Essay Against Consolation: On the Voyant and Occultism in Contemporary Poetry (2/3)

Part 2. Joseph Massey, le voyant revenant

It’s telling, then, that Joseph Massey, the once-vaunted American poet of distilled perception, inaugurates his return to the public eye after a #MeToo-imposed furlough, with heady gnostic versifying nearly bereft of the mannered imagery for which he’s known but full of vision and insight. Sure, Massey may not be a poet of significance for many readers, and his fall from grace may have slipped by them without notice. Having never bought any of his books, for no reason other than that his work doesn’t interest me personally, I feel mostly indifferent to Massey’s recent overtures. However, reading his new work, which began appearing on Medium in May, in particular his “Poem Against Cancellation” and a short essay, “How Poetry Healed Me,” one discovers there an exemplary image of the poet as an exception to the mundane, as someone who has transcended the concerns of this world and has devoted themselves to a higher calling. Massey can make good use of the figure of poet-seer to re-ingratiate himself into the world of publishing because, at bottom, its sole purpose is to justify the undue vanity required to become a poet. 

Massey’s “Poem Against Cancellation” is an ars poetica for the poet-seer, beginning with an arcane credo, which the reader silently amd unwillingly intones, a mysterium fidei that initiates the poet’s into the ranks of those who don’t have to answer to the mundane world:

Vow to see
what isn’t 
immediately 
seen, what
takes time
to sift
into view

We can connect the sense here of ‘seeing the unseeable’ back to Rimbaud (not least because Massey names him as a signal touchstone in his essay), especially his lettres de voyant, where he writes, “I want to be a poet, and I am working to become a seer. . . . It is a matter of coming to the unknown by the dysfunction of all the senses.” It is this unknown that will become the unshakable rock on which the church of poetry will be built—particularly the poetry of the program era, even though this sort of poetic sortilege apparently cannot be taught: in order to become a poet, Rimbaud declares, “one has to be born a poet.”

The voyant’s general claim to “come to the unknown,” to see the unseen (or even, paradoxically, the unseeable) is echoed throughout our post-Romantic period. It’s a recognizable bromide and one found in poets as diverse as Mary Oliver, Mahmoud Darwish, Robert Graves, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Donald Hall tells us that poets “say the unsayable.” The jacket copy of Rae Armantrout’s Next Life informs us that the poet is able “to imagine the unimaginable and see the unseen.” In an interview, the poet and critic John Yau describes a persistent childhood wish to see “what cannot be seen.” 

With this capacity, the voyant’s “claim of agonized privilege,” to quote Kermode, lends their words the default authority of mysticism, and because such a claim is inherently unfalsifiable, it serves as the very source of the voyant’s power. Not that poetry should be in the business of providing testable hypotheses, but its claim to exclusive access to a secret truth carries not a small whiff of popery. One needn’t be able to form a rule for every decision one makes when writing a poem, to will each choice of trope and image to the status of a universal principle. To find fault with the voyant is not at the same time to demand a full audit of the creative process. Poems arise from all sorts of events and come together for myriad reasons—unconscious processes, subconscious cultural patterns, amalgamated effects of one’s reading habits, hitherto undetected lesions on the cerebral cortex, a huff of ether—any of which we can easily assume without needing to come to any certain conclusions about the writing process, especially if that would entail wheeling out an assortment of alchemical accoutrements, astrological charts, or magical spells, which are as much the “irritable reaching after fact and reason” that Keats deplored as any. The nineteenth century chalked up disturbing thoughts to dyspepsia, which seems to me as good an explanation for poetry as any. Poems continue to be written despite uncertainty about the fundamentals of the process. We are hampered not by a fog of unknowing but by the multiplication of competing claims to certainty and moreso by those that are inherently unquestionable.

It would be easy to read Massey’s “Poem Against Cancellation” merely as an apologia bedizened in poetry’s mystical self-delusion; after all, his poem is explicitly about how the poet alone is able patiently to wait for the truth and, like Keats’s Man of Achievement, to refrain from jumping to conclusions or demanding immediate satisfaction (as, one imagines, he imagines his accusers and detractors did). Where the common, unenlightened person sees only the surface, the poet-seer is able “to perceive / the inverse / of surface”—what the poetically disinclined otherwise call “depth”—and to realize in a deeper way, a more surface-inverse way, how a person isn’t reducible to their misdeeds, and that only the poet is strong enough truly to hear the multiplicity of voices comprising history “without / surrendering / to an impulse / to destroy it.”

Alongside the poem, his essay, “How Poetry Healed Me,” published two days later, is a kind of recovery narrative where he writes of poetry’s role—particularly its mystical substantia, the breath—in his recovery from a traumatic childhood of “abuse and brief reprieves from abuse.” Trotting out his suffering as bona fides feels calculated and manipulative, as though were we to raise a concern we would immediately find ourselves in the compromised position of comparing traumas. 

