What It Means to Be Contemporary: A Meditation

by Adam Penna

Literature is the search for truth. To put it another way: Literature attempts to bring one closer to reality. This understanding, that literature attempts to bring one closer to reality, suggests that our perceptions of reality, as they are, aren’t enough. It takes a more intense concentration. It takes perhaps years and years of practicing this concentration before one comes close to seeing things as they are. I suspect that it is true that one might only catch glimpses of the truth, until at last one must conclude that the truth is, as Wallace Stevens puts it:

A figure half seen, or seen for a moment, a man
Of the mind.

For Stevens this reality takes the form of an angel, which comes as “a welcome at the door to which no one comes.” The truth, reality, is not what we see alone, nor what we feel about what we see, but something else, both less and more. Stevens also calls it the rock, but no simple, ordinary stone. It is the stone seen. Stevens wrestled his whole life with the problem of reality. Most poets do. All good poets must, and only the greatest achieve what they set out to find.

The word reality comes from the Latin word res, which means “matter” or “things.” It reminds me of the origins of the word God, which derives from the Proto Indo European word ghut, which means “that which is evoked.” Neither of these definitions helps us much to understand what the words attempt to signify, and point to the realization that the words we use to describe the most extreme experiences aren’t enough. This discovery may be the primary cause of poetry, a fundamental dissatisfaction with the inherited language combined with sensitivity to experience. Therefore, one might conclude, that this desire to articulate experience is really the desire to manifest a reality, which may remain otherwise hidden. The poet desires to see things as they are, to bring to the surface of consciousness, for himself primarily and for us incidentally, that which is, or “things,” or, finally, God, but not the God of this religion or that, but one which may transcend these.

It may sound unnerving, at first, to suggest that the aim of poetry is the search for God. But one ought not to be alarmed or uncomfortable. One needn’t believe in God or feel threatened by the poet’s attempt to render, in language, an outline of the divine. This isn’t religion. This is poetry. Religion requires one to profess this or that. One must ascend to a creed. One must have faith. Poetry requires nothing. I would go further to say that poetry, for those who write it, is compulsory, that is, a poet can’t help but be a poet; after all, who would attempt to do what he must do and expect so little, if anything in return? And, further, poetry is, and this seems especially true of contemporary poetry and, particularly true of American poetry, too idiosyncratic to be reduced to ritual. If theology is the study of God, and religion is the ritualized worship of Him, then poetry is a record of the experience of God, or not-God. And when God is recognized as the highest truth, as the most ancient of philosophers always have, then substituting one inadequate word for another shouldn’t bother anyone. Say reality, say truth, say God, say that which is evoked. The words hardly matter. It is the experience that counts. And it is this experience poets want to encounter and record or by recording, evoke and encounter.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay “The American Scholar,” suggests a fine beginning for us, if we want to know what it means to be contemporary. What would have been true, if it were truth, for the contemporary poets of the 1830s and 40s might serve us just as well. Emerson says: “Each age, as it is found, must write its own books; or, rather, each generation for the succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this.” Emerson separates life and truth, suggesting that a poet, or in his language, a scholar, receives life into himself, where it is arranged, and uttered again. The process, however, produces a kind of translation, where truth is both truth and an inflection of the truth. No book, he goes on to say, is quite perfect. It was true of the Vedas, which were transmitted from one generation to the next orally, that it was considered a novice’s duty to learn the text without variation, and therefore, when his generation ascended and became the priestly caste, what was truth for the past was still true. For these men, there was no contemporary literature. All time was present in this one, and things as they had always been, were now, and would always continue. But for the Western mind that isn’t the understanding. There may be a truth, even the truth, an essential experience that precedes all others and follows all others. However, because of the stress here on historical, rather than cosmological time and an equal emphasis placed on the integrity of the individual, each generation must produce its own great literature. A contemporary literature is one that, in the forms and languages of the time, produces a text, which comes closest to the truth.

For the Eastern religions, of which Christianity is one, where the text is sacred, there is no need for a contemporary literature. All time is contained in the book, of which there are always two: The book of nature and the poetic texts, which penetrate into the mysteries and origins of that nature. The Bible, as the medievals understood it, contained all time. The book of Revelation, though perhaps prophetic to us, was as much an accurate accounting of what is, as Genesis was. Past, present and future were all already written on earth as it is in heaven. But when the book is no longer sacred, or when there is no longer one sacred book, upon whose authority as truth not all agree, and when the book of nature becomes no longer a book, but matter and natural laws and phenomenon, the necessity to arrange life into truth increases. One might even suggest that the anxiety one feels, which seems to be as ubiquitous as our professions of belief in a higher power and everlasting life through the miracles of science, is this poetic urge turned demonic. Further, the relief one feels when one hears the truth, when the world for however brief a span seems to make sense, is like the sudden arrangement of constellations, once one learns their names and outlines. Then the heavens that had been a mob of stars, chaos, now seem an order, and one feels cradled in the arms of the universe. Even if that sense is yet another chaos, the truth feels like truth. The destruction of an erroneous order is as poetic as the creation of a new one.

The responsibility, when taken from institutions and families, to find the truth is an onerous one. That is why so many prefer not only not to take it on, but even deny its existence. But even if more tried to arrange life into truth, as Emerson puts it, I doubt this would mean more would succeed. If there were only one poet for each age that would be enough. However many more tried, that would be the number who failed. It is a rare thing to get close, and even rarer to arrive. One need only look at the last thousand years to see a few names emerge: Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Whitman. The nearer we get to the present the more difficult it becomes to name those who don’t seem as if they have won, but are, indeed, victors. But then this shouldn’t seem so very surprising. For the human mind, there are three times: today, yesterday and tomorrow. People say superficially that time marches on, but that isn’t true. It is more accurate to say that we enter into time. Our senses are filled up with the present, and it is so much so that even when the present becomes the past, it leaves a residue affecting the taste of the future. What is true here for the individual is equally true for poetry. A contemporary poetry is one that, whatever its reception now, arranges life so close to truth it fills the senses as immediately and as lastingly as the present moment does. It is like the dream that stays with you not just the morning long, but also the length of your life. It is, like your birth, that which you can’t recover from until death.

In this analysis, Dante is as contemporary a poet as he who wrote his last poem today. Perhaps Dante is more contemporary because, though he wrote his last word early in the 14th Century, his comes closer to the truth as we know it. Or, rather, as we experience it, come to know it ourselves, and may, someday, understand it. With Shakespeare it is the same. So, too, it is with Whitman and Dickinson. It is difficult to say far beyond these who else might speak for us. I have cited Stevens above, because I think it is safe to do so. He seems to be the Modern, who best reaches the proper aim of poetry. When he claims, late in his career,

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous,

Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one…
How high the highest candle lights the dark.

he finds what will suffice, not only for his place and time, his climate, but ours, too. It isn’t a vision of angels. His God, reality, the rock, is as much the imagination, which makes “a dwelling in the evening air,/ In which being there together is enough” as it is the reality which the imagination arranges and apprehends. When he says “makes,” we are reminded that the word poem, from the Greek poema, means “a made thing, a created thing.” The poem, for Stevens, is the place, as true, as real as any on a map – perhaps more true – where the poet and his object, like lover and beloved, might meet.

Harold Bloom, in his book A Map of Misreading, says that Homer is the father of all poets writing in the West. Whatever seems contemporary now seems so because of its relationship, not to Homer’s truth necessarily – though he may have, must have touched on it more truly than any other, even if no such man ever lived – but to the forms he used to arrange life into truth. Dante’s attitudes toward these forms may differ from Joyce’s, but nevertheless, both would agree there is something illuminating about them. Odysseus, or Ulysses as Dante calls him in the Inferno, suffers punishment in the depths of hell. He is a false councilor, an adulterer, and an unfit father. But Joyce, and Tennyson before him, see the Greek hero, whatever his shortcomings, as an indomitable spirit. Much had changed from Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” who claimed to be “Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will/ To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield” to Joyce’s version of the tenderhearted cuckolded, who eats “with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.” Still, both find appropriate and contemporary relevance in the form, the emphasis and circumstances altered, but the truth toward which it points vital, alive.

