Essay on Poetic Theory

The Fire (1967)

by Robin Blaser
And it is just here that an accusation is leveled at many poets. “He writes for a coterie, the poets talk only among themselves. They live in a world of flattery and selfhood.” It is my belief that it is somewhere in this messy denial of the thought of poetry that an explanation can be found for the importance of community. That poets do band together. I am demonstrably bad at the kind of communism one dreams of, yet I have repeatedly worked in and added to a community of that sort. The reason is that only in such communities is the necessary talk of this high, serious realm possible. Such communities tend to build a structure for men who wish to keep, hold, and record the passionate relation with the outside that the world, the nation, need. This is the only place where such talk goes on. That we have reached a point now here where such discourse must included the nation, or politics, the scholarship in which we tend to lay down the images of poetic thought—is obvious. This is a kind of memory theater in which the poet with his craft is after not some thing or place remembered, but present. Nothing would be more painful or more costly to the mind, and ugly in a sense that great poetry may be very ugly, than a poetry in which the present war (26) was present, held in sight and sound and intellect. Not opinion or reflection or dialectic about the presence. Few poets have caught the terror, which is the other side of the world. Those who have, Spicer, Pound, and Olson, for example, took a long time to burn—and their lives are of different lengths.

 

NOTES

(1)  Ebbe Borregaard joined the Spicer, Blaser, Duncan circle at Berkeley in 1957, when he signed up for Jack Spicer’s “Poetry as Magic” workshop. In Poet Be Like God, his biography of Spicer, Kevin Killian introduces Borregaard this way:

One of the first to sign up [for Spicer’s workshop] was Ebbe Borregaard, already famous in a minor way as a poet runaway. His mother had appealed to the newspaper of San Francisco to hoelp them find their missing son. Labeled “the Beatnik Boy” to his chagrin, he was triumphantly declared found, his picture appearing on the front page of the papers. Borregaard has served in Korea and had stumbled onto Black Mountain College in literally its last days—its last three or four days, showing up on the doorstep just as the College was being sold. Now the painter Tom Field dragged him to the Public Library and presented him to Spicer as a kind of gift. (82)

Borregaard later became a regular at the Sunday poetry readings and discussions in Joe and Carolyn Dunn’s apartment which were to follow the Magic workshop.

(2)  Blaser first read “The Fire” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 401 Van Ness Avenue.

(3) “The test of poetry is the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, an intellection” (Zukofsky, Test of Poetry vii).

(4) Fire is Blaser’s signature element and it is a recurrent trope in the collected serial poems: The Holy Forest is a forest on fire. In a passage that brings out the significance of fire as an emblem of creative transformation, Blaser writes in “Image-Nation 15 (the lacquer house”:

after the fire in the lacquer house,
the point is transformation of the theme—
enjoyment and departure—like
the Christmas trees, stripped of all
adornment, burned on Locarno Beach . . .

(5) Stan Perksy became a regular in the Spicer poetry circle in the late 1950s, when as a teenager, he arrived in San Francisco from Chicago and the U.S. Navy. Perksy had read Kerouac and Ginsberg and first joined the beat scene. However, after meeting George Stanley, Persky began to attend Sunday readings with Spicer and soon became involved in Spicer’s North Beach circle, editing a literary magazine, M, with Lewis Ellingham and Gail Chugg in 1962 and later his own Open Space journal. Blaser’s romantic involvement with Perksy ended a seventeen-year relationship between Blaser and Jim Felts, and in 1965, when Blaser moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, Persky went with him. Although Blaser and Persky only lived together until 1968, Persky settled permanently in Vancouver, and the two have remained close friends. Persky is a writer of fiction (gay themed) and political commentary. His publications include The House that Jack Built (1980), on civic politics in Vancouver; Buddies: Mediations on Desire (1989); Fantasy Government 1989) on provincial politics in B.C.; Mixed Media, Mixed Messages (1991); Then We Take Berlin: Stories from the Other Side of Europe (1995); and The Autobiography of a Tattoo (1997). With John Dixon he coauthored On Kiddie Porn: Sexual Representation, Free Speech and the Robin Sharpe Case (2001). He is a prolific book reviewer and columnist on social and cultural issues and writers from both Vancouver and Berlin. He currently teaches philosophy at Capilano College in North Vancouver.

(6) “What we describe as imagination…”: As Blaser says, he has adapted this quotation: it is “so much to my purpose, slightly re-worded, that I wont’ give the author credit: it is in that meeting entirely mine.” This becomes a way of using quotations in the earlier part of the essay as part of a poetic performance that places the poet’s voice among many others.

(7) The two “strangely structured” books by Thoreau are Walden and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

(8) Blaser here refers to Henry Adams’s Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres.

(9) The “scholarly book” by Josephine Miles could be either The Continuity of Poetic Language: Studies in English Poetry from the 1540’s to the 1940’s (1951) or The Continuity of Poetic Language: The Primary Language of Poetry, 1540’s-1940’s (1965).

(10) These lines open Book I of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Loeb Classical edition, trans. Frank Jastus Miller (3). Blaser has adapted Miller’s translation and recast it as poetry. The Latin is original to the Loeb edition.

