Page 53 - WTP Vol.VII #3
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contemporary poetics I encountered that echoed ideas borrowed from the Eastern religious philosophies, Buddhism especially. Reading Lao Tze, Gurdjieff, the Upanishads, Alan Watts, and D. T. Suzuki for a course I took in comparative religions had already acquainted me with these ideas popular on college campuses in the late 1960s. Indeed, I found that some of the state- ments about poetics were written in a quasi-mystical or philosophical language, and that others presented paradoxes not unlike Zen koans.
moment I felt they had slipped my grasp.
 For example, Denise frequently quoted William Carlos Williams’ phrase “no ideas but in things.” But just what did that mean, I puzzled? Weren’t ideas abstractions? What did it mean to be “embodied” in a “thing”? And, how could someone not have ideas, especially a stu- dent at the “Idea Factory,” as MIT was often called?
And what message was Robert Lowell trying to con- vey when he said, “The joy and strength of unscanned verse is that it can be as natural as conversation or prose, or can follow the rhythm of the ear that knows no measure.” But then reversed himself, adding, “Yet often a poem only becomes a poem and worth writ- ing because it has struggled with fixed meters and rhythms.” And, then, reversed course again, stating, “... the glory of free verse is in those poems that would
At the same time, I worried that I was too much stuck on abstract ideas and lacked confidence about those things that spurred me to put pen to paper. Was I like the student Denise had admonished in her essay “Notebook Pages,” when she said, “The material of a poem must need to be a poem, not something else.” Adding, “...certain material does not really depend
be thoroughly marred and would be inconceivable in meter.” I couldn’t decide whether he was for or against meter, an advocate or opponent of free verse.
on the full resources of language...but only on a kind of utilitarian recourse to language which case you should be prepared to write prose.” I wondered whether I would I ever know for certain that what spurred me to write was the stuff of “real” poetry.
Just as perplexing was Robert Bly’s statement that “Talk of technique ‘throws light’ on poetry, but the last thing we need is light,” which seemed to me not only contradictory but purposely so. Then he compounded this paradoxical statement by quoting St. John of the Cross, who said, “If a man wants to be sure of his road, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.”
My persistence was eventually rewarded, but unravel- ing the mysteries of poetics as defined by those we studied in the Contemporary Poetry course was slow going at first. The concept of “negative capability,” for one thing, which Denise, referring to Keats, discussed in an essay. This struck me as positively oxymoronic on the surface. I also puzzled long and hard over her statement that “form is never more than a revela-
Occasionally, however, I did come across a statement that seemed to suggest some common ground shared by science, mathematics, and poetry. For example,
the Keatsean formulation of beauty as truth and
truth beauty resonated with my training in physics, which held that if a theory constructed to describe the universe was aesthetically pleasing in a math- ematical sense, then it was likely to be true because the fundamental laws of nature had to be beautiful. I was reassured that I was onto something when I read Robert Duncan’s essay “Towards an Open Universe.” “This music of men’s speech that has its verity in the music of the inner structure of Nature,” he states, “is clearly related to that beauty of mathematics that Schrödinger and Dirac feel relates to the beauty of the inner structure of the physical universe.”
tion of content,” and over her mantra, borrowed from Wordsworth, that, “Language is not the dress but the incarnation of thoughts.”
I did notice echoes of Plato in her statement that “or- ganic based on an intuition of an order, a form beyond forms, in which forms partake, and of which man’s creative works are analogies, resemblances, natural allegories.” But whatever comfort I gained from that recognition was quickly undermined when
Several other passages helped me to make a bridge from the pursuit of one kind of knowledge to the other. For example, when Louis Zukofsky, borrowing the symbolic language of calculus, defined his poet- ics as “An integral/ Lower limit speech/ Upper limit
I pondered those hard to pin down concepts of “in- scape” and “instress,” related but different (“instress” being the “apperception of inscape”), that Denise had adopted from Gerard Manley Hopkins and used when- ever she discussed poems. One moment I thought I understood what she meant by those terms, the next
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Statements by other poets in the anthologies we read were just as perplexing. Kenneth Patchen, for exam- ple, said, “There is such a thing as weight in words.” He also wrote, “It is an absolute mistake to ladle out stress like a cook measuring off the ingredients for a cake.” This, I presumed, must be poet-think, utilizing domestic metaphors to explain abstract concepts.

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