More wonderful, I think, is Steven’s treatment of Ulysses. In his poem, Ulysses’ patient and loyal wife, Penelope, half awake, half asleep, waits for the return of her prodigal. He is “a form of fire” approaching, “whose mere savage presence awakens the world in which she dwells.” However, her Ulysses doesn’t come. Rather, it is the sun on her pillow. She concludes: “It was Ulysses and it was not,” and then:

She would talk a little to herself as she combed her hair,
Repeating his name with its patient syllables,
Never forgetting him that kept coming constantly so near.

At first reading, it may seem that Stevens, the poet, identifies with the patient waiting of Penelope. And a brief glance at his biography might suggest that he is more Penelope than “interminable adventurer,” and yet a closer look reveals that, Stevens, as poet, is Ulysses, who keeps coming and coming so very close to home. Penelope, like Stevens’ “fat girl,” is the earth, the truth, reality. And he, part angel of reality, part imagination, part god, part “rat come out to see,” comes “constantly so near.” The two had met, and would meet again. In Stevens’ poem “Madame La Fleurie,” however, when they do, she waits “in a distant chamber, a bearded queen, wicked in her dead light.”

What is contemporary about Stevens’ poetry, then, is that it should speak to us about the experience of the truth and it does so in relationship to our experience and those expressions of experience found in the work of other poets, from Homer through Dante and Shakespeare and leading to him. The encounter with the truth, for Stevens happens again and again, and each time he meets it, the expression becomes more and more accurate. But these confrontations with the truth aren’t always of equal weight and value. It is one thing to write about the truth as it is contained in the mind, as he seems to do from the beginning of his career to its end. It is quite another to step outside of that “shelter of the mind,” as he does in the “Auroras of Autumn,” to find “An Arctic effulgence flaring on the frame/ Of everything he is.” What strikes one when reading this poem is that, though the scholar of one candle, seeing the sublime display of the aurora borealis, feels afraid, he concludes that it is “An innocence of the earth and no false sign// Or symbol of malice.” Perhaps it is here, where Stevens seems most Modern to me, and therefore, no longer contemporary. Ours isn’t a heroic age. Stevens’ strength of imagination seems, erroneously, quaint to us, as perhaps it should considering that environmental peril vies for place in our nightmares only with political terror.

It is because of this that the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges’ experience of a similar nature feels more contemporary. In the postscript of his story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Borges finds objects from the fictional world of Tlön have entered into the real world. One of these objects is a metal cone, small and oppressively heavy. When he picks it up, Borges – like Dante, Borges narrates and stars in his own tales – says the cone produces “a disagreeable impression of repugnance and fear.” Further, Borges finds reality yielding again and again to the fantastical world of Orbis Tertius and the object coming from that Third Earth, until, he prophesies, “The world will be Tlön.” Stevens concludes that the aurora borealis, which stands for the universe beyond the human rage for order, is innocence, which we might read ironically as indifference, and further commands his rabbi to “Read to the congregation, for today/ And for tomorrow, this extremity,/ This contrivance of the spectre of the spheres.” Borges’ experience of Tlön, which, he admits, is a labyrinth contrived by men, leads him to the conclusion that reality is beyond human grasp. In essence, Stevens suggests we can only know—re-know—reality through the contrivance of poetry, but Borges’ story suggests that we can know nothing about reality. We only know the stories we tell about our experience of reality. Finally, Borges, unlike Stevens, retreats from the terror of such an unstable reality, which seems to want to “yield on more than one account.” The last paragraph of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” shows us Borges, the bookworm, paying “no attention to all this” and revising “an uncertain Quevedian translation” of Browne’s Urn Burial, which he doesn’t intend to publish.

