Here is another profound, simple human truth which the twentieth century sought to evade: high art is supposed to be beautiful. Art in general, drained of the imperative to create beautiful forms and formality, ceases to be art. When the imperatives behind the creation of high art are all corrupt, and this primeval sense is lost, high art falls into place, very much against its will, as another Regular World cipher, subsumed beneath the crass imperatives of a corrupt society, where destruction perpetually defeats and inhibits creation and where ephemeral popular art is allowed to hold and maintain rank over what should supersede it. Why was art in the twentieth century compelled to desiccate and uglify itself? The twentieth century abounded in inversions, set in place in an apocalyptic fashion, but never (it seems) with much of an ethos behind them. The inversions which inhere in Modern and post-modern art include the triumph of nonsense over sense (for no real reason, and to no good end), and the triumph of anti-art and artists over those expressive of profound, subtle thought and emotion. The fallacy was engendered that a sense of beauty is regressive and/or outdated— and that nonsense is worthy of exegesis— and high art served as a front or cover for destructive games and illicit interests. These illicit interests clearly dictated (scripted) that what was produced in high art genres had to be, more or less, a joke— Pop, MOMA, Language Poetry, Concept Art, Neo-Expressionism, Flarf, Abstract Expressionism— all had as their theoretical basis the fixed idea that the only way to make high art modern was to trivialize it from the inside out, and this is what they proceeded to do.
The travesty element of this— that all these movements fixated on absurd anti-art enough to make it feasible for the likes of the Beatles and Bruce Springsteen to be elevated above them artistically— making it also that high art characters tended to favor pop culture products over their own endeavors— inverts the order of a well-run, harmonious society— and inversion games involving the higher disciplines (including science and philosophy) are some of the most ferocious games perpetuated in our West. The mainstream media are “in the pocket,” so to speak, supporting these inverted structures— not only absurdist anti-art and popular culture over the higher disciplines, but professional athletes and athletics, which serve no useful purpose in society other than to fixate the populace on frivolous goals and addictions to ephemeral pleasures against the usage of either their brains or their hearts. Indeed, the media in 2015 are as complete a joke-fest as possible— casting up Tinker Toy idols no longer palatable to the public after the Recession, ignoring the advances made to public consciousness by the Internet. Now, I do not wish to turn this into a complete and totalized jeremiad— but I must bring us round again to, however painful it may be for some audiences to hear, the sense of high art and higher artistic levels of beauty in a society, and the value of this sense as a political force. Americans, after Philly Free School/Neo-Romanticism, have to decide whether they want to be an educated populace or not— whether a wide audience might subsist for myself and Abby, who are willing to shed the skin of the twentieth century and break down boundaries towards the definition of a new America. When a country gets serious culturally, its political dynamics change: it stands newly part of a global elite, with a reason to continue longer as a unified nation and an enhanced sense of pride in substantial accomplishment— America in 2015 stands at this crossroads, with the sense of the possibility of inversions righting themselves.
Attempting to assimilate the all-in-all of what the Philly Free School has accomplished, artistically and socially, on the surface and in the depths of the American psyche (and, without support from mainstream media outlets, our accomplishments must function largely in the depths at the current time), I will attempt to explain, to those who might be receptive, what I feel is most salient in its individuality about us, against what has passed, in previous eras, for American haute culture and street life. In this way, we may move towards a realization of what PFS has the capacity to change in America, over long and short periods of time. The way in which the most high-maintenance art produced by PFS functions is against a backdrop of many centuries, rather than in the eternal, ephemeral present largely prized by American art before us. We, in our work and in our lives, accepted history, and historical thinking came naturally to us. We worked as artists to establish continuity with past eras, rather than to obliterate them, as was the tendency of Modern and post-modern art— Abby had French Neo-Classicism, I had English Romanticism, but we both copped to the instinct that, for high art, the twentieth century had largely been a shuck and jive routine. Yet we were working from America, in which the normative pressure put on individual artists is enormous to op against any dominating influences from overseas, especially from past centuries. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts are relatively liberal on this level, as I found U of Penn to be— and so having at least a moderate wind in our sails was not entirely unexpected.
