Part 1: the Poet as Seer
Poetry both suffers from and is buoyed up by its indefinable and indescribable character. The term ‘poetry’ seems equally to encompass several mutually exclusive formal elements: rhyme and blank verse, meter and free verse, line breaks and prose poetry, vispo and confessional lyric, etc. Maybe the same could be said for novels, after all there are graphic ones, but the novel gives off an air of stability and obviousness that poems never quite manage. Poetry never forms a unity, but is instead a kind of heap of writing, whatever is left over after the other genres and forms have had their fill. And it is perhaps this indeterminate condition that has made poetry a comfortable home to all manner of woo and consoling spiritualisms. It has the longest history and yet appears to be identifiable only by its unorthodoxy, and this condition of poetry as indefinable seems to nudge the mode toward a mystical inversion poetry becomes the very expression of the indefinable.
The basic question becomes, is poetry an activity some people do or is it a quality some people have? Is it a form of writing that more-or-less adheres to some vague, implicit rules that have developed over time? Or is poetry something different (I hesitate to say, something more), a power of imagination and insight, a connection to a truth that is not that of adequation and verification but something beyond calculation and mundane experience? Is it a facility with words or a faculty of the soul? Does the poetry exist on the page, in the order of the words printed there, in the relation those words might entertain with words ordered on other, older pages, or does it reside within the poet? “The true poem is the poet’s mind,” Emerson wrote, but such a statement can only put an end to the conversation, because what is a mind and how would we access it? Can the poet even read the poem of their own mind, and if so, with what organ, their mind being otherwise occupied? And if such a poem cannot be read, is it still a poem? Is one born a poet, as Rimbaud declares, or does one become a poet, as Rimbaud also affirms (and in the same letter)? Do words in a poem mean more than they say or less?
These may seem like trifling concerns, and poems will be written whether or not we ever come to a satisfying conclusion. Yet, if poetry is the privilege of an elect few, one that has its basis only in the poet’s oath, and referred ultimately to an unexplainable faculty, then poets might be seduced by a false sense of their worth. This may seem like a disciplinary squabble and one surely based at bottom on an untenable dichotomy, but if we map the logic of the poet as mystic, as shaman, as seer, and trace across it the path of a particular poet, the outline forms of a figure in whom coincide, I think, wide-eyed guilelessness and cynical calculation.
The figure of the poet as seer or shaman is by now a cliché. The poet is gifted with a second sight and sees what cannot be seen by common people. The literary critic Frank Kermode characterizes the artist in the Romantic tradition (which we are arguably still performing) as someone “of high ‘sensibility’—feeling with remarkable intensity as a necessity of genius,” a sensibility that is “more profound, subtle and receptive,” and who has “powers of organising experience very much greater” than the average person. It is out of this tradition that we get our most conventional idea of the poet as hypersensitive, in touch with deep feelings, capable of novel insights, and of the poem as the pure, unmediated expression of a truth that is both highly personal and universal. The poet as angsty teenager, as secular anchorite, as beatifically suffering anorexic, as hipster street prophet.
Far from being the ordering of words on the page while negotiating the twin strictures of tradition and grammar, poetry is thought of as a faculty of insight innate to the poet. An immeasurable power that Emerson for instance, in “Self-Reliance,” calls Intuition, that is, “the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct” which is the source of “the aboriginal Self . . . that science-baffling star, without parallax, without calculable elements, which shoots a ray of beauty even into trivial and impure actions.” Emerson’s nonconformist is but a secular, social cousin of the poet-seer; they both share the exclusive claim to an ennobling yet hidden presence that escapes all rational calculation. In this story, the status of poet is not predicated on the writing of poems, rather it’s the other way around: the poem is an expression of the poet’s nature as seer.
It follows from this that the poet is set apart, lives by a higher truth, and is free from the rules that apply to everyone else, including whatever rules require proof of this higher truth. This higher truth gives poets a certain authority—for some poets, this authority is supreme, but for most people, it’s negligible. (Poet-legislators are not so much unacknowledged as dismissed out of hand.) The visionary artwork, according to Kermode, is “a means to truth, a truth unrelated to, and more exalted than, that of positivist science, or any observation depending upon the discursive reason . . . uniquely alive because of its participation in a higher order of existence.”
This higher order, whose supremacy is a function of its inscrutability, is accessed exclusively by the poet’s peculiar intuition and has had various names down the years: Goethe’s Zeitgeist, Imagination for Coleridge and Co., the unconscious as interpreted by the Surrealists, Emerson’s Over-Soul—what Kermode calls “a radiant truth out of space and time”. It’s unclear that our time has a name for the intangible reality the poet accesses—what in headier times would have been called a “transcendental signified”—but contenders might include attention and everydayness, materiality (whether of the signifier or social reality), the strategically ill-defined lower-case imagination that MFA programs exalt, eroticism (ironically), and lately, an assortment of post-post-postmodern New Age rehabilitations. Whether or not an ethereal plane—earthly or astral—has been explicitly nominated, the form of the seer is quite capable of functioning without it; as nonexistent, the seer has always functioned anyway in its absence, its very non-being, to paraphrase Adorno on the occult, is its qualitas occulta, the mysterious seat of truth always being a formal projection of the poet-seer themselves.
