In the January 2011 issue of Harper’s, Philip Lopate writes eloquently, as ever, about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journals, recently published in two volumes by the Library of America. I’m always happy when anyone mentions Emerson, especially at length. While Mr. Lopate more or less gets it right (or as right as one can in a 6-page magazine article), I take issue with one statement: “Still, I sense a resistance to Emerson on the part of the young, a falling out of fashion.”
At 35-years-old, I might assume, either in relation to P.L. or as general consensus, I am a member of “the young.” Maybe on the far end, far as Justin Bieber fans are concerned, but nevertheless. So I must disagree with his assessment, at least in my individual circumstance. I read Emerson every day. Sometimes at length, coursing through an essay—since the occupation of Wall Street began it’s been “Politics”—sometimes randomly opening one of my several well-annotated copies of his Essays to pluck a pearl: “The field cannot be well seen from within the field.” “The faith that stands on authority is not faith.” “The reality is more excellent than the report.” “The city is recruited from the country.”
As an American poet, especially, Emerson is key for me. Key not just when I sit down to write, but also when I read. If you take the position that Whitman is one of the first identifiable “American” poets, and that it was Emerson’s writing that brought him to a boil, I’m not sure I understand scholars’ 150 years of wonderment at how Whitman exploded into self-publication.
For here’s Emerson presaging Dr. Williams and the “variable foot” in “The Poet”
For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem,—a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.
The Beats in “Experience”
Everything good is on the highway.
The New York School, and their painterly friends, in “Self-Reliance”
Life only avails, not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim.
And Leonard Cohen in “Compensation”
There is a crack in everything God has made.
Of course, I hyperbolize, and not just because Leonard Cohen is Canadian. “We aim above the mark, to hit the mark. Every act hath some falsehood of exaggeration in it.” Emerson did not predict these movements or poets—or those whom these movements and poets in turn inspired—but I might say he’s on the same sphere as them, if only at a different point. I might say that about all of us.
Even now, I see Ralph Waldo in my contemporaries. Emerson is working with the ultimate conceptual poem, Nature, and maybe Kenny Goldsmith took a cue from him? And Marjorie Perloff too? Chris Martin’s “How to Write a Mistake-ist Poem” fairly echoes Emerson’s “The individual is always mistaken.” Stephen Burt named a new school of American poetry recently, “The New Thing,” yet he never mentions Emerson in his article, even with Emerson’s self-reliant exhortation to “do your thing, and I shall know you” a perfect fit for his thesis.
And that’s what’s spiritually beautiful and intellectually maddening about Emerson. He refuses to be definitive, places value on this and that, and so often when we read something, especially when we read pieces of text called “essays,” we expect to at least find some notion of the author’s stance, usually so we can co-opt it for personal or professional benefit. Emerson, like John Ashbery, makes you integral to the process. Emerson knows what works for Monday won’t necessarily work on Tuesday and refuses to say otherwise. It’s the Yankee-Zen quality of adapting to the circumstances, or adapting them to you. Cause and Effect are the only ministers, and change the only constant.
Poets and publishers of poetry issue, daily it seems, the complaint that “no one reads poetry any more.” What would Emerson, even in 1844, say to that?
The inwardness, and mystery, of this attachment, drives men of every class to the use of emblems. The schools of poets, and philosophers, are not more intoxicated with their symbols, than the populace with theirs. In our political parties, compute the power of badges and emblems. See the great ball which they roll from Baltimore to Bunker hill! In the political processions, Lowell goes in a loom, and Lynn in a shoe, and Salem in a ship. Witness the cider-barrel, the log-cabin, the hickory-stick, the palmetto, and all the cognizances of party. See the power of national emblems. Some stars, lilies, leopards, a crescent, a lion, an eagle, or other figure, which came into credit God knows how, on an old rag of bunting, blowing in the wind, on a fort, at the ends of the earth, shall make the blood tingle under the rudest, or the most conventional exterior. The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics!