by Joshua Corey on August 22nd, 2012
Lycidas. But I was told Menalcas with his songs
Had saved the land, from where those hills arise
To where they slope down gently to the water,
Near those old beech trees, with their broken tops.
Moeris. Yes, that was the story; but what can music do
Against the weapons of soldiers? When eagles come,
Tell me what doves can possibly do about it?
This exchange between shepherds from Vergil’s Ninth Eclogue (translated by David Ferry) has long informed my sense of what’s at stake in drawing the line of genre around pastoral. The fantasy of a green refuge from politics and the history of “one bloody thing after another,” is entirely conditioned by history, politics, and violence. Menalcas is the figure of the poet who tries to protect “the land” from the incursions of history and the state with the pitifully inadequate weapon of songs and music. “Songs” are in fact not weapons at all: in Vergil’s 2000-year-old poem we get a glimpse of strategies of nonviolent resistance that would not themselves become historically potent until the twentieth century. To “speak for the trees,” Lorax-style, is a fully political strategy, and part of the public sphere: but it is a strategy that evokes a topos that transcends the realm of politics and history, which does not exist in the future like a communist utopia but nostalgically evokes a time and place that cannot be fully accessed without destroying its essential nonreality.
A classic example of such a pastoral rhetoric manifests in the defense of ANWAR, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a place that most of us in the lower 48 who feel strongly about its preservation from oil exploitation will never see or visit: in fact, if every defender of ANWAR were to visit, it would put a severe strain on its ecological carrying capacity. Underneath arguments for preserving ANWAR’s biological diversity, or the way of life of the Inupiat and Gwich’in peoples who live there, is a structure of feeling that goes back to Thoreau’s claim that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World.” ANWAR functions in the collective imagination as a kind of amulet or pastoral charm, in which we concentrate a version of the fantasy of the great green place that acts as a counterweight to our guilty knowledge that modern civilization as we live it is physically, ecologically, and spiritually unsustainable.
Guilt, longing, transcendence: there is no myth or metaphorical structure that I know of that is as rich with ideological flows and excesses as the pastoral, and that is why my scholarly work has focused on it for so many years, closely united to my interest in the American modernist poetics we inherit from Stevens, Pound, Williams, and Stein. (If you really want to hear about it, as Holden Caulfield said, my dissertation on “The American Avant-Pastoral” is easy enough to Google.) But here I just want to suggest why G.C. and I oriented The Arcadia Project around the antique genre of pastoral rather than a more general term such as “nature poetry” or “ecopoetics.” As a poet, I subscribe to what Allen Grossman calls “the bitter logic of the poetic principle”: “Every poem of tradition (that is, every poem that serves to produce a future), every actual poem of the kind that comes to pass, indicates a virtual poem that the actual poem (the text at hand) postpones, as it were forever” (The Long Schoolroom 174). The actual poem, which seeks to represent subjectivity (for Grossman this is always a human subjectivity: the postmodern pastoral tends in this direction but also represents the possibility of another, post- or nonhuman subject), “imports a boundless version of
human worth that the mechanism of representation defers” (op cit, my strikethrough). Postmodern pastoral’s concern for that transcendental, virtual, unrepresentable overflow of being’s value shows its roots in the broadly conceived transcendentalism of Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, Whitman and Melville, a point of emphasis that distinguishes it from a poetics primarily concerned with the representation (or “ecomimesis”) of “actually existing Nature.” Nature, an ideological illusion, depository of excluded values, is always deferred and postponed by normative pastoral. The postmodern pastoral, like Penn and Teller, reveals and attacks the very illusion it perpetrates, in pursuit of a more wondrous and immediate sense of value.
Not all, perhaps even not many, of the poets represented in The Arcadia Project will subscribe to a vision pastoral so defined, and in the weeks and months to come we hope and expect for a conversation that will dispute and enlarge the territory the book encompasses. In the meantime, we are haunted by Moeris’s question: what can music do? Can a poem give us access to a world of transcendental value? Or can it only lead us back by variegated roads to the reality in front of our noses, that the virtual conceals?