Dissertation songs

Joseph Donahue, 2014 (photo by Star Black).

Reading Joseph Donahue’s Before Creation in reverse order, the short biographical statement at the back of the book serves as a kind of accidental preface for the poet’s first collection. Not only does it tell of his birth in Texas, his adolescence in Massachusetts, and his current life in New York City, it also sets the tone for the text that is to come. With its references to Donahue’s many hometowns, the short, no-frills note keys us into the poet’s love of populated landscapes, his fondness for luxuriating in the minutia of Cold War cul-de-sacs and Reagan-era rooftops. In providing the poet’s year of birth (1954), the bio resonates with Donahue’s characteristic desire to calibrate personal experiences with larger generational trends. The poems in the early collection forward a handful of autobiographical details but all serve to establish a representative speaker, an all but anonymous baby boomer, hurdling through the late-capital carousel of post-modernity. As much as the book can be said to be about anything, it takes its subject from those ideas expressed in the bio. And it is with this in mind that I want to pause for a moment to consider one specific tidbit from the ersatz introduction.

In giving us a glimpse into the primordial chowder out of which the poet emerged, the bio announces Donahue was “educated at Dartmouth and Columbia.” Surely this could be read as a thoughtless credentialing gesture, meant to establish the poet’s intellectual mettle. But it seems important that the list of alma maters features the ambiguous verb “educated,” which does not necessarily mean graduated. In 1988, when Central Park Editions went to press with the volume, Donahue was still pursuing said education as a graduate student, overburdened with secondary sources and slogging through a dissertation while cobbling together piecemeal academic work. The bio then poses Donahue’s poetry in tandem with his scholarly labors. It tacitly portrays the dissertation as an opportunity for the poet to find his voice in the verse of another, to hone a poetics out of persistent study.

Looking back over the beautiful tributes collected here, we see Donahue’s poetry compared to the work of writers such as Emily Dickinson, James Joyce, Hart Crane, Alice Notley, Ed Roberson, Nathaniel Mackey, Wallace Stevens, Eileen Myles, the Black Mountain Poets, the New York School, and Henry Corbin. One cannot say enough about a talent that touches upon so many strands of literary tradition while retaining a deeply distinctive vision. Nevertheless, there is one name missing from the impressive list of influences and interlocutors. It is the poet Donahue sought to understand more intensely than any other, as the subject of his single-author dissertation, entitled “The Poem’s Force: Culture and Poetics in the work of John Berryman.” For those well acquainted with Donahue’s poetry, Berryman will seem an unlikely fit. Formally, Berryman’s work represents a conservative aesthetic, one based upon a notion of lapidary precision and metrical cohesion, whereas Donahue’s early work exhibits a looser style that brings together vatic digressions and unfettered circumlocution. Even in terms of content, Berryman’s long-suffering narcissism seems a direct contrast to Donahue’s wry dispersal of self. However, in mapping Berryman’s trajectory in the dissertation, Donahue finds more than a one-dimensional egocaught in the feedback loop of carnal confession. He finds a subject worthy of Pound’s claim that the study of literature is hero worship, which is to say he finds in Berryman the poetic pulse for his first collection.

In drawing attention to Berryman’s reverence for popular mythos, Donahue registers an interpretation that sets the stage for his own embrace of bygone icons. Referring to Berryman as “the poet who most cannily registers American anxieties in the postwar era,” Donahue sees in him a scribe sensitive to the drama of identity unfolding in consumer products (1). For evidence of Berryman’s casual mythologies, he quotes from Dream Song 273.

Saudi Arabia is mah favorite place.
‘conditioned Cadillacs, like bigoty Texas
of our own mindless oil.
Come closer, Sambo. I plant your face
ilex. Your face. You jus like a flex
where the bulb failed. Flail (292)

Expounding upon the passage, Donahue points to the Cadillac — unrivalled token of postwar American prosperity — which sets in motion a network of associations connecting the black gold of Texas and Saudi Arabia with the burnt cork of American racial fantasies.

Following Berryman’s example, Donahue makes his first book into a crowded collage, thick with midcentury material. In the tableau of found images, we see “Sputnik over the lake bed,” with “Goebbels himself [showing] signs of strain” (59, 62). Lenny Bruce is there, and so is the “swastika etched in the pupil” (18, 7). In one corner of the assemblage, “the Beethoven of bebop steps to the mike” and belts out “Swing low / Sweet Cadillac,” and in another an expatriate wistfully recalls her life in “Russia, circa 1961” (36, 38, 69). And everything in between burns with the vintage hue of “kodachrome bits [blown] through the world” (76). Inviting the readers to see “the echo of similitude across great distance,” the atomic bricolage highlights those cultural parallels that link the years that bookend the Berlin Wall (78). It also reveals Donahue’s fascination with brand names and billboards, a sentiment he makes evident in the poem “Here and There”:

Every product has
an inherent drama,
said Leo Burnett. The            
Marlboro Man. Hell,
Tony the Tiger. These
are masterpieces. (42)

In half-ironically referring to the advertisements as masterpieces, Donahue follows Berryman’s example and opens himself up to the human story hidden away in the detritus of consumerism.

According to Donahue, Berryman’s interest in mass culture leads him to structure The Dream Songs around the tropes of blackface-minstrelsy. On this he writes, “Berryman’s minstrel show historicizes the relation between media and the imagination of selfhood, presenting minstrelsy as the origin of mass media” (19). Foregrounding the racial subtext of the American dream in his own poetry, Donahue composes “Crania Americana,” a poem that meditates on the invisible role African slaves and African American laborers play in the construction of American ideology. In making the speaker of his poem “the first slave [to set] foot in the New World,” Donahue tells the story of empire from “beneath [the] unruly bundle” of structural inequality, where the “dreams are sad because they [are] true” (54, 53, 52). And like Berryman, who sees in blackface an unstable dialectic, Donahue imagines the slave in terms of a mythic complex, an epistemological double, as he announces, “the dead slave / and the living slave are one” (53).

However it is not until “Purple Ritual,” the centerpiece of Donahue’s first collection, that we see his most apparent application of Berryman’s poetics. In the dissertation, Donahue writes, “Berryman presents himself as a rhetorical figure in his own poetry, an interlocutor” (3). Here Donahue calls attention to the dialogical dimension of Berryman’s Dream Songs, specifically the poet’s construction of a literary alter ego, Huffy Henry. Through the mouthpiece that is Henry, Berryman is able to confess all sorts of vulgar impulses without collapsing the work into self-centered memoir. In providing the reader with “a voice that hears voices,” Berryman uses his rhetorical presence in the poem to assert his identity, while also expanding the boundaries of the self. Similarly, Donahue claims that his purpose for writing “Purple Ritual” is to erect a myth of surrogate selfhood, stating, “My lack of legend the drama’s first cause” (23).

In gathering the lore of corporate selfhood, the poem brings together three different perspectives: the biography of John F. Kennedy, the childhood memories of the poet himself, and the ancient exploits of Orestes. In the beginning of “Purple Ritual,” Donahue treats the three contexts as different realities, consigning each to its own series of sections. By the end, Kennedy becomes an extended member of the poet’s family, Orestes substitutes both for the President and the speaker of the poem, and the perspectival triad comes to stand as a cipher for the casual brutality of ecstatic nationalism. In searching for some significant event to orient his narration of the past, the poet lights upon his numerous personal connections to the assassinated President. He admits, “I was in Dallas when Kennedy was shot” and goes on to frame the statement as a confession: “I tend to confess when talking about my past,” a disclosure meant to muster the “fantasy of […] self-consciousness” (23). While the poet draws attention to the historical convergences between his life and Kennedy’s, it is not Kennedy but Orestes that reigns as the poet’s generative double.

Where Berryman dons the mask of Huffy Henry, Donahue finds a revelatory guise in the myth of Orestes. And like Henry, Orestes, in Donahue’s vision, leads a life of limited inner resources. “He [reads] idealist history. He [thinks] about hanging himself” (22). Departing from the myth of the matricidal madman, Donahue creates a version of Orestes consistent with the poet’s own daily grind, which allows for meta-textual commentary about his current project: “Orestes weighed his absence of childhood legend against his tabloid fascination: national families.” And like Donahue, Orestes associates memory with a kind of writing that surfaces between the cracks of other intellectual engagements, as he states, “the subtle raptures of purposeful work brought him an image of his early past, the gift of a world in a book, of a world as a book” (28).

In compiling Before Creation, Donahue does not limit his interest in Berryman to issues of content and form; he also engages the latter at the level of poetic theory. One of the central claims in Donahue’s dissertation is that Berryman’s poetics center around the belief that “a poem’s force may be pivoted upon a missing or misrepresented element in an agreed-on or imposed design.” Here the pivot has less to do with the form of the poem, as it relates to the “turning or rebounding” of the Petrarchan sonnet and more to do with the action of poetic thought. The pivot for Berryman, according to Donahue, resembles the “turning of the soul in conversion narratives.” Like any good spiritual autobiography, the Dream Songs understand one act of confession begets another, as each admission intends to capture some absented truth. In order to build a sense of mystery and rouse interest, the poet keeps some secret from the reader. For Donahue, then, the defining characteristic of Berryman’s poetry is that it “derives its force, ultimately, from that notion that information can be crucially withheld from the reader” (12).

Instances of critical concealment abound in Donahue’s first collection, though nowhere as apparent as in “Purple Ritual.” In terms of form, Donahue uses the strategies of selective obscurity to blur the line separating his personal experiences from those communal narratives of the nation-state. The connection that Donahue draws between his family and the Kennedys is not simply a result of what the poet tells us — that his uncle, “a veteran of the JFK senate campaigns, joined the White House as a liaison to Congress” (26). Rather, the connection depends as much upon what he does not tell us: all those intimate details about his family that do not relate to the myth of the Kennedys. Even when the poet recalls personal memories that separate his family from every other family including the Kennedys, he handles the material in ways that call his family’s distinctiveness into question.

A case in point occurs at the level of content. In a section entitled “First Communion,” Donahue delivers an account of his initiation into the Catholic church. In the passage, a botched photograph of the proceedings leaves his mother “terribly upset.” The evidence of her son’s participation in the religious rite has been compromised, leaving her with nothing to show the relatives back east, nothing to fix the image of her idiosyncratic family. Identifying himself with the “gray blur” at the middle of sacramental snapshot, Donahue becomes the physical embodiment of Berryman’s withholding principle, an “absence” through which his mother’s “disappointment illumines the dark” (28).

Berryman’s withholding principle also appears in the subject matter of “Purple Ritual.” Titled after Ed Paschke’s painting of Lee Harvey Oswald, the poem broods over the poetic possibility of Oswald’s brutal act. In the closing section, entitled “Oswald at the Window,” Donahue theorizes the scenario in detail:

Oswald breaks the President’s literal power and announces the tyranny of the figurative. The perversity of this logic does not diminish the assertion that Oswald’s was the central act of the imagination. The assassin creating the void in which the images shine. The negation preceding the first flash of light. Oswald at the window. Inarticulate and errant. (31)

Here Oswald ascends, or rather descends, to the status of anti-sovereign and becomes the inarticulate author of an imaginary order called forth by physical negation. In assassinating the president, Oswald punctures the seamless shroud of American hegemony, making the absent presence of JFK’s body an aperture through which the light of the postwar world streams into the poet’s thinking.

Of all these parallels, this last one carries the most significance for Donahue’s corpus at large, since it falls directly within the poet’s Gnostic wheelhouse. In offering up a quintessentially Donahovian definition of the Gnostic problem, the poet opens his essay “Salvation under the Sign of Reagan: Poetry, Gnosis, and New York” with an infectious piece of mass culture, taken from the chorus of the Talking Heads’1980 classic “Once in a Lifetime.” For Donahue, the question posed by David Byrne — “Well, how did I get here?” — represents the essential Gnostic quandary. It points to the same uncertainty that led a group of second-century Christians to shun the material world and search out their spiritual bearings on a more transcendent plane. And couldn’t we say that Byrne’s question — “Well, how did I get here?” — plays by the rules of Berryman’s withholding principle? It situates the audience in an unfamiliar and broken world and instructs them to follow each ensuing lyric, as if what follows the question might hold an answer to set right the soul’s quest for a self.

Likewise, the Gnosticism Donahue associates with the Talking Heads, and their choral search for undivided daylight, finds its roots in the poet’s deep admiration for the opening line of Berryman’s The Dream Songs. For pages on end, Donahue interrogates the line, “Huffy Henry       hid the day,” emphasizing its typographical irregularity, its positioning of a rhetorical double, and its suggestion of a nuclear apocalypse. However, the poet, so consumed with the possibilities of a Gnostic postmodernism, fails to notice Berryman’s gesture to occult concealment. After all, the epic begins with an act of withholding. In hiding the day, Henry conceals the diurnal light of divine presence, making our search for such truths possible. Or perhaps Donahue does not miss this reference, but instead decides that such awareness can only be assessed outside the dissertation, in the songs the dissertation inspires. In this way, it becomes the insight that dispatches the poet to his privileged long form, where the task, after all, is the same one that led Berryman to take up the unappeasable epic in the first place, “the construction of a world” (23).

A poetics of virtuosity

A. R. Ammons.
A. R. Ammons.

“A Poetics of Virtuosity” considers — through the writing of A. R. Ammons, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Arthur Rimbaud, William Carlos Williams, and the obscure Trumbull Stickney — what it means to write against the dominant literary modes of your time. Of course, it is impossible to know when writing a poem what the “dominant mode” of your time exactly is; the argument here is that Williams, caught up in the fever of modernism and his impatience with “literary” lyricism — that which failed to account for the singularity of the poet’s body and the incompleteness of experience — worked through a poetics of “stuttering” (I take the term from Nathaniel Mackey) to achieve his own highly concrete, often fragmentary, poetics.

Implicit in this essay — first written in 1996, when I was working through my own apprenticeship as a poet in New York — is the argument that this modernist “fever” had largely abated in the postmodern moment, and that writers like Ammons had found ways to create “virtuoso” works because of a relative lack of concern with personal and poetic singularity, not to mention possessed of a richer philosophical understanding of the mind —> object relationship and theories of time that are at the foundations of Western philosophy. But I wasn’t reading much philosophy then despite some college schooling, so my use of such heavy terms such as “being,” “becoming,” “immanence,” and “flux” are loose. (I’ve tried to tighten up the vocabulary with this revision.)

“A Poetics of Virtuosity” tries to synthesize social concerns (how poems are read and accepted by readers and critics, how literary culture changes over time) with phenomenological concerns (how the poet interacts with a poem as it is being written, the effects of technology and physical disability on writing, what of a poem and the poem’s “content” resists the writing), though it is really only a suggestive sketch — a record of my enthusiasm from an earlier time. These interests, however, have gained ground in the wake of the rise of digital culture in the late ’90s, during the recent vogue for “speculative realist” philosophy (especially the writing of Quentin Meillassoux), disability studies, and the “return to the lyric” that I see happening with many poets today, particularly of the form that wants — in a strike against poststructuralism — to chart individual experience.

1. Questions of singularity

At the center of A. R. Ammons’s celebration of his poetic virtuosity in the opening stanzas of his long poem “Extremes and Moderations” is an irony, a certain element — one might call it the sense of poetic singularity, of the experience by the reader of a specific historical moment — which subtracts from the reading of the poem (this is no consideration of the “achievement” of the poem in its final form) once this irony is perceived. The irony is that while the poem is celebrating its own becoming, its physical entry into the matter, energy, and flux of the natural world, the poem also seems to be making approaches to other poems and discourses and then departing from them, in a way skimming what might be the “literary” surface of the literatures that have preceded him. While Ammons appears to be celebrating power, growth, and original perception (or the complexes of epistemological transcription), he is also engaged in an act of literary accumulation, or a sort of window-shopping that fails, or doesn’t decide, to get at essences — i.e. even to try to break out of the solipsistic cybernesis that is the government or system of the literary work itself. Ammons seems aware of this quality at certain moments in the work, and he has a pride or shame at shirking — like the poetic equivalent of a “slacker” — certain “heroic” responsibilities that his Romantic and modernist predecessors, in their bid for revolutionary status and epic significance, felt compelled to adopt. But there are a number of absences that are left for the reader to detect, literary correspondences that one would expect — in a poetics of total connectivity, and the expression in discursive language of this connectivity — Ammons to acknowledge in the poem.

The entire first page of “Extremes and Moderations” is worth citing since, though each line is rich with implications or even direct statements of poetic theory, the poem (as all of Ammons’s long poems) is something of a meandering soliloquy aimed at the typewriter, so that no single line is separable from the drama of the mass:

Hurly-burly: taking on whatever is about to get off, up the
slack, ready with prompt-copy for the reiteration, electronic
to inspect the fuzzy-buffoon comeback, picking up the diverse
gravel of mellifluous beauty, the world-replacing world

world-irradiating, lesser than but more outspoken:
constructing the stanza is not in my case exceedingly
difficult, variably invariable, permitting maximum change
within maximum stability, the flow-breaking four-liner, lattice

of the satisfactory fall, grid seepage, currents distracted
to side flow, multiple laterals that at some extreme spill
a shelf, ease back, hit the jolt of the central impulse: the
slow working-down of careful investigation, the run

diffused, swamped into variable action: my ideal’s a cold
clod clam calm, clam contained, nevertheless active in the
digestion, capable of dietary mirth, the sudden whisk, nearly
rollably spherical: ah, but friends, to be turned 

loose on an accurate impulse! how handsome these stanzas are
beginning to look, open to the total acceptance, fracturing into
delight, tugging down the broad sweep, thrashing it into
particulars (within boundaries): diversity, however — as of

the concrete — is not ever-pleasing: I’ve seen fair mounds
of fine-stone at one end or the other of the highway construction
many times and been chiefly interested in the “hill”: but
abstraction is the bogey-boo of those incapable of it, while,

merrily, every abstractor brings the concrete up fine …[1]

The very appearance of the stanzas, which Ammons celebrates in lines 17/18 of the excerpt, along with their dactylic, rolling rhythms, the quickness of movement from perception to perception (one thinks of Olson’s famous dictum from the “Projective Verse” essay, which this poem seems to satisfy better than many by Olson himself), and the tone of ecstatic liberation among the elements of his mind — an ecstasy (at least in terms of speed) that is absent, in general, from the measured cadences of a poet involved in a similar venture, John Ashbery — recall an early manifesto of the “ecstasy of communication” (in Baudrillard’s term), Arthur Rimbaud’s “Le bateau ivre” (“The Drunken Boat”). Walter Benjamin and others have suggested that Rimbaud’s poem presents the very movement of history in its enactment of the bouncing of cork, flotsam, and jetsam on the “impassive rivers” of its narrative.[2] Indeed, Rimbaud seems to acknowledge his own presence in the historical flux — the phantasmagoria that will play such a great role in the poetics of Eliot and Pound — in parts of the Season in Hell.[3] “Extremes and Moderations,” beginning with the first word “Hurly-burly,” recalls a very particular stanza of “Le bateau ivre”:

Dans les clapotements furieux des marées,
Moi, l’autre hiver, plus sourd que les cerveaux d’enfants,
Je courus! Et les Péninsules démarrées
N’ont pas subi tohu-bohus plus triomphants.

Into the furious lashing of the tides,
More heedless than children’s brains, the other winter
I ran! And loosened peninsulas
Have not undergone a more triumphant hubbub

Ammons celebrates his “hurly-burly” early in his poem, whereas Rimbaud waits until the gears are started up before he uses such a nonsense word, “tohu-bohus,” to describe the fractured, opaque quality of the poem’s concrete elements. “Tohu-bohus” enacts and witnesses chaos and incompletion, and may even hint at the dangers of such poetry as lifestyle — involving explorations of drugs, sexuality, and politics, for instance. Everything enters into the fray of Rimbaud’s whirlpool, which he nonetheless (as opposed to Ammons) attributes to nasty, extraordinary weather, something that is “plus triomphants,” and “plus sourd que les cerveaux d’enfants” — by contrast, Ammons is, like any writer who has found a groove (broken through writer’s block), on an “accurate impulse.” Both writers exhibit a very different relationship to geography: whereas Rimbaud sees the world crashing around him, a landscape through which he alternately floats or runs (but which needs the agitation from his mind to animate it), Ammons is aware of the integrity of his own mind’s operations — the very speed of immanence and excess — that underlies physical nature even when it appears monolithic, as in the case of mountains (mere blips on the geohistorical map), all of which is invisible to one unaware of the commerce of molecular exchange.[5]

Though “Le bateau ivre” and “Extremes and Moderations” meet on other levels (especially later when Ammons is open to mock apostrophe: “O calligraphers, blue swallows, filigree the world / with figure, bring the reductions, the snakes unwinding, / the loops, tendrils, attachments, turn in necessity’s precision, / give us the highwire of the essential, the slippery concisions / of tense attentions!”), the distinction, in general, might be the difference between a poet, Rimbaud, who believes that he is engaged in a new act of literary creation, in the evolution of a new form, and the later Ammons who holds an ironic candle to the idea of original composition and is looking for an “accurate impulse” that will put him within the highways of communication with which he is already familiar through the writings of others.

Rimbaud writes in a letter to Paul Demany (the same one in which he described his theory of the “voyant” or seer): “And note carefully that if I were not afraid of making you spend more than sixty centimes on postage — I poor terrified one who for seven months have not had a single copper! — I would also give you my Lovers of Paris, one hundred hexameters, sir, and my Death of Paris, two hundred hexameters!”[6] The very weight of his verses — as opposed to, say, a taboo content that would meet with disapproval by postal officials — will not permit him to mail them; this foregrounds the very materiality of the architecture and components of the verse, word and paper. One notes the almost flip attitude to the unit of measure by this poet who remained, for much of his brief career, within classical French poetic meters, along with his very adolescent declaration of victory over the necessity to produce, to manufacture form — a victory that leads him to break with determinacy in his verse, and eventually with meter itself.

Taking this security as a context in which to place Ammons’s celebration of his own industry — in ll. 17/18 and ll. 6/7, he writes “constructing the stanza is not in my case exceedingly / difficult, variably invariable, permitting maximum change / within maximum stability” — one asks: from whence does this “stability” stem? Is he merely commenting on his deftness in creating a stanzaic form that is suited to himself, a “style” that allows him to proceed to occupy — or, considering his vexed paeans to “progress,” colonize — the page with his poem? Or is there, on the other hand, something that one can equate with the classical French hexameter, “variably invariable” and yet for the most part not exceeding certain bounds, that Ammons has adopted for his text? And is there, consequently, a zone of critical approval waiting for the arrival of his poem to fulfill its requirements?

2. Skirting Parnassus

There are other poets that Ammons meets in the space he has created by his stanzas. For example, lines 13–16 — “my ideal’s a cold / clod clam calm, clam contained, nevertheless active in the / digestion, capable of dietary mirth, the sudden whisk, nearly / rollably spherical: ah” — hearken to Hopkins, “The Windover” especially:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on a swing[7]

Again, the distinction between Ammons and the earlier poet may lie in their relationship to the question of the singularity of their poetic projects. There is much to suggest in Hopkins’s letters on poetic theory that he was obsessed with the idea of the singularity of the poem on all levels, from the syllable to the line.[8] In terms of his relationship to the “canon,” Hopkins had a unique attitude in a time when literary decorum (as preached by his friends Canon Dixon and Robert Bridges) was the goal of the day. For example, he wrote in a letter: “The effect of studying masterpieces is to make me admire and do otherwise. So it must be on every original artist to some degree, and on me to a marked degree. Perhaps then more reading would only refine my singularity, which is not what you want.”[9] Ammons writes, on the contrary, that “diversity, however — as of / the concrete — is not ever-pleasing,” and though this may be a statement on the poetic image, or on the uniqueness of the object perceived on an empirical level in opposition to all other “things” — that the interchange of atoms through time denies any object any sovereignty over another, that it is all contained in a web of barter or intercommunication — it also translates into a theory of the poem as one among many discourses, permeable on all levels.[10] This makes Ammons’s line “cold / clod clam calm, clam contained” something of a slide or skim through the poetics of Hopkins (and not merely the alliterative tradition, since the element of near-parody and the level of syntactic ambiguity is extreme), as if he were collaborating with Hopkins on some level, or “getting off” in this brief encounter with Hopkins, only then quickly to depart, not unlike the falcon in Hopkins’s own poem.

Hopkins makes series of distinctions in his writing on poetics that may play a useful role in determining a theory of this sort of virtuosity in poetry, its relationship to the acceptance of a work by the public, and the hindrance it may create for the modern poet when it comes to creating works of “singularity.” In a letter to Alexander Baillie, Hopkins describes an essay that he may write for a magazine titled, ironically in this context, the Hexameron:

I think then the language of verse may be divided into three kinds. The first and highest is poetry proper, the language of inspiration. The word inspiration need cause no difficulty. I mean by it the mood of great, abnormal in fact, mental acuteness, either energetic or receptive, according as the thoughts which arise in it seem generated by a stress and action of the brain, or to strike into it unasked. This mood arises from various causes, physical generally, as good health or state of the air or, prosaic as it is, length of time after a meal. […]

The second kind I call Parnassian. It can only be spoken by poets, but is not in the highest sense poetry. It does not require the mood of mind in which the poetry of inspiration is written. It is spoken on and from the level of a poet’s mind, not, as in the other case, when the inspiration which is the gift of genius raises him above himself. […] Parnassian then is that language which genius speaks as fitted to its exaltation, and place among other genius, but does not sing […] in its flights. Great men, poets I mean, have each their own dialect as it were of Parnassian, formed generally as they go on writing, and at last, — this is the point to be marked — they can see things in this Parnassian way and describe them in this Parnassian tongue, without further effort of inspiration.[11] […] [In] Parnassian pieces you feel that if you were the poet you could have gone as he has done, you see yourself doing it, only with the difference that if you actually try you find you cannot write his Parnassian. […]

There is a higher sort of Parnassian which I call Castalian, or it may be thought the lowest kind of inspiration. Beautiful poems may be written wholly in it. Its peculiarity is that though you can hardly conceive yourself having written in it, if in the poet’s place, yet it is too characteristic of the poet, too so-and-so-all-over-ish, to be quite inspiration.[12]

Much resonates in these passages by Hopkins with the poetics of Ammons as they have been described so far. For example, Hopkins writes of Parnassian being “as fitted to its exaltation, and place among other genius, but does not sing,” which implies (though Hopkins writes of genius in the singular here, not in the expected plural) that the Parnassian mode is a place of converse among other poets, this place being Parnassus itself. Parnassus is, in this way, decidedly postmodern in nature, with its suggestions of constant intercommunication and flux (much postmodern theory, indeed, seems to be poetry written in a Parnassian mode, a locus from which deconstruction of the apparent solidity of literary objects can occur). That the Parnassian mode is one that “does not sing” is also relevant to Ammons, though one might turn to Tape for the Turn of the Year, with its balked invocations to the muse, for his own use of the word. “Singing,” along with invocations to the muse and the relation of heroic feats, then becomes something associated with the past, and is approached with a great deal of skepticism; it is a form of performance that has become dated, or which one wishes to keep hidden, perhaps because of the very hubris of poetic virtuosity itself — like any sort of promiscuity, a thing one doesn’t advertise.[13]

This isn’t to say that Ammons always writes Parnassian poetry; on the contrary, Parnassian poetry can contain many lines of inspiration (as Hopkins notes when he quotes several lines of Tennyson), and Ammons’s poem is indeed everything that it sets out to be — a sonic and visual, not to mention intellectual, roller-coaster. The interesting distinction between Ammons and Hopkins (who revised all the Parnassian out of his work) or Rimbaud (who wrote, famously, that the poet “exhausts all poisons in himself and keeps only their quintessences”)[14] is the surrender of the former to the physical forces involved in the production of his work, which he appears to understand and theorize, and his resignation in the face of the eventual dissolution of his enterprise once it takes its place among other works within the intelligence of a knowledgeable reader. One might call this, after Harold Bloom, the “anxiety of influence,” and yet it is a marked lack of anxiety that characterizes Ammons; he is merely speaking, in his way, in a room full of poets about the earth and air, himself, and the interchanges of the world, unconcerned with the historical uniqueness of each line of expression, but rather anticipating — at all moments — the abundant fruition (and function) of the whole.

