I have a question for you today: how important do you feel personal identity is to a poem?
If you suddenly found out, for example, that a great poem like Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay" was secretly written, not by Frost, but by a ten year old girl who immigrated illegally to the United States, would it matter?
A casual brush with any contemporary literary journal -- print or online -- will show you quite quickly that identity is the driving force behind most of the poetry currently being published and ostensibly read among the academic crowds.
Similarly, if you check Spillwords, Facebook, or virtually any other content-platform where poets drop poems, you'll see a heavy preponderance of identity poetry. Race. Sexual orientation. Political affiliation. Religious affiliation. These are predominant themes in contemporary American poetry, with a very strong emphasis on gender and race.
Most submissions guidelines nowadays stipulate that they are specifically seeking poems that focus on identity and diversity.
For all intents and purposes, the current cultural trend is most definitely geared toward celebration of identity and even more focused on a culturally-driven form of Confessionalism. In other words, rather than anthems, most culturally identified poets are, in general, writing deeply personal poems.
To be clear, I think these are all really good things. I celebrate them right along with everyone else. But I think it does bring up a fascinating point for discussion, which is: how crucial is personal identity to poetry, actually.
Right now, in painting, artists like Jacqueline Humphries, Laura Owens, Amy Sillman, and Charline Von He are working to dissolve notions of painterly identity -- a conscious aesthetic built around the notion that by intentionally obscuring brushstroke identity, modern painters have, in effect, developed a form of expression that is new and difficult to fully categorize. In fact, the elimination of identity categories may be the only unifying factor in their works.
Which is better for art? For poetry?
I, of course, have many thoughts and they will be forthcoming in a proper essay on the painters mentioned above so stay tuned...
Love to hear them!
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The title, primary image, narrative, and setting of Byron’s poem “Darkness” (click pic above to read) reflect a sustained nihilism. The poem defies the cultural and artistic conventions of its time and the past. It challenges everything. “Darkness” stands as a rebuke of the Victorian mores and ideals. That rejection is of all existing ideals and philosophies; virtually all aesthetic theories, and all known facts and assumptions. The only thing that's spared (and therefore exalted) in the poem is the power of the imagination.
Byron pens the destruction of every meaningful Victorian value in the poem from human love and rationality, to faith in science or God. The idea of the abyss is very important in “Darkness” and functions as a way for Byron to imagine the destruction of all contemporary mores and strictures. With them go the limitations of imagination and expression that they hold over individuals, poets included. Byron’s imagined destruction is a purposeful imagining. His goal is to see what remains in the face of total apocalypse.
Early in the poem, Byron strikes straight to the heart of what most of us consider the most basic elements of humanity. When the sun and stars disappear and the entire word is engulfed in darkness, connections between people are quickly forgotten in the struggle for survival:
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill'd into a selfish prayer for light:
The word “prayer” is an inversion of the socially accepted idea of prayer. Instead of praying for goodness or peace or the well-being of others, the instinctual prayer that emerges during the apocalypse of darkness is based purely on selfishness. Byron alludes rather cryptically to the hypocrisy of religion, rather than simply declaring it in a straightforward way. He uses the idea of all-consuming darkness to ironically shed light on what the world had previously kept hidden.
As the darkness becomes more absolute, more and more hypocrisies and fallacies are revealed. This is in keeping with the romantic tendency to at once delve deeply for truth but also somewhat hide the revelation of what is discovered. The central inversion of the poem, turning darkness into a kind of penetrating light, is Byron’s way of revealing through “resistance.” Darkness is a force of nature; in fact the underlying, primary force of nature and it's this force of nature, rather than Byron-as-commentator, that appears to initiate the nihilistic revelations.
There's no relief even for those poetic or religious traditions of the past that viewed the earth as sacred. Byron rejects the pagan an animistic traditions of the past. His darkness spares nothing. Even the earth itself is reduced to nothing but a heatless, dead rock:
The populous and the powerful was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless--
A lump of death--a chaos of hard clay.
The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirr'd within their silent depths;
The darkness stretches past the earth -- into the reaches of space where the stars and planets were traditionally used as guides for myth, astrology, astronomy, and time-keeping, blotting them out along with everything else:
The moon, their mistress, had expir'd before;
The winds were wither'd in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish'd
Darkness had no need
Of aid from them--She was the Universe.
Finally, only darkness remains. If anything can be taken as an articulation of “moral truth” in the poem, it is that there is no moral truth.
Instead of truth, there is only darkness. If we want to glean anything further from Byron on this matter we will have to probe the darkness itself, because that is all he leaves us. The interesting twist here is that, while Byron’s nihilism is authentic, it may be that the destruction of the universe is not quite complete.
What remains is: the imagination. To see this in the poem, it is necessary to view the darkness of the poem as being analogous to what later thinkers and scientists, particularly Carl Jung, called the unconscious.
Jung also referred to the creative aspect of the unconscious as the “abyss” and he viewed this as the source of all creativity. While the length of the current discussion prevents any meaningful discussion of Jung’s concept of the abyss, it is enough to simply state that, because the unconscious can only be known indirectly, by its effect, it is clearly associated in dreams, cross-cultural myths, and religious traditions as being connected with images of night and darkness.
When Byron’s central image of darkness is viewed from this perspective, it is not only a symbol for the unconscious and creativity, but for the revealing aspect of art, previously mentioned above. Byron’s rejection of not only the Victorian social and artistic mores of his time but of all times, is an uncompromising affirmation of the power of creativity divorced from any social or cultural meaning.
Darkness is a meditation on the power of absolute creativity, the “prime mover” of all things, which he conceives of in such a way as to maximize the liberation of individuality and creative self-expression. In doing so, darkness becomes the ultimate form of light, the poet’s light, the light of truth. This places Byron’s poem outside of the artistic and cultural traditions of the past but well within the expressed ideals of the romantics.