Yet there are deeper issues facing both Abby and I, our work, and the forces which are bound to oppose us, in this country and elsewhere. The human race, as a whole, has a horrible time admitting this simple, profound truth: some human beings are just more gifted than others. Some human beings have gifts which most other human beings do not; have, in fact, extraordinary gifts. What we want to introduce to America (the “Death” in our dossier, so to speak) is the idea that those with extraordinary gifts should be given extraordinary opportunities, which (again) not all people will receive or deserve. Humanity, in its naivete, has attempted to forge (in the main) a society, both surface-level and subterranean, around a denial of extraordinary gifts, or giftedness— that everyone must receive roughly the same treatment, and become involved in the same games, often destructive, and pointlessly destructive ones. The harbinger PFS holds for America is that this now has to change. We may see, in this century and through our influence, the extraordinarily gifted— scientists, philosophers, higher artists, and architects— given pride of place over the American rank-and-file. The argument of PFS (take it or leave it) is that this is the way it should be, and that those sufficiently gifted should be granted time to develop their gifts in peace.
With the canon of Neo-Romanticism in tow, America may now move towards absolute parity with the countries of Western Europe. We also now have claims to a substantial national heritage, akin to their own. The fake idols, shallow goals, and adolescent mentalities of our past must also be a part of our present too— no one incision into any relevant sector can change humanity that much— but a start has been made towards redeeming the terrible blarneying excesses of the twentieth century, up until the Nineties. We also have the capacity to establish, if allowed enough influence in relevant sectors, a wholesome attitude towards gender equality, gay rights, and all kinds of sexual freedom, both in practice and in thought, for individuals. My essay from 2014, “Enlightened Elitism/Enlightened Classicism,” makes a point that all the peccadilloes associated in America with history-conscious artists— stodginess, unwillingness to participate in larger society, rigidity, blind hypocrisy against innovation— are not ones Abby or I suffered from. If we were enlightened, in Aughts Philadelphia, it is because we were active agents in the world we inhabited, rather than passive ones. We always chose participation over non-participation. And, as space had clearly been made for us in Philadelphia by father-figures wise-enough to understand what our gifts were worth (and who could’ve sponsored someone else), we made constructive use of our time to make our gifts active agents also.
Is it still called sunrise when
cloudy? Majesty of stacks,
purple-grey, all in flux, like
Milton’s pageantry, angels
swirled in churning vortexes,
not quite lit, not quite ready to
start a day unconsecrated to
God’s great plans, His iron
rods, fates seeded at last midnight.
One thing I’ve missed in the last run of poetry years is the thoughtful streak which was omnipresent in the Aughts. Critical commentary in poetry from about ’12 forward has been almost uniformly inane and frivolous. It is as if a script dictated that the Teens create a sense of entropy around what many of us accomplished intellectually in the Aughts. However, and conversely, I’ve been heartened by the success of some of my Aughts print ventures— not just my own books, but print journals I’ve been published in which have now become both sought after and collected. It has put me in mind to reevaluate what the print versus online debate of the late Aughts means over half a decade later— what conclusions seem to have been come to generally, what conclusions I’ve come to personally, where the parallels and the perpendiculars are, so to speak. I, for one, have by no means lost my appetite for print. To give up the tactility of print books, how social they are, perhaps even how sexy, would be a terrible deprivation. However, one can see on sites like Amazon, Barnes & Noble online, Biblio, and the like, that print poetry books in the marketplace are often manhandled in what looks to me like corrupt ways. Why it should be that, on Amazon, for example, print poetry books are primed to look like they sell in bushels when in fact, even a cursory knowledge of contemporary poetry will inform the wise that these are books which cannot sell at all, is that print books now have a vagabond air about them, of doing things in the world they shouldn’t do, and of upholding subterranean interests which make the books themselves evanescent but the games around them essential. In short, and again— print is corrupt (however tactile, social, and sexy) where online is more pure. Those who dare to have pure hearts around literature may be repulsed by the sleaze factor in print in 2015. On the other hand, authors like myself, who have a ravenous appetite still for print books, and to see our own print books succeed, just have to live with the turgid ambiguities around print now.
