Empathy and Poetic Imagination
Empathy and the Poetic Imagination
by Bruce Bond
There are Selves who unify their expressions by their subjective force; it is only
with the intensity of such subjectivity that one even sees the world of objects.
For every poet as ventriloquist, there is a planet made of tongues. Birds talk. Chairs respond. The dead rise and give advice, and in so doing they throw their voices into us. Hard to tell at times just who is talking, where the font of agency begins. What we do know is that the poetic imagination could not exist without some sense of reciprocity in its chamber of thrown voices. The poem thus is a kind of doll that surprises the child with what it says, with the ongoing dialogue between her inner depths and outer reaches. The poem’s cave that takes some voice into the dark returns that voice in a new inflection. What is the human throat if not a cave? In the echo chamber of poetic resonance, poems articulate something fundamental about the reciprocal and seminal power exchange in all language. We speak and so are spoken, and what we speak about in turn speaks of us.
Leave it to the poetic imagination to see the dead as willful, creative, slipping their desires into us. Those of a less superstitious nature are bound to reject a ghost as literal, but they still might embrace the poetic wonder and heartbreak of the haunted dream they remember as they wake. They might savor the clarity dreams give to the relational pull of their deepest affections. Likewise even the most superstitious must register, consciously or unconsciously, that if we could know beyond doubt that the dead talk, the dream sheds a little of its awe and wonder, a little of its force. It would surrender its faith, its love/hate relation to the real. Poems cannot exist without the pull of the real and the push of the unreal. The same is true of metaphors more largely, one side of which pins itself to some intuited ground. Magic cannot be ordinary, though poetry thrives on the tension that both would and would not make it so.
If a poet’s ventriloquism were not tempered by attention to the real, if the real did not in turn throw its voice into the imagining subject, the world would be voiceless or its voice would be displaced, appropriated, subverted. Projection would overwhelm its vessel with pre-existent needs and so lapse into something less transformative, into the aesthetic narcissism perhaps, the decadence in which artifice devours the vision it would serve. On the other hand, if the poet were merely passive, literal, unassertive in her formal rendering, the dead would lie down in their graves once again. Chairs would sit silent. The world would slowly bleed dry, drained of the radiance of felt relations. It would lack the power of eros that first summoned us to the world, that taught us the imagination’s most fundamental vocation: to make the universe into something we can love. The cold rationality of science may get things done, but it cannot fall in love with science. Where science gets strange, it invites us in as strangers. It binds us, drawn to the limits of our knowledge, more closely to the material world by virtue of its enigmas, its distance bridged by awe and speculative desire.
In truth, it is hard to image the extremes of subjectivity or objectivity since our experience, bound by the principles of each, must negotiate the vast possibilities between. Those deeply attentive to the variety of our dreams tend to maintain some ambivalence about their power, whether they bring us closer to the world or shield us from its harsh bright light. A poet’s imaginative assertions, however underplayed, may inspire similar ambivalence, for although poems call upon a sense of craft that dreams lack, both poetry and dream depend upon a sense of mediating the unknown or, more paradoxically, the unknowable. Both imply a vehicle, a semiotics, a progressive syntax of signs, the elusive logic of symbol speaking to symbol. Both “mediate” something that appears beyond expression but which, in spite of our ignorance, must suggest the gravitational pull of the real. Without such gravity, the search for meaning is frivolous. Without doubt, the search cannot exist.
Thus when Jacques Lacan famously reiterates that “the unconscious is structured like a language,” he is quick to note the importance of the word “like” and what it does not, cannot, claim:
You see that by still preserving this “like” [comme], I am staying within the bounds of what I put forward when I say that the unconscious is structured like a language. I say like so as not to say. (p. 48)
Both poems and dreams deploy a language that appears to articulate something beyond them, something that cannot be represented without the residue of doubt that makes oneiric faith possible. With regard to the power and significance of this faith, not all dreams are equal. Some are paranoid nonsense. Some tell us we are hungry. Others register suppressed or deeply awakened insight. The defensive boundaries relax, and the subject-objects of memory and desire come into greater conversation to coax us into greater recognitions. Similarly, poems may be either exercises in self-indulgence or forces that expand the felt awareness that seems indigenous to a poem’s origin in its dialogue with the world.
