Sometimes I wonder how it would go if I had to chose between writing and reading. It’s one of those desert island questions. More than travel, more than interpersonal relations, more than food, sex, sleep, these are the two loves of my life. They are what connect me to myself, and connect my self to the world.

Though I am increasingly wary of “the world”, I realize that without it neither reading nor writing would be an option. The world is the wild card in the deck. Prison, I imagine to be a kind of surgical procedure that detaches one from the world and therefore eliminates the need to read and to write. Dying would (will) accomplish the same thing. Death must be the worst prison of all. Reading is like a system of dikes, set up against death, against demise, against emptiness, while writing is a kind of systematic robbing of all that accumulated muck and music that have gone into making the dikes in the first place. Reading gives, writing takes. The two need each other in all sorts of ways. If there were no writers, there would be no readers. This relationship is sustained in a commercial fashion. It is only in the world of poetry that the writers have become the readers, and the readers the writers – the two activities have merged in a non-commercial contract. The connection between literature and commerce has always been vital. Poetry, because of this severance, can only exist on life-support, a kind of aeolian respirator. I don’t know any non-poets (or stretching it a bit, non-writers) who read poetry. They exist, like Antonio Damasio (more about him in a moment), but I just don’t know any personally. Poetry has become that thing that you can no longer explain, or rationalize, or justify to anyone who is not intimately involved in its making. As absurd as it sounds, the continuing education of poets is like training and maintaining a community of doctors, after sickness had already been wiped out, long after there were any patients to treat. For this community of doctors disease would have already become hypothetical, an elaborate and complex talking point. And the old practices, opening the chest and fixing the heart, then stitching the chest back up again, would have already been consigned to the remote past.
So, which would I choose? Reading or writing?
I recall a coffee with Ann Lauterbach somewhere uptown. She had just begun to teach, officially. Until then she’d worked at (besides poetry) things mostly connected with the world of painting and galleries. But she also held workshops, and between 1982 and 1984 a group of us met once a week, at a long table in her TriBeCa loft, with wine and cigarettes. We talked poems, we talked books, we got angry with each other. Annie would draw out the conversation; she would talk either about something she’d been reading as a way to try to crack open one of our problems, or she’d talk syllables and sounds, like a word mechanic. We were all anxious to display our reading, how much we knew, how deeply we felt about the various movements that were cropping up all over the place, not only in poetry, but in painting, and music, and simply life in the streets, life in the city. This coffee we had together came a bit later. I was already living in Paris. For a few years I continued to do the rounds, once or twice annually. I still felt like a New Yorker in those days, 1985, 1986, though I no longer lived there. On that afternoon Annie was buzzing, since she’d just come form a workshop. I think she was working part time at Columbia. And what she said has always stuck with me. “This new generation of students doesn’t read. They want to be poets, but they don’t read poetry. They don’t know anything.”
I wondered how that could be. She could have been exaggerating, a manifestation of her shock at suddenly becoming an educator; when most poets of her generation had gone straight from the MFA to the MFA, she had loitered into her early forties in London and New York. But I did take what she said seriously, especially the implication that her students had no interest in older poetry, in history, or psychology. They might have never read, for example, Edward Gibbon – a whole sub-world of 18th century prose simply did not exist for them. Tacitus, Thucydides, forget it. Heraclitus, who came up with the term “logos”, said you can’t step into the same river twice. But contrary to what Cratylus, his disciple, said, you should at least try to step into it once. For me, at the time, and ever since I had begun writing poetry, there was just no separation. The two activities, reading (not just poetry) and writing, were part of the same pursuit, which at the time could become almost pathological as though my very survival depended upon engaging myself so thoroughly in the texture of the word that I would be able to fend off the dearth of an inarticulate world. I was never without a book, never without a pen, a notepad and a constant stream of ideas, which came from the books rather than the world, or so I thought.
That was the education of the poet.
There is a pertinent passage in Seamus Heaney’s essay “Feeling into Words”, first given as a lecture to the Royal Society of Literature in October of 1974 and later published in Finders Keepers, Selected Prose, 1971-2001.
“Finding a voice means that you can get your own feeling into your own words and that your words have the feel of you about them; and I believe that it may not even be a metaphor, for a poetic voice is probably very intimately connected with the poet’s natural voice, the voice that he hears as the ideal speaker of the lines he is making up.
How, then, do you find it? In practice, you hear it coming from somebody else, you hear something in another writer’s sounds that flows in through your ear and enters the echo-chamber of your head and delights your whole nervous system in such a way that your reaction will be, ‘Ah, I wish I had said that, in that particular way.’ This other writer, in fact, has spoken something essential to you, something you recognize instinctively as a true sounding of aspects of yourself and your experience. And your first steps as a writer will be to imitate, consciously or unconsciously, those sounds that flowed in, the
One bit from this passage draws my attention above everything else: “…you hear something in another writer’s sounds that flows in through your ear and enters the echo-chamber of your head and delights your whole nervous system.” Both the echo-chamber (a Wordsworthian trope) and “the whole nervous system” describe an interaction of circuitries which at the time (1974) was an utterly novel way of seeing things. It would take cognitive neuroscience another few years to begin to describe language reception as a body need, as question of “the whole nervous system.” As Heaney himself suggested at the time: “it may not even be a metaphor.”
In poetry it seems that we are creating concrete representations of that process whereby stimulus meets brain, whose neurophysical need to make sense of stimulus is, in turn, activated, and activated to do so in forms which somehow have a need to perfect themselves in order to reinforce the sense being made; something like beauty begetting meaning, and all of it happening in an act of mutual mind-body self-preservation, a negotiation between body and mind via the hard circuitry of the brain – producing what we might call the eloquence of survival, of which poetry is our most demanding expression.
In an achingly beautiful passage from Antonio Damasio’s Looking for Spinoza, he seems to describe a rationale for aesthetic life:
“The arrangement underscores the “body-mindedness” of the mind. The mind exists because there is a body to furnish it with contents. On the other hand, the mind ends up performing practical and useful tasks for the body – controlling the execution of automated responses in relation to the correct target; anticipating the planning of novel responses; creating all sorts of circumstances and objects that are beneficial to the body’s survival. The images that flow in the mind are reflections of the interaction between the organism and the environment, reflections of how the brain’s reaction to the environment affects the body, reflections of how the body’s adjustments are faring in the unfolding life state.
Someone might argue that since the brain provides the most immediate substrates of the mind – neural maps – the critical component to consider in the mind-body problem is the body’s brain, not the body-proper. What do we gain by considering the mind in the perspective of the body, as opposed to considering the mind in the perspective of just the brain? The answer is that we gain a rationale for the mind that we would not discover if we considered the mind only in the perspective of the brain. The mind exists for the body, is engaged in telling the story of the body’s multifarious events, and uses that story to optimize the life of the organism. Much as I dislike sentences that require laborious parsing, I am tempted to offer one as a summary of my view: The brain’s body-furnished, body-minded mind is a servant of the whole body.”
This transaction, the mind’s narrative of the body, takes place in a part of the brain known as Wernicke’s area – Seamus Heaney’s “echo-chamber of your head”, which ends up (and Demasio would be the first to agree) “delighting the whole nervous system”. This, as Heaney states, is a process beyond metaphor, a somatic process of which metaphor is a high-end product. Wernicke’s area is responsible for the evaluation of content nouns, of meaning, a kind of lexical field of heather in full bloom. Through a process of mental pollination, this information is delivered up to an adjacent field, known as Broca’s area. This is where syntax is processed, after which it is sent to the cortex for actual production: for the emitting of speech acts – poetry, in other words.
But what happens if poets deny Wernicke’s area the stimulus it needs to create the narrative in which “the mind tells the story of the body”. This area of the brain, particularly in the poet’s “unfolding life state,” is favored by the input of, not life per se, but the mimesis of life, of already idealized, formalized and, let’s say, aestheticized versions of life, through the “in-fluence” of “other writer’s sounds.” And I don’t think Heaney was talking only about the sounds of his immediate contemporaries. He was talking about foreign sounds, the sounds of antiquity, Anglo-Saxon sounds, the bog-noise of history.
Life takes care of itself, but getting at the meaning of life requires study and historical imagination. In Plato’s Apology (38a) Socrates tells us that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” a much cited passage, part of the philosopher’s response to his Athenian prosecutors. Seamus Heaney, himself, in an essay on the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, referred to him as “a twentieth-century version of the examined life.” The same theme, with the same players, comes up again in Heaney’s poem, “A Daylight Art” from The Haw Lantern(1987), which is about Socrates “On the day he was to take the poison.” Plato, of course, never underestimated the power of poets. Indeed, it seems to me that they still have the edge over other disciplines, other rhetorics, in the department of meaning-making. Heaney’s anticipatory 1974 lecture, which might be re-titled “Beyond Metaphor”, is proof of this. But we are losing ground, and part of that is because we no longer have the life conditions to properly educate ourselves in our own tradition. Because our careers as they have shaped up require it of us, we read far too many of our peers and way too few of our forerunners. Our peers can really only tell us the news of the day, in the language of the day.
Seen in the light of cognitive neuroscience it is easier, and less emotionally fraught, to begin to understand why poetry, and by extension, literature and erudite culture in general, is already well along the road to extinction. It is a question of stimulus; the world is changing how we feel about the world, and the aesthetic products which derive from the need to articulate those feelings are changing as a consequence. Since poetry is now written largely without rules (or written with self-invented rules), since the common craft of metrics, rhyming, quantifying are no longer taught, largely dispensed with by the community, the result is a less universal and a more personal poem, a poem that can no longer be “read”, except by the writer and the writer’s closest cohorts – those who know the language. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this. There is simply no need in today’s world to write or to read epics composed in ottava rima which tell the life-stories of unlikely heroes.
And yet if I were forced to choose, between reading and writing, I can’t guarantee that my complete set of Byron – a crumbling leather bound collection published in 1824 just two years after the poet’s death – would not seem the more attractive option. Just to hold these books in my hands delights my whole nervous system and, at times, there seems nothing more perfect in English than Byron’s making the Italian ottava rima his own.

Originally Published: March 8th, 2009

Martin Earl lives in Coimbra, in central Portugal. From 1986 until 2001 he lectured in English, translation, and American culture at the University of Coimbra. For the last ten years he has worked as a translator and a journalist. Earl has blogged on Harriet, and his translation of Antonio Medeiros’s...

  1. March 8, 2009
     Camille Dungy

    What an interesting essay. Given it's length, I hesitate somewhat in highlighting something you say in the first paragraph, but my reaction held throughout your essay, so I'll share it with you.
    You say, "Sometimes I wonder how it would go if I had to chose between writing and reading...More than travel, more than interpersonal relations, more than food, sex, sleep, these are the two loves of my life."
    That's a gutsy thing to say, that you love reading and writing more than you love people and places and the other life sustaining forces. And yet, your post goes on to suggest that you believe reading and writing are a path into travel and interpersonal relationships, even food, and even sex, certainly all things sensual. By depriving yourself of reading, in particular, you would deprive yourself of a whole realm of interpersonal relationships our very narrow (yes, even in the Facebook age) worlds would disallow. You could, quite easily, get more from a book than you might from a whole lifetime of face to face connections.
    I believe this is most likely true. And I certainly believe that those who want to call themselves writers MUST READ. But I feel, in the end, that maybe you love reading so much because it provides you another route through which to access all the things you claim are secondary in the scale of your desire.
    The prison you imagine, " a kind of surgical procedure that detaches one from the world and therefore eliminates the need to read and to write" is a figment of your imagination. The prisons of our world are highly social and counter-social institutions. They can be hotbeds of reading and writing. They are not vacuums nor caves. So long as we are alive, there is no way, try as we may for ourselves and for others, to separate completely from interpersonal relationships.
    Still, I applaud you for being honest. For admitting to the fact you'd often rather read a book than do anything else, directly, in the world. People often believe that writers say this as hyperbole. The way you've written it here, I can tell you're pointing to a basic truth.

  2. March 8, 2009
     Annie FInch

    Dear Martin,
    I feel your pain. If I allowed myself to write off "the common craft of metrics, rhyming, quantifying" as completely lost, my poetic life would not be worth living, for all the exact reasons you mention.
    However, having been writing on behalf of poetic form for almost twenty years, I can assert that in that time the climate of opinion has thawed perceptibly towards "common craft," as you so refreshingly put it. On the basis of the increased enthusiasm and curiosity about meter and other core poetic tools among students, journals, and younger poets, I simply don't believe that we are on the verge of a time when poetry "can no longer be “read”, except by the writer and the writer’s closest cohorts – those who know the language." The rhetorical habits that have replaced traditional tools of meter, rhyme, etc. in signaling "poem" to so many contemporary poets do not make up the entire contemporary poetic map. The recent book Multiformalisms, for one thing, shows a healthy interest among contemporary poets of all types in "self-invented rules."
    Your post has inspired me to post something on meter next, instead of the post I was planning. Meanwhile, don't despair! There are an increasing number of people who, like you, find pleasure in ottava rima.

  3. March 8, 2009
     Jason Crane

    Fascinating. Thanks for this essay.
    I remember reading Michael Pollan's A Place of My Own, in which he wrote that the act of reading, being surrounded and consumed by words, is vital to his existence. When I was a kid, my parents had to forbid me to read in the car for a while because I couldn't even find my way home from school. When they did that, I started reading the tags in my clothing or any other words I could find.
    I'm still the same way. Well, I know where my house is. But I still need the words, not just the content of them, every day.
    Jason Crane

  4. March 8, 2009
     james stotts

    the first books we ever read are our parents', even if that doesn't mean they read them--for me that was shakespeare, best-loved poems, frost and dickinson, and the encyclopaedia, dictionary and cetera. i read and loved (and wrote) poetry my whole life, and never read a modern, or even a modernist book of it until i was seventeen (the above-mentioned excepted) when i bought THE VOICE THAT IS GREAT WITHIN US and something by david wagoner at a library book sale.
    if these poets love our formal inheritance--meter, rhyme, craft--in a serious way, as a rule you think they'd have inherited its greatest virtue, which is mnemonics. i'm saying this as a rule, with a thousand exceptions, but memorizing poetry is essential for extracting what it has to offer--if they can't do that they can't appreciate much, and their own poetry becomes paper thin, which is all i see around me.
    the auld stuff is just as bad, maybe, but in it you see better readers behind the bad poets--a consequence probably of a concentrated literate/cultural class, sure, but left to our own devices, without the social framework, humans seem to leave poetry to the side, so...
    nothing to complain about, though, if you love poetry, because there's an embarrassment of riches, contemporary and not, to keep as busy on those desert islands--and we're on them, all by our lonesomes, even now, and even if we don't know it. and poetry is important, even life-or-death important, for that very reason--that it can sustain our minds, and compel the argument for life long enough to keep us distracted a long time if we're good enough readers.

  5. March 8, 2009
     james stotts

    so much modern poetry only makes sense as a corollary to the established canons, not as an alternative to it, as a lot of avant-derrieres (did i get that right?) would have it seem.
    it's hard to imagine that anybody who came to poetry in its current incarnation would be impressed enough to work backwards. that the classics are the only thing keeping poetry alive is one of the reasons it barely is, and is why all the lame (that is, broke down) new poetics are absolutely dependent on it for whatever fanatics there are left.
    my story of coming to poetry, then, is typical.

  6. March 9, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Fascinating post, Martin, all the way through.
    “'This new generation of students doesn’t read. They want to be poets, but they don’t read poetry. They don’t know anything.'” Harsh words, and generalizations are tricky, but I can understand why these words have stuck w/ you. I have two friends who read poetry but who don't write the stuff. They've dabbled a bit, but haven't really published much beyond, say, a chapbook for fun - and even that, at the prodding of others. I'm convinced these friends of mine could, if they worked at it, put some pretty good lines into the world, but they seem to have chosen reading over writing. They have other interests, too, and they don't stake everything on poetry, and they don't present themselves as voracious consumers of the stuff. And they remain two of the smartest thinkers about poetry I know.
    The editor of the print magazine, Christian Wiman, has an interesting take on these sorts of readers, these "non-specialists [who] read poetry–rarely, sparingly, but intensely, with a handful of high moments that they cling to."

  7. March 9, 2009

    I am one of those non-specialist readers. The difference, it seems to me, is that I read poems, not poetry. I don't know whole books of poetry or even lots of different poets' work. I buy books of poems, usually from poets someone has mentioned or urged me to buy, but even then, these books wind up on my shelves and I know only one or two of the poems intensely. The rest of the book sits there waiting to be discovered. It's one of the reasons why I recycle or sell books of stories or novels, but continue to carry around books of poetry I've owned but barely cracked open for years. In poetry is possibility. In her poem Trilogy, H.D. said something like "words are anagrams, cryptograms/ little boxes, conditioned/ to hatch butterflies." I feel that way about poems. I think I read Trilogy about 25 years ago, but I remember those lines.

  8. March 9, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Interesting, Brett. The next sentence of the Wiman quote is: "The emphasis is on the memorable individual poem, and poetry in bulk is rarely memorable."

  9. March 9, 2009
     Bill Knott

    the poem versus poetry question is essential, i think:
    here's a collation of some notes i made recently:
    i do read SON (School of Noisiness) blogs,
    and have been bemused recently by their inane Spicer mania––
    the lines they quote from him seem to me to be banal or at best mediocre,
    and i shake my head over what the Piss-Avants can see in him–
    then i read the review of his Collected by Bill Corbett which says quote:
    "It is almost impossible to quote Spicer in any useful way. He wrote lots of stand-alone poems, but the serial poem was his preferred form, separate but linked."
    . . .huh! i've been hearing this from the Avanti Anti's all my life–
    i remember Diane Wakoski urging me in 1970 that my failure to appreciate Robert Kelly's poetry would be remedied if i would only read ALL of it––all 300 pages of it . . .
    (Jerome Rothenberg's blog ran a rave recently that informed us Kelly's 50 published books were only a fraction of his entire output)–
    yeah: so if i read ALL of Spicer's poetry (and ALL of the Post-Aholes that Silliman PRs for), then i'll see the merit in it––
    every Spicer poem i've seen online is junk, or middling at most––
    a quote from Jack Spicer:
    "…The trick naturally is what Duncan learned years ago and tried to teach us – not to search for the perfect poem but to let your way of writing of the moment go along its own paths, explore and retreat but never be fully realized (confined) within the boundaries of one poem..."
    >>>and that presents the dichotomy here: we SOQs continue to want to write the perfect poem, and the SONs have abandoned that quest to pursue their endless unconfined poetic––
    it's poem versus poetry,
    that schism that split will not yield to any "third way", no matter what intriquing terminology you lard it with: Hybrid, anyone? . . .
    so the real diff between SOQ and SON is that the former write poems and the latter write poetry––
    i'm hardly the first to point this out––
    as Corbett acknowledges about Spicer––
    but i think it applies to all or certainly most of the poets in the two groups––
    it is the arrogance of the Avantistes to expect that their work will be read in its entirety––indeed, they demand it as an essential of the esthetic encounter––
    as Wakoski was convinced in her belief that i must first read all of Kelly's verse before i could pass judgement on his value––
    and i am convinced that her belief is shared in general by all or most Avants––
    it is this assumption–– this totalizing attitude or expectation that distinguishes and differentiates the SON poets from us SOQs––
    this seems to me to be the essential difference in our two camps––
    it's poem vs. poetry––
    and i don't think there can be/will be any lasting practical synthesis or transcendance of these antithetical positions . . .
    the SON says in the imperative:
    "Here is my poetry, my Work:
    you must read it ALL to understand its significance."
    the SOQ says with a shrug:
    "Here are my poems: I hope some of them look interesting to you; and the ones that don't, unh–"
    we SOQs are essentially lazy backyarders, quotidian empiricists of the possible,
    while the SONs are empire builders, theorists who seek to prevail over all entities–

  10. March 9, 2009
     Henry Gould

    H.D.'s Trilogy is a long poem in numbered series, if I remember correctly.

  11. March 9, 2009
     Bill Knott

    poem vs poetry also includes i think the question of whether to specialize–
    anyway, more thrusts on it:
    If a poet wants to be read in her entirety, if she is sincere in that desire, she will limit her output. Elizabeth Bishop.
    Mallarme's ninetysome pages can yield to a read, but Ashbery's ninetynine hundred?
    (Androids can cyber-ingest the latter in 0.1 seconds. Humans unfortunately . . . )
    Thus Bishop is closer to Larkin than Lowell. Unlike them, Lowell did not circumscribe. Hold his Collected in one hand and their two Collecteds in the other, and feel the scale of their decisions.
    (Assuming they had a choice . . . "If design govern in a thing so small." Free will versus predetermination; the intentionalist fallacy, the illusion.)
    The writer of poems (Bishop, Larkin) versus the writer of poetry (Lowell/Creeley: this poem vs. poetry dichotomy creates new alignments/allies.) Or to use the current cant phrase the writer of poetries.
    Product (poem) versus process (poetry). Doubt versus trust.
    The poet is always up against it. The choice. Do you believe?
    Ashbery has faith compared to Bishop's atheism.
    Ancillary question (decision) is whether to specialize, to develop a personal unique trademark limited demarcatory style.
    Recognizable instantly–
    a Serge Poliakoff, a Bernard Buffet, a Pierre Soulages. A Janet Fish. A Susan Rothenberg.
    You can be your own brand. Do you have a choice not to?
    At one glance it's a Botero.
    You can tell from across the room it's an Elizabeth Murray.
    Read one Follain poem and you've read them all and why not you say okay that's the way to do it, sticklerism rules.
    And besides the marketplace demands it.
    Because you don't want the fifth can in your sixpack of Coke to have Pepsi in it, do you–
    And you don't want page 42 in your Michael Palmer poetry book to suddenly out of nowhere (stop him!) he's trying to write a Sharon Olds-type autobio Confessional poem with a four stress line,
    you don't want that do you.
    You want consistency in the poets you buy, just like the softdrink of your choice; you want a book with the name Palmer on it to contain the flavor of poem you paid for.
    And if you favor Olds, similarly you don't want her in the middle of her book deciding to try some Palmeresque metapoetic nouvelle vagues spaced out double entr'actes.
    You want what you bought. You want the brandname poet, not the generic.
    You want the Real Thing, Coke after Coke, poem after poem.
    That's capitalism, and you don't want it any other way.
    I'm trying to think of a generic poet. A nonspecialist poet, a non-individualistic, non-capitalist poet. A "Libertine" poet.
    Michael Drayton, in the introductory sonnet to his sonnet sequence Ideas Mirrour. Amours in quatorzains (first edition, 1594; revised in subsequent editions of 1599, 1600, 1602, 1605 and 1619) . . .
    ("Drayton was an inveterate reviser . . . . He was also extremely sensitive to criticism and to changes in poetic fashion." –Roy Booth, notes to "Elizabethan Sonnets," 1994)
    A Libertine, fantastickly I sing:
    My Verse is the true image of my Mind,
    Ever in motion, still desiring change;
    And as thus to Varietie inclin'd,
    So in all Humours sportively I range:
    My Muse is rightly of the English straine,
    That cannot long one Fashion entertaine.

  12. March 9, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    I would like to second Mr. Knott’s opinion, above, by re-posting my comment responding to the essay by David Orr about 'greatness’ in contemporary poetry. This comment is found on Travis Nichols’ post here on Harriet regarding Orr’s essay called 'I Pledge My Death Wattle to the Cause of Poetry’.
    "Mr. Orr has answered his own question in his third paragraph. The rest is superfluous.
    'Does being 'great’ simply mean writing poems that are 'great’?'
    Yes. Of course. What else?"

  13. March 9, 2009

    You know, Bill, for someone who's so anti-Silliman, you seem to like his categories a lot.

  14. March 10, 2009
     Henry Gould

    A very interesting & eloquent essay, Martin.
    I have some problems, however, with the mind-body "echo-chamber" analogy for a reading/writing source for poetry. It seems a bit too late-Victorian, out of Pater & Morris & Tennyson's Lotus-Eaters... the mind as a kind of sensitive plant... echoing past voices...
    I like the idea of poetry as a quasi-organiz phenomenon, a Tradition out of the deep past. But if we're going to talk brain science, thee must be other parts of the brain involved too - I'm thinking of the constructive-decisive, action-oriented globules, whatever they may be called. A poet responds, as a whole person, an integral personality, to the "pressure of the times". Often the poet finds poetic models from the past, & uses them, for solving dilemmas (existential &/or stylistic) which are very immediate & contemporary. The motive may not be simply to carry on an embattled tradition : it may be an effort to re-engage that tradition in new circumstances (necessity as the mother of tradition, or something like that).
    While I disagree with a lot of Bill Knott's polemical comments here, this idea of a distinction between "poems" & (unlimited, over-written) "poetry" makes a glancing critique of your image of poets as the superannuated relics of a former high stage of literate, educated & bookish civilzation. The idea of poets as primarily MAKERS OF DISTINCT POEMS aligns with the Aristotelian concept (in the Poetics) of poetry as not reducible to its verbal form. The poem is a formal, artistic-imaginative entity or "shape". The poet's compositional process is one of forming a mimetic representation of dramatic human acts. Plot, rather than language, is the bone-structure of the poem. We apprehend the whole, integral MIMESIS - not simply the verbal flow.
    & it seems to me that a good way to think of poetry is as a kind of balance of representation (mimesis) and condensation - that is, finding the apt verbal formula, the pithy essence, of a theme or situation. It's this 2nd element - condensation - which brings into play the "echo-chamber" of all the poetic forces & voices emanating from past tradition. Poetry is not an effete exercise for the few hypersentitive imitators & echoers of past writings; it's an active compositional process, of grasping what is useful from the past in order to speak to present conditions.
    The problem for me with Bill Knott's attitude is that he is not being Aristotelian enough. See the great & neglected Chicago Critics (RS Crane, especially) on this issue. Rather than borrowing Ron Silliman's pigeon-hole method of criticism, I suggest he try looking at poems & poets one at a time. There are poets across the whole spectrum of style who are grappling with their own thematic & stylistic issues. Some write long poems (Paradise Lost is a near-perfect long poem; Crane's The Bridge is a near-perfect long poem; H.D's long poem Trilogy was lauded here by a regular non-writing "reader of poems"...); some write short poems; some write both.
    As I see it, neither writing short free-verse lyrics (Bill's best-sellers), nor formal verse in chosen traditional forms (Annie Finch's campaign), offer the solution to problems which perhaps the exploratory "post-avants" been struggling to find, by way of their rambling compositions. That is an adequate speech to meet the present day. Thus the divide between, in Bill's terms, SON & SOQ, offers a polemic mirage, rather than a way forward.
    For me, the way forward involves a very capacious sense of possible, usable diction & prosody - reflected in poems which are nourished by the whole spectrum of tradition & experiment, ancient & modern. But this has to be combined with a sense of integral poetic structure (which Bill was starting to get at) - Aristotle's idea of form as dramatic, imaginative shape, rather than merely a verbal construct, or a special form of musical "discourse". Such an integral, dramatic sense of poetry is what can possibly match the "form & pressure of the time".

  15. March 10, 2009
     thomas brady

    Knott Praised
    We’re building THE POEM, and we’re building it strong;
    We're making it ship-shape, for POETRY is long
    And POETRY will rage, and try to drown our song.
    Silliman’s the ping, but I, Bill Knott, am pong.
    The Language Poets are stupid, and because of this, wrong.
    We’re building THE POEM, the ring to sing the bling to king kong!

  16. March 10, 2009
     thomas brady

    Great stuff. I think you nailed the whole 'echo chamber' thing really well.
    Just a word about Aristotle. He's a footnote to Plato. Aristotelian mimesis always sidesteps the more important question Plato asked about mimesis. The real bed exists because first we have a rationale, or reason, for a bed; if we merely imitate a bed, without taking into account the rationale of the bed, we'll founder on this ridiculous debate between Knott and Silliman. A poem is only ironically a shape or a form or a thing. This 'only' is everything to the Language poets and nothing to the formalists. I agree with you that there is a third way. Not Aristotle's mimesis, or ironical lack thereof, but Plato's rationale.

  17. March 10, 2009
     Bill Knott

    if you don't like SOQ vs SON, then revert to the default historical terms for this schism,
    here posited by Barry Schwabsky in his review of Barbara Guest's Collected:
    [There is] a fundamental difference between [Denise] Levertov . . . and Guest: the former was essentially a classicist in aesthetics; the latter, a pure romantic. The essence of romantic poetry, as Friedrich Schlegel asserted in 1798, was that "it should forever be becoming and never perfected."
    ... the difference, as Schwabsky correctly notes,
    is fundamental––
    not to be glossed over with fatuous euphemisms . . .

  18. March 10, 2009
     thomas brady

    "Being" and "Becoming" belong to metaphysics, not poetry. It is a truism that poetry belongs to the world of "'becoming," (never perfected) whether you call it classicist, romantic, Schlegelist, Guestian, Levertovian, or Schwabskinean.
    Romanticism is a term that really belongs to politics, not aesthetics. Byron and Wordsworth would vote the same before they would write the same.

  19. March 10, 2009
     Henry Gould

    .I have no problem with the articulation of "fundamental" aesthetic principles; It's important to understand them. & I said I believe that Knott's idea of integral, finished poems is important.
    My point was, that if you start with categorical abstract principles, and attempt to pin them polemically on whole swaths of tendencies & movements, you are not doing criticism, you are doing cataloging. Barry Schwabsky may have a good point about the poetry of Barbara Guest. That doesn't make her a "School fo Noise", which is simply another name for one of Ron Silliman's branding tools. The fact that Schwabsky finds Guest a "pure Romantic" doesn't explain The Countess from Minnespolis, which is about as Romantic as Alexander Pope.
    The world is full of reams of terrible poetry. The Language poets got going because they disdained the Romantic solipsism of the 70's lyric "I". They went on to write their own kinds of classically finished, formal, terrible poems. Bill Knott sees the world awash in terribly Romantic School of Noise poetry. Short, finished poems are best - especially if they are really finished off, dead on arrival.
    But disdain is not really conducive to either critical receptivity or good judgement.

  20. March 10, 2009

    The record shows that Bill K is certainly correct that many of the SON proclaim process over product and poetry over poems. Many process-oriented people have polemicized against lyric, but an orientation toward process is another step in the historical process of the subjectivization of lyric since Wordsworth; even if the SON disowns subjectivity, the "plot," to poach from Henry, of the typical process-oriented poetry is one of consciousness observing, or consciousness at play, or consciousness abandoning itself to process-oriented language games -- even when the SON poet disavows the role of (individual) consciousness. Note Silliman's approving citation of reviewers comparing his recent huge book to a record of someone looking out the window during an extreeeeeeeeeemely long bus trip.
    The irony is, what could be quieter than THAT?
    If the consciousness in question is particularly vivid, fascinating, interesting, compelling, witty, insightful, wise, warm, endearing -- then Process-Oriented-Poetry (POP, for short) can be great.

  21. March 10, 2009

    What John says reminds of a Garry Wills quote about "that anachronistic thing, a postmodern romanticism, maintaining that all great art must be 'subversive.'"

  22. March 10, 2009
     Don Share

    Hm. How 'bout this one: "All the cocksure movements of the last century have collapsed into a bewildering, trackless here and now." -- Peter Schjeldahl

  23. March 10, 2009
     Diana Manister

    I can't think why you guys mention Silliman all the time. You're doing PR for him!
    If you're still mad about all the attention LangPo got, you're not keeping up. Remember, if it's in, it's out.

  24. March 10, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Point taken, John. I lay down my Bishop. Knott is making a solid punch at a real weak spot in contemporary poetry zeitgeist. Process poetry vs. integral poem is not just a polemical abstraction. & if postmodernism is merely a stylish new version of Romantic subjectivity, well, that's a problem for the "post-avant" self-image, isn't it? As ground-breaking, radical technicians of the New.
    But what is the alternative? Classicism? Book sales? What is the context of the finished, integral poem, the poem per se? Does it NEED a context? When does the little machine made of words become an idol - somebody's lavishly-elaborated rhetorical dream toy? & how is that less self-absorbed & narcissistic than a "process" project?
    I feel that John Berryman, for one, was troubled by these issues. & he doesn't easily fit Knott's irascible knotholes.

  25. March 10, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Here's a finished-process poem :
    The latter 2/5ths of the sequence is calibrated (echo-chambered) in a strict sequence (based on Alastair Fowler's numerological schema) to Shakespeare's sonnet series. & the diction is meant to be modern-day.
    The poem was first published in London, around Xmas, in an edition of about 5 copies, with a purple construction-paper cover (at a copy center). I don't have any copies, myself. (I happened to be in London because I was tagging along with my wife on her company dime - it seemed to make sense to publish it in London first - see poem #50.) There is 1 copy in the Harris Collection of American Poetry (John Hay Library, Brown University) - which also holds Walt Whitman's personal copy of Leaves of Grass - another damn process poem.

  26. March 10, 2009
     Henry Gould

    p.s. some illustrative biographical context, here :
    As John Berryman might ask : where does the poem end, and "Henry" begin?, Or "Henry" end, and Berryman begin? Where does the soul find rest (His Toy, His Dream) from Love & Fame (& vanity)? In the finished poem? Or the view over the next hill?
    He jumped off the bridge down the road from my grandfather's house, on my grandfather's birthday. In frozen Minneapolis.
    Requiescat in pace... over there in Resurrection Cemetery, finished poet...

  27. March 10, 2009
     thomas brady

    "Process poetry vs. integral poem is not just a polemical abstraction."
    Henry, I believe it *is* a polemical abstraction.
    Process--if we are going to throw around this word--exists over and above the poem as the rationale of the poem, not *in* the (finished) poem itself.
    *All* poems, sequences, stains, blotches, noise, share this feature: they are produced by some rationale (articulated or not) above and beyond themselves. The Poem school, therefore, cedes way too much ground to the Process school, since 'process' is just as relevant to a little hard gem of a sonnet as it is to whatever kind of experimental 'Process' poem we can possibly dream. (There is no such thing as a 'process poem.' All poems are frozen, and caught in the net of some rationale.)
    Henry, you had me when you were questioning Heaney back there, but now you've lost me.
    To bemoan romanticism's lyric "I" is common, but nonsensical, because 1) Romanticism has no monopoly on the first person and 2) to attempt to legislate against something so universal as the first person is like protesting comedy. We don't like comedy by people who aren't funny. We don't like the first person when the speaker is boring. Avants protest romanticism and they don't even know what it is. Such a protest resembles comedy that isn't funny.
    I'd like to help poor Bill out, but he's hanging himself on his own argument.

  28. March 11, 2009
     Henry Gould

    I think John made a valid point in his comment above. There has been a substantial stream of 20th-cent. poetry which represents the theory & practice of ongoing, serial composition. I think it stems in large part from Whitman, Pound, Olson & the "poem of a life". & the suspicion of finish & totality, the affinity for art as open-ended, infinitely-expansive aesthetic process (well described in the Schwabsky review quoted by Knott) represents an even larger field of activity.
    As for your comment :
    "Process--if we are going to throw around this word--exists over and above the poem as the rationale of the poem, not *in* the (finished) poem itself.
    *All* poems, sequences, stains, blotches, noise, share this feature: they are produced by some rationale (articulated or not) above and beyond themselves. The Poem school, therefore, cedes way too much ground to the Process school, since 'process' is just as relevant to a little hard gem of a sonnet as it is to whatever kind of experimental 'Process' poem we can possibly dream. (There is no such thing as a 'process poem.' All poems are frozen, and caught in the net of some rationale.) "
    - I think we could argue about that. Your "complete" process-oriented poem gives evidence indeed of a controlling rationale - ie. the aesthetics of the incomplete. "Writing" which has no particular beginning, middle or end; which is defended as part of something always larger & ongoing & growing, like a natural life-force...
    Whereas the rationale for integral, complete, unique & finished poems distinguishes the holistic structure of the individual artwork from writing per se, or "poetry" at large.
    These are two distinct approaches to poetry-making. But I agree with you that BOTH somehow come up short, if art is conceived as a self-enclosed totality, without reference to ANYTHING outside it, or on a different scale of meaning. This is what I was trying to get at in my previous comment about Berryman, toys, idols, etc.

  29. March 11, 2009
     thomas brady

    You put it very well here:
    "There has been a substantial stream of 20th-cent. poetry which represents the theory & practice of ongoing, serial composition. I think it stems in large part from Whitman, Pound, Olson & the "poem of a life". & the suspicion of finish & totality, the affinity for art as open-ended, infinitely-expansive aesthetic process (well described in the Schwabsky review quoted by Knott) represents an even larger field of activity."
    But here's my concern:
    Dickens' novels were published in serial form, and Poe produced 'ongoing' stories with his revolutionary Dupin character (which led to Sherlock Holmes and popular detective fiction) and the Romantics spun out fragments and glimpses of life and so forth. This is the problem, as I see it. We keep boxing these 'movements' which supposedly belong to the 20th-cent and we hyper-inflate Whitman, Pound, Olson as "ongoing" and "process" poets, implying some great revolutionary impact, when, thanks to poets like Whitman, Pound and Olson, this is when the public turned away from poetry; very few people outside the academy read Pound or Olson or Whitman; they've been rescued by academia along the lines you are describing, as "revolutionary process" poets, when, really, 90% of it is pure self-indulgence; the 'open-ended' movements you describe are not new or revolutionary at all. People talk as if Pound was the first poet to translate, or Whitman was the first poet to orate. Come on!
    This is why poetry is marginalized and gets no respect, etc etc. It's because of a gruff, emotional refusal to look at these 20th century modernist icons with a cold eye.
    The Modernists are "anti-Romantics" kept afloat by the most misty, ignorant Romantic notions imaginable.

  30. March 11, 2009

    Thanks for the comment (MARCH 10, 2009 10:23 AM) and for the wonderful work you’ve done on the thread so far. Apologies for joining so late (deadlines, my excuse). At any rate, I wanted to comment on a couple of things, as a way of easing myself into the discussion. You’re right to pick out the “echo-chamber” analogy. But let’s not forget that that comes from a 1974 essay, and I wonder how Seamus Heaney would state things now, thirty-five years later.
    At any rate, I don’t see the temporal dynamic as a problem at all, and feel quite at home with Pater and Co. (You, yourself, seem even to agree, in spite of your “problems” in the paragraph above, when you talk about “re-engaging the tradition in new circumstances.” What I admired in the Heaney essay was how anticipatory it seemed vis-à-vis Demasio, the poet “getting it” first, as it were.
    Likewise, I don’t quite agree with you that “Plot, rather than language, is the bone-structure of the poem.” Of course poems need plot, as plot is essential to representation and mimesis. Aristotle, of course, anticipated much that would occur in the physical sciences, in theology, metaphysics, logic. But The Poetics is one of his more conservative and least forward looking works. The materiality of language in poetry is an invention of the Renaissance. And I think that since then poets have put that first. Aristotle’s view that literature was basically imitative has been exchanged for mimetic fallacy. Likewise, I find your definition of poetry as “an active compositional process, of grasping what is useful from the past in order to speak to present conditions” a bit dry.
    Your own poems, one of which I was looking at last night, a wonderful sonnet sequence entitled “Island Road” (1997) seems closer to “verbal flow” than Aristotelian mimesis.

  31. March 11, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Thanks very much, Martin - I appreciate your time & attention to Island Road.
    I'm going Aristotelian by way of RS Crane (Chicago School). Crane is wonderfully clarifying on Aristotle's meaning. You have to follow A's method before applying his claims to poetry in general. I mean you CAN'T really apply them to poetry in general. Aristotle takes a "line of inquiry" : his analysis distinguishes things more and more narrowly as to their concrete distinctiveness. Thus his concept of "mimetic" poetry does not apply directly to vast regions of other kinds of poetry (didactic, allegorical, lyrical...). He zeroes in on tragic verse drama.
    So I'm being UN-Aristotelian, I guess, by shifting some of those particular values over to other kinds of poetry. But I'm following Crane & other Chi. School critics here (ie. Elder Olson).
    There is one idea in RS Crane that I found extremely interesting :
    - that a poem's form or structure cannot simply be equated with its grammar, its rhetoric, its diction. A poem has an imaginative-affective form which is distinct from all other art forms or media or discourse. And this ("sculptural") form is rooted in a representative "fiction" of things that - no matter how re-shaped by play & imagination - the audience or reader can still IDENTIFY with on some level - emotionally, intellectually. The poem stages a kind of scene. The language of the poem EVOKES this scene, but is not strictly identifiable with it : thus, structure or form is not merely a matter of the verse armature, but rather of the expressive shape or integral whole which this mimetic scene creates in the reader's mind.
    I think this concept of poetic form applies to a wider range of poetry than tragic drama. By mimesis Aristotle (& Crane) are not talking about "realism" (ie. mimetic fallacy, or history...). But they are suggesting poetry's ability to evoke a response to a series of reprsentations - an imaginative composition - due to the audience's ability to identify, in some fashion, with what is represented.
    (As far as a "plot" underlying the wayward flow of Island Road, the sonnet sequence : yes, it might be difficult to identify, or identify with! Yet there is a plot. It's a kind of allegorical situation or drama, I guess. You have to accept the notion that Shakespeare, His Sonnets, the Dark Lady, London, and America form a kind of matrix in the mysterious "muse" or lover addressed by the poet. And the plot is a kind of quest to encounter that matrix. Shakespeare's Sonnets underly the structure & diction, especially in the latter portion (after #60). It's an attempt at anachronism : to re-encounter the Sonnets, to mirror them, & create a new, contemporaneous situation. And maybe this is an (imperfect) reply to the notion that poetic tradition, as we know & love it, is fighting a losing battle.)

  32. March 11, 2009

    Your paraphrase of RS Crane (“that a poem’s form or structure…”) is excellent. I’ve never read Crane. I thank you for the lead. Aristotle, is of course not talking about “realism”, as you say. In the Poetics, one of the most important categories is plausibility. That could be a very important factor in a certain kind of poetry. Marilyn Hacker, Cesare Pavese, Frost. But once we are there it can be extended more broadly. Your paraphrase of Crane in fact reminds me of a rationale John Ashbery once used in conversation with me to draw the line between himself and the language poets. He said something very much like what you say about “expressive shape” leading to scene, representation, however filtered. The poem has to refer, however obliquely, to something, other than its own linguistic materiality.
    Thanks so much for the Crane reference. Let’s change, for the moment “losing battle” to “imperfect battle”…I’ll sleep easier that way.

  33. March 11, 2009

    (In response to MARCH 10, 2009 1:16 PM)
    Plato wanted to boot you out of the Republic because of that very rationale...Don't you think we could upgrade Aristotle's status from "footnote" to, must have a suggestion. Let's talk about this.

  34. March 11, 2009

    (top of the thread)
    You don’t let anything slip by.
    For starters: “But I feel, in the end, that maybe you love reading so much because it provides you another route through which to access all the things you claim are secondary in the scale of your desire.”
    Of course, I take that to heart. Some days I consider it simply a predicament, other days a tragedy.
    Your statement has a whole pedigree behind it: perfection of the life or art, life as an imitation of art, O poeta é um fingidor, You must change your life, Shall I compare thee, We poets in our youth… and now, in the scale of your desire.
    What you are describing is the central joy and the central malaise in the poet’s life. For most, literature (or television) is ancillary to life. For the poet, the painter, the composer, life is ancillary to art. It’s an inversion that both sustains, and drives us mad. (But thereof come in the end despondency and madness)…Faust’s predicament in a nutshell.
    What I want you to do is to tell me that this is a false binary.
    And then, if it is, how I should think “of the Leech-gatherer on the lonely moor?”

  35. March 12, 2009
     thomas brady

    Thanks for your interest. You make a good point. Let me respond, not to you, but just in general. Here's my little rant to sort of put things in perspective:
    Plato is terribly misunderstood. (Good thing I'm here!) It's not whether you are in or out, whether you are kicked out of the Republic, or not. It's getting the poet to think beyond his own poopy-pants self to what the big secret might be.
    I don't worry that Socrates is going to kick me out. I like the challenge. I'm not a crybaby. I believe in my society as much as I believe in myself. I want to THINK about these things. Plato is not for whiners and crybabies.
    But, yea, there's lots to discuss here. Rant over.

  36. March 12, 2009
     Henry Gould

    This fool must plunge in again where dead horses fear to tread...
    Back to Bill Knott's comments on the finished & the endless, poems vs. poetry.
    His quote from Duncan (advice to Spicer), & the other exhortations ("you must read everything") are pretty damning. Linked with Schwabsky's take on Barbara Guest's "romantic" method of composition, we are being urged by Knott to see a Sheep & Goats situation, where writers & readers of real individual poems are swamped in a morass of self-indulgent, narcissistic, neo-romantic scribbling.
    Seems to me the situation is a bit more complicated. Since the advent of Modernism, & Joyce's "Revolution of the Word", & Eliot's impersonality, & the New Criticism, the tendency toward open-ended experiment with language-as-object has less to do with Duncan's neo-romanticism, and more to do with a new kind of modernist classicism : the making of autotelic objects which de-familiarize both art and experience. & that tendency crossed paths with the Whitman-inspired life-projects (Cantos, Paterson, Maximus) - which can indeed be seen as offspring of Romanticism (John's "subjectivization of lyric" - see comment above). & so we get the worst of both worlds - endless self-centered rambling, under the guise of impersonal artistic experiment.
    But this is a gross over-simplification. The fact is that every poet struggles with the Scylla & Charibdis of subjectivity & impersonality. The experiments of early Modernism were based in an effort to find a relevant speech, when the Victorian styles seemed to have become stilted & quaint, out of touch with 20th-cent. realities. When, at mid-century, these techniques in turn seemed to be becoming formulaic & out-of-touch, Lowell & Berryman & Sexton & Plath & Ashbery & O'Hara & many others tried to bring the unfinished & personal messiness of life back into poetic speech & style. When this movement in turn got smoothed out & homogenized for classroom distribution, in the 70s, the Language Poets came along, to dynamite the "lyic I" once again; "experiment" was back in style.
    What is the common denominator underlying this oscillation back & forth? I think it is the domination of Method - a consequence of the 20th-cent. shift in education, from "writing" as something you learn in grammar school, to "writing" as something that can be taught all the way to post-graduate levels. It doesn't matter whether you are a lone neo-modernist serial dabbler in the Revolution of the Word, or a neo-Maximus romantic projectivist of the Endless Self-Poem, or a mainstream ambitious MFA songster, producing neatly-packaged lyric 18-liners, in clever, ingratiating free-verse or metrical form : you're all dutiful servants of Technique. Bill Knott's "finished" poems float there in their own little perfect Jars in Tennessee (usually reflecting some version of a knowing, complacent voice we've heard somewhere before, often - often the poet's most-admired MFA professor).
    So Knott & Silliman want us to choose up sides. I would rather believe that the form of a "complete" poem is strictly unknowable a priori, in the abstract. & if you can easily pigeonhole it into one camp or another, then either the poem is an imitation, or you're not reading carefully enough. But there are authentic poems being written today across the whole spectrum of tendencies (including short & long). & sizing up the oppsing "camps" is just another way to avoid encountering those works.

  37. March 12, 2009
     Henry Gould

    To put it more simply, Knott : a lot of us fall outside the range of your rainbarrels, & Silliman's. Poetry is not a team sport. Poems are not checker pieces, red or black, that you pile up to win a bet.

  38. March 12, 2009
     thomas brady

    Henry Gould!!
    I am not worthy!
    (And I don't think Bill Knott will ever post here again.)
    Yours, in awe,

  39. March 12, 2009

    I agree that the early modernists wanted their art to intervene in life, to defamiliarize art and experience.
    I don't happen to see Bill's case as particularly damning; it's more, he just doesn't happen to like the POP-sters. (Process-Oriented-Poets.) ("Happens to like is one of the ways things happen to fall" -- Stevens.) I happen to like -- love -- Duncan's, Zukofsky's, Ronald Johnson's, and Whitman's life-poems (none of which I've read in full), and some of Olson's too -- so, I read 'em like Knott would have me, for the poems, not the Grand Design (or lack thereof), or even the process; I honor the process(es) for the poems to which they give rise.
    But is that true? Or do I read poems for poems or for individual passages? Both, I suppose.
    It's funny, I always find myself going back to my teacher Ken Mikolowoski's great passage in his poem, “Understanding Art: or the power of the memorable":
    wouldn’t it be
    if the whole
    thing were
    like the good part
    Henry, your insistence on the primacy of the individual voice really cuts across all styles, doesn't it? Certainly any classic and any classical poet still read today has an individual voice, unknown poets included (such as the author of one of my very favorite poems, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"). It's hard to think of an exception.
    I had to look up "autotelic." Merriam-Webster Online says, "having a purpose in and not apart from itself"; in aesthetic terms, art for art's sake! So, romanticism again. I would say, though, that the early modernists weren't art-for-art's-sakers; their poems weren't autotelic objects, but activist, as you say. Sorry to score vocabulary points!
    Bottom line: I agree, any camp can prodeuce good stuff.

