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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).


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-


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?

                                                                 yes, Walt,
A foot again, and onward without halt,—
Not soon, nor suddenly,—no, never to let go
        My hand
                        in yours,
                                        Walt Whitman—

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


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:

There is no continuity then. Only a few
    posts of the good remain. I too
that am a nation sustain the damage
    where smokes of continual ravage
obscure the flame.
                                 It is across great scars of wrong
     I reach toward the song of kindred men
    and strike again the naked string
old Whitman sang from. Glorious mistake!
        that cried:


        "The theme is creative and has vista."
        "He is the president of regulation."

        I see always the under side turning,
fumes that injure the tender landscape.
        From which up break
lilac blossoms of courage in daily act
        striving to meet a natural measure.

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

The music is in the flower,
Leaf around leaf ranged around the center;
Profuse but clear outer leaf breaking on space,
There is space to step to the central heart:
The music is in the flower,
It is not the sea but hyaline cushions the flower—
Liveforever, everlasting.
The leaves never topple from each other,
Each leaf a buttress flung for the other.
(from "A" 2 , 1928)

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


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


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


('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:

I chant the chant of dilation or pride
We have had ducking and deprecating about enough . . .

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


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


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


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).


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-


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-


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


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


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.

    Yes, tall, inseparably our days
Pass sunward. We have walked the kindled skies
Inexorable and girded with your praise,

By the dove filled, and bees of Paradise.

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.


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:

Island Quarry

Square sheets—they saw the marble into
Flat slabs there at the marble quarry
At the turning of the road around the roots of the mountain
Where the straight road would seem to ply below the stone,
    that fierce
Profile of marble spiked with yonder
Palms against the sunset's towering sea, and maybe
Against mankind. It is at times—


In dusk it is at times as though this island lifted, floated
In Indian baths. At Cuban dusk the eyes
Walking the straight road toward thunder—
This dry road silvering toward the shadow of the quarry
—It is at times as though the eyes burned hard and glad
And did not take the goat path quivering to the right,
Wide of the mountain—thence to tears and sleep—
But went on into marble that does not weep.

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?


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.



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.


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


[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?

At Melville's Tomb

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men's bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death's bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides. . . . High in the azure steeps
Monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.

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.


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.


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:

       . . . The measure itself
has been lost
       and we suffer for it.
             We come to our deaths
in silence. . . .

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


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:

And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea . . .


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:

Life to make mock of motion . . .

in the mind of heaven God
who made it
more than the sun
in our eye . . .

dawn stands there fixed and unmoving
                      only we two have moved . . .

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


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.


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."



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."



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."

                                outside myself
                                                                      there is a world,
he rumbled, subject to my incursions
—a world
                                 (to me) at rest
                                                which I approach

("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


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."


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.


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:

Sometimes I envy others, fear them
a little too, if they write well. . . .

("The Cure")

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,


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,


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:

Kinde are her answers

    Kinde are her answeres,
    But her performance keeps no day;
Breaks time, as dancers
    From their own Musicke when they stray:
    All her free favors and smooth words,
Wing my hopes in vaine.
O did ever voice so sweet but only fain?
    Can true love yeeld such delay,
    Converting joy to pain?

    Lost is our freedome,
    When we submit to women so:
Why doe wee neede them,
    When in their best they worke our woe?
    There is no wisedome
Can alter ends, by Fate prefixt.
O why is the good of man with evill mixt?
    Never were days yet cal'd two,
    But one night went betwixt.

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:

The World Narrowed to a Point

Liquor and love
when the mind is dull
focus the wit
on a world of form

The eye awakes
perfumes are defined
ride the quick ear

Liquor and love
rescue the cloudy sense
banish its despair
give it a home.


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


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?


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.

There are men
               who as they live
                                fling caution to the
wind and women praise them
                and love them for it.
                                Cruel as the claws of
a cat        .        .

Black Mountain Review , Summer 1954.


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

The female principle of the world
               is my appeal
                               in the extremity
to which I have come.

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.

                                      You are a woman and
it was
                   a woman's gesture . . .
                                       I declare it boldly
with my heart
                    in my teeth
                                      and my knees knocking
together. Yet I declare
                    it, and by God's word
                                       it is no lie.

The Autobiography , more than any of his other books, now, is the place where the materials of his work are given—not done, but there to be found and related, if that is the purpose, to their forms in his art. What the poem is—beyond his sense of this service as "capsule for punishable secrets" or including it—comes again and again to the fact of women. In the preface to the book he speaks of that "form" which men have given to his life, but it is women who have made for the "energy." And energy begins it.

Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
                    like a buttercup
                                       upon its branching stem . . .


save that it's green and wooden . . .
                     I come, my sweet,
                                       to sing to you.

For what reason, to sing, even to be a 'poet'?

                                                        I  am  a poet! I
am. I am. I am a poet. I reaffirmed, ashamed

Now the music volleys through as in
a lonely moment I hear it    Now it is all
about me. The dance! The verb detaches itself
seeking to become articulate

There shall be no other judge—not judge, but she who will take it. And for that reason, that it begins where all things (mind you ) begin, the dance is the plain fact of contact, god help us.

You seem quite normal. Can you tell me? Why
does one want to write a poem?

                        Because it's there to be written.

Oh. A matter of inspiration then?

                                                               Of necessity.

Oh. But what sets it off?

                  I am that he whose brains
                  are scattered

At this point one turns, to laugh (ha), because it is what you wanted? Well, put it that here we are thrown out, not by Williams but by that which he knows, perfectly. We shall get no thanks for what we do, 'poets' or not. Nor can we lie down, asking it.

                                       There is, in short,
a counter stress,
                    born of the sexual shock,
                                      which survives it
consonant with the moon,
                    to keep its own mind.

We have had so much hope, both in love and in poetry, that I wonder what is or can be left. Yet put them together and you will have nothing at all. You cannot sit in a woman's lap, however comfortable. And, despite the humiliation, the door must be shut of necessity—until you can bang it down or open it.


You understand
                    I had to meet you
                                      after the event
and have still to meet you,
                                       to which you too shall bow
along with me—
                   a flower
                                       a weakest flower
shall be our trust
                   and not because
                                       we are too feeble
to do otherwise
                    but because
                                       at the height of my power
I risked what I had to do,
                   therefore to prove
                                     that we love each other
while my very bones sweated
                    that I could not cry out to you
                                       in the act.

Let us do what we will, generally—there will be no statement beyond this. It is fantastic, to me, that Williams at such a time as now confronts him should be so incredibly clear. Yet, what else to be—

                   Hear me out
                                      for I too am concerned
and every man
                   who wants to die at peace in his bed


The Fact

Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems , by William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions, 1962.

There is no simple way to speak of this book. It is so singularly the work of a man, one man, that it moves thereby to involve all men, no matter what they assume to be their own preoccupations.

What shall I say, because talk I must
                      That I have found a cure
                                          for the sick?
I have found no cure
                     for the sick
                                           but this crooked flower
Which only to look upon
                      all men
                                           are cured . . .
("The Yellow Flower")

The insistence in our lives has become a plethora of plans, of solutions, of, finally, a web of abstract commitments—which leave us only with confusions. Against these Dr. Williams has put the fact of his own life, and all that finds substance in it. He had earlier insisted, "No ideas but in things," meaning that all which moves to an elsewhere of abstractions, of specious 'reliefs,' must be seen as false. We live as and where we are. It is, for example, literally here:

First draft of a review published in The Nation , October 13, 1962.


The World Contracted to a Recognizeable Image

at the small end of an illness
there was a picture
probably Japanese
which filled my eye

an idiotic picture
except it was all I recognized
the wall lived for me in that picture
I clung to it as a fly

What device, means, rhythm, or form the poem can gain for its coherence are a precise issue of its occasion. The mind and ear are, in this sense, stripped to hear and organize what is given to them, and the dance or music Williams has used as a metaphor for this recognition and its use is that which sustains us, poets or men and women.

But only the dance is sure!
make it your own.
Who can tell
what is to come of it?

in the woods of your
own nature whatever
twig interposes, and bare twigs
have an actuality of their own

this flurry of the storm
that holds us,
plays with us and discards us
dancing, dancing as may be credible.
("The Dance")

It is equally that music which informs our lives with a coherence beyond their intention or apparent significance. In "The Desert Music" (the title poem of an earlier collection [1954] included in Pictures from Brueghel , as is also Journey to Love [1955]) this music is "a music of survival, subdued, distant, half heard. . . ." And against the external music of the juke-box, band, or whatever, the "nauseating prattle," Williams puts "the form of an old whore in / a cheap Mexican joint in Juárez, her bare / can waggling crazily. . . .":

       What the hell
are you grinning
to yourself about? Not
at her?


    The music!
I like her. She fits

the music     .

And again, finding the form of no shape, no identity, "propped motionless—on the bridge / between Juárez and El Paso—unrecognizeable / in the semi-dark. . . .":

                                   But what's THAT ?
                                                                  the music! the
music!  as when Casals struck
and held a deep cello tone
and I am speechless     .

The dance , the acts of a life, move to that music , the life itself, and it is these which it is the poet's peculiar responsibility to acknowledge and recover by his art:

Now the music volleys through as in
a lonely moment I hear it.     Now it is all
about me.    The dance!    The verb detaches itself
seeking to become articulate      .

                    And I could not help thinking
                    of the wonders of the brain that
                    hears that music and of our
                    skill sometimes to record it.

Coming then to the later poems, what can be said now is that there is all such truth, such life, in them. I cannot make that judgment which would argue among the poems that this or that one shows the greater mastery. I think there must come a time, granted that one has worked as Williams to define the nature of this art, when it all coheres, and each poem, or instance, takes its place in that life which it works to value, to measure, to be the fact of. As here:

To Be Recited to Flossie on Her Birthday

Let him who may
among the continuing lines
seek out

that tortured constancy
where I persist

let me say
across cross purposes
that the flower bloomed


struggling to assert itself
simply under
the conflicting lights

you will believe me
a rose
to the end of time


Foreword to The Manuscripts and Letters of William Carlos Williams

by Neil Baldwin and Steven L. Meyers

No simple comment suffices in an attempt to make clear the persistent and extraordinary value of William Carlos Williams' work as a writer. Public estimation came late for him, in some respects, but it is clear from the outset that his own peers, as Ezra Pound and the slightly younger Louis Zukofsky, took him as unique measure of the possibilities of the art they shared. For the then younger generation—Robert Lowell, Charles Olson, Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan—he continued, as Olson put it, the one clean source in an activity often perverted by topical advantage and self-publicizing. For those of my own age, as Allen Ginsberg and Denise Levertov, he was intensely responsive and reassuring, always there to answer the endless letters we wrote to him, despite failing health in the latter years of his life. He was truly our hero, and we knew that he would hear us.

In The Autobiography he recollects the circumstances that resulted in the present collection of his manuscripts and related materials:

Charles Abbott came to see us one winter's day about ten years ago. We sat in our front room all afternoon, Floss, he and I, over a highball or two, staring into a wood fire in our grate, letting the light fade. We hardly moved other than to refill our glasses. The phone didn't ring once. We thought we were in heaven.

He told us of his project: to collect manuscripts of the living poets,

Neil Baldwin and Steven L. Meyers, The Manuscripts and Letters of William Carlos Williams in the Poetry Collection of the Lockwood Memorial Library, State University of New York at Buffalo: A Descriptive Catalog (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978).


English and American—whatever could be had—material that as often was thrown away or lost that could be used later to piece out an understanding of their lives and methods of work. He had written asking me if I had anything of the sort lying about the house that I could give him for the Lockwood Memorial Library at the University of Buffalo where a room had been set aside for the collection.

Generously, enthusiastically, Williams accepted the invitation, very possibly a singular one for him at that time. So it was that, from time to time, bulky brown envelopes filled with his work drafts began to arrive in Buffalo for deposit at the University Library, and, as the years passed, their accumulation resulted in the most extensive collection of Williams materials that we now have.

What is their value? Williams himself, I think, makes it very evident: "material . . . that could be used later to piece out an understanding of their lives and methods of work." Whether one be literary historian or critic, or writer, or, most appropriately, a student—whose world has not as yet coalesced into professional habit—a very simple piece of paper, with words scrawled or typed in unequivocal impulse, can be wonder beyond all others. There it literally is, that's how he did it!

But it is not merely explanations one is after. Such are all too simple and will no doubt change too, as readers and the worlds in which they live. The virtue of what Williams wrote is equal to the virtue of the diverse flowering earth he loved. Both change endlessly, to remain the same. In that sense there will never be a finally right answer, nor will these materials yield it.

Rather, it is the intimate revelation possible, when one can so witness the issue of such words as he did write by means of an agency as movingly common as a man's own two hands. The human dimension becomes so dearly manifest, and all pretensions of formula or abstract objectification fall away.

Although many indeed did make use of the materials here catalogued previous to this present recording of them, the two young men who have finally done this painstaking and perceptive labor are to be honored and thanked. Clearly their knowledge of Williams is now intimate in the sense I have used that word. Put briefly, they cared—and, as Williams might well have told them, all you can do with caring is to make it an act , such as theirs.


"paradise/our/speech . . ."

All: The Collected Short Poems, 1923–1958 , by Louis Zukofsky. New York: Norton, 1965.

Louis Zukofsky has defined his poetics as a function, having as lower limit, speech, and upper limit, song. It is characteristic of him to say that a poet's "major aim is not to show himself but that order that of itself can speak to all men." It is his belief that a poet writes one poem all his life, a continuing song , so that no division of its own existence can be thought of as being more or less than its sum. This is to say, it all is.

Williams wrote of him, "The musician and the poet should be taken as a critical unit in our effort to understand the poet Zukofsky's meaning." It was his own thought that "it was never a simple song as it was, for instance, in my own case." But that complexity which Williams noted can be deceptive if it proposes that something intently difficult is involved with whatever sense of purpose. In many instances, the song of both men is similar, and it is necessary to isolate the character of music either might mean. For example, here is a poem of Zukofsky's in which the "tune" is defined deliberately as a consequence of rhythms and sounds:

The lines of this new song are nothing
But a tune making the nothing full
Stonelike become more hard than silent
The tune's image holding in the line.
(20, Anew )

Poetry , October 1965.


Again as Williams has said, "He uses words in more or less sentence formation if not strictly in formal sentence patterns, in a wider relationship to the composition as musical entity." I had first understood this possibility by means of a poem of Williams', "The End of the Parade":

The sentence undulates
raising no song—
It is too old, the
words of it are falling
apart. . . .

