Notes toward Ascent

2001-09-03

I've finally begun working on Ascent, a series of twelve poems capturing the "troubled ascent of man" (as I put it in my poem The Course of the Sun). The inspiration for these poems is Jeffrey Lindon's desire to create a sacred choral work along the lines of Rachmaninoff's Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. In Ascent we would like to capture a similar feeling of austere beauty, though not without some dramatic movement or evolution in line with our chosen subject-matter (perhaps echoed in a rising sequence of keys).

I would like to use The Course of the Sun as one of the poems of the set (either the ultimate or penultimate poem), since I feel that this poem contains reflections on the ascent of man that are quite germane, and I see this as potentially a strong piece for chorus (rare for my poems, it is written in the first-person plural). Interestingly, this poem was inspired by a sentence from the first essay of Ayn Rand's Romantic Manifesto: "Art is of passionately intense importance and profoundly personal concern to most men -- and it has existed in every known civilization, accompanying man's steps from the early hours of his prehistorical dawn, earlier than the birth of written language." Reading that line on the train to work one day set me to thinking about how far those steps had taken us, and the poem came tumbling out.

My conception of the ascent of man owes an obvious debt to the work of Jacob Bronowski. One insight developed by Bronowski is the fact that human evolution proceeds somewhat haltingly, in a series of steps to plateaus from which we do not again descend. As he puts it, we cannot easily imagine human beings again becoming pre-urban, or pre-agricultural, or pre-linguistic. Language, cultivation, and cities are achievements of man, inventions or forms of living that are deeply ingrained in what we are. I would like to capture some of these achievements in this series of poems. Others: tools and tool-making, iron, bronze, domestication of animals, the taming of fire, the building of dwellings, clothing, means of travel from ox carts to airplanes, weapons, trade, writing, money, maps, law, government, the sciences and all the technologies that have flowed from them (engines, electricity, artificial light, printing, computers, etc.), the various forms of art, philosophy, religion. Most these are positive, but many of them are wrapped up with developments that give the human ascent its troubled aspect: war, slavery, oppression, caste-systems, the subjugation of women, tyranny, censorship, destruction, and the like, as well as more personal troubles such as envy, hatred, ignorance, blindness, following leaders, subsuming one's will under that of others, and dishonoring the self.

Much of the human ascent is tied to the development of tools (broadly speaking) and the mind-sets that accompany that development (e.g., agriculture is a tool but there is a way of life and of thinking that accompanies the development of agriculture: a more settled existence, planning for the future, thinking ahead to the next harvest, etc.). Yet there is, oftentimes, a duality to tools, since they can be used for good or for ill: a hammer can be used to build a house or bash in your neighbor's skull, fire can be used to power an engine or burn a heretic at the stake, and so on. This duality makes it all the more important to more fully develop and acculturate the tools of thought and action we know as philosophy (logic, ethics, and the like). Yet I want also to do justice to the spiritual, to the divine spark within the human individual.

Here is a rough conceptual draft of the twelve poems:

  1. "The Dawn" -- acquisition of language and art -- from void to mind -- first glimmerings of understanding -- perhaps this piece would begin as a vocalise and then words would emerge from the wordless singing

  2. "Hunger" -- the physical and spiritual hunger/longing/aspirations of humankind -- wanderings (nomadic existence) -- exploration -- out of Africa -- tools, weapons, hunting, gathering the fruits of the earth, thanks to the earth for its bounty

  3. "Harvest" -- taming of plants and animals -- harvest song? (giving thanks also to human planning/ingenuity) -- foresight -- missing aspects of nomadic existence (freedom), yet recognizing the relative safety of the village

  4. "The Fire" -- taming of fire, Prometheus (fore-thought), heat, light, safety, power, center of village, ability to melt ore into metal, the forge of creation, tools, weapons

  5. "The Power" -- gods and kings -- oppression, empire, war, violence/violation, human subjugation, slavery, storming the citadel, siege of the city, walls between peoples, territoriality -- why?

  6. "Kairos" -- the opening of human perspective -- a window for learning/growing/emerging -- writing, maps, gaining sense of the world, metal used for coins not just tools and weapons, ships/exploring/trade, abstraction, wider thinking, movement of people, mixing but also confusion (different customs) -- emergence of the individual

  7. "The Darkest Hour" -- decadence and decline -- war, slavery, oppression, empire -- descending from the plateau, losing view of human possibilities -- yet fending for survival, discovering new technologies (power of water and wind and horse) -- darkest hour is always before the dawn

  8. "Rebirth" -- awakening from the long night -- rediscovery of human potential -- man is born to glory -- perhaps we are gods after all?

  9. "Revolution" -- overthrow of tyranny in thought and action -- so-called nobles vs. aristocracy of thought/creation -- America and the new world -- the frontier, new life, building/creating (a la Freedom's Plow)

  10. "Double Helix" -- the duality of our existence -- the precipice -- evidenced esp. in 20th century: the heights of insight and creation (science and technology) matched by the depths of destruction and depravity -- trade and creation vs. war and destruction

  11. The Course of the Sun

  12. "Onward" -- meeting again of the peoples of the earth, a culture of the world, cosmopolis, integration, freedom of all individuals (men and women) and freeing up of creative energies, what we humans can do and be


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