  40. March 12, 2009
     Martin Earl

    Thanks for crystalizing things, this whole question of poetry vs the poem.
    I'm a total fan of Zukovsky's impossible A as well, but like you I parse it.
    As you say:
    "I read 'em like Knott would have me, for the poems, not the Grand Design (or lack thereof), or even the process."
    Henry is driving the latter parts of this thread with his wonderful analytical energy.
    Fueled by Bill?
    He even dovetails with Annie Finch's recent post on poet-pairs right in the middle of his comment above. Perhaps he and Bill are pairing? What do you think?
    At any rate, your comment is like a new pair of glasses, the better to train in on an already fabulous discussion.

  41. March 12, 2009
     Brian Salchert

    The fact this post elicited 39 comments is why I decided to pay
    more attention to it tonight. I have a little something I want to
    share, but first the give and take here is the most reasonable I
    have encountered at Harriet. In particular, finding Henry Gould
    in such a congenial state impresses and pleases me. And I
    agree with John's interpretation of Bill Knott's position: that he
    just doesn't like process-oriented-poets. However, there is a
    wonderful 27-line process poem by Lyn Hejinian at Poem Talk,
    a radio program Silliman provides a link to each time there is
    a new talk. That poem is a meditation on process, constant
    change, human being. My piece is a title and five lines
    that could be dismissed as merely a silly game, and it did
    not come to me as it is until after the title and first line came
    because that part of it I--rightly or wrongly--associate with
    lawyers and when it entered my consciousness I had no idea
    what I was going to do with it. This was in June of 2007
    when I had set myself the goal of writing 3 poems each day.
    Right now I am in a lull period. I see this piece as being
    both open and closed. Emphasis falls on the second and
    fifth words in each line.
    be that as it may
    that as it may be
    as it may be that
    it may be that as
    may be that as it

  42. March 13, 2009
     Bill Knott

    In considering the poem vs. poetry split, look at this quote from
    Randall Jarrell, "The Third Book of Criticism," page 65:
    "Stevens's poetry makes one understand how valuable it can be for a poet to write a great deal. Not too much of that great deal, ever, is good poetry; but out of quantity can come practice, naturalness, accustomed mastery, adaptations and elaborations and reversals of old ways, new ways, even–so that the poet can put into the poems, at the end of a lifetime, what the end of a lifetime brings him."
    This relates to Simic's contention that Creeley's prospects for a future readership would have been better enhanced by an 80-page Selected than that all-inclusive Collected–
    I agree: how much can you expect the General Audience/the Nonspecialist Reader to take on their plate–
    Indeed, I would go further and suggest that the concept of a Collected Poems is not merely superfluous and redundant,
    but that it has become an anachronism, and will someday be scorned as an unnecessary, foolish luxury–
    In almost all cases an 80-100 page Selected can and will adequately represent any and every important poet, Creeley included,
    (those few swots and academics who desire more will find vocational satisfaction in questing out the arcana . . . )
    because Jarrell is right:
    "Not too much of that great deal, ever, is good poetry . . . ."
    One of my observations in my first comment above was that by restricting her output Bishop was closer to Larkin than to Lowell–
    add the pages of their Collected Poems and get a total hundreds less than the latter's Collected . . .
    Not too much of Lowell's Collected is good poetry: according to Jarrell, that is.
    Speaking of Larkin, I came across this recently in Peter Levi's biog of Tennyson:
    "Tennyson (like Auden) is one of the most brilliant beginners of poems, as Larkin is one of the most brilliant enders . . . ."

  43. March 13, 2009
     Henry Gould

    I guess that's why we have anthologies, Bill. & critics like Jarrell.
    But isn't there some possible value in "writing a lot"? Jarrell himself points to it, as you say : "but out of quantity can come practice, naturalness, accustomed mastery, adaptations and elaborations and reversals of old ways, new ways, even–so that the poet can put into the poems, at the end of a lifetime, what the end of a lifetime brings him."
    Or her.
    When you're not writing for a stage, or an inaugural, or tenure, or a degree, or a clique, or a greeting card company, or a publisher's advance, or a deadline.... when you're just writing because you have to write.... when your writing is unrecognizable, uncategorizable, & seemingly useless...
    - well, in that case, sometimes, self-confidence can be a problem. & sometimes, in circumstances like that, the best way to keep writing is to keep writing. & "the fool who persists in his foolishness shall become wise", as a certain ornery scribbler once wrote.

  44. March 13, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Sorry, that should have read "the fool who persists in his FOLLY..."
    - persistently yours,

  45. March 13, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    "Speaking of Larkin, I came across this recently in Peter Levi's biog of Tennyson:
    'Tennyson (like Auden) is one of the most brilliant beginners of poems, as Larkin is one of the most brilliant enders . . . .'"
    I don’t know, but 'They f*ck you up, your Mum and Dad’ is a pretty good beginning.

  46. March 13, 2009
     thomas brady

    "Tennyson is one of the most brilliant beginners of poems, as Larkin is one of the most brilliant enders . . . ."
    You Begin It, Alfred
    The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
    The vapors weep their burden to the ground,
    Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
    And after many a summer dies the swan.
    Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
    In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
    Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
    The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
    Work has to be done.
    Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

  47. March 13, 2009
     thomas brady

    You're right, of course. Memorable poets will always excell at beginnings and endings. A great beginning, or, a great ending, will launch a poem into the anthologies that lurch through college bookstores, but only a poem with both will make its poet immortal.
    P.S. It might be fun to play D.J. and yoke different poets together...has that been done?

  48. March 13, 2009
     Martin Earl

    To climb back up the ladder a bit, out of the fowl rag and bone shop of this thread, I just wanted to reiterate a link you gave us to some autobiographical material and Shakespeare (deep background presumably to your sonnet sequence, Island Road). This is an incredible account of an earlier version of H.G. and of what sounds like a very close call: (, worth reading by everyone who has engaged in this process vs poem debate. Your account shed's light on the difference between the process of life and the artifice of the poem, or as Thomas put it, one rung back down the ladder:
    "Process--if we are going to throw around this word--exists over and above the poem as the rationale of the poem, not *in* the (finished) poem itself."
    I have my own ideas, running more to the historical context behind this debate, which I will try to get to later.
    In the meantime, I hope people follow your link.

  49. March 13, 2009
     Henry Gould

    I meant to say earlier, that your fine bit from Ken Mikolowski reminded me of this paradigmatic passage out of Coleridge's Biographia Literaria. The concluding statement is pretty relevant to this whole discussion :
    "POETRY itself, in *kind*, and in *essence*.
    The office of philosophical *disquisition* consists in just *distinction*; while it is the privilege of the philosopher to preserve himself constantly aware, that distinction is not division. In order to obtain adequate notions of any truth, we must intellectually separate its distinguishable parts; and this is the technical process of philosophy. But having so done, we must then restore them in our conceptions to the unity, in which they actually co-exist; and this is the *result* of philosophy. A poem contains the same elements as a prose composition; the difference therefore must consist in a different combination of them, in consequence of a different object proposed. According to the difference of the object will be the difference of the combination. It is possible, that the object may be merely to facilitate the recollection of any given facts or observations by artificial arrangement; and the composition will be a poem, merely because it is distinguished from composition in prose by metre, or by rhyme, or by both conjointly. In this, the lowest sense, a man might attribute the name of a poem to the well-known enumeration of the days in the several months;
    Thirty days hath September,
    April, June, and November, &c.
    and others of the same class and purpose. And as a particular pleasure is found in anticipating the recurrence of sounds and quantities, all compositions that have this charm superadded, whatever be their contents, *may* be entitled poems.
    So much for the superficial form. A difference of object and contents supplies an additional ground of distinction. The immediate purpose may be the communication of truths; either of truth absolute and demonstrable, as in works of science; or of facts experienced and recorded, as in history. Pleasure, and that of the highest and most permanent kind, may *result* from the *attainment* of the end; but it is not itself the immediate end. In other works the communication of pleasure may be the immediate purpose--and though truth either moral or intellectual, ought to be the ultimate end, yet this will distinguish the character of the author, not the class to which the work belongs. Blessed indeed is that state of society, in which the immediate purpose would be baffled by the perversion of the proper *ultimate* end; in which no charm of diction or imagery could exempt the Bathyllus even of an Anacreon, or the Alexis of Virgil, from disgust and aversion!
    But the communication of pleasure may be the immediate object of a work not metrically composed; and that object may have been in a high degree attained, as in novels and romances. Would then the mere superaddition of metre, with or without rhyme, entitle *these* to the name of poems? The answer is, that nothing can permanently please, which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so, and not otherwise. If metre be superadded, all other parts must be made consonant with it. They must be such, as to justify the perpetual and distinct attention to each part, which an exact correspondent recurrence of accent and sound are calculated to excite. The final definition then so deduced, may be thus worded. A poem is that species of composition, which is opposed to works of science, by proposing for its *immediate* object pleasure, not truth; and from all other species (having *this* object in common with it) it is discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the *whole*, as is compatible with a distinct ratification from each component *part*. "
    (see link here :
    Coleridge's concept of proportion, as essential to the pleasing beauty of poetry, seems relevant to this debate about "whole poems" vs. open-ended "poetry".... the concept, offered here by Coleridge the arch-Romantic, is pure Classical doctrine : goes back to the Ancients. Once you discovered the "Golden Mean" - the point of mediation or equilibrium between distinct or opposing elements - you possessed the key to their happy combination or synthesis. You create a beautiful whole, which yet maintains the integrity of each of its "working" parts. Yeats' recurrent "Pythagorean" theme is based on this idea.

