On Mount Vision

Forms of the Sacred in Contemporary American Poetry

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294 pages, 5 3/4 x 9 inches

“Norman Finkelstein offers subtle, synoptic, and learned overviews of some experimental U.S. poets with textual-spiritual vocations. Making richly articulated career overviews of Duncan, Spicer, Palmer, Johnson, Mackey, Schwerner, and Susan Howe, Finkelstein engages with their spiritual projects,
their affiliations, and their intellectual intensities. Its empathy and clarity of understanding make this book an exemplary interpretation of contemporary poetic practices. The cosmic, Gnostic, scriptural, antinomian, spiritualist, heterodox, and shamanic long poems of our time have rarely been so well
understood or so suggestively exfoliated.”—Rachel Blau DuPlessis, author, Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work and The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice

“This is one of the best academic books I’ve read in some time, and one of the very best academic books on poetry that I’ve ever read. Finkelstein is not just a skillful reader, but a superb one. His readings—of everything from individual lines up to entire sequences—have the effect that only the best readings have, of at first glance catching you by surprise, and then, on reconsideration, convincing you of their inevitability.”—Brian McHale, author, The Obligation toward the Difficult Whole: Postmodernist Long Poems

On Mount Vision is an excellent book, one whose value exists on the level of explanation to be sure, but more powerfully, more suggestively, on the levels of persuasion, and of myth and metaphor, where one encounters the archetypes of the poet as priest, prophet, seer, antinomian, heretic, and scholar-translator. Finkelstein provides a lucid model for how to read and understand the often difficult and quarrelsome poetry that is his subject. This book will take its place as the exemplary study of the religious aspect of the works of contemporary American poets.”—Peter O'Leary, author, Gnostic Contagion: Robert Duncan and the Poetry of Illness

Plumbing what the poet Michael Palmer calls “the dimension of the Spirit, with that troublesome, rebarbative capital letter,” Norman Finkelstein’s On Mount Vision asks how and why the sacred has remained a basic concern of contemporary experimental poets in our secular age. By charting the wandering, together and apart, of poetry and belief, Finkelstein illustrates the rich tapestry formed by the warp and woof of poetry, and the play of Gnosticism, antinomianism, spiritualism, and shamanism, which have commonly been regarded as heretical and sometimes been outright suppressed.

This beautifully written work begins with an overview of the spiritual problematics found in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American poetry. Traveling slightly outside of the realm of the contemporary, Finkelstein’s discussions of Emerson, Whitman, and Eliot yield to close readings of the works of Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Ronald Johnson, Michael Palmer, Susan Howe, Nathaniel Mackey, and Armand Schwerner. In restoring verse to its place alongside scripture, Finkelstein reminds us why the sacred remains crucial to our understanding of postmodern American poetry.

Table of contents: 

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1 Robert Duncan

From Poetry to Scripture 27

2 Ronald Johnson

The Poetics of Kosmos 65

3 Jack Spicer

A Reason to Be- / Leave 95

4 Susan Howe

History as Séance 114

5 Michael Palmer

The Problem of Spirit 138

6 Nathaniel Mackey

Shamanism and the Unity of All Rites 183

7 Armand Schwerner

The Sacred and the Real 208

Afterword 232

Notes 235

Works Cited 263

Index 275