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Editor’s Note:


My reach exceeded my grasp, but when I coined the title to this note in an essay on the Potomac Review website in October 2016, the neologism was meant to suggest a vision for the future that combined the commons of public life with the spire of spiritual life. It began:


“I am convinced.”

“Let me be clear.”

“There is no question about it.”

“Make no mistake.”


These are the signals, unintentional signals, of course, that what’s about to come is personal, merely personal, and therefore of little or no value to the civic endeavor the speaker is purporting to explain. And yet in our country today, these are the ways most utterances of civic import, uttered by our elites—the politicians, academics, and journalists on all sides of each and every issue of national concern, are prefaced. Invariably and likely within seconds, a “sort of” will be thrown in to modify some noun, verb, or adjective, as if the unconscious (or conscience) of the speaker is demanding retraction and thus linking itself to the very forces to which the speaker is so vociferously and breathlessly opposed.


Potomac Review sits inside the Campus Commons at Montgomery College, and the community college itself seemed like an ontological opening where I had found a form of community not beholden to doctrinal conformity—a region, reproduced in almost every county in the country, that posed a hypothesis of welcome, a working theory, I thought, that any vision that did not include everyone labored under the mistake that including everyone was inconsistent with moral force when, in fact, it was the very font of moral force.  Community colleges were on the wrong side of the asymmetrical distribution of cultural capital, its students, beset with competing obligations, subject to a semester-by-semester vulnerability, but in our interactions at the college it seemed one of the few places in which the country’s internecine energy migrated into a knowing with, in which solidarity could appear, a social infrastructure not of exclusive, but of shared, reconciliatory spaces, an opening both social and metaphysical, like Melville’s Monkey Rope. It seemed to me a literary epiphany to realize that students had a right to learn this reconciliatory approach, a right to a commons that did not exploit, enclose, or categorize, and that this right was not inconsistent with excellence but constitutive of it.

There was always an acknowledgment that the capacity to transcend self-interest and develop the public spirit necessary for the republic’s renewal, that is, to learn the value of public virtue, happened (or did not happen) in educational settings where the cultural resources required to protect the common good were either husbanded or ignored. But these cultural resources required an aesthetic commons as well, and one not predicated on private gain, one not enclosed by a sorting mechanism, where it was acknowledged that all of us, everywhere, shared, de facto, a common spire, and that we might pledge to it, despite its every enigma. For in America, the commons is not a given, it is always in need of being performed. This performance, moreover, required the very education that the above-quoted filters did not allow in, and whether those filters were being placed deliberately or not, they were responsible for the civic incompetence of the polity, and most tragically, of the younger generations, those for whom it was customary to ascribe apathy and lack of commitment.

It is tragic because in America the performance of the commons requires not only competence but cadence, and because the commons in America is a kind of dance, it is the young who are uniquely equipped to add this energy, that is, a young person performs a kind of spiritual dance that allows him or her to see the value in an opposing or mysterious way of life or opinion. And it is only when this mutual dance is accomplished, this public dance, that the commons is created, that the commons can take place.

Moral imagination is the highest form of the imagination, and hardest to achieve, because it is an imagination for reality, requiring entry and exit points not of our own making, especially difficult in a republic of outrage where even poems sometimes do little more than point fingers and address readers as partisans in need of instruction, or worse, rebuke. Today, few demonstrate the courage to forgo, and worse, signaling the right opinion has become the accepted stand-in for virtue, while the hard work of aesthetic production is often reduced to just another injection of the drug upon which our culture thrives and is dying from at the same time: outrage, personal outrage, which, in sum, makes up the Republic of Outrage upon which our commons is now being obliterated.

Likes and dislikes are empty categories, but since they do not require moral imagination, allowing us, even as we virtue signal, to put signs of support in our yards and embed uplifting quotes in our emails, even as we turn away from the world, and rush home to our feeds and our streams. Few are left watching over the world. If a poet’s obsessions must mirror the culture’s, they must also transcend it, but to have an imagination for reality today, when our feeds exclude half of it, poets must go to impossible, sometimes absurd lengths to find a voice everyone will listen to, and no one will be offended by. Our likes create but also signal an insatiable appetite. Today every distinction is moral and therefore creates totalizing and absolutist claims, often on behalf of trivialities.

Even in a pandemic, our silly civil war continued. We saw how community spread happens in language, how campaigns of disinformation could affect hospitalizations and death rates. Today when questions of meaning are posed, that meaning is already assigned, embedded inside the question itself: “What does it mean that…?”  People want their stories to fit into their own larger narratives, with nothing sprinkled in that challenges the contingency of their beliefs and values, the kind of verisimilitude Narcissus achieved, and now easy to accomplish, just click Like. “We have a vision for the country, it is just not yours,” headlines a literary editor’s roundtable. As writers, we are meant to be witnesses, and instead, like everyone else, we have become spokesmen, and public readings have become venues for the telltale appreciative chortles of the audience—the point made, point taken knowing nods that have come to characterize them, all of us like the narrator in Naguib Mahfouz’s “Half a Day,” factory products who “made friends [only] with such … as were to be my friends.”

