Friday, March 28, 2008

Notes towards an egoless poetry 13: Something Other

Crystallizing in me as I sit in early morning sunlight, for once having risen with the sun, and looking out the large windows over a vista frosted with yesterday's brief, wet, late-winter snow, is an awareness of the limitations of all human self-definition. There is something else, something larger, in the Universe, then the things we care about as humans. When I get mired in my own small concerns, which can seem large at the time, I step back to realize they're very small. That red fox who has denned across the river will go on living, if I moved away today. The tallest trees here, all between 75 and 100 years old, have risen and fallen with no need of human stewardship.

This perspective keeps us sane, keeps us in balance, keeps us aware that all those things of the topical and political moment that get so much energy and attention are really very small things. Not much more than the drops of snow falling off the frosted tree branches outsides.

There is something Other in the world, something important to recognize.

All too often our ideas of stewardship and rightness cling to the walls of our conceptual prisons, and never venture beyond. The beginnings of the environmentalism movement, some few decades ago, were the first general awareness in Western culture that we do not live alone on this planet, and that we are responsible for its care. Having been around the globe a couple of times in childhood and youth, I carry memories of places most people in my root culture have never seen except virtually, and have no feel for. I always like to go to a place to get a feel for it myself. The environmental movement was and is in part an aesthetic movement: it seeks to preserve that which we find beautiful that is Other than ourselves. This Other is not fashion, or fashionable; it does not depend on its for its creation, only for its continued preservation; it does not care if we come or go, except as we interfere with it.

This natural Other is entirely uncaring about us. It doesn't even know if we live or die. Hawks will continue to nest there, as will ground squirrels, long after we pass on. There is an eternity there that has nothing to do with us.

And so I am drawn into a deeper understanding of what those few poets who don't think humans were the most important subject to write about, or the most important subject to think about, have represented in their poetry: something Other than human. This has always been a minority stance in poetry, which, as a human artform, tends to be as recursive and self-regarding as any other artform. Confessional poetry, and its ongoing dominance in mainstream poetry with the rise of the confessional lyric, was perhaps an inevitable culmination of the tendency towards self-regard that the species carries along; perhaps unflinching self-regard is the inevitable curse of self-awareness, of sentience itself. Poetry that is about something Other than the human has never been dominant in literature, and probably never will be. We mostly like to write about ourselves. Yet it is a necessary thread: a reminder of that Other that is larger than all of us combined. In poetry, this can be expressed in religious language, of course, but it is wise to be clear that an homage to an intellectually-conceived divine is both unnecessary and irrelevant; the Other we discuss here requires from us neither worship nor submission, but only coexistence. It is indifferent to us, for the most part.

This Other is nature itself. The world beyond. The Universe of the astrophysicists, and the geological actuality of the planet we ride on. We ourselves are not separate from nature, although we have tried very hard to believe that we have been separated from nature, in order to justify our childish ideas of dominion and conquest. We prefer to rule rather than coexist. One might delve into the infantile aspects worldview that underlies such will to dominate and control. Suffice to say that, as a species, we have not yet grown up into adult wisdom, but remain in our turbulent adolescence, reverting at whim to childish self-inflations. Nothing is more egocentric than a baby.

There has been growing in me, this past year in which many parts of my old life have died or otherwise fallen away, an awareness of the scale of the world, of its vastness, and its vast indifference to me and mine. Rather than arouse fear in me—fear of annihilation—this inspires relief, even a kind of solace. An awareness that nothing of the everyday matters; it could all fall apart tomorrow, and the world would still go on. I take solace in the world's indifference. I spend my mornings, before engaging in the everyday necessities, with the trees and the river here, and the animals and birds and fungi that populate them. We interact, we coexist, we live together; none of them care about what I must get done today. So why must I?

So I return to poets like Robinson Jeffers, with his poetic philosophy of Inhumanism, which expresses something very similar to this indifference of the Other to us. I return to poets of naturalism, poets of observation, who report without prejudice what they see. Trained observers of the world as it is, who interact with the Other without trying ipose their will onto it.

Jeffers famously, or infamously, wrote in his Preface to The Double Axe about his poetic attitude of Inhumanism. This attitude, as well as the book, was roundly attacked and condemned during his lifetime, but in recent years has been reconsidered; his ideas are currently undergoing reassessment, and there is fruit there for the new trees we are trying to plant here.

Jeffers wrote of his book's long title poem in that same Preface: Its burden, as of some previous work of mine, is to present a certain philosophical attitude, which might be called Inhumanism, a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence. It seems time that our race began to think as an adult does, rather than like an egocentric baby or insane person. This manner of thought and feeling is neither misanthropic nor pessimist, though two or three people have said so and may again. It involves no falsehoods, and is a means of maintaining sanity in slippery times; it has objective truth and human value. It offers a reasonable detachment as rule of conduct, instead of love, hate and envy. It neutralizes fanaticism and wild hopes; but it provides magnificence for the religious instinct, and satisfies our need to admire greatness and rejoice in beauty. There is so much here that speaks directly to what I keep finding myself trying to do, as a poet, that my breath catches, and I can only point towards Jeffers' own words as signposts for my own: the rejection of human solipsism . . . the recognition of the transhuman magnificence . . . a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man. . . . Poems that speak through the poet not with a human voice, but the collective voice of a colony of fire ants; poems that are the wet walls of the Oregon coastal mountains speaking to a fox passing through; poems that have no human voice at all, and can barely fit into words.

