Friday, April 16, 2010

That Chicken Idea and which came first...

We’ve received a lot of positive comments, posted and e-mailed, about the last blog. It’s emboldened me to continue the discussion a bit longer, aided last week by John Pass’s very cogent observation about the relationship between ideas and things. I argued that poets have been mislead into thinking that ideas and intellect are off bounds to them, reflected in their singular preoccupation with “getting objects right” (read images) and a common misunderstanding that continues to this day about how objects or “things” are constituted in the first place. Pass responds:

“(W)orthy thought and ideas depend upon our experience and articulation of observable phenomena. Good ideas are grounded. (And, for poets, inhabited, fully experienced subjectively rather than merely “observed” objectively. That is, the subjective and objective are melded in a taut balance. See George Oppen’s The Materials, for example.)

I was only partly convinced by my subsequent reading of Oppen’s book of poems (Some very good ones captured the Imagist principles to a T, but others were rather flat and abstracted, I thought). I was more persuaded by the connection between Williams and the Romantics and by Pass’s take on the expansion of Coleridge’s ideas about the Imagination i.e. “If we `imagine’ badly,” he says, “if as a culture we allow the degradation of our imaginations, hive them off from the “things” of the world or the “ideas” generated in that adjacency, fail to talk the world we’re walking, we suffer big time.”

Pass’s emphasis upon “imagining well” by embracing the world of things seems right to me. I offered two citations from Coleridge to support his interpretation, and will add one more - that the genius of Wordsworth’s imagination, rested, in part, in the “human associations” that “had given both variety, and an additional interest to natural objects...” I understand by “human associations” Coleridge meant ideas or thought, as well as sense impressions, play a role in forming our understanding and our poetic translation of the “real” or “objective” world.

The importance of ideas is underscored by the sometimes inimical relationship between the imagination and our senses, resulting, Coleridge believed, in something less than wonderful poetry: “A debility and dimness of the imaginative power, and a consequent necessity of reliance on the immediate impressions of the senses, do, we well know, render the mind liable to superstition and fanaticism.” All of which has me wondering if contemporary poets aren’t possessed of a similar superstition surrounding ideas and a fanatical insistence upon sense experience as the only useful material in the construction of poems.

But over-reliance upon sense experience is only part of the problem. The under-representation of the intellect in poetry further inhibits and suppresses the pleasure that we might get from poetry. Williams believed this, just as Coleridge did before him:

“(W)here the ideas are vivid, and there exists an endless power of combining and modifying them, the feelings and affections blended more easily and intimately with these ideal creations, than with the objects of the senses; the mind is affected by thoughts, rather than by things…”

Plainly, here is where Williams and much of 20th and 21st century poetics departs from Coleridge. Still, the intellect and how we think about the making of poetry were as important to Williams and the best of the poets who followed as they were to the Romantics. In a letter to Henry Wells, Williams points out how the breadth of his intellect and critical faculties were oftem distorted or ignored.

“I think you fail sufficiently to take into consideration my role as a theorist...For I think that only by an understanding of my “theory of the poem” will you be able to reconcile my patent failures with whatever I have done that seems worthwhile.” (Poems of William Carlos Williams, Linda Wagner, Wesleyan University Press, 1963, p7)

An argument for poetic theory as part of poetic practice? Think about it.
Both John Pass and Chris Banks like Wendell Berry’s take on “the Real” and so I borrowed Berry’s Recollected Essays 1965-1980 from the library. Berry’s prose has an earthy, Thoreauvian feel to it, but I was particularly struck by an image from an essay called “The Rise”: “The cardinals were more brilliant than ever,” Berry writes, “kindling in the black-wet drift of the cold wind.” A line that would have done Pound or Williams proud. I was also struck by the number of times the “imagination” figured as a term in Berry’s essay. That magical faculty that galvanized Coleridge, Worsdworth and Williams has fallen on hard times in recent years. In greater favour are rule-based poems, poems fuelled less by the intricate vivacity of the imagination than powered by a will to dominate the language and the reader.
Something else Wendell Berry is known for is his conversational style and plain spokenness - nothing new there for prose stylists; an entire 20th century of prose has been devoted to the spare, unvarnished diction of the ordinary person, a bias elevated to a rule by Hemingway. The interesting thing is the ardour with which poets, especially Canadian poets, have embraced the plain style. We should, it seems to me, abominate plainness when used unconsciously to excuse the poet’s lack of imagination or willingness to work. But when used capably, plain diction works. Wordsworth thought so, arguing that “the essential passions of the heart…speak a plainer and more emphatic language…” Eliot viewed Wordsworth’s own approach as an “escape from a poetic idiom which had ceased to have a relation to contemporary speech”. Of Dryden, Eliot said “He restored English verse to the condition of speech.” (Missing Measures , Timothy Steele, University of Arkansas Press, 1990)

