Sun 18 Jul, 2004 11:48 pm
I remember reading how both Arnold Toynbee and Edward Gibbon acquired the initial inspiration and conceptualisation for the magnum opus of their lives: A Study of History in the case of Toynbee and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in the case of Gibbon. Three years ago I began to think of writing my own epic poem and fashioned some ten pages as a beginning. The poetic work of my own life, my epic, I have come to see in terms of all the poetry I have written, the poetry I have sent to the Baha’i World Centre Library and what I have entitled Pioneering Over Four Epochs.
I have begun to see all of this poetry somewhat like Pound’s Cantos which draws on a massive body of print, or the Confucian Analects, a word which means literary gleanings. The Cantos, the longest poem in modern history, over eight hundred pages and written over more than fifty years(1916 to 1968), are a great mass of literary gleanings. So is this true of my poetry. The conceptualization of my work as epic has come long after its beginnings. My poetry slowly defined itself as an epic after half a dozen years of intense and extensive writing and many more years, perhaps as many as thirty, of occasional writing. I began to see my poetic opus as one immense poem. I like to think this poetry gives voice to the Baha’i culture I’ve inhabited all these years.
Pound was twenty-nine when he began to write his epic. I was fifty three when I began to see all my poetry, poetry I began writing at the age of thirty-six or, perhaps, as far back as eighteen, as part of one immense epic. Pound was acutely conscious that the cultural, the historical tradition had broken down and he was searching for a new basis, “new laws of divine justice.”1 His task was to reassemble this tradition or,at least,search in history where not only the fall from innocence was located but also the locus for the process of redemption could be found. I, too, was aware of this breakdown. I, too, felt the need to reassemble history, not as Pound did, but rather to find truths which were perennial but not archaic within the broad framework of a new Revelation from God, a Revelation which defined and described the continuities and was Itself the basis for redemption.
Written now, for the most part, over a little more than eight years(1992-2000), the epic I am writing covers a pioneering life of 39 years. It also covers much more. I have now sent 39 booklets to the Baha’i World Centre Library: one for each year of this pioneering venture. But the epic journey that is at the base of this poetic opus is not only a personal one of over forty years back to the time I became a Baha’i, it is also the journey of this new System, the World Order of Baha’u’llah, which has its origins as far back as the 1840s and, if one includes the two precursors to this System, as far back as the middle of the eighteenth century when many of the revolutions and forces that are at the beginning of modern history have their origin: the American and French revolutions, the industrial and agricultural revolutions and the revolution in the arts and sciences. Generally, the way my narrative imagination conceives of this epic is itself an attempt to connect this long and complex history to my own life, as far as possible, to that of the religion to which I belong. I have sought and found, in recent years, a narrative voice that contains uncertainty, ambiguity and incompleteness among shifting fields of reference and of a certainty mixed with and defining itself by the presence of its polar opposite, doubt.
Since this poetry is inspired by so much that is, and has been, part of the human condition, this epic it could be said has at its centre Life Itself and the most natural and universal of human activities, the act of creating narratives. When we die all that remains is our story. I have called this poetic work an epic because it deals with events, as all epics do, that are or will be significant to the entire society. It contains what Charles Handy, philosopher, business man and writer, calls the golden seed: a belief that what I am doing is important, probably unique, to the history and development of this System. This poetry, this epic, has to do with heroism and deeds of battle in their contemporary and historical manifestations. It involves a great journey, not only my own across two continents, but that of this Cause as it has expanded across the planet. The epic convention of the active intervention of God and holy souls from another world; and the convention of an epic tale, told in verse, a verse that is not a frill or an ornament, but is essential to the story, are found here. I think there is an amplitude in this poetry that simple information-giving lacks; there is also an engine of action that is found in my inner life more than in its external story. In some ways, this is the most significant aspect of my work, at least from my point of view.