The question therefore remains: if a perceiver’s imaginative commitments invest the world with value, with eros as an articulation of values, at what point does the perceiver risk an overvaluation of imaginative subjectivity? Is it still eros if, in time, it comes to worship eros? Is falling in love with love not a form of narcissism and thus the end of love? Implicit in these questions is the larger question as to whether a poem can succeed if the subject matter of the poem narrows to contemplate itself merely, its own imagination. In an absolute sense, this is impossible, but relatively speaking, the polar extremes of aesthetic over-indulgence and barren literalism figure as equally dull. Wallace Stevens, obsessed as he was in making a case for “the supreme fiction,” argues in “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” the imagination must register the pressure of the real, that elusive world beyond its subjectivity, or it relinquishes its “vitality.” Moreover it becomes frivolous. It is not enough that the external summons to the imaginations is simply some vague social sphere, relativized and ungrounded. If that world does not register affectively as real, however imperfectly modeled as such, its summons is weak.
The difficult question of degree bears on the elusive nature of taste which, in the context of art, often resonates as the province of aesthetics merely, as if aesthetic concerns could be met or bracketed off from epistemological and ethical ones. It remains hard to imagine however just what “taste” could mean if not some intuitive negotiation of multiple values, some conversation involving what is said, how it is said, and whether it is worth saying. Characteristic lapses in taste, such as sensationalism and sentimentality, fail as artificial in part because they are artless. In both cases the affect appears monotonal, manipulative, imposed and thus, however grounded in fact, not quite genuine in modeling the real. Their aesthetic failure is therefore embedded in a perceived epistemological one and, by virtue of their manipulative self-indulgence, an ethical one as well.
Given the vast range of artful stances toward the real, the words “aesthetic” and “aestheticization” are often vague and insufficient as terms to describe the level of attention and authenticity in imaginative assertions. For both aesthetic and epistemological reasons, the sentimental and sensational do not provide credible and compelling models of the complexity of inner life. They fail the demands of a poem to answer to often competing values and so to reanimate the poetic imagination as something deeply conflicted at heart, as a form of creative play called to meaningful difficulty, to empathy and understanding. To define what empathy could be in a poem is difficult indeed, since the very act of reading or writing has some sense of voyeuristic distance built into it, and yet the tension that empathic listening gives to a poem remains critical to its power, a quality of speaking and being spoken, of going more deeply inward as if somewhere in there were the path to others.
Till Human Voices Wake Us
In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” when T.S. Eliot famously states that art does not have a personality to express but rather a medium, he does not argue against the oneiric transformations that seem so suggestive of one’s character. Nor does he characterize imaginative powers as intrusive and narcissistic. On the contrary, he wishes to create some distance between art and artist and so argue for language as something other than a mere transparency through which we would see the poet behind it. The persuasive and useful part of his argument positions itself not against “personality” but against the myth of art as merely passive “expression” for the personality as some essence that precedes imaginative form. It is not personality so much that art escapes as the naïve conception of “personality” as something fully constituted and thus capable of dominating its medium:
The point of view which I am struggling to attack is perhaps related to the metaphysical theory of the substantial unity of the soul: for my meaning is, that the poet has, not a “personality” to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways. (p.10)
In asking us to reconsider the association between the poetic imagination and autonomous selfhood, the above passage registers more sensitivity the difficulty of his subject than Eliot’s questionable metaphor of “escape.” His notion that poetry “is not an expression of personality, but an escape from personality” relies ironically upon a reification of the boundaries that it would critique. The metaphor of escape implies a movement across such a boundary. It suggests a “substantial unity” of some kind, a delineated sense of personhood, however contextualized within some larger consciousness. What Eliot seeks is perhaps less an escape from the walls of the personal than a radical dismantling of those conceptual walls, a calling into question their metaphysical sustainability.
Eliot’s most obvious point is that, in poetry, the imagination, as mediated, must negotiate the collective, objective, and historical tensions embedded in form and diction. Given social context, a poem stands in relation to a tradition, whether consciously or not, and greater consciousness empowers one to move that tradition forward, to find what is meaningfully new to the conversation. A less obvious assumption suggests that the imaginative craving for the “peculiar and unexpected” might mitigate against the more naïve ways in which poets perceive their work as “personal.” The need to “make it new” suggests that poetry’s medium, as more assertive in its energy, locates its authority in the dialogue between tradition and individual subjectivity.