  50. March 13, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Dear Martin,
    Thank you so much for exploring the wild old roads of HG Poetics.
    Island Road was indeed, among other things, an experiment in "answering" Shakespeare's letter to me. & maybe the deep subtext of this (Bergsonian) game, was the psychic shock of that original strange encounter. Irrational riddle, inexplicable, confounding my mind!
    "Here the anthem doth commence:
    Love and constancy is dead;
    Phoenix and the turtle fled
    In a mutual flame from hence.
    So they lov'd, as love in twain
    Had the essence but in one;
    Two distincts, division none:
    Number there in love was slain.
    Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
    Distance, and no space was seen
    'Twixt the turtle and his queen;
    But in them it were a wonder.
    So between them love did shine,
    That the turtle saw his right
    Flaming in the phoenix' sight:
    Either was the other's mine.
    Property was thus appall'd,
    That the self was not the same;
    Single nature's double name
    Neither two nor one was call'd.
    Reason, in itself confounded,
    Saw division grow together;
    To themselves yet either-neither,
    Simple were so well compounded
    That it cried how true a twain
    Seemeth this concordant one!
    Love hath reason, reason none
    If what parts can so remain.
    (from "The Phoenix & the Turtle")
    There is probably a medical term for this phenomenon : the sensation of BEING DIRECTLY ADDRESSED, IN PERSON by a piece of writing. Shakespeare, of course, deserves a little credit for the strictly literary capability to effect such a thing. & I'm sure there's a large book to be written, & probably has been, chronicling the quaint & quirky responses to the Bard, over the years.
    Alastair Fowler's work on numerical design in poetry - & his study of the Sonnets' hidden numerological meanings (or possible meanings) - was one of the instigations for Island Road. It gave me a framework for dramatizing, in a new key - a sort of comic pantomime - the quest of a "young American poet" in search of his "literary father".
    Under the aegis, of course, of my own Dark (& somewhat Russian) Lady....

  51. March 13, 2009
     Bill Knott

    "POP-sters" or pap-sters,
    another acronym for them might be RAP: Reader-Abjuring-Poets–
    as Donald Davie states their case in an 1972 essay whose definitions still seem apropos:
    "The reader looks at the poem published yesterday to see what signals the poet is sending him, whereas the poet if he is any good is not flying any signals at all but feeling his way into or around a fragment of life. The reader may listen in if he wants to, but he is not being addressed."
    Later in the same piece he insists that the authentic contemporary poem is the one that
    "runs an insurmountable wire fence between itself and the reader; the reader may look through the wire mesh, but he cannot join in. . . . And this is an affront [to] the reader . . . [who thinks] that the writer's prime duty is to him, the reader, rather than to his [the poet's] own experience, his own subject."
    These quotes state the case pretty clearly, I think,
    though most of today's reader-hostile poets
    know to cloak their enmity with testosteronic boasts
    that their bitter odes can cleanse bourgeois discourse from the body politic–
    Davies' harsh credo is surely shared by most poets I've termed SONs,
    but could just as well label with the tag, Sponges, using Pasternak's metaphors for the two tendencies (Fountains vs Sponges)––
    tendencies? Paz prefers "temptation" in his summation of this bifurcation:
    "The history of modern poetry is that of the oscillation between revolutionary temptation and religious temptation."

  52. March 13, 2009
     Martin Earl

    I tend toward your side of the process vs. poem debate, but your comparison of Larkin with Bishop confounds intention with, well, the way things simply panned out.
    As you say: "One of my observations in my first comment above was that by restricting her output Bishop was closer to Larkin than to Lowell–"
    Do you think that either Larkin or Bishop set about to consciously "restrict" their output. Bishop complains constantly in her letters about procrastination and laziness. Larkin was in the habit or simply running dry for months at a time, which he carped about as well.
    I certainly take your point about Lowell and Bishop being entirely different kinds of poets, but to what extent are these conscious decisions, except perhaps with "language" writers who use excess for ideological ends, carpet bombing, and the like...

  53. March 13, 2009
     thomas brady

    As usual, we owe you a debt of gratitude.
    Coleridge is just what we needed here, and Wordsworth's rival is at the top of his game in what you just quoted. (My only quibble is when you say, "Coleridge's principle of proportion"-- C. is not really talking about "proportion" so much as 'exact and recurring correspondence,' a far more rigorous idea.
    You say, "the concept, offered here by Coleridge the arch-Romantic, is pure Classical doctrine..."
    High Romanticism *is* Classical! Incalculable harm has followed in the wake of assuming the Romantics were egotistical slobs (Eliot and Pound's reading).
    Coleridge's "object" or aim (above and beyond the poem--the poem is a *consequence* of the object) is my "rationale" above.
    C. says the object or aim of a poem informs its style, and I'm kind of thinking that such rigor is even beyond Bill Knott, who is even more 'open-ended' than he supposes, though perhaps I do Bill an injustice here.
    If you took a stanza from Eliot's "Preludes" and put it in the middle of my Tennyson/Larkin poem above, the fit would be such as to make a reader dimly aware that is is styles that write poems, not people.
    This idea, that styles write poems, not people, belongs to the neo-classical T.S. Eliot, who for some reason felt he had to rebuke the Romantics--who were neo-classical!
    Moderns and avants, taking a cue from Eliot and Pound, got the Romantics all wrong, and we are still paying for this terrible mistake.

  54. March 13, 2009

    BRIAN SALCHERT ON MARCH 12, 2009 11:08 PM
    Good of you to take up the thread and thanks for the poem. I'm still reading it and it reads like miniature process poem...not, as you say, a silly game.
    It shares something with our great American miniaturist: do you think she, Emily of Amherst, was a closet process poet?

  55. March 13, 2009

    JASON CRANE ON MARCH 8, 2009 4:30 PM
    Thanks for touching base here...words and their relationship to content is the funniest thing about words, or about meaning in general. As a translator, I spend most of my day dumbfounded by the possibilities.
    I went to your site - I've always considered playing the saxophone to be, more than any other instrument, a kind of speech-act. It's the reed, isn't it, that makes the sax, the oboe, the clarinet closer to speech????? Than say the trumpet or the tuba, not to mention the trombone. I know Eric Dolphy was an absolutely fantastic flautist, but with the flute he doesn't get anywhere near his solo bass clarinet piece "Love Me".

  56. March 13, 2009
     Brian Salchert

    Your question about Emily made me sit back.
    I've actually never thought about her in that way,
    but she is in the LangPo pantheon,
    and I have several times written poems to her
    which also somewhat imitate her techniques.
    Someone like Susan Howe could
    more clearly answer your question than I.
    Let's just say--and I probably got this from
    a Silliman post--the Amherst recluse was
    interested in the processes of the mind.
    "I heard a fly buzz when I died."
    my miniaturist piece--which doesn't need to be read
    as I suggested--is a process work in that each line
    uses the same 5 words, but in a "slip-loop" order
    in an attempt to foreground perceptions of them
    which I at least had not previously considered.
    However, since that order (that constraint) also
    precludes a sixth line which is not like any line
    before it, "Therefore," is a closed (a formalist) work.
    It seems that poem-making is entering a use-whatever-works period
    and that the idea of hybridity is becoming the idea of choice.
    Thank you.