Jeffrey C. Robinson

from "Romantic Manifestos Manifest"

A Work in Progress

The title of this work in progress adds “Romantic” to the title of a little book of polemics on poetry by the Chilean master of “sky” poetry, Vicente Huidobro. I propose: gather 75 or so statements, terms, and jargon from the “Romantic mother-lode” (Anne Waldman) with the hope that together, with accompanying commentary, they will accumulate irrefutably a major well-spring for modern and contemporary innovative poetry. In one sense Romantic Manifestos Manifest brings to attention the underpinnings of Poems for the Millennium, Volume Three, Jerome Rothenberg’s and my anthology of Romantic poetry broadly conceived as a radical poetic formation — even as a guide, a skeleton key, for that book. Taken together, the items here compose a “field of thought” (Feld von Gedanken, Herder) of what Julie Carr and I have called active Romanticism.

In this book I distil the “otherhow” of the famous and not-so-famous declarations of Romantic poetics: I attend more to what is said by the Romantics than to what they have done although, as Robert Sheppard has observed, a poem can often (quietly) contain a poetics within it. Many instances of radical Romantic poetics gathered here are well known, but too often they have not led to our recognition of it as a loose system of outlandish thought for the renovation of poetry in the service of a renovation of society. Collected more or less a-chronologically, the passages and my commentaries come together as a pressure point — what is most vital in Romanticism and most suppressed — for reading, writing, teaching, and changing. (J.C.R.)

Here are just a few examples.

sub specie aeternitatis   The regime of Romantic poetry requires a change of vision away from the customary, or the hegemonic account. As with Spinoza, we look at the same object but from another perspective, an eternal one, which is a forgiving one. Shelley says that “a poem is the very image of life experienced in its eternal truth.” The by and large atheist (and immanent-ist) Romantic poets easily took on the idea of the divine and the eternal as a space of vision expanded beyond the ordinary and insisting upon spirituality in all things: a Romantic version of the ancient metaphor, the human is like the divine, which is then collapsed into a new reality, as in the redemptive vision of Blake’s Milton:

             when [Milton] enter'd into his Shadow, Himself,

       His real and immortal Self; was as appear'd to those
       Who dwell in immortality, as One sleeping on a couch
       Of gold:  . .

The appearance then is urged towards the realization of divinity in mortality:

        and those in immortality gave forth their Emanations

       Like Females of sweet beauty, to guard round him & to feed
⁠       His lips with food of Eden in his cold and dim repose:

Milton’s self-assessment is, however, isolated from the double vision that the reader apprehends:

       But to himself he seem'd a wanderer lost in dreary night

Estrangement [presented in another entry as what Novalis called essentially the Romantic principle], seeing the familiar from another “divine” perspective, awakens us to a new, forgiving assessment as is the case with Keats whose bards of passion and mirth reside not only on earth but also in heaven “Where the nightingale doth sing / Not a senseless, tranced thing / But divine melodious truth; . . .”  Or, “we shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated.” 

 Jacob’s Dream   “The spirit of the Christian religion consists in the glory hereafter to be revealed; but in the Hebrew dispensation, Providence took an immediate share in the affairs of this life.  Jacob’s dream arose out of this intimate communion between heaven and earth; it was this that let down, in the sign of the youthful patriarch, a golden ladder from the sky to the earth, with angels ascending and descending upon it, and shed a light upon the lonely place, which can never pass away” (William Hazlitt).  Think of ascending and descending angels as conferring an othered perspective upon the quotidian in continual alternating yet crossing movement: angels meet at a certain point on the way down and up.

