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Essay on Poetic Theory

The Fire (1967)


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.

I’m interested in a particular kind of narrative—what Jack Spicer and I agreed to call in our own work the serial poem—this is a narrative which refuses to adopt an imposed story line, and completes itself only in the sequence of poems, if, in fact, a reader insists upon a definition of completion which is separate from the activity of the poems themselves. The poems tend to act as a sequence of energies which run out when so much of a tale is told. I like to describe this in Ovidian terms, as a carmen perpetuum, a continuous song in which the fragmented subject matter is only apparently disconnected. Ovid’s words are:

to tell of bodies
into new shapes
you gods, whose power
worked all transformations,
help the poet’s breathing,
lead my continuous song
from the beginning to the present world

In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
corpora: di, coeptis (nam vos mutastis et illas)
adspirate meis, primaque ab origine mundi
ad meo perpetuum deducite tempora carmen!(10)

The sequence of energies may involve all kinds of things—anger may open a window, a sound from another world may completely reshape the present moment, the destruction of a friendship may destroy a whole realm of language or the ability to use it—each piece is in effect an extended metaphor (another word is probably needed), because in the serial poem the effort is to hold both the correspondence and the focus that an image is, and the process of those things coming together—so that the light from a white linen tablecloth reflects on the face on one’s companion, becomes light, fire, and the white moth which happens to be in the room is also light in the dark around the table, and is thus both the light and the element of light that destroys it. I ask you to remember that every metaphor involves at least four elements—which are a story, and the bringing them together is an activity, a glowing energy if stopped over, if entered. If the joy one feels in the sunny morning comes out as: the boat on the fire of the sea moves slowly to burn out—the story is of a boat on the sea—the fire is the sun on the water and the movement is of the boat, of the flow of the sun, and of the passing of the sun toward night. The joy of the movement is held a moment, then unfolds the story of the four elements, the boat and where it is, and the sun and what it is doing.

I wish now to extend these remarks by referring to some sources, which, in this case, were brought to me by Stan Persky, who has turned anthropologist, and who offers the pleasure of a real discourse. The gift is a passage in Edith Cobb. She says, “I became acutely aware that what a child wanted to do most of all was to make a world in which to find a place to discover a self. This ordering reverses the general position that self-exploration produces a knowledge of the world” (540). Furthermore, while observing the “passionate world-making behavior of the child,” she noted that “accompanied by a population of toys, fauna and flora, and artifacts that do duty as ‘figures of speech,’” she became “keenly aware of those processes which the genius in particular in later life seeks to recall” (540, my emphasis).(11) Edith Cobb in her interest in biological psychology moves to describe what she names a “cosmic sense,” which in a separate essay, Margaret Mead describes as “a human instinctual need for a perceptual relation to the universe.”(12) This is the scientific basis for the proprioceptive process which Charles Olson speaks of. In this context, I am arguing not for my pretentions as a poet, but for what the poetry reflects, if it is entered. That the poet does the job of entering this world and continues through his life to record that entrance is a fact, not pretense—that it is personal, original, and singular is also a fact. And here I want to quote the ethnologist Frank Speck on the Naskapi Indians (Labrador). He says that among them the form of the earth is like a hill and floats upon the water. He calls this a general concept, which is not true; it is a well-known image among them, and this informant, Charley Metowe’cic, said that the earth’s form comes to be known only from the testimony of a man about to die. “In the vision that comes at this time the mind can view the universe and sees all around the earth as it rises above the water. And he feels it rocking” (58).(13) This is a statement which draws my attention because it is my own belief that any vision of the world is not complete until a man dies.(14) I mean here that imagination is more a power to take in and hold than it is a power of making up, though it must in its activity take responsibility for the uncreated.

