Thursday, November 20, 2014

Something I Read #8 – Joseph Campbell

Three moments from The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), applicable not just to religion but also to literature and the arts.(There were two originally; I added a third a few hours later.)

Symbols are only the vehicles of communication; they must not be mistaken for the final term, the tenor, of their reference. No matter how attractive or impressive they may seem, they remain but convenient means, accommodated to the understanding. Hence the personality or personalities of God – whether represented in trinitarian, dualistic, or unitarian terms, in polytheistic, monotheistic, or henotheistic terms, pictorially or verbally, as documented fact or as apocalyptic vision – no one should attempt to read or interpret as the final thing. The problem of the theologian is to keep his symbol translucent, so that it may not block out the very light it is supposed to convey. “For then alone do we know God truly,” writes Saint Thomas Acquinas, “when we believe that He is far above all that man can possibly think or God.” And in the Kena Upanishad, in the same spirit: “To know is not to know; not to know is to know.” Mistaking a vehicle for its tenor may lead to the spilling not only of valueless ink, but of valuable blood. (236)


Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

I'll Just Wait for the Greatest Hits

I have come to the recognition in the last couple of days that I no longer have for myself even one creative writer (prose or poetry) for whose next work I sit in eager anticipation.

The last were probably Anne Carson, Umberto Eco*, and Carole Maso. And I will admit that this is in part due to that financial constraints prevent my full participation in any fandom (even, prevent my standing in the River of What's-Being-Published at all). But primarily it is because it has been so very long since I have been wowed by something literary – written by someone still alive, that is. Or, to bring the past names, perhaps I should say "wowed" by someone whose next work is being written with the intent to "wow" – literarily wow – yet again.

For that, I have come to a second realization: I more and more believe US literature is so overwhelmingly banal that it does not even know what it is to write great literature any more. It's efforts lie primarily in convincing us that the latest Don DeLillo (to pick a name out of the hat) is "great." When really it is at best good. Or, good enough.

What prompts this? I picked up Charlie Smith's Heroin because of a comment by an internet friend (as regards the recent NYTRB on Smith's new Selected), in truth not the first suggesting that I give Smith a look. And the book opened very well, with strong ideation and a use of free verse that justified itself as free verse.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Reading James Merrill

So for the past weeks I've been reading James Merrill's Collected through the random-spot method (and very casually) and now have started reading straight through. (Or, at least, started reading it broken up into books.)

I have read it quietly claimed that Merrill was the greatest US poet of the second half of the 20th – quietly claimed in that way that whispers "if you know what you're talking about, you few who do, you know this to be true." Yet I have no memory of ever having encountered him in a classroom. (I came to him through reading about the relationship between modernism and the occult, and so through The Changing Light at Sandover.)

It is an astounding body of work. And a body of work that in most every way rejects US poetry culture, so I am not surprised I hear little about him but in qualified statements (a.k.a. cultural criticism). It is also an astounding body of work in the sense that I have not been . . . . challenged by a book like this, perhaps ever. And I mean challenged in creative self-confidence, in the sense of "you think you are good; but, are you good enough to to stand beside this?" Curious how only certain authors can bring that particular challenge.

For challenged also in that he writes in a way I have always wanted to be able to write. So, a challenge of identity, that will have to be fended off. But fended off in the way that does not erase or sublate Merrill's work, but embraces it.