Saturday, July 20, 2013

Kenneth Rexroth's Other Worlds: Notes on "On What Planet"

So there I was, rooting around on the Bureau of Public Secrets website, when I ran across Kenneth Rexroth's "On What Planet," a poem I hadn't thought about since I'd chanced to see it in the library as an undergraduate, when I was wandering through the stacks and pulling down random books of poetry to read.  The moment I ran across this poem on the BPS site, the whole thing came back to me: that coastline, those owls, and that final turn out toward something much bigger.  I think the reason the poem had lodged itself in the back of my brain, waiting for something to trigger its resurgence into consciousness, has something to do with the simple, powerful structure of the thing.  Mike Theune is very keen on the notion of the turn, or volta, as a structural device at the core of poetry—so much so that he's devoted a web journal to giving readings of the various ways poems turn.  It's the turn, here in Rexroth's poem, that's the trick: it takes us from one kind of experience into something different and much more powerful, something that can make us rethink the experience of those stanzas that precede the turn.  Check it out.

The first stanza, taken by itself, is a decent enough bit of landscape. 

Uniformly over the whole countryside
The warm air flows imperceptibly seaward;
The autumn haze drifts in deep bands
Over the pale water;
White egrets stand in the blue marshes;
Tamalpais, Diablo, St. Helena
Float in the air.
Climbing on the cliffs of Hunter’s Hill
We look out over fifty miles of sinuous
Interpenetration of mountains and sea.

It really shows you where Robert Hass gets some of his sensibility for landscape, doesn't it?  The sense of forces moving dynamically through the landscape, the proper names of specific places, the land and water equally important.  But so what?  Well, there's this:

Leading up a twisted chimney,
Just as my eyes rise to the level
Of a small cave, two white owls
Fly out, silent, close to my face.
They hover, confused in the sunlight,
And disappear into the recesses of the cliff.

It takes a bit of a different tack from the opening stanza, since we find we are not just looking at the landscape from on high, at a kind of Apollonian distance, as observers above the action.  We're a part of the scene, and disturb it.  And what's more alarming, we suddenly see the landscape—or, at any rate, its inhabitants—looking back at us.  Those owls in Rexroth's are perfect for this, since they're all eyes.  When I read these lines, I remember a particularly terrifying moment in my Canadian youth, when I stood on a granite outcropping high above an isolated lake, and what I'd taken to be a large white stone on the cliff's edge suddenly swiveled its head around and fixed me in its horrible, huge glare: it was a snowy owl, and I, the observer, suddenly became the observed.

Anyway: the more I think about Rexroth's poem, the more I think Hass owes to it: there's a moment in part four of Hass' "On the Coast Near Sausalito" when the speaker looks right into the living eye of the fish he's caught, and feels himself caught in that uncanny gaze—so alien, but still something we recognize, and that recognizes us—is a moment straight out of "On What Planet."

But even with this development, the poem has yet to take its major turn.  Look what happens in the concluding stanza of the poem:

All day I have been watching a new climber,
A young girl with ash blonde hair
And gentle confident eyes.
She climbs slowly, precisely,
With unwasted grace.
While I am coiling the ropes,
Watching the spectacular sunset,
She turns to me and says, quietly,
“It must be very beautiful, the sunset,
On Saturn, with the rings and all the moons.”

The girl is a kind of further development of the owl image: just as we'd added more characters to the poem with the owls, we add another here; and just as the owls introduced the concept of a gaze other than the speaker's to the poem, the girl is given to us as a seeing entity, with her "gentle confident eyes" foregrounded.  And the real turn comes when we get to see what she sees: she takes in the landscape to which we've been introduced, and combines it with her own sense of wonder, to ask about even more exotic and spectacular sunsets. 

