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Leonard Schwartz

Words Before the Articulate:
New and Selected Poems
Talisman House
129 Wayne St.
Jersey City, NJ 07302
114 pgs., $10.50

Influenced heavily by Ezra Pound's Imagism and Vorticism, and William Carlos Williams' famous statement "No ideas but in things," most American avant-garde poetry of the 20th century has been resolutely materialist, relying upon close perception and tightly constructed language to focus human attention upon the here and now. There has always been, however, a small avant-garde counter-tradition interested in spirituality, embodied most famously perhaps in the poets H.D. and Robert Duncan. With the success in recent years of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, this spiritual counter-tradition has been somewhat dormant, or at least appeared so. Now, however, it seems to be making a comeback among a new generation of avant garde poets, for many of whom Duncan stands as the most invoked example of a poet as genuinely religious as he is purposefully non-traditional in poetic form and attitude towards the world.

New & Selected[ Click to Order Schwartz's Words Before the Articulate: New & Selected (soft $) ]     Among this new generation of poets, the work of Leonard Schwartz strikes me as, so far, the most convincing. Schwartz' work seems both carefully thought out as well as subtle and restrained in its claims about how it is informed by the spiritual. Indeed Schwartz resists the use of the word "spiritual," preferring in his essay Some Flicker of Things: Some Thoughts on Lyric Poetry (which appeared in Talisman 8) the term "transcendental," purposefully recalling both such 19th-century American literary figures as Thoreau and Emerson as well as the philosophies of Hegel, Kant and Husserl. Schwartz is careful not to define his sense of "transcendental" too exactly, since its importance to him lies in its possibilities for poetry rather than as a basis for a precisely defined philosophy. He refers to the transcendental as "a successful synthesis of the self and the negation of the self, the immediate and the negation of the immediate," an inherently paradoxical state which can create a poetry "in which language is used in such a way as to produce at least the illusion of the presence of regions of being outside personal experience, an art in which subjectivity is again given access to visions." Schwartz seems perhaps most attracted to the term as it appears in the philosophy of Kant, in which the transcendental becomes a non-material condition which makes human perception of materiality possible. In emphasizing the possibility of non-materiality, Schwartz means to distinguish his practice from much contemporary avant-garde work.

Such philosophical underpinnings are both subtle and, to my mind, questionable. But perhaps the more important problem for those concerned with poetry is whether Schwartz uses these ideas in a way that leads to worthwhile poetry. And here the answer is clearly yes. Like William Bronk and Wallace Stevens, Schwartz does not use poetry to define ideas so much as he uses ideas as texture in poetry. The poems in Words Before the Articulate are engaging, thought-provoking, beautiful and generous. They rarely seem overwhelmed by preconceived ideas, preferring to let the flow of poetry do the thinking. In fact, Schwartz' interest in paradox and contradiction means that he is willing to call even his most deeply held ideas into question, if that will serve the poem that wants to be written at the moment. Words Before the Articulate is a major book of poetry, representing one of the more significant achievements to date of the newest generation of avant-garde work.

Schwartz is the author of several other collections of poems. If the notion of a selected poems might seem somewhat premature for a writer still in his mid-thirties, the obvious intention is to gather the best of his poetry so far and to make of it a coherent framework, however much that framework is one of paradox. There are several remarkably fine poems in the book, including Year One, the long sequence Episodes from a Possible Nekyia, and perhaps most notably Exiles: Ends, which to my mind is where Schwartz makes his most effective case for the necessity of the "transcendental." A number of intriguingly odd prose poems, as well as other long meditational sequences, fill out the various connections and disconnections that Schwartz seems not so much to guide as to follow.

In terms of their structure, Schwartz's poems are not particularly radical. They borrow somewhat from the ragged openness of Duncan's verse, but tend to be more restrained in their use of the page. They begin relatively consistently on the standard left margin, unlike Duncan's more free-flowing lines, and while never regular, at times approximate a loose iambic pentameter. Stanza lengths are sometimes regular, sometimes not. In general, Words Before the Articulate treats poetic form casually, as if it is, in Robert Creeley's famous phrase, "merely an extension of content." This loose structure allows the mind of the poet to range as freely as it needs.