If we see in Eliot’s hyperboles an enthusiasm for the imaginative order of a tradition that cannot possibly be orderly, he likewise expresses a healthy bit of subversive will, both in his rhetorical defiance and his affinity with the revolutionary inwardness and evocative techniques of French Symbolism. The example of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock” embodies this spirit in its reliance on the deeply conflicted poetic image, the image saturated in unconscious energy at the same time that it critiques the alienated solipsism of imaginative excess:
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floor of silent seas. (l. 73-74)
The self-hatred and anger that claw at Prufrock register his failure in the social sphere, not only because that sphere appears superficial, but because he is no less so. In so doing, the poem explores something of the possibility of inward, imaginative excess that subordinates women to their mythic or archetypal value relative to the speaker’s desire. Thus, if they appear, they do so as fragmented bodies and bits of conversation, never as clear subjectivities in their own right. They become the correlative to mermaids, subordinate to projection, dream stuff incapable of genuine coupling. Prufrock’s particular imagination as the expression of a crippled and thereby inflated ego consumes its world in the projection of its needs. It cries out for meaning, which is to say a relational ground in either the metaphysical or social realm, but pursues it by assertively and imaginatively recasting the given nature of the world in an attempt to further reify, articulate, and structure his threatened sense of self. Human voices, as opposed to mythic ones, are dangerous, precisely because their desiring subjectivities remind Prufrock of the vulnerabilities and limits of his own. Taken to an extreme, Prufrock’s symptoms verge on a kind of paranoia wherein the weak ego exposes the self to the assaults of the unconscious. If such a person throws his voice into the world with the ardor of a conspiracy theorist, it is in part because the forces of alterity and their hallucinatory displacements are so strong.
This said, to critique the character of Prufrock is not to critique the poem, and images such as the scuttling claws speak intimately of universals. Thus the same imaginative projections that alienate Prufrock from his world connect us to his. Moreover they, as rising to the demands of poetry’s medium as inventive, peculiar, multiply evocative, articulate and expand a collective sense of wonder and insight into the way consciousness works and does not work. Representations of pathological narcissism in poetry include us in ways that the narcissist does not. In a poem, we, as readers, as voyeurs at the clarifying distance required to read, are not cornered by the narcissist. By virtue of the mediation that Eliot honors, we are invited to explore the conceptual and affective complexity that is an element of form. Irrationality in poetry makes room for us. It draws us as readers both inward and outward at the same time, empowered to participate in a construction of meaning made possible by the familiar in the peculiar, the clear in the distorted, the daylight in the partially eclipsed. While Prufock may not model empathy, he might well solicit it, not because he meets our ethical criteria, not because we would chose him as a friend, but because his inner life resonates as authentically and powerfully rendered, which we can only recognize as such because that life resonates, consciously or not, with our own.
The Poet as Barbaric
Suffering is power. It is also suffering. Pain has a defiantly private dimension and as such asserts itself in one sense as a boundary between selves. Suffering makes plain the impossibility of empathy as an absolute. Nowhere is the ambiguous subject of “appropriation” more heated as when it involves the appropriation of one’s power in the form of self-inflating assumptions about and identifications with another’s suffering. Thus the sense of violation implied by the notion of appropriation extends beyond the ethical realm into a fundamental epistemological one. Stated another way, ethics and epistemology inform each other’s resistance to the act of appropriation, particularly in difficult times when a public sensitivity to the problem of appropriation and imaginative eclipse rises. With suffering, particularly on a collective scale, the pressure of the real increases, along with the expectations that imaginative forms honor the alterity of that pressure. In extreme cases, art goes silent.
In his book Shock of the New, Robert Hughes points to the silencing effect that holocaust photographs had on the world of painting. Painters felt paralyzed, unable to compete with the greater transparency of the documentary medium. This is not to say that photographic journalism lacks an aesthetic, only that the aesthetic elements appear subordinated more emphatically to their subject. The greater the suffering rendered, the greater the perceived need for such subordination. Take Nick Ut’s Pulitzer-winning, Vietnam-era photograph of a naked girl running from napalm. Indeed it has a striking composition to it. We see there at the center of our attention the girl framed by other children, one of whom looks back to soldiers bringing up the rear, and behind them in the distance, the great, black, devouring cloud. Given that drama and our likely empathic response, it may disturb our ethical sensibilities to admit to the aesthetic elements of satisfaction, of pleasure even, that contribute to our response. That said, it is unlikely that the photograph would have garnered such attention if it had been out of focus or badly composed. Journalistic aesthetics must above all appear to intensify rather than mitigate the pressure of the real. It is not the role of the news photo to draw attention to the dissonance between compositional satisfaction and documentary pressure.
