Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Poet as Prophet

Since today commemorates nothing in particular, I thought I would memorialize the occasion with a retrospective essay on the role of the poet as voyant, or visionary, in contemporary society.

I should probably add, as a legal disclaimer, that the opinions expressed here are not my own. Apart from these prefatory remarks and a remote gastric gurgle occurring at the very end of this piece, each of the following paragraphs was dictated to me through an Ouija Board by a gentle soul grown disenchanted with life in the astral plane of existence. Picture, if you can, a poor little poltergeist pining away for a human heart he can call his own. I am sure you would have shut your eyes and invited him into your home just as I did, if he had contacted you.

Like many people of a spiritually sensitive nature, I feel that the dead deserve to have their say in this world as much as the living. Rarely do poets permit the past so much unfettered access to the present. Whatever the risks to our own—often fragile—artistic identities, I think we should. So, I was happy when the fellow rapped on my door this morning as I was measuring out a spoonful of coffee. I filled the kettle with water as he filled me. Soon we were all whistling with glee.

I plan to allow him the use of my entire body.

Hopefully, just for today.

Madame Blavatsky, Poetry, and Me:
An Appreciation

[Being the antepenultimate lecture in a series I recently delivered at the University of Iowa School of Cooking, Creative Writing, and Paranormal Research.]

We take for our text today a cryptic quote from T.S. Eliot:

I shall not want Society in Heaven,
Lucretia Borgia shall be my Bride;
Her anecdotes will be more amusing
Than Pipit’s experience could provide.

I shall not want Pipit in Heaven:
Madame Blavatsky will instruct me
In the Seven Sacred Trances;
Piccarda de Donati will conduct me.

—From ‘A Cooking Egg,’ Poems, 1920

It is not easy to overestimate the influence of 19th Century Theosophist thinker Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky on the evolution of modern poetry; but it is always possible to try.

Helena Petrovna remains, if she remains in our minds at all, a mystery, a medium, a mystic—an enchanting metaphor, perhaps—the raisin in our rice pudding, if you will. Numerous numerologists have noted (with hysterical hand-rubbing) the mathematical symmetry of her name—the very recipe for collective wisdom as it is received around a workshop table.

We assign a number to each word, mix them together in a nonsensical way, add 1 tablespoon of vanilla, 2 cups of sugar, sprinkle with nutmeg and bake in a custard crock for 30 minutes at 350˚. When your crock has sufficiently cooled, refrigerate your poem for 24 hours. Multiply the result by infinity (∞), and cube that figure to the power of 10, and the sum is always the same: 0, whether you enjoy the results or not.

A casual coincidence? I leave that to others to decide.

Most often, we encounter Madame Blavatsky (if we read poetry at all) not in the coolness of our empty custard crocks, but as a dusty sunbeam on a deserted seat cushion, a glowing nullity, the lonely reminder of an absence in our lives: the Guggenheim Fellowship that never was, but still might be. She may be the most malleable public figure to draw the attention of a writer since Homer donned a spiked leather thong and tackled King Proteus.

Personally, I shall always associate Madame B. with the song of Shelley’s skylark: an eternal monument to Possibility, with a capital ‘P’, which rhymes with ‘C’, and stands for ‘Cruel,’ cruelty being the one cosmological constant in a world tortured by turmoil. Her preferred mode of apparition bears much in common with low pressure sodium street-lighting: that broad band of orange ectoplasm—so offensive to astronomers—which floats like the face of a friendly celestial visitor over our most crowded cities on cloudy nights.

Indeed, so large and so illuminating is her influence today, after a recent reading I gave in Waukegan, Illinois an aspiring clairvoyant (an MFA candidate)—Jack—I forget his last name—these earnest American graduate students are all the same—bumped into my elbow, causing me to splash burgundy on my new white canvas high-tops, so moved was he by my remarks on Madame Blavatsky’s book, Behold! The 12 Most Blessed Steps Toward A Poetic Career: Your Guide To Becoming A Gasbag. He had somehow penetrated my security detail in order to pluck at my sleeve and inquire breathlessly, “What was she really like?”