There's so much going on here I hardly know where to start.  For one thing, the introduction of a younger, more naïve viewer of the landscape places the poem in the Romantic tradition, specifically in the tradition of Wordsworth's great "Tintern Abbey," where the speaker (let's call him Wordsworth) turns to his younger sister and thinks about the difference between how she perceives the landscape and how he sees it.  We get some great themes.  There's the importance of each person's particular subjective experience—how we share an objective world, but nevertheless have our own private interiority.  There's also the difference between adult perception and childhood perception.  Both Wordsworth and Rexroth give the edge to childhood perception, but for different reasons.  For Wordsworth, the child's perception is less mediated by thought and memory than the adult's.  For Rexroth, the child sort of juices up or amplifies the existing scene, allowing wonder at the present beauty to lead to even greater wonder at imagined beauties.  (I think it's significant that Rexroth has the adult engaged in some mundane, utilitarian tasks while this happens—it heightens the contrast between down-to-earth or practical adult and wonder-oriented child).

But to put Rexroth's poem in the Wordsworthian context doesn't exhaust the thing.  There's more!  The girl's observation about Saturn defamiliarizes the whole scene.  We've been thinking about the landscape of the early stanzas as impressive, but when we're asked to compare it to a sunset on Saturn, everything becomes less familiar.  We think of the exoticness of other worlds, and then we think of our own world not as something complete in itself, but as one of many worlds—not as nature, but as one little particular articulation of galaxy upon galaxy of nature's variants.  Our world doesn't just seem grand—it becomes strange, as weird and particular a combination of elements as are found on Saturn, or anywhere else.  The large richness of infinite planetary beauties opens before us, and this makes our own scene not just spectacular and big, as it had seemed, but particular and small too: it's a big place of grand forces and jutting sea cliffs, but it's also, at the same time, our own dear little home in the vastness of space.  The effect is to render the scene uncanny, familiar and strange at the same time.

The real kicker, though, that comes with the poem's turn toward the girl and her observation, is the way we move from one kind of sublimity to another, more complicated kind.  The landscape in the opening stanzas of the poems is sublime in the way Edmund Burke wrote of sublimity in his famous Philosophical Enquiry into Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.  Here, Burke speaks of the qualities of sublime objects—their vastness, ruggedness, jaggedness of line, and so forth—that mark them out from the merely beautiful.  Those cliffs in the first two stanzas, and their interprenetration with the sea, are sublime stuff by Burkean criteria.  But the girl takes us somewhere else, and, indeed, somewhere more profound.  When she sees the grand, sublime landscape, she thinks of something even vaster.  We were dwarfed by the landscape before, but now we're really dwarfed by the idea of the solar system, and behind that by the idea of the infinite plenitude of worlds, each with its own sun, its own grand vistas, its own sunsets—a deep sublimity of vastness upon vastness.  But (and this is the crucial thing) we're not overwhelmed by this.  In some strange sense, we've mastered it more than it has mastered us, because we—or, to be specific, the girl, and through her, the rest of us—have contained these vast multitudes in our minds.  It's not just that there are an infinitude of planetary landscapes and exotic sunsets, it's that we have imagined them, and their possibility.  This is one of the kinds of sublimity Kant talks about in his Critique of Judgment, where the sublime isn't just constituted by vastness, but by our ability to comprehend that vastness.  This kind of sublime experience doesn't just tower over us: it affirms the power of our minds to take in such infinite vistas.  It's a kind of affirmation not only of the outer world, but of the power of our imaginations to encompass it.  The sublime experience ennobles us, as well as the world (or, in the case of this poem, the worlds).

It's particularly important, I think, that it is a child who, in Rexroth's poem, calls us back to the power of our own imaginations.  This makes such power innate, rather than learned.  In fact, it makes such power latent, waiting to be rediscovered in us through our encounter with the world as seen by the child, or by the poet.  This belief in the innate, but easily forgotten, power of the imagination is what marks Rexroth, for me, as a Romantic.  And it's why I'm glad to have found my way back to a poem whose powers remained latent in a forgotten corner of my memory.