In his “An Essay on Cultural Criticism and Society,” Theodore Adorno’s famous claim, “To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric” (p. 34), benefits from the greater context of his argument:
To anyone in the habit of thinking with his ears, the words ‘cultural criticism’ (Kulturkritik) must have an offensive ring, not merely because, like automobile, they are pieced together from Latin and Greek. The words recall a flagrant contradiction. The cultural critic is not happy with civilization, to which alone he owes his discontent. He speaks as if he represents unadulterated nature or a higher historical stage. Yet he is necessarily of the same essence as that to which he fancies himself superior. (p. 19)
Here he admits a certain humility and culpability, enmeshed, indebted, and shaped as he is by the objects of his critique. Although in a similarly self-effacing spirit, he will admit later that he overstated his case about the barbarism of poetry after the holocaust, his famous claim is nonetheless useful in articulating something of the humility and shame that haunts the effort to turn extreme horror into the stuff of poetic wonder and compositional satisfaction.
Beyond this, his statement implies that some historical shifts are so enormous that they must dominate the conversation. To change the topic belies complacency, and complacency is ruthless. If the world were not saturated in blood and guilt that would totalize experience with its themes, Adorno’s would not have garnered such attention. Anger simplifies, as does bitterness. The complicating irony in Adorno’s tone, in spite of his admission, is its dictatorial sweep, the fact that his rhetorical power depends upon a culture of shame and outrage to take to heart its totalizing conceptual overthrow. What Auschwitz did was put poems under pressure to reconcile the pleasure of form with the sobriety and immensity of collective suffering. The refining of horror into artifice might better be described as decadence rather than barbarism, but this is precisely why “barbarism” is the more forceful metaphor. Decadence characterizes an artful excess relative to its content or occasion. Barbarism implies brutality. Moreover it has a social register with its roots in the perceived violence of the crude outsider. Thus the tone of “barbarism” runs counter to that of “decadence” which can imply the social license, often made possible by greater means. Somewhat ironically, Adorno’s rhetorical strategies (conceptual opposition, theatricality, metaphor, hyperbole) are that of a poem, rendering not simply the cold subject matter of the world but our felt relation to it. Adorno’s claim pleases, on some level, with its compositional speed and force.
The pleasure of such form figures as a subcategory of the more pervasive and less obvious pleasure of representation. Though it is clear the barbaric element of the poetic is in the intensification of this pleasure, there is some larger category of representation at play, and it is through representation at large that one expresses the hunger for empowerment that drives language and its proliferation. With such empowerment, the mind performs the magic of making the absent present, of conflating absence and presence in imaginary ways that help us cope with the anxiety of non-being. Moreover, as Nietzsche explores at length in “The Birth of Tragedy,” there is a satisfaction in rendering suffering as “mere appearance,” and by virtue of aesthetic form, the sense of imaginary mastery intensifies. We can through artful referentiality, however transfigured and abstract, encounter suffering while nevertheless stepping back from it, enjoying some freedom, however illusory, of movement in relation to it.
Such is the troubling position of empowerment that we have relative to Nick Ut’s photograph, with its compositional order muted beneath our empathetic response. We are not looking at the world, after all. We are looking at a photograph, and as horrifying as it is, we might well prefer to look at the representation versus the real presence. If an urgency of suffering did not cry through the surface of the work, we might ease more comfortably into the pleasure of representation. The contemplation of a painting of a mountain, for instance, might well be preferable to the real mountain because the painting is imbued eros, relational by nature. We see not only a mountain but ourselves in mountain and the mountain in us. In contrast to the documentary aesthetic, art as it moves increasingly toward the poetic would imitate not simply the mountain as object but our relation to it and thus the very act of attention, of imitation. Poetry, as something other than mere escape, is self-reflexive in this way, though it need not be self-conscious about that fact. Poetry, if it aspires toward the visionary in ways specific to poems, is self-reflexive since its chosen “reality” is always to some extent the imagination itself. The imaginative element thus is not an escape from reality, but rather a restoring of it, an actual embodiment of the fundamentally relational nature of experience.
