Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sven Birkerts on Emerson and "The Poet"

I just finished reading a wonderful little essay by Sven Birkerts about Emerson's "The Poet" and its continued importance in our culture and creative lives. Here's a snippet of it. The full text can be found here.
"For, the experience of each new age requires a new confession, and the world seems always waiting for its poet."
It will be necessary to keep the sentiment but broaden the reference. That the world seems always waiting seems incontestable, the feeling of waiting is everywhere—it is, I think, what makes us ever more deeply enslaved to our devices: we are glued to our screens of all sizes not for amusement or business, but because we think something is going to be announced. We can’t bear to miss it. But that something is not poetry, unless we give poetry an apocalyptic possibility. We are on the run from the anxious vibration of our living, caused in part by the sense that things are more connected than ever and that it’s the whole world that is somehow pressing in on us, “obsessing our private lives,” as Auden wrote, though the nature of those private lives has changed a great deal since that writing. It could almost be argued that we no longer have private lives, and that that lack, and the porousness that it implies, is the cause of our unease, is what underlies that waiting. We are waiting for something that will feel like a solution when it arrives; we are waiting for the oppression of “what’s next?” to be lifted. We are, in a deeper sense, waiting for our poet. But we are not waiting for the poem so much as the permission to certify ourselves, to inhabit the world on terms we understand, to be free of the feeling that everything is being decided elsewhere. The poet, then, is the emblem of self-sufficiency, and the poem, could we only find our way to it and understand it, is his proof. The poem of our age, the new confession, would find a way to shape the ambient energies and the anxiety of that interconnectedness into an expression that felt contained, that gathered the edgy intuitions that pass through us constantly and made them feel like understandings. Not closed off or insistent understandings, but clarifications, ways of abiding with the terrifying glut of signals. Moving that agitated flurry into language is no small task. It might even be impossible, given that the nature of most of these signals is pre- or post-verbal. Emerson’s assertion becomes a question, the question: can anyone, poet or artist or mere lay mortal, create a confession—an expression, a synthesis—that would alleviate the waiting world? Or have we moved once and for all beyond the pale of synthesis—with only partial versions possible? Another way of asking whether our circumstance is now beyond the reach of vision. Beyond language.

How does the poet, the serious poet, navigate what has become the inescapable porousness, the basic destruction of the boundary of the private? Is the full and authentic lyric poem possible, or is it condemned to being a nostalgic gesture—with part of its impact derived from that fact?

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