Timothy Steele tells us the desire for a plainer, more contemporary style of language goes back even further than Wordsworth. “It has ever been and ever will be permitted,” said Horace, “to issue words stamped with the mint-mark of the day.”


Harold Rhenisch said...

There is no first. There is a dynamic. Our earliest poetry was grounded in physicality. It was called spirit, then. It still is. Furthermore, Williams has become a popular whipping boy for a certain reaction against certain free verse excesses of the 70s and 80s, but Williams was not responsible for that, and his poems in Pictures from Brueghel are anything but full of thought and full of a refined physicality. As for imagism, let's all take a big breath and remember that Pound, for all his insistence on images, and things, was really arguing for a form of thought, for a rigour of thought, that included some very powerful ideas about the nature of consciousness and reality that are still prophetic a century later. Throwing all that away because it has been misunderstood is no answer. The one thing that both Pound and Williams worked to build upon and extend were certain conservative ideas embodied in late 19th century versification, things still work fighting strongly against. Without a discussion of the kind of ideas Pound was interested in, a discussion of 'idea' in the 'thingness' of the twentieth century, is headless, as is a discussion of it without a discussion of Heidegger and Heisenberg. It all fits together, and it all ties into that paragon of 20th century materiality embodied in 1930s Germany — ideas which are once again, today, a part of the world, and which we, once again, need to deal with. I don't think that we can avoid such vital discussions, nor that we should.

David Kosub said...

Talk to us about Pound's ideas, Harold. What ideas and where are they found? How do they form "the head" of the discussion around ideas and "thingness"?

John Pass said...

I am pleased to see this discussion continue David as it goes to the heart of what not only poetry, but art is. Harold correctly points out that physicality has always been element and issue in human experience, thought and art. Good art has it represented or experienced in appropriate measure, essential aspect of the “human association” Coleridge identifies. It such context it is and always has been IDEA also.

Fanaticism, superstition? There is nothing new in fetishizing objects or thinking. Some Pythagoreans made a fetish of the pebbles used to illustrate geometric figures, placing them repeatedly in the patterns required to arrive at tetrakys, fourness. A spectacular idea degenerated into abstraction moving to distraction, madness---not unlike a good deal of contemp. Language theory, the shadow dance of terminology fed by a fervent competitiveness of intellect. No firm ground. The emperor has no clothes, even the pebbles have disappeared.

“All the great ideas can be written on the back of a postage stamp; it’s the play of the mind that matters,” said Olson (well, I’m paraphrasing from memory but I think it’s close). He’s right to a point; play is a perennial and intriguing aspect of art. And great ideas are few and far between. In contemp. poetry play is often a major source of pleasure. But it can degenerate into trivia, excess. Bok’s much praised Eunoia comes to mind. A one trick pony. In ignoring so much of what it is to be human, in hanging the entire piece upon the notion of using only one vowel in each section, the book lacks the equilibrium and sanity full “human association” needs. It is reductive of the poet’s marvelously complex but already abstract and limited tool: language. Beyond that bad, reductive idea there is only fancy, chancy association; it’s amusing, clever, an obsessive discipline brilliantly adhered to, but trivial.

Modernism and post modernism, and the flurry of isms and movements struggling to keep art before a public addicted to perpetual newness and instant gratification, fail to disguise the fact that we live still in the Romantic Age. Pop culture is forever splashing around in puddles the Romantics stepped over getting to the Hellespont. To wit: the vampire, the avatar, the disturbed genius. One of our dearest held pop notions of art and artists is that it/they are “mad for something”: passionately extreme, doomed. In fact good art, good Romantic art included, is “sane for something”, has the astonishing “classical” balance of Keats, the deeply humane thinking of Coleridge, the lyric emotional complexity of Leonard Cohen, the clear-headed, playful, original thinking (about birds, landscape, wilderness, especially) of Don McKay.

