Herb Pomeroy Line Writing Rules For Essays


Preferred Citation: Creeley, Robert. The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1989 1989. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft4t1nb2hc/


The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley

UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS
Berkeley · Los Angeles · Oxford
© 1989 The Regents of the University of California

What thou lovest well remains,
                                                 the rest is dross . . .
                                                          EZRA  POUND , Canto LXXXI



Preferred Citation: Creeley, Robert. The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1989 1989. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft4t1nb2hc/

What thou lovest well remains,
                                                 the rest is dross . . .
                                                          EZRA  POUND , Canto LXXXI

INTRODUCTION

On my eighteenth birthday my brother-in-law gave me a copy of the Yale edition of Pound's essays, Make It New . That, together with Polite Essays and Pavannes and Divisions (which last I had bought for myself in Gordon Cairnie's Grolier Bookshop), became a tacit measure for the practice of such writing as is here collected. Or—better—it made very clear to me the rhetorical possibilities, and, even more, the factually passionate engagement that was, so I felt, a necessity in any such discussion.

It was Pound, of course, who so scathingly qualified "books about books," and spoke of critics "busily measuring the Venus de Milo," etc. His energetic contempt for almost all of that critical writing which had been my reference in college was, to put it mildly, bemusing. Finally, his insistent sense was that one must depend upon oneself to learn whatever proved requisite. There was no one else to do it for you.

Although I hadn't the least sense of how to proceed, writing was my concern and commitment early on. I worked at it intently and almost incrementally began to gather a company who were met, for the most part, in the pages of the little magazines to which I applied with my own work. Given the time, and the enclosing orthodoxy with respect to either poetry or prose, there seems little wonder in the fact my early essays have an embattled manner. I was quite certain that we faced an indefatigable army of resistance, a sense I've never really been able to persuade otherwise. Clearly, a good deal of my critical disposition had to do with an imagination of moral context, that there were those who furthered the light and


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those who did not; and I was hardly objective, nor had thought to be, in my proposals of value. Yet, as Edith Piaf said, "Je ne regrette rien  . . ."

In addition to Pound there were a number of others significant, as Williams certainly. To this day I deeply resent the bowdlerized edition of his Selected Essays , in which he was persuaded, as he then told me, to avoid complicating reference to Eliot and to attempt a comfortably generalizing context of 'subjects,' e.g., Dylan Thomas. He had hoped that his publication by a major house would make him more known but whatever the fact, it seems now a sad detour with such essays as "Letter to an Australian Editor" or "With Rude Fingers Forced" still without place. In any case, I so emphasize it because there can be no such discretion finally, of the author or of anyone else.

Then D. H. Lawrence was immensely important to me in the intensely affective disposition of his various arguments and demonstrations. I was much impressed that he would stop a novel's action cold in order to discuss his own imagination of a proper marriage. Edward Dahlberg had an even more impassioned rhetoric, a prodigiously self-wrought language of judgment. My imagination of the active context of critical proposition would make a foursquare 'table' of Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature , Dahlberg's Can These Bones Live , Williams' In the American Grain —and the classic work of my own contemporary, Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael . The so-called common denominator would be the articulately generative nature of the writing itself, in each case a formal authority equal to that in other engagements of prose, or in poetry.

Still I had or have no belief such as the late forties or early fifties entertained, i.e., that criticism constituted the active literary accomplishment of this century in American literature. I think that was said in the New York Times Book Review around 1950, but it seems a very long time ago. Rather I felt with Pound that the active critical work would come from those defined in the arts relating, and that their criticism, so to speak, would follow their writing otherwise as 'the two feet of one biped.' Such has seemed the case.

Reading back now over what I've written, the only regret seems an obvious one. I wish that far more might have been made apparent, noted, simply proposed. Again Pound's quotation of de Gourmont has the same abiding clarity as when I first read it all those years ago: Franchement d'écrire ce qu'on pense, seul plaisir d'un écrivain  . . . It has been mine here.


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Finally I thank all who so generously contributed to this book's occasion, and none more than Donald M. Allen whose editing of two collections of my essays previously gave me an absolute model for this present one. Whatever coherence is here comes from his advice and example. Michael Davidson proved once again an excellent friend with his useful suggestions. His sense of possible materials was especially helpful. William McClung, Marilyn Schwartz, Jeanne Sugiyama, and especially Barbara Ras were classic 'friends of the family' all along and their exceptional editorial capability makes the Press a singular one in all respects. Then there is Holly Hall, Head of Special Collections at Washington University, St. Louis, and her patient staff. Much here was located by fact of their care. Closer to home, Michael Boughn of the State University of New York at Buffalo has managed to find things I long ago had forgotten existed and has been impeccably patient with all my demands. The real pleasure is that it was and remains a common world.

ROBERT CREELEY
BUFFALO, NEW YORK
JANUARY 14, 1988


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I—
HEROES/ELDERS


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Introduction to Penguin Selected Whitman

One of the most lovely insistences in Whitman's poems seems to me his instruction that one speak for oneself. Assumedly that would be the person most involved in saying anything, and yet a habit of 'objective' statement argues the contrary, noting the biases and distortions and tediums of the personal that are thereby invited into the writing. Surely there is some measure possible, such would say, that can make statement a clearly defined and impersonal instance of reality, of white clouds in a blue sky, or things and feelings not distorted by any fact of one man or woman's intensive possession of them. Then there would truly be a common possibility, that all might share, and that no one would have use of more than another.

Yet if Whitman has taught me anything, and he has taught me a great deal, often against my own will, it is that the common is personal, intensely so, in that having no one thus to invest it, the sea becomes a curious mixture of water and table salt and the sky the chemical formula for air. It is, paradoxically, the personal which makes the common insofar as it recognizes the existence of the many in the one. In my own joy or despair, I am brought to that which others have also experienced.

My own senses of Whitman were curiously numb until I was thirty. In the forties, when I was in college, it was considered literally bad taste to have an active interest in his writing. In that sense he suffered the same fate as Wordsworth, also condemned as overly

Whitman, Selected by Robert Creeley , Poet to Poet series (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1973).


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prolix and generalizing. There was a persistent embarrassment that this naively affirmative poet might affect one's own somewhat cynical wisdoms. Too, insofar as this was a time of intensively didactic criticism, what was one to do with Whitman, even if one read him? He went on and on, he seemed to lack 'structure,' he yielded to no 'critical apparatus' then to hand. So, as students, we were herded past him as quickly as possible, and our teachers used him only as an example of 'the America of that period' which, we were told, was a vast swamp of idealistic expansion and corruption. Whitman, the dupe, the dumbbell, the pathetically regrettable instance of this country's dream and despair, the self-taught man.

The summation of Whitman and his work was a very comfortable one for all concerned. If I felt at times awkward with it, I had only to turn to Ezra Pound, whom the university also condemned, to find that he too disapproved despite the begrudging 'Pact.' At least he spoke of having 'detested' Whitman, only publicly altering the implications of that opinion in a series of BBC interviews made in the late fifties. William Carlos Williams also seemed to dislike him, decrying the looseness of the writing, as he felt it, and the lack of a coherent prosody. He as well seemed to change his mind in age insofar as he referred to Whitman as the greatest of American poets in a public lecture on American poetry for college students. Eliot also changes his mind, as did James before him, but the point is that the heroes of my youth as well as my teachers were almost without exception extremely critical of Whitman and his influence and wanted as little as possible to do with him.

Two men, however, most dear to me, felt otherwise. The first of these was D. H. Lawrence, whose Studies in Classic American Literature remains the most extraordinary apprehension of the nature of American experience and writing that I know. His piece on Whitman in that book is fundamental in that he, in a decisively personal manner, first castigates Whitman for what he considers a muddling assumption of 'oneness,' citing "I am he that aches with amorous love . . ." as particularly offensive, and then, with equal intensity, applauds that Whitman who is, as he puts it, "a great charger of the blood in men," a truly heroic poet whose vision and will make a place of absolute communion for others.

The second, Hart Crane, shared with Whitman my own teachers' disapproval. I remember a course which I took with F. O. Matthiessen, surely a man of deep commitment and care for his students, from which Crane had been absented. I asked for permission to give a paper on Crane, which he gave me, but I had over-


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looked what I should have realized would be the response of the class itself, understandably intent upon its own sophistications. How would they accept these lines, for example?