In the Greek tradition the Goddess of Epic Poetry was Calliope, one of the nine sisters of the Muses. The Muses were the inspiration of artists. Calliope was the mother of Orpheus who was known to have a keen understanding of both music and poetry. We know little about Calliope, as we know little about the inspiration of the Muses, at least in the Greek tradition. In the young and developing poetic and artistic tradition of the Baha’i Faith, on the other hand, although gods and goddesses play no role, holy souls “who have remained faithful unto the covenant of God” can be a leaven that leavens “the world of being” and furnishes “the power through which the arts and wonders of the world are made manifest.”(Baha’u’llah, Gleanings, 1956, p.161.) In addition, among a host of other inspirational sources, the simple expression ‘Ya’Baha’ul’Abha’ brings “the Supreme Concourse to the door of life” and “opens the heavens of mysteries, colours and riddles of life.” (‘Abdu’l-Baha, Source Unknown) Much could be said about inspiration but I shall leave the topic with the above brief analysis and comment.
Mary Gibson says in Epic Reinvented: Ezra Pound and the Victorians(Cornell U, 1995, p.96) that one question was at the centre of The Cantos. It was the "question of how beauty and power, passion and order can cohere." This question was one of many that concerned Pound in the same years that Baha'i Administration, the precursor of a future World Order, was coming to assume its embryonic form in the last years of the second decade of this century, a form that would in time manifest those qualities Pound strove in vain to find in a modern politico-philosophy.
At the heart of my own epic is a sense of visionary certitude, derived from a belief in an embryonic World Order, that a cultural and political coherence will increase in the coming decades and centuries around the sinews of this efflorescing Order. Wallace Stevens’ sense of the epic “as a poem of the mind in the act of finding what will suffice”(Jay Parini, editor, the Columbia History of American Poetry, Columbia UP, NY, 1993, p.543) is also at the centre of my conceptual approach. This epic is an experimental vehicle containing open-ended autobiographical sequences. It is a didactic intellectual exploration with lines developing with apparent spontaneity and going in many directions. The overall shape is in no way predetermined. In many respects, this long poem is purely speculative philosophy, attempting to affirm a romantic wholeness on a fragmented world, something Walter Crane tried to do in the 1920s. This long poem, or seemingly endless series of poems, is an immense accumulation of fragments, like the world itself, but they are held together by a unifying vision. So,too, was Pound’s epic.
Pound was intent on developing an “ideal polity of the mind”. This polity flooded his consciousness and suggested a menacing fluidity, an indiscriminate massiveness of the crowd. The polity that is imbedded in my own epic does not suggest the crowd, probably because the polity I have been working with over my lifetime has been one that has grown so slowly; the groups I have worked in and with have been small. My style, my poetic design, though, is like Pound’s insofar as I use juxtaposition as a way to locate and enhance meanings. Like Pound, I stress continuity in history, the cultural and the personal. At the heart of epic poetry for Pound was “the historical.” Also, for Pound, was a new world order based on the poet’s own visionary experience. It was part of the reclaiming job that Modernist poets saw as their task, to regain old ground from the novelists. But, unlike Pound, I see new and revolutionary change in both the historical process, in my own world and in the future. The visionary experience that will guide world order is not mine, but that derived from the Central Figures of my Faith.
Those who are quite familiar with the poem Leaves of Grass may recall that Walt Whitman often merges himself with the reader. His poem expresses his theory of democracy. His poem is the embodiment of the idea that a single unique protagonist can represent a whole epoch. He can be looked at in two ways: there is his civic, public, side and his private, intimate side. While it would be presumptuous of me to claim, or even to attempt, to represent an entire epoch, this private/public dichotomy is an important underlying feature of this epic poem (Harold Bloom, The Western Canon, Harcourt, Brace and Co., NY, 1994, pp.447-78). I also like to think that, while this poetry has a focus on my own experience, this experience is part and parcel of the experience of my coreligionists around the world.
In my poetic opus, my poetic epic, Pioneering Over Four Epochs, the reader should sense a merging of reader and writer, a political philosophy, a sociology, a psychology, a global citizen--something we have all become. There is in my poetry a public and a private man reacting to the burgeoning planetization of humankind, the knowledge explosion and the tempest that has been history’s experience, at least as far back as the 1840s, if not the days of Shaykh Ahmad after he left his homeland in those halcyon and terrifying years of the French Revolution.
