Essay on Poetic Theory

The Fire (1967)

by Robin Blaser


Robin Blaser was born in 1925; he grew up in Idaho and attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned an undergraduate degree in literature and a masters in library science. He lived for a decade in Berkeley and was acquainted with poets Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer and involved in the Berkeley Poetry Renaissance of the 1940’s. After working as a cataloguer at the Widener Library at Harvard College and then as archivist at the State University of California in San Francisco, Blaser moved to Canada. He was a literature professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia from 1966-1986. In 1972 he became a Canadian citizen.

Blaser received the Griffin Poetry Prize in Canada in 2008 for The Holy Forest: Collected Poems (2006). A serial poem written over the span of 5 decades, passages of The Holy Forest were influenced by the works of poets and philosophers (Blaser’s “great companions”) Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Steve McCaffery, Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. Poet Robert Hass, introducing Blaser at a “Lunch Poems Series” reading at Berkeley in 2008, commented on Blaser’s “sweetness and range,” and his ability to use an image and then veer into “intellectual magic.” Blaser has influenced experimental poets in Canada and the United States; his work was the focus of an international conference in Vancouver in 1995.

In his essay “The Fire,” Blaser writes, “the real business of poetry is cosmology.” He discusses poetry and the quality of its connection to the world, a world that is entered by the poet’s writing: “the processional aspect of the world has to be caught in the language also. The body hears the world, and the power of the earth over the body, the city over the body, in terms of rhythms, meters, phrasing, picked up—the body’s own rhythms compose those or it would shake to pieces.” In the essay, Blaser writes about serial poems and narrative as a “sequence of energies.” Wide-ranging, the essay touches on anthropology, myth, metaphor, and personal history, and how these factors connect to poem writing.

This essay was first published in Pacific Nation 1 (1967): 19-30, ed. Robin Blaser; and Caterpillar 12 (July 1970): 15-23; reprinted in The Poetics of the New American Poetry, ed. Donald Allen and Warren Tallman (New York: Grove Press, 1973), pp. 235-50. This text is taken from The Fire: Collected Essays of Robin Blaser, and the notes on the text are by Miriam Nichols, editor of the book.

especially for Ebbe Borregaard (1)


I am writing here about my poetry in relation to poetry. The writing had an occasion: for a few in San Francisco, where I read it last March 8th [1967].(2) I want to talk about the personalism and the co-called obscurity of my poems in relation to the sight, sound, and intellect that compose them. “The test of poetry,” in Zukofsky’s words, “is the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and intellection.”(3)

One difficulty I want to describe is that I’m haunted by a sense of the invisibility of everything that comes into me (aware that nothing is more invisible than emotion—by emotion, I mean the heat of one’s sense of the war, or a place, or a body, or of the extensions of these, the earth, the existence of gods, and so forth—the I-have-seen-what-I-have-seen, recorded by Pound in “Canto II”). I believe there is a reality, which, given the leisure to live for it, is neither conceptual and systemized in the ordinary sense of these words—nor imageless. There are many times when, forced by exhaustion, I take the lazy way of the conceptual and imageless, but it is a kind of desire which leads me to write of that other, outside world. Because the personal stake in companionship becomes so great in the way I live, I am sometimes lost when a reader finds me uninteresting or too obscure, his interest too soon exhausted to come to any meeting. I am literal about that other reality. It is, I think, the purest storytelling to try to catch that light—and the difficulty of it, the loss of it, is personal. If I see the light, even fragmentarily, and lose it, that too is subject matter, and leads to a kind of heartless poem, for it is not the elegiac loss which interests me, but the difficulty, the activity, of holding on to it. Burning up myself, I would leave fire behind me.(4)

To hold an image within the line by sound and heat is to have caught something that passed out there. The psychological accuracy of this perception is not enough; the sculptural imagistic quality is not enough; and the very aesthetic quality of taking the one image, or even three images as a whole, the beauty of the idea that you can write a single poem, is a lie. The processional aspect of the world has to be caught in the language also. The body hears the world, and the power of the earth over the body, the city over the body, is in terms of rhythms, meters, phrasing, picked up—the body’s own rhythms compose those or it would shake to pieces.—The music of the spheres is quite real, but the sound of the earth must meet it. I suppose I want to say that the real business of poetry is cosmology, and I’m claiming my own stake in this. And this is the activity of telling the story—the necessity of chemical—it is not invented, but it is original, personal, singular, and even domestic. If one man gives up his life for the world, the energy of it is not symbolical: it is the story of one man tied to the heaven and hell he recognizes. No symbols.

My friend Stan Persky(5) was reading to me one night when a passage turned up that is so much to my purpose, slightly re-worded, that I won’t give the author credit: it is in that meeting entirely mine: “What we describe as imagination is no free play of the soul, but a real meeting with real elements that are outside of us, and what matters is not the surrender to the images of fantasy that appear, but to redeem those elements themselves. What we suppose we effect merely in our souls, in reality we effect on the destiny of the world.”(6)—Here, I wish to say that it is not language which is the source: it is the record of the meeting, and the magical structure of sight, sound, and intellect is indeed a personal responsibility. Language is given to us and in the most insidious way it controls sight, sound, and intellect, but it is also the medium which can be shaped.—Metaphor as a focus is an immediate escape from the ordinary focus, which rots for some reason I can’t explain, and keeps me always from using the word we, though there is a kind of we that I hope to earn the right to use. But the poem offers a field of energy and activity—to be met by whatever companion can be found. If you imagine, as I do, that, at any waking moment, you are a corpuscle in the left wrist of god, then any reality is precisely to be found in the flow of corpuscles in that vast body.

In the constant interruption that it is to go to work every day, to talk in generalities of things that can only be known in specifics, this time guiding others through American writing, I’m struck by this thing called cosmology: Poe wanders off into a long prose piece, Eureka, which he calls a poem, and it is, drawing on all the contemporary science he can digest to record a cosmology; Emerson drops poetry and heads into poetically structured essays, wherein he can describe a cosmology; Thoreau drops poetry to write two strangely structured books,(7) where, as in Walden, the detailed attention given to the seasons is cosmological; Melville goes about it backwards—in Moby-Dick, myths had to be reset so that they could say what they should say about origins, where he is, then later the poetry clanks along unable to hold on to what he wants; Whitman comes in with a new line, as open as he could make it; Henry Adams moves from the well-formed novel to the work on the great Virgin of the 13th century to tell in detail the story of a unified world;(8) Pound puts it in the Cantos when he says the first thing was to break the iambic pentameter. It seems to me that the whole marvelous thing of open form is a traditional and an American problem—“hung up” on form because it was so difficult to open it. The whole thing came in a geography where the traditional forms would no longer hold our purposes. I was very moved when, some years ago, I was reading a scholarly book by Jo Miles(9) in which she is making an argument for the sublime poem, which oddly has something to do with the public poem, and she begins to talk about the narrative of the spirit. I think the key word here is narrative—the story of persons, events, activities, images, which tell the tale of the spirit.

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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