If they did not laugh outright at what must have seemed to them the awkwardly stressed rhymes and sentimental camaraderie, then they tittered at Crane's will to be one with his fellow homosexual . But didn't they hear, I wanted to insist, the pacing of the rhythms of those lines, the syntax, the intently human tone, or simply the punctuation? Couldn't they read? Was Crane to be simply another 'crudity' they could so glibly be rid of? But still I myself didn't read Whitman, more than the few poems of his that were 'dealt with' in classes or that some friend asked me to. No doubt I too was embarrassed by my aunt's and my grandmother's ability to recite that terrible poem, "O Captain! My Captain!," banal as I felt it to be, and yet what was that specious taste which could so distract any attention and could righteously dismiss so much possibility, just because it didn't 'like' it? Sadly, it was too much my own.

So I didn't really read Whitman for some years although from time to time I realized that the disposition toward his work must be changing. Increasing numbers of articles began to appear as, for one example, Randall Jarrell's "Whitman Revisited." But the import of this writing had primarily to do with Whitman's work as instance of social history or else with its philosophical basis or, in short, with all that did not attempt to respect the technical aspects of his writing, his prosody and the characteristic method of his organization within the specific poems.

It was, finally, the respect accorded Whitman by three of my fellow poets that began to impress me as not only significant to their various concepts of poetry but as unmistakable evidence of his basic use to any estimation of the nature of poetry itself. I had grown up, so to speak, habituated to the use of poetry as compact, epiphanal instance of emotion or insight. I valued its intensive compression, its ability to 'get through' a maze of conflict and confusion to some center of clear 'point.' But what did one do if the emotion or terms


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of thought could not be so focused upon or isolated in such singularity? Assuming a context in which the statement was of necessity multiphasic, a circumstance the components of which were multiple, or, literally, a day in which various things did occur, not simply one thing—what did one do with that? Allen Ginsberg was quick to see that Whitman's line was of very specific use. As he says in "Notes Written on Finally Recording Howl," "No attempt's been made to use it in the light of early XX Century organization of new speech-rhythm prosody to build up large organic structures." The structure of "Howl" itself and of subsequent poems such as "Kaddish" demonstrates to my own mind how much technically Ginsberg had learned from Whitman's method of taking the poem as a 'field,' in Charles Olson's sense, rather than as a discrete line through alternatives to some adamant point of conclusion.

In the work of Robert Duncan the imagination of the poem is very coincident with Whitman's For example, in a contribution to Poets on Poetry (1966) Duncan writes:

We begin to imagine a cosmos in which the poet and the poem are one in a moving process, not only here the given Creation and the Exodus or Fall, but also here the immanence of the Creator in Creation. The most real is given and we have fallen away, but the most real is in the falling revealing itself in what is happening. Between the god in the story and the god of the story, the form, the realization of what is happening, stirs the poet. To answer that call, to become the poet, means to be aware of creation, creature and creator coinherent in the one event . . .

If one reads the 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass in the context here defined, the seeming largenesses of act which Whitman grants to the poet find actual place in that "immanence of the Creator in Creation" which Duncan notes. More, the singular presence of Whitman in Duncan's "A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar" is an extraordinary realization of the measure Whitman has given us:


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Louis Zukofsky, the third friend thus to instruct me, recalls and transforms Whitman's Leaves again and again, as here:

I have no way of knowing if those lines directly refer to Whitman's Leaves of Grass and yet, intuitively, I have no doubt of it whatsoever. Zukofsky once told me that, for him, the eleventh section of "Song of Myself" constituted the American Shih King , which is to say, it taught the possibilities of what might be said or sung in poetry with that grace of technical agency, or mode, thereby to accomplish those possibilities. It presents . It does not talk about or refer to—in the subtlety of its realization, it becomes real.

It is also Zukofsky who made me aware of Whitman's power in an emotion I had not associated with him—a deeply passionate anger. Zukofsky includes an essay called "Poetry" in the first edition of "A" 1–12 , at the end of which he quotes the entire text of "Respondez!," a poem which Whitman finally took out of Leaves of Grass in 1881 but which I have put in this selection, as singular instance of that power and in respect to the man who made me aware of it.

Then, in the late fifties, I found myself embarrassed for proper academic credentials although I was teaching at the time, and so went back to graduate school, to get the appropriate degree. One of the first courses I took in that situation was called "Twain and Whitman," taught by John Gerber, who was a visiting professor at the University of New Mexico from Iowa State. One thing he did with us I remember very well—he asked us to do a so-called thematic


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outline of "Song of Myself." The room in which we met had large blackboards on all four walls and on the day they were due, we were told to copy our various outlines on to the blackboards. So we all got up and did so. When we finally got back to our seats, we noticed one very striking fact. No two of the outlines were the same—which was Professor Gerber's very instructive point. Whitman did not write with a systematized logic of 'subject' nor did he 'organize' his materials with a logically set schedule for their occurrence in the poem. Again the situation of a 'field' of activity, rather than some didactic imposition of a 'line' of order, was very clear.

At that same time I became interested in the nature of Whitman's prosody and looked through as many scholarly articles concerning it as I could find in the university library. None were really of much use to me, simply that the usual academic measure of such activity depends upon the rigid presumption of a standardized metrical system, which is, at best, the hindsight gained from a practice far more fluid in its own occasion. Sculley Bradley (co-editor with Harold W. Blodgett of the best text for Whitman's poems available to my knowledge: Leaves of Grass , Comprehensive Reader's Edition, New York University Press, 1965) did speak of a variable stress or foot , that is, a hovering accent, or accents, within clusters of words in the line, that did not fall in a statically determined pattern but rather shifted with the impulse of the statement itself. This sense of the stress pattern in Whitman's poems was interestingly parallel to William Carlos Williams' use of what he also called "the variable foot" in his later poems, so that the periodicity of the line, its duration in time, so to speak, stayed in the general pattern constant but the stress or stresses within the unit of the line itself were free to move with the condition of the literal things being said, both as units of semantic information, e.g., "I am the chanter . . . ," or as units of sound and rhythm, e.g., "I chant copious the islands beyond . . ." It is, of course, impossible ever to separate these two terms in their actual function, but it is possible that one will be more or less concerned with each in turn in the activity of writing. More simply, I remember one occasion in high school when I turned a 'unit' primarily involved with sounds and rhythm into a 'unit' particularly involved with semantic statement, to wit: "Inebriate of air am I . . ." altered in my memory to read, "I am an inebriate of air . . ." My teacher told me I had the most unpoetic ear he'd yet encountered.

Remember that what we call 'rhyming' is the recurrence of a sound sufficiently similar to one preceding it to catch in the ear and


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mind as being the 'same' and that such sounds can be modified in a great diversity of ways. In the sounding of words themselves the extension seems almost endless: maid, made, may, mad, mate, wait, say , etc. Given the initial vowel with its accompanying consonants and also its own condition, i.e., whether it is 'long' or 'short,' one can then play upon that sound as long as one's energy and the initial word's own ability to stay in the ear as 'residue' can survive. In verse the weaving and play of such sound is far more complex than any observation of the rhymes at the ends of lines can tabulate.

This kind of rhyming is instance of what one can call parallelism , and the parallelism which similarity of sounds can effect is only one of the many alternate sources of 'rhyming' which verse has at hand. For example, there is a great deal of syntactic 'rhyming' in Whitman's poetry, insistently parallel syntactic structures which themselves make a strong web of coherence. There is also the possibility of parallelism in the nature of what is being thought and/or felt as emotion, and this too can serve to increase the experience of coherence in the statement the poem is working to accomplish.

The constantly recurring structures in Whitman's writing, the insistently parallel sounds and rhythms, recall the patterns of waves as I now see them daily. How can I point to this wave, or that one, and announce that it is the one? Rather Whitman's method seems to me a process of sometimes seemingly endless gathering, moving in the energy of his own attention and impulse. There are obviously occasions to the contrary to be found in his work but the basic pattern does seem of this order. I am struck by the fact that William Michael Rossetti in the introduction to his Poems of Walt Whitman (1868) speaks of the style as being occasionally "agglomerative," a word which can mean "having the state of a confused or jumbled mass" but which, more literally, describes the circumstance of something "made or formed into a rounded mass or ball." A few days ago here, walking along the beach, a friend showed me such a ball, primarily of clay but equally compacted of shells and pebbles which the action of the waves had caused the clay to pick up, all of which would, in time, become stone. That meaning of "agglomerate" I think particularly relevant to the activity of Whitman's composition, and I like too that sense of the spherical, which does not locate itself upon a point nor have the strict condition of the linear but rather is at all 'points' the possibility of all that it is. Whitman's constant habit of revisions and additions would concur, I think, with this notion of his process, in that there is not 'one thing' to be said and, that done, then 'another.' Rather the process permits the material


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('myself' in the world) to extend until literal death intercedes. Again, it is interesting to think of Zukofsky's sense that any of us as poets "write one poem all our lives," remembering that Whitman does not think of his work as a series of discrete collections or books but instead adds to the initial work, Leaves of Grass , thinking of it as a "single poem."