(11) Edith Cobb:

Using various forms of so-called projective methods and play techniques (in particular modified versions of the Lowenfeld World-Play Technique and the Thematic Apperecption Test, accompanied by a continual reference to the Rorschach categories of Form, Color, Motion, Time and Space, Animal and Human Response), 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. Furthermore, while observing the passionate world-making behavior of the child when he is given plastic materials and working dimensions which are manageable and in proportion to his need, accompanied by a population of toys, fauna and flora, and artifacts that do duty as “figures of speech” in the rhetoric of play, I have been made keenly aware of those processes which the genius in particular in later life seeks to recall. (540)

(12) Margaret Mead: In Continuities in Cultural Evolution (the Terry Lectures), Mead writes that “The work of Edith Cobb suggests that human beings need to perceive and recreate internally and expressively what they perceive of the universe in which they are growing—they have in fact a ‘cosmic sense’” (320). She makes the same point in very similar language in her introduction to the book-length version of Cobb’s The Ecology of the Imagination (8), a publication that postdates “The Fire” by ten years. However, I have not found the phrasing that Blaser cites here.

(13) Frank Speck:

The generalized concept of the form of the earth, which is termed tsi-tetci-´nau, “our world, universe” (Mistassini), appears to be that it is shaped like a hill and floats on water. Questioning fails to evoke the belief that it rests upon the carapace of the tortoise or that it is the carapace itself, as is believed by the Algonkian southward. It was stated by a Mistassini informant (Charley Metowe’cic) while discussing the matter, that the earth’s form comes to be known only from the testimony of a person about to die. In the vision that comes at the 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)

(14) The idea that a poet’s vision is only completed at death is to be found in Mallarmé’s “Au tombeau d’Edgar Poe”: “Tel qu’en lui-même efin l’éternité le change, / Le poëte suscite aven un hymne nu / Son siècle épouvanté de n’avoir pas connu / Que la mort s’exaltait dans cette voix étrange” (Oeuvres complètes 128).

(15) The Key family members to whom Blaser refers are as follows:

Paternal

Father: Robert Augustus Blaser, b. 20 July 1902, d. 20 April, 1978.

Grandfather: Augustus Frederick Blaser, b. 6 October 1872, d. 10 June 1954; married to

Minnie C. Blaser, b. 7 June 1880, d. 4 July 1942. Grandfather Blaser was the “French” relation, but despite stories about being the lost Dauphin, he was of Swiss origin.

Maternal

Mother: Ina Mae McCready Blaser, b. 6 June 1905, d. 25 February 1992.

Grandmother: Sophia Nichols Van Aukin McCready Auer, b. 12 May 1876, d. 11 August

1962; married first to a Van Aukin who disappeared into Canada and then to Simon Auer, b. 1869, d. 1935. Blaser never met Van Aukin, but the German grandfather, Auer, was a member of his childhood household.

Great-grandmother: Ina Mae Johnson, b. 1854, d. 1939, secretary to Brigham Young.

Great-uncle, brother to Ina Mae Johnson: Mitchell R. Johnson, b. 1867, d. 1939, “Uncle Mitch of Cups.

These are the relations that are most vivid and significant to Blaser. Among them, Grandmother Sophia Nichols stands out in personal memory, in the poetry, and in Astonishments, a series of autobiographical audiotapes Blaser made in 1974. She lived with the family in Idaho, during Blaser’s childhood years, and in Astonishments, Blaser recalls her encouragement and kindness. She also financed Blaser’s education at Berkeley. For a poetic account of family life in Idaho, see Cups, “Sophia Nichols” and “Image-Nation 2 (oh, pshaw,” all in The Holy Forest.

(16) See Cups and “Image-Nation 24” for poetic references to the Idaho of Blaser’s childhood (Holy Forest).

(17) Step-grandfather Auer, second husband to Sophia Nichols.

(18) “two other poets”: The two were Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan. See also “The Medium” from The Moth Poem, where these lines carry the plot of The Holy Forest

. . . the story is of a man
who lost his way in the holy wood
because the way had never been taken without
at least two friends, one on each side[.]

(19) Blaser dates his independence as a poet from 1955, when he left Berkeley to accept a librarian’s position in the Widener Library at Harvard University. The Boston Poems, 1956-1958, are the earliest collection he preserves, although he has been writing poetry since adolescence. In the Astonishments audiotapes, Blaser tells of destroying his early writings. Before moving to Berkeley, he attended Northwestern University for a season, and an instructor there criticized his poems for being too Whitmanic. “Mrs. Arpan” was the guilty one; she turns up as the “wife of a sailor” in “The Literalist,” the first of the Moth poems.

(20) Arthur Brodeur was a philologist and professor of Anglo-Saxon in the English department at Berkeley. Both Blaser and Jack Spicer took his course and, because of it, went on to take a full-year course on the history of the German language. Brodeur’s publications include The Art of Beowulf (1959).

(21) Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory (1966). The passage in Yates is as follows:

The Leibnizian monads, when they are human souls having memory, have as their chief function the representation or reflection of the universe of which they are living mirrors—a conception with which they reader of this book will be thoroughly familiar. (388)

(22) Yates describes the Memory Theater of Giullio Camillo (b. circa 1480) in a chapter of The Art of Memory (129-72). Her description of the “box with tiers” is quoted from Erasmus’s Epistolae (Yates 131-32). Viglius Zuichemus, a friend of Erasmus, had reported the phenomenon. Yates tells us that the images in the Theater were of planetary gods.

(23) The italicized phrases are from Frances Yates’s description of the memory system of Giordano Bruno in The Art of Memory. On concentric wheels that Yates syas make up a memnonic device of “appalling complexity” (212), Bruno inscribes images deriving from “ancient Egyptian star-lore” (213). Taurus is “(1) a man ploughing (2) a man bearing a key (3) a man holding a serpent and a spear” (213). Saturn is “A man with a stag’s head on a dragon, with an owl which is eating a snake in his right hand” (214).

(24) For the poetics issues of the Chimères translations and the quarrel between Blaser and Duncan, see my commentary in this volume.

(25) The original of this poem is available in Gérard de Nerval, Oeuvres (30).

(26) The “present war” is the Vietnam War.

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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Biography

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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