: of whatever sort it is,
it must be "lit with piercing glances into the life of things";
it must acknowledge the spiritual forces which have made it."

-- "When I Buy Pictures"

. . . To explain grace requires
     a curious hand. If that which is at all were not forever,
why would those who graced the spires
with animals and gathered there to rest, on cold luxurious
low stone seats -- a monk and monk and monk -- between the thus
         ingenious roof-supports, have slaved to confuse
              grace with a kindly manner, time in which to pay a debt,
         the cure for sins, a graceful use
           of what are yet
           approved stone mullions branching out across
           the perpendiculars?

-- "The Pangolin"

Marianne Moore's Incarnational Humility

Moore, a Presbyterian Christian, holds that all good poetry is a result of a mixture of objective and subjective elements.  The objects that a poet writes about are a product of her perception, but also real objects that act on the poet.  She stresses that in a fallen world, poetry is imperfect in its ability to discover and capture the moment, and yet that inability is its strength: "Humility is an indispensable teacher, ennabling concentration to heighten gusto. [. . .] The thing is to see the vision and not deny it; to care and admit that we do."  Poets do not create truths; poets' genius comes from their sincerity and craft, not some "capture" of truth in form. She stresses that true poets are "literalists of the imagination," ones who see the genuine, raw subjects of the world engraced with transcendent power.  She also insists that her extensive use of quotations are a form of genuine community: "If you are charmed by an author, I think it's a very strange and invalid imagination that doesn't love to share it." Poetry is both personal and objective.  Such careful observation is a product of the contemplative mind.

Coda: A poetics like Moore's reminds us that all poetry can be read incarnationally -- the poem of ideas can be read as poets' failable attempts to speak of their personal conceptions; the poem of objects can be understood as bright attempts at naming the value in creation.  They can teach us in their valuable limitedness.

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding