“The revolution is to be human.”– Walter Lowenfels
The demographic movement toward an America wherein whites are no longer the majority is inevitable. Combined with the multiplication effect of the internet, the groundwork for a commonality‑based poetics is steadily being established. It seems clear that there are several historically contemporary canons that run in parallel concurrence and seem to represent opposite poles of similar issues. By rising to a higher level of abstraction, these apparent opposites may be reconciled. I dream of a unified field where objectivity and subjectivity are expressed in greater balance for the good of all. It is a natural process that can bring us closer together and lead to artistic and humanitarian progress.
1. The Legacy of Ethnopoetics
In the late sixties and early seventies, Jerome Rothenberg and other theorists developed the ethnopoetic movement, which was a divergent response to the myopic dominance of white, upper-class, male, British and American poets. The ethnocentric seeds of the movement found fertile ground in neglected segments of the population. It is fair to say that the ethnopoetic movement led directly to the identity poetry of today. As an alternative route forward from the often-dogmatic modern poetry of ivy league and Oxford poets, ethnopoetics was a breath of fresh air that stimulated diversity and creativity.
Among these, the emergence of Black poetry onto the zeitgeist had a profound effect on post-modern poetry and on social consciousness as well. Native American poetic tradition also came into the consciousness of poets, as well as greater appreciation of experimental European and South American movements (i.e. Surrealism) and giving contemporary voice to ancient Japanese forms such as haiku. From its ethnocentric roots, identity poetics eventually emerged.
Jerome Rothenberg’s work in ethnopoetics blazed the trail for the current emphasis on divergent cultural positions such as racial, gender, and other identity groups. But he also has addressed what all these divergent positions have in common, and that’s what I’m deeply interested in. Great truths seem to lie in paradox. Ethnopoetics has led us on two parallel paths which are likely to eventually converge. The identity poetics of the present zeitgeist can evolve into a poetry that emphasizes human commonality in the face of challenges to our entire species. Nothing escapes the yin-yang principle. Everything has an upside and a downside. An unforeseen negative effect of ethnopoetics is that it has led to ethnocentrism and cultural/social polarization. Ethnocentrism emphasizes our differences and finds its source of energy in that part of human nature that is selfish and competitive, when what we need right now, in this world of increasing conflict over dwindling resources, is an emphasis and understanding of what we have in common. We need to stimulate and express the other side of our nature, the altruistic and generous side. Human progress lies in this direction. Poetry can both reflect and promote our progress.
The inspiring performance of the twenty-two year old, Black, female poet Amanda Gorman at the inauguration of President Biden is a wonderful example of a poem that expressed the feelings of many people of all kinds at a time when we needed it.
The great value of ethnopoetics is the counter-balance it provides against elitism. Elitism and the dominance of W.A.S.P. poets was bad for the art of poetry. We would never want to go back to that restrictive time. Diversity is good for poetry, but so is seeing the big picture, where we have more in common than we are different, is a higher priority.
It would be good if more American poets had the intention of writing for the world. Universality is the primary value of all art. The current percentage of American poets who write for the international market is quite low. I guess it’s maybe 5%. Poets need to develop the big picture and stop being so personally and culturally narcissistic.
Our greatest American poet addressed the issue one hundred and thirty-eight years ago:
“Why not fix your verses henceforth to the gauge of the round globe? the whole race? Perhaps the most illustrious culmination of the modern may thus prove to be a signal growth of joyous, more exalted bards of adhesiveness, identically one in soul, but contributed by every nation, each after its distinctive kind. Let us, audacious, start it. Let the diplomats, as ever, still deeply plan, seeking advantages, proposing treaties between governments, and to bind them, on paper: what I seek is different, simpler. I would inaugurate from America, for this purpose, new formulas – international poems.”
– Walt Whitman
from Poetry To-day in America
Post-modern American poetry has attempted to break away from the “rules” of modernism, just as modernism itself attempted to deconstruct traditional conventions of the art. Unfortunately, post-modernism has now congealed into rigid conventions that inevitably choke and restrict poetry, an art that should always challenge conventional thinking. As such, it cannot remain static but must keep on moving like a Great White Shark. Different times call for different counter-measures against dogmatic thinking.
We American poets also need to address and understand our own national diversity. The best way to compare poets as seemingly diverse as Ginsberg and Angelou is on a higher level of abstraction, emphasizing their levels of passion, commitment, universality and morality.