I want now to describe some very personal matters—as indications of the singularity—the personalness of language and form. I want here to create the image of a field which is true history, and autobiography, as well as land, place, and presence. I come to poetry with a definite sense of foreignness. Spicer once said that I was the only person he had ever met who could speak quotation marks, and these always appeared around the slang words I used. Now that given thing, language, comes to me through a combination of settled Americans on the one hand and from immigrants on the other. On the paternal side, a grandfather, born in the south of France, and a grandmother born in Wales, who was deeply ashamed of any non-English elements. That grandfather, Augustus Frederick Blaser, arrived in New York in the 1880s and came west to Sage, Wyoming, as a laborer for the railroad, and he was to work his way up to the exalted position of roadmaster and bishop of the Church of the Latter-day Saints. On the maternal side, a great-grandmother, whom I knew, from Springfield, Mass., who came west with the Mormons, and who had been secretary to Brigham Young. My own Roman Catholic thing comes from that great-grandmother’s hatred of Mormons, so that my mother and I were in turn sent to the Catholics—with whom we were both to learn “The Star-Spangled Banner” in Latin.(15) In the midst of this interplay of talk about revelation of God here on the American continent, somewhere on the Great Plains was my sense of it, and of the ritual mystery of the Catholic Church, performed for kneeling and rising men and women, we lived in houses that were always by the railroad tracks, sometimes between two railbeds—the houses were remodeled railway cars, sometimes dining cars—with window after window where the tables had been. There were painted yellow and placed upon cement foundations. There was always a vast desert of sagebrush, and in one’s place a small garden, watered from a well—of poplar trees, goldenrod, and—the garden was one’s own population. Shoshone and Blackfoot passed at a distance walking beside their wagons or dragloads. The people who lived and worked in this land were largely foreign—Greeks, Italians, Mexicans, and so on. Their hold on the land, the houses, the work, and the language was like that of migratory birds. Cities were dreams—I have never forgotten the early morning hum of the city waking up in the first city I had ever seen—Boise, Idaho. Towns I lived in had populations of 8 persons, 14, seldom 20—Kimima, Wapai, Orchard. Cities were imaginary—like oceans.(16) The name of a man would be a town. Blaser, Idaho, has, according to the current Rand McNally Commercial Atlas, no population. In this setting, that force to be English and American, settled, not migratory, forced that paternal grandfather to whisper any French words he wished to remember. And so far as I know, in this, I was his only companion. If we were alone listening to the radio, we would play at translating the words of popular songs:

Tu es la crême de mon café
Tu es le pois de ma soupe

Outwardly, to others, he was not foreign; the long southern a’s and trilled r’s of his French were secrets between us. He sported a goatee, and told me with increasing detail the strange tale that he was the lost Dauphin of France. This story and this language are fragmentarily preserved by me. None of his children knew it; my father denies his father was foreign born. When that grandfather was dying, riddled with cancer, I was called home from college to speak with him because the only worlds he knew were a childish French. And no member of the family knew enough to keep him company. That English and American thing had such force that the other English which most people spoke, more like Woody Guthrie’s, was also forbidden sound and thought:

I been doin’ some hard travelin’
I thought you knowed

There was a step-grandfather besides, who was German, with on eye, and could not hide his accent.(17) Because of his talk of the Kaiser, though the war was long over, they painted the house yellow, which was funny because the house was already yellow. But this was a bright yellow and when they threw a bucket of it over a window, the beautiful color was there, though it killed the verbenas in the window box. But the deer would have come to eat them anyway. Around this, like a circle with two circumferences, the house was surrounded by talk of Joseph Smith’s golden tablets, and the hatred of that talk. The laughter that a prophet could be named Smith still rings in my head.