For this reason, Ammons’s longer poems seem, for the most part, unique and a lot more interesting than his shorter ones, since Ammons is apparently much more excited about the architectures of larger works, their excessiveness and exuberance and how they will hang over the course of several pages, than with the microscopic organization and singularity of words in a very short poem, many of which could have been written, one might say, by Williams or even Robert Creeley. Ammons is, of course, famous for short poems, and he is by no means ignorant of “microscopic organization” — it is, in fact, the shuttling back and forth between the macro and micro that is a thrill in his work. But the longer works seem to comprise worlds within themselves, claim greater stakes, if not in the illuminations of their contents, at least in their size and comprehensiveness, and their aspiration to poetic immortality (along with a cordial, even “decorous,” relationship to the canon).

3. Fears of abstraction

A third poet that makes his very clear appearance in the opening stanzas of “Extremes and Moderations” is the most obvious: Williams. Indeed, Williams could be said to be most responsible for Ammons’s ability to compose such impressive-looking stanzas without any real regard for metrical regularity: they merely must appear like, say, hexameters, but they can run from fourteen syllables to nineteen, and from a potentially “scannable” line like “rollably spherical: ah, but friends, to be turned” to the prose-like “constructing the stanza is not in my case exceedingly / difficult” — still scannable, but a step down in sonic charge from the previous, highly alliterative lines. One wonders whether the “maximum stability” of line 8 could not, indeed, be all accredited to Williams’s experiments with typewriter lineation (and the subsequent critical approval of them), for example in poems such as “The Dance” (with its repetitions of modest words, that are, indeed, the theory of their existence) or “The Yachts” with its own invocations of the weather and its metaphoric reading of the approach of “history” on the singular moment of the poem. The “variably invariable” nature of Ammons’s stanzas easily recall Williams’s own paradoxical theory of the “variable foot,” which he developed late in life and which he saw as a contrast to the self-contradictory, he felt, concept of “vers libre.” Ammons takes complete advantage of this paradox, along with the lowered expectations of his readers for metrical regularity.

However, it is at the last moments of the stanzas quoted above from “Extremes and Moderations” that Ammons truly meets Williams, this time in a bit of a critical manner. He writes: “but / abstraction is the bogey-boo of those incapable of it, while, / merrily, every abstractor brings the concrete up fine. ” Ammons could be criticizing his own contemporaries here, especially those teaching creative writing classes at the time who might be, in the manner of Pound, plugging their students to “go in fear of abstractions” and to court the “deep image.” The dig at Williams, though, is of a type that some critics (including his friend Pound) have leveled against him, which is that he didn’t know how to think in the abstract, nor could he theorize his poetics adequately as much as he wanted to. Therefore, he not only “feared” abstractions but also ignored them entirely, or muffed up whatever engagement (as in the prose sections of “Spring and All”) he may have had with it.

But Williams’s “fear” of abstractions may, in fact, have been a result of a rather early flirtation with virtuosity. Though the general public no longer has access to Williams’s very early poems written in his mid-twenties, it is clear that he was capable of some effusive, but often rather bland, sonority, not unlike his friend Pound, who wrote a sonnet a day for an entire year during his apprenticeship. The following is from a poem published when Williams was thirty, called “The Wanderer: A Rococo Study [First Version],” from the section titled “Advent”:

But one day crossing the ferry
With the great towers of Manhattan before me,
Out at the prow with the sea-wind blowing
I had been wearying many questions
Which she had put on to try me:
How shall I be a mirror to this modernity?
When, in a rush, dragging
A blunt boat on the yielding river —
Suddenly I saw her! and she waved me
From the white wet in midst of her playing!
She cried me, “Haia! here I am son!
See how strong my little finger! Can I not swim well?
I can fly, too!” and with that a great sea-gull
Went to the left, vanishing with a wild cry.
But in my mind all the persons of godhead
Followed after.[15]

There are suggestions of Whitman in these lines, and even Tennyson or Pound’s “The Return” (note the odd “Haia!”) or his version of “The Seafarer” (“A blunt boat on the yielding river … and she waved me / from the white wet”). What is unusual about “Advent” in general, however, is that it does not seem concerned with literary associations as much as it might want to be “allusive” and echo accurately, but rather insists on its spoken innocence, a virginity of statement. (Indeed, this virginity is the subject of the poem, since this woman is clearly a prostitute, and it is she that shows him in his own old age — she becomes both the Beatrice and Virgil to his Dante, in a way — and later provides him with youth.)[16]

Williams asks how he will mirror modernity, but it is clear that, though he felt the egotistic, youthful urge to simply overwrite modernity — make it spin, in the manner of Rimbaud — and shout his singularity into the wind, he doesn’t have the knowledge, the skill, or the daring (sexual and otherwise) to take it full tilt, and he may, in fact, have simply been too old and assimilated.[17] He was clearly at a crossroads, for he was not going to theorize his position as a “latecomer” in the manner of, say, Ammons or Ashbery, for whom pastiche was an untroubled option, and yet he didn’t have the brashness of a Rimbaud or García Lorca, and may have been too “socialized” to write from their perspective of sexual, political, and artistic alienation. Nonetheless, Williams could be said to have sided with the latter two, for he struggled to maintain the “virginity” or historical singularity of his statement even if he had to sacrifice a large production of long — virtuoso — works.

The curious absence of the preposition “to” in lines 9 and 11 sends one back to the phrase “try me” in line 5, which reads initially as a colloquial statement meaning “challenge me” but is rendered strange here, evoking the more literal reading of “put me on trial.” The absence of these prepositions, along with the unique rhythms that their absence creates — the repetitions of “me” bring the voice back in the throat again and again, as if trying to nail down the tent flaps that are being blown by the very virtuosity of the verse — suggest the risks that the future poet will take to foreground the minutiae of rhythmic content despite the thrust of the whole (few of the later poems will have this sort of easy flow, or when they do, Williams will describe the “dance” as it is occurring). These absent prepositions point to Williams’s very relationship to the grapheme, the typographical presence (or image) of words on the page, for his struggle, as it appears here, is part of his own divorce from older forms of poetry as mnemonic in structure — as “song” — and his distrust of the urge of a garrulity over specifics of rhythmic content. Williams put rhythmic stops to his facility in this section of “The Wanderer” to break the flow, and discovered, at the same time, his most distinctive rhythms, as he also moves, famously, to the use of “things” to keep his poem firmly rooted a posteriori — a “thing” being everything from an image, a grapheme, a preposition, or a very concrete enjambment, all of which he orchestrates very specifically in his later poems.

The breakthrough for Williams, of course, comes with his encounter with Cubist art and with the circle of Alfred Stieglitz, but also with his attention to the typewriter and the permanence his words acquired once on the page — a type of cybernetic exchange Ammons (not to mention O’Hara and Creeley) will later exploit. The signal work is Kora In Hell, “improvisations” written in a white heat — “slapdash,” one might say, with little revision, recalling the mental and sensorial acquisitions of the day:

To you! whoever you are, wherever you are! (But I know where you are!) There’s Durer’s “Nemesis” naked on her sphere over the little town by the river — except she’s too old. There’s a dancing burgess by Tenier and Villon’s maitress — after he’d gone bald and was shin pocked and toothless: she that had him ducked in the sewage drain. Then there’s that miller’s daughter of “buttocks broad and breastes high.” Something of Nietzsche, something of the good Samaritan, something of the devil himself, — can cut a caper of a fashion, my fashion! Hey you, the dance! Squat. Leap. Hops to the left. Chin — ha! — sideways! Stand up, stand up ma bonne! you’ll break my backbone. So again! — and so forth till we’re sweat soaked.[18]

Williams mentions Durer, Nietzsche, Tenier, and Villon, and yet doesn’t enter into the sort of measured appraisal of art that the later series Pictures from Brueghel manifests. Nor does he elaborate, as he does in the prose of Spring and All, on the usefulness of the poetics or philosophy of the artists and writers. He also appears to be quoting some poem of Middle English, along with some French, which might appear unusual in a poet with such a difficult relationship to learning. However, the “thingness” of the inclusion of these elements, along with such observations as “after he’d gone bald and was shin pocked and toothless,” points to the “concrete” aspect of Williams’s poetics. Even in such long works such as The Desert Music and Paterson, Williams does not engage in a celebration of his virtuosity, nor does he, conversely, appear to be conscious of his relationship to other poetics — which is to say he achieves the singularity of expression he was looking for earlier by excising both an easy, coherent garrulity, along with lyrical abstraction. Even the apostrophe — “To you!” — is so inverted, turned back on its mere inclusion, that one doesn’t feel he is parodying so much as denying the efficacy of address.

Though one might want to call this, and the rest of Kora in Hell, a grand performance on Williams’s part, it is very different from that of Ammons: Williams draws all attention away from himself, and even the creation of the poem, and appears stumped — rendered mute — by the being of what he includes, whereas Ammons calls attention to the becoming of the poem, in anticipation of the grand architecture of its completion, and draws attention repeatedly to his mind operating on and in the poem, in nature, and even among his literary predecessors, whom he doesn’t, as has been noted earlier, name. Williams mentions his predecessors and artistic inspirations but refuses to theorize or explain why they are there — he resists the flow of intertextuality. Ammons is aware of where he’s going, knows with whom he is conversing, and is unafraid of retreading some previously explored ground — of being, in a sense, Parnassian for the sake of continuing fecundity.

4. American Symbolism

Ammons is in the position of being a fence-sitter of sorts, one who refuses to be involved in many of the most experimental postmodern rhetorics and modes of praxis, those of the Language poets, for example, and yet who doesn’t fit into any sort of neo-classicist or -formalist, late confessional, or even late-Beat poetics that formed much of mass American verse. The split might be a question of opacity: as one can tell, for instance, in the passage from Kora in Hell quoted above, Williams was willing to leave the reader in the dark regarding specific meanings, finding “meaning” in the appearance of the words themselves within the poem, a sort of opacity that the familiar “voice” and philosophy of Ammons — they are part of every poem — interpret and thereby render amenable. However, there is another issue, and that, again, has to do with virtuosity. For Williams — if he was going to write using his line at that time in American verse — could not have been a virtuoso, for virtuosity has to be partially defined by the people willing to be in awe of the performance. Virtuosity is shaped, one might say, by fame or its potential — a possibility existing in the habitus (in Bourdieu’s term) of the poetry scene of his time.

Trumbull Stickney.

There is a “lost generation” of poets who attempted, in the early part of the twentieth century, to incorporate French Symbolist aesthetics into American poetry, two of whom, George Cabot Lodge and Trumbull Stickney, were born only four years before Wallace Stevens (neither lived into the 1920s). Stickney was a Harvard graduate, a scholar of Greek philosophy and Sanskrit, and the first American to receive a doctorate in literature from the Sorbonne; he died of a brain tumor in 1904. His good friend Cabot Lodge died five years later of ptomaine poisoning. While it would be presumptuous to say that Stickney defined the poetics of his day,[19] he was considered one of the better practitioners of the time, and in this way his poems (along with the education and experience that went into them) could be used as establishing values (in the way Bryant did for Whitman) for what was understood as poetic success. The following is from an untitled poem by Stickney which begins “The Autumn’s done”:

One of these days I know, just as they sadden
Spangling awhile the rose and yellow sky,
You’ll go away and watch the country gladden
                          Softly to Italy.

There, take this ring of gold — and when your fancy
Glides by to songs under the autumn moon
Where like unfurling silks of necromancy
                          Lies out the white lagoon,

Throw it away, that it be mine no longer.
Italian, give it back to Italy,
I will not have thy Past about me stronger
                          Than what is yet to be.

Nay, hurry home to sleep. The ferns are rigid
With hoar, and dark and denser hangs the mist;
It freezes and the stars quaver in frigid
                          Heaven of amethyst.

Down thro’ San Vito and the land Cadore,
To which — when closed the pestered city gate —
The dying Titian strained, homeward from glory,
                          Home from eternal fate;

Down where the outlines have a softer meaning —
Willow and clematis, the fruit and grain;
And the last mountain height sinks greening
                          Into the golden plain, —

To Venice. There the October days purpureal
Fall down to earth from Heaven wearily, —
And wounded at the last, insatiate Uriel
                          Dies on the flaming sea. —

One of these days you’ll leave me in the mountains,
For I go Northward, not to see this year
Gold Italy and her wind-silvered plantains,
                          But there the sad and sere —

I go elsewhere … [20]

As these lines — quite skillful and beautiful once the shock of the form has passed, and the absence of Eliotic irony is not bemoaned — demonstrate, there was a whole different set of priorities for the virtuoso poet of Stickney’s time. Some of them include, beside the obvious mastery of the Sapphic form, a sort of Arthurian or Symbolist dimension (the “ring of gold” of l. 5), an ability to rhyme richly (“when your fancy” and “necromancy”), a rhetorical high-mindedness and grace (l. 10), an ability to evoke the crepuscular beauties of nature (ll. 13–16, 21–24), mastery of cultural allusion (l. 19 and l. 27), and the use of suggestive, polysyllabic words (“necromancy” and “purpureal”). None of these attributes completely disappeared after Williams — much of this can appear in Elizabeth Bishop, Anthony Hecht, James Merrill, Richard Wilbur, or Derek Walcott, for example — but it is useful to think that the literary culture of Williams’s time in the decades during which he was developing his poetics — prior to the entire apparatus of, say, the New American poetries (and their critical acceptance) — was dominated by writing of this nature.

One could argue that Pound himself followed in a consistent manner the priorities inherent in Stickney’s poetics (not to mention Browning and Yeats) and had to wait even longer than Williams to discover his “modernist” method. Stickney offers, in any case, a glimpse of what Williams may have had, in the superego of his culture, as the image of virtuosity; it is remarkable how total his rejection of this apparatus was as opposed to Stevens and even Hart Crane, who played with modifying classical European meters, along with translating Symbolism and newer French modes into American poetry.[21]

William Carlos Williams.

5. Birth of the stutter

Williams was destined to be a stutterer — a producer of fragmentary shorter works — since his poetics was always coming from place of incompleteness, of reduction to elements, of the paring down of his desires to small examples of “nonliterary” (if Stickney is “literary”) writing, and of the devotion to New Jersey speech-based rhythms and content. Though it appears, with hindsight, that it should have been much easier for him, as it was, apparently, for Ammons, to write long poems that “ride” on the stream of speech — making deft approaches to other poetics and “open to the total acceptance” — Williams could not have survived, as a theorist or philosopher, on such a stage, for not only did he not have the dimmest hope for help from high quarters (no Harold Bloom or Yvor Winters), he would have felt, writing in his totally new mode, that he was only digging deeper into the typewriter, probably without even the hope of a readership.

Nathaniel Mackey’s essay “Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol” describes the aborted collaborative novel that Williams was writing with the novelist Bucklin Moon (with whom Williams wanted to publish an interracial literary magazine, though Moon was white) and an editor of a proletarian magazine called Blast, Fred Miller. The novel was called Man Orchid, and it concerned Wray Douglas, a “black-white protagonist”[22] who is partially based on Bucklin Moon himself. Mackey writes of Man Orchid:

Want of resolution and the stubborn problematics of heterogeneity are what Man Orchid most effectively expresses, the latter symptomized by the solipsistic quality of the work and the former a would-be flight from the resolute self (false resolution) that the solipsism indulges even as it eschews. Two white writers sit down to create a black protagonist whose model is another white writer.[23]

Moon himself was a stutterer, and the gist of part of the novel appeared to be that Douglas felt he would lose his stutter were he to become a musician. Because Williams’s chapters were written in the Kora in Hell style (at least the parts Mackey quotes), it is hard to gauge what exactly is happening, or would have happened should it have been finished. However, Mackey’s description is suggestive:

Throughout Man Orchid … the writer’s emulation of the musician causes rather than cures the stutter. Imitating the spontaneity of improvisatory music, Williams and Miller approach the typewriter as a musical keyboard on which they extemporize “without changing a word.” Wrong “notes” are left as they are rather than erased, though the right ones do eventually get “played” in most cases. This results in a repetitiveness and a halting, staccato gesture reminiscent of a stutterer’s effort to get out what he wants to say. Thus, Williams: “American poetry was on its way to great distinction — when the blight of Eliot’s popular verse fell pon — upon the gasping universities — who hadN8t hadN8t hadn’t tasted the Thames water for nearly a hundred years.” By disrupting fluency and coherence available to them Williams and Miller attempt to get in touch with what that coherence excludes, “the chaos against which that pattern was conceived.” This friendly relationship with incoherence, however, constitutes a gesture toward but not an attainment of the otherness to which it aspires, an otherness to which access can only be analogically gotten. Man Orchid, to make the obvious point, is a piece of writing, not a piece of music. Nor, as I have already noted, is the color line crossed. The stutter is a two-way witness that on one hand symbolizes a need to go beyond the confines of an exclusionary order, while on the other confessing to its at best only limited success at doing so. The impediments to the passage it seeks are acknowledged if not annulled, attested to by exactly the gesture that would overcome them if it could.[24]

A valuable distinction to make, in considering this passage, is that the music Williams and Miller wanted to recreate with their novel was jazz, not classical — in which, as Amiri Baraka notes in Blues People, the noises, false-notes, and excessiveness of improvisatory gesture are “worked out” in revision and avoided through rehearsal. In this way, Williams understands the poetics and politics of jazz rather early, which is that the excluded noises, fizzes, and failed gestures of jazz are, in many ways, the content of its oppositionality, and they eventually become part of the arsenal Williams will use against a verse like Stickney’s or Eliot’s.[25]

Williams’s own relationship to the virtuosity of Eliot is reinscribed here (touchingly, if one has read Williams’s typewritten drafts of late Paterson poems, written after several strokes and replete with “errors”) in the mistakes the faulty nerves of his hand render permanent on the typewritten page in trying to reach, like jumping the octave on a clarinet, the apostrophe on his typewriter keyboard. As Mackey notes, there was a “fluency and coherence available to them,” a language out there in the habitus which they could adopt and decorously transcend, gaining quick “authorhood” (a priority in collaboration), but it was one they chose to forego. This was occurring in a time when the valorization of accident could not, itself, be said to have become part of the vocabulary of the literary establishment or, after John Cage, an “established” avant-garde. Those 8’s in the text offer, indeed, a backstage glance at the development of Williams’s poetic, for they point to the necessary series of responses, the types of corrections and attendances, involved in typing that still seemed a new technology — like the porcelain bathtub described in section XXI of Kora in Hellto a poet early in the century.

An interesting aspect of this “stutter” is the role it plays in this collaborative work written by two white men about a “black-white” protagonist, one of whom they fail to reach, so that the stutter becomes a “two-way witness” that “symbolizes a need to go beyond an exclusionary order” but fails to do so. That this order could be sexual in nature — and that there is a homosexual subtext to the collaboration — is implied not only by Mackey’s metaphors of “passages” but by Williams’s poem “Ol’ Bunk’s Band,” about New Orleans trumpeter Bunk Johnson, with its repetitions of “These are men!,” which may suggest an awakening in Williams not only to the “humanity” of African Americans (in a time when “primitivism” and other Eurocentric mystifications, along with the American legal code, jammed this communication) when experiencing the performance but to masculinity objectified itself. How this translates into Williams’s feelings about women and the “exclusionary order” in which he felt confined is less complicated, considering that he was married (to a woman whom he did not love at first, but who was the sister of his first great love) and a father, and yet was circulating, perhaps every weekend, among New York’s artistic milieus in which sexual attitudes were, one presumes, much relaxed.

Whether the “other” is Eliot, Stickney, the “black-white protagonist,” jazz musicians, or the woman of “The Wanderer” and later poems, the significance of the stutter is clear. It divorces him from fluency, from easy commerce with society, and yet it is through the stutter that he meets the artifact of his writing itself and acknowledges the text before him (confirming that it is not, for instance, merely thought on a page). The stutter — whether in the form of sharp enjambment, interruption of thought by image, dropped prepositions or typos, is also his signature stamped, quite literally, on the page of his production, his guarantor of self-identification within the poem, along with the othering of the poem itself — the poem’s place in being. At the same time, it is Williams’s insurance that he is not writing, in Hopkins’s term, “Parnassian” verse, and even excludes him from the orders of such quality distinctions that Hopkins makes in his letters, for, indeed, such stuttering could not be taken as “inspiration” — at least in the Romantic or Victorian sense.

6. Counter-virtuosity

There are many complex features of a poetics of virtuosity that distinguish it from a mere facility on the one hand, or a catering to public taste on the other, though virtuosity may have something to do with both. Virtuosity is, indeed, the area in which this difficult relationship to the “public” is enacted and mostly resolved, rather than problematized by means of opacity, the “stutter,” and the closure that is aggravated and foregrounded by the fragment which, by its nature, provides an abrupt departure rather than a calm farewell. Virtuosity is not bad by any means; the very experience of it, as in “Extremes and Moderations,” or in the often beautiful poem by Stickney, inspires wonder not only in the poet but also in the cultural moment in which the poem was written, even if it is the exotic present.

However, there is a sacrifice attendant to virtuosity, and in the postmodern variety, this sacrifice has to do with an estrangement from the experimental furor that was modernism — not itself necessarily characterized by virtuosity. Pound’s Cantos, for instance, are at their worst when Pound is most confident that he is putting his skills to “use” (the “Chinese” Cantos, or the later ones which resemble his letters), and their best when he is trying something “new” — the translations, parts of the Pisan sequence (when his desperation pierced the tissue of the confidence in his method), or the “Usura” Canto (mating reductive economics with the muse), or even the “Hell” Cantos, when he seemed to be exploring Surrealism and condemning English politicians. One might suggest that modernist artists who did resolve the artistic dilemmas of their work, such as Bertolt Brecht, never became “virtuosos” entirely because of the recalcitrance of the political situation and their need for political (as opposed to critical or social) feedback to determine their efficacy.

John Berger’s writing in The Success and Failure of Picasso on Picasso’s eventual inability to “find a subject” is suggestive of this point about virtuosity in relation to the experimental modes of modernism. Berger writes of the 1927 Figure:

Although superficially the picture may look like a Cubist collage, there is no interest here in structure or the dimensions of time and space; it is obsessionally, impatiently sexual. But its sexuality is without a subject. It is as though this picture were crying out for a Leda and the Swan, or a Nymph and Shepherd, or a Venus, to be given a form. But there is nobody to call that form into being, nobody to name it and separate it from Picasso by believing in it. What Picasso is expressing here becomes absurd because there is nothing to resist him: neither the subject, nor his awareness of reality as understood by others. Without such resistance the whole of Shakespeare’s Lear would be no more than a death-rattle.[26]

Though it is unclear, in this passage, what Berger means by “his awareness of reality as understood by others,” he is not suggesting that Picasso became schizophrenic, engaging in an entirely solipsistic enterprise. Rather, Picasso seemed no longer to care about the “shock” value of what he was producing, which is a matter of personal concern on the part of the artist, but is also attributable to an audience (in 1927) being more accustomed to the vicissitudes of artistic innovation. Picasso, thus, achieved virtuosity despite the extraordinary variety, and exploratory nature, of his later production. Indeed, the fecund stream of works produced by Picasso during and following his neoclassical phase was also a series of flirtations — as is the case in Ammons’s “Extremes and Moderations” — with predecessors, though one would not accuse Picasso of merely recycling.

This flirting didn’t occur with Williams, for when he wrote poorly, it was generally a failed experiment — something too thin or unrealized, an unsuccessful attempt at new form, a failure to put into words the experience with an object, perhaps the words themselves — or part of a collage of earlier modes that he had explored that formed into a longer poem, but which he failed to attend to on the level of particulars. Williams never wrote long poems in a single style but “stuttered” through them the way he stuttered in his prosody; the last poems of Pictures from Brueghel, especially “Asphodel,” are obvious exceptions, but even then he was convinced he was working in a new mode — that he was continuing, with his investigation of the “variable foot,” the groundbreaking struggles of his youth and that there was conversation (a “two-way witness”) going on.

Virtuosity — with the sexual overtones noted by Berger — is the result of something like narcissism, since the “other” ceases to resist one’s gaze, a gaze that has ceased, in fact, to colonize, to be active in exploiting an object-turned-subject. The result of this is, of course, a sort of paranoia and the hearing of voices, especially that of peers and predecessors. In the case of Hopkins, what “resists” is clear: it is the falcon, or it is God, or both, approaching him from outside and providing him with the moment that calls forth the poem, and himself, out of a state of “normal” existence. Hopkins’s religious vows obviously played a role in this; the “poet” in Hopkins — both wary of literary reputation, and wary of the smug gratifications of writing well — recognized the value of his religion as resistance itself. Williams may have recognized his practice as a pediatrician in this same way, and he certainly understood New Jersey as being defiantly outside the mainstream of urban artistic culture. What resisted Rimbaud was not only his youth, his mother, poverty, and the provincial town of Charleville, but may have been a disgust with maturity and a literary career itself. Like Hopkins, Rimbaud experienced virtuosity, living within the accelerated rush of time that characterizes a poetics of extraordinarily high stimulation, but he gave it up, or let it sit stagnant, rather than mining it so as to greet literary fame in his lifetime.

One moves beyond a state of modesty once virtuosity has been achieved, finding that the ecstasy of leisure that poetry affords is reward enough, while others choose to maintain this modesty (or grow uncomfortable without it) and remain in a state of stuttering, of awe at the very resistance of material and subject to the work.[27] Once again, Williams (who was, as has been suggested, accused of being unable to theorize) voices this element of counter-virtuosity, and in a way speaks for much of the Modernist enterprise:

                    The only means he has to give value to life is to recognize it with the imagination and name it; this is so. To repeat and repeat the thing without naming
it is only to dull the sense and results in frustration.

this makes the artist prey of life. He is easy to attack.

                    I think often of my earlier work and what it cost me not to have been clear.
I acknowledge I have moved chaotically about refusing or rejecting most things,
seldom accepting values or acknowledging anything.