And the “theory” of W C Williams! How to address it when its principal tenet appears to be agin ideas? Like this. Ideas are thinking formulated. There is nothing conclusive about good art; it is forever open-ended, lively, in process. That is where it lives. And that is where we are tempted to ask “what does it mean, what’s it about”. When we make some guesses or get some answers, when we think we know, we’re tempted to forget the open-endedness existed, exists as long as the work does (if it’s good). We tend to think the work is finished, understood, or if we’re a little more intellectually sophisticated we file the art under the idea for discussion, as if that were its function or purpose: to mean, to become meaning. Culture depends upon this process to some extent; we can’t each re-invent the world in every instant. The longer we live with any good art (as the longer we live and pay attention to anything) the more it seems to have meaning.

(to be continued)

John Pass said...


What Williams stresses, but what was not newer with him than it was with Herakleitos, is that art ( living) is thinking (experience) not idea (endpoint). Take The Red Wheelbarrow, so quintessentially Williams (and so pleasingly illustrated in your posting’s heading). Reading it, everything depends upon, falls upon, the physical object, our attention is riveted there and we’re left in a quandary. Used to being directed in our thinking by didactic verse, or by symbols, or in reading poems so familiar to us in their approaches that we immediately know what to think, we’re left asking, “a wheelbarrow, rain-water, chickens? Huh? How are they important? What do they mean?” Without the poem’s opening phrase the physical elements of the poem, those elements that everyone remembers, would be utterly mundane. Without the opening phrase (that hardly anyone thinks about) there would be no poem. But with the opening phrase the poem turns out to be NOT about those physical particulars we all remember with puzzlement, but about contingency, about looking up or sideways, out of the frame, and seeing elements of our physical world in that instant of emphatic presence before they settle back into being commonplace, seeing things in that original thinking instant before formulation of any idea about them. Everyone has had this sort of moment. It is for anyone memorable and profound. I have had such moments looking up from work, concentration, from struggling with a board that won’t fit in a carpentry project or a poem I’m wrestling with. For whatever strikingly appears then to enlarge my thinking I have had in my head for some years the phrase “looking up from work, the larger work presents itself,” There’s “human association” for me. Williams thinks, and his poem teaches, by example: look up and find out what so much depends upon in your world, what is outside but demandingly present, what is new and surprises with its beauty and mystery and responsibility. There is a powerful idea in The Red Wheelbarrow, in a poem that is lazily thought to be an argument against ideas. And the idea is not that we should think or write only about physical objects!

I could go on and on but will finish with this. The Materials was a title more useful to my argument in an earlier posting than the content of the book proves. Maybe better by Oppen see This In Which, or Of Being Numerous. He argues/seeks a universality to the modernists’ vaunted particularities. Paradoxes! Shades of Herakleitos! Here’s a tantalizing quote: “What is inexplicable/ is the preponderance of objects.” Berry is a fine essayist but first of all a superb poet, his Farming: A Handbook, is a touchstone. There is always a lot of pallid, imitative dross posing as art but there is no shortage of ideas in today’s poetry. There may be a shortage of readers and critics seeking and formulating them.

Harold Rhenisch said...

Pound went to Europe for 6 weeks, to meet Yeats, who he considered the greatest living poet. He stayed for over 60 years. Remade Yeats into a modernist poet.

Within more-or-less a decade, ending with the end of the Great War, Pound the pre-Raphaelite (for that he was -- perhaps the best of them) fell in with a group of amateur philosophers, headed by TH Hulme, to discuss aesthetic philosophy, the discussions of which were often about the image as a kind of distinct particle that almost mystically (but, in the metaphor of that age, scientifically, philosophically, and aesthetically) married thought and physicality.

This was the time of Curie and Einstein.

He merged that with cubism, a re-reading of Whitman, the sculpture of Gaudier, ideas about the Chinese language and its poetry, his romanticism, and much more, to write his Cathay (1915). Setting aside any discussion of the European roots of such Chinoiserie, consider this: "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter" and other masterpieces from that book were such a success, that even now hardly anyone has imagined translating Chinese poetry any differently. Pound abandoned it within a year. For 50 years, he argued for different approaches. None of them took.