I think every poet has a favorite imagery which helps him to explain the preoccupations of his work. I have repeatedly chosen the Orphic, and in so doing, I will remind you of certain elements of Orpheus’s story. Unfortunately, the usual reference to him covers his power in song over animals and rocks, and this has become thoroughly sentimentalized—the magic that it represents cheapened by the view that one wants power over rather than entrance to. There is fairly good evidence that Orpheus was a man, another Greek hero, of early date, pre-Homeric, and that his life is closely attached to the realm of Dionysus, who precedes Apollo at Delphi and later shares the oracle with him. Orpheus’s death is recorded in the story, his journey to hell, which he was able to complete only once, though at least four entrances to hell were well known in ancient Greece. One part of his story has to do with the power of death over love and the power of death over the dead. The other part has to do with his death at the hands of the Bacchantes, when he is torn to pieces. His head floats down a river or over a stretch of Ocean and continues to speak in prophecies, but this is stopped by jealous Apollo, when he becomes really dead. Clearly, the Orphic Dionysus is being edited. In some peculiar sense, Orpheus is really repeating the life of Dionysus, the god who is both joyous and terrible, who is bringer of wine, who can be defeated, thrown into the sea by a mortal, locked in a chest, torn to pieces by giants, and who dies. That he holds within himself all the contradictions, the change and process of the world as it is know, and the terror that goes with that process, as Orpheus contradicts his power, has the power to charm with his music, but cannot charm the Bacchantes, has the power to bring Eurydice back from the dead, at least metaphorically, but cannot look at her. It is precisely in the image of the scattered body and mind of Orpheus that I place whatever I know about the poetic process—that scattering is a living reflection of the world.

I am thirty years old before I begin even tentatively to accept the title of poet. In San Francisco, I was tied to two other poets (18) who, it was my superstition, wrote my poems for me. When that notion became sentimental, I dropped it, and became another poet. I have worked since 1955 (19) to find a line which will hold what I see and hear, and which will tie a reader to the poems, not to me. This fascination precedes my great debt to Charles Olson, for it is in a schoolbook problem, Plato’s description of the power of music over the body and the dangers of poetry in The Republic, and it was the fantastic pull of hearing [Arthur] Brodeur (20) read Beowulf, a hundred lines at a whack on a good day, which led Spicer and me to compete in our translations to bring over the heat of that story. I am greatly moved by what is received and held with force in a poet’s work. And sometimes that work promises that a great deal more will be held. In 1945, August, when Jack Spicer came to Berkeley from Los Angeles, and wound up living with me, I had read little philosophy, and Jack soon led me into that mess (though he later turned violently against it). He was soon reading Leibnitz and Spinoza. I can’t say that a very great deal of this came over to me, nor did it seem to stick in detail with Jack, but I do remember discussion of monads and reflections. Recently, reading an exciting book by Frances Yates, The Art of Memory, I ran into a passage which brought back part of those dialogues with Jack: “ . . . the monads, when they are human souls have memory, have as their chief function the representation of reflections of the universe of which they are living mirrors.”(21) Her book contains a description of the Memory Theater, a box with tiers, where the initiate would take the place of the stage and look out on the tiers, which in an ordinary theater would hold the audience—here there are images upon images, so that a man could hold the whole world in view. The idea is that the best means of memory is by image, and the image will hold best when it is given a place. Here the place itself is built to hold the images.(22) Were I in this theater, and before I could take responsibility for the images of the whole universe or hold them, I would have to hold on to those images first, to dwell upon them, which hold the nature of two stars eminently important to life:

Taurus: A man ploughing, a man bearing a key, a man holding a serpent and
            a spear
. This is most clear, but I can’t say in which hand
            he holds the snake and spear, so the memory is incomplete,
            or uncreated.

and Saturn: A man with a stag’s head on a dragon, with an owl is eating
                    a snake
                  in his right hand.
It is my view that the nature of this star
be held in a poem until the uncreated dragon is created.(23)