                                                       because I early recognized the futility of acquisitive understanding and at the same time rejected religious dogmatism. My whole life
has been spent (so far) in seeking to place a value upon experience and the objects
of experience that would satisfy my sense of inclusiveness without redundancy — completeness, lack of frustration with the liberty of choice; the things which the
pursuit of “art” offers —

                    But though I have felt “free” only in the presence of works of the
imagination, knowing the quickening of the sense which came of it, and though
this experience has held me firm at such times, yet being of a slow but accurate understanding, I have not always been able to complete the intellectual steps
which would make me firm in the position.

                    So most of my life has been lived in hell — a hell of repression lit by
flashes of inspiration, when a poem such as this or that would appear[28]

Much of Williams’s relationship to virtuosity — as it has come to be formed in his mind — is exhibited here. “To repeat and repeat without naming it” is obviously a negative quality of a work, and yet it is ironic that repetition, whether inspired by Steinian poetics or by the process-oriented literature of writers of the Oulipo group, has since become such a strong aspect of postmodern poetics. That the artist is “prey to life” suggests not only Williams’s still strong ability to objectify his experience (an ability seen as a result of denseness by his friend Pound, who admired him for it), but his difference, again, with postmodern poets — like Ammons, Ashbery and, say, Bruce Andrews or Lyn Hejinian — in that he has no ready theory with which to gird himself, or to use as a map, when involved in his writing, or even when taking a walk, where one could be confronted with everything from a revelation about the modern experience to the seductions of a flower. His distrust of “acquisitive understanding” — does he mean knowledge of Greek and Latin, and can he also mean knowledge of physics? — puts him at a distance from his successor, Ammons, for whom “inclusiveness” is an issue, but who might have a more sympathetic relationship to redundancy and repetition — whether it be of stanza (where it is impressive, and fits into the architecture), or of short poems.

In this way, Williams defines a poetics of virtuosity by the fact that it could not be at that time; there was no way simply to perform the modernist “composition,” since one had no tools, no forbears, to weave into the textual whole. Or if one weaved, one would be destined to repeat, and not to see anything. “Seeing” was, at that time, of course, uncomplicated by the poetics of the fractured, schizophrenic “I” of postmodernism — which, generally, found the limits of being at the limits of language — a fracturing that allows, nonetheless, the “weave” of a work to reappear, as the poet no longer resists assimilation into the texture of the whole, but rather revels in his or her isolating, limning, or sharing a part of it (a convenient theory for the writers of long works). Ironically, however, Williams sets the framework in which later poets could operate in virtuoso ways, ways that are a great distance from the ethos of virtuosity implied by “The Autumn’s done.”

7. Missing bodies

A poetics of virtuosity is, in many ways, disembodied; that is, it doesn’t respond to the accidents of pains, of touch and spasm of the poet’s own body, but rather plays the body like an instrument, one which is general enough for ownership by almost anyone. In the poetics of Hopkins and Williams, language is, itself, approached like an alien body that one wants to touch but can’t, as if it were an instrument from Asia or Africa for which there are no available recordings to mimic, such that their relationship to the language becomes one of jerks and moans, rather than discourse. Incidentally, in a poetics of virtuosity is where one might locate the place of literary influence, for as Hopkins suggests, it is virtuoso “Parnassian” writing that gives the reader the sense that he or she can sit down and write in that mode. That literary influence is partially governed by the unspecificity of the body of the poet becomes clear in the following contrast, a rare moment in literature in which an “indecorous” and “unvirtuoso” performance is translated into a “laudable” performance. The first stanza is by Hopkins, the second by the critic and poet Sturge Moore in his book Style and Beauty in Literature:

How to kéep — is there ány any, is there none such,
              nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid
              or brace, láce, latch or catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, …
              from vanishing away?

How to keep beauty? is there any way?
Is there nowhere any means to have it stay?
Will no bow or brooch or braid,
Brace or latch
Latch or catch
Or key to lock the door lend aid
Before beauty vanishes away?[29]           

Hopkins writes of his poem, “Back is not pretty, but it gives the feeling of physical constraint which I want,” and one, indeed, feels the back arch in the use of the word, not, in fact, unlike the convulsion that the missing “to’s” create in Williams’s “The Wanderer.” That Williams had to wait a long time before his “influence” could be felt supports this argument, for people can’t be “influenced” by fragmentary and indecorous material, since it offers no middle level, no user-friendly ground, on which to partake in conversation, and through which one can approach the body — for many merely the locus of fears and taboos, a constellation of dark corners — of the work. The Parnassian of such œuvres had to be demonstrated or described before influence (on a large scale) could occur, and it is for this reason Williams’s influence was split between academicians bent on bringing literature into order by focusing on the “American,” and those who, conversely, were engaged in exploring new sexualities, new politics, and drug-induced visions — the Beats and the American avant-garde of the fifties and sixties.

The state of virtuosity — both when it works, as in Ammons and Stickney, and even when it fails, as in early Williams and Sturge Moore — is a place of resolved tensions that are kept, nonetheless, taut, and it offers the locus that mirrors, rather than opposes, normative lifestyle, or perhaps (viewed from the radical wing) “socialization,” in which complaint and satisfaction mingle in constant yin yang opposition, though never surrendering to action. Virtuosity is, thus, a sort of democratic, accessible, and serial immortality, not unlike television or any form of an articulation of values that functions economically and, in a reproducible way, “creatively.” Consequently, it offers a way of writing against death, of talking over the inevitable end, a now clichéd explanation of what it is the writer is doing, but interesting when compared with the poetics of “stuttering,” which confronts the “other” in all of its sexual, social, and political guises, even if the “other” is the indeterminate word itself. A poetics of counter-virtuosity could then be called a writing into life, though not into literature.



1. A. R. Ammons, Selected Longer Poems (New York: W. W. Norton, 1980), 53–54.

2. The following is from “Conversations with Brecht,” an essay by Walter Benjamin: “On the other hand, Brecht compares Becher’s poem to Rimbaud’s [‘The Drunken Boat’]. In the latter, he thought, Marx and Lenin, too — had they read it — would have detected the great historical movement of which it is an expression. They would have recognized very clearly that it does not describe the perambulations of an eccentric stroller, but the vagabond flight of a person who can no longer endure the limits of his class, which — with the Crimean War, the Mexican adventure — was beginning to open up exotic parts of the world to its mercantile interest. To assimilate the gesture of the unfettered vagabond, putting his affair in the hands of chance and turning his back on society, was patently impossible for the stereotype of the proletarian fighter.” Benjamin, Reflections (New York: Schocken Books, 1978), 204.

3. “I liked stupid paintings, door panels, stage sets, back-drops for acrobats, signs, popular engravings, old-fashioned literature, church Latin, erotic books with bad spelling, novels of our grandmothers, fairy tales, little books from childhood, old operas, ridiculous refrains, naive rhythms.” Arthur Rimbaud, Rimbaud, Complete Works and Selected Letters, trans. Wallace Fowlie (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), 205. Here, like a proto-pop artist, Rimbaud plays homage to the detritus of a culture that moves with such agility beyond itself, corrupting quickly its past beliefs and aesthetics and accumulating its occasional productions, so that the recent present seems to outweigh the past in sheer informational abundance.

4. Ibid., 115.

5. There is a pessimism involved in Ammons’s theories that derives from his belief that the world is being corrupted by pollutions, and hence “industrial” activity on all levels. Stanzas toward the end of “Extremes and Moderations” examine this view:

                          … at the poles the pilots see in the contrast the
sullied air’s worldwide: because of the circulations, water can
never be picked up for use except from its usages, where what
has gone in is not measured or determined: extreme calls to

extreme and moderation is losing its quality, its effect: the
artificial has taken on the complication of the natural and where
to take hold, how to let go, perplexes individual action: ruin
and gloom are falling off the shoulders of progress: blue-green

globe, we have tripped your balance and gone into exaggerated
possession; this seems to me the last poem written to the world
before its freshness capsizes and sinks into the slush: the
rampaging industrialists, the chemical devisers and manipulators

are forging tanks, filling vats of smoky horrors …
                            … common air moves over the slopes, and common rain’s
losing its heavenly clarity …

All elements of Ammons’s poetic, from the “global view” to his descriptions of interconnectivity, are present in this excerpt, but with an additional note of opposition that may be reminiscent of Blake or Pound. Note how the “freshness” of the early parts of his poem has disappeared — no more flirting with predecessors — as if his anger, and consequential recourse to a more polemic writing style, were analogous with the “slush” of “rampaging industrialists … chemical devisors and manipulators” (Selected Longer Poems, 65).

6. Rimbaud, Rimbaud, 309.

7. Gerard Manley Hopkins, A Hopkins Reader, ed. John Picks (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 50.

8. His famous theory of inscape is one example, about which he writes: “As air, melody, is what strikes me most of all in music and design in painting, so design, pattern, or what I am in the habit of calling ‘inscape’ is what I above all aim at in poetry. Now it is the virtue of design, pattern, or inscape to be distinctive” (20).

9. F. R. Leavis, “Gerard Manley Hopkins,” in Hopkins: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Geoffrey Hartman (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1966), 21.

10. The ubiquity of intertextuality is a postmodern cliché at this point, but is leant a certain strength considering Ammons’s theories of the physical universe, theories that don’t enter into, say, the language of Ashbery (for whom the artifice of nature-viewing, of pastoralism, is more an issue), but which link Ammons to writers like Hopkins and Rimbaud, who found their epiphanic inspirations in either the sighting of a falcon, or the very newness (certainly not literary) of a sense of adolescent, pre-societal (and hormonally charged) liberation, so that the poem’s singularity has its source in the experience of the objects of nature.

11. A few paragraphs later, he writes: “Now judging from my own experience I should say no author palls so much as Wordsworth; this is because he writes such an ‘intolerable deal of’ Parnassian,” a statement worth noting as there seems to be a turn, in Ammons and a number of postmodern poets, back to the egotistic sublime of Wordsworth, though the theory of the ego itself, and the relationship to autobiography, are indeed different.

12. Hopkins, A Hopkins Reader, 129–34. Hopkins goes on in the letter to describe another type of poetry, the “Olympian,” which is “the language of strong masculine genius which suddenly, as it were, forces its way into the domain of poetry, without naturally having a right there. Milman’s poetry is of this kind, I think, and Rossetti’s Blessed Damozel. But unusual poetry has a tendency to seem to so at first.” It’s strange that Hopkins wouldn’t pursue his definition of this type, since it appears that it is the category to which he belongs, along with Blake and, ironically considering the genderedness of his statements, Emily Dickinson.

13. Ammons is also one to celebrate his digestion (as was Byron in Don Juan), so that when one reads, in Hopkins, that the first mode of poetry, that of inspiration, may arise “from various causes, physical generally, as good health or state of the air or, prosaic as it is, length of time after a meal,” one sees both the down-to-earthness of the Jesuit’s understanding of his inspiration, but also his refusal to make the “prosaic” qualities of the production of his verse an excuse for garrulousness, overproduction, and writing in the Parnassian mode — or virtuosity itself.

14. Rimbaud, Rimbaud, 307.

15. William Carlos Williams, Collected Poems, ed. Christopher MacGowan (New York: New Directions, 1991), 27–28.

16. The relevant lines relating to this association are reminiscent of what Eliot will later do in the Waste Land, from a section called “Broadway”:

And instantly down the mists of my eyes

 There came crowds walking — men as visions

 With expressionless, animate faces;

 Empty men with shell-thin bodies

 Jostling close above the gutter,

 Hasting nowhere! And then, for the first time,

 I really scented the sweat of her presence

 And turning saw her and — fell back sickened!

 Ominous, old, painted —

 With bright lips and eyes of the street sort —

 Her might strapped in by a corset

 To give her age youth, perfect

 In that will to be young she had covered

 Her godhead to go beside me.


These lines are suggestive of Williams’s utter rejection of Eliot, the use he found in Dada to express his disgust and fascination (possibly misogynist, certainly sexual, in content) with physical decay, his turn away from Europe for models to describe the experience of “Broadway” (think of his later “I Saw the Figure”), and his later adoption of the term duende from Garcia Lorca, whose take on New York is not dissimilar. Contrast this with his own later, very short poem, so much more resonant and yet modest in tone, called “Arrival,” which begins, significantly, in medias res, from a place of ignorance and forgetfulness: “And yet one arrives somehow, / finds himself loosening the hooks of / her dress / in a strange bedroom — / feels the autumn / dropping its silk and linen leaves / about her ankles. / The tawdry veined body emerges / twisted upon itself / like a winter wind …!” Williams, Collected Poems, 29, 164.

17. Williams was actually commissioned to write a poem to be read quickly (by Bob Brown, creator of the “Readie,” a machine that propelled text past a viewfinder), for which he wrote something that was punctuated with colons like an Ammons’s poem, but which sounds like something from John Yau’s “Genghis Chan” sequence. It’s called “Readie Poem,” and runs: “Grace — face: hot — pot: lank — spank: meat — eat: hash — cash: sell — well: old — sold: sink — wink: deep — sleep: come — numb: dum — rum: some — bum.” Williams, Collected Poems, 356.

18. Williams, Kora in Hell (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1957), 44–45.

19. Revolution of the Word, ed. Jerome Rothenberg (New York: The Seabury Press, 1974), provides an image of the ferment of literary activity surrounding Williams in his most experimental periods. However, Williams himself had a difficult personal relationship with many members of the international avant-garde (especially Duchamp) and even with Imagism (with his distrust of Hellenism, his often Cubist or Dadaist poetics, and his exploration of staccato meters), so he was still well below the radar of the establishment. Bram Dijkstra’s Cubism, Stieglitz, and the Early Poetry of William Carlos Williams (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969) is a fair historical account of Williams’s relationship not only to the Stieglitz group but also to the theories that were developed among them.

