The Enigma; A Higginson-Dickinson Complex

If, as opposed to the Archon, the artist is the arch-maker of epochs, the poet, the singer, the composer… if this is true then science – instead of working in a materialist mode against the poet’s fashioning of his mystic faculties – must work in unison with the kind of apprehension the poet and artist utilizes to bring into reality the truth of poetry. There is a hint of this in what Francis Crick did with McClure’s poetry, particularly McClure’s experiences of LSD. We see it again in the technical innovations Steve Jobs took from LSD usage. Regardless of the exploitation of hallucinogens in these cases the concrete example is that of following intuition, or a collection of other hidden senses and faculties hitherto not very well delineated or discussed between the arts and the sciences. After talent and teknos – for any long-practicing artist – comes instinct, intuition and bravery of the sayable. For performing such a hard-won road the artist is essentially, and – seemingly – always as enigma. The poet – working from within his own modes and trajectory – is entirely ungovernable. This is not necessarily to say he has governance over himself in any moral or political way (although these will come, as Blake has it when he says Let the fool persist in his folly and he will become wise)… but, ultimately, the poet puts his life into the service of art. After teknos has steadied him into a textual and vocable discipline he functions on pure combinations of instinct and intuition… and – out of instinct – he discovers other senses by apprehension of the Akashic, or by other bodies of thought that literally choose to embody him, the body of the poem being the trace of what was momentarily and physically embodied. This is an often perilous trail that a poet like Jack Spicer (or, indeed, Yeats) could at least partially understand… with understanding, though, after Wordsworth, being a last matter, of a sort. Reflection being decisive, but not reflection only.

The best example, however, is what I’m calling the Higginson-Dickinson Complex. An aspiring poet reaches out to an expert in contemporary literature for advice on poetry. (Dickinson’s side of the correspondence is represented more fully at the website of The Atlantic). Here; some excerpts and observations:

Mr Higginson,

Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?

The mind is so near itself – it cannot see, distinctly – and I have none to ask –

Should you think it breathed – and had you the leisure to tell, I should feel quick gratitude –

If you make the mistake – that you dared to tell me – would give me sincerer honor – toward you –

I enclose my name – asking you, if you please – Sir – to tell me what is true?

That you will not betray me – it is needless to ask – since Honor is it’s own pawn –

at first I tried a little, – a very little – to lead her in the direction of rules and traditions; but I fear it was only perfunctory, and that she interested me more in her – so to speak – unregenerate condition. Still, she recognizes the endeavor. In this case, as will be seen, I called her attention to the fact that while she took pains to correct the spelling of a word, she was utterly careless of greater irregularities

I want to exploit this as emblem because I think it is important. When science can consider the being of artistic genius; its godly inhabitance in the body of that avatar, indeed to understand genius as avatardom (as nexus between the stuff of world and the soul’s body) the science will understand how world begins. Poetic being is the beginning of form, by virtue of aping God and nature, and -ultimately – of an oeuvre. Was world our body? Is world what we have already, creatively, sloughed off? Here the moment reigns, and yet memory (contrary to the latest theories of poetry) also, gets re-momentized. Essentially, what we are talking about is an abject over-abundance of meta-invention. World pluralizes itself… and every moment of existence allows for a multiplicity of perspectives.

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Recovered adult photo of Emily Dickinson (left) and Kate Scott Turner, 1859

The meeting between Higginson and Dickinson begs one of the biggest questions we can touch upon – as humans – surrounding the problem of the meeting between metaphysics, politics and art. But it is an embodied fight. An embodied strangeness that starts with the entrance of genius into physical life. The greatest of poets live closest to physical death… and why? Because social life lives closest to spiritual death… just as the child would retreat from the lunacy of adult social construction, so Dickinson’s genius lives only by its own unregeneracy. And let us be clear; this is not about physical ability to reproduce… but always about the incredible productiveness inherent in that retreat. The academy suggests that Dickinson’s supposed agoraphobia, late on, is simply the cliche they believe is overcome… and yet cliches come from somewhere, and Dickinson was outside of the reigning epoch of her day precisely because she was so close to the soul, which would allow for world having very little cognitive appeal. What genius can do with even a second of existence mass man cannot achieve… not even in hundreds of years of experience. This is what the poet, born and not made, suggests. (Meaning that any theory of art that leaves out the reincarnational aspect of invention is doomed to the temporal and journalistic demands it places upon itself). But let’s cut to Higginson’s commentary of his meeting with Dickinson:

After a little delay, I heard an extremely faint and pattering footstep like that of a child, in the hall, and in glided, almost noiselessly, a plain, shy little person, the face without a single good feature, but with eyes, as she herself said, “like the sherry the guest leaves in the glass,” and with smooth bands of reddish chestnut hair. She had a quaint and nun-like look, as if she might be a German canoness of some religious order, whose prescribed garb was white piqué, with a blue net worsted shawl. She came toward me with two day-lilies, which she put in a childlike way into my hand, saying softly, under her breath, “These are my introduction,” and adding, also, under her breath, in childlike fashion, “Forgive me if I am frightened; I never see strangers, and hardly know what I say.”