Loren Eiseley, paleontologist, literary science writer, poet and naturalist, and one of my favorite writers, had many pithy things to say about our place in the grand scheme of things. About our fundamental need to part of nature, he wrote: Every time we walk along a beach some ancient urge disturbs us so that we find ourselves shedding shoes and garments or scavenging among seaweed and whitened timbers like the homesick refugees of a long war. About our desire to separate ourselves from nature, which is really the desire to be special and superior, Eiseley wrote: From the solitude of the wood, [Man] has passed to the more dreadful solitude of the heart. And: If it should turn out that we have mishandled our own lives as several civilizations before us have done, it seems a pity that we should involve the violet and the tree frog in our departure. It takes a geologic sense of time, as Eiseley had, to remind ourselves that even species have limited lifetimes; we might act as if we will be here forever; but most mammalian species have had lifetimes measured in mere millions of years. Our species, like others, is in fact, very fragile, and not enduring. In the far future, will we still be here? Eiseley believed, as I do, that Life may exist in yonder dark, but it will not wear the shape of man.

Yet Eiseley was also aware of both the artist's transformative role in society, here and now, and the price that often must be paid: It is frequently the tragedy of the great artist, as it is of the great scientist, that he frightens the ordinary man. Visionary scientist Freeman Dyson titled one of his books, Disturbing the Universe, to express a very similar thought.

British poet Basil Bunting once said in an interview: There is a possibility of a kind of reverence for the whole of creation which I feel we all ought to have in our bones, a kind of pantheism. If the word `God’ is to have any use it must include everything. The only way to know anything is to consider yourself a student of histology, finding out as much as carefully controlled common sense can find out about the world. In so doing, you will be contributing to the histology of God. At another time, he wrote: Praise the green earth. Chance has appointed her home, workshop, larder, middenpit. Her lousy skin scabbed here and there by cities provides us with name and nation. This is harsh, as harsh as the old rock exposed along the peaks of old island's backbones; but it is the perspective of the Other to be indifferent, which only seems harsh when you yourself are the target of such indifference. As many theologians and other poets echo Bunting: If the word `God’ is to have any use it must include everything. Everything. If you exclude the Other, there is no God in your excluding; no Godhead, no act of divine definition. It's an all or nothing proposition.

John Alec Baker published in 1967 a book called The Peregrine, which is a record of close observation of the falcon in its natural setting. There is almost no authorial self in the book, although the style of language is strong and occasionally dazzling. Baker begins the book with this paragraph: East of my home, the long ridge lies across the skyline like the low hull of a submarine. Above it, the eastern sky is bright with reflections of distant water, and there is a feeling of sails beyond land. Hill trees mass together in a dark–spired forest, but when I move toward them they slowly fan apart, the sky descends between, and they are solitary oaks and elms, each with its own wide territory of winter shadow. The calmness, the solitude of horizons lures me toward them, through them, and on to others. They layer the memory like strata.

This early mention of the author's homestead is almost the only mention of humanity in the book, which moves gradually away from the human, to become fully enmeshed in the lives of the non-human. (I think Jeffers would have liked this progression throughout the course of Baker's book.) The reader feels completely drawn into the world of the falcon, and outside of myself. Baker followed the peregrines near his home for almost a decade, gradually feeling more and more like them. This is how Baker describes learning to track the peregrine: Approach him across open ground with a steady unfaltering movement. Let your shape grow in size but do not alter its outline. Never hide yourself unless concealment is complete. Be alone. Shun the furtive oddity of man, cringe from the hostile eyes of farms. Learn to fear. To share fear is the greatest bond of all. The hunter must become the thing he hunts. This is the pure poetry of that something Other than ourselves. Another moment from The Peregrine that beholds the world's dramatic beauty: A falcon peregrine, sable on a white shield of sky, circled over from the sea. She slowed, and drifted aimlessly, as though the air above the land was thick and heavy. She dropped. The beaches flared and roared with salvoes of white wings. The sky shredded up, was torn by whirling birds. The falcon rose and fell, like a black billhook in splinters of white wood.

Poets are these who do not define themselves by their place in society, or their success in the marketplace of societal self-regard. Contemplatives are these without an investment in the usual dominance of self-regard. Solace-takers in the eternal present.

A poetry of the non-human, the inhuman, the something Other that is the rest of existence, in which we play only a part, and of which we are neither the masters nor of whose fate are we the sole determining force.

Outside, the snow melts away under early spring sunlight, leaving the lawn half-white, half-green. A hawk flies along the river. Red male cardinals pipe in the trees.

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