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PN Review 275
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This article is taken from PN Review 10, Volume 6 Number 2, November - December 1979.

Notes on a Viking Prow Christopher Middleton

TO RECAPTURE poetic reality in a tottering world, we may have to revise, once more, the idea of a poem as an expression of the "contents" of a subjectivity. Some poems, at least, and some types of poetic language, constitute structures of a singularly radiant kind, where "self-expression" has undergone a profound change of function. We experience these structures, if not as revelations of being, then as apertures upon being. We experience them as we experience nothing else.

Yet we say that a poetic text is not this or that thing out there. We say that such a virtual thing as a text is not an actual thing, that it is not even thing-like at all. Or we say that this or that text occupies an interface between things and persons, but has its ontological status only c/o the addressee, who is itinerant and anonymous. Look at the problem this way: Might it be that we are forgetting what a thing as artifact firstly is and secondly signifies? We might be forgetting, in particular, about the intrinsic virtues of pre-industrial artifacts, not only ones that had explicitly sacred value.

Lace, icons, hand-blown glass, hand-struck Greek coins, bone implements, masks, figurines, old books, paintings, carts and bedspreads and ploughs-such hand-made things are real, did become real, because they were brought to life by currents of formalized energy, desire crystallizing as it passed from imagination to skilled hands, through to treasured materials, and back again in a circuit never broken. Some artifacts were charged with a "spirit" which, as in Kwakiutl masks, formalized itself while the skill of the artificer conducted it, like lighting, and crystallized it into a socially significant object illuminating the whole time/space context of the artificer and his tribe. Such an artificer is not confessing, not foregrounding his own subjective compulsions, not cataloguing impressions, not hanging an edict from an anecdote. There is nothing random which is not absorbed into the structure of the artifact. The artificer fashions a group wisdom in the thing which speaks for itself.

That is, at least, one way of viewing, now, certain objects and practices older and other than ours. We may dismiss such practices as fetishism. Seldom do we recognize the watery fetishism, or idolatry, that we ourselves bring to bear on cars, washing machines, cigarette lighters, a glittering host of technoid commodities. The older practices were informed by vigorous, even fierce animistic feeling about the materials at hand, the wood, the jade, the bronze, to which people could relate as once to animals and to the gods in animals. The animism may not have been always lucid. At least it resourcefully furnished knowledge through the conduit of the material, as we can still see in old cathedrals. Our practices are evidently less animate. We fetishize commodities on a basis of yawning indifference-or tight-lipped hostility-toward a world of objects that confuse perception and multiply signs of our alienation. Yet worse, faced with this forbidding world, bothered by it, we finally cease to care. The profit motive, blunted by high taxation, sees to it that we seldom take joy in putting body and soul into things we make for sale or even for our own consumption. A tiny fraction of the mass world, West or East, can still find gratification in hand-making perfect things in leisure time stolen from money time. Artisanal work is coming back, yes, and in the U.S.A., of all places, a little good cooking. But the mainline production mechanisms keep these changes peripheral, for an élite. For the rest: plastics and apathy, sinister twins. Plastix & Apathy-twin croquemorts stuffing the corpse of Western Civilization.

The old animistic practices, the old view of things, had a great range of vital significance: from witchcraft to Rilke, from soothsaying to apparel, from Viking ships to the most delicate French and German portrait-miniatures of the later eighteenth century. The artifact as icon: if you lived in that world, an icon actually contained for you the soul-substance of the person portrayed. Portrayal was not descriptive or derived. It was presentation, immediate and precise, of the being resonantly invoked by the image and stored in the image. There was more to this than idolatry. By the image the viewer was freed from some snags in the circuitry of response to the world, snags which for us stop growth in two general ways: one is the opacity, compounded of dread and habit, which bottles subjectivity up, the other is the NOHOW feeling which liquefies subjectivity. No wonder that, throughout the 1840s, hundreds of thousands of American people rushed into the daguerreotype studios, hoping to achieve structure, identity, in the form of a perfect and detailed image.

I must edge away from this frame of reference to approach another question. It may be impossible to reconstruct exactly an older world's quasi-magical reality, the texture of its beliefs. But we can do so conjecturally, in this case, by asking how artifacts behaved, or else were thought to reach out and touch the boundaries of space, physical and social space, which defined them. First I shall outline a conjecture, then trace correspondences between that touch-relation (artifact/environment) and poems experienced as apertures upon specific spaces, or places.