Fragment: Coherence over Unity   Says Friedrich Schlegel: “Many works that are praised for the beauty of their coherence have less unity than a motley heap of ideas simply animated by the ghost of a spirit and aiming at a single purpose.  What really holds the latter together is that free and equal fellowship in which . . . the citizens of the perfect state will live at some future date . . . .”  [B]unte Haufen (miscellaneous mix of colors, heap) can mean the social “masses” that artists of a democracy are drawn to include, and Einfällen (ideas) connotes a flash of insight, wit, and the fancy.  Schlegel’s “unity” presupposes a poet completely in control of the poem’s construction, a poet, he confesses, who is sorely drawn to the lure of unity as control, which inevitably produces homogeneity or as Coleridge said, “reconciliation of opposite and discordant qualities.”  “Coherence” necessarily lets some of that control go, imagines and encourages techniques for granting parts of an artwork their independence, just as democracy strives to give prominence to the diversity of its citizens.  Opposites and discord, juxtapositions, contradictions emerge in bright colours with “coherence.”  In the art of democracy the poet restores a load of discarded experience and holds it together with whatever threads can be found. 

This is my “desert island” formulation for Romantic poetics of democracy.  It begins with an acknowledgement of the world as full of difference, the heterogeneous, that must be revealed and then apprehended. . . coherently, that is, as a work of art.  Do we “dare frame” (“The Tyger”) this jumble?  Poems following Schlegel risk incoherence as well as severe criticism and rejection because they oppose the idea of a poem requiring smoothly shaped, integrated, and thus aesthetically “beautiful” form.  “Imperfect fit” is the poet Allen Fisher’s term for art in which the part exceeds in value the whole, but insists that imperfect fit, a term that may reveal the look of Schlegel’s coherence, stimulates the reader towards the collision of a maker of art with the infinite unpredictability of embodiments of reality. In the 20th-century collage art may be the extreme outcome of Schlegel’s coherence.

Fragment: the Future   Radical Romantic poetry orients to the future, a “better world than this”; it is an engine of renewal, proliferation, and generativity all found in the fragment, as Schlegel and Novalis envisioned it.  In the most famous of his Athenaeum Fragments, 116, Schlegel claims: “Other kinds of poetry are finished and are now capable of being fully analyzed. The romantic kind of poetry is still in the state of becoming; that, in fact, is its real essence: that it should forever be becoming and never be perfected.” A fragment is a “pro-ject,” thrown forward into the future, its incompletion indicating its participation in a changing social present.  Its “essential incompletion” implies a future of a multiplicity of fragments: “to write a fragment is to write fragments.”  Novalis collapses the idea of becoming and multiplicity in the image of a seed that produces something never before invented (“a book as art”): “Fragments of this kind are but literary seeds. There may be many barren grains among them: nonetheless, imagine — if only a single one sprouts!” 

Against “palpable design”  Says Keats definitively, for nineteenth-century Romanticism and its descendants into the next two centuries: “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us.”  This way, the force of critique enters modern poetic practice, everywhere.  I am hearing Keats and the whole radical Romantic tradition when reading Vicente Huidbro, the Chilean poet of Altazor, of “superconsciousness” who locates palpable design as an intrusion of the “horribly official stamp of approval of a prior judgment (perhaps of long standing) at the moment of production” (my emphasis).  Palpable design, while it may have been internalized, comes from without, from the social and cultural spheres, from “custom,” from the panopticon, from a voracious market economy with its association of any product, including a poem, with its acquisition, and from gender, race, and class inequities; it appears in poetry as received forms and received modes of speech that produces the familiar and consoling.  “From the moment you assume the intention to write, your thought stream is already controlled” (Huidobro).  Satanic control, a dybbuk of creation, stations itself at the forefront of your mind and on the tip of your pen; genuine poetic response must come in the very act of thinking-writing.  For Huidobro, the true poet doesn’t draw on “dream” or “automatic writing” (Surrealism), but “from the moment you decide to pick up your pen, consciousness instantly rejoins the game.”  The conscious pen helps the poem to discover its own design, which will include the strange, or as he says: “There is no such thing as a poem unless it entails the unaccustomed.”  Or this from the Chinese-American poet Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge: “The chance occurrence is remarkable, when it appears to happen by design.”