20. American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, Volume 2 (New York: Library of America, 1993), 658–59. These are the last stanzas of the poem, which was probably, judging by the bracketed space that the editors included in an earlier part of the poem, incomplete and found in manuscript after his death. However, the poem probably ends with the ellipses, since the editors would have bracketed, one supposes, them as well — the notes don’t provide answers.

21.Stickney actually made some breaks with the elaborate, performative poetics implied by this excerpt, and may be considered a precursor of Imagism — particularly of T. E. Hulme’s brand — or “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” with the following short poem from Dramatic Fragments:

Sir, say no more.
Within me ’t is as if
The green and climbing eyesight of a cat
Crawled near my mind’s poor birds.

22. Nathaniel Mackey, “Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol,” in Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality and Experimental Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 247.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid., 248–49.

25. Stevens’s brief essay in Opus Posthumous in which he describes the “anti-poetic” versus the “Romantic” strains of Williams’s writing is suggestive, especially when one considers Stevens’s own relationship to Europe, the dissonant variety of his first volume Harmonium, and his use for, and addenda to, Williams in “Nuances on a Theme of Williams.”

26. John Berger, The Success and Failure of Picasso (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989), 144–45.

27. Another aspect to this resistance is one that exists in an ethical or religious (specifically Roman Catholic) series of considerations, as the following passage by Sartre, quoted in Georges Bataille’s Literature and Evil (New York: Marion Boyars Publishers, 1985), suggests: “In order for liberty to be complete it has to be offered the choice … of being infinitely wrong. It is therefore unique in this whole universe committed to Good, but it must adhere totally to Good, maintain it and strengthen it in order to be able to plunge into Evil. And he who damns himself acquires a solitude which is a feeble image of the great solitude of the truly free man. In a certain sense he creates. In a universe where each element sacrifices itself in order to converge in the greatness of the whole, he brings out the singularity, that is to the say the rebelliousness, of a fragment or a detail. Thus something appears which did not exist before, which nothing can efface and which was in no way prepared by worldly materialism. It becomes a work of luxury, gratuitous and unpredictable” (36). The valorization of the fragmentary is interesting here in relation to Williams, for though he never acknowledged this sort of universe, the very proliferation of exclamation points in his writing, and the assurance of a near damnation that he felt by the literary world, especially by Eliot, suggests that he was aware of his breaching of ethical divides, his entering into an area of being that was not merely (as has been suggested so far) that of sexual or social eccentricity. The extraordinary faith that Williams had that the accidental, the minor, or the particular that occurs in his work had universal import suggests that he believed the very form of a poem had ethical import.

28. Williams, from “Spring and All,” quoted in Revolution of the Word, 112–13.

29. F. R. Leavis, Gerard Manley Hopkins (New York: New Directions, 1973), 25. Leavis makes the observation that Sturge Moore’s poem, which discards the word “back,” has “no body.”

Maverick translation

What with vital writers and artists — Rainer Maria Rilke, Pablo Neruda, Paul Celan, Franz Kafka, Joan Baez, Robert Lowell, and others in Memoirs of a Maverick Translator — what with them, a time comes for various other people, events, jokes, unique ideas, and more. They have wild difference, thus not much order or connection.

Decades ago I heard the excellent poet W. S. Merwin (1927–) when we were concerning a poem’s value. A few people were lamenting its translation, so Merwin simply said: “The original is never harmed.”

The Dark Room and other poems by Enrique Lihn, a fine Chilean poet, was translated in 1978 by New Directions. Payment went to someone who edited and introduced; with him, we three translators also got some pay; Lihn got an okay amount; New Directions certainly did. Our four fellows, however, would not receive $25 payment until this $2.45 book succeeds. After three decades I got it. 

When Federico García Lorca was murdered in 1936, Roy Campbell wrote: “Not only did he lose his life / By shots assassinated: / But with a hammer and a knife / Was after that — translated.”  

Frost did not write “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” though he must have spoken it. He wrote “Poetry is that which tends to evaporate from both prose and verse when translated.”

Simone de Beauvoir replied, in French, to my article about young Pablo Neruda’s use of women: Chère Madame …, “Dear Madam, Many thanks for your essay on Neruda which gave me lively interest et que j’ai fait lire par mes amies feminists. En toute sympathie, S de Beauvoir [and which I’ve had my feminist friends read. In all kindness, S de Beauvoir].” Why “Madam”? Well, she translated “John” to Jean in French, then thought I was female.

A Stanford event asked me to translate an ancient Hebrew epigram into English…: “The broadest land’s too tight to squeeze / To give two foes an ample space, / Just as a very narrow place / Can hold a thousand friends with ease.”

Yves Bonnefoy’s Ce qui alarma Paul Celan translates to “Why Paul Celan Took Alarm” when one can learn his eloquent syntax of phases, layers, inversions, delays.

Caminante, no hay camino, / se hace camino al andar.

Clearly this holds for blazing a trail and bushwhacking and walking cross-country: where there’s no given path, you make your own way. Whether it holds for poetry, for translation, for life itself — we’ll see as we go. Antonio Machado having had his say, we’re bound to bring these lines into decent English or else learn Spanish, or marry a native speaker, or settle in Spain or Latin America.

Deeper than the eye, the ear senses rhythmic repetition: Caminante … camino … camino. But Caminante (walker) and camino (road, way) don’t seem to yield cognate terms in English, if that’s of the essence here. To begin with, then:

Walker, there is no way,
A way is made by/in walking.

“Walker … way” turning round to “way … walking” provides a telling bonus, a balancing of thought. Yet doesn’t that doubled “walk” miss the point? Since the walker’s already walking, a way must be made by something else. “Traveler, there is no trail …”? No, camino’s not “trail.” “Pathfinder, there is no path …” Interesting, but pathfinders already do more than just walk, and they’re mostly lost to us now, with their leather stockings. 

Is there a way to follow the “way” throughout this maxim? Taoist and Christian overtones alone would justify it, even though Machado’s thoughts point toward experience before and beneath religion or philosophy. A word comes to mind that feels hackneyed, but I (for one) would go with it: “Wayfarer, there is no way.” What happens next depends on how we hear se hace — “is made,” “gets made,” “you make”? — and andar. Since the second verse has general force, we could try this:

Caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar
Wayfarer, there is no way,
A way gets made as you go.

The Spanish lines, in equal syllables, take three stresses each that change place from one moment to the next, so it helps to get that pacing in English too.

Sure enough, just as poets find a way as they go, so do translators, so do we all.

“Fertile Misremembrance.” Denise Levertov started a poem:

In the forties, wartime London, I read
an ode by Neruda I’ve never found again, …
I could search out the Obras Completas
I know …

I couldn’t find Denise’s source. It was not an ode, but one of Neruda’s Tres cantos materiales, three material songs. She wanted Apogeo del apio (“Apogee of Celery”).  Translating I played with “Celebration of Celery,” and she said “Thanks very much for the translation … Perhaps one’s misremembrances are always more fertile than accurate recollections.”

Everyone knows The Oprah Magazine. One time she had the great British writer, A. S. Byatt (1936–), do “A. S. in Wonderland.” Byatt’s pages gave us her favorite seven books of all time, “Books that change you, even later in life, give you a kind of electrical shock.” These books are: Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot; poems by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge; The Poems of Emily Dickinson; George Eliot’s Middlemarch; Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Those — and also, I must say, my Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew.

Dickinson and Celan: not close friends, at least not for Dickinson. In 1961, Celan dedicates Für Nelly Sachs, a Dickinson stanza for Sachs. A few years later, Dickinson and Celan joins: a little-known Dickinson poem plus a Celan version.

So you are turned—a Someone
As I had never known—
You heart a drum that summons
All through a Land of Flow.
Where no Mouth drink—and nothing
Will cleave where Shadows form—
Where Water wells to Seeming
And Seeming falls—to Foam

You rise in every Wellspring—
Through every Seeming—run
You’ve conjured up a Playing
That begs—Oblivion

So bist du denn geworden
wie ich dich nie gekauut:
dein Herz schlägt allerorten
in einem Brunnenland,
wo kein Mund trinkt und keine
Gestalt die Schatten säumt,
wo Wasser quilt zum Scheine
und Schein wie Wasser schäumt.

Du steigst in alle Brunnen
du schwebst durch jeden Schein,
du hast ein Spiel ersonnen,
das will vergessen sein.

Celan’s alternating seven-six-seven-six syllable count answers nicely to Dickinson’s odd orthographic emphases. Also syntax, rhythm, staccato, etc. Celan has taken Dickinson’s wry and rueful address to one of those putative romantic figures in her life, and readdressed it to the lost figure in his own life, his mother deported from Bukovina (known for its wells).

All this proves thought-provoking, as Celan finds solutions for Dickinson’s lines in lines that sound strangely like his own voice. Then I let on just how “little-known” the Dickinson poem was. The English quatrains in “So you are turned” are in fact an imitation. A friend and myself made a pseudo-Dickinson rendering, translating into English a 1950 Celan lyric, So bist du den geworden, which does address his mother. A learnable hoax, though a deeper source.

Now almost everyone knows Samuel Beckett, who was, as Wikipedia says, an Irish avant-garde novelist, playwright, theatre director, and poet who lived in Paris for most of his adult life and wrote in both English and French (1906–1989). And maybe more of us know his En attendant Godot, “Waiting for Godot” (1953). In Paris I met a German translator, Elmar Tophoven, who gave me a triple-language Godot: French, English, German. Beckett himself got a leg-up on his own English translation, “Waiting for Godot,” by dint of his work with Tophoven.

Tophoven’s happiest stroke of translational intervention occurs in Act Two when Pozzo, now blind, has fallen in a heap with Lucky. The heroes debate whether to help him up, then tumble down themselves. One hero, ESTRAGON, says  Ce qu’on est bien, par terre! (“How good it is, on the ground!”) Tophoven gets a bit wordy, suggesting less supple: Man ist doch gut aufgehoben bei Mutter Erde (“Indeed one is well taken care of by Mother Earth”). Whereupon Beckett cleanly re-enters his own voice, by way of Elmar’s heartlifting Mutter Erde — but stunningly simpler: “Sweet mother earth!”

During eleven years, Claudio Spies selected seven Shakespeare sonnets, expanded by including German versions of the same sonnets by Paul Celan, then gave it all music: soprano, bass-baritone, violin, viola, violoncello, clarinet, bass clarinet, conductor.

Princeton composer, born in Chile of German Jewish parents, Claudio (1925–) called this “Seven Sonnets,” Sieben Sonette. Scores of letters occurred between him and me.

Normandy in August 1984, Études sur Paul Celan: Colloque de Cerisy-la-Salle occurs mainly in French. I give a talk: “Langue maternelle, langue éternelle: La présence de l’Hébreu dans les poèmes de Paul Celan.” At one moment I illustrate a point by singing the Hebrew Sabbath hymn L’cha dodi, which warms some folks. Right afterward, an arrogant dogmatic French academic stands up to warn against surjudaisant for Paul Celan, “over-Judaizing” him. Ah well …

Gisèle Lestrange, Celan’s widow, enjoys the Hebrew hymn, though in Cerisy she feels her husband has entered history — a loss for her. Their son Eric remembers when he was thirteen, his father walking in streets with him, singing revolutionary songs in Russian, Yiddish, French, proud of his Dad. In Cerisy, playing table tennis with Eric, I fear that winning with him might feel unkind then.

Ezra Pound tells us poetry’s “language is charged or energized in various manners.” Then he shows that melopoeia’s musical property is impossible to translate from one language to another, and phanopoeia casting images can wholly translate, while logopoeia does not translate “locally.” He also says, “Poetry is news that stays news.”

“It is difficult / to get the news from poems,” William Carlos Williams tells us, “yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” The famed “Red Wheelbarrow” was not a title for W. C. Williams. He wanted none, just

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Some persons don’t believe it’s a poem at all, but still it is. No rhyme to poeticize it, no title to emblematize it, no capital letters or climax at the end to organize it. Just an image urged upon us, trimmed to four two-line stanzas, each stanza a phrase with consistent syllables.

Taking another view on Williams now, there’s a little-known angle of his poems and translations. Decades ago I took his modern bench mark, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and tested two versions of it in the Spanish American grain.

The Nicaraguan poet and priest Ernesto Cardenal gave this:

Tanto depende


 una carretilla


 reluciente de gotas

de lluvia

junto a las gallinas



Phrases two and four do sound right in Spanish, with nouns coming before adjectives. Yet with “red” and “white” coming first, we absorb radiance. Because only the barrow would be red, a momentary “red wheel” vision lightens the sky. Likewise “wheel” and “rain” adjectives each show their prime, their free nature, before “barrow” and “water” simply remind plain facts. In a way, Yehuda Amichai’s “It’s the living child we need / to scrub when he’s back from play” moves in a rhythm somewhat similar to these phrases by Williams.

The Mexican poet Octavio Paz is our second translator. In 1970 he’d written a famous essay arguing that translation is crucial, and that translating a poem is akin to creating one. (Strangely enough, in working on this chapter I found an eighteen-page translation — when and why I don’t know.) Paz did this:

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

de una carretilla roja
barnizada de
agua de lluvia
junto a blancas

Unlike Cardenal, the rhythm slackens, no overhangs lean us into the poem and keep impending interest. Paz’s cuánto also implies “how” much depends, as if the speaker already knew how much, concerned by something rather than wondering. Or my grandmother: “so much, I can’t tell you!” After all, how much depends upon the barrow, water, chickens, and what depends on them? Maybe everything. Whatever depends depends on seeing those things afresh by saying them anew. Since “depend” in line one is the poem’s only Latinate word, we can see Williams’s delight in the rest, all Anglo-Saxon compound. But that’s hard for Spanish. At the end, though, Paz did follow English adjective-noun, “white / chickens,” blancas / gallinas.  