The aesthetics of Ut’s photograph derives its power in part by subordinating the pleasure of representation to the horror of the real as inhering in the material and social other. The naked girl pierces us more deeply because she is naked, as is news photography in a relative sense. We see ourselves in her, and yet we are acutely aware of the vast difference between us and the unspeakable anguish that she feels. The transparency of representation is a kind of soundproof glass. Our empathy feeds on its impossibility, the feeling that her pain is hers alone, and we can at best be present in some imaginary space. We go out to meet her, or rather the representation of her, who occupies a silence, a place beyond representation. Part of the connection to the real then is in the imagined experience of difference, of powerlessness, of bearing forward the memory as our imperfect summons to the world.
The Other in the Dream
Paul Celan’s poetry on the holocaust represents another extreme in terms of moving away from journalistic transparency toward a medium more conspicuous in its beauty and imaginative structure, more surreal in its figurative defamiliarization and internalization of the real. His poetic imagination is less intent on bearing the news in readily recognizable terms than in inventing a strange, new, and sometimes incantatory dialect for the unspeakable. His most famous poem on the subject, “Death Fugue,” resonates with the dark beauty, wonder, and horror of a nightmare, such that the distinctive feature of its authority lies less in horrible information and more in the damaged inner life that bears the legacy of horror. Grief clashes with wonder in a way characteristic of the most inward spaces of the wounded psyche:
Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown
we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night
we drink it and drink it
we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined
A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair Margarete
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are flashing he whistles his pack out
he whistles his Jews out in earth has them dig for a grave
he commands us strike up for the dance (l. 1-9)
The lush music and figuration of the poem, scriptural in its recursivity, is potentially both disturbing and satisfying. The way it infuses the brutal facts with the deep, formal fluency of lyric lamentation, we may feel haunted by the exposed inner life as a form of intimacy, and the lyricism as a form of distance. The simultaneous sense of intimacy and distance bears the characteristics of a dream. Lyricism somewhat ironically becomes mimetic of horror via the mechanism of repression. Part of the horror here is the horror of denial, however merciful, where the psyche protects itself against itself. Tonal opposition has within its illogic a strong logic nevertheless and so lends both dynamism and structure.
Adorno’s claim about poetry, however metonymical for art in general, registers an awareness of poetry’s particular threat or character, though he does not explain what that is. He does not note that poetry, as the art which is most about language, is the one most prone to the uneasy combination of external referentiality and self-reflexivity, nor does he make distinctions with regard to styles of self-reflexivity that might indeed wed themselves more strongly in emotional and conceptual fashion to scenes of horror and the human dilemma of spiritual survival in light of them. The mind in shock might well lend itself to a poetics of far greater tension and psychological realism than the so-called “correct” poem of social realism, appropriately pressured by shame or pragmatism to be more literal, clear, and directive.
Written during the Spanish Civil War, Pablo Neruda’s poem “A Few Things Explained” gives rationale to the writer’s act of turning away from a more introverted, opiated poetics of wonder in order to make room for a new phase of empathic and political engagement:
You will ask: And where are the lilacs?
And the metaphysics muffled in poppies?
And the rain which so often has battered
its words till they spouted up
gullies and birds? (l. 1-4)
One of the framing ironies of the poem is that the cry to look depends upon the averted gaze. The numbing poppies, after all, are in the poem, as is the house that “exploded/with geraniums” later on (l. 14-15). The elements of wonder are essential not only for their tonal opposition but as loving testament to what has been lost. The “beautiful/ house” contains within it the memories of the victims, including Federico Lorca, whose fellow poetic sensibility finds expression in Neruda’s line, “June drowned the dazzle of flowers in your teeth” (l. 23).
Such stubborn surrealism with its saturation in the associative logic complicates the tone of anger at the end of the poem:
Come see the blood in the streets,
the blood in the streets,
come see the blood
in the streets! (l. 75-80)
The call to witness is a call for immediacy, both of seeing and feeling, but the demands of factual confrontation and empathic response rely upon competing strategies in the poem.
The poem is soaked in both beauty and horror and as such moves in and out of a dream space toward a closure that, in its urgency, registers the struggle. The raised pitch would wake not simply us, but the speaker’s projected and imaginary sense of “us” as the embodiment of his own former aesthetic. Given the competing sensibilities in the poem, the final summons cannot help but have an inward cast as well. Even the final lines do not quite flatten into journalistic transparency. After all, enjambment structures our attention to regard a shifting emphasis. The small matters, politically and aesthetically. Form embodies care by way of attention to the small. It mediates the longing to overcome the limits of mediation, aesthetic or otherwise, to confront facts so difficult that they breed insistent incantations and so articulate and dismantle a lingering disbelief.
