Essay on Poetic Theory

The Flower of Capital (1979)

by Michael Palmer

Introduction

Michael Palmer was born in New York City in 1943. He attended Harvard University where he earned a BA in French and a MA in Comparative Literature. His books of poetry include Notes for Echo Lake (1981), Codes Appearing: Poems 1979-1988, At Passages (1995), The Promises of Glass (2001), and The Company of Moths (2005); he is also the author of Active Boundaries: Selected Essays and Talks (2008).  An experimental poet, his poems are often characterized by syntactical variation and an unwillingness to make assumptions about language; critics have commented on his lyricism, intellectual vitality, and attention to sound.  Palmer has lived for many years in San Francisco; he has worked as a translator and editor, and collaborated with visual artists, composers, and the choreographer Margaret Jenkins.

“The Flower of Capital” was published in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine. It appeared in an issue of the journal focused on the “political dimensions of current writing,” in which authors were asked to consider “what qualities writing has or could have that contribute to an understanding or critique of society, seen as a capitalist system.” In “The Flower of Capital,” Palmer re-visits the original image of the car passing the walking woman, and writes: “Capital is a fever at play and in the world (silent l) each thing is real or must pretend to be.” In “A Following Note,” Palmer states that poetry “informs politically . . . beyond its aspect as opinion or stance.” Poetry must resist being swallowed up by politics; it is “profoundly mediational and relative and exists as a form of address singularly difficult to prescribe or define.” Its “political responsibility is human, like that of a cabinetmaker or machinist.”

      (sermon faux – vraie historie)
      . . . and the old dogmatism will no longer be able to end it.
      ADOLFO SÁNCHEZ VÁZQUEZ

The flower of capital is small and white large and grey-green in a storm its petals sing. (This refers to capital with the capital L.) Yesterday I borrowed Picabia’s Lagonda for a drive through the Bois. A heavy mist enveloped the park so that we could barely discern the outline of a few silent figures making their way among the sycamores and elms. Emerging at Porte de Neuilly the air grew suddenly clear and ahead to my right I noticed M pushing a perambulator before her with a distracted mien. Her hair fell disheveled about her face, her clothes were threadbare, and every few steps she would pause briefly and look about as if uncertain where she was. I tried repeatedly to draw her attention with the horn, even slowing down at one point and crying her name out the car window, all to no apparent effect. Passing I saw once more (and as it developed, for the last time) the lenticular mark on her forehead and explained its curious origin to my companion, the Princess von K. who in return favored me with her wan smile. We drove on directly to the Château de Verre where the Princess lived with her younger sister and a few aged servants. The château itself was encircled by the vestiges of a moat now indicated only by a slight depression in the grass at the base of the walls. Or: we drove for hours through the small town surrounding Paris, unable to decided among various possible courses of action. Or: they have unearthed another child’s body bringing the current total to twenty-eight. Or: nine days from now will occur the vernal equinox. Yesterday in the artificial light of a large hall Ron spoke to me of character hovering unacceptably at several removes about the page. The image of the Princess and of M who were of course one and the same returned to mind as I congratulated him on the accuracy of his observation. L knitted this shirt I told him, and carved the sign on my brow, and only yesterday they removed the tree that for so long had interfered with the ordered flow of language down our street. Capital is a fever at play and in the world (silent l) each thing is real or must pretend to be. Her tongue swells until it fills my mouth. I have lived here for a day or part of a day, eyes closed, arms hanging casually at my sides. Can such a book be ready by you or me? Now he lowers the bamboo shade to alter the angle of the light, and now she breaks a fingernail against the railing of the bridge. Can such a text invent its own beginning, as for example—one—two—three? And can it curve into closure from there to here?

* * *

A FOLLOWING NOTE

The problem is that poetry, at least my poetry and much that interests me, tends to concentrate on primary functions and qualities of language such as naming and the arbitrary structuring of a code—its fragility—the ease with which it empties (nullifies?) itself or contradicts what might simplistically qualify as intention. (And I might add conversely, its tyranny—how it resists amendment.)

Poetry seems to inform politically (this being a poetry that does transmit material of some immediate as well as enduring freshness) beyond its aspect as opinion or stance. Thus a Baudelaire, Pound, Eliot et al may render a societal picture of transcendent accuracy. Note of course the political “intelligence” of Shakespeare’s Tudor apologies, of Racine’s hierarchical poetics, of Dante’s vision. It is clear that political “rectitude” is not necessarily equivalent to political “use” in a larger sense, though we can also find instances where there is a coinciding of poetic and immediate historical impulse, where in fact a poetry transmits its energy from a specifically political moment. Paradoxically I am thinking of a politics that inheres, such as Vallejo’s, in contrast let’s say with the more practical motives of much of Neruda’s work.

Politics seems a realm of power and persuasion that would like to subsume poetry (and science, and fashion, and . . . ) under its mantle, for whatever noble or base motives. Yet if poetry is to function—politically—with integrity, it must resist such appeals as certainly as it resists others.

The call to language in a poem does not begin or end with its discursive flow and does not give way to qualified priorities. Not to make of poetry a “purer” occasion, simply to give credit to its terms and the range of possibilities it attends. Poetry seems a making within discrete temporal conditions, and I would happily dispense with the word “creative.” Poetry is profoundly mediational and relative and exists as a form of address singularly difficult to prescribe or define.

A poet’s political responsibility is human, like that of a cabinetmaker or machinist, and his or her activity is subject to similar examinations. Synchronically the results are predictably various. We treasure and perhaps survive by those moments when the poetic and political intelligence derive from an identical urgency and insight. Recently I came across Terry Eagleton’s quotation from an article by Marx in the Rheinishe Zeitung, “form is of no value unless it is the form of its content.” “Simple,” as Zukofsky used to say. And is it if it is?

 

 

Michael Palmer, "The Flower of Capital" from Codes Appearing, copyright © 1981 by Michael Palmer.  Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.
Originally Published: October 13, 2009

Poetry is looking for thought-provoking responses to work published in the magazine, as well as letters that raise new questions about the state of contemporary poetry. To send us your letter, please fill out all the fields below.

If we choose to use your letter, we will notify you by phone. If you have not heard from us within two weeks of sending your letter, you may assume we will not be using it. All letters may be edited for length and clarity, and may appear online, in print, or both.

Please do NOT send poetry submissions to this account. See Submission Guidelines for further information and policies regarding poetry submissions.

   Cancel

* All fields are required

Related

Audio

Biography

Michael Palmer was born in New York City and educated at Harvard in the early 1960s, where he encountered Confessional poetry. His opposition to Confessionalism found root in a developing poetics when he attended the landmark 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference, a three-week gathering where he met Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, and Clark Coolidge. Correspondence with those three poets greatly influenced Palmer’s early development . . .

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.