One more word, “glazed,” turns out to be curious. Cardenal’s glazed wheelbarrow is reluciente, shining like a halo or the family silver (as a Chilean friend told me), while Paz’s is barnizada, varnished (varnishing began in Berenice, Libya). Williams liked “glazed” a lot: his old mother wakens to birds “skimming / bare trees / above a snow glaze.” Doughnuts and pie, pottery and majolica, oil paintings, snow, eyes are glazed. “Glaze” has a thriving family: glass, gloss, gleam, glow, glare, glint, glitter, glisten, glimpse, glance, glide, glee, glad, gold. This wheelbarrow stands radiantly for itself.

William Carlos Williams, born to a half-Sephardic Puerto Rican mother, made translation a profession, along with daily medicine and poetry. He translated Neruda, Andrade, Nicanor Parra, and with his mother, a Quevedo novella. In fairness to Octavio Paz, his other Williams poems came out better: “Nantucket,” “Young Sycamore,” and especially “Hymn Among the Ruins.” What baffled him was intense simplicity in “The Red Wheelbarrow,” the poem free of title.  

And translating Spanish, Pablo Neruda took Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: “Urge and urge and urge / Always the procreant urge of the world,” Impulso, impulso, impulso, / siempre el procreador impulse del mundo. That’s possible, unless one prefers perfection. Yes, Neruda must be with us.

Now to translate the last lines of another material song, Entrada a la Madera, “Entrance into Wood.” His last paragraph begs “come to me … / and clasp me to your life, to your death, / to your crushed materials, / to your dead neutral doves.” Then the last lines:

y hagamos fuego, y silencio, y sonido,
y ardamos, y callemos, y campanas.
and let us make fire, and silence, and sound,
and let us burn and be silent and bells.

Again Neruda comes keen. English can’t mime -ego, -cio, -ido, / -amos, -emos, -anas. As campanas is a noun not a verb, then “bells” act the same! Neruda’s a joy and more: “Floods,” “Guilty,” “Heights of Macchu Picchu.” Lots of sharp toil in Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu (1980).

Sad, sad, the 2014 death of José Emilio Pacheco: Mexican poet, essayist, novelist, short story writerlisted  in Wikipedia with Federico García Lorca and Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda Awards, but no mention of translation. Similar to Paul Celan writing on Shakespeare’s four-hundredth year, in 1989 Pacheco took on T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” and “The Dry Salvages” from Four Quartets. As ever, Latin languages use more words than English.

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die.
Las palabras se mueven, la música se mueve
Nada más en el tiempo; pero lo que solo está vivo
Sólo puede morir.

In the first line, four in English, eight in Spanish — yet in the third line, three for both. More to the point, Pacheco has translated for his people.  

April 30, 1963

Kenneth Irby in Cambridge, 1962.

30 Apr [63][1]

Yr letter came at an appropriate time — I had just gotten back from NY, from seeing Blackburn & Robt Kelly & Roi Jones & Joel Oppenheimer (whom I hadn’t met before) — Kelly had given a reading on the 17th — at which was also Stan Brakhage[2] (who also gave a showing at Princeton that weekend I saw, & talked to him again afterwards — his movies are incredible things to me, the more and more I see them; & he is a very direct & open person — the audience sat after the flicks for 2 hrs or more asking questions & taking in what he was saying — unusual for Princeton types, but then, who knows). A good week in all, & then yr letter to cap it all off, esp. since I had been thinking re Olson just what you were saying there, that his movement formally is very much, totally, a dynamics of construction, not a preset pattern across the page or even out of saying. & not long before you had shown up in some crazy dream of mine, but with crewcut red hair, so god knows what that involved! Anyway, & again, the letter was very good to get — don’t worry abt writing back in answer to this till things clear for you — I’ll be deep in Japanese anyway from now on, trying to catch up & review & retrieve what can be retrieved from a pretty much lost semester. So, anyway, this to keep the lines humming, communications live, the contact there.

I had on getting back here, seminar paper due & no paper done, figured just to say hell completely & leave then & there, money being the only drawback (as always). But I talked the thing over with various sorts of professors, & agreed that in order to get the rest of my scholarship & collect the money for the course I’m grading, I should at least finish up — even if I flunk it’s no worse than leaving, & the money is there. So — the seminar is out of the way by arrangement, but Japanese & Chinese left. Onward & BANZAI & don’t give up, so, on.

That, then, & enough of all this shit of mine re this institution (yr attached bit on the back of the letter was, yes, to here! where the hell did you find it?). I’ve got, as I reckon you have, the flyer from CHANGE, with its very attractive photo of the editors & the fastest car on earth, & (by god, for me you’ll figure, a welcome & not-used-to sight, my name in any kind of print) me among the mentioned.[3] Which is nice of ’em & sustenance in the midst of rainy generally shitty cold spring (?) weather here (god, how much I go or lapse from the sheer presence or lack of the sunlight, but then).

Am, it happens as you ask, reading Fade Out,[4] along with Eastlake’s The Bronc People,[5] right now, so I’ll wait till I’ve finished to say anything. But it does take me along now.

There is a book of photographs I’ve seen you might like very much if the library there’s got it, or some book store (not likely I reckon that) — by Eliot Porter, of Glen Canyon, The Place Nobody Knew,[6] which are of any I’ve seen the finest color photographs as a group I’ve ever seen, I guess, & the quality of the reproductions superb. You probably know of him or know him personally since he has lived in Santa Fe a long time now. But god knows the book is a great one.

So. Here I sit & getting, by god yes, drunk, red wine & the rain & why not & hills hills hills in my mind, the ones you live on, stuck in my memory as gray as this rain because it was early morning when I woke up on the bus & saw them just before the sun, not Pocatello but Twin Falls, like them I guess; & the hills of my 2 yrs in the Army, Ft Riley, the Flint Hills of Kansas that Custer rode out of much as I did an early morning, going myself to the rifle ranges, he to idiocy of a kind he paid for by taking a lot of others with him, generic to army posts & the plains too — & Ft Leonard Wood in the Missouri red clay Ozarks, with pines & nothing but gravel all over the ground — & Albuq & the Sandias; & home of E. Kansas just as wet right now as here probably, long lines of cuesta hills stretching around Trading Post. […]

So, prominences / I no more know why they come & go behind the eyes than why, finally, I came to them, why I lived there around them at all; like Bob says

such geography of self and soul
brought to such limit of sight,

I cannot relieve it
nor leave it, …[7]

In the rain, & wot the hell wot the hell. The urge always to get to the top of the hill — is this the primary drive in mt climbing, the real climbing, that is the Mt Everest etch outfits? The cuestas of Linn County Kansas were like the mesas of the SW to me — how they came up out of the flat lands, farm lands there in Kansas, but the hills equally as the mesas, almost as if separate country. & my desire to get on top of either — that drove me 3 or 4 times to climb the ft path up the face of Sandia Crest, once 3 ft deep in snow with Anderson, the Arkansas type you met that NYr’s Eve in Santa Fe.[8] The urge that only is there when it is those prominences that rise from the plains, though; among the mts proper, in the Rockies, I have no drive to get to their tops. Who knows, or why it is so. Maybe the reactions of a plainsman to see his own country just a little better — when he sees mountains, they’re mts, whether in em or on em — just revel to be there (like Cousin Minnie Pearl used to say on the Grand Ole Oprey, “well sir, I’m just soh pleased (proud)? to be here”).

Or why drunk I’m going all over them now. Anyway.
                                                                                                 Have been reading Powell’s Exploration of the Colorado River,[9] & am convinced he was much more interested in getting to the Indians there & tapping them, than the river & its canyons alone (or, yes, the geology too, I forget that) — the description is interesting cause he is in the midst of first describing, almost, yet he is not innocent to this kind of landscape at all, he’s been around the country elsewhere, so it doesn’t break in on him with complete ton of bricks. & the legends from the indians do turn him on. The worst thing is to realize that all of Glen Canyon as he saw it (& those photographs saw it) is now under god knows how much silt-laden water, backed up behind that damn dam who knows why we really need.

o well shit Ed I could go on & on, & I’m to other things if the wine don’t keep me off it, them.

               There’s a possibility I may do a review of The Sullen Art for Kulchur, but up in air.[10] Would like to try, though to review as a whole involves some effort. But why not try.

So, well, anyway. Glad you like the thing I sent you—little has been going—& one the Harvard Advocate was thinking of printing they now want me to change (how or why don’t know) & am pissed myself, if they don’t want it, don’t fuck with me over it, its not that great nor are they. Oh well. I hope things work for you—i.e. done with the least hang up. Roi said some of yr students were putting out a magazine, Wild Dog (as I remember?), & that’s very good.[11] Let me hear from you when things clear for you — & for sure I hope to see you all in NMex come summer, but will keep in touch all along. Bless you again for those saving letters — they’ve lifted me when I didn’t figure there was a lift going.

                 love to you all

                                                                        — Ken



1. Kenneth Irby to Edward Dorn, 30 April 1963, Ed Dorn Papers, series I, box 1, folder 17, Courtesy of Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.

2. Stan Brakhage (1933–2003), experimental filmmaker, writer, and close friend and correspondent of Dorn.

3. Irby’s poem “For Thanksgiving 1962” (reprinted in this special issue) was published in Change 1 (1963): 13–14.

4. Douglas Woolf, Fade Out (New York: Grove Press, 1959).

5. William Eastlake, The Bronc People (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958).

6. Eliot Porter, The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1963).

7. Creeley, from “The Mountains in the Desert,” collected first in Words (New York: Scribner, 1967).

8. Irby is referring to New Year’s Eve 1960, when, having just moved to Albuquerque for the army, he first met Dorn. See the introduction to these letters.

9. John Wesley Powell (1834–1902), geologist and explorer of the American West; explored the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon in 1869.

10. See endnote 15 (“April 8, 1963”).

11. Early issues of Wild Dog — of which there are twenty-one issues in all, published between 1963 and 1966 — were coedited by Dorn, John Hoopes, and Drew Wagnon. See endnote 9 (“October 21, 1964”). For further information, see: Steve Clay and Rodney Phillips, A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960–1980 (New York: The New York Public Library and Granary Books, 1998), 152–153.

'We might say poetry'

Kenneth Irby, January 1985 (photo by David Levi Strauss).


Ken Irby’s poem beginning with the phrase “We might say poetry” is the first of the “Berkeley” sequence that makes up close to half of his book Catalpa, published in Lawrence, Kansas by John Moritz’s Tansy Press in 1977. It is not an entirely typical Irby poem — happily, there is no such thing. But it bears at least three of the features that we would not be wrong to associate with Ken’s work generally. First, it is a landscape poem — or, to put it in more current terms, it is a site-specific work; it bestows specificity on a particular locale, and in so doing it projects forth from its site a multilayered and emotionally complex geocultural vision. Second, it is notable for its intimacy of address; one feels one is sharing not only a moment but the affective memories, sensations, and feelings that characterize that moment. And third, it radiates love.

In advance of the publication in 2009 of The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962–2006, I composed a blurb for the back cover of the book. I spoke of the poetry’s “scope,” “gravitas,” and “emotional nobility.” I said that “It is not the fleetingness of life but the longevity of life’s effects that Irby’s poems make note of. The works unfold through the continuous remembering of persons and places loved and known — and known as loved.”

I still think this assessment holds true of his work generally, and of the poem beginning “We might say poetry” specifically. And the aptness of the assessment — that Irby’s poetry “unfolds through the continuous remembering of persons and places loved and known — and known as loved” — is not belied by the way that “We might say poetry” complicates its site, the contours of remembering, and the unrepresentable but determinative topology of friendship. The poem also undertakes something akin to time travel (but what poem doesn’t, really?) and, perhaps more to the point — or merely as an item of secondary, contingent interest — anthropological travel (or spiritual ethnography).[1]

You all have a copy of the poem, I think. Here it is:

      We might say poetry

as accumulation of specific

but instead we talked about the mind

’s a sixth sense, the Tibetans’

sense of it

                      West in the mist

Tamalpais’ top floated

the earth that was not connected

was ours clear up to the hillside

where Alexandra David-Neel spoke in Lowell

the scatterings of trees

on hills like our own hill


                            “the dovetailing

or interlacing of ridges

                                              no line on a map

can represent”

but the greenery of grass

is fence

 cutting even the heart away

 with the brightness of the day

SW towards Orinda[2]

As I said, this poem is the first of the sequence titled “Berkeley” in Ken’s book Catalpa. And the first nine lines of the twenty-two-line poem seem to situate the speaker and his comrades — the we who “talked about the mind / ’s a sixth sense” instead of about “poetry / as accumulation of specific” — in Berkeley. The hillside and the scattering of trees are familiar features of coastal northern California, and the mist and Mount Tamalpais specifically belong to the environs of Berkeley.

I’ve tried to figure out what time of day it is in the poem — or what time of day it was, since the first long stretch of the poem is cast in the narrative past tense (“we talked,” “Tamalpais’ top floated”), and when it shifts to the so-called present tense (“the greenery of grass / is fence”) what we get isn’t temporality but a state of things, a truth condition, discovered, or perhaps merely glimpsed, where conditions otherwise are fleeting.

And of course they are fleeting — this is a pastoral poem, of sorts, and conditions of the pastoral landscape (the so-called “natural world” as a site for social being) are always fleeting, ephemeral — conditions of light, color, aroma, tactility, and talk. These are temporary; they are also temporal. They comprise what Larry Eigner, in his poem “B,” calls “the constant ephemerals,” the elements of time itself. History. The ghosts of events. And the marks of history’s hand on the landscape. This, as I will explain in a minute, is a site of something of lasting negativity in the poem.

