Notes Toward An Essay Of NOIR In Poetry

Cold stars watch us, chum
Cold stars and the whores

Kenneth Patchen, from STREET CORNER COLLEGE

The poet Grey Gowrie once commented that he had ceased to write poetry because he was no longer "unhappy in love" and this seemingly offhand remark certainly reverberates with the classical psychoanalytic perspective that literature is displaced or sublimated libido. Freud of course maintained a deeply neurotic and unacknowledged jealousy of poets, even those he feigned to respect. Whether it was because he was distrustful of intuitions unrelated to the sexual, or because of the repression of his desire for Lou Andreas Salome (lover of both Nietzche and Rilke), it is clear that all post-Freudian psycholoigcal analysis as well, is a discourse which runs counter to the discourse of poetry (in that it attempts to subsume the vision within the context of its own discipline) almost as much as the legal profession (in that in law each word used occasions an exact and pre-established response to its usage, thereby encouraging reification and an illusion of justice, whereas in poetry the writer/sayer never knows the response which will be evoked).

Jungian thought disguises the distaste for poetic inspiration most effectively by attempting to assimilate it within the structures of myth. This of course is a case of denial, similar to Jung's own fraudulent denial of his Fascism, working as he did for several years as Hitler's psychiatric honcho in The Third Reich, later using the by-now discredited excuse that he did this to save Jews.

The issue of whether a Fascist work of art can be great art is still a troubling one. Leni Riefenstahl is the best example of a great artist whose works clearly espoused Fascism. Heidegger was a pro-active Nazi; yet there are those who still claim greatness for his philosophy. Of course in Heidegger's case, it was the fact of Hannah Arendt's being in love with him and coming to his defense at a crucial time which saved him from Nuremberg. "Every woman adores a Fascist" as Sylvia Plath wrote. Ezra Pound is the most obvious of American examples, though it was T.S. Eliot who was clearly the most anti-semitic of the acknowledged great poets of the last century. One example among many should suffice. In "Burbank With A Baedecker, Bleistein With A Cigar" TSE writes:

The rats are underneath the piles.
The jew is underneath the lot.

But this is not the kind of Noir in poetry and thought which cathects my interest as much as the darkness and mystery contained in such great short lyrics as Noyes' THE HIGHWAYMAN, Poe's ANNABEL LEE, or De La Mare's THE LISTENERS; the veil, if you will, lifted to reveal a possible other world contrary to that which seems Real, from Rimbaud's rants to Barry MacSweeney's THE BOOK OF DEMONS.

Can ALL great poetry then, be said to be Noir? One would be hard-pressed to point to a single great poem (though I imagine there must be exceptions to prove the rule) which does not at least have strong Noir elements.

Love, death, nature, war, and language itself are the cornerstones of poetry, and one finds Noir in poetry from the glorification of the gory in Homer, through the hot anal poker in Marlowe's EDWARD THE SECOND, the cannibal feast in Shakespeare's TITUS ANDRONICUS (which foreshadows the violence of the later tragedies), Milton's giving the best lines to Satan in PARADISE LOST, Keats's melancholia at his unconsummated love for Fanny Brawne, John Clare's sad resignation to the Northamptonshire madhouse in I AM, the despair of Marina Tsvetaeva, Millay's lost loves ("What lips my lips have kissed..."), the fragmentation of the linguistic in Pessoa and Celan, and, in fact, everywhere one looks in great literature, not just in poetry. The marvellous absurdity of Cervantes' QUIXOTE, the indifference of the universe to man's plight in Melville and Camus. In fact, all this is not really surprising since all great literature is by nature subversive, as Leslie Fiedler was the first to have said.

If all poetry can be said to begin in an Absence (of whatever signifier), call it "unhappy in love" or what you will, it is precisely there, in the rift, in Coleridge's "chasm" that poetry begins, whether it emanates from the heart of the subconscious, or whether it is a Voice from the Outside. As Gary Snyder, writing of Jack Spicer, had noted: "To even say that it comes from within is to mislead yourself....We are the vehicle of that voice."

However, as Robert Creeley, in the final stanza of the final poem of the final book published in his lifetime, expressed it:

Sit down, says generous life, and stay awhile!
although it's irony that sets the table
and puts the meager food on broken dishes,
pours out the rancid wine and walks away.