Essay on Poetic Theory

The Fire (1967)

by Robin Blaser
I’m interested in a particular kind of narrative—what Jack Spicer and I agreed to call in our own work the serial poem—this is a narrative which refuses to adopt an imposed story line, and completes itself only in the sequence of poems, if, in fact, a reader insists upon a definition of completion which is separate from the activity of the poems themselves. The poems tend to act as a sequence of energies which run out when so much of a tale is told. I like to describe this in Ovidian terms, as a carmen perpetuum, a continuous song in which the fragmented subject matter is only apparently disconnected. Ovid’s words are:

to tell of bodies
into new shapes
you gods, whose power
worked all transformations,
help the poet’s breathing,
lead my continuous song
from the beginning to the present world

In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
corpora: di, coeptis (nam vos mutastis et illas)
adspirate meis, primaque ab origine mundi
ad meo perpetuum deducite tempora carmen!(10)

The sequence of energies may involve all kinds of things—anger may open a window, a sound from another world may completely reshape the present moment, the destruction of a friendship may destroy a whole realm of language or the ability to use it—each piece is in effect an extended metaphor (another word is probably needed), because in the serial poem the effort is to hold both the correspondence and the focus that an image is, and the process of those things coming together—so that the light from a white linen tablecloth reflects on the face on one’s companion, becomes light, fire, and the white moth which happens to be in the room is also light in the dark around the table, and is thus both the light and the element of light that destroys it. I ask you to remember that every metaphor involves at least four elements—which are a story, and the bringing them together is an activity, a glowing energy if stopped over, if entered. If the joy one feels in the sunny morning comes out as: the boat on the fire of the sea moves slowly to burn out—the story is of a boat on the sea—the fire is the sun on the water and the movement is of the boat, of the flow of the sun, and of the passing of the sun toward night. The joy of the movement is held a moment, then unfolds the story of the four elements, the boat and where it is, and the sun and what it is doing.

I wish now to extend these remarks by referring to some sources, which, in this case, were brought to me by Stan Persky, who has turned anthropologist, and who offers the pleasure of a real discourse. The gift is a passage in Edith Cobb. She says, “I became acutely aware that what a child wanted to do most of all was to make a world in which to find a place to discover a self. This ordering reverses the general position that self-exploration produces a knowledge of the world” (540). Furthermore, while observing the “passionate world-making behavior of the child,” she noted that “accompanied by a population of toys, fauna and flora, and artifacts that do duty as ‘figures of speech,’” she became “keenly aware of those processes which the genius in particular in later life seeks to recall” (540, my emphasis).(11) Edith Cobb in her interest in biological psychology moves to describe what she names a “cosmic sense,” which in a separate essay, Margaret Mead describes as “a human instinctual need for a perceptual relation to the universe.”(12) This is the scientific basis for the proprioceptive process which Charles Olson speaks of. In this context, I am arguing not for my pretentions as a poet, but for what the poetry reflects, if it is entered. That the poet does the job of entering this world and continues through his life to record that entrance is a fact, not pretense—that it is personal, original, and singular is also a fact. And here I want to quote the ethnologist Frank Speck on the Naskapi Indians (Labrador). He says that among them the form of the earth is like a hill and floats upon the water. He calls this a general concept, which is not true; it is a well-known image among them, and this informant, Charley Metowe’cic, said that the earth’s form comes to be known only from the testimony of a man about to die. “In the vision that comes at this time the mind can view the universe and sees all around the earth as it rises above the water. And he feels it rocking” (58).(13) This is a statement which draws my attention because it is my own belief that any vision of the world is not complete until a man dies.(14) I mean here that imagination is more a power to take in and hold than it is a power of making up, though it must in its activity take responsibility for the uncreated.

I want now to describe some very personal matters—as indications of the singularity—the personalness of language and form. I want here to create the image of a field which is true history, and autobiography, as well as land, place, and presence. I come to poetry with a definite sense of foreignness. Spicer once said that I was the only person he had ever met who could speak quotation marks, and these always appeared around the slang words I used. Now that given thing, language, comes to me through a combination of settled Americans on the one hand and from immigrants on the other. On the paternal side, a grandfather, born in the south of France, and a grandmother born in Wales, who was deeply ashamed of any non-English elements. That grandfather, Augustus Frederick Blaser, arrived in New York in the 1880s and came west to Sage, Wyoming, as a laborer for the railroad, and he was to work his way up to the exalted position of roadmaster and bishop of the Church of the Latter-day Saints. On the maternal side, a great-grandmother, whom I knew, from Springfield, Mass., who came west with the Mormons, and who had been secretary to Brigham Young. My own Roman Catholic thing comes from that great-grandmother’s hatred of Mormons, so that my mother and I were in turn sent to the Catholics—with whom we were both to learn “The Star-Spangled Banner” in Latin.(15) In the midst of this interplay of talk about revelation of God here on the American continent, somewhere on the Great Plains was my sense of it, and of the ritual mystery of the Catholic Church, performed for kneeling and rising men and women, we lived in houses that were always by the railroad tracks, sometimes between two railbeds—the houses were remodeled railway cars, sometimes dining cars—with window after window where the tables had been. There were painted yellow and placed upon cement foundations. There was always a vast desert of sagebrush, and in one’s place a small garden, watered from a well—of poplar trees, goldenrod, and—the garden was one’s own population. Shoshone and Blackfoot passed at a distance walking beside their wagons or dragloads. The people who lived and worked in this land were largely foreign—Greeks, Italians, Mexicans, and so on. Their hold on the land, the houses, the work, and the language was like that of migratory birds. Cities were dreams—I have never forgotten the early morning hum of the city waking up in the first city I had ever seen—Boise, Idaho. Towns I lived in had populations of 8 persons, 14, seldom 20—Kimima, Wapai, Orchard. Cities were imaginary—like oceans.(16) The name of a man would be a town. Blaser, Idaho, has, according to the current Rand McNally Commercial Atlas, no population. In this setting, that force to be English and American, settled, not migratory, forced that paternal grandfather to whisper any French words he wished to remember. And so far as I know, in this, I was his only companion. If we were alone listening to the radio, we would play at translating the words of popular songs:

Tu es la crême de mon café
Tu es le pois de ma soupe

Robin Blaser, "The Fire" from The Fire: Collected Essays of Robin Blaser, edited by Miriam Nichols. Copyright © 2006 by Robin Blaser.  Reprinted by permission of University of California Press.
Originally Published: October 13, 2009

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 Robin  Blaser


Born in Denver and raised in Twin Falls, Idaho, poet, editor, and essayist Robin Blaser was educated at the University of California-Berkeley. With poets Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer, he helped spark the Berkeley Poetry Renaissance in the 1940s that preceded the San Francisco poetry renaissance of the 1950s and 1960s. In 1965, Blaser met Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, with whom he later worked closely. Miriam Nichols, editor . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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