Last night in a dream: the image of a painting by my friend, Kim Frohsin. It was the one I fell in love with in December, when, preparing to write an essay for her art book, I visited Kim’s San Francisco studio. The picture shows a nude model with her back turned to the viewer and her calves resting on a sheet of jagged aquamarine stripes. Kim and I arranged a trade: the painting for the essay. It’s at the frame shop now. But in the dream it had arrived. It was much smaller than in real life, small as a scarab. When I peered down into it, the figure’s arms undulated in the air and multiplied like Shiva’s. Then she was standing up, as if to walk away from the tedium of letting me view her. The picture started splicing between the curves and gestures of bodies and the waves and vertiginous dunes of some oceanscape, but splicing so fast it was impossible to follow. Soon white cataracts gauzed the picture, and the dream dissolved.

Playing it back now, I feel the dual sensation again. There was disappointment in seeing the shrunken, unfastened image. Its diminished, weird proteanism buckled my desire for ownership, my desire to have a piece to show to the guests: my inner Martha Stewart was pissed! On a deeper frequency, the frustration spoke of the way that art escapes intention. I believe that art, if it’s any good, resists our attempts to frame it in discourse. And yet that insight won’t, for a moment, pull the serious artist away from her need to frame. She needs to be a critic not just of her work but of the urges behind it. She needs not to be a marionette of her own limits and habits, or of conventions received from the culture. Even precious inspiration can become a kind of narcotic injection unless intention holds beneath its propulsive drub.

All this hits home for me now. I’ve just put a binder clip on an early draft of a new book. I know I need to spruce and sharpen. But I also wonder if the poems, taken together, reveal a genuine effort to forge a poetics. I need to think on some basic questions. What is poetic intelligence itself in this body of work? In what kind of situation does it exist? What does it say about imaginative agency in general? How do its affective energies work? What are the poems doing as those energies course from start to finish? I know that the book is in many ways about the crazy endeavor of making a life for one’s self in America. Is this theme clear enough, varied enough, too obviously billboarded in places?

At the same time as I ask these questions, I resist them. The other feeling that came in the dream, my wonder at the elusiveness of art work, my awe at those images morphing like shapes on the beryl stone: doesn’t this sensation suggest a need for faith in the poem on its own, apart from a “poetics?” Don’t I loathe books that seem to have traffic cops planted at every corner, to point the way around the “projects” as if the poets were working for H.U.D.? Shouldn’t poems, with their sheer animal cunning, shape shift past our planning?


The effort to forge a poetics? Shape shifters? Beryl stone? I must have Yeats on the brain again. In fact, in my “Modernist Poetry” class, we’re in our second week with WBY. I want the students to get a sense of how Yeats’s famous statement in Per Amica Silentiae Lunae, his claim that we make poetry “out of arguments with ourselves” finds embodiment in actual textures and structures of the verse. I want them to see how Yeats hammered his way out of his Romantic and Symbolist beginnings, and found his conclusions not in the resolutions of doctrine or set method, but in the grappling of linked contraries, what he calls in A Vision “antinomies.” When John Berryman met Yeats at the London Athenaeum in April of 1937, the 22-year-old had “an impression of tremendous but querulous force.” That would be a fine description of many of Yeats’s poems as well. Take, for instance, the appearance of the swan in “Coole and Ballylee, 1931”:

Another emblem there! The stormy white
But seems a concentration of the sky;
And, like the soul, it sails into the sight
And in the morning’s gone, no man knows why;
And is so lovely that it sets to right
What knowledge or its lack had set awry,
So arrogantly pure, I child might think
It can be murdered with a spot of ink.

I love the way, to use Berryman’s words, that the tremendous, vatic force of the emblem gets undercut, and oddly strengthened, by the querulous tone of the final couplet. At such moments it almost feels as if there are two Yeatses writing the poem. There’s the Yeats of the transporting imagination, the Yeats who at times seemed to live inside a menagerie of poetic figures, who would end arguments by throwing out some cryptic exclamation like “Ah, but that was before the peacock screamed!” Then there’s the Yeats of the will, the Yeats who during periods of greatest industry, according to his friends, rationed himself one cigarette per line of verse, until he realized (so much for “a line will take us hours maybe”!) that he could write faster, and began breaking the cigarettes in half. Somehow in the best poems, these competing selves come to a tensed draw.

And they manage to bring two different senses of modernity to bear upon the same poems. There’s the poet who responds to his era by upbraiding it, by valorizing a feudalistic past “Before merchant and clerk / Breathed on the world with feeble breath.” Then there’s the Yeats who is in the here and now as “the finished man among his enemies,” the cultural operator fighting for his theatre, for his friend Synge, and for the paintings of Hugh Lane. And this is one reason that so many Modernist Poetry syllabi start with Yeats (though ours at Washington College begins with Hardy, in fact.) He not only wedges a hinge between modernity and its past, but he suggests that every modern poet has to create his or her past and carry it into the now.

P.S. Any one in San Francisco this month owes his or herself the pleasure of seeing Kim Frohsin’s show at the Dolby Chadwick Gallery.

Originally Published: February 6th, 2007

Peter Campion received his BA from Dartmouth College and his MA from Boston University. His collections of poetry include Other People (2005), The Lions: Poems (2009), which won the Levis Reading Prize, and El Dorado (2013). He has also written monographs and catalog essays for the painters Joseph McNamara, Terry...