If there is anything heroic about Borges’ efforts – I suspect his stance is partially ironic – it is the heroic effort to close one’s eyes and continue, despite the futility, to write about an uncertain human reality, which is always based on an incomplete understanding of the larger reality, we can know nothing about. Borges’ vision reveals the crux of consciousness, which Dickinson experienced, and translated, when she writes to Higginson about her poems, and laments that the mind is too close to itself. Borges fascination with labyrinths and mirrors, even his horror of them, reminds us of Hamlet’s attitudes toward art and Elsinore, his labyrinth, when he says 1) “art holds the mirror up to nature,” and 2) Elsinore is “an un-weeded garden.” Hamlet and Borges are bewitched by art, the urge to arrange life into truth, but find, even as Stevens finds, “nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Reality is “a loud, disordered mooch” and not a festival. Or, if there is an order, it is an inhuman one. The important difference between Borges and Stevens is this. Borges turns his back on the revelation, at least partially, and Stevens’ doesn’t. Rather, Stevens, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, “Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will/ To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield,” concludes his Collected Poems with the lyric “Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself,” where the last line suggest the possibility of a “new knowledge of reality.”

Stevens famously says, in “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” that

The poem is the cry of its occasion,
Part of the res itself and not about it.

For Stevens reality isn’t only the world outside of human perception or, as Emerson puts it, Nature or the Not-Me. Reality is “not that external scene but the life that is lived in it,” as he says in his essay “The Nobel Rider and the Sound of Words.” Poetry, even a contemporary poetry, must be a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us live our lives.

The poet, if he is a poet, can’t help but be contemporary, if he is going to help us live our lives. And whether he finds universal innocence or malice, he must record this finding, and arrange life into truth. It is this test the scholar must use, when weighing what is contemporary. A poem’s greatness must be judged by its ability to say in today’s language what has been true always and in such a way that it becomes, or reveals itself to be, part of the thing itself. We will know a work has succeeded by the impression it makes on our consciousness. It may be that, the best works leave a greater impression even than life does. That is one of the qualities of truth. It quickens, and that which before lay lifeless all around is suddenly alive with eternity. Even if it is a wasteland is found, then its barrenness must be recorded and, once recorded, transformed or endured.

To be contemporary means to be “with” time. But to be with time, one must also stand outside of time, and be both in and out of the game. There is that which ages, and that which observes the ages. When Emerson claims that the universe is made up of two things, Nature and the Soul, he outlines for American poets a means through which they might not only enjoy an original relationship with the universe, and therefore come closer to reality, but might also insure their work is and remains with time, always present and always new. Dante’s reality isn’t ours, but neither is Stevens’ or Borges’. Theirs is but a piece of ours, and their glimpses inform ours, but don’t eclipse them. “Books,” Emerson says, “are for nothing but to inspire” because “the one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul.” It is this which stands with time, a companion. The active soul shares the table with stars and planets and moons and each figure and form begs for its proper name, which only he can utter. A contemporary poetry must be a universal poetry and transcend the mere timely observations of newspapermen and bookworms. In this way it must be a record of the human spirit as it reaches for the divine. Coming close, missing the mark, doubling back or pushing on, the poet finds his strength exactly enough for the task. He finds the necessary words for what necessarily needs to be said, so that when he dies, he too might conclude, as Whitman does, that he is “as one disembodied, triumphant, dead.”

Since Blake, at least, it has been clear what the contemporary poet’s duty is. He must create a sacred book for himself, his own Leaves of Grass, his own Whole of Harmonium. Whatever truth there was to be found by Dante and Shakespeare, there is to be found now. And whatever truth is contained in their books may be contained elsewhere. Whether the contemporary poet’s book be a comedy or tragedy or something other, doesn’t matter. Reality and the human heart have room for all genres. Because there is no longer a legitimate way to explain the ways of God to men – this claim wasn’t even true for Milton, and that is why his Satan seems so much realer than his God – men must explain those ways to themselves. Whatever god there is, one of reason or imagination or revelation, arrives only to advise. Heed that advice, or don’t, but record with ever-increasing candor and accuracy the conversation, and the book will be as contemporary as it is universal.


Above: Sculpture/Performance Piece by Rook Floro.


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