Concerning Cosmopolitan Poetics

The Véhicule Press blog recently highlighted one aspect of Daryl Hines’ poetry picked out for praise by James Pollock, who just edited The Essential Daryl Hines for Porcupine’s Quill here in Canada. Writing of what so impresses him, Pollock remarks that Hines’

knowledge of and engagement with such a wide range of poetic traditions—ancient Greek and Latin, Spanish baroque, Elizabethan, French, American—revealed him as a true cosmopolitan, a perfect antidote to the literary provincialism I’d winced at in so much Canadian poetry.

I share Pollock’s impatient dissatisfaction with artistic and critical parochialism, and Hines’ technique surely evidences a comprehensiveness worthy of respect, but I’d press for a more truly “cosmopolitan” poetics.

Poets have often looked beyond their own borders to refresh and expand their art. Examples are too many:  the importation of forms and themes from Moorish poetry into French and Italian in the Middle Ages, French and Italian forms into England in the Renaissance, etc. However, perhaps it was Goethe who first pronounced and praised that literary production is global, a realization later developed in the context of international trade by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto.

Even the limited perspective of the academic history of poetic Modernism tells a story of complementary, temporal extension of poetic tradition and resources. Ezra Pound not only pawed after the ancients of his own Western tradition, but worked to import that of China and Japan. Charles Olson opened the back door of poetry and stepped back to the beginnings of writing and written literature, that of Sumer and the ancient Near East. Gary Snyder went a step further, to include not only the poetry and poetics of Indian, Japan, and China but that of the non-literate peoples of the earth, claiming a poetics that extends to the appearance of homo sapiens. In this project he is joined by among many others Canada’s Robert Bringhurst.

To show and explore concretely that poetry is as universal as language and that it opens itself to include other media, such as dance, painting, and theatre, has been the lifelong task of Jerome Rothenberg. His Technicians of the Sacred, first published in 1968, revised, expanded and reissued in 1984, and due to undergo the same process soon, expands our inherited poetic resources to include in principal all times and places on earth. Rothenberg’s consequent assemblages gather the poetry of the Jewish Diaspora (Big Jewish Book, 1978), American First Nations (Shaking the Pumpkin, 1986 & 2014), poetries of the Americas (America:  A Prophecy, 1975 & 2012), revisionings of modernist, postmodernist, and romantic poetries, and, most recently, outsider poetries.

Weltpoesie on this scale radically decentres and contextualizes literate, Eurocentric poetics. Disputes over “meter” are revealed to be only one small conversation within a wildly-diverse, species-wide symposium concerned with poetic technique. Questions about subject matter become laughable in view of everything that has inspired humankind to artfully shape language. Within such a Symposium of the Whole provincialisms that cause some to wince inspire little more than a bemused chuckle, a shake of the head, and a return to the real work.

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