We need to stop being distracted by surface elements such as form and style. The essence can be retained and developed while the surface qualities are transformative to various colloquialisms, forms and styles. While stylistic coloration may enhance (or distract from) a poem’s foundation in meaning, it isn’t the most essential component of a poem. Style is a relatively surface value that serves to enhance meaning. Meaning (or its implication) is a fundamental value of poetry.
The essential concept of poetic license means that every approach to and subject of poetry is legitimate art, but paradoxically, a moral hierarchy must necessarily exist because those poems that speak to and for the greatest number of people (in other words, the most universal), provide high-test fuel for human understanding, personal growth and social progress.
From a moral perspective, a poem’s primary value is the degree to which it promotes mutual understanding and empathy. This may be conceptualized as a hierarchy of moral value. (I am not referring to prosaic moral proselytizing here, but rather to the evocation of common symbols and the universal myths that go with them.)
The first stanzas of A Brave And Startling Truth by the late Maya Angelou, illustrates the point:
We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth
And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms
When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil
When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze
When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse
Poetry with high universal value transcends cultural limitations and ethnocentric concerns and speaks directly to the human condition. Poetry with medium universal value eliminates personal pronouns and restricts itself to imagery and description, achieving meaning through symbolism and/or juxtaposition of images. Poems of low universal value addressonlythe isolated personal concerns of the poet. Confessional or autobiographical poetry can also be in the other two, higher categories.
It would be unnecessarily difficult for any poet to restrict himself to writing all his poems in the high universal mode. Instead, each of us has a quotient of the percentage of our poems in both the microcosm and macrocosm.
Poems of relatively low universal value still have a poetic impulse behind them and they still need to be written even if all they accomplish is personal catharsis or identity with a group. Indeed, the majority of poets will continue to write at all three levels, but the focus has been too great on the lower type of poem. This may explain why poetry is seen by so many as useless and self-indulgent. But poetry has survived because it has survival value for our species, if only we can harness its power to open minds and hearts toward greater empathy and altruism.
4. Finding the Macrocosm
The concepts of microcosm and macrocosm are essential concepts in understanding universality. The universal unconscious and what we’ve come to regard as Jungian archetypes, is also an essential concept. According to Jung, the collective unconscious is a psychological inheritance. It contains all of the knowledge and experiences we share as a species as well as our personal versions of the universal archetypes. If each of us is a microcosm of “human,” then one might assume that introspection by individuals (poets, etc.) will get us to the level of common human experience. It isn’t that simple. In Jungian psychology, the archetypes represent universal patterns and images that are part of the collective unconscious. We inherit these archetypes much the way we inherit instinctive patterns of behavior. These archaic and mythic characters that make up the archetypes reside with all people from all over the world, and they symbolize basic human motivations, values, and personalities.
to Jung, there are four primary archetypes (The Mother, The Father, The Shadow,
The Anima/Animus). It’s important to note that archetypes are not
culture-bound. Every human has a Father
and a Mother. We each have a part of us
(Anima or Animus) that
identifies with the opposite gender. We each have a dark side (The Shadow). There are also the many secondary archetypes which every human holds in common, yet with personal experience factored in.
A well-known example of the exploration and evocation of the Mother archetype is Kaddish by Allen Ginsberg. It is generally considered Ginsberg’s greatest poem, more personal than Howl, yet also more universal, because we all must strive to understand and accept our mothers. Kaddish is a masterpiece on several levels. It is a perfect example of how an essentially confessional approach may function to represent a common concern. Beyond that, its subjects are love and death, the two great subjects that bypass all cultural limits and get right at the core of the human condition. At his best, Allen Ginsberg was a universal poet in the Whitmanic tradition.
