A virginity which, in its solitude, faced with the transparency of a commensurate gaze, has itself been as it were fragmented into its component whitenesses, one upon the next, the wedding—proofs of the Idea.
– Stephane Mallarmé, "Mystery in Literature"
Poetry is a solitude not alone in its unrefined purity. More than any of the modern poets' acknowledged masters, Mallarmé espoused (his words were ever wedding proofs) and sought to embody a pure poetry, a spontaneous decorum and atmosphere of language entirely sufficient to the white life of Idea. The order of words would transpire beyond syntax, in a transparency so perfect as to abolish the distinctions between perceiver and perceived, between writing and reading. (Transparency is invisible but not obscure, mysterious but freely available.) He imagined a pure gaze, one innocent of any violation or advantage.
The solitude of poetry would be a new world, a further Eden, and every poem would constitute unto itself a superlative state. When I think of such things, when I happen upon such vocabulary, I cannot help but imagine an America, and sure enough, America's own pure poets rush into my mind. As befits our polity, the superlative states of American poetry are wildly various; we practice many purities.
There have been innumerable unrefined solitudes since the one at Walden Pond. Nevertheless, Mallarmé remains our practical friend and a model to our practice. To proliferate the virgin whitenesses, the wildnesses, to disperse perfections without destroying them (fragments remain intact and phenomenal when wedded to a gaze), to preserve transparency in all candor and intimacy – these are ideals familiar to American poetry. The pure poets of America are crazy for mystery as it comes freely to mind and to hand in the clear sunshine.
I choose three: Hart Crane, Joseph Ceravolo, and Barbara Guest. My principle of selection is pleasure, pure and simple, but not exclusively my own. Distinct as they are, each of these poets is deeply pleasured in his or her words, and in this essay I hope to emphasize the pleasures as well as the rigors of purity. I do not like to think of poetry as consolation. Pain is real, but the pure poem outspeeds pain, or, perhaps, outsmarts it. Velocity is a kind of wisdom and an analgesic too.
I was first drawn to Barbara Guest because of her courage in using the phrase "Stupid Physical Pain" as the title for a perfectly ebullient poem. And I was first drawn to Crane by the image of his spinning a recording of Ravel's "Bolero" over and over again. To speak of Crane is to speak of inward velocities; he is the holy dervish of our jazz and slang. As for Ceravolo, anyone whose masterpiece is titled "Ho Ho Ho Caribou" has clearly broken through the impurities of argument and metaphor into a place where the wild things are delighted to be wild. These three, among our poets, most amply and most vividly detail the place of purity in praxes Mallarmé could love. In his essay "Literature," Paul Valéry, the most tender arbiter of the great Symboliste, foresaw them all though, unbeknownst to him, upon a farther shore:
Their poetry bears the mark of this practice. It is a translation, a faithless beauty – faithless to what is not in accord with the exigencies of a pure language.
Breaking faith, so boldly, so tenderly, with argument and with metaphor, Hart Crane, Joseph Ceravolo, and Barbara Guest practice the translation of beauty into beauty in pleasures that are True.
It is a pure sound that resounds in the midst of noise. It is a perfectly executed fragment of an edifice.
– Paul Valéry, "The Memories of a Poem"
To Hart Crane, purity came as a release from epic, as a blessed break from the ambitions of "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen" and from the elusive architectonics of The Bridge. He was a poet who broke his heart, but not his gift, upon high modernism. And thus it is that I find myself most happily drawn to his last poems: those collected in Key West and, thanks to Marc Simon's brilliant editorial work, the later fragments now available to all. Schooled, like most, in Hart Crane's anthology pieces, I love to remember the sweet perplexity and then the buoyancy I felt when first I read "The Mango Tree."
Here is the purity of child's play in its full maturity. Risibly Rimbaldian in its references to Christmas and the flood and, via those golden boughs, glad to blow a raspberry at its abandoned high modernism, "The Mango Tree" is nevertheless instantly far beyond or far above satire in its immediate permissions: "Let them return"; there's a further paradise in a wad of gum. And there the wonderful hyphens (as in "cloud-sprockets" and "apple-lanterns") spell a new technology of the sacred, as simple, as portable, as freely inclusive as "baskets." A pure poem is unresisting in its inclusiveness, having excluded from itself the arguments that tether its figures to figures of speech. So quickly, "The Mango Tree" accomplishes a sun-drenched purity equal to the most beautiful passages in Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons yet free of that great book's programmatic emphases. "Maggy, come on" is a summons to new circumstance where the poem says, and needs to say, no more.
Under the rigor of purity, dissipation becomes one of the virtues of new circumstance. Valéry's "perfectly executed fragment of an edifice" suggests a different integrity, a wholeness broken free from entirety and gaily underway. Where a poem needs to say no more, it is at liberty to say as much and whatever it likes. Purity turns out to be an antinomian practice, and in what to me is Hart Crane's most perfect fragment, "Tenderness and Resolution," the rebellion of words themselves against the bondage of rhetoric and definition succeeds almost before it begins, so effortlessly does the poem unburden itself of argument. The poem begins
Tenderness and resolution
What is our life without a sudden pillow –
What is death without a ditch?
Crane's opening stanza embodies an instance of conjunctions so pure as to be inarguable and so comprehensive as to thrive beyond the question of their questions. What virtues do not fall somewhere between tenderness and resolution? What experience does not transpire somewhere between life and death? And from thence, conjunctions dissipate widely into the permissions of themselves: a god and a constellation; desperation and propriety; a careless rhyming (cinch and clinch, writ and Sanscrit) nevertheless perfected by new circumstance, the "wider letters than the alphabet." Purity is thus shown to be a purposeful though effortless dissipation and expense, "pillowed by" the poet's plain refusal to follow a line of argument where charms will work quite well. Crane's is the supra-logic of a river . . . say, the Nile. A river intends to reach the sea, though its intentions are unknowable. If purity is, after all, a "mirage," it is well defended by the spell of words set free by a poet into their magical "variants."
Poetry is only literature reduced to the essence of its active principle.
– Paul Valéry, "Literature"
The active principle in the poetry of Joseph Ceravolo is a quiet purgation of the condescending and distancing Picturesque from poetry's worshipful encounters with Nature. Of Ceravolo's poems, mentor and friend Kenneth Koch has written that they "make no gestures or appeals outside themselves." This is quite literally true, primarily because Ceravolo never regards Nature as an outside, and thus his relations with it are never merely social. Rhetoric is a social network of unnatural courtesies. Landscape is the rhetoric of the Picturesque, a backward arrangement of energies whose only motion can be forward. Ceravolo's poems are purely sited, not in landscape, but in pure Space from which the human and human relationships have not been banished but into which, rather, they have been released. Unbounded, Ceravolo's vision/version of purity discovers new species and a new nature spun effortlessly out of energies of escape. (In another era, in another context, I might call such purity apocalyptic, for in his own gentle way, Ceravolo shares much with St. John of Patmos.)
In Ceravolo's most noted and anthologized poem, "Ho Ho Ho Caribou," hermetic spaces of intimacy are wilded by vastation, all the while preserving their intimacy. Suddenly, the caribou is a domestic animal, even as domestic life reveals the wilderness of its perfection. Here are the first two sections:
Leaped at the caribou.
My son looked at the caribou.
The kangaroo leaped on the
fruit tree. I am a white
man and my children
which is like paradise.
The doll is sleeping.
It lay down to creep into
It was clean and flying.
Where you .... the axes
are. Why is this home so
hard. So much
like the sent over the
courses below the home
having a porch.