Online repositories like Internet Archive, YouBlisher, and Blogger do offer solid, purified reading experiences. Even more pertinently, for print in 2015 to succeed completely, it must, as an absolute imperative, be backed up online for it not to appear evanescent and insubstantial. Those poets of my generation who have opted for the hard-man (or woman) approach to sticking to print against online interests are now suffering terribly from a sense of awkwardness and neglect around their oeuvres. Ultimately, this is because it looks to me like, at the end of the day, print and online textuality, their respective positions, have balanced out to an uneasy, hotly contested 50/50 ratio of importance. Different cases create different ratios— novels, for example, will always (despite tablets and Nooks) tend to fare better in print, even as poetry more easily adapts to the Net. That delicate balance between print and online, riding the edge of it, is where I’m at in 2015. The late Aughts critical scenario often amounted to someone (sometimes me) pontificating on the new freedoms and privileges engendered by the Net and Net publishing. Seven or eight years down the line, the Net has become entrenched enough (despite Hollywood’s cornball insistence on partying like it’s 1959 when publishing comes up in scripts) that no one needs to pontificate about it anymore, especially when some of the biggest distribution circuits for print books (Amazon, B & N, E-Bay, Alibris, Biblio, etc) are online. No one can deal in books seriously in 2015 and be Net-illiterate. If anything, print stalwarts are now more defensive about the monstrous impact the Net has had on publishing in general, and in how they hope to back up what they offer online. For those with no way, or interest, in getting out of the jaggedness of the 50/50 ’15 ratio, all we can do, whether we choose to be pure or sexy, ethereal or tactile, accessible-but-distant or exclusive-but-intimate, is watch for the way the books from the Aughts forward form themselves as gestalt constructions over a long period, which they are starting to do in 2015. Books tend to have a will of their own, and will get their way in the end.
#1211 I find myself shaking all the time, as pieces move around me (I don’t know which piece I am), across all boundaries, until I see you (whoever “you” happens to be) come for me with a blade (glints of sun reflect), no use running, I’m mixed so far into this that no trick can pull me into security, or even prove futility of wars—
#1138 I will write an epic— I will write slowly, I will write history, I will write tragedy, I will write an epic. I will write in blank verse, ottava rima, in cantos, I will write so that it is elastic, so that it is erotic, so that it is ecstatic, my prize will be long, my prize will be life, my prize will be last—
I could pierce you in dreams, then, having left marks your inner thighs register, pierce similar holes in your psyche— would it be naïve to think what we erect (back, forth) might have tool-shed level sturdiness, hammers, balls, chains, wrapped in red felt, blue crepe, strange ribbons, all festoons born between all balloons we let in our veins? Are we really so strange?
Philly winter, patterns emerge whereby descents of days register as sharp bits of dust scraped off tombs, but some of us have come so close to death that what sun is in it warms us—
Jenny Kanzler is a Philadelphia painter who I met in the late Aughts. When I look at her Aughts work (featured here are Strawberries and Blue Mattress), what stands out to me is a vision of both infantilism and the cognitive-affective lowliness attendant upon infantilism, rendered with the comic-horrific vividness and painterly skill of Goya himself. What Kanzler seems to be demonstrating in art, is something I have mentioned in my critical pieces as of late— the human race tendency towards the manifestation of short, stunted lives, lived at the behest of spurious interests and motivations, and against the grain of anything but pointless impulses to distort, destroy, and vilify higher consciousness. In short: a human landscape in which everyone is a stunted child. What is the psychology of the infantile? What is reinforced would have to be an impulse (again) towards homogeneity, a willingness to hollow out individuality towards the greatest possible conformity to social norms, and also to follow herd mentalities into realms of pointless games and the destruction they engender.
