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Meditative spaces. (pastoral poetry)(Critical essay)

Meditative spaces. (pastoral poetry)(Critical essay).


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Eric Pankey. 

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COPYRIGHT 2006 Louisiana State University

In HIS BOOK PASTORAL (1999), Terry Gifford argues that in the contemporary moment, the pastoral can be "attributed to anything ranging from the rural, to any form of retreat, to any form of simplification or idealization," citing examples of recent usages: the Freudian pastoral, the pastoral of childhood, the urban pastoral--anything, really, that celebrates the ethos of nature over the ethos of city. As a way of focusing, rather than broadening, the idea of the pastoral, I would like to think about the relation of pastoral spaces to the lyric's subgenre, the meditation.

In the meditative mode, a poet can undermine the lyric's drive toward, and love of, closure, without ever giving up on the moment of lyric insight--what William Wordsworth calls "spots of time," James Joyce calls "epiphanies," and Virginia Woolf calls "moments of being." Lyric insight within the lyric moment. Since the English Romantics, the clear presence of the pastoral has asserted itself as the time and space of the meditative utterance much more than as the bucolic landscape. The mode and method of Wordsworth's lapsed pastoral, "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798," becomes the model for Wallace Stevens's "The Idea of Order at Key West" (1936), a poem that has nothing to do with sheep or the usual pastoral stage props. Both poems show the vestigial trace of the eclogue, with Wordsworth turning to and questioning his sister Dorothy, and with Stevens turning to and questioning his companion, Ramon Fernandez. The world before each of the poets is a world of their making.

"To live in the world of creation--" Henry James argues, "to get into it and stay in it--to frequent it and haunt it--to think intensely and fruitfully--to woo combinations and inspiration--this is the only thing...." By staying, as James suggests, "in" the moment, by continuing to turn away from the conventions of closure through reflection, refraction, concentration, continuation, and involution, by troubling the terms of an argument, by digressing, by spiraling or orbiting around the lyric moment, pearling the grit of that moment, one makes mutable the temporality of the meditative space, as in "Tintern Abbey":

      ... Once again I see
 
   These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
   Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
   Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
   Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
   With some uncertain notices, as might seem
   Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
   Or of some Hermit's cave, where by his fire
   The Hermit sits alone.
 
      These beauteous forms,
   Through a long absence, have not been to me
   As is a landscape to a blind mind's eye:
   But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
   Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
   In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
   Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
   And passing even into my purer mind,
   With tranquil restoration: ...

Here the pastoral bridges at least three spaces: the city, the manageable natural world, and the wilderness. Wordsworth treats the city as the place from which he retreats and the place to which he must return. He is on a tour, and thus the ruin he visits is a managed and manageable Nature. A third space the pastoral confronts, the wilderness, is all that is "other" and beyond words, Nature fraught with the sublime awe of the awful and awesome. The parable of the lost sheep locates itself in this space as do the lovers outside the city gates in The Song of Solomon. For Stevens, the wilderness is the unmeasured world, the "meaningless plunging of water and the wind." The mind in conversation with itself constantly orders and shapes the meaningless, but what persists always are questions and not the balm of final thoughts:

   Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
   Why, when the singing ended and we turned
   Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
   The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
   As night descended, tilting in the air,
   Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
   Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
   Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
 
   Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
   The maker's rage to order words of the sea,
   Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
   And of ourselves and of our origins,
   In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

The pastoral bridges even more times zones, allowing the speaker to move easily among temporal moments: the idealized past set against the hardship of the present moment, the idealized present harmonizing with the idealized past, the past's hardships rubbed up against the comfort and idleness of the present. In Virgil's fourth Eclogue, more a meditation than the conversation common to the Eclogues, even the future is bridged, revealing the hope of a splendid age to come, where "earth will shower you with romping ivy, foxgloves,/Bouquets of gipsy lilies and sweetly smiling acanthus" and where "the ox will have no fear of the lion...."

"In the life we lead together," Robert Hass writes, "every paradise is lost" To fall from paradise is to fall into time. Into exilic time, postlapsarian time. The hinge of such a meditation is usually the equation: Once ... but now ... Innocence cast then recast as experience. In Hass's "Meditation at Lagunitas" (1979), we find that language itself is an unstable medium, that "a word is elegy to what it signifies":

      ... After a while I understood that,
   talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
   pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
   I made love to and I remembered how, holding
   her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
   I felt a violent wonder at her presence
   like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
   with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
   muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
   called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
   Longing, we say, because desire is full
   of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
   But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
   the thing her father said that hurt her, what
   she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
   as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
   Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
   saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

The meditative mode attempts to slow time down, to hold it still, to condense it or stretch it or twist it, without diminishing its vitality or precariousness. The gradations of tense hot-wired into the medium of language allow the now, the then, and the to be to be put under the greatest pressure.

