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Precipitations; Contemporary American Poetry as Occult Practice
Devin Johnston
Middleton (CT): Wesleyan University Press, 2002.
$19.95, 200 pages, ISBN 0-8195-6562-8.

Université de Provence, Aix-Marseille I

This book proposes to examine some of the tenets of what came to be called the New American Poetry after Donald Allen’s 1969 anthology. An anti-Cartesian, anti-Enlightenment aesthetics and ideology, contemporary with the New Age, adds up to the poetic discourse of a whole movement in American poetry, which found an expression in the Black Mountain Review with Olson and Creeley, but also in less well-known occultist journals on which this essay insists, like Io or Ashen Meal. For practitioners of the “New American Poetry”, from Robert Duncan to Philip Lamantia or even Allen Ginsberg, Keats’s “negative capability” statement was a rallying cry, and W. B. Yeats remained an essential figure of Anglo-American modernism, for his life-long interest in occult practices and theories.

The subject of this book is therefore this part of contemporary poetry which other authors have called anti-modernist, because it turns its back on the “cultural scepticism” that critics such as Helen Vendler and Marjorie Perloff have identified as a hallmark of modernism. Although the author does not mention it, this is also related to the “alternative modernism” that Harold Bloom would defend in Hart Crane as against T. S. Eliot. This poetic discourse could also tentatively be called Modern Romanticism or New Romanticism, in so far as it proposes to carry on the Romantic agenda of reversing the Enlightenment. But Johnston makes use of another vocabulary, and to begin with he examines the pivotal case of H.D.’s resolute bifurcation from strict Freudian orthodoxy, her vision of the unconscious as a transcendental “overmind”, close to an Emersonian “Oversoul”, to which she insisted on having telepathic access by table-turning sessions. The main argument, however, seems to be a critique of Freudian scepticism, not very convincingly backed by too quick a reference to a reading of Freud’s “Psycho-analysis and Telepathy” in which Derrida defines telepathy as the remainder of psychoanalysis, and that which is “outside the subject”. This black-mass rhetoric, which consists in venting the shadow or dark side of the dominant discourse of modernism, then goes on by turning to Duncan’s dissatisfaction with the literalism of the French surrealists in interpreting the unconscious: Breton, like Freud, retained too much of the distinction between self and other, which Duncan’s practice of ecstatic dictation aims at transgressing in The Opening of the Field. It is precisely on this ground that Duncan could say that he “read Modernism as Romanticism” and reject them both, implicitly claiming to be the only true modernist, following in this Ivor Winters, for whom automatic writing amounts ultimately to an “autonomism” that embodies the ideal of Romantic ideology. Duncan revisits Keats’s “egotistical sublime” and “negative capability” in three phases: (1) the habitual relation to an object and chain of signifiers, (2) a disruption of this relation in a breakdown or an excess of signification and (3) the sublime moment proper in which the mind resolves this disruption on a transcendent level.

The following rapprochement between this essential romantic quest romance and the question of Blake’s antinomianism is obviously a brilliant point, but could only be done justice to by yet another. Instead, Duncan’s original position is further illustrated by a comparison with the “deep image” poetry which had appeared in America in the 1950s, in the wake of French experiments in automatic writing. “Deep imagists” such as Robert Bly, by emphasising primary unconscious intuitions, were surrealists of sorts, merely reproducing the split-personality divide between subject and object, whereas Duncan would posit some kind of “texture” were “All the other others are integrated”.

The philosophical background of Duncan’s, and what came to be called “Black Mountain” poetry culminates in what Cassirer, in The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1951) called “subjective idealism” and the concepts of “process”, “organism”, and “event” in Whitebread’s Process and Reality (1957), which relate to the projectivist notion of “composition by field”, or what Duncan celebrates in Whitman as the “multiphasic suggestion of his poetry”. This chapter on Duncan’s poetry would have deserved to be dealt with at much greater length and is rightly placed at the centre of this seminal book. The following considerations on James Merrill’s occultism is lighter to digest, and even perhaps a little too much so in comparison, with references to the poetic dictation of the Ouija board reminiscent of Sylvia Plath’s over-serious schoolgirl’s games, and the New Age fashion of “channelling” which is, after all, little else than a refurbishing of H.D.’s and Mme Blavatsky’s old amusement. Johnston will not easily convince us on the déjà-vu issue of occultism, but he definitely makes a capital point, which calls for further research, by demonstrating how a whole tradition of American poetry can appositely be read as a continuation of the counter-Enlightenment.


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