Poets are recordkeepers, recording the world around them by recording the one inside them. When internal realities reciprocate external ones, and correlates are found in voice and literary device, originality and clarity of phrase, the poem becomes testimonial. Technique is the measure of the poem’s testimony and sincerity, for only technique discovers. Without it, the poem’s political and cultural witness amounts to little more than an opinion, pre-packaged, which, when it goes viral, becomes a business model for other poets exploiting our civic divide, a model that draws on, and gathers, other such records in which personal needs replace the pursuit of truth and beauty, helping to produce a present that privileges strife. Poetry and history, autocompleting each other, become inadvertent partners, creating, not capturing, the spirit of the time.

Where can we find writers who document not only their own areas of private and public concern, but where those concerns meet in the viral contamination of discourse that has become the hallmark of our public square, poets who catalogue an internal consciousness but do so by chronicling a contamination that extends to language itself, evidencing an imagination for reality that may eventually be part of the archive not only of climate change and the #MeToo movement, but of the rhetorics of certainty that have gutted our commons, writers with an imagination for reality that might provide a record, which, when examined, might offer a way forward for the poet-recordkeepers of our civic crisis? As editors, where to locate literature in its reconciliatory role? And how to articulate what counts as evidence for the rightness of our aesthetic judgments?

Fiction has taken an archival turn, consciously straining to set down voices that have never been set down, and thus creating a living archive that fills, complements, questions, and changes the existing one, an archive which also appears to be post-secular, with novelists as diverse as Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy and Marilynne Robinson suggesting a role for belief to bring together people to care for, and where they can—if only in tattered, impoverished dwellings amidst makeshift congregations—repair the world. While official archives have been exposed as incomplete, requiring the kinds of readings one must give unreliable narrators, listening to them, like Nick Carraway did, in The Great Gatsby, for the “plagiaristic” insights of the Yale undergraduates who would one day lead the nation, for these writer-archivists, it is not the ships of Conrad, or Hopkins, that speak, but, writing from the framework of the other, and laying bare disparities that were themselves socially, politically and narratively produced, it is the twenty-first century Pequods, like David Mitchell’s slaughterships that Sonmi-451 shows to his archivist that speak, where his fellow fabricants are murdered to supply dineries with food and soap, the archivist fathoming depths not his own, a recusant from such behavior, nevertheless dropping anchor to record, among the horrors, a possible world where values, not just interests, matter.

We can no longer afford to admire only those writers who agree with us. We can believe in each other without sharing the content of the other’s belief, and literary criticism can be offered as a practice of the commons, where the questions asked, and the responses given, are transformative, not merely personal, not merely geared to the rehabilitative, transcending any and every grinding of an ax because made out of the terrible fashioning of what is already there, our monkey-rope bonds—Ishmael’s epiphany that if Queequeg goes under, he goes under, that we are all threads in a loom. The poet and the critic are responsible for showing this reconciliatory voice and the poet’s capacity—negative capability—to hold together opposites of every kind is another model for the country’s relationship with self-awareness. Our common world is based on our capacity not to know, our capacity for something not presented as one of the numberless commercial “options,” our capacity to become serious about finding ways to realize our individual ideals with some thought about ways we might do things that would not confound our self-interest with the good of others.

If what we need is a democracy that is transcendental in its adherence to truth, that is simple in its cultivation and protection of nature, determined to act in cooperation with others and to seek out those opportunities, then what is needed is a community made not out of the partiality of empathy—a singling apparatus—but out of a capacity for universal compassion. Postmodernism, to be sure, has left the canon behind, refused each and every synthesis, chosen multiplicity over unity, fire, as Charles Olson said, over light. But Olson, who wrote in his book-length study of Moby Dick, Call Me Ishmael, that the central fact of America was space, and the central American condition, the awareness of difference, could not have foreseen that today our listening is undermined by what we are listening for, and when heard, by how much we grant ourselves license to reject.

The Pequod has people from all over the world on it: Melville’s invocation to the muse— “thou just Spirit of Equality”—means that figures who have no social rank are going to be the center of his book, and he is going to invest them with tragic stature, summoning a poetics of synthesizing and reconciliation. In 2016 it seemed to me that the community college had configured this paradise, a commons whose excellence was not proprietary, not inaccessible, a model opposed to all class systems, social ranks and admissions committees, a living invocation to the muse of democracy, of our divine equality, an elite that included everyone.

The poem itself is just such a contraption of monkey ropes and must connect all its parts before it is successful. The country, too. Even people like F.O. Matthiessen, who rediscovered Melville but ended his life, ironically, in the kind of abandoned place and tortured psychological state that the critics who reject him, and the empire they claim he justified, seem to care about, places where archives, as they begin to be created, trace defamiliarization.  Real suffering is always private, and therefore resists incorporation, but if people like Matthiessen are not allowed entry into this diverse collective, it suggests, inadvertently, that there can be no such collective.  For suffering, there is no superior interpretive key, but our commons, both political and aesthetic, is dependent on an imagination for our shared reality, our common ship, our monkey-rope bonds, our shared mast, our commonspire.

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