Contemporary American Poetry as Occult Practice
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 Allens 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, Keatss 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 Freuds 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 Duncans
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 Duncans 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 Keatss
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 Blakes antinomianism is obviously
a brilliant point, but could only be done justice to by yet another.
Instead, Duncans 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 Duncans, 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 Whitebreads 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 Duncans 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 Merrills 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 Plaths over-serious
schoolgirls games, and the New Age fashion of channelling
which is, after all, little else than a refurbishing of H.D.s
and Mme Blavatskys 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.