There is much more than verse-making here, though. Here is the ruling passion of my life: the Baha’i Faith, its history and teachings. It seemed to wrap and fill my being during my pioneering life, the process beginning as far back as 1953 when my mother first heard of the Faith. Indeed, I came to see myself as part of what ‘Abdu’l-Baha called that “heavenly illumination” which flowed to all the peoples of the world from the North American Baha’i community and would “adorn the pages of history” (Citadel of Faith, p.121). My story inevitably became part of that larger story of the Baha’i Faith and, again, that larger story which is history itself. Stephen Sicari suggests that the structural principle in Pound is “the search for unity.”3 If I had to define the structural principle behind my own sharply fragmented, multifarious material with its vivid multiplicity and diversity, it would be my attempt to express the unity I found and that I believe lies behind and in the world of creation.
For it is the narrative imagination that is at the base of this epic poetry. As far as possible I have tried to make it honest, true, accurate, realistic, informed, knowledgeable. As I develop my story through the grid of narrative, I tell my story the way I see it, through my own eyes and my own knowledge, as Baha’u’llah exhorted me in Hidden Words. I leave behind me traces, things in the present which stand for absent things in the past. The phenomenon of the trace, Paul Racour writes, is similar to the relationship between lived time and astronomical time, a relationship at the basis of calendar time. For history is “knowledge by traces”, as F. Simiand puts it (Paul Ricoeur, “Narrative Time”, Philosophy Today, Winter 1985). And so, I bequeath my traces.
The traces I bequeath are also, to continue an important theme of the epic tradition, those of the wandering hero. It is a hero, a wanderer, with many dimensions described in many contexts. It is a journey of redemption to union with God, as it was for Dante. It is a journey of adventure and finding my home, as it was for Odysseus. It is a journey that attempts to embody my vision of the Baha’i world order, as the poet Virgil tried to articulate his vision of Augustus’ order during the crucial years of the establishment of the Roman Empire(29-19 BC). It is a personal epic, a personal journey, an inner journey, within the tradition of William Wordsworth and his Prelude. There are elements of the Miltonian epic here with the foregrounding of the author, his weaknesses and his strengths, in what is par excellence, a theological-religious journey. And there is the monumental journey of Baha’u’llah over forty years which acts as a metaphorical base for my own journey. The wanderer I draw on is, in other words, a flexible, elastic, figure who allows me to include in my epic poem virtually anything that I want to include in the text.
And so the wanderer that I describe in my epic is a composite. But this wanderer is not in search of the Path; rather, he has found the Path and the wandering takes place on the Path. The wandering through the sea of historical, sociological, literary and other texts, books and articles, etc. is all part of the experience, the context, the definition, of the Path, for this particular journeyman. For the reader will come across many references, many texts, many quotations here. They are laid on a Baha’i-paradigm-map; I am not alone, as Pound was, relying on his own wit and courage with no framework of guidance and meaning within which to sift history’s and experience’s immense chaos into some order. I find that the actual writing of the poem assumes characteristics of the epic journey itself. This was true for Pound, for Dante and, in all likelihood, the mythical Homer.
It may be that my journey on this Path is only half over and that this epic found its initial conceptualization at the mid-point of my Baha’i life. If I live to be ninety-five, my journey within this framework of belief has just passed the half way mark (age 15 to 95, a period of eighty years, with age 55 the half-way point). So I like to think that what I have now, after only eight years of intense writing of poetry, is what Pound had: “a dazzling array of finely wrought fragments straining in their own unique way to achieve order and unity”4 through the deployment and development of this image of the wanderer in its many forms. That is what I like to think. Time will tell, though, if I can sustain and define in precise and dazzling terms the structural, the organizational, principle enunciated above. This structural principle is based on a view of my poetry as: the expression of my experience, my sense, my understanding, in the context of my wandering, my journey and of the concept of the Oneness of Mankind. Can I continue to develop this epic, beyond the start I have given it, to a satisfying conclusion in the years ahead?
1 Stephen Sicari, Pound’s Epic Ambition: Dante and the Modern World, State University of New York Press, 1991, p.10.
2 Robert Nisbet, Social Change and Social History, 1969. In this book the sociologist Nisbet describes the metaphor of change and its pervasiveness since the age of the Greeks(1200-400 BC).
3 Stephen Sicari, Pound’s Epic Ambition: Dante and the Modern World, State University of New York Press, 1991, p.x.
4 ibid., p. xiii.