The implications of such a stance have a very contemporary bearing for American poets—who can no longer assume either their world or themselves in it as discrete occasion. Not only does Whitman anticipate the American affection for the pragmatic, but he equally emphasizes that it is space and process which are unremittingly our condition. If Pound found the manner of his poems objectionable, he nonetheless comes to a form curiously like Leaves of Grass in the Cantos , in that he uses them as the literal possibility of a life. Much the same situation occurs in Williams' writing with Paterson , although it comes at a markedly later time in his own life. Charles Olson's Maximus Poems and Louis Zukofsky's "A" are also instances of this form which proposes to 'go on' in distinction to one that assumes its own containment as a singular case.

Another objection Rossetti had concerned what he called "absurd or ill-constructed words" in Whitman's writing. One distinct power a poet may be blessed with is that of naming and Whitman's appetite in this respect was large and unembarrassed. One should read a posthumously published collection of notes he wrote on his own sense of words called An American Primer (City Lights, 1970), wherein he makes clear his commitment to their power of transformation. Whitman's vocabulary moves freely among an extraordinarily wide range of occupational terminologies and kinds of diction found in divers social groupings. Frequently there are juxtapositions of terms appropriate to markedly different social or occupational habits, slang sided with words of an alternate derivation:

Whatever the reader's response, such language permits Whitman to gain an actively useful diversity of context and tone. The toughness of his verse—what Charles Olson referred to as its muscularity , giving as instance "Trickle Drops"—can sustain the tensions created in its movement by these seeming disparities in diction. It is, moreover, a marked characteristic of American poetry since Whitman, and certainly of the contemporary, to have no single source


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for its language in the sense that it does not depend upon a 'poetic' or literary vocabulary. In contrast, a German friend once told me that even a novelist as committed to a commonly shared situation of life as Günter Grass could not be easily understood by the workers whose circumstances so moved him. His language was too literary in its structure and vocabulary, not by fact of his own choice but because such language was adamantly that in which novels were to be written in German. An American may choose, as John Ashbery once did, to write a group of poems whose words come entirely from the diction of the Wall Street Journal , but it is his own necessity, not that put upon him by some rigidity of literary taste.

Comparable to this flexibility of diction in Whitman's writing is the tone or mood in which his poems speak. It is very open, familiar, at times very casual and yet able to be, on the instant, intensive, intimate, charged with complexly diverse emotion. This manner of address invites, as it were, the person reading to 'come into' the activity and experience of the poems, to share with Whitman in a paradoxically unsentimental manner the actual texture and force of the emotions involved. When he speaks directly to the reader, there is an uncanny feeling of his literal presence physically.

I have avoided discussion of Whitman's life simply because I am not competent to add anything to the information of any simple biography, for example, Gay Wilson Allen's Walt Whitman (Evergreen Books, London, 1961). I am charmed by some of the details got from that book. Apparently Mrs. Gilchrist, the widow of Blake's biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, was very smitten upon reading Whitman's poems and wrote accordingly:

Even in this first letter (3 September, 1871) Mrs. Gilchrist made it plain that she was proposing marriage. She hoped, she said, to hear, "My Mate. The one I so much want. Bride, Wife, indissoluble eternal!" And, "Dear Walt. It is a sweet & precious thing, this love: it clings so close, so close to the Soul and Body, all so tenderly dear, so beautiful, so sacred . . ."

It is simple enough to make fun of this lady and yet her response, despite Whitman's very careful demurring, is one that his poems are unequivocally capable of producing. It would be sad indeed if books could not be felt as entirely human and possible occasion.

More to the point, Whitman's life is a very discreet one, really. John Addington Symonds so pestered him concerning "the meaning of the 'Calamus' poems," that Whitman finally answered, "Though unmarried, I have six children." But whether or not that


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was true, or untrue, or whether Whitman was homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual, has not primarily concerned me. In other words, I have been intent upon the writing and what there took place and that, literally, is what any of us have now as a possibility. We cannot haul him back any more than we can Shakespeare, just to tell us who he was. It would seem that he had , with such magnificent articulation one is almost persuaded there can be no end to him just as there is none to the genius of his writing.

Nor have I been able to do more than gloss the multiplicity of uses I find in the work itself. I wish there were time to think of Whitman as instance of what Allen Ginsberg pointed out as a great tradition of American poets, that of the crank or true eccentric. Surely his contemporaries often felt him to be. There is a lovely letter which Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote Bridges, in which he says that Whitman is closer to him in technical concerns than any other poet then writing—but also, that he is a veritable madman. So what does that make poor Hopkins? Or I would like to consider a suggestion of Duncan's, that possibly Williams' uneasiness with Whitman's writing had in part to do with the fact that Williams uses enjambment , or 'run-over' lines, very frequently whereas Whitman uses it not at all—wherein he is very like Ezra Pound. Or to trace more carefully the nature of Whitman's influence on American poetry—an influence I find as clearly in Frank O'Hara's poems as I do in Crane's or Ginsberg's.

Undertaking any of this, I felt a sudden giddiness—not at all self-humbling. This man is a great poet, our first, and it is unlikely indeed that his contribution to what it literally means to be an American poet will ever be equaled. But I do not want to end this note with such blatant emphasis. As Duncan says, Whitman is a deeply gentle man and, humanly, of great, great reassurance. If our America now is a petty shambles of disillusion and violence, the dreams of its possibility stay actual in Whitman's words. It is not 'democracy' that, of itself, can realize or even recognize the common need. It is only, and literally, people themselves who have that choice. So then, as Lawrence said: "Ahead of all poets, pioneering into the wilderness of unopened life, Whitman . . ."

Bolinas, California
January 30, 1972


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Hart Crane and the Private Judgment

In the July 1932 issue of Poetry there is an essay by Allen Tate called "Hart Crane and the American Mind." Hart Crane had committed suicide on April 28, 1932. Tate's judgment certainly was affected by the fact, and by the friendship he had held for Crane, and yet the matter of his comments on Crane's life and value as a poet continues very much the same as what we deal with today, facing a like problem of judgment.

What Tate there gives to Crane is this:

Sometime in May, 1922, I received a letter from Hart Crane saying he liked a poem of mine which he had seen in the May number of The Double Dealer . It was my first printed poem, and Hart's letter was not only an introduction to him; it was the first communication I ever received from another writer.[1] In that same issue of The Double Dealer appeared some translations by him of Laforgue, which seemed to me very fine; I looked up previous numbers of the magazine, and found "Black Tambourine," an early poem that contained some of the characteristic features of this later and mature style. I had seen nothing like it in Anglo-American poetry. From that time until his death one could trace the development of a poetry which, though similar in some technical respects to French Symbolism, is now a distinct contribution to American literature. It is a poetry that could have been written only in this country and in this age.

The Free Lance , vol. 5, no. 1, 1960 (Wilberforce University).

[1] This letter is not in Brom Weber's selection (The Letters of Hart Crane [New York, 1952]), but the one following (May 16, 1922) is to be found on p. 87.


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Hart Crane has now become a kind of 'symbol,' for many, of the irresponsible in poetry, the disordered intelligence that creates a chaos only as a refuge from its own inabilities. Grover Smith, for example, calls him "that pitiable anarch . . . ," continuing, "It should be patent to the student of both [Crane's life and work], however, that Crane as man and poet was grievously disordered, that the neurotic irresponsibility of his private life and loves was directly synchronous with the undisciplined fancy manifest in his poetic images. Crane's inner world was a fluxion in which neither personal relations nor traditional thought and utterance were coherent enough to form laws even for themselves."[2] This is, of course, a very personal judgment, and one made completely as a contention—the only quotations from the book in question are taken from Brom Weber's introduction to The Letters of Hart Crane . Smith says, of the letters themselves: "There is no concentration of alert feelings; there is no style." But Tate had felt them to be "always written in a pure and lucid prose." Whatever our own opinion may arrive at, at least we must see that we can accept neither of these two as given, until we have found our own proof.

