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The fact that much of contemporary American poetic practice is derived from British Romanticism should come as no surprise. We might think of, for example, William Wordsworth’s elevation of plainspoken diction — the “language really spoken by men,” as he put it in the preface to the Lyrical Ballads — or Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s dictum of “the best words in their best order.” We might also think of the longevity of what the Romanticist M.H. Abrams famously called the “greater Romantic lyric,” whose “determinate speaker in a particularized […] setting […] achieves an insight, faces up to a tragic loss, comes to a moral decision, or resolves an emotional problem.” Sound familiar?
But what would American poetry look like if it had followed not the better-known poetics of British Romanticism but the theoretical foundations of early German Romanticism? Any answer to this question would have to reckon with Andrew Joron’s dazzling new collection The Absolute Letter (Flood Editions, 2017), which integrates the polymathic thinking of Novalis into a sophisticated poetic praxis. Joron’s book opens with a preface entitled “The Argument; Or, My Novalis,” which boldly propounds that “the world itself is composed of the letters of the Absolute: anything, real or ideal, that undergoes a self-complicating — ultimately musical — form of motion becomes a sign of the processual emergence of the Infinite within the finite.”
Joron’s poetry is fundamentally “Romantic” in that it exponentializes. It is marked by, as Novalis says, “a qualitative raising to a higher power.” In his 2015 essay “Accident over N: Lines of Flight in the Philosophical Notebooks of Novalis,” which can serve as an illuminating theoretical framework for The Absolute Letter, Joron says, “To romanticize — that is, to magic or to mimic the insurgencies of the Absolute — start anywhere. Then, to realize the necessity of this freedom, exponentialize that arbitrary thought or thing toward its opposite, its other. Romantic logic is a pandemonium of paradoxical symmetries.” If this sounds like a Romantic philosophy enriched by the irreverent energies of surrealism — think of the paradoxical symmetry of René Magritte’s La Reproduction interdite — it’s because, according to Joron, “Novalis’s work in fiction and poetry never achieved the radicality of his own poetics […] It would require the poetic innovations of symbolism and surrealism to come close to fulfilling the promise of — the prevision of — the poetics of Novalis.” We might say that surrealism is Romanticism raised to a higher power, and it is this “exponentialized Romanticism” that informs Joron’s pursuit of a critical poetry, “critical” here meaning “constituting or relating to a point at which some action, property or condition passes over into another” — as reality passing over into the surreal.
In “The Emergency,” an important treatise from his ambitious collection of essays and prose poems The Cry at Zero (2007), Joron draws on concepts from complex systems theory to describe the process of lexical exponentialization:
A poem tunes itself toward a state of criticality, a condition of language in which single words have the widest possible range of effects. No matter how the poem has been constructed, when poiesis has been achieved, the words of the poem leap spontaneously to a new interactive level (irreducible to any previous level), a level representing the self-organization of a cry emanating from nowhere and no one, but pervading all of language.
In terms of Joron’s own poetic practice, this musical tuning toward criticality —toward the emergence (and emergency) of ontological lament — plays out on the page through a formidable ensemble of techniques, including the use of densely patterned consonance and assonance, internal rhyming, strategic caesuras, the masterful modulation of vowel sounds, and entrancing homophonic orchestration.
Joron’s multiphonic/polymathic musicality saturates (one might say over-saturates) every line of The Absolute Letter, freeing the most familiar phonemes into a dynamic zone of what Viktor Shklovsky calls “defamiliarization.” For example, the third section of “Breath’s Breaks: Ten Takes,” a ten-part series dedicated to “the ghost of Barbara Guest,” develops a complex system of sound and semiosis in a mere twelve lines:
C defines the speed of the deeps.
First, eternity waits (for time to begin).
No bigger web for that fly (now flown).
Too wise, I whisper spare whys two ways:
That one is the way of the other.
Utter utter night, such sibilant syllable—
Each tear, each tear, entire.
See over C: that absolute is blinding
Black & white at once.
Say O for C: the rhyme
Of eye & symmetry fails. Try I, then tree.
The neat isomorphism of Joron’s couplets betrays a turbulent force field of transformations and recursive echoes. “C,” perhaps for celeritas, defines not the speed of light, as might be expected, but the speed of speed’s anagrammatic inversion (the “deeps”). Then “C” becomes, by way of homophonic play, an imperative — to “see elsewhere,” a non-place that we might glimpse in the depths of the “C.” The two Ys from the words “eternity” and “fly” emerge, transfigured, in the third stanza as “too wise,” a phrase Joron modulates into “two ways,” an acknowledgement of the two ways of saying Ys/Whys (/waɪz/). The word “one,” through the assonantal repetition of the vowel sound /ǝ/, reaches out to its counterpart, the “other,” creating a feminine rhyme with “Utter” (verb), which, in turn, becomes — through the rhetorical figure of antanaclasis — “utter” (adjective), a bringing together of “utter” with its homonymic “other.”
Joron, a virtuoso of mining the infrathin interstice between repetition and variation, then riffs on utter’s final syllable, “-ter,” to create a richly ambiguous condition of homonymic permutations: the repeated word “tear” — torn, as it were, between two competing meanings — can, of course, be pronounced /tɪ(ə)r/ or /tɛː/. Are we to read this “each /tɪ(ə)r/, each /tɛː/” or “each /tɛː/, each /tɪ(ə)r/”? Or “each /tɪ(ə)r/, each /tɪ(ə)r/”? The punning possibilities eventually resolve in the syllable “-tire” (with the end word “entire”), though “resolve” is not quite the right word: the eighth line leaves us with the intriguing tension of contemplating the entirety of what tears or has been torn. In the penultimate couplet, “C” circles back in yet another homophonic formulation in the imperative “See over C,” which inverts the way lines 1 and 2 situate, on a visual level, “C” over “See.” The phrase can also be read as an operation of division: See / C or /si/ / /siː/. In addition, “see” suggests an archaic usage — according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “(one’s) place of abode; esp. the dwelling-place of a monarch, a god, or the like” — implying an analogical relation between the depths and the divine and the divisor and the dividend.
In a final modulation, “see” becomes “say” and, through a subtle shifting of fricatives, Joron morphs “over” into the nearly homophonic phrase “O for.” Again, we are met with a rich polysemous complexity: Is “O” in substitution of “C” or on behalf of “C”? And is “O,” here, an asymptotic or Bachmann-Landau notation — as in “O(cn)”? Is it a vocative marker—as in “O Western Wind”? Or, alternately, a figure for zero — as in Milton’s phrase “to turne the O of thir insignificance into a lamentation with the people”? Or all at once? Perhaps Joron is invoking what he has called “the cry at zero,” a “negation more primary than doubt.” At the end of “The Cry at Zero,” Joron proposes the following ratio:
O, the grieving vowel
zero, the mouth of astonishment.
“O” is, according to the logic of the poem, the uttered grief for “the speed of the deeps” or the astonishing and generative negativity of zero; “O” is also the seed, the empty world that brings forth the “tree” (a potential allusion to the opening of Ronald Johnson’s revisionary erasure of Milton’s Radi os: “O / tree / in the World…”). Joron’s “eye rhyme” of “eye” and “symmetry” echoes the two Ys of the second stanza, the “fly” of time caught in “eternity.” And the “failed” Blakean rhyme of “eye”/“symmetry” gives way to “a pandemonium of paradoxical symmetries” in which sound and vision entangle in a complex web of (a)symmetrical graphemes and phonemes (“-try/Try,” “-try/tree,” “eye/I,” and so on) until the “I” is left thunderstruck, astonished, as a tree.
If this admittedly belabored analysis demonstrates, to some extent, how Joron’s words “have the widest possible range of effects,” it can’t, of course, wholly account for the sheer elegance of his poetry, the way it activates unexpected combinations of tones and overtones, the way it “leap[s] spontaneously to a new interactive level.” One simply needs to read, experience, and re-read The Absolute Letter. This eagerly awaited book significantly expands upon the achievements of Joron’s Trance Archive: New and Selected Poems, a terrific volume published in the City Lights Spotlight Series in 2010. The Absolute Letter confirms that no other contemporary poet brings together such technical proficiency, imaginative insight, and philosophical rigor.
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