The Unconscious Political
It may seem counter-intuitive that a surreal aesthetics, such as that of Pablo Neruda, should lend itself to politics, particularly as conceived by the Communist Party that Neruda represented as a senator in 1945. Surrealism has had, since early in its development, a troubled relationship to the Communist Party and its competing notions about art’s political efficacy. When, in his first manifesto, André Breton framed his central notion of “psychic automatism,” he specified that it be “dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern” (p. 26). However, in both France and the Americas, surrealism as a movement and a practice carries with it a strong history of socialist aspirations, as evidenced in André Breton’s joining of the French Communist Party in 1927 and his expulsion in 1933. The expulsion did little to dim Breton’s enthusiasm as he went on to write The Political Position of Surrealism in 1935 and to visit Leon Trotsky, Frida Kahlo, and Diego Rivera in Mexico in the late 30s. Clearly the aesthetic of surrealism, with its enigmatic inwardness, is diametrically opposed to the desired pragmatics and lucidity of Stalinist social realism. As Breton states in his first manifesto of 1924, the greatest surreal image is:
the one that is arbitrary to the greatest degree, the one that takes the longest time to translate into practical language, either because it contains the greatest amount of seeming contradiction, or because one of its terms is strangely concealed. (p. 38)
By the 1930s, it has become clear to Breton that the enigmatic quality of surrealism obscures for many its political value, especially in Marxist terms that emphasize the external, material ground of dialectical process, as opposed to the inwardness so salient in dreams.
In his essay “Surrealism and the Situation of the Object,” Breton defends Hegel whom, he claims, his fellow socialists attack for the idealist bent of Hegelian dialectics, hostile in the minds of many to Marxist philosophical materialism. According to Breton, Hegel’s detractors would have dialectics “walk on its head.” In contrast, Breton believed that Hegel would have proved far more qualified than his critics to understand if surrealism is “ill-founded” or not, for Hegel understood more thoroughly and precisely the relation of consciousness to sensible forms in dialectical process (p. 259). Breton’s emphasis here is not on poetry but on painting, more obviously material, where the dream logic of surreality signifies not alienation but connection. Surreal painting thus invests material with the immaterial. In surreal poems too, we might add, matter is not the lifeless stuff of an objectification. Herein lies the less obvious connection of surrealism to Marxism in reimagining some alternative to withdrawal. In Breton’s words, the surreal aesthetic serves social process by “excluding (relatively) the external object as such and considering nature only in its relationship with the inner world of consciousness” (p. 260).
Breton’s argument gives support to the notion that the heavy dose of subjectivity in a work of art models a breed of intimacy with one’s material world. However this argument does little to address the messiness of competing subjectivities. The possible presumption of Breton’s claim is that “the inner world of consciousness” is one world and therefore shared. He does not fully investigate the potential ironies of his statement. The example of the schizophrenic suggests that the mind’s ventriloquism speaking into the forms of nature could drown out the other subjectivities in the room. One might complicate Breton’s discussion by investigating the metaphor of “listening” when it comes to aesthetic process. This is far trickier when it comes to social as opposed to material alterity. Clearly, there is no safe place in ideology that translates into the empathic consciousness of the ideologist. This is likely to be obvious, and if not, one need only look at the character at Breton with his imperial edicts and “expulsions” from the surreal movement. Moral pride is characteristically cruel. By grace of its complexity, experiential grounding, and inclusiveness of affect, poetry, including Breton’s, cannot be sensitively understood as mere ideology, however many ideological tensions it may embody. Breton’s notion of the poet as operating without “moral concern” might better be understood as a lack of the vanity and self-consciousness to be morally correct. Paradoxically, the lack of moral self-styling might itself be a moral gesture, more genuine in its empathy, but there is no guarantee that it would be.
Another possible irony suggests that poetry can figure as more persuasive, even in political or ethical terms, than overtly ideological discourse. The empathic ground of its perspective may appear more earned, of greater emotional summons, precisely because of the imaginative force of inwardness. With the influx of South American surrealism into the United States in the 1960s, many poets of the Viet Nam era turned to surreal techniques to produce some of the most successful poems of protestation, including “Counting Small-Boned Bodies” by Robert Bly and “The Asians Dying” by W.S. Merwin. The success of these poems lies in part in how the surreal impulse mitigates against the rigidity of conviction, so the poems do not fall victim to the didacticism that would paralyze their powers of evocation. Bly’s poem works particularly well in wedding political outrage to surreal wonder, both as the source of the poem’s authoritative tension and in parody the war bureaucrat’s euphemistic take on violence:
Let’s count the bodies over again.