The 'failures,' 'mistakes,' 'flaws,' etc., of Hart Crane's poetry have seemed to me intimate with the successes equally demonstrable. I think that a reader must judge for himself, at last, which quality is the more sustained. Crane was 'disordered' to the extent that he conceived his responsibility as a poet to transcend even the obligations he felt as a man. Perhaps there is no direct proof of this fact, i.e., a statement unequivocally supporting it. But—"It is a new feeling, and a glorious one, to have one's inmost delicate intentions so fully recognized as your last letter to me attested. I can feel a calmness on the sidewalk—where before I felt a defiance only. And better than all—I am certain that a number of us at last have some kind of community of interest. And with this communion will come something better than a mere clique. It is a consciousness of something more vital than stylistic questions and 'taste,' it is vision, and a vision alone that not only America needs, but the whole world. . . . What delights me almost beyond words is that my natu-

[2] Grover Smith, "On Poets and Poetry," New Mexico Quarterly , Autumn 1953, p. 319. The article is an omnibus review, which may explain the briefness of Smith's discussion of the Weber collection, but hardly excuses the unsupported statements involved concerning not only Crane's letters and poetry, but his "private life and loves" as well. Cf. Weber's edition of The Letters , pp. 298 ff.


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ral idiom . . . has reached and carried to you so completely the very blood and bone of me."[3]

The nature of this "vision" concerned an alternative to the negativistic position which Eliot, and to a lesser degree (though ultimately even more final) Joyce, had provided for their work. The genius of both men made the position attractive almost 'per se'—at least the question of its implications does not seem to have been recognized at first by very many. But one of those who did, William Carlos Williams, speaks of it (in retrospect) as follows: "These were the years just before the great catastrophe to our letters—the appearance of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land . There was heat in us, a core and a drive that was gathering headway upon the theme of a rediscovery of a primary impetus, the elementary principle of all art, in the local conditions. Our work staggered to a halt for a moment under the blast of Eliot's genius which gave the poem back to the academics. We did not know how to answer him."[4]

Hart Crane's answer was The Bridge —now discredited as a total poem, which is to say, a failure in terms of its literal writing, and the problems involved in that writing. But the conception? We know that the 'failure' in some sense caused Crane to doubt all of his abilities as a poet. Tate writes, "I think he knew that the framework of The Bridge was finally incoherent, and for that reason—as I have said—he could no longer believe in even his lyrical powers; he could not return to the early work and take it up from where he had left off." But Crane himself had written to Tate: "Perhaps it can serve as at least the function of a link connecting certain chains of the past to certain chains and tendencies of the future. In other words, a diagram or 'process.'"[5] It is here, I think, that the conception of the poem is most significantly stated, and since it has to do with problems of the 'scientific method,' there is that reason for a brief digression.

Attitudes in the 'social sciences,' even as late as the twenties, con-

[3] Weber, ed., The Letters of Hart Crane , p. 127. Crane is twenty-four years old. Tate believes the conception of the "idea" and "leading symbolism" of The Bridge to date from the year following, i.e., "probably early in 1924."

[4] W. C. Williams, Autobiography (New York, 1951). It is relevant to point out the coincidence of materials in Williams' In the American Grain and Crane's The Bridge . Cf. Weber, ed., The Letters of Hart Crane , pp. 277–78.

[5] Weber, ed., The Letters of Hart Crane , p. 353. This is the letter of which Tate writes: "He had an extraordinary insight into the foundations of his work, and I think this judgment of it will never be refuted."


― 16 ―

tinued to maintain that world view which held that a system of knowledge was extensible to a point where the world's ills might, reasonably, be done away with. Perhaps the attitudes were never quite so barely expressed, or even realized, but their content was nonetheless predicated on such a system of thought. Moreover, this way of thinking was involved in many of the other sciences, and was also, very clearly, the base idea or opinion held by many, many laymen.

A recent book, Modern Science and Modern Man , by James B. Conant,[6] reviews these attitudes, and, more particularly, shows why they can no longer be quite so easily held. But the most interesting thing, in connection with Crane's comment on The Bridge , is Conant's discussion of "the philosophic implications of the new physics," wherein he quotes from J. J. Thomson's The Corpuscular Theory of Matter (1907)[7] as follows: "From the point of view of the physicist, a theory of matter is a policy rather than a creed; its object is to connect or coordinate apparently diverse phenomena and above all to suggest, stimulate, and direct experiment."[8]The Waste Land was a 'creed' (how much of a creed we can now show, by

[6] James B. Conant, Modern Science and Modern Man (New York: Anchor Books, 1953).

[7] Ibid., p. 91. The reorientation which Thomson had literally accomplished in 1907 is one which many men have even yet to consider in 1953. In the art of poetry, above all, there is great need to recognize the problem inherent in any such reorientation of an entire basis for the use of knowledge.

[8] "The poet's concern must be, as always, self-discipline toward a formal integration of experience. For poetry is an architectural art, based not on Evolution or the idea of progress, but on the articulation of the contemporary human consciousness sub specie aeternitas , and inclusive of all readjustments incident to science and other shifting factors related to that consciousness." Hart Crane, Collected Poems , Appendix B, "Modern Poetry" (New York, 1933). This was first published in 1929—but must have been an active concept in his work long before. For comparison: "We can no longer say, The World is like this, or the World is like that. We can only say, Our experience up to the present is best represented by a world of this character; I do not know what model will best represent the world of tomorrow, but I do know that it will coordinate a greater range of experience than that of today." Herbert Dingle, "The Scientific Outlook in 1851 and in 1951," British Journal for the Philosophy of Science , II (1951), p. 86; quoted by Conant, Modern Science and Modern Man , p. 89. Crane's problem was not one of conception—but of means (though not at all in Smith's sense of a criticism). The essay first cited ("Modern Poetry") includes comments on a "terminology of poetic reference," etc., which indicates that, although Crane could conceive of a necessary shift in substantive qualifications, he continued to depend on nominative qualifications, when it came to the actual means. (This problem of the substantive vs. the nominative was pointed out to me by Charles Olson.)


― 17 ―

means of Eliot's later work), depending on the finality of knowledge. But The Bridge , 'failure' though it was and still may seem to us, was a 'process' or 'policy,' an attempt to direct attention to a significant content in the American corpus, both historical and mythic, and to posit juxtapositions and methods of dealing with this material which might prove fruitful.

Perhaps that is all too simply opinion, mainly my own.[9] But we have damned The Bridge much too simply on the grounds of its having failed as a poem. Certainly we are allowed to do that, and finally we must. And yet it seems to me wasteful to ignore the other implications involved. It is not even a question of giving credit where credit is due, though I should like to consider that part of it. The several questions remaining are: (1) who has answered Eliot? (2) isn't that answer even more called for now , than it was then? (3) doesn't the present 'picture' of our world (again 'now') have a great, great deal to do with it?

Let me leave those as questions only. Crane's position as 'prophet,' if you will, is one which I cannot discuss very competently here. Moreover, until he is again read, as he deserves to be, any discussion must, of necessity, be meaningless. But to suggest, as Smith has done, that Crane was committed to "rebellion for its own sake" is neither helpful nor true. Further, his sense of the poems as a "jumble of images thrown up by the poet's unconscious" which leave the reader to perform "the 'plastic' task proper to the poet himself" does not strike me as very adequate—granted that there are reasonable alternatives to his opinion.[10]

As his critics have remarked, Crane learned a great deal from the French Symbolists, and much of his early work is dominated by what he learned. For example, Tate (speaking "logically") notes that Crane "became so dissatisfied, not only with the style of the poem ["For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen"], which is heavily influenced by Eliot and Laforgue, but with the 'literary' character of the symbolism, that he set about the greater task of writing The Bridge ." The point is that Crane had become at first a poet by way of a poetry dependent on irony, on the dissociations possible in the very surfaces of language, on a quick and nonpassive verbalism

[9] Another man holding related opinions at least is M. Elath. Cf. his article "In Another Direction" published in a double number of Intro , New York, Winter 1951.

[10] The "oddness" of Crane's vocabulary often produces this reaction—but is it valid? I think one had better examine the relevance of such language in context . Crane's worksheets (cf. Weber's biography) would defeat the sense which Smith is trying to suggest.


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which was in direct opposition to anything then evident in English or American poetry. His 'style,' if you will, was developed in great part from this source. And this will explain much of the surface character of Crane's poetry, i.e., the rapidity of image, the disparateness, the whole sense of 'words' being used almost for their own, single character. Certainly both Eliot and Pound (as well as Stevens, Williams, et al., at home) had begun to use these same things.

But it is Crane's development away from the Symbolists, and their dependence on irony in particular, that leads to the later style, and of course to the character of language usage which Grover Smith dislikes. In fairness to both him and myself—not to mention Crane—it should be stated that a poem is an asserted unit of meaning, among other things. And that our appreciation of it, or disapproval of it, depends, again partially, on whether or not we can allow that the means used to effect that end provide a meaning apprehensible by us. Once having allowed that, we then take upon ourselves the act of judging whether or not the means used seem the most effective possible, i.e., the most proper, etc. Smith, then, is suggesting that Crane's "jumble of images" does not properly provide for an effect of meaning —and that it depends on our sympathy for resolution. In any case (because a poem will be given shortly) a few lines, here, may show the nature of the difficulty, at least insofar as Smith has been thinking of it.