Artifact and environment: a dramatic example is the prow of the Oseberg Viking ship. The photo I'm looking at as I write shows a curved piece of wood, elaborately carved, sweeping up out of the rocks and mud which buried the ship for eleven centuries. Placed in receding layers behind the carved wooden curve, secured by wooden plugs, are eight boards, quite slender, the front of the hull, their own curve following the axe-edge upward curve of the prow. Then comes another carved board, as if to reinforce the significance of the prow board. The leading edge of the prow board is about as wide as a matchbox; it is blank and is paralleled by another blank, the trailing edge. Inside this frame come the carved figures.

The figures are carved in low relief, curlings and weavings and interfacings, dragonlike designs. On what is left of the prow board you can count seven major areas, interlocking. The anterior reinforcing board, eight boards back, has a similar but not identical configuration of interlaced and interlocking squirls, tendrils, stick-like ligaments, and broader body areas-again dragon-like. This figuration is not representational. It is something else, but what? The body areas are cross-hatched all over, with striations less deep than the squirl outlines: little elevated rectangles, like those which are reversed ("coffered") in a waffle-dragon scales, if dragons were intended at all. But nowhere does this intricate ornamentation obliterate the woody nature of the wood. You can see the grain. Nowhere, either, does the carving weaken the wood. You see what they mean, the etymologists who derive from the word cosmos the word cosmetic. Essential virtu explicit in accented palpable form.

People say that the dragons, whose claws invariably point outward to the sea, were meant to protect the oarsmen from evil spirits. I would go further. The dragons are sea foam formalized into (mythic) animal shapes. They are animal formalizations of the sea foam that crashes against the prow or lies briefly on the ocean surface. At the same time, the dragons in no way deform the wood. They are realized directly out of the wood and its grain. The carver carved the protoforms of sea substance into the wood, because then, he thought, even if portrayed as dragons, these protoforms, at home in the wood, know also how to deal with the sea, they being made of the sea, while sharing too the life of the wood.

The ship was protected and guided by marine protoforms carved-into symbols-out of the wood whose axe-edge shape cut through the salty matter of the sea. The symbols worked a magical substitution. The substitute, as symbol, participates communicatively in the brute life, sea, from which it is extracted. Because of that communicative participation, because it knows its double origin, the dragon wood knows how to grip the sea, cope with it, deflect its onslaughts, and how not to be smashed. That was how the carver of wood served his fellow-beings, with capable hands. Enormous muscles on the backs and arms of the oarsmen would otherwise have been helpless. They needed these delicate and incisive woodcarver's hands, needed this information, and they needed the dragons as helpers, to anticipate and disperse the horrors of the sea.

The carving which induces the magical substitution has not only a sheltering (or passive) role to play. Its role is transitive too. The carving acts in and upon the sea, cuts into the sea the shape of the human journey. Finally, the carving is a model of order, good energy in good order. It signified-even if it did not always achieve-a conquest of randomness. By its transitive action this model made sense of the hazardous sea. To the oarsmen's muscles it signalled orientation among the whirling crosscurrents, the heaving labyrinthine web of high tensions between order and chaos, ship and ocean.

Thinking about artifice of this kind-the prow system is not isolated, nor need we lose sight of social implications for ourselves-one comes to have doubts about poems which conform to the scripts of subjective expression; doubts also about anecdotal or confessional poems, poems that catalogue impressions additively, and so forth. I say doubts, but the key to value in any text is the character (quality) of the writing; so perhaps I have simply crept a long way around in order to concede an obvious distinction. This would be a distinction between two kinds of text, the configural and the confessional. Either may appeal to sound aesthetic judgement. If my doubts apply at all, it would be because the (broadly) confessional mode is more apt to encourage limp, self-indulgent, and haphazard writing, also because it makes room for what is fake.

The scripts for self-expression are not all formulae, not by any means. The liberating force of poetry as we know it today derives much from volcanic expressions of the recent past. From Whitman to Artaud-crises in the guts, psyche and voice, oceanic feeling, democracy, elaborate invention of human interiors, not excluding the anguish of Artaud's anus. The great confessional crowing, at its most intense, can show what savage stuff a creative individual is made of. But the artificer poets, who contend with their seas on other levels, at disparate angles, have different ways of making that stuff luminous. Many of the artificer poets, unlike the unwinders of intestines or excavators of the void, are connected with historic places. At the very roots and altogether transparently they are connected with specific places, solid scenes. I wonder if their sense of dwelling along a particular time/space axis implies an imagination akin to that of the prow-carver.