“Her table-talk does not survive,” I admitted, rather bitterly, as Jack was carried away. I watched his thin, white arms disappearing, gesticulating wildly at the crystal chandeliers high above the heads of the assembled autograph hounds in the hotel lobby. Disgusted with what the creature had done to my sneakers, I impaled a piece of poorly peeled Gouda with a pink toothpick. I had to catch a flight.

For that, and for many other offensive slights and oversights in my life, I have to make amends.

Clearly, Madame Blavatsky was a woman of voluptuous appetites. We can only speculate about how she took her tea: à la russe, with a dollop of Dmitry Dmitrovitch’s home-made raspberry conserves, or in the English fashion, with a decorous drop of milk and a sprinkling of refined sugar?

For my own part, as a writer myself, I am content to ask the difficult questions. The nonsensical answers which invariably flow from my fingertips permit me to live quietly off the credulity of others. It’s a living. The pen has its perks. Such as dining on stuffed doves and wilted beet greens with a spectacular constellation of actors, politicians, music producers, rap artists, and those other self-loving, self-luminous, self-absorbed objects one finds orbiting the intellectual firmament of New York’s trendier trattoria of a Friday night.

While I only talk trash at the table, like my friends, when I lecture I try to adopt a more serious, extra-oracular mode of expression in order to lend a shimmer of substance to my inane assertions. I hope you don’t mind the rattling tinfoil.

Really, what can one actually say about life, or death, or even doorknobs for that matter, which hasn’t been said before, and probably better, by somebody else, probably by Robert Benchley, in between highballs back in 1919? Like all successful charlatans, I keep careful accounts. I pay no attention to my own prognostications. But I will happily lift a glass of something good to those morons that do.

Still, the consolations of poetry aren’t really what we are discussing here, are they, Jackie?


I bring up the tedious subject of poetry only as a point of departure—the proverbial pine plank, if you happen to reading this passage while hiding in the hold of a cruise ship recently captured by pirates—a springboard to another, deeper discussion.

I wish to conclude my address this afternoon by pointing out something that looms much larger and lovelier in our lives, yes, larger and lovelier even than poetry. By that I mean, the mysterious force of Chance, as represented by the grandiose—almost gravitational—attraction of Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky.

How she hovers over every event, every incident, every accident, every argument which occurs on this glaucous globe—every gathering of two or three believers—or non-believers for that matter—endlessly, annoyingly—vispering, “Vat eef...?” in thickly accented English, proposing an infinite number of alternative universes: where all you need is love, Art reigns supreme, comets are cabbages hurled at us by Heaven and the terrible laws of common sense do not apply.



Eshuneutics said...

You ought to consider the influence of Aleister Crowley, too, on modern poetry, His Snowdrops form a Curate's Garden and White Stains ought to be read by every MFA candidate in the USA. Sadly, the divine effect of ouija board writing a la Yeats and Duncan and Merrill has been replaced by professorial influence. Blurbs by distinguished professors (on MFA courses) are regarded as more effective than ectoplasmic manifestations in the world of selling work.

Eric Norris said...

Ah, yes. Professorial influence. The Language School. The Formalist School. The curious cult of Frank O'Hara. What Frank O'Hara has to do with poetry, I have no idea. Nor does Yeats.

In fact, I just got off the horn with old William Butler. He had me talking with half of Heaven. The guy sounded as giddy as a school girl on acid.

It seems that one of the Greeks (Aristophanes, probably) spiked the ambrosia with something spectacular and everyone on Parnassus is lurching toward Bethlehem (Pennsylvania) where Aleister Crowley is about to be reborn. As a ceramic goat, I understand, to be used in next year's Christmas nativity scene .

It serves him right, Milton said. The bald-headed, Satanic old buffer.