Minding the Underworld: Clayton Eshleman & Late Postmodernism
Author: Paul Christensen
Publisher: Black Sparrow Press (1991)
In this, the first full-length study of Clayton Eshleman’s poetry, poet and scholar Paul Christensen descends into the torch-lit underworld, the cave of the soul, that Eshleman has been exploring in his work for more than three decades. “In the caves of Dordogne,” Christensen writes, “Eshleman discovered an underworld in actuality, a labyrinth in which Paleolithic humanity daubed and slashed their marks, their primordial psychic images.” He also found a controlling metaphor for all his mature poetry: “For Eshleman, these markings were a first language, and they represent the primal separation between sleep and waking,” between the darkness of pre-consciousness and the light of self-awareness, between the amoral animal (which simply “is”) and the guilty man (who is tortured by the realization “I am”).
More than a penetrating study of Eshleman and his mythmaking, Minding the Underworld is an exploration of Eshleman’s poetic generation. Eshleman is perhaps the most accomplished of a group of poets, sometimes called the “deep imagists,” whose “critical interests and artistic vision arose in the early days of postmodern thought and have worked out in common many of the main themes of postmodernism in their poetry.” The artistic father of this group is Charles Olson; its many members include Robert Kelly, Diane Wakoski, Jerome Rothenberg, Armand Schwerner, and David Antin. “To treat the themes and strategies of Eshleman is, in a way, to deal with all the other figures in his circle as well. Despite all their individual differences . . . they follow a similar program of psychological self-analysis and mythopoeic critique of contemporary life.” They are, in Christensen’s view, “the only real extensions of postmodern writing after Olson.”
Eshleman’s search for a “way out” of modern life, which led him to conceive of the underworld as pre-consciousness, joins his work not only to his fellow “deep imagists” but also to a much larger force within experimental writing of this era—”the postmodern revival of pagan thought and the wisdom of the dream.” “It is Eshleman’s peculiar minding of that underworld of the self,” Christensen concludes, “that is his unique poetic achievement.”