Briefly the line of the sense can be given as this: that Crane and the one he speaks to share a time together which is passing, and that this time has been, to put it very simply, happy. I don't think that belies the base meaning involved, insofar as its 'action' character is concerned. So—the images, etc. The first, "our days pass[ing] sunward" with the further sense of "tall, inseparably," engenders in my mind an effect of dignity (from the "tall"), of a close love (from the whole complex of "our days pass sunward," with the echo of "sun" as life-giving, high, a source of nobility and godhead). To bypass, the next sentence comes to me as a statement of fulfillment, that they have, together, come to a sense of complete fulfillment. And that, in any case, can serve as a description, if nothing else, of how the lines begin to attain to an effect of meaning for me.


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Now one might argue, how can he talk about walking up in the sky if he has just said that his days (an apparent possession) pass sunward? How can they do that, if he is up there, etc.? And—who is "inexorable" and "girded," etc.? But doesn't that really come to quibbling—if an effect is achieved and sustained in rereading? And isn't this latter just what each reader must decide for himself? I suggest that Crane's use of language (i.e., such words as "inexorable," "tall," and such image complexes as in the first three lines) will invariably be attached to an emotion which can and will sustain them in a total pattern of meaning . That line of meaning can be determined in all of his active poems (which will serve, for a beginning, to belie Smith's "jumble of images"), and that this line will depend, precisely, on the assumedly disconnected images which some readers have balked at. Remember that an association existing between images need not be 'logical.' That term is most usually an a priori designation for an assumptional rationality of progression. The fact is that we do not know what we know before we know it. And a poem's line, or what to call it, of meaning need not be 'logical,' if it can effect its meaning by virtue of another sense of possible sequence. And, at that, Crane is really no great instance of the uses of theoretic dissociation in sequence. One might argue, in fact, that an apparent 'excess' in language was the only irony that Crane finally permitted himself.

To allow discussion to end there, however, ignores all of Crane's metrics, and all of his sense of structure in the shorter poems—particularly the latter. I have seen no comment on Crane's sense of rhythm, although it is, for me, one of the most dominant aspects of his work.[11] But the reader can judge both that, and the "jumbled images," for himself:

[11] All Crane's work is best read aloud. The reader can't pick up the sounds or the rhythms sufficiently otherwise. A recording of a half dozen of his poems by a competent reader would do much more than any "criticism" ever will. He is one of the most verbal poets in the English language.


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It is very possible to argue that this is an almost perfect instance of form—technically. Actually, our own ears have arrived at that conclusion upon hearing it, and our perception of the content involved makes it not at all necessary to revert to questions purely of sentiment. The poem is a good one because of its very skillful alteration and development of the two rhythms involved (i.e., those contained in words like "marble," "mountain," "maybe," etc., and those contained in "sheets," "fierce," "dusk," "weep," etc.). The hard opening of the poem, like a double stroke, falls then off to the softer rhythms, then reasserts itself in the opening of the second line—and so on to the final, broken close. This, of course, is the usual method of 'analysis.' We may also point out that the vowel leadings in this poem are quite equal to anything done by Yeats—although we have never heard of them being mentioned either in this poem, or any other by Crane. Nor has there been comment on the very effective handling of line—as this poem, again, shows it, with the undulation of the lines, almost opening and closing like actual breathing, to end with the line pulling in, stumbling, unmistakable in its emphases.

All that can be said, defended—and much more can be said and defended, concerning both this one poem and at least a dozen others. My own preferences in the first book, White Buildings , are: "Praise for an Urn," "Lachrymae Christi," "The Wine Menagerie," "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen," "At Melville's Tomb," and perhaps one or two others, i.e., these are only evidences of my own taste, and what I think I could defend as 'good poetry.' In the later book, Key West: the quoted poem, "The Mermen," "A Name for All," "Imperator Victus," "The Hurricane," "And Bees of Paradise," "Moment Fugue," "The Broken Tower," "The Phantom Bark," and, again, perhaps a few more, because my taste is hardly invariable.[12] But do people still read these poems, and, if they don't—how can we discuss them all so glibly, or say, so glibly, that they are this thing or that?

[12] Hart Crane, Collected Poems (New York, 1933).


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For an ending: the reader who saw Crane survive Weber's first book on him may have noticed this particular account, in Weber's preface to The Letters , concerning the death of Hart Crane's mother:

The last chapter in the Crane biography occurred in 1947. On July 30th of that year, Mrs. Grace Hart Crane, the poet's mother, died in Teaneck, New Jersey. Before her death, she told Samuel Loveman that she wished to be cremated and her ashes to be cast into the East River from the Brooklyn Bridge. The necessary arrangements were made, and the editor was one of a small party which proceeded along Brooklyn Bridge on a windy, sunlit afternoon in Fall 1947. At intervals on the Bridge, there are signs warning pedestrians not to throw anything from the structure. By the time the party reached the center of the Bridge, considerable trepidation existed about the feasibility of respecting Mrs. Crane's last wishes. It remained at last for the editor to grasp the small, undecorated tin can and shake the ashes into the air, where they swirled about for a few moments and then fell mistily into the water below. Thus Crane's mother joined him in the element which had claimed him fifteen years earlier.

But this is Smith's hero, not mine. The reader who can trust a 'character analysis' of Hart Crane coming from the same source is welcome to, but he has no reason, here, to read further.

The men who knew Hart Crane, with the authority of friendship, have said many things about him, each from the particulars of their own life. Allen Tate ends his essay, written that short time after Crane's death, by saying: "After he had lost the instinct for self-definition, and later, after the exploration of his symbol of the will had brought him back upon himself, he might have continued to breathe, but he would no longer have been alive." That whole question of will, of "the will gone all teeth" (as Charles Olson has called it in another reference), will, someday, have to be examined, and closely. Poetry, the whole art of it, had failed Crane, and that is why he could not live—even if it is not why he died.

Other men speak of him as the friend which no other man has ever quite taken the place of. Against the public that sees him as homosexual, drunkard, and all the rest, for them he was an incredible man, whom they knew. For Robert Graves, he was a "lovely man," however much he seemed a tragic one. For Slater Brown, the best friend he ever had.

What else is there to be said. Except that we can read the poems, and see what they are, for ourselves.

1953


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The Letters of Hart Crane

Edited by Brom Weber

The Letters of Hart Crane , edited by Brom Weber. New York: Hermitage House, 1952.

If there is a ghost, or unquiet spirit, of a man ever left to us, it may well be that Hart Crane is not dead—or not in our comfortable sense of that word. I note that Brom Weber brings this up, unintentionally, in his ridiculous preface and chronology for the book in question: "Three days later, on the 27th, he [Crane] either jumped or fell into the Caribbean Sea and was drowned. His body was not recovered" (p. xvi). Perhaps we have our own fears of the sea, and also of a man not actually 'laid to rest,' not finally put under as we are accustomed to do with the dead.

But lacking the body, an age of critics can still sustain its necrophilia on the body of the work itself. Hart Crane "was admittedly not a thinker," Weber says (p. x), ignoring, for one thing, Williams' premise that "the poet thinks with his poem, in that lies his thought, and that is the profundity." To prepare us, Weber speaks of Crane's "acquisitive need for sympathy, pity, understanding, affection," of a man "tyrannically governed by a chronic need to love and be loved" (pp. vi, viii). One might well say the same of any human being.

In any case some anger can be righteous, and some usage cannot be put up with. Lacking a present means to deal with Weber, finally—the reader is advised to bypass his comments altogether. (Or better, to judge for himself the man writing "The last chapter of the Crane biography" [p. x].) He is not helpful.

Origin , Summer 1954.


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Crane is, however, and we have, at last, a reasonable addendum to the poetry itself which may serve as the gauge we had lacked. What was Crane's conception of poetry? "Poetry, in so far as the metaphysics of any absolute knowledge extends, is simply the concrete evidence of the experience of a recognition (knowledge if you like). It can give you a ratio of fact and experience, and in this sense it is both perception and thing perceived, according as it approaches a significant articulation or not. This is its reality, its fact, being " (p. 237).

