Optimism and Prophecy

The Embattled Lyric: Essays and Conversations in Poetics and Anthropology
, Nathaniel Tarn (271pp, $21.95, Stanford University Press)

An autobiographical Education of... in essay and interview form, Nathaniel Tarn's  The Embattled Lyric, a 'substantially altered new edition of his 1991 Views from the Weaving Mountain,' according to the preface, reads as a retrospective, forward-thinking distillation of ideas by a man who, after a long career as a poet, preceded by one as an anthropologist, sounds like a contemporary Henry Adams turned cultural ecologist/poet confessing that here today in modern America and Europe there is no poetry or preservation of cultural values. And whether discussing his own tri-national ambivalences (French, British And American experiences in Burma with Buddhism, his collective 'choral' theory of lyric poetry, the lyric archetypes Orpheus and Eurydice supply, the devolution of poetry into a 'head stuff' product he dubs mere 'writing,' the tedium of academic discourse, counter-cultural anti-intellectual failings, the 'closed field' of the poet as [producer-consumer' of poetry, 'a republic of the dead' as the only collective we can count on to last, or the dismal future of the planet, Tarn is interesting, provocative, full of contradiction, surely aware of it, and so actually drawn to hope. 'However depressed I am,' he confesses in a 1999 interview, 'the fundamental principle is one of hope, the only indispensable prerequisite of poetry.' As a mark of consistency, 26 years earlier in his book-length poem The Beautiful Contradictions Tarn similarly hoped for a rejuvenated world  intellectually and environmentally despite the material realities of 'INFOGLUT' culture and 'the petrifaction of language.'
For the poet this petrifaction is particularly abysmal as it kills off the alchemical power Tarn in his analysis of Blake celebrates and mourns. As a dissatisfied anthropologist, he condemns technical jargon in all academic fields and vilifies the situation of poetry only read by poets by comparing it to Levi-Strauss' work on incest. Back in the poet role, he finds this incest 'a scandal of unbelievable proportions: one in which everyone wants to sing and no one wants to listen to the song..., 'adding, 'If this were not the image of many of other human enterprises of possibly deeper import, I would not have troubled you with mention of it.'

Tarn also finds our culture cannibalistic with respect to primitive cultures, and this is comparable to how modernism has cannibalized itself into postmodernism and an endless regeneration of 'new' avant-gardes. In such critiques heard before in him and many others Tarn's powers of analysis and passionate skepticism come to the aid of any befuddled poet living in an age of theory. Take his  critique of  Language Poetry. Dismissing it in part as a rerun of Mallarme's experiments and the nouveau roman of the 1960s, Tarn deflates the effectiveness of its political claims, pointing out in a 1999 talk, 'Octavio Paz, Anthropology, and the future of Poetry:'

     The argument, used by some producers who,
     correctly locating the seats of available power
     in the academy, have ensconced themselves
     therein every bit as much as the establishment
     'mainstream' to the effect that the disruption of
     the common linguistic coin is part of a war against
     'late-capitalist' discourse is singularly inept:  I do
     not see any oppressed workers of any kind
     devouring the products of avant-gardism.

And yet, as is characteristic of Tarn's mind and work, there is this contradiction a decade before:  Charles Bernstein's Content's Dream and Ron Silliman's The New Sentence are 'the most energetic brilliant, and challenging critical works to come out of our craft since... Olson's 'Projective Verse'... or the essays of Ezra Pound' ('Regarding the Issue of New Form').
If we remember that Tarn has confessed to liking the 'mental game' of Structuralism or have noticed his stylistic penchant for relativistic quotation marks and italics, the contradiction, like many of his others, is not surprising and it goes to the core of Tarn's 'education'. Tempered devotion to Objectivists and the Black Mountain School, for instance, starts with a personal view of Olson, Duncan and Zukovsky as 'his three pillars,' continues as a publisher for Cape-Goliard in England, and then turns doubtful ('an overemphasis on process'], his puzzlement over the 'creed' of 'form is never more than an extension of process'). In the end, his habitual skepticism, in keeping with his high regard for Buddhism's 'strange relativism,' is grounded in belief, belief in poetic voice, which he links to the possibilities for a  better world. Flipping back to Theory, he scoffs:

     The death-of-the-author thematics... are
     another inanity:  when society does its very
     best to homogenize us, what is wrong with
     a strong, knowledgeable, and responsible
     ego crying in the darkening wilderness?

Instead, voice, 'it may be argued, is to present poetry what style once was in the past:  the way in which you diagnose whether there is, or  not, a presence worth hearing and knowing behind words heard or read.
We have come back to Tarn's frail anthropological hope in poetry and the poet.  While now '...the way  poet deals with words is s/he takes them after everyone else has finished with them, when all their use has been gotten out of them, by theologians, philosophers, scientists...', perhaps the poet 'has the hope that... words may have recovered a renewed innocence' in a manner reminiscent of  Wordsworth's 'optimism' of the poet being 'the most available human being, available to what is important to us when we have done being theologians, philosophers or scientists and are simply human creature.' However, it is Tarn's belief as well that poetry 'anchors itself  in, and is nourished by, the existence of... traditional natural and cultural treasures and that when these latter suffer as much as they are doing, poetry is herded into becoming purely elegiac...'  - something he points out happening in Neruda's The Heights of Macchu Picchu.

Ultimately, the survival of poetry and the earth in the face of over-production and consumption are linked in a new unity typified by Tarn's call for a truly choral or universal voice in 'a common world... guaranteed paradoxically by its very plurality.'
Who will lead us to the new promised land? Tarn hopes it will be the '...anthropologist-poet as "the prophet of a future true multiculturalism," the Neruda whose Macchu Picchu
is also a "hymn to future".'

           Marcus Smith 2008