The meditative poet is not so much interested in rendering sequential experience, but to attending to the past, the present, and the conditional future as if a trinity embodied as one, as if a single moment, a single point on a plane. Hass writes at the beginning of "Meditation at Lagunitas" that "each particular erases/ the luminous clarity of a general idea" and yet his poem proves the opposite. The meditation merges the now, then, and to be, as well as the general and the particular, into a single radiance of a mind at work.

The meditation as it has come down to us is an act: the act of the mind upon an object or idea. In the pastoral mode that object of meditation is often the landscape (and here I distinguish landscape from Nature: the landscape as the land "viewed" and arranged by the reflective and shaping mind). The habits of the meditative mode can be found in the variety of definitions one could give to the verb to meditate: to measure, to reflect on, to plan or project the mind, to design in thought, to practice religious or spiritual contemplation, to apply, to continue to apply the mind, to mete out. And if we look up mete, we discover: to find the quantity, dimension or capacity by rule or standard, to appraise. To define boundaries. To judge.

Helen Vendler says in Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology (1997) that "Lyric is the genre of private life: it is what we say to ourselves when we are alone" That aloneness within the phenomenal world of a landscape and the noumenal world of the indwelling mind allows the pastoral-meditative poet to achieve what Samuel Coleridge calls the "grandest efforts of poetry ... when imagination is called forth, not to produce a distinct form, but a strong working of the mind, still offering what is still repelled, and again creating what is again rejected." In "Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout" (1959), Gary Snyder, a fire watcher, oversees not only a forest but also the intimate and wide expanse of the hours of his American solitude:

   Down valley a smoke haze
   Three days heat, after five days rain
   Pitch glows on the fir-cones
   Across rocks and meadows
   Swarms of new flies.
 
   I cannot remember things I once read
   A few friends, but they are in cities
   Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
   Looking down for miles
   Through high still air.

Who knows how long the mind has lingered, ruminated, in the white space between stanzas. Charles Wright, alone in his backyard, alone in his never resting mind, practices what he preaches. "Art," he says, "tends toward the condition of circularity and completion. The artist's job is to keep the circle from joining--to work in the synapses." That in-between-ness, that neither-here-nor-there-ness typifies the qualities of the pastoral-meditative state in particular, as here in Wright's poem "Returned to the Yaak Cabin, I Overhear an Old Greek Song" (1997):

   Back at the west window, Basin Creek
   Stumbling its mantra out in a slurred, midsummer monotone,
   Sunshine in planes and clean sheets
   Over the yarrow and lodgepole pine--
   We spend our whole lives in the same place and never leave,
   Pine squirrels and butterflies at work in a deep dither,
   Bumblebee likewise, wind with a slight hitch in its get-along.
 
   Dead heads on the lilac bush, daisies
   Long-legged forest of stalks in a white throw across the field
   Above the ford and deer path,
   Candor of marble, candor of bone-We
   spend our whole lives in the same place and never leave,
   The head of Orpheus bobbing in the slatch, his song
   Still beckoning from his still-bloody lips, bright as a bee's heart.

This poem, like so many of Wright's poems, is at once static and headlong. "We spend our whole lives in the same place and never leave," he writes and then takes the time to catalog the particular moment, which is never the same moment and thus never the same place twice. The moment of meditation is, like mythic time, constant and ongoing. We are not surprised to find we have entered a mystical moment, to find in the American West of Wright's poem the head of Orpheus just lopped off and still singing.

William James describes the state of mystical experience, often a product of meditation, as characterized by ineffability, transiency, noetic qualities, and passivity. Echoing James, William Bevis describes meditative states of consciousness as rich with transience, ineffability, a sensation that time and space is changed or transcended, a sensation of self-loss (and the loss of self is not a negative here, but a way within the meditation). The retreat and return and the return and retreat of the meditation allow a poet to live in and sustain liminal space and time, to "work in the synapses." That work can happen in the gaps, as in Snyder's "Sourdough Mountain Lookout"; or by way of the logical and associative leaps we find in Wordsworth and Hass; or like Stevens and Wright, by the naming and questioning of the world before them as they continue their lifelong interrogation of immanence. At once descriptive, reflexive, discursive, lyric, and narrative, the meditation gives density and gravity to moments of revelation.

Source Citation

Pankey, Eric. "Meditative spaces." The Southern Review 42.4 (2006): 788+. InfoTrac Humanities & Education Collection. Web. 5 Feb. 2010. 

 


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