My Romanticism



A few posts ago, I defined Romanticism in a rough-and-ready, ahistorical fashion, "as a stance that assumes the mutual dependence of self and world, or if you prefer, freedom and determination." My colleague Bob Archambeau, who is a scholar of Romanticism and far more qualified than I to opine on the subject, asked me rather reasonably what I meant by that. So I will try and explain, in my pragmatically poetics-minded way, what Romanticism means to and for me as a writer in the early 21st century.

The broadest and most persuasive recent definition of Romanticism I know comes from Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre's book Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity The title efficiently boils down the book's thesis: Romanticism is a broad, multinational weltanschauung that emerges in the late 18th century as a reaction against the Enlightenment, bourgeois capitalism, and industrialization. To paint with an even broader historical brush, I would say that with the emergence of modernity we see the dramatic rise in significance of "the world" and the worldly, in the face of the retreat of the divine as sole arbiter of value. Against forces that assert the primacy of "the world"--of the social, of rational systems--Romanticism rises as a sometimes contradictory wave in support of individuality, which seeks to restore the divine as a counterweight to the social (but in so doing reinforcing and exaggerating the fatal separation between divinity and world: Romantics flee organized religion and toward the cultic, toward individuals and small charismatic groups). Therefore, the 21st-century Romanticism or post-Romanticism that attracts me is a secularized Romanticism, which takes as its territory the wounded dialectic of self and world: wounded because that third thing, the divine, is present only in its absence, conditioning the territories of self and world.

As intellectual history this is pretty sketchy, but it gets across some of my sense of what Romanticism is, or what function it might serve, for our post-Language era of poetry: a reassertion of subjectivity that is not naive or reactionary, that has learned from the efforts of Language poetry to represent and negotiate with larger social systems. But there is another sense of it that I take from Robert Duncan, best encapsulated in Ezra Pound's phrase "the spirit of romance." Pound's book of that title tills the ground of the Troubadours, reaching back for a sense of Romance that is medieval, pre-Renaissance, which locates the ground of reality in myth and dream. In The H.D. Book Duncan writes that "The images of the poem, then, were not impressions translated from the given reality of the poet into words but were evocations of a dream greater than reality, a New World coming into existence in the opus of the poem itself" (97-98). What Duncan calls "the stuff of a poetic reality" is what I think of as the material of the Event: the Event as shaping act of the imagination creates and conjures Truth and the Subject, calling them forward from a background whose tangible immutability no longer goes unquestioned. The divine--the only truth-actor in the pre-modern dispensation--reappears as secular truth-action, materialized in the fidelity of the poet to her materials, which are the unevenly distributed products of her selfhood, of history, of tradition, and of her environment.

For a while now I have been interested in another more specific but related category of the poetic, the visionary. Poetic seeing in the visionary sense is something completely other than mimesis, even the mimesis of imagism: I would go so far as to call it a counter-mimesis, to relate it to the idea of the counter-factual. A poet like Blake creates, via or on the way to achieving fidelity to his (quite literal) visions, a "New World" in his poem. Such new worlds may be seen as offering an escape from what passes for Blake's reality (dark Satanic mills, etc.), but I think that visionary images are always dialectical: like a negative mimesis they comment on the qualities missing from the given world (the way Adorno says all lyric poems do) but they also conjure, in their process or adventure, the spirit of Romance or the spirit of Reality with a capital R: the revolutionary spirit from which all real changes, all real truths, emerge. The visionary poem rehearses creation. And I think the visionary, in that spirit, is what our historical moment may be calling for.