That is, I heard the fact of the poem's statement as well as understood its meaning. Such hearing is immediately necessary in reading Zukofsky's work insofar as meaning is an intimate relation of such sound and sense. It can be as close as—


delight . . .
(16, "29 Songs")

—or move with an apparent statement, seeming to "say" enough to satisfy that measure; but again it will be that one hears what is so said, not merely deciphers a "meaning":

And so till we have died
And grass with grass
Lie faceless as the grass

Grow sheathed with the grass
Between our spines a hollow
The stillest sense will pass
Or weighted cloud will follow.
(19, Anew )

To reach that age,
      a tide
And full
      for a time
                                        be young.
(36, Anew )


The consequence of such a way leads to a recognition of what is being heard at each moment of the writing, or reading, and the effect is evident in either:

 . . . Having seen the thing happen,
There would be no intention 'to write it up,'

But all  that was happening,
The mantis itself only an incident,  compelling any writing
The transitions were perforce omitted.

Thoughts'—two or three or five or
Six thoughts' reflection (pulse's witness) of what was
All immediate, not moved by any transition.

Feeling this, what should be the form
Which the ungainliness already suggested
Should take? . . .
("Mantis," An Interpretation)

It leads to other distrusts of any kind of plan which distorts the actuality of feeling:

    I wasn't going to say
for fear
    You didn't want to hear.

That's the worst
   of understanding,
a handshake
   would be better.
("4 Other Countries")

The way of such feeling is clear in the words, as "for fear / You didn't want to hear" or "understanding, / a handshake," and trusts to that sense, "The vowels / abide / in consonants / like / / Souls / in / bodies —" for the life of what it says.

This life—All: The Collected Short Poems, 1923–1958 —is evidence of Zukofsky's own, but not as some biographical record, although much detail of that kind can be taken from it. It is, rather, that by virtue of the occasion so shared each has come to live in all the diversity of either. In this respect, I can think of no man more useful to learn from than Zukofsky, in that he will not 'say' anything but that which the particulars of such a possibility require, and follows the fact of that occasion with unequaled sensitivity. But to hear it, is necessary—


That song
   is the kiss
it keeps
   is it

   unsaid worry
for what
   should last.
("4 Other Countries")


Louis Zukofsky:
The Collected Short Poems, 1923–1958

In his preface to A Test of Poetry (1948) Louis Zukofsky notes at the outset, "The test of poetry is the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and intellection. This is its purpose as art." In his long poem "A " he qualifies its occasion as "Out of deep need  . . ." Then, continuing:

Who had better sing and tell stories
Before all will be abstracted.
So goes: first, shape
The creation—
A mist from the earth,
The whole face of the ground:
Then rhythm
And breathed breath of life;
Then style
That from the eye its function takes—
"Taste" we say—a living soul.
First, glyph; then syllabary,
Then letters. Ratio after
Eyes, tale in sound. First, dance. Then
Voice. First, body—to be seen and to pulse
Happening together.
("A " 12)

It is a sense that proposes poetry to be evidence as to its own activity, apart from any other sense of description or of a conve-

Agenda , Summer 1966.


nience to some elsewise considered reality of things. More, it is a belief, deeply committed, that what is said says 'what-is-said'—a complexity of no simple order. For example, the first poem in All notes by the fact of its activity that any said thing exists in its saying and cannot be less than said—each time it is. It is interesting that this poem is called "Poem beginning 'The'"—which article is itself a determined emphasis upon what is defined in speech. In this case, a method as well takes form in this poem, as William Carlos Williams points out in his essay "Zukofsky," included in "A."[*] It is based, I feel, upon the premise that all that is, as whatever has spoken it, may occur as it is, each time it is spoken. In other words, there is nothing which anything so existent is 'about,' that will go away in time, so as to embarrass the actuality of such existence. Zukofsky makes a lovely note of time in the 28th of 29 Songs, which is pertinent to all such facts of factness: " . . . And for years it was four o'clock,—not time which would have broken the hour and placed a statue of David in history, but an ornamental herb of that name,—with flowers that grow in Peru of a great variety of color. So that for years it was four o'clock and the same as bloom from 4 P.M. till the next morning."

There is one poem which I would feel very useful for many senses of Zukofsky's poems, both in that character with which I have been concerned and also, very much, in the full complexity of their involvement with the man who is writing them. The poem is "Mantis" and there is a note as to its date of writing, November 4, 1934. At a time when so much concern has come to center on assumptions of form, and remembering also that Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity , for one such instance, was published in the early thirties—this poem makes clear a context of possibility and response itself a manifest of the poem's writing. The ostensible form of the poem is a sestina, and in "'Mantis,' An Interpretation"—a close response to the poem's writing and concerns which follows in the next—Zukofsky says:

The sestina, then, the repeated end words
Of the lines' winding around themselves,
Since continuous in the Head, whatever has been read,
                                           whatever is heard,
                                              whatever is seen


Perhaps goes back cropping up again with
Inevitable recurrence again in the blood
Where the spaces of verse are not visual
But a movement,
With vision in the lines merely a movement . . .

One feels in fact inevitably
About the coincidence of the mantis lost in the subway,
About the growing oppression of the poor—
Which is the situation most pertinent to us—
With the fact of the sestina:
Which together fatally now crop up again
To twist themselves anew
To record not a sestina, post Dante,
Nor even a mantis.

What I am most intent to point out here is that Zukofsky feels form as an intimate presence, whether or not that form be the use or issue of other feelings in other times, or the immediate apprehension of a way felt in the moment of its occurrence. The distinction is, then, against what appropriates the outline sans an experience of its intimate qualities—as Zukofsky notes in this same section:

What is most significant
Perhaps is that C—and S—and X—of the 19th century
Used the "form"—not the form but a Victorian
Stuffing like upholstery
For parlor polish,
And our time takes count against them
For their blindness and their (unintended?) cruel smugness.

Again: as an experiment, the sestina would be wickerwork—
As a force, one would lie to one's feelings not to use it.

There is no reason I would credit to prevent a man's walking down a road another has made use of—unless the road, by such use, has become a 'road,' an habituated and unfelt occasion. But as "force" its possibility is timeless.

Given the briefness of these notes, I am embarrassed to deal with all that in this poem excites and informs me. It is a peculiar virtue of Zukofsky's work that it offers an extraordinary handbook for the writing of poems. His particular sensitivity to the qualities of poetry as "sight, sound, and intellection" marks the significance of his relation to Ezra Pound, who dedicated Guide to Kulchur "To Louis


Zukofsky and Basil Bunting, strugglers in the desert." It is Bunting who says that his own first experience of poetry as an unequivocal possibility for himself came with the recognition that the order and movement of sound in a poem might itself create a coherence of the emotions underlying. In this respect, the following note by Zukofsky merits much thought:

How much what is sounded by words has to do with what is seen by them, and how much what is at once sounded and seen by them crosscuts an interplay among themselves—will naturally sustain the scientific definition of poetry we are looking for. To endure it would be compelled to integrate these functions: time, and what is seen in time (as held by a song), and an action whose words are actors or, if you will, mimes composing steps as of a dance that at proper instants calls in the vocal cords to transform it into plain speech.

("Poetry," in "A" [Origin Press edition, 1959])

The brilliance, then, of these poems is their grace in such a recognition, that they can move so articulately in all the variables of a life. I can make no selection because, as their author has said, one writes one poem all one's life, and there can be no significant division. But as one moment, this may stand as token of all:

To reach that age,
             a tide
And full
             for a time
                             be young.
(36, Anew )


A Note

There is a possibility in reading and writing, which knows words as in the world in much the same way that men are, and that each may know that possibility which Herrick defines:

And when all bodies meet,
      In Lethe to be drowned,
Then only numbers sweet
      With endless life are crowned.

There is no presumption in the fact that Louis Zukofsky puts two poems of Herrick's together with his own song, "Little wrists," as an instance of grace in his comparative anthology, A Test of Poetry . One hears in the possibility another has articulated what may thus bring clear one's own, and though there are three hundred years intervening, the measure of grace is not variable.

Zukofsky says, one writes one poem all one's life. All that he has written may be felt as indivisible, and all one —which word occurs frequently in the text in this sense.

Another word found often is leaf , echoing, specifically at times as in the latter part of "A" 12, Whitman's Leaves of Grass . Despite what seem dissimilarities, they are like men in that both would favor—with Shakespeare as Zukofsky has proposed—the "clear physical eye" as against "the erring brain." The experience of one's life as one is given to have it, and as relationships of its nature are found, unfold, then, as leaves , finding home in time far past or in the instant now:

Introduction to Louis Zukofsky, "A" 1–12 (New York: Doubleday, 1967).


The music is in the flower,
Leaf around leaf ranged around the center;
Profuse but clear outer leaf breaking on space,
There is space to step to the central heart:
The music is in the flower.
It is not the sea but hyaline cushions the flower—
Liveforever, everlasting.
The leaves never topple from each other,
Each leaf a buttress flung for the other.

This is taken from "A" 2, written in 1928. In "A" 11, twenty-two years later:

                                 . . . Honor

His voice in me, the river's turn that finds the
Grace in you, four notes first too full for talk, leaf
Lighting stem, stems bound to the branch that binds the
Tree, and then as from the same root we talk, leaf
Over leaf of his thought, sounding
His happiness: song sounding
The grace that comes from knowing
Things, her love our own showing
Her love in all her honor.

" . . . His voice in me. . . ." That men do so move, one to one, here grandfather, to father, to son—but that also, as Zukofsky thinks possible, it may be that Shakespeare had read Catullus, and that men who may so read the same text may so in time relate. Certainly, as the outset of the work makes clear, Zukofsky hears Bach, and after hearing:

I walked on Easter Sunday,
   This is my face
   This is my form.
   Faces and forms, I would write
                                            you down
   In a style of leaves growing.

One may well quote Pound, as Zukofsky has, to give measure for such occasion:

Hast 'ou fashioned so airy a mood
    To draw up the leaf from the root?

and the rest as time has cleft it


The title "A" itself is what one might call initial, and initiating, evidence of the kind of intelligence Zukofsky has—seeing and hearing words in the world as the specific possibilities they contain. He has said, in fact, that "a case can be made out for the poet giving some of his life to the use of the words the and a: both of which are weighted with as much epos and historical destiny as one man can perhaps resolve." How much "world" can lie between the and a is hardly for either a or the grammarian to decide.

We may speak of the as some thing previously noted or recognized, and of a as that which has not been thus experienced—but think too that "from A to Z" may mean something, and that if one looks at an A, it may very possibly become a sawhorse:

Horses: who will do it? out of manes? Words
Will do it, out of manes, out of airs, but
They have no manes, so there are no airs, birds
Of words, from me to them no singing gut.
For they have no eyes, for their legs are wood,
For their stomachs are logs with print on them;
Blood red, red lamps hang from necks or where could
Be necks, two legs stand A, four together M.

Horses and leaves:

You keep up to date
On all fours
That canter sometimes
Before boughs that grace trees.
Sparks from hoofs:
There is horse . . .

So year to year—
Nor do the arts
Ever end.
How can man say
"I am certain"
For certain and uncertain
Do not make certain.
Only forever is previous
And not a horse's forever.
If someone stole off with its body
Be sure that its spirits
Canter forever.
Blacksmith, creator, shapes his shoe
Into substance.


Born in New York's lower east side, Zukofsky's life cannot have been simple, and the kinds of complexity one realizes do confront him here are deeply to be considered. In the opening movements there are bitter terms of death, poverty, war—

         "I beg your pardon
         I've a—"h" begins the rhyme here,
         Shall we now?"

             "You misconstrue—uh
             Men's rue—eh,

                          The sailors in the carousel
                             looking for a place to
                          Seaweed, fellow voters, and
                             spewn civic sidewalks.

Thus one modernizes
His lute,
Not in one variation after another;
Words form a new city,
Ours is no Mozart's
Magic Flute—
Tho his melody made up for a century
And, we know, from him, a melody resolves
                                                              to no dullness—
But when we push up the daisies,
The melody! the rest is accessory:

My one voice. My other: is
An objective—rays of the object brought to a focus,
An objective—nature as creator—desire
     for what is objectively perfect
Inextricably the direction of historic and
                                                        contemporary particulars.

He was first published in The Exile by Ezra Pound in the twenties. The poem was "The," which is relevant, and it led subsequently to his publication in The Dial and other magazines of the period. In 1931 he edited an issue of Poetry in which he presented a number of writers, among them Carl Rakosi, Kenneth Rexroth (for whom it was his first publication), William Carlos Williams (whose poem "The Alphabet of the Trees" gained him one of his first awards), and others of like significance. Asked for some tag, whereby to


identify the group, Zukofsky used the term "objectivist"—which he once spoke of in conversation as follows:

I picked the word simply because I had something very simple in mind. You live with the things as they exist and as you sense them and think them. That's the first thing, and that I call sincerity in an essay that was printed at the back of that Poetry number. Otherwise how sincere your intentions doesn't matter. The rest is, once you do that, you do put them into a shape that, apart from your having lived it, is now on its own, and that's what goes into the world and becomes part of it.

He has been long and quietly about his work, and, in the passage of time, he has written other books which complement it significantly—All , the collected short poems in two volumes (1923–1958; 1956–1964), and Bottom: On Shakespeare (published in 1963) among them. What he has said of the latter makes a useful focus here. First, despite that it is written in prose, he calls it "a long poem on a theme for the variety of its recurrences." The theme is, "that Shakespeare's text thruout favors the clear physical eye against the erring brain" and "that this theme has historical implications." Second, a "valid skepticism, that, as 'philosophy of history' taking in the (arts and sciences) my book takes exception to all philosophies from Shakespeare's point of view, that is, the physical eye against the erring brain." Third, "a continuation of my work on prosody in my other writings. In this sense my wife's music [her setting of Shakespeare's Pericles is the second volume of this work] saves me a lot of words, and she did a note to every syllable of Pericles ." Finally, it is "a poet's autobiography as involvement of twenty years in a work shows him up, or, as in the case of Shakespeare, his words show him, are his life. . . ."

About All , Zukofsky says: "In a sense All is an autobiography: the words are my life . . . Or to put it in other words, the poet's form is never an imposition of history, but the desirability of making order out of history as it is felt and conceived."

In the title story of It was , a collection published in 1961, the story itself having been written twenty years earlier, one finds: "This story was a story of our time. And a writer's attempts not to fathom his time amount but to sounding his mind in it. I did not want to break up my form by pointing to well-known place names and dates in the forty years that I had lived—events familiar to most of us, to some more than myself. I wanted our time to be the story, but like the thought of a place passed by once and recalled


altogether: seen again as through a stereoscope blending views a little way apart into a solid—defying touch. I was saying something that had had a sequence, like the knowledge of taking a breath, and hiding it, because one breathes without pointing to it before and after. . . ." "Thanks to the Dictionary," the final piece of this same book, written in 1932, begins:

"A." Quoting the dictionary. Remembering my sawhorses, my little a.'s abbreviated for afternoon, perhaps for years, this afternoon.

Quoting Satie, "born very young in a world already old," he has said of "A," "The idea is much as the brain does err, it will willynilly get down, and sometimes the eye sees—the form in that sense organic, or all of one's life, and this is the life, and for the rest nobody else's business. It's written in one's time and place, and it refers to other times and places as one grows, whatever way one grows. It takes in books that survive—say, well, like Bach's music it can go down, it can go up, that's the interest of it and all to come through the form of the thing. To hold it together, I don't know—a song?" From "A" 12:

You remember
The houses where we were born
The first horse pulsed
Until the evening and the morning
Were the first day?

I'll tell you.
About my poetics

An integral
Lower limit speech
Upper limit music

Time qualifies the fire and spark of it
I can't improve that .
That closed and open sounds saw
See somehow everlastingly
Out of the eye of sky.


Poetics. With constancy.

As I love:
My poetics. . . .

Better a fiddle than geiger?
With either there is so much in I
And in one:

Courses tide, and a tide
                            brings back folk
                            after twenty years,
A cycle a light matter or more,
So my song with an old voice is whole:
Another way of saying
You cannot take out of the circle—what was in it . . .

Thus to hear , as he would hear Catullus, in the translation he has made with his wife—"fact that delights as living hint and its cues" being "facit delicias libidinesque "—"which is much more simple in the Latin. It has to do with pleasures and desires . . ." So "A" 9 is an extraordinary reading of Guido Cavalcanti's Donna me prega , the experience of valuation, and of love, with Marx as he stems from Aristotle included—the form a canzone, which demands that fifty-four of the one hundred and fifty-four syllables occurring in a strophe be rhymed, extending to seventy-five lines in all. As Zukofsky notes, "it's all wound in," which impulse the sonnet form reverses. Here he has composed two distinct canzones—the first, of value, the second, of love—not a literal translation of Cavalcanti but rather an intensive experience of the intimate situation of his writing, as fact of sounds in the rhythms then relating. The second canzone repeats, almost verbatim, the rhymes of the first:

An impulse to action sings of a semblance
Of things related as equated values,
The measure all use is time congealed labor
In which abstraction things keep no resemblance


To goods created; integrated all hues
Hide their natural use. . . .

An eye to action sees love bear the semblance
Of things, related is equated—values
The measure all use who conceive love, labor
Men see, abstraction they feel, the resemblance
(Part, self-created, integrated) all hues
Show to natural use. . . .

To know what men say, one must hear them, and to hear them means moving with the intimate means of their occasion—

Out of deep need
Four trombones and the organ in the nave
A torch surged—
Timed the theme Bach's name
Dark, larch and ridge, night:
From my body to other bodies
Angels and bastards interchangeably
Who had better sing and tell stories
Before all will be abstracted.

Buffalo, N.Y.
April 2, 1967


All Ears Hear Here

"A" . By Louis Zukofsky. 826 pp. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1978.

There seems to me a very simple human longing, that life mean something, that there be a world contingent —as Louis Zukofsky might say—with that sadly meager human fact, I'm alive! Yet world itself comes from a root (weorld ) whose own meaning might well recall to us that a human life is , in fact, the world, and the only one we will ever have. There is no longer an explicit order, secular or divine, which can encode us, so to speak, discover for us a collective significance of cohering and relieving order—unless one feels factually secure in the chaos of life styles , the persistent destructiveness of seemingly endless wars, the dereliction of any political responsibility, the outrage of business , the utter disjunct of literal place and person .

So it is that the heroic imagination of our time has been, of necessity, the responsibility of our artists, just that no other human conduct seemed to care that much—as long as one's own piece of the action was acknowledged and given sufficient reward. Presidents and plumbers alike only work here and, thanks to unions and parties, are amply paid no matter what works or doesn't. Yet who among them would so risk his life, as Pound, right or wrong; as William Carlos Williams, shaken by one stroke after another, yet insistently maintaining that life is a wonder; as Charles Olson, dying, continuing to claim that the "fundament," that very human thing we are, is

New York Times Book Review , May 20, 1979.


forever as real as the "firmament," all those stars overhead, which so invite us.

Louis Zukofsky's life work is "A" —not the , mind you, but a , for as he said, "a case can be made out for the poet giving some of his life to the use of the words the and a  . . ." The good life is one thing, then, and a life quite another. The contents page of this extremely useful edition notes that the first section of the poem (there are 24 in all, which number echoes for me significantly the human measure of a day) was written in 1928, when the poet was 24 years old. The last writing is dated 1974 ("A" 23), so that one has the range of 46 years—without question a life's commitment, in all possible respects, to what does come and go, of a day, and what does stay put—as value, as measure, as possibility.

Unlike Pound's Cantos (whose time of composition might be seen as parallel), Zukofsky's work is grounded in a triad , a life lived with two intensively significant other people, his wife, Celia, and his son, Paul. They are presences in the poem as much as the poet's own. So there is a clear domestic locus, and the fact of these three is humanly vulnerable always, yet tenaciously coherent in that they are a human relationship, a seemingly timeless pattern of organic order: becoming, being, and ending. There is also the world, of course, and all that it proposes and/or constitutes. And the art of poetry, as he said:

the whole art of poetry which "is nothing else but the completed action of writing words to be set to music"—music being the one art that more than the others aims in its reach to speak to all men.

Zukofsky's art , in this work, is without equal. No poet of our time can so sound the resources of language, so actuate words to become all that they might be thought otherwise to engender. So that Bach be—

       unhurt and

Or Marx discover himself compacted with Cavalcanti ("A" 9) in the demanding measure of a sestina, wherein 54 of the 154 sounds possible in the strophe must rhyme:

An impulse to action sings of a semblance
Of things related as equated values . . .


An eye to action sees love bear the semblance
Of things, related is equated,—values . . .

Or, magnificently, in the close of the poem's "single voice" ("A" 23):

Of Nought—light, leaf, grief—
lend grace wife and her

son keep to life's end
serein (horse) a full lawn.

But how begin to suggest all that is heard here—all ears hear here , one's tempted to say. For, led by Bach ("A/Round of fiddles playing Bach . . .") into this complexly various dance, there follow all this life's responses to all: " . . . mathémata / swank for things / learned ('like' caged / 'silence' which pulses)— / yet in each / case what happens . . . ." So come Homer, Aristotle, Shakespeare, J.Q. and H. Adams, Swift, among many signifying others—as Whitman or Plautus, whose vernacular power in Latin is matched only by Catullus. (Louis and Celia Zukofsky's translation of Catullus is, in fact, a formidable transliteration of this poet's sounds —Plautus' Rudens , in Zukofsky's translation, is "A" 21.) Then there are those, as Pound and Williams, who shared in the commitment. "A" 17, "A CORONAL / for Floss" (which begins with a quotation from Williams' poem of that title) is a chronological anthology of testament to the life Zukofsky found in Williams (whose own response may be felt in the fact that he gave Zukofsky the responsibility of editing and also ordering the poems collected in The Wedge [1944], which is dedicated "To L.Z.").

The close of the poem is a melding, "a five-part score—music, thought, drama, story, poem" (as its title says, "L.Z. Masque") in which his wife, Celia, composed "four voices" of his writings following the "one-voice" of Handel's "Harpsichord Pieces" in the order noted (from Prepositions , his collected essays, "Arise, Arise," a play, "It was," a story, and "A" itself)—to effect a polyphony of senses, simultaneously, where all had begun and now ends. In that shifting, reiterating order, no one is now dominant—or rather, all is now one . And who had been speaking to us is forever now this mingling, recollective harmony. Because—as Zukofsky once wrote in the wish to define his own commitment to this art, "For My Son When He Can Read"—the poet's "major aim is not to show himself but that order that of itself can speak to all men. . . ." Pray, friends, that we can hear.


For L.Z.

It is an honor to know men and women of genius and probity, because we live, finally, in a human world and however we would dispose ourselves toward that world otherwise the case, it is the human one which makes the most intimate and significant judgment. For myself and others of my generation, our elders in the art were extraordinary example and resource. Despite a chaos of restrictive generalization, we had nonetheless the active, persistent functioning of example: Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Basil Bunting, Louis Zukofsky—to note those most dear to my own heart.

My first information of Zukofsky was in the dedications of two books crucial to my senses of poetry, Ezra Pound's Guide to Kulchur ("To Louis Zukofsky and Basil Bunting, strugglers in the desert") and Williams' The Wedge ("To L.Z."). It was, however, Edward Dahlberg who gave me my first active sense of Zukofsky's situation and urged me to invite him to contribute to The Black Mountain Review , which happily I did, resulting in the publication of a section from "A" 12 (BMR #5), and "Songs of Degrees" and "Bottom: On Shakespeare , Part Two" (BMR #6). In the meantime Robert Duncan had arrived in Mallorca and become a close friend and mentor, and it was he who showed me Williams' review of Anew as well as texts by Zukofsky himself. Then, in 1955 as I recall, while teaching at Black Mountain and visiting briefly in New York, I determined to meet Zukofsky if possible, and so one evening attempted the subway out to Brooklyn with just twenty cents in my pocket. As luck would have it, I overshot my destination, spent my remaining dime

Paideuma 7, no. 3 (Winter, 1978).


on correcting my error, and finally arrived tentative, confused, and literally penniless.

It's to the point, I believe, that such acts be remembered, especially when they define the possibilities of human responsibility and choice. As I came into the house on Willow Street, to be met by these extraordinarily dear and tender people, I somehow determined it would be best for all concerned if I revealed my predicament immediately, and I tried to. But Louis asked a favor of me, as he put it, saying that Celia was altering an overcoat for him, and it would help the sense of fitting required if I would put it on so that he might see how it looked. I did, and immediately Louis said, "There, it's yours!" Or words to that effect, because I cannot remember clearly what literally he did say, being then so distracted by the generosity of the gift and the fact that I had still to tell them I was broke. Finally I got that said, and their response was the specific coin required for the subway, and a five dollar bill to go with it, and a substantial lunch for the trip back to Black Mountain next day.

And it never changed. Always that shy, intensive warmth, that dear, particular care. In fact, the last time I saw them together was in New York—we had met the day previous, by blessed accident, in the street—and I had come up to see them where they were now living in a residential hotel off Central Park. As luck would have it, there was a torrential thunderstorm through which I walked a considerable distance, and arrived, dripping and wet to the skin. My coat was taken from me and hung up over the bath tub to dry. I was sat down and given hot coffee to warm me up, etc., etc. When Celia asked me if I'd like cream, I said, yes, if it was simple—which it proved not to be. So she gave me a spoonful of vanilla ice cream, to act as cream for the coffee, and then a full dish of it, in the event I might enjoy it for its own sake. And then we talked.

If I try to isolate my senses of Louis Zukofsky from those memories now, I neither can nor can I see the reason to. He taught me so much, in so many ways. Without the least trying, so to speak, the measures of person, of conduct, of art, which he constituted, are all of a factual piece. Again I think of that frail man's walking me late at night to the subway entrance, so I wouldn't have difficulty finding it, despite the effort it must have been for him to confront those streets at that hour, and his walk back alone. I remember "raise grief to music"—"the joy that comes from knowing things"—"the more so all have it"—"upper limit music, lower limit speech"—"love lights light in like eyes"—"he got around. . . ." And if I misquote, then I do—because this is the practical, daily company of


Louis Zukofsky for me, the measure of his father, "everybody loved Reb Pincos because he loved everybody. Simple. . . ."

Thankfully, I was able at times to make clear my respect—in various reviews and notes, in the rather crunky introduction to "A" 1–12 (New York: Doubleday, 1967) with its several misprints, etc. And, more privately, I could argue the case at times, as Hugh Kenner will remember, apropos "The winds / agitating / the / waters." Which certainly looked easy, as he said, but trying, did discover was otherwise—and then wrote the primary review of "A" 1–12 (in its first Origin edition), in which he rightly qualifies the art of Zukofsky's practice as so much the more accomplished than Auden's, whose Homage to Clio he was also reviewing. Etc. These 'arguments' will die with us too. L.Z.—never.


A Personal Note

I have never understood very clearly why a man of Basil Bunting's accomplishment should have so little use in his own country. We have had like situations here—in the case of Louis Zukofsky, only recently 'discovered' after many years indeed of exceptional writing, and I can remember as well how resistant the elders of my own generation were to the work of Williams and Pound. H. D. remains for the most part an obscure figure, despite the fact that she is so uniquely a major one.

But if no one shouts, or keeps the insistence active, then these things do happen. Some years ago, when Origin was first being published, I wrote to Bunting to ask his help with finding active people in England and especially to see if he might have poems himself to send. He answered most kindly that his life had never been 'literary,' and since much of it had been spent in Persia, he was not aware of what might be of use then (roughly 1952) in England. He said he saw few English writers, and that when Alec Waugh, for example, had visited him, they talked of the water table and of the migration of game.

I had known of his work for some time, associating it with that of Pound, in whose Active Anthology I had first had chance to read Bunting's poems. Kulchur is also dedicated to Bunting and Zukofsky, "strugglers in the desert" of all too real a fact. Then in 1950 the Cleaners' Press published his Poems , and we had our first chance

Granta , 6 November 1965.


to see the range and subtlety of what he had done. Shortly after, Poetry published his long poem The Spoils (1951).

But then the silence settled in again. When I visited last October in England, of the many literary men I saw, only two had occasion to speak of Bunting. One, George Fraser, loaned me his copy of Poems to take back with me to London, in hopes someone there might be interested. The other, Charles Tomlinson, was curious to know what Bunting's present circumstances might be.

So I knew as little as ever. Then, coming down from Scotland, I stopped to read in Newcastle, at the invitation of Tom Pickard, and there to my great pleasure and surprise was Bunting himself.

I value that occasion very much, simply that there are men who are measures of all possibility, in what they do literally and in how they do it. I can't report all of the conversation we had, but, again, it continues to serve me as measure both of my own circumstances and of what poetry itself can be as an active art. With respect to Eliot, he questioned the rhythms, finding them "gross" I think his word was, yet pointed out that the diction—the literal vocabulary of his work—was very clear indeed. He made a useful distinction between organizations of sound as one meets them in a lyric—where the briefness of the poem's length gives them a necessarily emphatic situation—and in a long poem, where their texture may accumulate relationships without the reader being aware of their singular condition. He talked of Pound, more parallel he felt to Spenser than to Chaucer, in that each man gives an encyclopaedia of possibilities to those who then come after.