Kaddish is cathartic for both poet and reader because it addresses particulars that also represent commonalities. A reader finds himself thinking about his own mother, mothers in general, the bond between generations and the nature of death itself, all evoking strong emotional responses. Here’s an excerpt:
O Russian faced, woman on the grass, your long black hair is crowned with flowers, the mandolin is on your knees–
Communist beauty, sit here married in the summer among daisies, promised happiness at hand–
holy mother, now you smile on your love, your world is born anew, children run naked in the field spotted with dandelions,
they eat in the plum tree grove at the end of the meadow and find a cabin where a white-haired negro teaches the mystery of his rainbarrel–
blessed daughter come to America, I long to hear your voice again, remembering your mother’s music, in the Song of the Natural Front–
O glorious muse that bore me from the womb, gave suck first mystic life & taught me talk and music, from whose pained head I first took Vision–
Tortured and beaten in the skull–What mad hallucinations of the damned that drive me out of my own skull to seek Eternity till I find Peace for Thee, O Poetry–and for all humankind call on the Origin
Death which is the mother of the universe!–Now wear your nakedness forever, white flowers in your hair, your marriage sealed behind the sky–no revolution might destroy that maidenhood–
The primary archetype of The Shadow is probably the archetype that has been explored and expressed the most. In fiction and drama, the antagonist (a.k.a. “bad guy”) is ubiquitous because they would lack aesthetic tension without him. Humans are fascinated with evil, because each of us has a dark side. It is evident that readers and viewers do not identify exclusively with the protagonist/good guy. People wonder what evil they may be capable of given the right circumstances. Wherever there is personal or social conflict, The Shadow lurks.
As a species, we need to understand and address the war in man, the deeply-seated, built-in conflict that we homo-sapiens have between the selfish, materialistic side and the
altruistic, moralistic side of human nature. Our dual nature is the cause of most human crime, suffering and social conflict. The traditional symbols that represent our primate nature are an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. The angel represents the empathic, altruistic, aesthetic side of our nature while the devil represents the selfish, competitive, materialistic side. This conflict is species-wide and goes way beyond cultural differences. A better understanding of our conflicted nature can be achieved through poetry.
The primary archetype of the Anima/Animus has seen a lot of serious play in recent decades, reflected in gender identity concerns and gender rights issues. The art and poetry of our time has explored these concerns more than in any previous era. Jung thought that recognition of his inner female would help a man integrate it into a more expansive ego. Like The Father and The Mother archetypes, the Anima/Animus is universal and not culture-bound. It is no coincidence that Walt Whitman and his pre-eminent post-modern successor Allen Ginsberg made gender expression and exploration a major theme in their work.
The anthropological evidence supporting the existence of the universal unconscious is overwhelming. Symbols of the archetypes abound in every culture and every world religion. Ancient mythology from every part of the globe is remarkably similar, with minor differences being mostly semantic. Thus, the archetype of The Mother is represented in ancient Hindu by Shakti, Mother of the Universe. Roman Catholics have the Virgin Mary. In Greek mythology, The Mother is called Gaea, Mother Goddess. In Roman mythology, she’s Juno, Queen of the Gods. In Norse mythology, she becomes Freya.
There is a long list of secondary archetypes (i.e. The Wise Old Man, The Hero, The Trickster, etc.) that appear in world literature, folk tales, myths and religions in endless variations. Homer’s Odyssey explores the archetype of The Hero. Gandalf in Lord of the Rings is The Wise Old Man. American Indians symbolized The Trickster in the form of Coyote, whereas for the Vikings, The Trickster was Loki.
The archetypes reveal themselves through symbolism, which means that they also appear in our dreams. All humans dream, cultural differences notwithstanding. This is why surrealism stresses the value of dreams and dream symbols. In surrealistic art (including poetry) the goal is to explore and reveal a deeper reality. The word “surreal” literally means “super-real.” Popular anthropological writers like Joseph Campbell have done a good job explicating these universal connections. The study of comparative religions also validates the prevalence of the archetypes in every human culture throughout history.
relationship between symbolism and intentionality is generally
misunderstood. In pre-modern art,
symbols were consciously manipulated. The
Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, is a good example. The large triptych is loaded with symbols
that the people of the period recognized readily, but today these same symbols
evoke a subconscious response similar to surrealist paintings. They are still powerful symbols, but their
level of intentionality has been largely lost.
Ironically, they may be more potent symbols when perceived
subconsciously than they were when they were recognized and in general
use. Symbols are implicit and built into
the human psyche and do not require intention.
In addition to the universal
archetypes, we have the elements and social problems in common. The elements (earth, air, fire and water) are
similar to the archetypes, in that they are also universal. Climate change, tsunamis, earthquakes,
massive storm systems, wildfires, floods, droughts, pollution of the ocean and
atmosphere, extinction of animal species, etc. are all issues of concern to our
entire species. Social problems such as
drug addiction, poverty, human trafficking, terrorism and public health bypass
all national borders and should be of concern to us all. If the worldwide pandemic has taught us
anything, it is that we are all in this world together.