Propertius, Musil, Lorca, Kafka, Baudelaire, Mandelstam, Balzac, Fontane, Joyce, Mörike, Proust, Leopardi, Pindar, and Ladislas Nowak in Trebic today, or Fritzi Mayröcker in her Zentagasse room-they are anything but milieu writers. They all wrestle, respectfully, with arbitrariness. Their cities, landscapes and rooms are not photographically literal. Never frontal reportage about apparent localities, their writings are formal creations which enshrine and radiate poetic space. A particular time/space axis, as "world of appearance", may be recognized, certainly, in the words and the imagination words embody. But that embodiment includes a crucial moment of change. Nothing is neutral any more, all is transvalued and animated by the rhythms of a unique formal vision grounded in an original sensibility. (There are many women among such writers; their keen and rich sense of space, oddly, is less mixed with artifice.)

Mörike's Swabia, Propertius' Rome, René Char's Vaucluse, all are structures-or I should say structurings-which relate transitively to the extraneous world whose form they gaily enshrine. Hence we experience these places as world, as cosmos, once we have experienced them in these forms of words. The inaugural word-forms are distinct from expression in the usual sense; they are vocal, but not thought/feeling arbitrarily vociferated. Almost they put us in perceptual contact with being; almost we perceive, in their organization, being as most subtle and integral form. It does not matter much whether the point of contact is a gutter or a fountain, a "ship under sail" or "a hog in a high wind," as Byron said. Perhaps the actual place, in all its dense psychic variety, was in the last analysis a focus for the creation of a vision: a vision of being as an enigmatic and deep structuring, a structuring full of conflict, but pervasive.

At which point I hear my academic hat whistling through the air, aiming to clamp itself back on my head. Yet, if I emphasize structure as a radical linguistic happening, if I consider that some structurings imply magic, I do not advocate making structure conspicuous or exclusive. No neo-parnassian frigidity. Any doctrinaire purism repels me, even that of Gerhard Rühm. I do admire some French poets who are working intelligently to deregulate the sentence-mechanism, who have a fine sense of fragmentariness, and who rid a text of random feeling. But keep at arm's length, I tell myself, the attractive idea of a non-discursive, trans-reflexive poetry which, as it presents complex lyrical experience, is said to be a disclosure of being. At arm's length-partly because this idea lends itself to academic word-spinning, partly because conscious effort so to write results in an esotericism both vacant and prim.

All I have tried to do in these notes is propose, as one possible model for the poem, the significant and useful ancient artifact. In doing so, I stand by figurative speech, as a time-tested access to truth in finite existence, and more, as speech which tells of the impact of the world upon the body. Figures offer an access-to truth and to death- which might be called physiognomical, because it does not sheer away feeling and randomness, but admits them, whatever the pain, in a purged and dynamic condition. Purged and dynamic: it is the evolving structure which, as you write your artifact into life, tests and tempers this or that feeling, this or that random particle. The testing and tempering is what eventually makes a text radiant, polysemous, and redeems it from the flat modes of confessional anecdotage or impression-cataloguing.

It is understandable that in the Bundesrepublik younger poets should place imagination, the source of figures, under suspicion (or arrest?), because of its erratic tonal flights and its deceptiveness. Understandable too, but less so for me, that in England not only younger poets seem to regard imagination much as their forebears regarded sex, as a release not often permitted, and then only if it helps you to feel better. Imagination, precisely because it is deceptive and demonic, needs artifice, needs the pressure of craft, the pleasure of artistry, for a dialectical counterpart. As another set of controls one can practise the critique of imagination suggested by Wen I, the Chinese Ch'an (Zen) master of the 10th century: "All appearances lack in essence and all names arise from that which is nowhere."

So the world is tottering and still you do what you can to make the prow that shall make sense of the sea, with all the times of your life and of your fellow-beings to propel the ship it guides and shields. Let subjectivity rip, in a poetry of panic and egomaniacal delirium-and the volatile, animated word, the figural form, as an aperture upon being, will very likely be splintered.

This article is taken from PN Review 10, Volume 6 Number 2, November - December 1979.

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