More than that, what was Crane's summation of his own position—the cause back of all Weber's inanities, not to mention his biography of Crane or Waldo Frank's fantastic introduction to the Collected Poems? Was it absolutely this fact of "Crane's tender friendships . . . with boys who followed the Sea" and "drink" as "the Sea's coadjutor"? So says Frank—but does it matter?

I have a certain code of ethics. I have not as yet attempted to reduce it to any exact formula, and if I did I should probably embark on an endless tome with monthly additions and digressions every year. It seems obvious that a certain decent carriage and action is a paramount requirement in any poet, deacon or carpenter. And though I reserve myself the pleasant right to define these standards in a somewhat individual way, and to shout and complain when circumstances against me seem to warrant it, on the other hand I believe myself to be speaking honestly when I say that I have never been able to regret—for long—whatever has happened to me, more especially those decisions which at times have been permitted a free will. . . . And I am as completely out of sympathy with the familiar whimpering caricature of the artist and his "divine rights" as you seem to be. I am not a Stoic, though I think I could lean more in that direction if I came to (as I may sometime) appreciate more highly the imaginative profits of such a course. (pp. 299–300)

Back of this, there are the poems, forgotten for the most part—but if this book can do anything, and one hopes at least, it may bring us back to them somewhat sobered. We know, we know, we know, etc., that The Bridge was a 'failure'—though why, and how, we are not at all quite so sure of. Crane wrote to Allen Tate: "I shall be humbly grateful if The Bridge can fulfill simply the metaphorical inference of its title. . . . You will admit our age (at least our predicament) to be one of transition" (p. 353). It has done that, I think.

The shorter poems, those found in White Buildings and Key West , have escaped the 'failure' of The Bridge , but they have also been affected, i.e., they seem to be thought less 'significant.' And there again we have the critic's help. "One is appalled, on reading his


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[Crane's] explication of 'At Melville's Tomb' to realize that while he could associatively justify the chain of metaphors comprising the poem, he was oblivious of the difference between a random and logical mode of association." (Which is Grover Smith, from within his own oblivion.) But the poem?

This is the GREATEST summation of Melville I have ever read. O well. . . .

"I don't know whether you want to hear from me or not—since you have never written—but here's my love anyway. . . ." He did all anyone could.


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A Note on Ezra Pound

For my generation the fact of Ezra Pound and his work is inescapable, no matter what the particular reaction may be. But it should equally be remembered that during the forties, that time in which we came of age, Pound's situation was, in all senses, most depressed. To the young of that period he was often simply a traitor, an anti-Semite, an obscurantist, a money crank—and such courses in universities and colleges as dealt with modern poetry frequently avoided all mention of the Cantos . For example, I remember in my shyness going to F. O. Mathiessen at Harvard, to ask why we had not used the Cantos in his own course on contemporary poetry. His answer was that he understood Pound's work too poorly, that he felt Pound's political attitudes most suspect, and that he could not finally see the value of the work in a course such as ours was.

It is hard to see, in one sense, how we were not frightened away from Pound—there was so much to persuade us of his difficulties and of those he would surely involve us with. But who else could responsibly teach us that "nothing matters but the quality of the affection," that "only emotion endures"? The work we were otherwise given was, on the one hand, Auden—wherein a socially based use of irony became the uselessly exact rigor of repetitive verse patterns—or perhaps Stevens, whose mind one respected, in the questions it realized, but again whose use of poetry had fallen to the questionable fact of a device.

Pound, on the other hand, brought us immediately to the con-

Agenda , October–November 1965.


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text of how to write. It was impossible to avoid the insistence he put on precisely how the line goes , how the word is , in its context, what has been done, in the practice of verse—and what now seems possible to do. It was, then, a measure he taught—and a measure in just that sense William Carlos Williams insisted upon:

To the attacks upon Pound as bigot merely, Charles Olson—speaking in the guise of Yeats in defense of Pound, in 1946—makes the relevant answer:

It is the passivity of you young men before Pound's work as a whole, not scripts alone, you who have taken from him, Joyce, Eliot and myself the advances we made for you. There is a court you leave silent—history present, the issue the larger concerns of authority than a state, Heraclitus and Marx called, perhaps some consideration of descents and metamorphoses, form and the elimination of intellect.[*]

For my own part I came first to the earlier poems, Personae , and to the various critical works, Make It New, Pavannes and Divisions, ABC of Reading, Guide to Kulchur , and Polite Essays . It was at that time the critical writing I could most clearly use, simply that my own limits made the Cantos a form intimidating to me. As a younger man, I wanted to know in a 'formal' sense where it was I was going, and had a hard time learning to admit that the variousness of life is as much its quality as its quantity. Or rather—akin to the anecdote Pound tells of Agassiz's student not really looking at the fish—I wanted the categories prior to the content which might in any sense inform them.

But it is again the sense of measure , and how actively it may be proposed, that I found insistently in Pound's work. Rather than tell me about some character of verse, he would give the literal instance side by side with that which gave it context. This method is, of course, an aspect of what he calls the ideogrammic —it presents , rather than comments upon. The emphasis I feel to be present in all his work, from the rationale of imagism, to the latest Cantos .

In the same sense he directed a real attention to characters of

* Charles Olson, "This Is Yeats Speaking," Partisan Review 13, no. 1 (Winter 1946), 139–42.


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verse in the early discriminations he offered as to its nature. For example, he spoke of "three chief means" available to the man wanting to "charge language with meaning to the utmost possible degree"—in the context that "Literature is language charged with meaning":

I throwing the object (fixed or moving) on to the visual imagination.

II inducing emotional correlations by the sound and rhythm of the speech.

III inducing both of the effects by stimulating the associations (intellectual or emotional) that have remained in the receiver's consciousness in relation to the actual words or word groups employed.

(phanopoeia, melopoeia, logopoeia)

Such location of attention meant an active involvement with what was happening in the given poem—and not a continuingly vague discussion of its aesthetic 'value,' or its 'period,' or all that area of assumption which finds place in unrealized generality. Pound's discriminations were located in the poem's literal activity.

How large he was then for us, is more simply stated than described. He took the possibility of writing to involve more than descriptive aesthetics. He defined sincerity as Kung's "man standing by his word." He moved upon the active principle of intelligence, the concept of virtu , so that, as Charles Olson has written:

 . . . his single emotion breaks all down to his equals or inferiors (so far as I can see only two, possibly, are admitted, by him, to be his betters—Confucius, & Dante. Which assumption, that there are intelligent men whom he can outtalk, is beautiful because it destroys historical time, and

thus creates the methodology of the Cantos , viz., a space-field where, by inversion, though the material is all time material, he has driven through it so sharply by the beak of his ego, that, he has turned time into what we now must have, space & its live air.[*]

Beyond that sense of principle—if such 'beyonds' can exist—there is the effect of reading Pound, of that experience of an energy, of ear and mind, which makes a language man's primary act. A sound:

* Charles Olson, Mayan Letters (Bañalbufar, Mallorca: Divers Press, 1953).


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Why Pound!?!

Best done quickly, sans any 'reasons' of expected kind—for example, my first solid edition of the Cantos dated 1950 (still here with me), recall pondering its modes and information much as I had earlier the Draft of XXX Cantos in the confusions of Burmese jungle warfare. Caught now by what then held me, e.g., marks in margin apropos:

Etc. All this noted now at random, i.e., I am not presenting a case but rather recalling how those sounds and their moving, and the insistent stance of an active (possible!) intelligence, then moved me (as it surely did my eventual company: Ginsberg, Blackburn, Duncan, Olson, for those immediate). Had I thought the whole world reflective , pondering the possible significances of what was

Agenda (Twenty-first Anniversary Ezra Pound Issue) 17, nos. 3–4; 18, no. 1 (Autumn-Winter-Spring 1979/80).


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long gone? No doubt. I know I expected 'college' to educate me, and when it didn't, it still wasn't that simple to admit Pound's insistent demand that one must learn to learn what one had to. That was work!

I wrote to him, in the late 40s, and was absolutely gratified by the reply: What have you read? "Ogden rather dead, etc., etc." So this was an art, and not just subject matter. That fact alone changed my life.

British poet once said to me, poets in England come just after tv reviewers—this in Shakespeare's country. I couldn't at first believe it . . . Pound proposed the power of poetry, that it was primarily as "tales of the tribe"—what it means, collectively and as one, to use language as means to score the life of the mind and body. As Ginsberg says, first poet of our accessible time to reclaim poetry as sound. Also Ginsberg's emphasis, on hearing of Pound's death: that the Cantos are first articulate record/graph of mind/emotions continuous over fifty years. That is very interesting.