If we could only make the bodies smaller
The size of skulls
We could make a whole plain white with skulls in the moonlight! (l. 1-4)
Such poems temper their instrumental ambition with a critical element of the dream, its quality of strangeness and surprise that, unlike political conviction, could not have preceded the expressive act. The poem relinquishes some measure of control modeled in the certitude of the political manifesto or, for that matter, the phone book, work predicated on our passivity as readers and the passivity of the medium in yielding to intention. The poet’s voice must give voice.
The Grace of Accuracy
Admittedly “subjectivity” is an immense and blurry category. As such, it gestures toward a certain metaphysical blurriness as embedded in ordinary language. As one pole of the subject-object continuum that makes consciousness possible, subjectivity suggests relief from the bias that imparts the lion’s share of reality to the objects of perception. “Empathy,” as no less difficult a category, would occupy a space at both ends of the continuum. This is in part because its “object” is a “subjectivity,” which like one’s own is messy, and that very subjectivity calls us to the humanity of our own. Empathy cannot be objective, nor can it shed a metaphysical sense of irresolution and hunger for that which is beyond representation. Empathy thus provides a model of what poetry longs to be, empathetic in the sense of listening as it speaks. In poetry, the surreal image potentially pays homage to something beyond the self, something transpersonal in both the outward and inward sense. “Empathy” conceived as listening speech is at the core of what gives the poetic imagination its expressive power, its attentive invention, its imagined reconciliation or conflation of facts and values. In order to see poetry in the light of its strengths, it helps to see all good poems, in the broadest sense, as love poems. This is to say that their power depends upon what is at stake in imaginative play. Love is the signature of commitment. It gives a poem its pressure of necessity. All poems animated by this necessity see in the world the care and investment of imaginative awakening, of eros as dialogical, born in the conversation between the given and the made.
One of the practical problems that an artist confronts is that eros requires a subjectivity that in excess threatens to overwhelm its object. We see this in romantic love, in the necessary tension between the archetypal and the individual bearing of the beloved that makes romantic love possible. The mythic dimensions of romantic love that characteristically subside with familiarity can inflate themselves at the expense of the beloved. Romantic love struggles to overcome the narcissistic element within it. In poetry too, it is less specifically an inwardness that tends to break the spell of eros than it is self-regard, or self-consciousness in its pejorative sense. Surrealism characteristically aligns itself with a more “naked” poetics, as articulated in the popular Vietnam-era anthology Naked Poetry, inclusive of Bly, Merwin, and others whose plain diction and figurate leaps would give to the marvelous the quality of the homemade. The surreal image as expressive of eros suggests a subordination of artifice to improvisatory candor, less hesitant, more freely associative, less plagued by issues of “correctness,” or, as Breton says, “aesthetic or moral concern,” but it takes a great deal of faith in the transformative power of disinhibition to believe the unpoliced sensibility moves toward empathy. One need only look at the frequent misogynist elements in early surreal visual art for an example of disinhibition giving license to sadism.
On the other hand, repression of the cruel appetites and paranoia of the psyche does even less to transform them. No manifesto can render unproblematic poetry’s (and the psyche’s) need for both passion and discipline, surrender and control. In bracketing off aesthetic and moral concerns, Breton leaves wonder and authenticity to fill the void. Somewhat ironically for some, surrealism, as a higher realism (a sur-realism), gains much of its authority from its psychic “truth.” Poetry is frivolous without some such revelatory possibility. Still Breton’s subordination of aesthetic and moral concerns conflicts rather sharply with the aesthetic and moral subtext throughout his manifestoes. The so-called lack of aesthetic or moral concern, as a trick one plays on oneself in surreal practice, does not account for Breton’s investment in the aesthetics of juxtaposition and the ethics of material dialectics. It appears the problematic tensions between the good, the beautiful, and the true simply cannot be resolved, but only, at best, ignored for the sake of opening up the spontaneous activity of the mind.