28 March 2002
At the centre of this wondrous epochal shift
is a cultural story of saints, martyrs and
messengers and endless connective tissue
with past and present. Heroic exemplars,
deep in history back to the enlightenment,
say, in Bahrain, the core of the vision
with the force to slowly actualise a reality,
new political and social harmonies
and disharmonies. My own ordering of history
here in its legitimate and beauteous form
with law and design, touchstones of order,
writ large across chaotic and energised
multiplicity, the endless disasters of time,
extinctions and near-extinctions,
the human slaughters and the pain
as I connect, in situ, my subjectivity
and history with meaning—yes, yes,
a place of refuge, partly in desire,
in mind or imagination and in the Beauty
of the Unseen shining forth above the horizon
of creation1 and in creating myself through
commitment to a complex personal synthesis,
through a relationship with myself
in a fascinating and difficult elaboration2,
inventing, producing myself with this poetic art.
And all these endless particulars cohere,
far beyond a personal order,
an autobiographical imposition
from this finite brain
in a dramaturgical translation,
a richly allusive, highly imagistic in-gathering,
not simply for some love of nature,
but to unlock a beauty and a truth,
to taste a choice Wine
with the fingers of might and power
and slowly establish a spiritual kingdom
in a physical form-order and beauty linked,
power and love united yonder, world's away,
around history's bend. Hesitation and doubt
I have heard and seen by gallon measure,
things that throw consternation into the hearts of all men—
and so the showers of tests come to pass
to free us from the prison-cage of self and desire,
to help us attain the meads of heavenly delight,
with gifts from the Unknowable Friend,
those shudders of awe that are mostly a quiet shimmer
and shake, a tightness, dynamic tension;
all my days surrounded by this growth,
this organism, two generations now, incipient,
beginnings of a System, potentialities
and interrelationships of component parts
only partially understood, often like sinking
in a miasmal ooze, but a good terror, this one,
as we have inched our consequential and necessary way
toward a humbling summit only seen,
with the secret of conquering a greater world than ourselves
only little known, and so we prayed. I seem to have prayed
for years, over three epochs, and then ran into the door
of meditation and it opened into another world.
I have seen devotion, beyond human strength,
exhausting, making heroes of many men.
I watched my moods like a cat as I pursued this path,
convinced of the significance of my days sub specie aeternitatis
at the core of my art, my poetic, the oneness of my experience.
I trust its connection with the Royal Falcon on the arm of the Almighty.
I have thrown my life away in this great cause
but, as my arm has arched and flung, there was
down in my heart something sung, some voice
that met my joy and tears in great fatigue with all the years.
Truth here was what one long endured with persistence,
feet and passion sure, some burning vitality of mind
and heart, an intensity that once threatened to tear me apart.
I had my time with sexual heat, a blazing contact,
direct and real. It nearly sucked my life away with lust
the core of search. It tried to kill my loneliness and isolation.
Beyond, beyond the horrors and fears, to make some meanings
of our years we turn to sex, to self, to God
so as not to wither on this sod. And me no less.
And if, by some mysterious dispensation of Providence,
we feel we can play a part in changing the world,
not just get a grip on it and so endure it with a taste of joy,
with a taste of destiny minimising that everlasting self-concern,
the fierce inner pressure of problems with no solution
or with just transient existence, we can live with our guilt,
with sin, with our evil doings having our heart
melting all our life. This is the feeling of redemption.
And so there is a grimness here, and redeeming belief,
supernatural sanction. There has been a speed, a power,
a talent, a fertility-one matchless time-after forty years of
wandering between two holy years-a single human self
struggling to become what he is capable of becoming,
to know who he is, a lot of pennies dropping without
an endless recitation of the quotidian, unremarkable fact.
Some rich burgeoning, some rich hermeneutic tradition
opening up for all to see, read and understand,
like some elaborate systems theory which defines social reality
in terms of relations: right back to his birth, the birth of the universe
and endless other births and deaths and relationships
among relationships, networks of information that only I can bring
into some integration, dynamic analytic distinctions
of complexity, instability, quantity and quality...for this
universal human community, the end and object
of the highest moral endeavour, has at its root needs
and interests universally similar. We must free ourselves
from history’s conceptual jails in this remade world
and keep remaking it.
And so an intensified global interconnectedness,
a post-international, post-industrial transformation
is taking place under our eyes and, what, three
hundred million will have starved from 1969 to 1999,
since Paul Ehrlich wrote his Population Bomb?