What is purity of soul? It is purity of language. And language, in its most vatic, song-like urgencies, knows no arbitration. What we witness in these circumstances is the dissonance – and seeming incoherence – between social arbitration and the workings of the soul, via language. Here comes a being -perhaps out of another dimension? – that the convention of the day is at pains to bring into its communal self. That genius defies, continually, the deafness of timely speech. Why does the joy of reading poetical innovation struggle, always, in comparison with the machinations of social cognition? It it even tiring putting it into prose. And yet – particularly early in life – that outstanding quality of poetic inherence Dickinson exemplifies comes into conflict with any social acceptance. My mention of science is intentional here. If science is to have any kind of future it must follow the paradoxes and contradictions of poetic inspiration. In Higginson this attempt at comprehension is still in its birth-pangs:

She went on talking constantly and saying, in the midst of narrative, things quaint and aphoristic. “Is it oblivion or absorption when things pass from our minds?” “Truth is such a rare thing, it is delightful to tell it” . . . “How do most people live without any thoughts?” . . . Or this crowning extravaganza: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”

The corollary attempt, made here, between book and world… textualis and physis. We already have, via Pound, this sense of poetry as a medium by which cognition is subverted… and yet we still, ludicrously, cling to the notion that we have the explicatory apparatus to apply social convention to the workings of the soul, or spirit. In the words of another writer; “Man seems, spirit is”. When we read a work of great poetry, of great artistic intelligence, we are put back in touch with What Is… this cannot be gained by explanation (and yet the world of prose and social explanation will be its result, I do not deny that). We are not in the world of Alexander Pope. But… bodily… bodily… what lies hidden here?

I never was with any one who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching me, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her.

Genius, at least in its most potent and world-shattering aspect, is bodily eros. The madness of convention should, and will, by virtue of the limitations of this dimension, feel absolutely deligitimised simply by virtue of the presence of genius. Lawrence was sincere when he talked of Noli me tangere. Just as the good die young, so the poet lives more briefly, as fire, in order to illuminate the whole of life. In twin-madnesses does the poet enter a world… the madness of the social world, and the seeming-madness of the true artist’s sanity in the face of this. So what might good sense, or sanity, really mean, as far as we apply it to someone like Dickinson’s genius? It reaches further back into the black regions of the soul, via the act of poetic retrieval… to access a pre-sense, a presence, which is ultimately finalised in the poem. Higginson’s response to his meeting with Dickinson reminds us of the danger, the dread, this creates socially, which is essentially the worry over how much of one’s self one really is. In the presence of genius, bodily, we are reminded, simply by pure exposure, that we are not wholly present enough. It is embarrassing. It feels invasive because are reminded that our thoughts are tawdry, distracted, not fully formed. But it is a necessary metaphysical invasion.

Both pre-sense (presence) and non-sense can be applied to this. If Lewis Carroll were nonsense, for example… we can easily turn the dualism around, and suggest that nonsense or pre-sense have a sense – a ring of truth? – to them… as in the phrase make sense. Making sense does not necessarily mean to only appeal to the acuity of one’s bodily organs to provide knowledge and awareness. In fact, have we ever really yearned for the sensible? Not very much. World is overcome, evolved, by what one is in one’s soul, sight unseen. And this has incredible and interesting consequences for the scientist who would pry more into the nature of poetic genius and inspiration, and its physical consequences – perhaps via the innovations of Wilhelm Reich? – so as to see that world exists because poets, artists, musicians breathe.

Andrew O’Donnell, January 2017

 

 

 

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About thefiendjournal

I was born in Blackpool, England and am currently based in Lancashire. Poems have been published in magazines in the U.K, Ireland, France, New Zealand, Canada, U.S.A and South Korea. A pamphlet; "MMV", was published in 2008. Hundreds of poems have been written in draft form, and multiple books are being planned and edited for future release. As well as editing 'The Fiend' I translate, paint and dabble in photography (images of which have occasionally been used here).
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