Essay on Poetic Theory

The Fire (1967)

by Robin Blaser
I am trying to describe the foreignness, the outsideness, as a kind of metaphor for the sense I have of the process that leads to a poem, which again is outside, when made, and it is akin to translation, a word which in its parts holds the meaning of the word metaphor, the bringing over. This is here a problem of describing the process of inclusions, which as a man’s work extends, enlarges and must take in both earth and sky. The heat I’m after is not simply the personal heat of the meeting, the recognition, but a heat and a passion which are of the nature of existence itself. The personal, yes, but then the translation of the personal to correspond with larger and larger elements, images of earth, is a process of inclusion—a growth of sensibility, in Valéry’s phrase, but also a making which is not self-expressive. To be included, to be caught, to be brought over. Though I consider most of my work as a kind of translation, I have moved toward translation in the ordinary sense. My Nerval is an effort to bring over the chimeras of another poet, because the recognition was word for word. In doing so, I spent months trying to find words in English to carry the heat of the Nerval world, which is cosmic, but also most personal. And it is this content which must be translated—not the word-for-word crib, but the actual heat of the process which gave form to the poems.(24) Nerval begins in a real image of loss—the women of his world who disappear into the earth, and if they continue to exist, the realms of death have to be seen in terms of change and in images which hold that change. All this is most clear in one of Nerval’s dreams, from which I took my lead:

The lady I followed, displaying her slender form in a movement that caused the folds in her dress of changing taffeta to glisten, gracefully placed her bare arm around a long stalk of hollyhock, then under a clear ray of light, she began to grow in such a manner that little by little the garden took her form, and the flowerbeds and the trees became the roses and garlands of her garments, while her figure and her arms printed their contours on the violet clouds in the sky. In this way I lost sight of her in a process of transfiguration, for she seemed to disappear into her own grandeur. “Oh! do not leave me! I cried . . . for nature dies with you.” (Nerval, Selected 131)

Nerval took the ultimate responsibility for the other side of the world, like the old idea, before it was photographed, of the other side of the moon. He saw and recorded a world in which the sun is black, the alchemical sol niger, under the earth yes, but in addition an in FORM ing vision. How personal the first vision of this was is seen in an early poem, which Nerval had adapted from a poem by Bürger, and which I translated:


whoever has stared directly into the sun
thinks he sees before him,    unyielding,
flying around in the air an ashen spot

really young once and a lot braver,
I dared to fix my eyes on glory
for an instant:
what my eyes craved left a black point

since then, mingling with everything
like a token of grief,   everywhere,
in places where my eyes rest
I see it perch also,   a black spot

ask me if this is always true   it is
between me and fortune constantly
this back luck and shared sorrow
if only an eagle looks in the Sun
and the Glory   without punishment (25)

Here, I wish to point to the responsibility of the poet for the experience of power as it is seen and felt in the world. And no more ultimate vision is possible than the one which tells the tale and holds the cost of the vision of the other side, the way down, sometimes the way up, the realms of deadness both in and out of the world—held in image, not a tract full of wisdom, but a reality created, held by image and sound. This is seen in the first poem of Nerval’s sequence, Les Chimères, a serial poem, in his use of myth, original in his recognition—the tale behind the sirens—that they are indeed cursed muses, forced to be birds of the sea, which is the realm of love and eros. The siren is a sea bird from her origin in this very ancient story. The image holds it absolutely. When I come to a work, like The Moth Poem, which is not a translation in this sense, it is, however, a translation of the record of the burning light and death of certain presences. I believe that all men live in this realm, the serious, intense kingdom, funny as it is at times, with its passionate thought.

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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