Of his own condition he said little. We walked above the Tyne, back of the village of Wylam where he lives. When he was a boy, there were several fisheries along that river, but now industrial wastes and like circumstances made it unlikely that even a casual fisherman would find much to catch. He told me the Northumberland clans were the last to give in to the organizations of county, more implacable even than the Scots. He spoke of the reforestation program in Northumberland, and in all he said there was evidence of a deep sense of place and of his own commitment to it.

There is such a clarity to him, and in what he has written. I wonder it is not seen more simply, but happily that situation now changes. There is no one else who can help as much, both in the fact of his work—it offers, I feel, the most real occasion for the work of younger men now—and himself, of all men unique in the quiet determination of what he has valued.


Have you seen a falcon stoop
accurate, unforeseen
and absolute, between
wind-ripples over harvest? Dread
of what's to be, is and has been—
were we not better dead?
His wings churn air
to flight.
Feathers alight
with sun, he rises where
dazzle rebuts our stare,
wonder our fright.
(from The Spoils )


A Note on Basil Bunting

The publication of Basil Bunting's poems in England regains a possibility that has been equivocal for some time, if not literally absent. I am not the one to write of it simply that I am not English, nor of that particular root which Bunting has such use of. R. S. Woolf, reviewing Loquitur and Briggflatts in Stand (8, No. 2), puts emphasis on the almost flat pessimism, the insistence of death, throughout Bunting's work. It is there without question as it is equally in Samuel Beckett's, or in Dunbar's Lament for the Makers . Also relevant are the tone and manner of Michael Alexander's translations, The Earliest English Poems , from which comes the following:

A man who on these walls wisely looked
who sounded deeply this dark life
would think back to the blood spilt here,
weigh it in his wit . . .
Alas, proud prince! How that time has passed,
dark under night's helm, as though it never had been!
("The Wanderer")

Beckett, translating An Anthology of Mexican Poetry , comes to a very like tone (which is more than the transposition of a content evident in the Spanish):

This coloured counterfeit . . .
is a foolish sorry labour lost,

Agenda , Autumn 1966.


is conquest doomed to perish and, well taken,
is corpse and dust, shadow and nothingness.
(Juana de Asbaje, "This coloured
counterfeit that thou beholdest . . .")

In short, I am curious to know if an implicit quality of language occurs when words are used in a situation peculiar to their own history. History , however, may be an awkward term, since it might well imply only a respectful attention on the part of the writer rather than the implicit rapport between words and man when both are equivalent effects of time and place. In this sense there is a lovely dense sensuousness to Bunting's poetry, and it is as much the nature of the words as the nature of the man who makes use of them. Again it is a circumstance shared.

I am caught by the sense of himself Bunting defines:

I hear Aneurin number the dead and rejoice,
being adult male of a merciless species.
Today's posts are piles to drive into the quaggy past
on which impermanent palaces balance.
(Briggflatts )

It is the hierarchal situation of poet going deeper in time than one could borrow or assume, and hence the issue of some privileged kinship with the nature of poetry itself in one's own language. Pound's "heave," with the trochee, proved him sensitive to it and makes clear one aspect of the relation between Bunting and himself. Bunting, from the earliest poems in Loquitur to the greatness of Briggflatts itself, is closely within the peculiar nature of his given language, an English such as one rarely now hears. In the earlier poems he makes use of a Latin, call it, appropriately enough:

Narciss, my numerous cancellations prefer
slow limpness in the damp dustbins amongst the peel
tobacco-ash and ends spittoon lickings litter
of labels dry corks breakages and a great deal

of miscellaneous garbage picked over by
covetous dustmen and Salvation Army sneaks
to one review-rid month's printed ignominy,
the public detection of your decay, that reeks.
("To a Poet who advised me to
preserve my fragments and false starts")

But the insistent intimate nature of his work moves in the closeness of monosyllables, with a music made of their singleness:


Mist sets lace of frost
on rock for the tide to mangle.
Day is wreathed in what summer lost.
(Briggflatts )

Presumptuously or not, it seems to me a long time since English verse had such an English ear—as sturdy as its words, and from the same occasion.


Basil Bunting

There must be a way to be human that neither crouches back of the door nor barges in with some overbearing pretension of significance. Anyone can have a world, so to speak, if he or she is willing to lop off little (or big) pieces of the existing one, so as to manage a convenience for the self. "It's himself!" cried the mother in those Irish families of my youth, as said person staggered up the steps, home again.

But this is no story, much as it might entertain, of anyone at all. You must know people in your own life, who don't so much stay put as be there, for all and any to witness. There is no overwhelming claim they make, nothing has to make room for them, nor do they come and go with some shy disclaimer of their significance. Not only can you trust them, but you can not trust them, equally, if it's funny business you have in mind. For lack of any other better word, or way of putting it clearly, they are literally alive and inexorably human, and they have all they seemingly require therefor. It has nothing to do with being hungry or well-fed, all of which is possible for any of us, but how it all then is lived with.

Bunting is an extraordinary teacher, although I doubt that he has much thought to be, except in very specific instances. He has not even been persistent, call it, in the usual manner of the artist who overcomes great odds indeed just that his art be permitted. There are sizable gaps of time, when evidently he had other things to do. One time, years ago, I wrote him a letter asking advice of ac-

Paideuma 9, no. 1 (Spring 1980).


tive writing in England, and got a generous reply, from the Middle East, in which he told me he knew nothing of current doings in that world, rarely if ever saw another writer, and that, when he did, conversation had usually to do with the migration of game, and the water table. When at last I did meet him, he was working as a financial reporter for the Newcastle paper, having come from like labors in London.

Now I'm not at all interested that poets can be otherwise than the kids who couldn't play baseball, as Rexroth once said. But there is an imagination of poetry that has to do with the actual particulars of its conduct as a mode of words engendering emotion as a formal pattern:

 . . . with never a crabbed turn or congested cadence,
never a boast or see-here; and stars and lakes
echo him and the copse drums out his measure,
snow peaks are lifted up in moonlight and twilight
and the sun rises on an acknowledged land.
(Briggflatts, IV )

In that interest so committed, there are no measures but those of the factual life one is given, the physical place in which one lives, and what others have done with like particulars. In his Collected Poems (Oxford, 1978)—his "Preface" to which says all, and far better, that one might think to here—the following would appear the most recent:

At Briggflatts meetinghouse

Boasts time mocks cumber Rome. Wren
set up his own monument.
Others watch fells dwindle, think
the sun's fires sink.

Stones indeed sift to sand, oak
blends with saints' bones.
Yet for a little longer here
stone and oak shelter

silence while we ask nothing
but silence. Look how the clouds dance
under the wind's wing, and leaves
delight in transience.
("Second Book of Odes," 11)

The world which knows this is old beyond time—that time mocks our human ambitions, that only our own acts can survive in mem-


ory even for a moment. Humanly, there are so many who feel a despair in what seems the very transformation of the world into a dying place. All true—yet here, in this human moment of time, asking only that silence which permits it, it is here, actual beyond all else in that it will not, cannot , be forever.

And for the art —such particular sounds of human voice so tuned, to the weaving rhythm, the dance -ing transcience . . . . What to say not said by it? And what else is there ever to say.


