After some initial disturbance and distress, observation allows us to welcome a symphony of science and nature, the buzz of subatomic particles entangled with the strings of the Orphic lyre. Birds sail through blue skies as I sit midday after attending a panel featuring poets Anne Waldman, Rae Armantrout, Andrew Joron, Will Alexander, and Amy Catanzano. But wow — so much construction! And amid the allegory, the distant rumblings of mathematics. The deep basso profundo “Om” of the cybernetic Buddha. The American downtown beeps and buzzes, life landscaped and policed for redevelopment. Above it float clouds shaped like turtles, pigs, patient observers. Looped samples instrumentalize me, transform me through the labor of the beat into a receiver of new information, identity no longer fixed upon an avatar but rather dispersed across a domain beyond the barricade of the graphical user interface.
“Hack the code.” That seems to have been the final utterance of the counterculture before dispersing out onto what cyberpunk Bruce Sterling called “islands in the net.” But who among us cave-dwellers possesses the capacity to hack? How do we who are landless debtors hack back into the biosphere and become communally self-sufficient? How do we rewire and reboot world operating systems? For me, it’s by reading Thom Gunn’s wonderful poem written under the influence of acid, “At the Center.” Formally composed into three numbered sections, each containing two six-line rhymed stanzas of iambic pentameter, the poem is nevertheless heady and psychedelic. Filled with wonder. The one commons we do possess as heads, I suppose, is language. Poets like Gunn remind me that that, too, is a code we could hack, though “hacking” as a metaphor for practice seems far too intrusive and masterful, too contra naturam, for the work that lies ahead.
A glitch in the program allows me to inch the horizon line beyond its former position. Into the space opened by unanticipated spending money come new games, new concepts. I sit back and listen to “Truckin’,” chips not yet cashed. I pick up and flip through a well-worn volume, thinking to myself, “How does the song go?” Something about drawing the veil aside and unbinding — or is the command, rather, to leave it on? All I know is, “the feed-back proves, / the feed-back is / the law.” But to know is one thing; to feel the strain between two allegiances another. Who wants to bear the weight of a “law” upon one’s back? Who wants eternity in a country for old men?
Like Aldous Huxley’s character Robert MacPhail, I am a proponent of “poetry as an autonomous universe, out there, in the space between direct experience and the symbols of science” (Island, p. 136). By which I mean poetry as liberated ground, liberated domain of being. Time and space set aside for breathing, listening, mulling anxiously, retraining awareness (birds in trees: over there! can you hear them?), so as to allow the totality to grow anew.
Conversations keep gesturing ambivalently toward abstractions like East and West, if only because these categories occupy the thoughts of so many mid-century hippie modernists — particularly the Beats and the Black Mountain Poets, along with fellow-traveling first-generation psychedelic elders like Aldous Huxley. The class needs to move outdoors. Perhaps we could go for a walk. Educate the whole person, body integrated with mind. Today in particular would have been lovely. Sunny, mid-70s, birds singing, trees budding, squirrels squealing with delight. Instead we listened to Charles Olson reading “The Kingfishers,” a recording archived on PennSound. I wish I had also assigned “Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27.”
No question of the linking of the zones, the various scales of being. Olson faces no impediments other than the geography, to which the poem always returns, even at its beginning. By going back, we also go forward. And we hear in all of Olson’s poems a lamentation about the effects of global economy on a locality, as Greekness moves West. How do we get from the Word to the Dance? Perhaps I should introduce into the discourse mention of Marshall McLuhan. He too foresaw a retribalization and remediation of society into a post-Gutenberg global village. Is that what this was about, both then and now? Are we struggling to adjust ourselves to a new sensory environment made mandatory by automation and digitization? “The artist,” according to McLuhan, “is the only person who does not shrink from this challenge. He exults in the novelties of perception afforded by innovation. The pain that the ordinary person feels in perceiving the confusion is charged with thrills for the artist in the discovery of new boundaries and territories for the human spirit” (War and Peace in the Global Village, p. 12). What I hear McLuhan and Olson saying, in other words, is: Wake to other senses, supersede visual space, step free of the West.
When writing poetry, one ought to put one’s breath into it. Count the length of one’s line, listening to thought’s syllables. Practice what Charles Olson calls “composition by FIELD.” When we set aside old fears, we unlock our hidden capacity to resonate in sympathy with others. Keep going, keep learning, keep growing. Open windows, let in light, sit outdoors. When I do so, I see trees, the modest, low-slung buildings of an invisible campus.
Igloo taxonomies pull my daisy, skronk my sax. Tug, ballast, season — walk the trail of things and their sources. There is truth to be had by closing one’s eyes and listening to the birds in the trees. Which sun gives one the color of one’s breast: the one in the East, or the one in the West? The birds sing of elevated places, skyborn joy. Elsewhere, in some other time-space in the multiverse, cultural critics drool over Alexandra Drewchin’s “cyborg balladry.” “Embrace the temporary aspect of everything” seems to be the mantra that organizes her workflow. I find her digitally manipulated vocals chilling and even grotesque at times, only to find myself won over on other occasions with tracks like “Inclined.” Inner space is the place. But I still get the feeling I’m dealing with an upgraded being, an augmented intelligence whispering, “Harness the yin of the central nervous system.”