While “seer,” as the vague notion it by necessity is, has a beat-poet film on it, its form is not bound to any specific cultural trappings, though plenty of poets smudge their writing spaces or consider yoga and tarot part of their poetic practice. One could argue that all manifestations of the seer take something from the hippie ethos: its utopianism, sexual liberation, intuition, presentism. Yet the poet-seer does not hold a specific set of beliefs but a certain relation to knowledge, a form of knowing wherein its sovereign relation to truth exempts it from any requirements to be communicable, arguable, or practicable. Adorno, in his charming way, called occultism “the metaphysic of dunces.” It is true not only in spite of its incapacity to convince but because of it.
Their vatic utterances are chalked up to a more-or-less mystical power that grants them access into the unseen realms that supposedly lie at the heart of existence—a sixth sense, to paraphrase the poet John Wilmot, contrived to contradict the other five. This is why we can have a concept such as “poetic truth,” which means precisely uncritical, unfalsifiable, untestable assertion. This truth is integral to how Kermode characterizes the period of Romanticism, which he thought of as extending from the late eighteenth century to at least his present day (the mid-twentieth century). He defined Romanticism in part by the “high valuation placed during this period upon the image-making powers of the mind at the expense of its rational powers.” It’s ironic that Kermode’s book was published less than two years before Snow’s Two Cultures, the former diagnosing an old but persistent dichotomy and the latter opening it afresh.
Having said that, we must concede that an essential characteristic of poetry is that it isn’t based on evidence or inductive reasoning. Not everything (or anything) a poet writes must be defensible, but for all that there’s no special power attached to being able to write anything whatever (except where such power is authorized by the institutions that benefit from the supposed existence of the poet-seer). By contrast, I argue, the conception that this is a special power trades in a kind of mystification that is at best hucksterism and at worst authoritarian—which, when you add in the academy’s uneven power relations, amounts to a de facto tyranny.
One can get a sense of the function of the seer trope from Wordsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads, in which the capital-P Poet is one who has a “disposition to be affected more than other men by absent things as if they were present, an ability of conjuring up in himself passions, which . . . more nearly resemble the passions produced by real events, than anything which . . . other men are accustomed to feel in themselves.” Of course, Wordsworth is a much more subtle thinker than I am making him out to be, but I simply want to isolate with this example a widespread assumption—at least among those of us who haven’t yet dismissed poetry tout court—in which poets are inherently set apart and thus able perceive what others cannot perceive in the sense that no one but the poet themselves can verify; “truth,” Wordsworth writes, “which is its own testimony.” This conception of self-justifying truth at worst suggests an inner truth and greatness to poetry and the poet, one that has no need of consensus and whose critics could be dusted off as so many ideological morons.
The poet is more sensitive than the common person and has access to a truth that is beyond verification. At some point, this was surely a radical act disrupting orthodoxy, but over the two centuries that have come and gone, something of the visionary poet has changed, deepened perhaps. Kermode points out how between Wordsworth and Pater there is an important shift in how poetic sensibility is conceived. For Wordsworth, “the higher degree of sensory organization which distinguished poets from other men was fundamentally only a way of seeing and feeling more, not of seeing and feeling differently,” but by the mid-nineteenth century, one finds “as much distance between poet and peasant as between peasant and amoeba.” This difference is absolute, to the point that the only genuine morality is the “estranged morality of artists.” Where perhaps one might have suffered in service of art’s higher calling, now suffering becomes one of the poet-seer’s tools by which their work uncritically becomes art.
Another important difference between the Romantic artist suffering in isolation, wedded to their incommunicable vision, and the contemporary poet-seer is that “ethical utility,” as Kermode calls it, is largely absent in the former. “Baudelaire,” he writes, taking as his example the poète maudite par excellence, “so sensitive to the horror of the modern city, remains true to a central Romantic tradition in abstaining from any attempt to alter the social order, and despises the ‘puerile Utopias’ of some other Romantic poets.” Where the Romantic poet was “lonely, haunted, victimized” and thus “exempt from the normal human orientation towards action,” the same criteria seem to underwrite the poet-seer’s social obligation.
In a world of more-or-less scarce resources (especially, the thoroughly commoditized resource of time), poets have always had to defend their existence, mainly because poems take a relatively long time to write and famously do nothing. At one time, this could be done through encomiums and hagiography, turning war into an origin myth; or it was a kind of parlor trick at court, a continuation in political life of intercollegiate Oxbridge rivalries. I would wager most major poets in the English tradition were statesmen in one form or another—Chaucer, Wyatt, Sidney, Marvell, Suckling, Milton—or, at least, patronized by the government; finally, it seems beginning only in the 18th century did writers have to depend on readers themselves for their livelihood, and were thus no longer poets in addition to being ‘men of action’, but poets whose only value was a hypersensitivity bordering on neurasthenia, and who were, Kermode writes, “devoted to suffering rather than action.” Lucky for them, then, that philosophers of the time (Montesquieu, Burke, Hume, Kant, and Hegel) began seriously to consider the notions of genius and taste. If belles lettres were to survive the Enlightenment, it would have to find some rational principle immanent to it and could no longer be simply the pastime of the leisured or the tidy historiography of victors.
Of all the concepts devised to stop up such a theoretical vacuum, the idea of the poet-seer has had the greatest staying power, mainly because it is inscrutable and eschews all critical interrogation. The poet-seer is anyone whoever that can at a given moment escape understanding. They persist in the intermundia.
>> on to part 2