Yet, Jenny is an artist first and foremost, and what makes her art appealing has everything to do with the strange beauty of her forms, the rigorousness of her formal technique (which separates her from other artists like Henry Darger who mine similar territory), and the sense of (as usual for Aughts Philly art out of PAFA) enchantment around/towards chiaroscuro, the apparitional, the eerie, and to narratives laden with twists and dark edges. Like Abby Heller-Burnham, Kanzler takes unlikely elements and makes them aesthetically appealing, and what is most luscious is meant to coincide with what is most haunting or eerie. The place in Kanzler’s paintings for the kind of narrative reading the first paragraph suggests— that Kanzler means to represent a dystopic, generalized view of humanity and humanity's shortcomings— is balanced also by an imperative to realize that, as with Henry Darger, the paintings could just as easily have been created from private fascinations and fetishes with lowly, stunted objects. So, those who view Kanzler’s art are free to pick whatever approach they deem apropos. For me, what Kanzler adds to the Aughts Philadelphia/Neo-Romantic body of work is a sense of wonder shot through with foreboding, that in the multiplicity of its applications, enchants the viewer with the sense of another, shaded world imposing its reality on our own. As Kanzler’s work is brought further to public attention, the Kanzler formal and narrative-thematic world, of fetishes for the lowly, stunted, horrific, and eerily beautiful, will be one intelligent audiences will be happy to get lost in, from Philadelphia on out.
A key point I’ve picked up on my life’s journey: the books game is a vicious one. There is an aura of violence and perversion around books; anyone can and does steal from anyone. Why authors and publishers feel entitled to steal I don’t know: but when I opened up this pdf, released by Chicago’s Beard of Bees, yesterday, I was stunned to see the signature style I developed for my 2008 Otoliths print book When You Bit... pirated most fulsomely. Interestingly, When You Bit is set in Chicago, where the offending pdf was published. I’ve run into this problem before; the likes of Anne Carson and Mark Strand pirating the signature style of my 2007 print book Opera Bufa; and all three forgeries are more than reasonably blatant. Why is it that publishing thrives on pointless, destructive games? Why is it that literature anywhere should be reduced to the status of a game, where pirating for destructive purposes in permissible and actually demonstrating respect for those who have influenced your writing is not? Gaming here is both infantile, and opposed to the development of a sturdy, intelligent national consciousness. The impulses behind the composition of both Opera Bufa and When You Bit were unique, and intended to achieve the stature and effects of high art, or what I call major high art consonance; and to be brought to earth by the vagaries of a dumb game, in the middle of a major recession, is a major pain in the ass.
The games around books and publishing go out in all directions. The New York Times takes the stance that by ignoring literature online, they will somehow make it disappear. They appear poised to party like it’s 1959; and other lit-gamers like The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and even The Huffington Post are following suit. Online literature is a threat to these conglomerates; and while online literature is developing a sense of heft and gravitas around itself, those threatened will initiate the usual destructive games, and bury their collective heads in the sand. Meanwhile, someone is always waiting to declare poetry dead, literature dead, online dead, print dead, Language Poetry dead, Flarf dead, Formalism dead, what have you; when, from the evidence I have accumulated, all they mean to do is initiate another pointlessly destructive game. On the other side of things, bootleggers are always muscling in to pirate things in another direction; here are rogue editions, for instance, of Beams and Chimes. The free for all atmosphere, combined with a mentality bereft of maturity and serious literary awareness, make for a book world so steeped in juvenile competitiveness and the bad faith around general and generalized fraudulence that if one wants to keep sane, one can only hope for the peace and security of writing decent books and watching them gain precious ground incrementally.