Global historical civilization, being born amidst
chaos and middle class complacency, is reconstituting
the world as one place. Do we not need, therefore,
some universal truths, perennial but not archaic?
Do we not need some philosophical stance with
which to view modernity and post-modernity?
Some sense of the ultimate becoming, some teleological
evolutionary scheme? Some utopian vision
within which to frame the struggle? Yes, yes, yes:
some magnetising value core, firey furnace,
magnetising our convergent efforts,
as Durkheim might have said.3
And while I have answered “yes’ to all of this
since at least the days when we sent the first
men into space and since the Zeal of the Lord
passed on, I have enjoyed and feared a constant
swing between ecstacy and exhaustion, the heavy-
weight and lightning speed, galactic, radiance in the
smallest of patches and dull emptiness: overwhelmed,
dazzled and awed, a rush of images, a flow of phrases,
needing this epic form to express the burgeoning,
the out-pouring, the excess, the prison of the longue duree,
the patterned, the inchoate, the world beyond
the commonplace and the self-evidentnesses of view;
needing synthesis, mediation, unification of ideas
among the children of men.
But my sense of the beauty everywhere has been
so long clouded by so many things, emotions,
intensities, the pulse of a greater dynamism beats
with a heavier heart. The Bridge, the basis of that
new dynamism, is that new unity, innocence and
freedom which we first saw in Shaykh Ahmad
when he left his home in northeast Arabia in 1794;
when Robespierre was in power and Pitt was the
Prime Minister of England. Trying to create a tradition
where none existed, the Committee of Public Safety,
guillotined 10,000 seen as some kind of moral revolution
in the making, after Rousseau. But the moral revolution
that would last for centuries was proceeding to Najaf and
Karbila to begin its long road, becoming the leading mujtahid:
the Bridge was an idea, a terror struck in the hearts of the Sufis,
while that other terror issued dechristianization decrees and
relentlessly uprooted public order. And so this poem begins
in the early dawn of this modern age, over two hundred years,
with appropriate quantities of analysis and introspection,
bewildered and bedazzled as I am by it all, pushing through
all the ramifications of thought, burning myself up, candle-like,
drop-by-drop the wick will come in time to only a pool of wax
on this table and I shall be gone, across the Bridge, home.
History’s weakness and my own is found here
amidst the blaze of visionary sense
and an infinitude of correspondences:
a mystic on the loose, synthesizing, mediating,
watching the slow realization of vision in action,
seeing this Bridge and these White Buildings4
across a span from ancient Greece and Rome
to our own age, this one on a hill. This bridge
takes you up and down to ideals as remote
as Arctic winds but as close as your life’s vein.
But I do not try to speak to a whole culture, here,
Hart, and its infinite fragmentation, only to a coterie
on its way to the fulfilment of His vision
set in a world of diamond words, sweet-scented streams
of His eternity, an orderly matrix of values.
This is no diversionary flight, scheme, temporary assuaging
of a longing, magical society of dreams, life’s flickering grace,
but some battle for the conquest of men’s souls
but oh so gently, as the teacher distils eternity
from the transitory with a spark of heroism amidst decadence,
a filtering of the harsh refuse of modernity,
conscious of a new savagery in the midst of civilization,
the endlessly arbitrary and fortuitous, the hasty grasp
and exploitation of ephemera, of the momentary.
And so the teacher learns not to take the fleeting moment
too seriously, to be detached, while at the same time pouring
forth all his concentration into the thing in front of his nose.
If the pioneer can do this he has the world by the tail—
and boredom, distraction and an over-excited worldliness
are problems far beyond him. For he has new nourishing food—
the food of knowledge—duration with a purpose
as deep as the ocean and as wide as the sea,
realising the ideal lines will be completed
beyond this momentary reality. And so I capture it all
in this written portraiture, capture the fleeting,
the transient and the eternal, the inevitably fragmentary
phenomenal world in a metaphysical unity,
gradually letting it ripen-or it captures me,
and I warm it over, gestate it for some future public.
In this forest of symbols, voluptuous labyrinth,
sometimes ghostly landscape of damnable
and not-so-damnable pleasures and professions
we must close our eyes to luxury and attachments
to the material world and long, as I have long longed,
for eternal life. The real department store,
the primal landscape of consumption,
the secret labyrinth of dreams
is the jewelled wisdom of this lucid Faith.5
End of Part One