With personal immediacy, Robert Lowell’s poem “Epilogue” brings into focus the fundamental tension in poetry between the beautiful and the true, a tension that recalls both his early deployment of more obviously formal devices and his later relaxation of them:
Those blessed structures, plot and rhyme—
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled? (l. 1-4)
The urge to make something imagined competes therefore with the urge expressed later to “say what happened.” With a note of personal crisis reminiscent of Yeats’s “The Circus Animal’s Desertion,” Lowell suspects the worst. He sees his work as devoid of both the vitality of the beautiful and the authenticity of true:
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact. (l. 8-12)
Although the poem is less explicit about the ethical tension in poetry, the moral intelligence of the poet finds expression in Lowell’s attempt to reconcile the beautiful and the true through art as an embodiment of care. Vermeer’s art strikes its balance with regard to the beautiful and the true by virtue of its “caress,” its imaginative precision:
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter’s vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light. (l. 5-7)
In contrast to Vermeer’s art is not simply the photograph, but, in Lowell’s terms, the “snapshot”—decidedly less artful, less considered, “lurid, rapid, garish, grouped” (l. 11).
In Lowell’s dramatic imperative to “pray for the grace of accuracy/ Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination (16-17),” the word “grace” conflates the values that he would honor. It suggests both divine bestowal and artistic refinement at the service of some clarification of attention. Vermeer’s medium “gives” to the world its grace such that its artistry foregrounds neither subject nor object but their relational being as manifest in one another. Truth cannot be beauty, but the two may share the same space in art’s act of bestowal, its generosity, its attentive “caress.”
Lowell’s insight here notably comes to fruition as prayer. The gesture acknowledges a certain metaphysics in great art, where, by virtue of unseen grace, the real and the imagined both find expression in the ache of care that binds one to the world. The artist’s disciplined agency, if animated by the grace of accuracy, is always paradoxical, always open, always a surprise. This comes to matter because mortality puts self and world under pressure to seek one another, to affirm themselves in the face of death:
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name. (l. 20-23)
Lowell’s poem ends less with certainty than with some registration of the pressure that is the gift of our passing. Death has a voice. It is our voice, our projected fear and aspiration in light of the threat of non-being. What is more certain that the fact of one’s death? What is more uncertain than its nature? What is more uncanny that the look of death on someone we loved, someone we continue to love, we might catch ourselves saying, not knowing exactly who or what it is we love? What is more immanently distant than the artistic rendering of the deceased who wear the look of life, mercifully odd in light of what we know and do not know. Poetry, in giving presence to our felt relations, cannot help but be haunted by absence, as we are, as our language must be. It cannot help but recognize the mystery of death and non-being as woven inextricably into that of being, such that thirst for the deeper resources of being belies an anxiety drawn from the wells of non-being.
It is the vocation of art therefore to make of hunger its own satisfaction. The presence that art conjures is thus always in part a product of hunger, a product of the imaginative encounter with non-being. Keats intuits as much when, in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” he states:
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
The imperative to “play on” self-reflexively affirms not only the imagination’s power of collaboration, but also its power to manifest the real conceived, not merely as subjective or objective, but as that which makes tenuous their distinction. The sweetest melodies complicate our sense of aesthetics, since beauty has no true home. It can neither reside neatly in the relativity of human subjects nor, conversely, in the stability of external objects. It cannot locate itself exclusively in being or in non-being. Beauty therefore is restless. It breeds the very hunger it requires. In a paradox of relations, the imagined music of the urn sweetens the very desire that makes it sweet.
From non-being come the forces of imaginative affirmation that have no clear beginning, no end, though we are bound to happen upon them now and then with all the shock of the new. Somewhere in a museum in Vienna perhaps, we might look up to see a painting of a girl posed before a map. She is holding a book and an antique trombone, eyes closed, breath still. We do not feel what she felt. We cannot. We do not hear what she heard in the music of her horn. However, what we do feel is enormous and sustaining in light and in spite of that which is lost. We feel the hunger for being in the artist’s grace, his compositional regard for the real to articulate that hunger. As non-being and being find focus via the sense of the whole, we see the luminous shadow of death, of absence in the presence, of solitude in our shared desire for communion. We feel the nature of the summons that is specific to the imagination, the sense that, in going out to the girl in the painting, we pass through an inward space, a space that is both ours and not ours. This is the space of the poem. It has no other. And if we are met by grace, we feel not only some shadow of the way things were but how, imbued with our own vulnerable attentions, these shadows come to matter.
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