The essay is also an origin story for the poet: an unhappy childhood in which, reading Jim Morrison’s biography and identifying with his “weird” adolescence, Massey learns of Rimbaud, discovering therein “that language was more than something used to express anger . . . . This was language on another frequency: ecstatic and magical. This was alchemy. This was poetry.” The cruelty and abuse at which Massey hints become the vouchers granting him the “agonised privilege” that every Romantic poet must cultivate, explicitly or in secret, and which sets him apart and gives him access to the poet’s Romantic vision.

At this point we could ask, don’t all traumatic experiences grant us insight into the accidental nature of reality? Unlike ordinary suffering, which can be integrated into our basic assumptions about how the world works, traumatic events undermine the fundamental set of expectations and predictable dependencies that make it possible for us to act in the world in an intentional manner, invalidating the irrational assumptions that make rational behavior possible, our preconscious trust in the consistency of the world that equally keeps us blithely stepping off cliffs and unsurprised by the diurnal return of the dawn. That might explain trauma’s staying power, why we return to it over and over—being itself the sudden appearance of inconsistency, it never finds its place in a coherent narrative of ourselves and our world.

If suffering, trauma even, is a prerequisite for art, it is only because suffering is a universal human condition. Artists can say something about reality because suffering affords anyone insight into the edges of the world, the boundaries of social and biological existence, sometimes punitive and more often than not accidental. Trauma doesn’t inform our worldviews so much as carve out their limits and weak points. Keats thought that England produced the world’s best poets precisely to the extent that it mistreated them. Writers, he wrote, “have in general been trampled aside into the bye paths of life and seen the festerings of Society.” 

But pain is particular to the individual, suffering is without a common currency, and for that reason, the immediacy of a traumatic experience is truly im-mediate, incapable of being communicated. In the words of the poet and critic Divya Victor, “pain is fundamentally anti-social,” that which “disallows commiseration between ego and identity.” She writes this in the context of the world of poetry publishing, in which trauma becomes a kind of “marketable sublimation,” particularly in the case of Rupi Kaur, the sometime target of Victor’s well-aimed barbs. “Kaur’s poetry,” she writes,

treats pain as a social resource and poetry as capital—a moment to bond over, similar to a revolutionary dinner at a bougie restaurant as a big fuck you, a loquacious complaint, an easy breezy beautiful experience that circulates in a particularly feminized economy and through the recuperation of a person’s capitalist agency. The oh so indiscreet charms of this very poetic bourgeoisie.

Victor’s criticism of Kaur’s naively cynical self-empowerment—where “getting over the trauma of historical suppression of brown women . . . looks a lot like being rich while brown”—resonates widely, but her cultural critique has a formal basis that we might find useful. Victor’s point is that poetry betrays the grief it makes legible in the very act of making it so. As capital marshals the resources of positive psychology, self-care routines, consumerism, and the registration of moral conformity via social media, poetry is caught up in the larger project of supporting a seamless production-consumption cycle. Dealing with it—whether that ‘it’ be intergenerational colonial trauma or the part of oneself that resists conversion into the personality capital charted across one’s C.V.—are, according to Victor, “the preferred deliverables for the ‘culture industry’, a realm in which much poetry continues to have tenure for its soporific, palliative, and courtly functions.” In this same way, the voyant becomes an apologist for everything it supposedly exists to counter.

Pain is anti-social, but its incommunicability is what we hold in common. Trauma shows us where our unconscious expectations already lie and the ways in which we’ve attached ourselves to narratives that are inconsonant with our desire. For that reason, they give us some insight into the human condition—not least, our capacity for self-deception—but such insight is only a negative one. Poets have always mistaken suffering for their art for the art itself. The poet-seer in its contemporary manifestation simply instrumentalizes suffering’s ineffability, leveraging its inscrutability (its “agonised privilege”) to put a halt to thought—theirs as much as any reader’s. The return of the occult and the esoteric has as much to do with their peripheral statuses, unjustly maligned by instrumental, phallocentric reason, as it has to do with any credence given to their effectiveness. At the same time, the notion of trauma is imported from medical discourse, of all places, in order to replace the ‘sensibility’ as the devil’s mark distinguishing the poet.

Massey locating the source of his poetic clairvoyance in childhood trauma and ostracism is only a peculiarly explicit and ironic example of what is clearly a tenacious and widespread belief about the origin and role of poetry and about the exceptional status of the poet. It’s difficult to feel indifferent to his appeal to the figure of poet as seer to justify his abuses of his status and power and his sleazy perversion of the poetic vocation into something akin to pickup artistry, an appeal which must have suggested itself to him due to the innate character of the poet-seer. What makes his new work particularly illustrative is the extent to which the figure of the voyant is put to use in the service of a redemption narrative and how it dovetails with the paradoxical logic of recovery.