The history of that struggle to take apart that lovely set of art nouveau images has not been written. But look at the poems in that collection, and consider this: for all their imagery, they are a critique of the war. Ideas. Images. Things. He called poetry of this type imagism, out of his discussions with Hulme, and his thinking on science, cubism, art, and the Italian Futurists, and Marie Curie, and everything else coursing through London in that time, and because he wanted to promote the poetry of his friend HD. It was largely invented for her very different intellectual take on the role of a feminine consciousness in art.

There was, of course, what he saw as his betrayal by Amy Lowell. The traditions that eventually came to dominate ideas of imagism come largely from Lowell -- not from Pound. They represent poetry as self-expression, and imagery as decoration, in poems of technical blandness -- the very things that are often used today as arguments against the 20th Century tradition. Well, that’s one tradition, but not Pound’s. It was the very thing that drove him out of America.

There was, of course, the War. Along with the artist Wyndham Lewis, he invented a thing called Vorticism in its place. At first, he wanted to tear down the edifice of the civilization that destroyed his generation on the Chemins des Dames, but he settled down. First, to Mauberly. Rather than Wilfrid Owen's war poetry, traditional in form and transformative in its reality, we have in it an anti-war poem set in the form of the Anglican Hymnal. It is fiercely formed, fiercely honest, and fiercely personal and self-analytical. Both Owen's and Pound's contributions are metrical, both radical in their own ways, both honest and heartfelt, both full of images, but in Pound's the images are there as a way of thinking in their own right. One idea set beside another idea begets a third idea. The third idea is the important one. It is generated in the mind of the reader, not as an expression of the author's intent. The role of the author is to set up a moment. The reader has the experience, and the idea.

This, to Pound, was the thing that, in previous practice, was called poetry: a sudden recognition of a vortex of ideas and perceptions, in one eureka moment. This is the moment that John Pass so beautifully described for us above concerning Williams. It's the moment that powers Eliot's poetry as well, and the tradition that runs through Dylan Thomas, W.S. Graham, Robin Skelton, and my own work. This particular line is also unexamined. It has its roots in Pound. Lillard wrestled with it. It splashed into the West Coast Renaissance. Bringhurst stands in this tradition. Many others. It’s an untold story. Pound’s isn’t, and Pound’s is central.

Harold Rhenisch said...


In all of Pound's imagery, in all of his poems, he was looking for a kind of poetry that drove ideas. He met Joyce. He read Ulysses in draft form. The novel was being reborn as an aesthetic object. He sought to remake poetry, out of the ruins, as an equivalent to Ulysses, and as an aesthetic object at the same time, but an active one. We got the ruins of the Cantos. Even though it is a ruin, from it we still got a huge amount of 20th Century tradition. Strip the Cantos out of that century, and what is there? Little of a romantic tradition that sought to bring its ideas in line with its form.

There is a tradition that runs from the Romantics, through the Expressionists, through the Futurists, and through Pound, that splinters in the Great War, but continues to run through the Dadaists, the Surrealists, and their descendants, on the one hand, and through the deconstructions of Rilke and Celan, on the other, and finds outlets in Olson and Zukofsky and others of Pound's poetic heirs, and in his poetic brother, Williams, and his ideas of voice, and in much of the revolution of Canadian poetry in the 60s, and even Mcluhan. This is the great debate of the 20th Century, which took place in poetry between a set of basic ideas, forged in London and Paris, for the most part, between 1910 and 1920: the thing or the idea, or the idea-and-the-thing together. The interaction between thing and consciousness, that gave us Heisenberg, Quantum Physics, the Bomb, Schroedinger’s cat, the Internet, and this blog. Pound argued for a poetry that essentially was operating in the same line as all these forces. And he showed us how to use them to write both short poems and long ones -- and how not to, I might add.

To strip all that out of the 20th Century is to leave us with an idea of imagism as a means of expressing the individual, without ideas, free verse as a non-metrical form, The Duino Elegies as a poem about angels and the soul, and the very ideas about poetry that are dominant in much of what we read in Poetry today. With the marginalization of these traditions that found expression through communism throughout the 20th Century, and, yes, through fascism, we are left, now, with the London that Pound came to in 1907, and all the work lies before us once more. It is a triumph for tradition, but not for ideas, and the tradition of ideas that was misunderstood so badly as void of them. We have to begin again. Not by rejecting Pound, though. His challenge remains. Most of it still remains unexplored.


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