News of the Universe
Bly is at his best as an anthologist, translator, and literaray critic, and this is one of his most important collections. Regardless of the merits of his own poetic output, which I find to be uneven and occasionally self-indulgent, he has done poetry lasting service as an essayist, reviewer, opinionated critic, and anthologist. His essays that serve as introductions to many of his anthologies should be required reading for contemporary poets. He unfailingly targets those very issues that are at the core of much of what is problematic about contemporary poetry.
His essays that serve as introductions to each section in this anthology, in particular, are getting at what I'm trying to articulate and achieve in a poetry that is emergent, organic, and not rooted in the personal, confessional, self-centered, ego-based poetry of self-expression and literary showmanship. I think it's not only possible, but at this time, necessary.
The central point here is that, for a long time, our culture has decide that human consciousness is the only kind that matters—in fact, is the only kind there is. This is the post-Augustinian position of the world, the flesh and the devil all being equally evil; it is also the post-Cartesian position of the divorce and divide between mind and body, man and nature, soul and material. We dis-spirit the world; we deny it any right to respect and adoration, and we call it evil. We deny consciousness to the entire non-human world. (And then we exploit it, since it has no soul, and doesn't matter.)
Bly quotes the German Romantic poet Novalis, who along with Holderlin and Goethe was one of the early proponents of this connection with nature:
Self-expression is the source of abasement, just as, contrariwise, it is the basis for all true elevation. The first step is introspection—exclusive contemplation of the self. But whoever stops there goes only halfway. The second step must be genuine observation outward—spontaneous, sober observation of the external world.
This phrase, written some two hundred years ago, resounds as timely for much of contemporary poetry. Far too much poetry nowadays never gets to the second step: it remains locked in introspection—even narcissism. Poets describe endlessly their inner landscapes and emotionscapes, but they write little about what Rilke called Things—which are what most of the poems in his New Poems 1906–08 are about. They being with observation, and end in transcendance and immanence. What we perceive as Divine is not only disembodied consciousness—the Cartesian and Augustinian dualistic split between sacred and profane, soul and matter—but in Rilke's poems we see the Divine embodied in the things and peoples of the world about us. A tree at sunset in Evening, an ancient Greek statue in Archaic Torso of Apollo—they speak to us directly, from within themselves, and almost without passing through the writer's own persona. (Although of course Rilke is the source of these Thing-poems, and no one else could have done them quite this way.)
I am drawn to haiku not least because of haiku's ability to be impersonal, universal, even sublimely transcendant. The spiritual essence of haiku takes us out of ourselves, and into the world—this dewdrop world, which is always on the verge of being extinguished, always fading away, in which the only certainty is change. When we let go of trying to force the world to be what we want it to be, and simply follow it along through all its many changes, we step closer to the Tao.
This is a topic I'm still working towards. There's more to say, and more to think about, but let's do it in stages.