Thematically, Schwartz's poems are shot through with paradox: "The light hangs me in the light/but that is not/what I came for./I'd wanted something lighter" (76). Because he often sees paradox at the heart of transcendental possibilities, he seems almost obsessed with oblivion, a condition that, for Schwartz, one must experience in order to recognize the centrality of paradox. His poems often switch rapidly from negation to affirmation. Indeed the condition of switching from one state to another is at the heart of Schwartz' concerns; in his work, the human condition of experience and perception seems always in flux.

Finally, though, for all its concern with oblivion, Schwartz remains convinced of the reality and significance of human perception. Nothing may be stable, but the renewed fact of experience and perception of it remains a condition that, however difficult, one still must accept as holy. This is, anyway, how I read his poem Year One, which near its end insists that:

And yet
the stillness demands we offer ourselves to it

Risk the folly of moving to the music,
Of forwarding words before the articulate

Into the contaminated air that beats them
Until something awful to comprehend

(79)

If I understand Schwartz here, I take it that "forwarding words before the articulate" points out that we find ourselves capable of utterance and experience before we construct a world of social meaning around that capability. Our existence is therefore grounded not in the social world but in a metaphysical possibility of being that remains beyond any single instant of experience. When in the last line of Year One Schwartz writes "Simply simply don't let this watering ever cease," he seems to be insisting that despite "the contaminated air" mentioned above, this possibility for being must be embraced (80).

To my mind, Exiles: Ends is the highest achievement of Schwartz' art to this point. In this poem, Schwartz brilliantly unites his concern with metaphysical possibilities of being to his most specific observations about the actual material conditions of the world. In perhaps his most striking lines, he writes:

Given the facts of solitude and of death,
what can matter more than a despair
capable of suddenly flaming into rapture?

(19)

Yet he is not content to let that not-quite-paradoxical observation rest in abstraction. Rather, he tests it against specifics of daily experience such as these:

Drinking coffee like a duck eats bread.
Caffeine in the aquarium's tanks
unnerving the fish. Empty stomach
eating itself. Feeding my frenzy.
Falling in Canada, acid rains freeze.

(20)

For myself, at least, the presence of these specifics leads me to trust Schwartz' philosophical concerns more thoroughly, because I can feel him being responsive to a world beyond that of his own mental twists.

In fact, my main reservations about Schwartz' book come from this issue of responsiveness. Schwartz' poems don't always feel sufficiently aware of the specifics of the world around him. Episodes from a Possible Nekyia is an undoubtedly grand and powerful poem sequence, and its large scale allows Schwartz his fullest exploration of metaphysical ebb and flow. Yet the details in it are always metaphors, perhaps even the religious symbol systems of a poet like Dante or Blake. Rivers, roads, ground, even the "tavern keeper" whose metaphorical nature forces him to appear in quotes; all of them seem generalized in a way that reminds me too much, for instance, of Thomas Cole's romantic paintings on the four stages of life at the National Gallery. I feel too much generalizing about the world here, and not enough immersion in actuality to make it consistently persuasive.

This occasional removal leads Schwartz, at times, into what seems to me dangerous tendencies to universalize. His early poem Desire seems in part an attempt to theorize how desire happens, with the poem broken into four sections: The Coursing, Opening, Beauty and Reawakening. Yet the experiences chronicled in it seem very specifically male desire. While Schwartz never directly states that such experiences can create a universal understanding of desire, the implication that they might do so remains unchallenged in the poem. Schwartz is anything but a crude sexist, but he could be more conscious about this disjunction.

Still, such excesses are no more than minor annoying side effects in a book marked by stunning ambition, sensitivity, and knowledge. Words Before the Articulate is not a collection of poems for today or this week only; in the book Schwartz shows himself as a poet of already significant achievement whose work will be with us for a a long time. He seems poised to become, like Duncan or H.D., one of those rare poets who can reveal the continued grandness of spiritual struggle, and in so doing remind us how crucial that struggle can be and is.

One might ask, for instance, whether it's really necessary to insist on a separation between "personal experience" and "access to visions." Is there any need, really, to see the possibility of spiritual experience as fundamentally different from materiality? Might there not be a way to see the two as fused rather than separated? Might not one, in response to Kant, reject the idea that one must stand totally outside a condition in order to understand it, and say instead that our ability to perceive materialty could be itself another material condition?

Guest Reviewer: Mark Wallace
This review previously appeared in The Washington Review.



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