As to the voice of the nightingale herself in Keats’ famed Ode: it can be taken to have a plethora of significations. For the purpose of what I want to say here, I will take the voice of Keats’ Nightingale to represent, as a synecdoche, the voice of oblivious humanity, especially of the oblivious masses, as they subsist from era to era. The “ecstasy” of the nightingale, and of her generic resemblance to all other nightingales (which has already been discussed), is that she sings from a surface-level relationship to reality. She is not emitting “de profundis,” so to speak, but from the blithe sense of both the realness and the generally satisfactory nature of the surface of her consciousness. Thus do the oblivious masses tend to live: on the surface, without introspection, aping satisfaction with their lives even when the specters of sickness, old age, and physical mortality hover over them. Like Keats, who is beleaguered very much in this sublime masterpiece, I also choose not to dwell on the surface, both to have and to embrace introspective tendencies, and to value my own cognitive capacities. The political repercussions of a group of us in Aughts Philly who chose to live this way has many complex interstitial relations to the rest of American history and society, but my basic motivation is and will likely remain the same: just to clear some space for people like us in America; just to make it so that those of us who choose not to live on the surface are allowed to do so, and not discouraged in our endeavors; and just to make clear that the emphasis in America need not dwell at all times on ephemeral matters and babyish peccadilloes.
It is no accident that these issues are coming to light in a steep recession. When material matters on the surface become shaky, people, Americans or not, need rocks to lean on if any peace of mind is to develop, against confounding tides. What American popular and media culture offers— fatuous, fallacious representations of a reality which is as gossamer as silk, or (more often) entirely unreal, arrayed in the illusory appearance of profundity and thoughtfulness— is not something to be leaned on as an aid to serious human consciousness in a recession at all. It is, as Brits might say, a load of rubbish. There is some evidence to suggest that what we accomplished in Aughts Philly has gained the beginnings of a solid foundation in the world, and if this is not surprising, it is because recessions turn the minds and hearts of the affected inwards, against the blithe squawking of Keats’ Nightingale, and there is no ecstatic surface for anyone to plug into. Keats’ “I” in the Nightingale is all of ours, now, whether we are prepared to admit it or not, and now becomes as ripe a time as any to plant the seeds of a new sector in American life— public scientists, philosophers, high artists, architects. This sector must, itself, be beleaguered from the beginning— too many other human sectors hate the idea of advanced cognition coming to the fore— but, in a way, and on a profound level, that doesn’t matter much. What does matter is that the soul of America, which is sick onto starving, be replenished by an infusion of energy which engenders new social conditions, in which the intelligent need not feel alienated; and the emergence of a group of serious artists in a steep recession is a wholesome step towards realizing that goal, of the emergence of depth and profundity in American life.
The rights and privileges of extremely developed individuality against the masses is a pertinent political issue raised by Keats’ Odes and odal cycle. A second issue is even more pertinent— what the political ramifications are when a sector of a given population decides to prioritize intellectuality, to value cognitions and cognitive ability over raw, animal (“sensible,” in Kant’s terms) life. Keats makes clear in the Odes, via many incisive impositions, that for him the human mind is its own landscape, capable of generating entire worlds and universes against tactile reality, or what is generated for us by a society which would fill our heads with its own value systems, narratives, and visions, usually of different forms of material consonance. Keats’ Psyche is merely a vision, and a cognitively generated one, out of the mythology of classical antiquity; the mind-scape he builds for his vision is a Platonically perfected representation of natural, tactile realities, abstracted metaphorically so that Keats odal mind generates its own flora and fauna, in tune with Keats’ beatific sense of quietness, murmurs, silence, frozen perspectives, sweetness, female sexuality, and all the levels of happy piety he sees in this Neo-Paganistic tableau.
The important thing, for the argument I am attempting to make, is that Keats respects and venerates his own mind and cognitive abilities, against the idea that the human mind is not (potentially) its own self-enclosed, self-sustaining, self-contained universe. Were a sector of the population, in America or anywhere else, to come to a similar conclusion; to decide that the mind can perfect what the body cannot; the country would (potentially) undergo a seismic reaction, towards the revelation that the “animal masses” would be forced to wrestle with their own feelings of inadequacy, resentment, and general discontent. This is why America has been soft on public intellectuals; they are too upsetting, too unsettling, too likely to pierce through the blarney levels which stain and stunt American society. Were a group of powerful public intellectuals to come to the fore, and be granted the ability to tell some substantial truth some of the time, America would commence to be variegated the right way, towards developing a populace which has at least some propensity for higher thought and concern with serious human issues. My prediction is that the twenty-first century will spell the end of anti-philosophical, post-modern America, towards a system whose politics are capable of being altered and generally effected by public intellectuals, whether writers and artists or scientists and philosophers.
