November 3, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

Cynosure: Poetry and World

02unboxedxlarge1.jpgA few days ago, under circumstances which will shortly become clear, I began, as we say, to blog. I blogged and blogged until I had blogged myself, more or less, into a corner: by which I mean, I knew I wanted to make use of this interesting medium, but beyond constructing a blog page using Google’s Blogger, I had no idea what to do with it. I knew how to write it, and what I wanted to say, but how one might make the content available to a single interested reader anywhere (assuming such a critter) was beyond me.

To make a long story short, I got in touch with my old friend and colleague David Lynn, and before you could say cyberspace I was signed up as part of The Kenyon Review‘s blog team. And there is something fitting and satisfying about this arrangement, since I have a certain history with Kenyon College and with the Review.

For the present, our idea is that I will maintain a sort of blog-within-a-blog; my little corner (the one into which I blogged myself, O brave new world that has such language in it) will be called Cynosure: Poetry and World; every time I pop up, that title will appear with me. It is my hope that this medium and I will get along, and serve KR readers well.
02unboxedxlarge1.jpgI. In the Spirit of Confession: Why This?

I begin on the Saturday before Election Day, Tuesday, November 4, 2008. For weeks, I–like many others–have been caught up in the drama and the melodrama of the electoral process. I have spent hours at my computer screen cruising the internet for news and opinion, both broadening and narrowing “the valves of my affection,” discovering new sources that I trust, find amusing, or scan anxiously for the opposition’s point of view. When I reflect on my activity, I’m surprised at the extent to which the computer has taken the place of virtually every other source of information (indeed, information seems to me a pale word for what the computer provides: cultural input might be a better term for it). I have hardly looked at a physical newspaper in months, though I read several newspapers closely, returning to them frequently to reinforce impressions, compare notes, and deepen my understanding of reportage by cross-referencing. I scarcely watch television news; by comparison with what the computer provides, television coverage seems truncated and superficial. I do listen to radio news, but only when I am driving, and never when I am near a computer. I have read a good many books as background to current events, but of course books about this unfolding election have not yet been written. By the time they are, my obsession will undoubtedly have migrated elsewhere. But for the time being, obsession is without a doubt the right word to describe my state of mind, and it is primarily through the medium of the computer that I indulge it.

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the strangeness of the mode of my engagement. At 58 years and counting, I have lived through a spectrum of techno-cultural change that, without judgment as to the virtue or lack thereof which that change may possess, is dazzling to contemplate. The computer and its myriad points of connection make it possible for me to swim in a river of “cultural input,” to enter it any time I want, to stay in it as long as I want, and to dive as deeply as my stamina will allow, or to float at my leisure with the current. Even a few years ago, information arrived sporadically and on a schedule: the newspaper was on the doorstep in the morning, news came on television at a fixed time of day, the radio offered a shade but only a shade more latitude; one had to wait to find out what was happening until the ordained moment, and if the opportunity were missed (if the newspaper were eaten by the neighbor’s dog, if a friend called with an emergency during the news hour) it was gone. The computer, on the other hand, waits patiently with its breaking news and with its archives. Twenty versions of the now are available, and so are a thousand versions of this morning and a hundred thousand of yesterday. If one feels overwhelmed by the volume of what is there, one can find without too much trouble a summary neatly done by some other obsessed soul.

One of the signal pleasures of this process, naturally enough, is the discovery of those other obsessed souls, at any rate the ones with whom one feels kinship. Over the course of the past few months, I have found my way to quite a few sites where texts have attracted me repeatedly until something like a peculiar impersonal friendship has appeared. In most cases it is highly unlikely that I will ever meet or communicate directly with the people behind the texts, and in that way the connection is not so different from the link that arises with books, with journals and magazines, with newspapers; but some internet forms possess a distinct ethos that differs from print media because of their immediacy. As I read a blog post, I can almost feel the other beyond the screen. He or she has just been there, and may still be there, at a keyboard like this one, gazing into a screen like the one into which I gaze. The bear’s tracks in the snow are fresh; the spoor still steams; and what just moved over there–no, there, immediately beyond that row of trees?

*

Two transcendent passions have long been at the core of my so-called life: poetry and music. What I love most in these phenomena is the same quality, the sense each can convey of the fresh track, the steaming spoor, the immediacy of another mind that is present but just beyond reach. In a text or in a recording, even the mind (and also by extension the body) of one long dead may seem barely out of sight, just there behind the trees. The sound of Django Reinhardt’s fingers sliding along the strings of his guitar, or of Ben Webster’s breath palpable as part of the voice of his saxophone, are incisively poignant to one who listens for such things. The small hairs that stand up on the back of the neck when I read a poem by Emily Dickinson behave that way partly because of the power of the thing the poem says, and partly because the small hairs stood up on the back of her neck when she read a poem that so moved her.

The brain is just the weight of God,
For, lift them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound.

The internet experience, the power of the blog, is, from where I sit, different from this, and less profound, but it is part of the same family. If I feel, without having done signal duty in the trenches as a campaigner or a canvasser, closely and even intimately connected with the current presidental contest, it is perhaps partly due to the unprecedented nature of this election, but it is also due to the way I am getting information about it, the cultural connection the internet provides. The body politic has in the last decade or so grown a new and important organ. I have been aware of it for some time; I have made use of it for years; but this political season has revealed to me the depth of its importance. The viability of this medium is such that, not only has it brought the political process up close and personal for me and for millions of others like me, but also by doing so it has changed the political process itself.

*

As the election approaches its climactic day, I find myself in the peculiar position of mourning it in advance. In many ways, I want nothing more than for it to be over–I am tired, we are all tired, of this turmoil–and for the right man to be elected, so that life can go on and the present disease the nation suffers from can, one way or another, speed on toward its end. But I have been so caught up, so riveted, by the process that, when it morphs into aftermath, I will feel bereaved. Where will my obsession migrate? It’s not as if I don’t have plenty to do; my job is demanding, my family life absorbing, my writing vital to me if to no one else. But when the election ends, where will I turn for the latest indispensible minutiae–the vital gaffe, the fatal sound byte, the newest poll, the rumors, the lies, the facts?

These things are with us always, of course, and beyond the election something will always go on, until the earth implodes and we all are recycled into stargas. But in the meanwhile, my strange involvement in politics-at-home–made possible by and carried on within the internet–has left me with the nagging desire to participate in another way. Why should not I join the cadre of obsessed souls who haunt the computer screen? Up to now, in this realm, I have been merely a consumer. But my nature has never contented itself with the mere consumption of those experiences that most rivet me. I love poetry, and I am a poet; I love music, and I am a musician. In those realms, for better or worse, I have left my track and my spoor; some part of me waits for anyone who is interested, just beyond the trees. Why not make a foray into one more country?

This blog, then, is that country. It will concern itself with what its title announces: the cynosure between poetry and world. To the extent that, as Frost famously wrote, poetry is “news that stays news,” it has a role to play on the internet, and the internet a role to play in poetry. We know by now, in fact, that poetry lives rather nicely online; and there is no shortage of poetry commentary in the blogosphere. There is so much, in fact, that I can easily bring myself to wonder whether one more such enterprise is necessary or desirable. But the same can be said for poems, the same for music–and yet we all go on as if something depended on it. And something does.

John Keats might have prefigured the internet when he wrote his heartbreaking last poem, “This Living Hand”:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed–see here it is–
I hold it toward you.