This side of the water we need heroes, models of active human context, call it—I mean, people who make clear a life can be lived specifically, not just drifted along with, that choice is crucial, certainly in mind. Pound took it all on, was not, as Olson remarked in another context, "an epicene poet"—"Like Pope." No power that finally matters, either in person or in poetry—'descriptive.'

The messy 'lives' are no doubt those who do go for broke, are possessed by the "gigantism" remarked by British reviewer of American poet's recent collection: "a poet of the widest apprehensions and comprehensions, and this without the gigantism that so haunts American poetic ambition." Of course we can have a 'place' if we're careful.


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The Release

The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams . New York: Random House, 1951.

Dr. Williams is 'unique' in no sense unfamiliar. There have been other men likewise of this intent: to hit ground somewhere, to anchor somehow to present. An autobiography can effect the impact of a recognition perhaps beyond the art —though I should look to nothing else but such art for major effect, or what can now be of essential use.

The present book is one of many by Dr. Williams, no reader can forget that. The material is, to some extent it must be, of lower intensity than that which we have witnessed before—he can not do it all over again, in any form, and the years here dealt with are those in which his other work first appeared. In 1925 In the American Grain recorded a like purpose, of "autobiography," and continues as informant:

The strong sense of a beginning in Poe is in no one else before him. What he says, being thoroughly local in origin, has some chance of being universal in application, a thing they never dared conceive. Made to fit a place it will have that actual quality of things anti-metaphysical—

The prose of that earlier book has, of course, been noted but not in its particulars, i.e., the first evidence of a prose method we have yet to acknowledge by use. "No ideas but in things."

Contact (Toronto), November–January 1952–53.


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1

A time denies itself in thinking of time —the place is a similar escape if it be left there, and not used. It is a theme of use , and how one can come to fix on any thing some signal of his own existence. Clearly, it is not in any usual sense: "What becomes of me has never seemed important, but the fates of ideas living against the grain in a nondescript world has always held me breathless." The "world" is nondescriptive, either in our hands—to speak of it so—or in its own character. A use is a relation , and these determine no adequate symbol or metaphor beyond their very presence —that they exist in such permanent character.

On this the poem rests, on this presence. "The poet thinks with his poem, in that lies his thought, and that in itself is the profundity." Against the half-conceived, or the recoil—the poem also a thing—equal, if you will, to Nature or to any mass conception. In this poetry has dominance, and a form . It is neither explanation nor description, but actual in such form.

These were the years just before the great catastrophe to our letters—the appearance of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land . There was heat in us, a core and a drive that was gathering headway upon the theme of a rediscovery of a primary impetus, the elementary principle of all art, in the local conditions. Our work staggered to a halt for a moment under the blast of Eliot's genius which gave the poem back to the academics. We did not know how to answer him.

A form "in the local conditions" depends on what relation is possible, and, to that end, one attacks. Particulars are relevant in their own attack on the man who wants to confront them. Released, they find form in themselves, and use any man as their declaration. It is, perhaps, that struggle is impossible against them—in this alien way. "When she died there was nothing left. In his despair he had nowhere to turn. It is the very apotheosis of the place and time."

But from that "place" or "time" there is nowhere else—either then, for Poe, or for us now. At this point we fight lacking all we might wish, or want, otherwise. In release from despair. The poem begins here. In time, if you want, and also in place. Its locus is that effect, of itself, on that corpus of the particular, the world in detail. What effect can be made is in the poem—not then alien, or strange to its locality. Our language is more uniquely ourselves than any other act, it is our marriage.

"Nothing can grow unless it taps into the soil."


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2

Within my own experience I have heard Williams called "anti-poetic." This is a testament, of my own—that I oppose it. "When a man makes a poem, makes it, mind you, he takes words as he finds them interrelated about him and composes them—without distortion which would mar their exact significances—into an intense expression of his own perceptions and ardors that they may constitute a revelation in the speech that he uses." All use is a personal act, and I have used this sense , of poetry, insofar as I have been capable.

Some definitions are without meaning, lacking, as they do, a ground on which to bear. Any discussion of poetry must come to the poem itself, and take there, if anywhere, its own assumption of meaning. A theory of poetry is relevant only in what it can produce, in quite literal poems. Pound notes, "I think it will be usually found that the work outruns the formulated or at any rate the published equation, or at most they proceed as two feet of one biped."

("Eliot had turned his back on the possibility of reviving my world. . . . Only now, as I predicted, have we begun to catch hold again and restarted to make the line over. This is not to say that Eliot has not, indirectly, contributed much to the emergence of the next step in metrical construction, but if he had not turned away from the direct attack here, in the Western dialect, we might have gone ahead much faster.")

No man can make poetry without the ground of himself—in whatever character that should be open to him. "After it was over we rushed up—already there was a young man telling him he was more poet than doctor (shyly) and Williams saying he was simply both & the manner of his life affected his poetry very much he thought." Definition would be a man's act, and so his poetry, not so much in the character of things beyond reach, call it—but in those


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things immensely to hand, in that shape they make a "world" no matter. It is from this world a man must care not to escape, having no other of such kind.

"He sat to read, just turning the pages & looking at the people. Everybody I could hear near me responded in a way that staggered me.—Dead silence, tremendous applause—and the people who have money to go to these things don't read poetry. Common speech, and he really got to everyone. I was maudlin, with tears in my eyes—at the whole idea."


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William Carlos Williams:
Selected Essays

Selected Essays , by William Carlos Williams. New York: Random House, 1954.

This is a difficult book to find one's way around in, because there are many apparent concerns. Most of these, however, make no more than a superficial continuity. For example, there is a surprising emphasis on poets whom one had not thought to associate with Dr. Williams' own work, since the latter has been so much beyond usual peripheries—even called at times 'antipoetic.' Of the various people whom he has chosen so to recommend, many strike one as, at best, parallel to his own practice, while some seem almost to confute it.

Pound has been one of these last for a long time, and in the early essays Williams gives us some hint of this:[*]

But our prize poems are especially to be damned not because of superficial bad workmanship, but because they are rehash, repetition in another way of Verlaine, Baudelaire, Maeterlinck—conscious or unconscious—just as there were Pound's early paraphrases from Yeats

Black Mountain Review , Winter 1954.

* Williams' most interesting comment on Pound (for myself) is not here included, but to note it: "Letter to an Australian Editor," published in a Williams number of the Briarcliff Quarterly . There are many such omissions, and I have since learned the book represents roughly half the text originally planned by the author. Much controversial material, for example, is missing—among other things, a very succinct note on Eliot's espousal of Milton, "With Rude Fingers Forced" (printed in Four Pages ). The resulting loss is considerable, and the reader should keep it in mind, both in reading the book itself and this review of it.


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and his constant cribbing from the Renaissance, Provence and the modern French: Men content with the connotations of their masters.

(Prologue to Kora in Hell , 1918)

True or false, this is a persistent judgment, which continues in one character or another throughout Williams' comment. But by 1934 ("A Pound Stein") he can end a thoroughly acute perception of what both have done, saying: "It may be added that both Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound live in Europe." In short, Williams has had, I think, a continual notion that men were wrong per se to run away from 'local conditions'; for himself, they were all that could generate the forms for which he looked. Yet there remained the dilemma of the success of others, come to again and again in both his poems and criticism:

Of those closer to him, in point of geography at least, Marianne Moore is (in this selection) the most singled out:

Work such as Miss Moore's holds its bloom today not by using slang, not by its moral abandon or puritanical steadfastness, but by the aesthetic pleasure engendered where pure craftsmanship joins hard surfaces skillfully.

("Marianne Moore," 1931)

Therefore Miss Moore has taken recourse to the mathematics of art. Picasso does no different: a portrait is a stratagem singularly related to a movement among the means of the craft. By making these operative, relationships become self-apparent—the animal lives with a human certainty. This is strangely worshipful. Nor does one always know against what one is defending oneself.

("Marianne Moore," 1948)

This is not a fair way of citing such things, but certain discrepancies are clear. The first note, read in its entirety, argues a completely relevant 'value,' e.g., "The 'useful result' is an accuracy to which this simplicity of design greatly adds. The effect is for the effect to remain 'true'; nothing loses its identity because of the composition, but the parts in their assembly remain quite as 'natural' as before they were gathered." The second (more a favor?) is not, however,


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this positive in its analyses: "I don't think there is a better poet writing in America today or one who touches so deftly so great a range of our thought."

