Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Open Word: A Letter to Peter O’Leary

This coming Friday I'll be speaking, along with Harvard's Patrick Pritchett, Xavier's Norman Finkelstein, and Duke's David Need, at a panel at The Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 called "The New Gnostics—Vectors in Postmodern Poetry II."  As the name implies, it's part of a Gnostic double bill, following the first "New Gnostics" panel given by Edward Foster, Joe Donahue, Mark Scroggins, and Peter O'Leary.  It's a project Donahue, Pritchett, and I dreamed up while having a drink at the National Poetry Foundation's conference in Orono last year, and Pritchett has had the temerity to actually make it happen.

Since O'Leary's at the conference, and my paper is about his work, and since Peter's a great lover of letters, I've written it in the form of a letter to him.  Here it is, still a hundred or so words too long for the official format.


Dear Peter,

What has your vocabulary done to you? To me?  To us?  Or, to narrow it down a bit, to John Latta, who wrote, a propos your book Depth Theology:

Dysthymia: thymos being Greek mind, and dys- ascending out of Sanskrit dus- meaning bad, difficult, &c. O’Leary’s an inveterate neologist: in notes to Depth Theology he points to various “coinages from taxonomic roots: an apiologist (a word Emerson once used) is one who studies bees; a parulidologist is one who studies warblers.”

Your vocabulary also staggered Broc Rossell, who said in the Colorado Review that the lexical “register of Luminous Epinoia might be the most elevated in American poetry since Hart Crane.”
            You make up a fair number of words, Peter, and revive many more from the realm of the hapax legomenon, or the deeply buried Greco-cum-Latin-cum-Sanskrit & Aramaic lexicon.
            Of course there are strange words and there are strange words.  I once wrote something about the difference, and it went more or less like this:

Consider “kuboaa,” a word invented by the great modern Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, and put into the mouth of the starving hero of his masterwork, the novel Hunger. For Hamsun's delirious hero, the word was a pure sound, something outside, even above, the realm of signifying language. Always aware of the absurd, and with a longing after purity that led him into some dark corners of the psyche, Hamsun meant for his “kuboaa” to be a word free from reference. To encounter it was to encounter something alien, something of untainted otherness. You could say “kuboaa” was to be the verbal equivalent of one of Kazimir Malevich's paintings of a red square on a white background: everything familiar was to be left behind in the encounter with the unassimilated and elemental. Kuboaa was the word of the modern primitive, the word of regrounding, of beginning again, outside existing language and away from the freight of civilization.
        John Peck's “argura,” is another made-up word, and the title of his fourth volume of poetry. But it is a creature altogether different from kuboaa. As Peck writes in the notes to his Collected Shorter Poems, argura “corresponds to no single Latin word, but rather to elements that derive from roots shared among several terms.” This is not the neologism as word-free-of-reference; this is the polysemous neologism, the word that bears the trace of several meanings, and the weight of several etymologies, but that remains, finally, elusive. Argentum (silver, or money), argumentum (argument or evidence), and arguro (to make clear, but also to censure or reprove) — are all words with relevance to Peck's poetry, and lurking in argura's syllables. The point of a word like “argura” is not to lift the reader up above the trails of signification, but to send the reader down those trails in pursuit of historical and linguistic references. If kuboaa is the word of the modern primitive, argura is the word of the modern classical, sending the reader to the word-horde of Latin antiquity.
        I take the difference between a word like kuboaa and a word like argura as a cue on how to read your books, Peter—and I need cues for your books.  They’re among the most challenging — and most rewarding – books of poetry by an American poet of your generation (you can use that in a blurb if you like). No primitive, you, Mr. O’Leary, no primitive, but a poet whose work twines together classical references, history, and the present.
            If this sounds a bit like Ezra Pound, it should: you come late onto the stage of modernism, but you belong there, I think — belong, in essence, to the same wing of modernist poetry as does Ole Ez.  His, after all, is the wing of “make it new”—of the reclaiming of those elements of the cultural past that lie fallow.  It’s certainly not Marinetti’s futurist wing of “the first dawn is now,” and the shaking loose from a supposedly burdensome past—still less is it the avant-garde of denotation-free word art like Zaum or Merz, or the Dada of Hugo Ball chanting the syllables of “Karawane” at the Caberet Voltaire.
            What exactly do I mean by placing you in “the same wing” of modernism as those guys?  To understand, I suppose we have to comment on the nature of the “it” in your version of “make it new.”  My favorite description of the modernist, and neo-modernist, project of making it new via ‘argura’ style vocabulary and the revival of disused words comes from a comment Vincent Sherry made about the poetry of John Matthias: “On the one hand, the pedagogue offers from his word-hoard and reference trove the splendid alterity of unfamiliar speech; on the other, this is our familial tongue, our own language in its deeper memory and reference.”
            What Sherry says is right, I think, but in your case I would qualify it a bit, marking out your particular space in the modernist wing of things.  In your work you send us not just to the past as an end in itself, as would a good liberal humanist professor of literature, a believer in the power of cultural literacy.  I mean, you’re a believer, alright, but you and I both know it’s not some watery liberal humanism in which you believe.  What your arcane vocabulary sends us to isn’t the past in general, but, most frequently and insistently, a particular set of spiritual traditions: the more heterodox branches of Catholicism, and the Gnostic tradition, in both its ancient and its perennial manifestations.  And in doing so, you’re not just out to remind us of history, but to redeem time.
            Here’s what I mean.  Your most consistent poetic project, running from Watchfulness, through Depth Theology and the more recent Luminous Epinoia, has been redemptive, and arcane vocabulary and neologistic invention have always had a role in this project.
            Of course  “redemption” is a loaded word, and when I talk about the redemptive project of your poetry, I’m talking about the Gnostic sense of the word.  As Sean Martin writes, “redemption” for the Gnostic, “is not redemption from original sin, which does not exist in Gnosticism, but is redemption from ignorance.”  Ignorance, specifically, of the divine nature, and its presence within us.  This can mean a deliverance from the utterly fallen material world, but only for the more ascetic of Gnostics, and I don’t think you’re one of them.  While some Gnostics emphasize the evil nature of material reality, others emphasize how our world, which is at a far edge of the Pleroma, many removes from the divine core of being, is nevertheless an emanation of the divine: an unglamorous exurb, to be sure, but still a part of the greater metropolitan area of divinity, if we could only see it as such.  You seem more like that sort of Gnostic to me, like the scribes of the Nag Hammadi texts, who lovingly copied that passage from St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians in which he says “our struggle is not against flesh and blood… but against the world rulers of this darkness and the spirits of evil”—that is, against the forces that keep us from seeing the redemptive light, (in Gnostic terms, the divine spark within us and, in some iterations, in our world).
            We see this already in the first poetic sequences of Watchfulness, “Ikons” and its subordinate parts, “Ikons,” “The House of My Ikon,” and “Midas.”  Here, you give us first the gold of Eastern Mediterranean Christian icons, which through an alchemy of perception convert wooden blocks, egg yolk, and gold dust into the instruments of spiritual transcendence.  You then give us the King Midas of Greek legend, whose transformative powers are altogether less impressive, not converting matter into a pathway to spirit, but merely into other matter, ending with the materiality of gold that is only the beginning of the icon as instrument of spiritual transformation.  The final image of Midas passing a golden grail (“grail” — there’s a loaded word!) from hand to hand as he “changes it unavailed/from gold to gold” is a wonderful underlining of the futility of the merely material world, by the way, and a good exhibit in any case to be made for you as a Gnostic who would free us from subservience to the rulers who would keep us locked in the darkness of the merely historical and material.
            Anyway.  Neologism and linguistic transformation come into play later in the book, in the three “Jerusalem” sections.  Here, we’re amid a lexicon of technical Greek and Latin, and verbs unknown to the OED.  And we get some important hints about your concern with the transformation of vocabulary when you reference the word “shibboleth” and the phrase “brightness fall from the air”—the first reminds us of how the inability of the Ephraimites to pronounce the “sh” sound, and their consequent slaughter by the Gileades when they inadvertently said “sibboleth”; the second refers to one of the greatest typos in the history of English poetry, when Thomas Nashe’s description of the effects of the plague, “brightness falls from the hair,” was accidentally reset into a much more memorable line.  Both remind us of the power of linguistic transformation, whether political or literary—and in the “Ephphatha” section, we see the spiritual power of linguistic transformation.
             “Ephphatha,” as the contextualizing passage from the Gospel of Mark you were kind enough to quote as an epigraph makes plain, is the Aramaic word Christ used to mean “opening” or “be open,” or “be thou open”— though in your quote it appears as “Ephpheta,” a variant translated spelling.  And this is a hint of what is to follow, when we delve into the possible etymologies of the word: a Greek transliteration from Aramaic, a Greek transliteration of Hebrew, a Samaritan’s attempt to speak a Hebrew word, and so forth.  We read, too, about St. Jerome’s idiosyncratic apprehension of the word, morphing “eppheta” into “adapirire”—the inadvertent making of new words from old playing into the opening and closing of spiritual possibilities.
            And here we come close to an understanding of the role of linguistic revival, argura-style neologism, and raids on the Mediterranean word hoard in your Gnostic poetics. Let me get at that role by describing a temptation I feel, and resist, when reading your work.
            I’m tempted to say you believe in the imagination as a divine force.  When you titled your book Luminous Epinoia, you were making an obscure reference to The Apocryphon of John, in which the ‘Luminous Epinoia’ is a term for an old Gnostic trope, the “creative or inventive consciousness sent to Adam by God in the form of Eve,” (Eve, in many Gnostic texts, is the seeker of knowledge, and her plucking of the fruit from the tree a redemptive act, rather than a sin).  Me, I’m immersed so thoroughly in Romanticism that I can’t help seeing the idea of the luminous epinoia as similar to Coleridge’s notion in the Biographia Litteraria, when he defines the imagination as “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM” and the conscious poetic act as “an echo of the former.”  But there’s something different.  Coleridge speaks of creativity as an echo of the divine.  You do, too, I think—but you do so in a vocabulary that specifically references the Gnostic spiritual tradition.  And this leads me to resist the temptation to say you simply see the imagination as divine.  Because, unlike Coleridge, you approach the issue through an arcane vocabulary that refers back to spiritual traditions, I think it’s better to say that you don’t see the individual imagination as divine, so much as you see a specific-yet-perennial tradition of imaginative acts as laying us open to the revelation of the divine.  It’s not as if your work is telling us “invent, and be like God!” — it’s more like your work is pointing us to a long, wayward tradition, and saying, a propos that tradition, “be thou open.”


Peter O'Leary, drawn by Tim Leeming, 2012