Felt it on my gate in the place
where caribous jumped
over. Where geese sons
and pouches of daughters look at
me and say "I'm hungry
The initial and initiating leap (of faith, as with Kierkegaard? into cleanness, as with Rupert Brooke?) is a soft peril immediately forgotten in the pure speech of newness. Kangaroos move through trees. Whiteness and hunger constitute a kind of paradise. And children become new species of children: waterfowl sons and marsupial daughters. This peaceable kingdom, though unprecedented, is instantly prolific. Intimacy proves expansive when its every nature is new, and along the way, Ceravolo proves a new destiny – not manifest, but manifested – for purity in a poem. "Ho Ho Ho Caribou" gives evidence of the pure poem's immeasurable spiritual capacity where purity is the measure of every word's uncontrollable rebirth. The poem ends
Like a flower, little light, you open
and we make believe
we die. We die all around
you like a snake in a
well and we come up out
of the warm well and
are born again out of dry
mammas, nourishing mammas, always
holding you as I
love you and am
revived inside you, but
die in you and am
never born again in
the same place; never
This is neither a jeweled purity nor an astral one. This is infinite, but very near. Rebirth sets out from Pure Land to the next Pure Land, unresting but not restless. I can find no other word to describe the spiritual substance and event of this stanza but renovation. Ceravolo's new Nature remains new by the constant renovation of its most intimate relations, each of which is nurtured in, and as, a poem.
The brilliance of these crystalline constructions, so pure, and so perfectly finished in every part, fascinated me. They have not the transparency of glass, no doubt; but in that they somehow break habits of mind on their facets and on their concentrated structure, what is called their obscurity is only, in reality, their refraction.
– Paul Valéry, "On Mallarmé"
In the splendidly diverse company of America's pure poets, none so entirely and self-effacingly accomplishes a perfected fascination as does Barbara Guest. She is the Mallarmé of us – and more. All her finest poems (and they are many) present structures of concentration without pressure, of density without darkness or unwieldy mass. Having read them, one feels a buoyancy requiring neither ocean nor air; it is as if the vastness of the whiteness of the page had itself proved elemental. Guest goes the pre-Socratics one better: earth, air, water, fire, page. In "Red Lilies," from Moscow Mansions, surely one of the least celebrated of America's great books, every line cleaves the whiteness without violence and then flowers there. As you come to the line breaks, think of William Carlos Williams's masterful noticing in Spring and All: "each petal ends in / an edge."
Someone has remembered to dry the dishes;
they have taken the accident out of the stove.
Afterward lilies for supper; there
the lines in front of the window
are rubbed on the table of stone
The paper flies up
then down as the wind
repeats, repeats its birdsong.
Those arms under the pillow
the burrowing arms they cleave
at night as the tug kneads water
calling themselves branches
Each of these lines does indeed show a facet to the eye, a smooth and independent plane. Yet each is also a contiguity – a continuity with no insistence beyond its present fact and bright locale. The contiguity is transformational: a "someone" becomes "they," even as "the accident" somehow begets "lilies" and as flying paper learns to sing. Transformations do break habits of mind, but they do it inarguably in the purity of their instant aftermaths.
The tree is you
the blanket is what warms it
snow erupts from thistle;
the snow pours out of you.
A cold hand on the dishes
placing a saucer inside
her who undressed for supper
gliding that hair to the snow
The pilot light
went out on the stove
The paper folded like a napkin
other wings flew into the stone.
"The tree is you," which is to say a new species, as does Ceravolo, only now perfectly isolate in its singular and crystalline domestic plane. Thus is Guest an integral Ovid whose metamorphoses take no time at all and are already in place, safe at home for supper.
The pure poem is beyond all rumors of itself. In Miniatures, one of the very last collections Guest published in her lifetime, we find a poem titled "Noisetone." The word is neither neologism nor splice; rather, as a reading of the poem shows, it is a natural consequence of purity underway. In an atmosphere of absolute qualities – qualities arising from but never confined to particulars – pure attentions are taken up into the new which is their nature. Thus can a noise accomplish tonality while retaining all the newness of its noise. And the noise is a color too.
"Each artist," "An artist," "Or so they say" – singularity dissipates in the rumor poetry outspeeds. Greenness escapes from green, becoming sound too. This is not mere synesthesia. This is a wholly new stave and palette. And here, spirit regains its proper medium, that is, the "primary." Barbara Guest announces, in spare declaration, the prophetic power of purity that arises from, and through, a continuous prime. In such a medium, poems are not objects anymore. They are individual trajectories and individual destinies: colors bound for the white space where futurity is inscribed. Purity turns out to be, in its uncontrollable, careless diversity, perfectly suited to an American ideal. The pure poets of America speak the spirit of matter, a superlative nation.