Liz’s Weekly Poetry Series: Twofold Consciousness
One of the books I purchased while on vacation is an anthology of poems chosen and introduced by Robert Bly, titled News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness (Sierra Club Books, 1980).
I’m going to include Bly’s introduction to this anthology as the focus for this week’s poetry series, because it gets at the potential of poetry to redefine the role our species plays on this planet, nudging us toward a position that acknowledges and respects interdependency and interconnectedness instead of seeing “man” as standing apart from the natural order of the world due to “his” ability to use the evolved reasoning capabilities of the human mind—what Bly calls the “Old Position” which amounts to, in its simplest terms, a blinding form of arrogance.
After Bly’s introduction, I’m including two poems. One is from a collection of selected poems from Robert Bly (my edition printed by HarperPerennial in 1986), and the title of the poem is HATRED OF MEN WITH BLACK HAIR. The second poem is by Wendell Berry, from the fourth section of Bly’s anthology, and the poem is titled THE PEACE OF WILD THINGS. Enjoy.
When Sierra Club Books asked me to do this anthology, I had in mind a simple collection of poems relating to ecology. Poets have been involved in ecology since long before the word became current. Then, as I thought over the idea, I decided to begin at the eighteenth century, when the poets were least interested in nature. It was the peak of human arrogance. Bushes were clipped to resemble carriages, poets dismissed the intensity and detail of nature and talked instead of idealizations or “goddesses,” empires were breeding, the pride in human reason deformed all poetry and culture. The conviction that nature is defective because it lacks reason I’ve called the “Old Position,” and I begin this book with seven poems of condescension, reflecting an eighteenth century attitude and much in line with Descartes’ statement, “I think, therefore I am.”
By the end of that century, an explosive reaction had taken shape. Some German and French poets mounted an angry attack on this pride in single consciousness, the smugness of human reason. This storm of anger, oddly, was later called “Romanticism.” The German poets, chiefly Holderlin, Novalis, and Goethe, felt the anger most and were willing to grapple with the Old Position ideas; the French poets, particularly Gerard de Nerval, did well there also. Seeing Romanticism only through the poems of the English Romantics is misleading; much of the intellectual excitement—except in Blake—is missing. The German poets developed a sensual, elusive, augmentative, argumentative, musical, suggestive, resonant language for their attacks. I was astonished, translating, to realize how much of the associative point of view that Freud and Jung would develop was born then. The German and French response to the Old Position, from which there are examples in Part Two, I imagine as an enormous upwelling of water, and that water is still fresh and drinkable. When one reads Novalis and Goethe, the ancient union of the day intelligence of the human being and the night intelligence of nature become audible, palpable again. It is a great advance. Of course, on other areas of European culture—pragmatic science, utilitarianism, Protestant dogmatism—the Old Position simply went on without interruption. Descartes’ ideas act so as to withdraw consciousness from the non-human area, isolating the human being in his house, until, seen from the window, rocks, sky, trees, crows seem empty of energy, but especially empty of divine energy. The Novalis vision and the Descartes vision ran side by side through the nineteenth century, and Freud inherited both. He inherited respect for the integrity of nature, which sustains the Sierra Club still, and he inherited “scientific” reductionism, which longs to flood the Grand Canyon behind a concrete dam.
For the third part of this anthology, I chose twenty-seven poems written roughly from 1900 to 1945, so one could see how the Novalis vision of the integrity of nature fared during those years. Some poets—Rilke is especially inventive in this area—developed a poem in which the human consciousness, though present, becomes transparent. Through it a panther appears and glows behind the words. Frost’s power lies here; in poems like “The Most of It,” we feel that power.
Continuing, I chose for Part Four fifty-two poems written in the last thirty years, mostly poems written in North America, but including some Russian, Greek, French, Scandinavian, and Latin American poetry also, since the struggle to open the consciousness door that the Descartes mentality closed is taking place all over the West.
As people begin again to invest some of their trust in objects, handmade or wild, and physicists begin to suspect that objects, even down to the tiniest molecular particles, may have awareness of each other as well as “intention,” things once more become interesting. Some marvelous object poems have been written since 1900, and in a fifth section I include a selection of those. The thing poem is a new kind of poem for the West, unseen since the old Germanic riddle poems, and the genre already includes some masterpieces.
In the last section I wanted to suggest a certain unity of consciousness that we haven’t arrived at yet. All of us, since the rise of technology, have been torn into parts so often that we can hardly grasp what an interior unity could be. High school rips body and mind apart, science rips the perceiver and the thing perceived apart, the Industrial Revolution rips man and woman apart, rips father and son apart, racism rips soul and mind apart, imperialism rips the governors and the governed apart, our firm houses separate weather and person. So I’ve chosen a few poems from other cultures in which I sense a deeper union than the post Industrial Revolution psyche has yet achieved. I’ve included Eskimo, Ojibway, Zuni poems here, early Anglo-Saxon poetry, and some medieval ballads. All of them grant nature an enormous amount of consciousness. I’ve also included poems by the thirteenth-century Sufi poet, Rumi, the fifteenth-century north Indian poet, Kabir, and the great woman poet of India, Mirabai. In their work we sense how many obstacles there are to unity, how many “baffles” civilization puts between human beings and nature, and yet the unity is still present. In Mirabai, at least at moments, we sense a unity inside the personality as well as a unity of the human psyche and nature.
HATRED OF MEN WITH BLACK HAIR
I hear spokesmen praising Tshombe, and the Portuguese
In Angola. These are the men who skinned Little Crow!
We are all their sons, skulking
In back rooms, selling nails with trembling hands!
We fear every person on earth with black hair.
We send teams to overthrow Chief Joseph’s government.
We train natives to kill the President with blowdarts.
We have men loosening the nails on Noah’s ark.
State Department men float in the heavy jellies near the
Like exhausted crustaceans, like squids who are confused,
Sending out beams of black light to the open sea.
Each fights his fraternal feeling for the great landlords.
We have violet rays that light up the jungle at night,
The friendly populations; and we teach the children of
The forest children, to overcome their longing for life,
and we send
Sparks of black light that fit the holes in the generals’
Underneath all the cement of the Pentagon
There is a drop of Indian blood preserved in snow:
Preserved from a trail of blood that once led away
From the stockade, over the snow, the trail now lost.
THE PEACE OF WILD THINGS
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.