The poem inhabits some time-of-day.

The poet and his (or her — I don’t want to make unwarranted assumptions — but still — this isn’t a so-called “persona poem” — we can ascribe it to some version of a character named Kenneth Irby) — the poet and his companion or companions are looking West toward Mount Tamalpais, surrounded by mist. This is mist, rather than the autumnal hot-weather haze of Indian summer in Berkeley, but that doesn’t necessarily place the poet and friend or friends in a winter landscape. As Ken puts it in another poem in Catalpa, “Indian Summer in Berkeley means / the fogs come back in October.” The poet and his friends, then, could be part of an actual summer or a faux summer scene — the San Francisco Bay Area being famous (or infamous) for its summer fog — particularly noticeable (and delightful) in the mornings, until the fog begins to burn off around midday.

And, since near the very end of the poem there is mention of the “brightness of the day,” I’m guessing that the poem is “happening” at midday. And that the poet himself is in Berkeley. Mount Tamalpais does sit west of Berkeley; it is a notable, and peculiarly sacred, San Francisco Bay Area natural landmark, rising without particular drama but magisterially out of Marin County. The other notable, but for many negligible or even unknown, Bay Area “mountain” is Mount Diablo. Mount Tamalpais is patrician; Mount Diablo is working class. This is worth mentioning, since, though my social classification of Mount Tamalpais and Mount Diablo is not relevant to Irby’s poem, it is the case that, if one looks from Berkeley to Orinda, and if the weather is right and one’s elevation is sufficient, one will see Mount Diablo. Orinda lies midway on a direct line of sight from Berkeley to Mount Diablo. Due east.

 but the greenery of grass

 is fence

 cutting even the heart away

 with the brightness of the day

 SW towards Orinda


I really don’t know what to make of the reorientation that we find has taken place somewhere in the course of the poem such that our attention is directed “SW towards Orinda.” Orinda, as I said, lies almost directly due east of Berkeley.

But between the eighth and ninth lines of the poem a far more dramatic resituating has taken place. Or perhaps it’s between the seventh and eighth lines. Wherever it happens, it is the work of that sixth sense, the mind, in “the Tibetans’ / sense of it.”

There is important semantic, as well as geographical and temporal, slippage at this point in the poem. It may be “the mind [… in] the Tibetans’ sense of it” that sits “West in the mist.” Or it may be that “West in the mist / Tamalpais’ top floated.” Or it may be that “Tamalpais’ top floated / the earth.” All three are grammatically, though independently, correct; all three are said in the poem; all three are possibilities that the mind can accept the sense of. For the moment, it is the extension of the third that I want to follow: “Tamalpais’ top floated / the earth” and not only that: it is “the earth that was not connected.” It is, then, not Irby and his companion or companions — we — that have moved from Berkeley but the earth that has moved, while being still “ours clear up to the hillside / where Alexandra David-Neel spoke in Lowell.”

Alexandra David-Neel, the author of My Journey to Lhasa and Magic and Mystery in Tibet (to name the two of her books best known in America), was never in Lowell. Born in Paris in 1868, she died 101 years later; in the interim she lived in many places and visited even more, but she was never in the US or Canada. But if one types her name into the Google search engine, one finds in entry after entry with unnerving regularity (such that one is reminded that there is no originality to be found via Google) this sentence: “Her teachings influenced beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.”

It might be, then, through her books that she “spoke in Lowell” — which, as we all know, was Kerouac’s hometown.

Or it might be that the “Lowell” being named is not the working-class Massachusetts town but Ken Irby’s friend Lowell, who is present in many of the Berkeley poems: “I said to Lowell,” “Lowell went first down the path the last stretch,” “Lowell left a note,” etc. (260, 261, 308).

In Magic and Mystery in Tibet Alexandra David-Neel passes along a remark offered to her by a gomchen (Buddhist hermit): “A living being is an assemblage, not a unity.”[3]

And The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation (a central and ancient text of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, which gained some popularity and influence in the English-speaking world — probably including Lowell — with its publication in an Oxford University Press paperback in 1954), posits that “Realization of the One Mind” comes about “through introspectively attaining understanding of the true nature of its macrocosmic aspect innate in man.”[4]

And — though I very much do not want to suggest that Ken Irby wrote this poem under the influence of Buddhist philosophy — “We might say poetry” does indeed have a macrocosmic aspect, and it does, in its quiet way, demonstrate a way in which “the one Mind,” might be a sensing faculty, capable of realization — capable, that is, of making manifest and real — temporal and spatial truths of the world that no hand on a clock face and “no line on a map can represent.”

This is, however, a realization that comes about not introspectively but socially.

And the affective aftermath of that realization is not bound to the poet’s ego; the truth of the emotions belongs not to the poet but to the situated occasion, to the landscape of extensive event. It is here that we can discern the ethical dimension of Irby’s art.

Ken Irby is in some ways an austere poet.

That statement may simply be an oblique way of describing the dignity of the man in and of the poems. He holds his feelings dear but at a distance — but it is the distance neither of irony nor of alienation.

Indeed, in a powerful and positive sense, Irby is a poet of non-alienation. His work homes in on its locales and on the sharing of them that makes them memorable, known in common. And his austerity — the distance of his feelings — gives us the measure of the capacious outreach of which proper sociality is capable.


In continuing to think about the temporal conditions of the poem, I have come to realize that the time of day in the poem is both a point of entry and a point of departure. The open landscape, the conversing companions, the midday light — not to mention the inclusive opening pronoun (“We”) — all invite us into the occasion. But they do so not through Whitmanesque prolixity and exuberance; the occasion blossoms in the light of its condensation. The poem is only twenty-two lines long, and the conversation and concomitant regarding of the landscape last only as long as “the brightness of the day” allows. The time within the poem is the duration of a glow.

And this is what produces a point of departure into the occasion’s afterglow, which is the time of the poem.

The poem’s temporal expansion is already articulated spatially, in the strong (and even, given that we may get all the way to Lowell in it, magically excessive) horizontality of the poem’s spatial landscape. Unimpeded (the hills are embedded and integral, not tossed up and demanding), the mind sweeps west to Mount Tamalpais (which has, finally, a more maternal than magisterial aspect in the distance as seen from Berkeley) and then floats back and drifts calmly, slowly, even languidly (albeit at the speed of thought) eastward across the continent to Massachusetts.

Conditions are, the poem says, “unpredictable.”

And yet, as I see it, the ultimate time of the poem is its future — or futurity as such, since the future I am referring to — the future of the poem — is now (though it will also be tomorrow).

I don’t mean by this that the poem has become, or will become, or should become, canonical. It may, but that is not my concern here. What I mean is that the time in the poem — those particular brightly present sunlit hours in Berkeley, lived and experienced and condensed through what Kierkegaard would call “formative activity” into a poem beginning “We might say poetry” — becomes the time of the poem: the expansion of the past present occasion into its future — which remains the occasion and event, still lived, in which a poet and a comrade or comrades sitting or walking in the Berkeley hills talk about poetry and the mind.[5]

The book in which the poem was originally published begins with a short text titled “In Place of a Preface.” It consists of slightly more than two pages of what one might call raw material — material akin to that which makes up what we now have of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project — etymological information related to the words “land,” “scape,” “landscape,” “plant,” and “place,” and a set of thirteen quotations from an assortment of pertinent texts, including this from Charles Olson: “By landscape I mean what ‘narrative’; scene; event; climax; crisis; hero; development; posture; all that meant — all the substantive of what we call literary” (250). Word and place are not strictly separable in the world of Ken Irby; both are occupied by occasion, friendship, affinity, and also crisis and the muted heroism that humans require of each other.

I don’t have time today to quote, nor even to situate the importance of, all thirteen of the citations offered “in place of a preface.” But in addition to the bit from Charles Olson that I just quoted, two others seem deftly pertinent to “We might say poetry.”

The first is from Edgar Anderson’s essay “The Considered Landscape”: “When we consider a landscape, what are we considering? Is it just what we see or is it something more — if so, what is that something more? What we see is a view, most certainly. When we talk about landscape, when we try to have a meeting of minds as to its various problems, there is more than the view itself. We are contemplating what is before us. The eye is seeing and the mind is perceiving. What we think, what we ask, what we investigate will depend upon how rich is the experience brought to bear on that contemplation. It is not only what we see, it is also what we see in it” (250).

The second is from an essay by a University of Kansas historian, James C. Malin, who died in 1979, two years after Catalpa was published. The four quoted lines in the poem — forming a staggered quatrain — are from Malin’s book titled The Grassland of America: Prolegomena to its History: “the dovetailing / or interlacing of ridges / no line on a map / can represent.”[6] What Ken quotes in his “In Place of a Preface Text” is from another work by Malin, an essay titled “On the Nature of Local History”: “Every historical event must happen not anywhere, but in some particular place, at some point in space, in some locality or minimal unit of space in which its unique causal factors operate” (251).


The poem hints at the unrepresentability of poetry. Its opening gambit — its foray into offering an at least tentative description or definition of poetry, or of the saying of poetry — is truncated (and only obliquely returned to near the end of the poem, where our attention is directed to “the greenery of grass,” which is no sooner named than it becomes itself an instrument of truncation: it “is fence”).

“We might say poetry / as accumulation of specific,” but we don’t — at least not directly. The poet and his comrades talk instead “about the mind,” as a force that can be independent of the five perceiving senses, “a sixth sense.” Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the poem turns into mind, not as an engine of reason but as a seat of affective intensity and corporeal liberty.

Some kind of epistemology is at stake here, but the knowledge it bears is not principally rational. The knowledge belongs, rather, to the world of emotion. And it exists as the halo of event and occasion. Irby’s poem — and his poetry more generally — is emotional even as it emanates austerity; it is certainly not sentimental.

As Charles Altieri, in his Particulars of Rapture argues, emotions come attached to stories; they have a past and a future. They are, in this, different from sensation, mood, or feeling. “Emotions are affects involving the construction of attitudes that typically establish a particular cause and so situate the agent within a narrative and generate some kind of action or identification.”[7]

In the poem, I would argue, affect (or “we might say poetry”) — that which offers us, non-predatorily, a landscape that can be “ours clear up to the hillside” — is an emanation not of aesthetic feeling but of social emotion. This poem was born not in solitude but in company, and the poetics it realizes are a social poetics — a realization of lyric sociality, which far outdistances the lyric subjectivity that tends so tediously to inform conventional nature writing.

It is the camaraderie and the occasion that make the place Irby and his friend or friends venture into a landscape. Beyond that, they don’t touch a thing, though their conversation touches on many things.

And this brings me to the “the greenery of grass” that intrudes suddenly upon the musings the poem remembers. Those shared musings of the conversing friends can be said to be, like “the scatterings of trees / on hills like our own hill,” “unpredictable,” “dovetailing / or interlacing” in ways that “no line on a map [nor line of poetry] / can represent.” But the “greenery of grass” is a line. With the burning off of the morning mist, what becomes visible is not entirely landscape proper but also the landscaped. It is greenery rather than greenness of grass that is seen — lawn, hedging. It is as if, for an instant, the poet relives the historical change brought about by the imposition of land enclosure, when vast areas of forest and meadow that had for “time immemorial” been the shared landscape of everyday life were privatized, bringing about the end of the commons.[8]

In the poem, the shock is muted — the privatization of land has become second nature. But nonetheless, the shock is registered, “cutting even the heart away.” This is one of the two central epistemological moments of the poem — and, though it comes at the end of the poem, it is, in fact, the first. It registers realization of loss and of the historical forces that caused it — call them early capitalism or human greed — and that have shrunk the horizons of possibility for the very kinds of comradeship that the poem takes as its original and creative terrain. In response, and retroactively, so to speak, the poem makes its assertion of camaraderie — insistence on the abiding truth of social subjectivity — and this establishes the second epistemological moment of the poem, as well as its ethical power.

This poem of Ken Irby’s has undeniable outward momentum. It is an account of thinking and talking into the distance, an ungrandiose — one might even say anti-grandiose — account of thought’s spatial and temporal sweep. But, after its last line, “We might say poetry” reaches back to what was in front of it, concerned certainly, rather than complacent, wanting to make sure that the humanity will last, and can find an answer to difficulties its own history throws at us.

For Ken Irby, in honor of  his seventy-fifth birthday, in celebration of his seventy-five years


Lawrence, Kansas, November 5, 2011



1. Thanks to Eric Falci for providing me with the term “spiritual ethnography.”

2. Kenneth Irby, The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962–2006 (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2009), 257. [Because “We might say poetry” appears on a single page, in-text citations have been left out of the main text. For all other references to The Intent On, page numbers are provided in parentheses. — Eds.]

3. Alexandra David-Neel, Magic and Mystery in Tibet (New York: Claude Kendall, 1932), 59.

4. The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation, ed. and trans. W. Y. Evans-Wentz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954), 12.

5. I would wager that they are sitting on a hillside above what is now the Clark Kerr residential campus of UC Berkeley but was then the School for the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind.

6. “The Grasslands of North American” is also the title of the first poem in Catalpa; dedicated to the poet Bob Grenier, the second part of this two-part poem says “There must be in the juice / and flesh a same plain / as these, the same moving / wave as this grass // the body comes back to / only having heard as they say / only heard, by hearsay / and believed it” (253).

7. Charles Altieri, The Particulars of Rapture: An Aesthetics of the Affects (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2003), 2.

8. My reading of the last lines of the poem is much indebted to conversation about their difficulty with Mica Lee Williams, Alex Taitague, and Jason Meierhenry, all at UC Berkeley.