Recovery, as an informal belief system, for lack of a better term, rests on a methodological delusion adopted to keep alive that which no longer has any value. It exists to help the one in recovery survive the absolute abjection of the self that recovery presupposes and necessitates. To recover, there has to be something worth redeeming, and in the absence of any historical evidence that evinces any redemptive qualities, a kind of magical thinking takes place in which the one “in recovery” is no longer identical with the person they were before. In a sense, it requires negative capability. One “enters recovery” in the same way one enters a fugue state, by dissociating with the pain caused to others and disidentifying with the person one once was, only in order to construct ex nihilo a semblance of a self worth recovering.

The many tools at their disposal—I-statements, admission of powerlessness, radical acceptance, proverbs such as “feelings are not facts” and “we are not responsible for our disease, only our recovery”—function, in part, to make it possible to change, since what needs to be saved is precisely what is not worth saving. It means, to borrow lines from Massey, becoming “Human / beyond human.”

The danger of course is that these tools become ends in themselves, because they provide much-sought-after relief from guilt. People new to recovery often find themselves “addicted to recovery.” They free themselves for recovery by recognizing that they cannot change the past, but in doing so often fall to the temptation to refuse to take any responsibility for said past, refusing to enter into a difficult conversation in a way similar to Massey’s suggestion that cancellation in general (and his in particular) is basically an unwillingness, to quote the poem in question, to “see / what isn’t / immediately / seen.” The tools of recovery become defensive weapons. Self-centered myopia becomes omniscience. What was one’s callous disregard for others is reconceptualized as liberating detachment from which even their victims could benefit. 

Yet redemption isn’t made false merely because the manteau de voyant Massey dons is just his mantle of guilt turned inside out. Apologies, and not simply the public ones, always carry an air of bad faith. There’s an inherent sense of blackmail in saying you’re sorry, an attempt to force the aggrieved to disavow their grievance. Massey’s is an apology in the old sense, a justification or defense, and apologies, like Emerson says of prayers, are “a disease of the will.” 

Equally, forgiveness has the annoying side effect of ennobling oneself—only by forgiving are we elevated to a position capable of granting forgiveness. Even refusing to forgive can be seen as leveraging immorally one’s pain or indignation into a moral virtue—or worse into some form of capital. Victor writes, “rehabilitation often obscures both the labor undertaken by the poet who writes about trauma and the markets that are entered through the exchange of poetry as a good and a service.” Here, she is talking about the marketing of poetry as a palliative medium, providing both private and public forms of healing, but it helps to remind us that redemption is a social and not an individual act, and thus its meaning goes beyond the status of the parties involved. That these issues are hashed out online means that everything that is said is manipulated to serve the ends of what used to be called “spectacular society,” which turns every comment into capital, forcing us all to become the unwitting managers of our social portfolios, turning the sincerity of intentions, despite our best intentions, into the calculation of interests. 

For this reason, to even enter into the debate is already to have forfeited any semblance of thought to the pressures of a “marketplace of ideas” that is the only one deserving of the name. Yet as we are all painfully aware, it’s already too late to take a step back. Before they are uttered, our words are already sorting into the great sluices of public debate. The opportunity for free thinking long foreclosed, we find our options whittled down to participating in one of the few prescribed ways. It’s as if the only possibility out of this vicious repetition is itself already narrowed down to a single determined act: to form an utterly useless opinion and to misuse the terms of the argument in order to say, if not something new, then perhaps something that is not a pure repetition in service of hidden interests. 

The logic of recovery makes redemption impossible with the exact same gesture that makes it possible as a delusion, a delusion necessary for living one’s particular abjection, to the extent that it is a means of persisting in the face of one’s own unsalvageability, persisting as unsalvageable. Agamben called redemption “the irreparable loss of the lost, the definitive profanity of the profane.” In this sense, we are all, in some fashion, ‘in recovery’, which is another argument against the equation of the singular insight of the poetic voyant with a nebulous spiritual enlightenment grounded in suffering.

So when Massey concludes a more-recent essay in Quillette, “No human being is immutable. No one is irredeemable,” the Freudian in me can’t help but read the parallel negations as a repressed wish or at least an unacknowledged acknowledgment that to be mutable is precisely to be irredeemable. We are in a continuous process of change, and we can never recover or relive the past. To quote Emerson again, “This one fact the world hates; that the soul becomes; for that forever degrades the past, turns all riches to poverty, all reputation to shame.” Were there to exist a soul to be redeemed, then redemption could not mean to return to some perfect state, assuming there had ever been such a thing, a state free from ambiguity, contradiction, and uncertainty, in short, a state without poetry. Redemption would instead be a kind of reminder of the world’s (and by extension one’s own and everyone else’s) chronic impairment.

>> on to Part 3