Oddly enough, Trish was written to represent the immediacy and vividness of the most sensual kind of human life. Trish, unlike Equations, is an incomplete dialectic; the thesis emerges at the end, that, for some unaccountable reason, some individuals need a sense of romance in their life and some do not. I do, actually, and most Aughts Philly stalwarts did, too. Yet the congeries of elements which populates this sonnet cycle manages to cover how advanced cognition might interact with sense and sensuality. The art of the mind completing the body’s work and vice versa is a major one for high artists, and thus a major one for those of us in Aughts Philly. The political reality of the PFS way of life is a challenging one. We prioritized cognitive ability and developed individuality against the masses, and (more importantly than some might think) we also had a damned good time doing it. When our lifestyle in Aughts Philly hits the airwaves, so to speak, it will be an issue for America to deal with. Philadelphia was our “rosy sanctuary,” and a self-generated mind-scape for us, as well. If we chose to pursue politics in a lateral fashion, it does not mean a pertinent political statement was not made.
Keats’ odal system is quirky. One of its operative features, and a feature actively imposed by Keats in the Odes, is the idea that for the human mind to enter the requisite Platonic world of stilled, immobile, immortal, perfect forms, what is represented and internalized must be a state of sexual chastity, or at least innocence. The quirk is intriguing: what Keats seems to prize most are uncompleted movements towards sexualized (nuptial, so to speak) consummations, so that lovers are eternally in the process of initiating the consummation of their love. The Keats Universe, his Platonic realm where odal action unfolds, is not a world without the possibility of consummation (the completion of spiritual and physical marriages), but a Universe which nonetheless values these possibilities as ends in themselves, rather than possibilities leading into a transcendent realm, above or to the side of it, through their fulfillment. The Bold Lovers (as from Grecian Urn) are eternally bold, and eternally stopped short as well. This is Keats’ vision, reaching towards happy pieties, but with darkling undertones of loss and severed alliances, especially in Melancholy.
My premise, which I would like, at some point, to express in a riposte to Keats and his odal Universe, is that Keatsian “quiet” or “quietude,” as a beatific cognitive-affective plateau to be reached through inspired prosody, can also be reached through completed consummations, completed nuptial rituals, and what attends them. Why it is that sex and sexual intercourse cannot have inhering in them something transcendent for the Keats of Grecian Urn is an open question; for all its sturm und drang around higher cognitions, Keats’ odal quirks remain, to some extent, mysterious, and Keats himself a mysterious priest like the one he assays in said Ode. I have, as an artistic ambition, a specific gateway into this; by elevating the Equations formally to the level of the Cheltenham Elegies, by making them serve visionary ends and not merely pragmatic ones, by aiming not only for the truth-consonant but the exquisite, and by assaying also the creation of a Universe built on achieved, consummated carnality.
Intimations of Immortality: Odes, Elegies, and Politics
The critical fallacy inheres in discussions of English Romanticism that Keats is the least political of the major Romantic poets. Ostensibly, Keats’ subject matter is not directly political: the odal cycle or vision addresses subjectivity, temporality and spatiality, history (classical antiquity), epistemology, and the poet’s relationship to tactility, especially in the form of natural objects/vistas and expressed hetero sexuality. Yet, specifically in Ode to a Nightingale, a reckoning is enacted which takes Keats straight to the heart of a political dilemma which has plagued mankind since classical antiquity and before: what is the place of extremely developed and expressed individuality, visionary individuality, as it were, in an individual, against the conformist masses, held under the protective aegis of conformist societal contexts? Adorno’s “Lyric Poetry and Society” initiates many pertinent inquiries on this level; how I would like to elevate the discourse to the next level is to up a certain kind of discursive ante by tackling a trope which has lost some status over the last few hundred years: immortality. Specifically, as a topos to investigate in poetic texts and other literary contexts, who is more immortal, the visionary, with his or her extremely developed interiority, set in place against societal norms, or any generalized normative, and the ethos and praxis of the conformist masses themselves, with their standards of regulated behavior and (more importantly) regulated cognition. These issues present themselves nose on the face in the penultimate stanza of Nightingale:
Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in fairy lands forlorn.