Poetry can address these critical problems. The archetype of The Shadow appears in every social problem, in the form of greed, hostility, brutality, and apathy toward others who suffer.
A poet’s ability to access the macrocosm and relate on a common, universal level can be improved through divergent thinking, which exercises the mind to be more flexible. Looking beyond ones own borders opens an artist to the macrocosm. Reading and writing outside one’s comfort zone is a good first step toward a vision of the Big Picture. Expansion of the ego is the goal. The art that results from a wider world-view may have enormous value as an instrument of world peace.
Having an attitude that is open to the possibility of writing a poem that expresses universal truth for the whole species is essential. Nurturing tolerance, divergent thinking and altruism in oneself prepares fertile ground for the seeds of inspiration. The connection is already there. We just need to see it.
There are several barriers to the development of an Anthropoetic movement, but most of them aren’t physical. With the development of the world-wide web, the potential for such a movement is physically doable, no longer prevented by geography.
A major factor in favor of the movement is the nearly universal acceptance of English as a second language. International anthologies in English are now the standard, and sell considerably better than anthologies in any other language. Based on the locater on my website, the vast majority of my own readers are international, with large readerships in China, India, Indonesia and the Ukraine.
No, the barriers are no longer primarily physical, but they are very real nonetheless. What these barriers have in common is that they are mainly mental on the microcosmic level and social on the macrocosmic level.
Ego-psychology provides us with an explanation of the phenomena with its concept of ego-boundaries. When an individual’s ego development is poor, his ego-boundaries are restricted so that he identifies with only himself. As a person becomes more secure and self-actualized (another Jungian concept), he increasingly identifies with things and people outside himself. Great humanitarians (i.e. Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer and Mother Theresa) have such widely expansive ego-boundaries that they strongly identify with all of humanity. Such a person may feel at one with the world. Quite simply put, if we all felt that way, we’d eliminate human suffering and war.
The mental barrier that keeps us from identifying with our fellow humans across the planet is primarily selfish fear and envy of those who are superficially different from ourselves. The differences we perceive as so immense and divisive are truly only on the surface, since we have so much more in common than we don’t, yet they are so deeply felt that most of them have been institutionalized nationally and introjected personally.
Competition between nations over scarce resources promotes international conflict and economic subjugation of underdeveloped countries. Poetry cannot, by itself, solve these problems, but it can make us more tolerant of our differences and cognizant of our shared, basic human nature. Poetry can deal with abstractions that are not materialistically
or nationally based. Improved mutual understanding is the basis we need for a more equitable sharing of basic material resources. As a species, we need to walk a mile in each other’s moccasins.
Nevertheless, the problem for the individual poet is getting in touch with his humanity and composing his poems from that mental/emotional space. It’s not easy to attain or sustain. We come, full-circle, back to ego-development. A poet who writes for catharsis or to resolve personal emotional conflicts might not represent as well as one who has matured beyond an adolescent state of mind. The narcissistic element contradicts universality. It is evident that over the long-term evolution of our species we have moved in the general direction of greater recognition of our common humanity, but it’s been a slow struggle out of barbaric ego as we’ve each attempted to deal with the battles between the angels and devils that occupy our human shoulders.
Ironically, the greatest barrier to identification and empathy between individuals may be the increasing popularity of identity poetics, seen as an end in itself instead of as a step along the path to a more expansive ego-state for the poets, other artists and ultimately for the masses. The greatest instrument of anthropoetics may be that angel on one shoulder who coaxes us to walk a mile in other people’s moccasins.
Material inequities have given the shoulder-devil his power. But the angel draws power from the human heart, from our capacity for love. We are not quite there yet, but we have always been headed in that direction because it is a natural evolutionary process. Evolution is based on survival of the species.
The arts both reflect and solidify our finest impulses, and poetry, because it uses words as its medium, can function as an instrument of human progress. This flies in the face of those who nihilistically claim that it has no real value or purpose. As Walter Lowenfels stated, so simply and elegantly: “The revolution is to be human.”
A Brave And Startling Truth; Maya Angelou; Random House, 1961
Selected Poems 1947-1995; Allen Ginsberg; HarperCollins, 1996
The Revolution Is To Be Human; Walter Lowenfels; International Publishers, 1973