Such matters are, of course, minimal, a man has what friends he can have and is biased accordingly. What Williams might say of Marianne Moore's translations of La Fontaine, however interesting, would leave us still beside the point. And this is important to note, because it is so often the case that Williams says things in spite of his 'subject.' There are, for example, essays on the work of Robert Lowell ("It is to assert love, not to win it that the poem exists."), on Karl Shapiro ("Shapiro speaks lovingly of his 'rime' which he defines here and there in his poem—variously, as it should [not] be defined. It is the whole body of the management of words to the formal purposes of expression. We express ourselves there [men] as we might on the whole body of the various female could we ever gain access to her [which we cannot and never shall]"), on Dylan Thomas ("Reading over his collected poems I have thought of what chances he had to enhance his fame by thinking again and perhaps more profoundly of what he had in mind. But what can be more profound than song? The only thing that can be asked is whether a man is content with it.").

So it is a provocative book, for anyone who has either learned from or felt sympathy for Williams' own work. Forgetting the above for the moment (because I believe these 'occasions' to be of little importance), the last piece in the book ("On Measure—Statement for Cid Corman") brings to a head an issue more at root in Williams' sense of structure than even his insistence on the 'local.' It begins:

Verse—we'd better not speak of poetry lest we become confused—verse has always been associated in men's minds with "measure," i.e., with mathematics. In scanning any piece of verse, you "count" the syllables. Let's not speak either of rhythm, an aimless sort of thing without precise meaning of any sort. But measure implies something that can be measured. Today verse has lost all measure.

(I would like to cite two other men here, whose practice and/or belief may have less bearing than I think, but no matter. I am told of an essay by an Elizabethan, Samuel Putman, "On Proportion," wherein he speaks of numbers and measure as being arhythmus; and of that rhythm which we find in poems, as rhythmus . For him, rhythm implied irregularity; he also speaks of poetic rhythm as that "regularity just out of hearing." The other man is Thomas Campion,


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who was both musician and poet, and who also said he paid no attention to any 'measure.' He gave his attention to the words and the rhythms which they carried in them, to be related then as they occurred. This is very clear, of course, reading any of his poems:

To 'scan' this is hardly possible, nor, more actually, at all the point. The 'process' is literally the same as that by which Williams himself writes, or any man who can effect such things with words. In any case, here is Williams:


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This is not the 'same,' granted, but see that the second verse, in particular, involves us in that same character of variation which makes Campion himself a delight.)

Williams continues:

Most poems I see today are concerned with what they are saying , how profound they have been given to be. So true is this that those who write them have forgotten to make poems at all of them. Thank God we're not musicians, with our lack of structural invention we'd be ashamed to look ourselves in the face otherwise. There is nothing interesting in the construction of our poems, nothing that can jog the ear out of its boredom. I for one can't read them. There is nothing in their metrical construction to attract me, so I fall back on e. e. cummings and the disguised conventions that he presents which are at least amusing—as amusing as "Doctor Foster went to Gloucester, in a shower of rain."

The charge is reasonable enough, but for one thing—it seems to posit an either/or choice for "metrical construction" (?) versus some other means. But it is not metrics that are the fact in any of this, since, to compose 'metrically' would oblige one literally to an assumption of the 'foot' and the patterns then possible well before any poem could be written. This is the confusion, I think. Also—that it seems to be 'metrical construction' as against some form of 'typographical' construction (?); "It [the poem] is all over the page at the mere whim of the man who has composed it." But Stevens, for one, answered this, when he said there were those who thought of form as if it were a derivative of plastic shape. Which it is not, etc.

Without measure we are lost. But we have lost even the ability to count. Actually we are not as bad as that. Instinctively we have continued to count as always but it has become not a conscious process and being unconscious has descended to a low level of invention. . . . I have accordingly made a few experiments which will appear in a new book shortly [The Desert Music ]. . . . There will be other experiments but all will be directed toward the discovery of a new measure by which may be ordered our poems as well as our lives.

That, in brief, is the substance of the essay in question (here dated 1953). The first essay in the book is dated 1920. The first preoccupations are with the poem's structure—apart from content. This must be the issue of the place where it occurs—an answer, a disattachment, to the past. The line must be 'retaken,' reasserted, in terms of an immediate context. Against 'old forms,' congealed


― 39 ―

casts, which Williams names "the sonnet." ("To me the sonnet form is thoroughly banal because it is a word in itself whose meaning is definitely fascistic.") "Measure" is first spoken of in "Pound's Eleven New 'Cantos'" (1934):

The line must be measured to be in measure—but this does not mean disfigurement to fit an imposed meter. It's a matter of technique or the philosophy of poetry. Difficult to find many who will agree about it. With Pound it is in itself a revolution—how difficult to comprehend: unless the term revolution be well understood.

That is part and parcel with the "relatively stable foot" called for in "On Measure," i.e., it is, I think, a confusion. To take literally the first of the sentence, "The line must be measured to be in measure . . . ," is to involve oneself in an obviously vicious circle. No poem was ever written "in this direction."

So, then, what does it all come to. That the words in a poem must cohere in terms of their rhythms and sound weights—this is reasonable enough. We have lost considerable ground—if one wishes to speak of it all as ground covered—by thinking too literally of 'quantitative verse,' and then, in a form of reflex, of that which we have been given by poets in our own immediate tradition. But 'measure,' bitterly enough, has most usually been that means by which lesser men made patterns from the work of better—so to perpetuate their own failure. There is even a hint of this in a review published in the London Times Literary Supplement , of Williams' Collected Later Poems: "But his forms are so irregular in outline that there is no way of measuring them. Any metrical ideas which the reader retains while reading him will be an interruption." So much for 'measure' (which has nothing to do with rhythm , which, as Olson reminds us, the "pedants of Alexandria made it"). But Williams no longer trusts rhythm—"an aimless sort of thing without precise meaning of any sort."

It all goes around and around. That I suppose would hold as true of the world as anything else would. Let's measure that?


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A Character for Love

The Desert Music and Other Poems , by William Carlos Williams. New York: Random House, 1954.

We can hope that the woman be merciful, a kind of repose (and our rejection in part) for that for which she attacks. And yet there is no woman either to be kind or to live with a kind man, and rightly. The man who would come to her comes with his own weapons, and if he is not a fool, he uses them.

That much might well be dogma—an apology only to those who have gone down before its alternative, the 'understanding.' It was this that Lawrence fought all his life, perhaps more closely (more desperately) than any man before or since. Because we can have no way to declare love, except by the act of it.

Here it is that Dr. Williams not so much rests as still persists—in that persistence which, because it knows itself (and will not understand), is love too.

Black Mountain Review , Summer 1954.


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You do not describe this thing, neither you nor I. Married, the world becomes that act, or nothing.

I think that much of this content (by no means to beg it) came from him from the first, and, to that extent, American poetry had something even Poe (whom Williams alone saw this in) could not in his own dilemma give it. It is interesting, certainly that, to read the last part of the Poe essay in In the American Grain —where Poe's attempt to register himself is so characterized as this persistence, this hammering at the final edge of contact.

And this is the same force of Williams' stories, the best of them I think, even that possible vagueness in the one about the returning doctor, at the friend's house (also a doctor), and of the friend's wife who comes in and sits there, in the dark, by the edge of the bed, lies down on it, because he cannot sleep.

Writing Lessons

Wrong Is Right

Print

By Ralph Lombreglia

March 9, 2015


 

 

The best writing advice I ever got was from the jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, who famously said, “Wrong is right.” It wasn’t like Monk to explain his statements, but other improvisers have expanded on the idea.

The guitarist John Abercrombie remembers studying with the trumpeter and bandleader Herb Pomeroy in the late 1960s. Pomeroy told him, “You’ve got all these scales and all these chords … but if you hear a melody while you’re playing, if you really hear it and it happens to go outside the chord progression, if you play it with conviction, and you really hear it, it works.”

Another venerable pianist, Kenny Werner, wrote a book called Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within about playing improvised music. It’s also about making art in general. In the chapter “There Are No Wrong Notes,” Werner says:

Appropriateness and correctness are products of the mind. Trying to live within those imaginary guidelines inhibits the flow. I have illustrated this in clinics very clearly by playing ‘All the Things You Are’ in two keys simultaneously. I’ll play the chords in A-flat and the lines [melody and improvisations] in A-natural. Playing in those two keys should create many wrong notes. It should sound tremendously dissonant, but everyone is amazed to hear how fresh and stimulating it sounds! There is a secret here: if dissonant notes are played and the player embraces them as consonant, the listener will also hear them as consonant!

Believing, embracing, committing. Saying things with conviction. Thinking that something “wrong” is right and thus causing it to be right in the minds of others. It’s magic. But first you have to hear it.


Ralph Lombreglia is the author of two short-story collections, Men Under Water and Make Me Work. His stories have appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and the Scholar, among other magazines.


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