I am trying to describe the foreignness, the outsideness, as a kind of metaphor for the sense I have of the process that leads to a poem, which again is outside, when made, and it is akin to translation, a word which in its parts holds the meaning of the word metaphor, the bringing over. This is here a problem of describing the process of inclusions, which as a man’s work extends, enlarges and must take in both earth and sky. The heat I’m after is not simply the personal heat of the meeting, the recognition, but a heat and a passion which are of the nature of existence itself. The personal, yes, but then the translation of the personal to correspond with larger and larger elements, images of earth, is a process of inclusion—a growth of sensibility, in Valéry’s phrase, but also a making which is not self-expressive. To be included, to be caught, to be brought over. Though I consider most of my work as a kind of translation, I have moved toward translation in the ordinary sense. My Nerval is an effort to bring over the chimeras of another poet, because the recognition was word for word. In doing so, I spent months trying to find words in English to carry the heat of the Nerval world, which is cosmic, but also most personal. And it is this content which must be translated—not the word-for-word crib, but the actual heat of the process which gave form to the poems.(24) Nerval begins in a real image of loss—the women of his world who disappear into the earth, and if they continue to exist, the realms of death have to be seen in terms of change and in images which hold that change. All this is most clear in one of Nerval’s dreams, from which I took my lead:

The lady I followed, displaying her slender form in a movement that caused the folds in her dress of changing taffeta to glisten, gracefully placed her bare arm around a long stalk of hollyhock, then under a clear ray of light, she began to grow in such a manner that little by little the garden took her form, and the flowerbeds and the trees became the roses and garlands of her garments, while her figure and her arms printed their contours on the violet clouds in the sky. In this way I lost sight of her in a process of transfiguration, for she seemed to disappear into her own grandeur. “Oh! do not leave me! I cried . . . for nature dies with you.” (Nerval, Selected 131)

Nerval took the ultimate responsibility for the other side of the world, like the old idea, before it was photographed, of the other side of the moon. He saw and recorded a world in which the sun is black, the alchemical sol niger, under the earth yes, but in addition an in FORM ing vision. How personal the first vision of this was is seen in an early poem, which Nerval had adapted from a poem by Bürger, and which I translated:


whoever has stared directly into the sun
thinks he sees before him,    unyielding,
flying around in the air an ashen spot

really young once and a lot braver,
I dared to fix my eyes on glory
for an instant:
what my eyes craved left a black point

since then, mingling with everything
like a token of grief,   everywhere,
in places where my eyes rest
I see it perch also,   a black spot

ask me if this is always true   it is
between me and fortune constantly
this back luck and shared sorrow
if only an eagle looks in the Sun
and the Glory   without punishment (25)

Here, I wish to point to the responsibility of the poet for the experience of power as it is seen and felt in the world. And no more ultimate vision is possible than the one which tells the tale and holds the cost of the vision of the other side, the way down, sometimes the way up, the realms of deadness both in and out of the world—held in image, not a tract full of wisdom, but a reality created, held by image and sound. This is seen in the first poem of Nerval’s sequence, Les Chimères, a serial poem, in his use of myth, original in his recognition—the tale behind the sirens—that they are indeed cursed muses, forced to be birds of the sea, which is the realm of love and eros. The siren is a sea bird from her origin in this very ancient story. The image holds it absolutely. When I come to a work, like The Moth Poem, which is not a translation in this sense, it is, however, a translation of the record of the burning light and death of certain presences. I believe that all men live in this realm, the serious, intense kingdom, funny as it is at times, with its passionate thought.

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(11) Edith Cobb:

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

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

(13) Frank Speck:

The generalized concept of the form of the earth, which is termed tsi-tetci-´nau, “our world, universe” (Mistassini), appears to be that it is shaped like a hill and floats on water. Questioning fails to evoke the belief that it rests upon the carapace of the tortoise or that it is the carapace itself, as is believed by the Algonkian southward. It was stated by a Mistassini informant (Charley Metowe’cic) while discussing the matter, that the earth’s form comes to be known only from the testimony of a person about to die. In the vision that comes at the time the mind can view the universe and sees all around the earth as it rises above the water. And he feels it rocking! (58)

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Robin Blaser, "The Fire" from The Fire: Collected Essays of Robin Blaser, edited by Miriam Nichols. Copyright © 2006 by Robin Blaser.  Reprinted by permission of University of California Press.
  • Originally Published: October 13th, 2009
  • 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...

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