H. D.

I presume I must first have read her work in high school, at least (and expectably) the short "Imagist" poems for which she was primarily known. Her intense, elusive edginess displaced me because I could not follow it as "thinking"—it was curiously emotions she offered. In any case, I found no attachment and when, some years later, Pound sent me an inscribed copy of By Avon River from St. Elizabeth's along with a flotsam of bulletins and journals relating to economics, agriculture and politics, again I paid little attention—frankly even less than I might have, just that Pound seemed so little interested despite its personal directive.

Therefore Robert Duncan's bringing the Trilogy with him to Mallorca in 1954 is really an introduction in all ways, because not only was the poet of that great poem new to me, as they say, but the whole place of such power (which was also Duncan's) had never been so vividly manifest. It was revelation in such articulate, tangible measure—a pace, extraordinarily specific, of feeling in literalizing sounds. I think now of:

I go where I love and am loved,
into the snow;

I go to the things I love
with no thought of duty or pity;

I go where I belong, inexorably. . . .

Sagetrieb (H. D. Special Issue) 6, no. 2 (Fall 1987).


It broke my heart with its mastery, its singular evocation of humanness.

Duncan noted the irony of the publication, the meager response, so that the first book is followed by two smaller, cheaper editions in paper only—it is wartime, no one is really hearing it, and Pound and Williams, likewise at the base of their own powers, singular, isolate, fighting for coherence and survival, seemingly have no consciousness of their heroic companion in the same place.

Then somewhat later, again thanks to Duncan, I was able to hear the recording she made for Norman Holmes Pearson (as Robert led me to understand) of parts of Helen of Egypt and that voice with its absolute sounding of each interval of word, each cadence, caught me entirely. She was the master of this art.

Much more recently, at a gathering committed to her honor, I was displaced by someone's proposing that we, as readers, need not finally be possessed by the visions so insistent in her work—as though we might rationally understand and yet avoid what so compelled her. I do not think so.



      What is a play.
     A play is scenery.
     A play is not identity or place
or time but it likes to feel it oh yes
it does wonderfully like to feel it.
     That is what makes it a play
GERTRUDE  STEINThe Geographical
History of America

"A play is scenery." In a lecture ("Plays," 1934) she speaks of a play as being a landscape . In either case the usual process of familiarizing oneself with casual patterns of identity, or of place or time, the "progressive familiarity" one gains in reading a novel, is absent—"the actors are there they are there and they are there right away." That, as she says, has "a great deal to do with the nervousness of the theatre excitement," insofar as "the introduction to the characters on the stage has a great many different sides to it." Then there is the fact of her "early recollections . . . One which is in a way like a circus that is the general movement and light and air which any theatre has, and a great deal of glitter in the light and a great deal of height in the air, and then there are moments, a very very few moments but still moments. One must be pretty far advanced in adolescence before one realizes a whole play."

Robert Creeley, Was That a Real Poem & Other Essays , ed. Donald Allen (Bolinas, Calif.: Four Seasons Foundation, 1979).


A little later in the same lecture she speaks very movingly of being adolescent "and going to the theatre all the time, a great deal alone, and all of it making an outside inside existence for me, not so real as books, which were all inside me, but so real that it the theatre made real outside me which up to that time I never had been in my emotion. I had largely been so in an active daily life but not in any emotion." The problem then met with, sadly, was "the great difficulty of having my emotion accompany the scene and then moreover I became fairly consciously troubled by the things over which one stumbles over which one stumbled to such an extent that the time of one's emotions in relation to the scene was always interrupted . . . Could I see and hear and feel at the same time and did I." What then comes as solution is Sarah Bernhardt—"it was all so foreign and her voice being so varied and it all being so French I could rest in it untroubled. And I did . . . This experience curiously enough and yet perhaps it was not so curious awakened in me a desire for melodrama on the stage, because there again everything happened so quietly one did not have to get acquainted and as what the people felt was of no importance one did not have to realize what was said."

These several statements are most interesting to me, just that they locate very clearly her own preoccupations—the possible situations of time , specifically the nature of the present as interior and exterior condition—and the experiential location, so to speak, which the stage per se had to offer. One sturdy fact of existence would seem to me at least that whatever happens in the world, or can be said to have happened or to be about to happen, or eventually, is, by nature of the necessity constituted by the statement itself, happening now . There seemingly is no other 'place' for it to occur. Of course there are endlessly possible patterns of causality, most usefully so very often, but their reality also is dependent on this specific now insofar as they presume a precedent or a consequence for what it is (now ) they are involved with.

Thinking of a "play" and "scenery" and "landscape" (and not of "identity" and "place" and "time," for these are abstractions which accumulate their various meanings rather than possess them by fact of activity or literal substance), all three have the common quality of being primarily a present event. Their significance takes root in their being 'here and now' and their history or consequence seems secondary, despite its possible relevance. In like sense, feeling , as one says, is insistently a present reality. It may be useless to "cry over spilt milk" but feeling will never know it, only thought.


And thought itself may be issue, finally, of feeling. Thus "it likes to feel it oh yes it does wonderfully like to feel it . . ."

In any case, a disjunct can occur in experience when the "inside" existence of any one of us confronts an existing "outside" which is not in phase or 'in time' with our own. The feeling then of dislocation is very unhappy and, understandably, we avoid such circumstance if we can. Reading, the solution is quite simple. We can put the book down despite its already having 'got into' us, and hopefully, reassert our own experiences of 'place' and 'time' and 'identity,' our so-called various 'selves.'

So there is, put mildly, extraordinary power in any present moment, the more so feelings have been powerfully engaged—and by "power" I mean some common sense of energy , presumably a basic quantity in activity of whatever order. Something's happening . I'm attracted by the fact that Gertrude Stein's qualification of literature was, is it or isn't it exciting . It's much like Pound's sense of poetry being language charged to the highest degree of that possibility.

Coming to the opera (physically, or in mind), it is, as an activity, here and also apparently dominant in relation to any one of us here as well. That is, if I get up and start shouting that its activity is not congruent with my own, I'll either find myself flooded with a 'present' equal to my own—thus I'll be on stage , intentionally or not in the act —or else ejected, much as food is by a preoccupied body. I don't think this has to do with a social fact, in the sense of manners. Rather, it seems the situation of reality itself, which the stage is , in its occupation of the common present , and the divers alternatives to that situation which each of us in our own particulars might constitute are not so much yielded as enclosed by the power of that event, that present which theater in all of its modes—music, dance, drama, or their combination—so particularly creates.

It's all a long way round to come to some rather simple point no doubt. But this present is such a true one, gift or given—and she spent her whole life, one might say, insistent upon the nature and condition of its reality. Words. Now. Here. In thought, at least, there would be so much more commodious. But, as a sister poet said, if we're going to be here, let's be here now!

The Mother of Us All is her last work, makes use of narrative (which her earlier collaboration with Virgil Thomson, Four Saints in Three Acts , did not), has personages anachronistically in the same 'time' and 'place,' muses, wisely, on various circumstances of this life (men, marriage, names, women), uses a lifelong acquisition of language's patterns, 'simply' 'elemental':


Where is where. In my long life of effort and strife, dear life, life is strife, in my long life, it will not come and go, I tell you so, it will stay it will pay but

(A long silence)

But do I want what we have got, has it not gone, what made it live, has it not gone because now it is had, in my long life in my long life


Life is strife, I was a martyr all my life not to what I won but to what was done.


Do you know because I tell you so, or do you know, do you know.


My long life, my long life.


Buffalo, N.Y.
September 26, 1975


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