Essay on Poetic Theory

The Fire (1967)

by Robin Blaser
Outwardly, to others, he was not foreign; the long southern a’s and trilled r’s of his French were secrets between us. He sported a goatee, and told me with increasing detail the strange tale that he was the lost Dauphin of France. This story and this language are fragmentarily preserved by me. None of his children knew it; my father denies his father was foreign born. When that grandfather was dying, riddled with cancer, I was called home from college to speak with him because the only worlds he knew were a childish French. And no member of the family knew enough to keep him company. That English and American thing had such force that the other English which most people spoke, more like Woody Guthrie’s, was also forbidden sound and thought:

I been doin’ some hard travelin’
I thought you knowed

There was a step-grandfather besides, who was German, with on eye, and could not hide his accent.(17) Because of his talk of the Kaiser, though the war was long over, they painted the house yellow, which was funny because the house was already yellow. But this was a bright yellow and when they threw a bucket of it over a window, the beautiful color was there, though it killed the verbenas in the window box. But the deer would have come to eat them anyway. Around this, like a circle with two circumferences, the house was surrounded by talk of Joseph Smith’s golden tablets, and the hatred of that talk. The laughter that a prophet could be named Smith still rings in my head.

I think every poet has a favorite imagery which helps him to explain the preoccupations of his work. I have repeatedly chosen the Orphic, and in so doing, I will remind you of certain elements of Orpheus’s story. Unfortunately, the usual reference to him covers his power in song over animals and rocks, and this has become thoroughly sentimentalized—the magic that it represents cheapened by the view that one wants power over rather than entrance to. There is fairly good evidence that Orpheus was a man, another Greek hero, of early date, pre-Homeric, and that his life is closely attached to the realm of Dionysus, who precedes Apollo at Delphi and later shares the oracle with him. Orpheus’s death is recorded in the story, his journey to hell, which he was able to complete only once, though at least four entrances to hell were well known in ancient Greece. One part of his story has to do with the power of death over love and the power of death over the dead. The other part has to do with his death at the hands of the Bacchantes, when he is torn to pieces. His head floats down a river or over a stretch of Ocean and continues to speak in prophecies, but this is stopped by jealous Apollo, when he becomes really dead. Clearly, the Orphic Dionysus is being edited. In some peculiar sense, Orpheus is really repeating the life of Dionysus, the god who is both joyous and terrible, who is bringer of wine, who can be defeated, thrown into the sea by a mortal, locked in a chest, torn to pieces by giants, and who dies. That he holds within himself all the contradictions, the change and process of the world as it is know, and the terror that goes with that process, as Orpheus contradicts his power, has the power to charm with his music, but cannot charm the Bacchantes, has the power to bring Eurydice back from the dead, at least metaphorically, but cannot look at her. It is precisely in the image of the scattered body and mind of Orpheus that I place whatever I know about the poetic process—that scattering is a living reflection of the world.

I am thirty years old before I begin even tentatively to accept the title of poet. In San Francisco, I was tied to two other poets (18) who, it was my superstition, wrote my poems for me. When that notion became sentimental, I dropped it, and became another poet. I have worked since 1955 (19) to find a line which will hold what I see and hear, and which will tie a reader to the poems, not to me. This fascination precedes my great debt to Charles Olson, for it is in a schoolbook problem, Plato’s description of the power of music over the body and the dangers of poetry in The Republic, and it was the fantastic pull of hearing [Arthur] Brodeur (20) read Beowulf, a hundred lines at a whack on a good day, which led Spicer and me to compete in our translations to bring over the heat of that story. I am greatly moved by what is received and held with force in a poet’s work. And sometimes that work promises that a great deal more will be held. In 1945, August, when Jack Spicer came to Berkeley from Los Angeles, and wound up living with me, I had read little philosophy, and Jack soon led me into that mess (though he later turned violently against it). He was soon reading Leibnitz and Spinoza. I can’t say that a very great deal of this came over to me, nor did it seem to stick in detail with Jack, but I do remember discussion of monads and reflections. Recently, reading an exciting book by Frances Yates, The Art of Memory, I ran into a passage which brought back part of those dialogues with Jack: “ . . . the monads, when they are human souls have memory, have as their chief function the representation of reflections of the universe of which they are living mirrors.”(21) Her book contains a description of the Memory Theater, a box with tiers, where the initiate would take the place of the stage and look out on the tiers, which in an ordinary theater would hold the audience—here there are images upon images, so that a man could hold the whole world in view. The idea is that the best means of memory is by image, and the image will hold best when it is given a place. Here the place itself is built to hold the images.(22) Were I in this theater, and before I could take responsibility for the images of the whole universe or hold them, I would have to hold on to those images first, to dwell upon them, which hold the nature of two stars eminently important to life:

Taurus: A man ploughing, a man bearing a key, a man holding a serpent and
            a spear
. This is most clear, but I can’t say in which hand
            he holds the snake and spear, so the memory is incomplete,
            or uncreated.

and Saturn: A man with a stag’s head on a dragon, with an owl is eating
                    a snake
                  in his right hand.
It is my view that the nature of this star
be held in a poem until the uncreated dragon is created.(23)

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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