Nightingale puts Keats’ entire visionary odal system on a tightrope, as he boldly confronts this system’s potential obsolescence. What makes the nightingale immortal, here, is its sense of being indistinguishable from all other nightingales, whether singing for Ruth or not. Those not touched by the stigma of extreme individuality (here of a visionary nature) have their safety and immortality in numbers; while an “I” developed to an absolute peak of sharp cognitive-affective incisiveness is so vulnerable, through its singularity into isolation, that it can only feel the pangs of mortality and impending death beating behind and in front of it at all times. The politics of this dilemma is simple: any given society must decide for itself to what extent individuals may develop themselves as distinct, autonomous entities, against the normative, or to what extent this process must be nipped in the bud. The critical commonplace of the isolated Romantic genius does apply here, as does Adorno; but what is added is the sense of potential longevity in configuring things from one end of this to the other: who gets to be immortal, Keats or his replicant, replaceable Nightingale? This fits snugly into (also) an exploration of the Cheltenham Elegies. The analogue to Nightingale, 261, manifests in no uncertain terms the same syndromes and dichotomies:
Never one to cut corners about cutting
corners, you spun the Subaru into a rough
U-turn right in the middle of Old York Road
at midnight, scaring the shit out of this self-
declared “artist.” The issue, as ever, was
nothing particular to celebrate. We could
only connect nothing with nothing in our
private suburban waste land. Here’s where
the fun starts— I got out, motherfucker.
I made it. I say “I,” and it works. But Old
York Road at midnight is still what it is.
I still have to live there the same way you do.
The protagonist of the poem has the same sense of systematic, incisive insight as Keats does in the Odes. Here, the antagonist, who represents (among other things) the typical and the normative individual trapped in a society which values destructiveness and the continued predominance of short, stunted lives, is not a Nightingale but the driver of the Subaru in question. For discursive sake, let’s call him “Chris.” Who Chris is, as an American archetype; the suburban daredevil or show-off, with the same blarneying sense of indestructibility, backed by the despair of immobile, low-minded interests; is meant to appear as immortal as the visionary poet, who laments in an elegiac way the pointlessness of the world as it exists for both characters. The problem here (or tightrope, over which the elegiac system must walk) is that, for those for whom major high art consonance is anathema, Chris will always remain a more eternal character than the autonomous, visionary artist.
What, or who, is immortal here is a political issue; not just because the masses tend to propel the masses forward, and Chris is resolutely one of the masses, but because even the notion of immortality-in-art (a fixation for both these Odes and Elegies) is a vulnerable one, before the mind-numbing force and obduracy of mass indifference and resentment. The Odes have been given a high place, over two hundred years, in the canon of English literature. The Cheltenham Elegies have only begun to have the life they are destined to have. Yet neither the Odes nor the Elegies are for the obdurate masses, who are (very much) eternally and immortally impervious to the siren call of advanced textuality. That high art is nonetheless a political force on high levels and for all time is also manifestly and demonstrably the case, no matter how eternally impervious the masses are. The artist must stand alone, with his or her visions, against the imperviousness of the masses; perhaps with a Romantic sense of sublimity, perhaps not; but the politics of Keats dictates that the politics of what endures, of what is meant to be immortal and what is not, of how far an individual may go to extend his or her individuality against the masses, is one which will remain a tightrope to be walked for as long as anyone wishes to create major high art consonant work.